The Digital Divide: A Case Study

Few regions of the United States are more spread out and have rougher terrain than Tuolumne County, California. Containing the Sierra Nevada Mountains and Yosemite National Park, Tuolumne is not exactly tailor-made for high speed internet infrastructure.

In some areas, residents live 20 acres apart from one another. Expanding high speed internet access to all of these households poses a logistical nightmare for service providers, and offers them little profit incentive:

"The phone company does not want to spend the money to serve 500 people here when they can serve 50,000 people in San Francisco," said Jason Banks, general manager of Mother Lode Internet in Sonora. "The company doesn't care if rich people live in the neighborhood, they care about the number of houses per square mile."

But residents of the county are clamoring for high speed internet access. They deserve the benefits of high speed internet as much as folks living in nearby San Francisco and Silicon Valley. High speed connections are essential to the local economy, whether it's connecting local businesses to customers in other regions or luring companies to the area.

"We have a problem recruiting and retaining tech people when the first thing they ask is: ‘How's the broadband?' " said Linda Stern, product manager for Front Porch, a Sonora company that helps Internet service providers increase their businesses.

"It's a huge influential factor," Stern said. "When you have broadband, all of a sudden you're connected to the world ... and when you don't, you're out of it."

Now, local leaders and residents are taking action to make sure Tuolumne County isn’t out of it for much longer. County residents recently formed Network Sierra, a coalition of concerned citizens working to expand high speed internet access to the entire county. They have teamed up with the County Board of Supervisors to reach that goal, and are seeking support from the California Emerging Technologies Fund, funded as a condition of the AT&T/SBC and Verizon/MCI mergers.

Also pitching in is the Tuolumne County Geographic Information System department, which is developing a map of existing high speed internet service across the county. Once the current state of high speed access in known in detail, they can work on a plan to expand access to the rest of the residents.

This is a blueprint that rural communities across the country can follow: recognition of the problem, public organizing and government assistance lead to action. If rugged Tuolumne Country can do it, anyone can.

Region suffering from Internet disconnect (Union Democrat)

Network Sierra