This is Episode 8 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Chris interviews Jim Moorhead, executive committee chair of the Broadband Alliance of Mendocino County in California, about how rural areas are oft-ignored by large telecoms. Listen to this episode here.
Christopher M.: This is Christopher Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance talking about community broadband networks. Today we're talking with Jim Moorhead, executive committee chair of the Broadband Alliance of Mendocino County in California. Mendocino County is a large rural county that has been neglected by AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon. Dial up access to the internet is the only option for half the county. For six years, Jim and others have worked to bring real broadband to everyone. We talk about their efforts and barriers in this interview. The fuzzy audio is due to the sad state of telecommunications in Northern California. Here’s our interview with Jim Moorehead. I’m here with Jim Moorehead, the head of the executive committee of the Broadband Alliance of Mendocino County in California. Welcome to the show, Jim.
Jim M.: Hi, Christopher. Thanks for having me on.
Christopher M.: I’m really glad you were able to come on. It’s a fascinating project you’re working on. Can you tell us a little bit about Mendocino County and why you need to have a Broadband Alliance?
Jim M.: Well, Mendocino County is in Northern California on the Pacific Ocean. We’re approximately 100 miles north of the Golden Gate, which, of course, is in San Francisco area. We’re only about 150 miles north of the birthplace of much of what we consider to be the modern internet. It’s rather ironic that we’re even having to do what we’re doing, but here we are. Mendocino County, it’s a very rural, physically large county. We have about 90,000 population and about a 200,500 square mile area. The largest city, our county seat Ukiah, has a population of about 15,000. The population is pretty well dispersed throughout the county. We have internet ... lots of fiber in the county, but it’s not retail fiber. It’s big background stuff. There’s a submarine cable landing station in Manchester, about 25 miles south from where I’m speaking, that comes from Asia. It’s a level III cable. It goes inland and is part of the backbone that doesn’t provide any off-ramps in Mendocino County.
Christopher M.: So you essentially have an interstate running through your town ... your whole county, without any ability to access it.
Jim M.: Precisely. We have two or three of those interstates with no off-ramps. We do have some fiber in the county that’s at the retail level, but it’s controlled by AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast. As you and your listeners are probably pretty well aware, is that the big incumbents don’t see the return on investment being at all attractive in the rural areas because of what they consider to be the density of population issues. Our group got started ... the basic group got started on the coast about six years ago. Our formal group that we now have, the Broadband Alliance in Mendocino County, is going on two years of age. I’m on the board of directors of the Community Foundation for Mendocino County, and it’s a county-wide ... basically a charitable organization doing most of the kinds of things that any good community foundation will do, whether it be rural or in an urban area. Our foundation took on broadband as a crucial economic development leadership issue about two years ago. Subsequent to that, we formed a coalition with the county Board of Supervisors, the county government, the county executive office, the Economic Development Financing Agency, the chambers of commerce, the agricultural interests in the county, the realtors, the nonprofits, you name it. We’ve got a pretty broad-based group of supporters. We’re pretty much all volunteers. I’m retired. I and a couple of my colleagues are spending full-time working on this pro bono. It’s something that we’ve got to get done for the county because we don’t see that anybody else is going to do it.
Christopher M.: Right, now how did you get all of those people together? I often talk with people who are from a community and they are trying to find a way of getting all of those powerful interests and local leaders on board. Sometimes they have difficulty doing it.
Jim M.: Yeah, that’s an excellent question. When I started working on this with our group, our coastal group, six years ago, we were really struggling because we would talk to people that knew something about community organizing regardless of what the particular project was, and they said you need to get your political leadership behind you. About two years ago, this was a difficult situation for the people on the south coast in Mendocino County. A small ISP went belly up down there, and the guy just walked away and left several hundred homes and many businesses in the wash, where all of a sudden they had no internet access except dial-up. The pharmacy had to go immediately to HughesNet or WildBlue and get a connection. The city hall in Point Arena, California, one of our four incorporated towns all of a sudden was back on dial-up. That became part of our rallying cry. My deputy, Greg Jirak, who lives in Point Arena, that’s when I met him at a Board of Supervisors meeting when he came and made a presentation about the economic crisis that the South Coast and Mendocino County was facing. At about the same time, the community foundation put a $40,000 challenge grant on the table saying that once our volunteer group could come up with a matching $40,000, we would have $80,000 of unrestricted money to start working on this. This was all done with the full support and cooperation of the county Board of Supervisors. On my executive committee, we have five supervisors in the county. Two of them sit on my executive committee, and the deputy CEO for the county is also on the executive committee. One of the supervisors attends pretty much faithfully our meetings, which are every Friday in Ukiah. For us to have those meetings, I personally have to drive an hour and a half in each direction to get to Ukiah. My partner Greg down in Point Arena, he has about a two hour drive in each direction to go over there. We’ve got a lot of energy and we’re making great progress, but we needed those catalysts. I think the thing that really did it was the failure of the small ISP in the South Coast. If I could point to a single defining event that kind of was the tipping point for this, it was that. Leading up to that, our group had been doing a lot of lobbying with the board of supervisors for four years and really making a lot of noise and probably irritating people, but we had to get people to pay attention to us.
Christopher M.: You were working at this for quite some time. Was that original group called the Redwood Coast Group?
Jim M.: No, our original group, and this is kind of a nuance. I'm responsible for the two names, and I do it differently. The original group was called the Mendocino Coast Broadband Alliance. That was just a small group of us here on the coast. We actually had a small project area where we had hoped to build fiber to the home. We even got it designed, and then once we started looking at the economics of it, we realized that we were too small. The only way we were going to get it done was to go for the stimulus funding in I think that was 2009. We just didn't quite frankly have either the financial resources or the technical knowledge. We were overwhelmed with just reading the application. That's when we realized we needed to get bigger and get our political house in order first, and then go out and start making some statements in the community about who we are and our ability to get the job done.
Christopher M.: Right, unfortunately, a lot of those federal programs are really designed for big corporations and other large institutions that have the time to wade into all of the various rules and requirements. It's really quite hostile for small community groups.
Jim M.: Yeah, it really is. I can understand if I was a bureaucrat in Sacramento or Washington, I'd want to make sure that I was shepherding the public funds properly, but it makes it impossible for small community groups to reach out and get access to the funds that are needed. We're doing other things.
Christopher M.: Right, so what are those other things that you're doing now?
Jim M.: Well, let me describe our process. Our immediate goal this year and probably for the next couple of years is to be matchmakers. In the state of California, the Public Utility Commission has a fund called the California Advanced Services Fund. That has a couple hundred million dollars in it. They revamped it earlier in the year and changed the subsidies for rural broadband deployment from the 40% subsidy to a 60% subsidy for underserved and 70% subsidy for unserved. The sort of economics of the projects are much more attractive today than they were before February 1st of this year when that new ruling came down. We are identifying ... We've done mapping. We've got some good strong technical talent on our team. We've done mapping using Google Maps. We've done a survey, and we got about a little over 7% of the housing units in the county have responded to the survey, so we feel like we've got from a statistical standpoint, they are at a relevant size. We are identifying the areas and finding what we call project champions in each area to step forward because we're all volunteers. We can't do it for them and saying we will be responsible for coordinating with the contractors when they come forward and showing them the lay of the land and organizing our neighborhood, et cetera. The way we do this is we write ... we send out ... I may have sent you one of these. It's called a Notice of Opportunity. We identify the project. We have a list of about 15 or 20 vendors, which goes from real small lists here in Mendocino County, all the way up to the big guys like AT&T, and Verizon, and Comcast because we're vendor-neutral, we're technology-neutral, and we're funder neutral. We just want to get broadband deployed. We don't want to have any preconceived thinking on what is best. In the Notice of Opportunity, the vendor will be advised here's the map of the area. Here's the contact person or persons in that neighborhood. Here's some demographic, you know, whatever information we've got. We have one project where there's 105 homes that are on dial-up, and they have a homeowners association, fortunately. It's in a very rural part of ... even by Mendocino County standards, they're quite remote. The homeowners association has stepped up to be that contact person. The project’s eligible for 70% of reimbursable subsidy by the Public Utility Commission. We have a contractor that has been out and done a site visit. Then the contractor, the vendor, it’s a risk, is responsible for applying for filling out the grant application with the California Advanced Services Fund. Then we will provide whatever support they need in terms of getting letters of support written. Whatever administrative support we can provide them and political support, we will do that.
Christopher M.: This is an approach that is looking at solving some of the local area’s problems, right?
Jim M.: Yeah, we’re at a very micro level on this particular project. It’s called the Rancho Navarro Project.
Christopher M.: That’s what I’m looking at right now.
Jim M.: We have a larger regional fiber middle-mile that we’re working on with Sonoma County. The Sonoma Mendocino County Coast ... I mean, there’s plenty of fiber out here, but the big guys won’t share it with us. We’re going to overbuild the fiber with more fiber that the same rate payers are going to pay for that paid for the original AT&T fiber, but since AT&T won’t talk to us, and since there’s money available through a CASA fund to do this, we are in the preliminary stages of preliminary design. It’s going to be a redundant loop that will start in Petaluma, California, down in Sonoma County, come out to Bodega Bay, up Highway 1 up to Westport, up north of Fort Bragg, which is near where I live, and then go back inland to Laytonville. It will be connected into the backbone at Laytonville and at Petaluma, so it will provide redundancy for the inland route.
Christopher M.: Who will own that?
Jim M.: We don’t know yet. We’re in the process of designing that. We’re negotiating with several parties who would step forward and own and operate it. That particular project will be eligible for somewhere around 60% to 65% subsidy from the Public Utility Commission. We’re doing big stuff, we’re doing small stuff. Now, our strategy is to do the Notices of Opportunity, match up the vendors with the project and the financing, and get the broadband deployed. However, we have no assurance that even at the 60% and 70% subsidy levels, that the private sector is going to be willing to step forward and take on that risk because none of these subsidies have anything to do with operating ... with OPEX. It’s CAPEX only. Our Plan B, our fallback position, which we’re not working on now because we hope we don’t have to go there would be to create in Mendocino County an ISP of last resort, a carrier of last resort that would be probably some sort of non-profit. It could be a public utility district. We have community services districts in California that are authorized by California law to provide broadband as a service. That will be Plan B.
Christopher M.: Many in Washington and in the state capital seem to think that people in rural areas don't want broadband or that they don't know how to use it. I'm curious, as someone who's stuck out in that area lumped in with that sort of a group. What your thoughts are on that mentality.
Jim M.: Well, Christopher, I do have an opinion about that. All I can really say is that the people in Sacramento and Washington need to get out of Sacramento and Washington and go visit the rural areas to find out what's happening. The citizens of Mendocino County, we need broadband for all the same reasons that anybody else in the developed world needs it and increasingly in the developing world. We have a lot of agriculture in the county, legal, well, we have illegal agriculture. The legal agriculture ... you know, all the government ... at least our friends in Washington and Sacramento are requiring all of our reports to be submitted online. They don't have these tax-friendly websites anymore. They're all graphic-intensive. Our farmers are finding that they can't submit mandated reports. For example, the sheep and cattle farmers have to, when they move their cattle or their livestock from one field to another, apparently they now have to submit reports saying that they did that. I guess part of that has to do with the mad cow disease and stuff. The pharmacists can't order drugs by fax or control drugs by fax or telephone anymore. They have to do it on a secure website. We can't have telecommuters without broadband. Our educational institutions ... the schools themselves are in pretty good shape relative to the rest of the county because of E-Rate, which I'm sure you're familiar with. It's a heavily subsidized federal program where the carriers can run lines into the schools, but the lines stop there. The kids go to school, they have access to broadband. They go home at night, and they don't have access. I don't know if I mentioned it earlier, but our group estimates that 53% of the housing units in Mendocino County, there's about 40,000 housing units. 53% of them are still on dial-up. Although satellite's available, it's not reliable. The median income statistics and the country are such that a typical family of 3 or 4 people, they can't afford the $60 or $70 a month that's completely dedicated just to having broadband over satellite. Basically we need it here just like we need it anyplace else. I invite any of the regulators, administrators, in Washington and Sacramento and definitely legislators to come to Mendocino County and let me show them around, tell them why we need it.
Christopher M.: I know I would take you up on that offer if I was out there. It seems like Humboldt County, very beautiful places.
Jim M.: Yeah, Humboldt County is right to the north of us, and they've got all the same problems. We're actually partnering with Humboldt County. We have a planning grant from the Public Utility Commission. There is a four county consortium called the Redwood Coast Connect, which is managed out of Humboldt State University. The state's split up into broadband consortiums, where basically they're trying to get grassroots groups together to go solve this problem. We do have a small planning grant through the Redwood Coast Connect Consortium to work on this. We're making progress. That's all I can say. We've got a great team. We're doing it in spite of the incumbents, and quite frankly, in spite of a lot of the best intentions of our legislators and our regulators in Sacramento and Washington. The Public Utility Commission is giving us some support. We've got the $60,000 three-year planning grant, which isn't a lot of money, but it's better than a stick in the eye. The have the cache of funds available that we're working with our vendors to apply for with the Rancho Navarro Project being the first example of that. On the other hand, we're saddled with this fallacy of mapping data that shows that Mendocino County is mainly served with broadband.
Christopher M.: Yeah, that's just terrible. It's really, really frustrating.
Jim M.: Europeans sit there and laugh at us Americans for spending hundreds of millions of dollars to produce an inaccurate map. We're dealing with that, and on a project by project basis we understand that, for example, the Ranch in Navarro Project ... we'll be able to go in and help the contractor contest that map. On a project by project basis we'll do that. We'll do that on the Route 1 Corridor Project. We've got the Sherwood Road Project that's coming up in the near future. However, that’s a reactive approach to solving the problem. What I’m fearful of is that the policymakers in Sacramento and Washington ... They’re not getting that feedback that the maps are wrong. There making decisions based on the fact that the federal maps show that the vast majority of housing units in Mendocino County ... I think 84% is the number, have four down and one up as the FCC standard, something like that. That’s just utter nonsense. It isn’t even close to being the truth. If the policymakers ... and they’re doing their thing and trying to solve this problem, they need to take all of those NTIA maps and throw them in the garbage can and start over with a ground truth-based effort that comes to a group like ours and says, all right, let’s do it from the bottom up. Let’s not go to AT&T, and Comcast, and Verizon who want to give us the information that the big guys are giving out ... have to do with protecting market share. They want to show that Mendocino County’s in good shape because they don’t want anybody coming in here and rocking the boat.
Christopher M.: Right. We’re seeing the exact same thing in states all across the nation, and we hear the exact same thing from people who try to talk to policymakers and tell them the maps are wrong, but inevitably we find that legislators are just more interested in listening to the Comcasts and the AT&Ts telling them that the maps are just fine. I have to think it has a lot to do with who’s giving them money and who isn’t.
Jim M.: Yes sir, absolutely. You and I have both heard the statistics about how many lobbyists AT&T has in Washington. I understand it’s like a one-to-one ratio to legislators. I hear the same thing about Sacramento. Mendocino County has zero lobbyists in either Washington or Sacramento because we’re so rural and we’re so poor that we can’t even afford a single lobbyist for the whole county. Our little group’s trying to do this, but if any policymakers that are involved with broadband listen to this podcast, I would welcome them to contact me so I can give them a little bit more of my opinion and what I think about the crappy mapping that we’ve got at the federal and state levels.
Christopher M.: All right, well thank you so much for joining us. That was Jim Moorehead, executive committee chair of the Broadband Alliance of Mendocino County in California. To learn more visit our show page on muninetworks.org, where we have links to some of the materials discussed on this Community Broadband Bits Podcast. If you have any questions or comments, please tell us directly. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks to my colleague Lisa Gonzales for putting the show together and Fit and the Conniptions for the music licensed through Creative Commons. The song is called Storm’s Over.