By Kent Gray

Triplicate staff writer

Without access to high-speed Internet and the classes it can provide, students in Del Norte County are not getting an equal access to education compared with their counterparts statewide, according to local school officials.

?For me, if we?re talking about equal education for everyone, this means you shouldn?t get less access to technology just because you live in a different geographic area,? said Superintendent Frank Lynch of the Del Norte County Unified School District.

At issue is the Digital California Project initiated by the Corporation for Education Network Initiatives in California (CENIC) in 2000. The multimillion dollar project, now publicly funded through Sacramento, is intended to provide classes students can participate in via an Internet connection in every county in California.

Called ?broadband technology,? the high-speed Internet cable allows students and teachers to interact without major delays through computers. The typical dial-up Internet service most homes use is too slow to accommodate this technology.

With state funding of $32 million already approved for the program for the 2001-02 year, Lynch and other local officials are worried the county will be overlooked because of its relative remoteness in the state.

?In the project, every school district in the state of California would get access to this big broadband setup and it would put everybody on an equal footing,? said Lynch. ?But those of us in the rural areas across the state will probably be left out in the cold.?

John Cradler, a professional lobbyist from San Mateo with more than 15 years of experience in Sacramento and Washington D.C., said he first learned about Del Norte County?s lack of technological infrastructure after purchasing a summer home in Gasquet.

?What I saw missing in the county was access to advanced-placement courses to prepare graduating students,? said Cradler. ?The area needs broadband in order to run the online video and other interactive programs because dial-up technology is too slow.?

Cradler said he has been working with Assemblymember Virginia Strom-Martin to highlight Del Norte?s needs in Sacramento. He has also been lobbying the offices of Senator Wes Chesbro, Assemblymember Sam Aanestad and Congressman Mike Thompson.

Craig Bradford, the executive director of the Economic Development Corporation, agreed the county needs high-performance Internet capabilities not just for the school district but for the community?s future.

?We?re on the tail-end of the dog here in Del Norte County, the services essentially end in Eureka,? Bradford said . ?The question is how to get it from there to here.?

Bradford said local governments offered to support Lynch?s efforts by adding their collective voice with resolutions from Crescent City, Del Norte County and the Crescent City Harbor District.

?It?s not just a school-district issue, but it is needed for the health of the whole community,? said Cradler. ?Infrastructure is critical. I?ve been told businesses have decided not to locate to the area because of a lack of access, and I know hospitals have trouble sending certain types of scans.?

Cradler said, once state legislators are convinced Del Norte needs to be connected to the larger grid of technology in the state, the next problem is getting the county hooked up. According to Cradler, the local telephone service company, Verizon, has not shown much interest in laying cables to the area.

?Verizon hasn?t had enough incentive of bringing in the cable because of the expense, not enough population and what revenues it would return,? said Cradler. ?We discovered Brookings had broadband so we asked what it would take to extend that into the county.?

Cradler said Verizon refused to connect Brookings and Del Norte because of federal regulations forbidding certain services from crossing state lines.

?We checked with the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) and they said there was legislation passed four years ago that allowed it,? Cradler said. ?We told Verizon about it but then they said they had other reasons. They were just dragging their feet.?

Cradler said the program probably doesn?t have the funds to pay for Del Norte?s connection and the money may need to be found elsewhere, perhaps in the state?s general fund or a set-aside from the California Public Utilities Commission.

?This was a statewide resolution. What we need is a strong commitment that all the schools get the same access to broadband technology,? Cradler said. ?Otherwise, what we?ll get is the ?rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.? That?s not how this program was intended to work.?