It was announced earlier this month that a partnership has been formed between four California counties in an effort to extend fast and affordable Internet services to underserved areas. The North Bay North Coast Broadband Consortium is made up up Marin, Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties and was created in the last few months in the hopes of modernizing the area's service offerings.

Over the next to years, and with a $250,000 grant from the California Public Utilities Commission, each of the four counties in the consortium will be developing regional maps to identify which areas are served by what types of Internet connections.

"One of the biggest issues we're confronting is closing the digital divide, and this mapping is really a data-based approach that will identify where we have the greatest need," said Sonoma County Supervisor Efren Carrillo, who was appointed to represent the county in the consortium. "We have to get broadband access to those who are underserved, especially in our rural communities in the county."

One of the driving forces behind the consortium's efforts is Marin County which, despite having a highly educated population, has the highest percentage of people without broadband access within the nine Bay area counties, according to the Utilities Commission. The goal of the initiative is to demonstrate to major providers that the need for broadband access exists and to push for future state and federal funding to build a network of underground fiber optic cables that would connect rural fire and sheriff stations, schools, libraries and businesses to reliable Internet.

Proving a need exists
In an interview with the Marin Independent Journal, Carrillo said that the consortium hopes to offer Internet providers data that would help to push them to make better services available to rural and underserved areas like Marin county.

"This is a chance to bring many more Marin residents online," said Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey. "It has moved pretty swiftly. We just started this last November and enticed the Mendocino and Sonoma folks and brought along Napa to make a compelling consortium. We got word in the last month or so that they are on board, and we are moving ahead."

Providing service for the people
The access made possible by the new initiative will also allow more state parks, like Fort Ross State Historic Park in Jenner, California, to access high-speed Internet and give visitors the ability to post pictures and send emails about their trip. About 200,000 people visit Fort Ross each year, but the park currently has only spotty cell phone reception and poor Internet access.

In an interview with The Press Democrat, Public Policy Institute of California researcher Dean Bonner said that an increasing number of California citizens are viewing the Internet as a service that should be provided in the same way as power and water. According to Bonner, about two-thirds of those surveyed believe high-speed Internet is a public utility that everyone should have access to. Another 67 percent of respondents said that they would support a program offered by the government and funded by telecom providers that would increase broadband access for residents in rural or low-income areas.