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In Focus: Our county's snapped line to the world

By Cornelia de Bruin

Triplicate staff writer

As local efforts reach out to attract more business and community leaders meet regularly to attract and retain physicians, one major obstacle blocks the path of pro-gress: the lack of full broadband capability in the county.

That may soon change, however.

Even before Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed an Oct. 24 executive order promoting high-speed Internet access for the entire state, Tri-Agency Economic Development Authority had taken action.

Kim Schmidt, economic development project director of Tri-Agency, had already obtained Caltrans funds for a study that's now in its second phase of work, scheduled to finish in June.

When asked how much the lack of more broadband access locally hurts Del Norte County, Schmidt called the effect "significant."

"GTE stops in Humboldt County," said county supervisor David Finigan. "Our provider (Verizon) comes down from Oregon. There is some capacity, but there's not enough capacity."

Finigan said that both Brookings, Ore. and Crescent City/Del Norte County businesses face the same built-in problem: the broadband lines that are here don't contain "the extra loop" that creates a redundant system.

What that means in non-geek English is that if one broadband line goes down, another can take over its transmission — seamlessly.

Consider the effect of the missing loop in light of telemedicine. If a medical procedure in a remote area such as this county were in progress when a line to experts advising the rural staff on how to proceed went dark, end of help.

Grant Scholes, Sutter Coast Hospital spokesman, consulted the staff radiologist when he realized his information technologies expert had extended his holiday by Monday. "He just said, ‘We just need it,'" Scholes reported back.

Schwarzenegger used as a backdrop the Pediatric Telehealth Colloquium in San Francisco, held three days after he issued his executive order on broadband, to highlight the critical role that telecommunications play in health care delivery.

"It's keeping us from going forward," said local businessman and former chamber president Jay Freeman of the lack in broadband. "We can't do true telemedicine here ... we're not on a level playing field with the rest of the world."

The chamber, he added, doesn't receive many calls from businesses that other areas court: Those that compete on a national scale, are small and clean, and those that offer higher wages.

"We're behind the eight ball," Freeman said. "We can't work independently, we need to transcend the government lines."

He referred to Del Norte County and Curry County working together to solve a common problem.

"From an economic development standpoint, it's really critical," Schmidt said.

Although the lack of additional broadband capability hampers many areas of this community, its effects are not equal.

Both emergency responders and educational facilities have access to other systems to shore up their own capabilities. In the case of the sheriff's department, the state's OASIS system enables officers to communicate with each other.

That wasn't possible during the June 2005 Cascadia earthquake and subsequent evacuation, when phone and cell phone systems became instantly jammed.

"They're built to 7 percent capacity," said Sheriff Dean Wilson. "They expect to handle calls from 7 percent of customers at any one time."

Educational facilities have extra broadband capabilities they're able to purchase through the federal E-Rate program, a program that provides money only to them.

"We focus more on the high school because it's our biggest school," said Jan Morehouse, superintendent of Del Norte County Unified School System. "I believe our ability is through microwave via Humboldt State University, but we don't have what other school systems have."

Humboldt State President Rollin Richmond said the school is always "only a backhoe stroke away" from losing its connection — an inconvenience for students, but potential bankruptcy for a small, rural business.

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