Anyone who has spent time in Plumas County is familiar with our least favorite flavor of internet: the tree receiver. Why does it work beautifully sometimes, only to bog down to a standstill just when you really need it? Today's blog post focuses on what's happening with internet service (and a bit on communications generally) in Plumas County, and what we have in common with other rural areas.
Does Internet Service Matter?
This is a rhetorical question for any Gen-X or Millenial resident of our county, but it's a valid question. Should we be concerned about the quality and speed of internet that comes to our homes and businesses? The Pew Research Center has compiled some interesting statistics on internet use in the United States:
- 84 percent of Americans use the internet, and for some groups such as young educated Americans, usage is at full saturation.
- However, fewer people in rural areas are connected to the internet -- only 78 percent use the internet regularly. But this is huge increase over the year 2000, when just 48 percent of rural citizens used the internet.
- While there are some income and age gaps, these gaps have been closing rapidly in the last 15 years, with 58 percent of senior citizens using the internet - they are the fastest adopters of internet use right now
Whether for personal or business use, the internet has nudged aside the fax machine, the express mail envelope, and even telephones in becoming our primary method of interacting with the world.
Why Won't AT&T Provide Me With DSL Service?
When it comes to rural internet service, the large telecom companies are not our friends or allies. I've heard from a number of people who have recently moved to Plumas County, who were shocked when they contacted AT&T and were told they could not get DSL service to their home. Maybe they were told the service was at capacity. Or that only a limited number of accounts are available in this service area. The truth is that the large telecom companies are actively seeking to exit their rural service areas, both for copper line phone service and internet DSL through the copper lines. AT&T made a number of promises to our anti-trust regulators when it acquired Southern Bell in 2007, and more promises made during its acquisition of DirectTV. I've tried several times to make sense of AT&T's official statement regarding its service to rural and underserved communities, and the best I can interpret from the vague language and obfuscations in this document is that in the future AT&T expects to provide service to us via mobile cellular service. Of course, anyone with a mobile phone plan that includes data knows that cellular-based data service is expensive, with limits on the amount of data you can use each month without being forced to file bankruptcy. And cellular tower service is very difficult to implement in rural mountainous regions, so there are many dead spots and areas with poor coverage. And for those of us who live in Quincy, AT&T mobile phone service seems to be completely inoperable at least a few days a month, and sometimes for weeks at a time -- recently AT&T parked a generator and temporary tower in its parking lot on Lindan Avenue, which seems to be serving as a bandaid of sorts for its service in Quincy. So the mobile-only option is not an option at this point in time. Especially for anyone who relies on internet data to run their business, to work remotely for a company, or to stream a video or newscast.
Why Can't I Get the New Fiber Optic Service?
In July 2010, the Plumas-Sierra Rural Electric Cooperative was awarded a grant (using money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) to install fiber optic cable through a portion of Plumas County. The grant funds included placement of the main line plus connections to schools and government offices including Susanville, Portola, and Quincy, but it did not extend the line to Indian Valley or Chester/Lake Alamnor. The grant also did not cover extension of that fiber line to homes and businesses, what is commonly referred to as the "final mile" of service. The Cooperative's Plumas Sierra Telecom division has been working hard to expand its services and to get more grant money to help put that final mile of infrastructure in place. So please support their efforts with your Supervisors and other government officials!
The State of Internet Service Today in Plumas County
Now that we understand a lot more about why internet service varies so much across our region, let's take a look at the various providers for each of our major towns. It's difficult to get data on exact coverage areas and speeds available, so I used information gathered by Google to give you a snapshot of connection quality and speeds. The charts below also give you an idea of the peak traffic times throughout the day, which affect especially the broadband wi-fi connections. Unfortunately, there isn't enough internet traffic in Indian Valley and Graeagle for Google to collect data for this report.
You can read a lot more about how video gets streamed over the internet and test the video quality for your internet service provider by going to Google's Video Quality Report here: https://www.google.com/get/videoqualityreport/. And if you'd like to test the speed of your connection to the internet at this moment, try out SpeedTest.net, which will tell you how fast data is downloading and uploading to the internet from your computer.
There are several companies who are offering satellite internet services to remote areas, including Hughes Communication. The main limitation for satellite internet is that bad weather causes frequent outages, and most companies have a monthly limit on the amount of data you can consume on their service. These services could work well for people who live in Plumas County during the summer and who do not have heavy data needs.
There are currently three internet service providers in Quincy. Plumas Sierra Telecom provides fiber optic service and has the best service, speed, and quality, but it's only available to a few customers currently.
AT&T's DSL internet service, available only to those customers who started service prior to 2010, relies on microwave relays from Chico to a fixed station in Quincy and then into the copperline service to homes. You can see that this service doesn't support high definition video streaming more than half the time, and it downloads at a maximum of 6 Mbs.
DigitalPath also relies on microwave transmission from Chico to various broadband wi-fi transmitters around Quincy. Many of us have transceivers mounted high in a tree near our house in order to get line-of-sight connection to the wi-fi transmitters. In addition to facing the same issues as the AT&T service, many DigitalPath customers experience frequent outages or slow service, usually due to weaknesses in the wi-fi transmission system.
In contrast to Quincy, Chester appears to have a much higher quality of internet service and ability to stream high definition videos through DigitalPath. However, there aren't any broadband alternatives to DigitalPath in Chester currently.
If you're lucky enough to be connected to the PST's fiber optic network in Portola, you should be able to stream high definition videos and connect to the internet at high speeds with ease.
DigitalPath in Portola looks a lot like Quincy, although with less overall traffic and slower connections during mid day into evening periods.
Rural High Speed Connectivity Activism
High speed internet access relies on infrastructure built using a combination of public and private funds and incentives. Because the large telecom companies do not get a large number of customers from the infrastructure in rural locations, they are not interested in supporting these areas, leaving it to smaller internet service providers and a patchwork quilt of technology and regulations to get internet into places like Plumas County. Economic development initiatives should include an internet connectivity component to support and expand the infrastructure locally.
In early 2015, President Obama directed his cabinet to examine ways to expand broadband deployment across the United States, and in August of last year a report was generated that contained several good objectives for the federal government to achieve this goal:
- Modernize Federal programs to expand program support for broadband investments.
- Empower communities with tools and resources to attract broadband investment and promote meaningful use.
- Promote increased broadband deployment and competition through expanded access to Federal assets.
- Improve data collection, analysis and research on broadband
To read more about what's happening with legislation and rural communications, please check out some of the resources below:
- Federal Communications Commission Broadband Plan
- Rural Mobile and Broadband Alliance, a group of rural telecom companies
- Speedmatters.org, a union initiative
Update, March 11, 2017
In 2016, Plumas Sierra Telecom acquired the assets of the former Quincy cable company and started to inspect and repair the old co-axial cables that were installed back in the 1990s through American Valley. On March 1, 2017, they announced that their internet service, which connects the main fiber line into these old co-axial cable networks, is now available in East Quincy for the blocks immediately around 1st Street. This is exciting progress! Just keep in mind that while co-axial cable speeds are pretty good, you won't get the blindingly fast internet service that comes from a proper connection directly to fiber optic cable. One common complaint is that as more people get connected and use a co-axial network, the slower the connection speeds get.
Another update, March 22, 2017
I met another remote worker in Plumas County today, Dave Loschiavo, and he shared with me a terrific article he wrote for Ars Technica about connecting up to fiber optic service from his home in Sloat. Check out his perspective!