By Todd Wels

Triplicate staff writer

A bill by 1st District Assemblywoman Virginia Strom-Martin could result in better telephone service for rural Del Norte County residents.

If signed into law, Assembly Bill 1825 would establish $10 million in yearly grants for telephone improvements in rural communities, beginning in January, 2001.

Those grants could be used to bring regular telephone service to areas like Big Flat and remote portions of the Yurok Reservation, which are currently serviced by unreliable radio telephones if at all.

They really dont have good service, said Strom-Martin spokeswoman Carol Gaubatz.

According to Gaubatz, the bill would create five grants per year, for a total of $10 million, from the California Teleconnect Fund. The CTF was initially established to create easier access to schools, libraries and community facilities.

Communities applying for the grants would have to show financial need and support from local government.

Any assistance we can get is greatly appreciated, said Del Norte County Supervisor David Finigan, who represents Klamath on the board.

The bill would help communities and their local telephone service providers install traditional land lines or microwave links, as opposed to radio relays.

Minimum security youth correctional camp Bar-O Boys Ranch and several residences in the Big Flat area are served by a radio relay, which has experienced interference and is difficult to repair.

At the time, we felt (a radio system) was the best option economically, said local carrier GTEs Public Affairs Manager Bob Wayt.

He added that the rugged terrain in the Big Flat area made the installation of traditional phone lines way too expensive for the number of customers.

A recent attempt to provide telephone service to remote portions of the Yurok Reservation proved prohibitively expensive for the tribe, at $1.5 million.

This grant program would make it possible for them to do a project like that, Gaubatz said.

Martha Alcott, a spokeswoman for Citizens Telecommunications, the company currently attempting to purchase GTEs local service area, said Citizens supports such a grant.

Were all about connecting people, she said, adding that radio telephones are currently being replaced in other areas served by Citizens.

Alcott was unable to give a timetable for the replacement of the radio telephones, adding that it has taken as long as three years in some areas.

The bill has passed out of committee and awaits approval by the state Assembly and Senate.

If those approvals are given, Governor Gray Davis could sign the bill as early as this fall, with the grant funding becoming available in January, Gaubatz said.