In this 04/23/02 guest column contribution to the Eureka Times-Standard Newspaper, I discuss the lack of effective communication methods for getting the word out about Rural Telecommunications Infrastructure Grants for unserved, low-income communities in Northern California.
For many, it’s hard to comprehend that there are places in California that are completely “off the grid.” No electricity, no phone service, nothing that most people would consider to be a modern survival necessity.
Locally, there are at least three good-sized communities within a 20 mile radius of the Klamath / Yurok region that are “underserved,” meaning they still can’t get power or phone service hooked up without a huge amount of financial and technical assistance. For many residents, their only means of instantly communicating to the outside world is a rather costly 2-way radio system. Residents, health centers, government offices and schools alike must use the radio system, often battling “party line” interference, to contact services that can be many miles away. There is no 911 service, which jeopardizes the health and safety of anyone, residents and tourists alike, who sets foot in the region.
On April 9, three members of the Redwood Technology Consortium attended a State of California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) Advisory Meeting, to get the facts on Assembly Bill AB140. Known as the Rural Telecommunications Infrastructure Grants (AB140), this bill is about bringing basic communications services to rural communities. Outgoing Assemblymember Virginia Strom-Martin is the author of this bill, which will use money from the Public Utilities High Cost Fund to provide grants to rural California communities in dire need of service, including several in Humboldt County.
An incredibly complex and time-consuming grant making process is beginning. Communities seeking funding would need to create a highly skilled task force consisting of local government, residents, service providers, and consultants, just to navigate the complex government grant application process. These Task Forces would need to determine the best way to utilize available funds, such as determining if cell service or actual phone lines would be more appropriate to specific terrain. In order to make the process a bit easier for underserved communities, the AB140 PUC committee has been traveling to county seats throughout the state, seeking input from residents, municipalities and telecommunications providers such as SBC/Pacific Bell, about what criteria should be included in the grant application process.
The ironic part of the PUC committee?s advisory meetings was: how were the underserved rural residents supposed to know about AB140 or these meetings that were held far from their communities, if they don’t have telephones or TV? Looking at the meeting’s attendee roster, it was clear that there were no members of these underserved communities present, aside from a Yurok Reservation planner, and a homeowner from a vacation home community in the region. The RTC learned about this meeting because of our active stance in local telecommunications issues.
Because underserved community members weren’t able to provide input, it was apparent who the real beneficiaries of this multi-million dollar grant program would be: the infrastructure providers, the SBCs, the wireless telecommunications services, etc. They were present, and vocal, providing critical information that would determine how easy or complex the PUC would require this grant making process to be.
This PUC committee is putting AB140 on the fast track, however with the current energy problems the State is having, “fast” could be slow as molasses. It’s up to underserved community members to get the process moving even faster. As an organization concerned about the communications welfare of all of our North Coast communities, the Redwood Technology Consortium will keep the public informed every step of the way. To learn more, contact a board member at firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to Assemblymember Strom Martin’s staff at 235-4th Street, Suite C Eureka, CA 95501, tel (707) 445-7014.
Rene Agredano is a Board Member of the Redwood Technology Consortium and Principal of Agreda Communications, a global marketing communications firm specializing in digital imaging and large format printing.