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Humboldt's Information Ecosystem 

When AT&T sneezes, the North Coast gets the flu

The communication systems that keep us connected are a complex network of networks. As folks on the North Coast know, when part of that system breaks down — as has happened twice in recent months — the consequences aren't always easy to predict or understand. But we also know that issues arising from unavailable or unreliable communications are not trivial as they cause damage to our economy, our democracy and the health of our whole community.

Think about how a "simple" voice call might reach you (or not).

Your voice could be transmitted over an old-school twisted pair of copper wires using analog technology that has been around since Alexander Graham Bell. Folks in the industry call that POTS for "plain old telephone service," and we have plenty of it still in service all across rural America. For large parts of our region, this is the only service available and regulators call those providing this service "carriers of last resort" for a reason.

Humboldt County currently has three "carriers of last resort:" AT&T for most of the communities around Humboldt Bay; Verizon for SoHum and Eastern Humboldt; and Frontier for the Lost Coast from Petrolia up to Ferndale, and also up in Orick.

POTS is our legacy network, the first connections under an important social policy known as Universal Service. We gave license to a collection of monopoly providers — and as their ownership consolidated, we named them Ma Bell, a caring maternal system — to ensure that everyone had a connection to basic telephone service. Through laws and regulations administered by the Federal Communications Commission and the public utility commissions in each state, we invested huge amounts of public resources and guaranteed profitable returns to the private corporations that owned the phone networks, while requiring them in return to connect us all with reliable, affordable service.

The social contract for Universal Service was so strong that most Americans got used to having a phone connection that worked — even when the electric grid went down.

But today, even if your phone call connects on a POTS network, it will also traverse digital transmission networks in order to be connected at the other end. Digital transmissions also traverse copper wires, as well as coaxial cable, optic fiber on the ground and various kinds of wireless links. Those digital networks represent a technology revolution that is transforming network capacity and capabilities, while raising new questions about reliability and the manipulation of network routing with traffic shaping (things like data caps and site blocking) to maximize profit for private owners.

As part of the social contract with private network operators, Universal Service programs were established to ensure that even remote rural areas — where it costs a lot to build networks — got service. These programs are now known as the federal Connect America Fund and the California Public Utility Commission's High Cost Funds, and contain huge investments of public resources (including ratepayer fees) to pay for network deployment. Programs were also established for low income folks — known as the Lifeline program — and for community anchor institutions, including E-Rates for schools and libraries. The California Teleconnect Fund is a good example, as in 2016 it will provide about $100 million in subsidies to schools, libraries, health care providers and other community-based organizations serving to close the communications divide. Other public programs fund connections for public safety networks for first responders. Again, this is a substantial amount of public resources being used to meet public needs on networks funded largely through public investment and public licenses given to monopoly providers. Other publicly funded programs support new network construction and the deployment of broadband Internet service to unserved and underserved communities.

Many folks on the North Coast are aware of the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF), which subsidizes qualified broadband projects that bring new service to disconnected places. The State Route 36 fiber project is a good example, as nearly half the funding came from CASF. That new fiber was developed by IP Networks, is owned by PG&E and is now operated by Level3 Communications. The State Route 36 fiber provides a redundant path from Eureka to the I-5 corridor near Cottonwood.

So, when AT&T fiber gets cut along the U.S. Highway 101 corridor, why do we still have outages?

First, we need to acknowledge that our communication networks were developed as privately held public utilities with a social contract that obligated their owners to meet public interest obligations, including universal service and common carriage for open networks. Through strategic investments in lobbying and advocacy at regulatory agencies, the private owners of these communications networks achieved "regulatory capture," in effect writing their own laws and the rules used to implement them. The effect has been to undermine and weaken companies' social contract obligations for the purpose of maximizing profits to private owners.

It is a long and complex story, but the important point is that we have a clear case of "market failure" with a legacy of ineffective regulatory responses to industry efforts to hinder effective competition. This public/private history has created ripe conditions for profiteering, consumer abuse, less reliable services and a growing divide between the information haves and have nots.

Second, we have to remember that, compared to previous outages, the impact of the latest AT&T failure was much reduced. The local communications infrastructure is more resilient as new network links have been constructed. Many connections that were lost in previous outages stayed active in recent ones, being routed over the State Route 36 fiber and other network paths. For example, folks who use service from Suddenlink or 101 Netlink did not have a problem. And depending on how service was provided to their tower sites, many cell phone connections (for voice and data) also stayed active.

In addition to fiber from the south up Highway 101 to Big Lagoon and from the east near State Route 36 — we also have robust wireless microwave links serving much of Humboldt County. A popular, locally owned service is provided by 101 Netlink for Southern and central Humboldt County and Tsunami Wireless offers service for areas north of the Mad River. The Yurok and Karuk tribes are also providing broadband service for areas along the Klamath River and connecting along routes to the north and east. And cell network providers — including AT&T and Verizon wireless divisions, US Cellular, Sprint, etc. — also build, lease and operate critical network links to and from tower sites where they exist.

Network infrastructure exists now to meet local needs without interruption; the reason any particular customer has an outage is mostly impacted by the business decisions made by their provider, which weighs profit versus reliable service. Different providers make different decisions.

Meanwhile, technology is adding intelligence to network operations that increases the resilience and reliability of services. For example, cell phone networks are now linked to wi-fi networks through smart phones and other mobile devices. So, if my phone cannot reach the cell network, it will automatically use a local wi-fi network carried over landline services to make the connection. Wi-fi and other digital transmission networks use "Voice over Internet Protocol" to relay my call.

The path to robust and resilient networks has been mapped already; it was the original social contract that provided universal access to common carrier telephone networks. That same social contract also provided for local access to cable TV networks and the creation of community media that serve public, educational and government purposes.

If you want resilient, open networks that serve everyone in Humboldt County and in the North Coast region, you have to demand them by supporting Access Humboldt and getting involved in local, state and federal policies that seek those goals.

Sean McLaughlin is executive director of Access Humboldt, a board member for the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition (, and also serves as vice chair of the California Teleconnect Fund Administrative Committee for the California Public Utilities Commission.

Have something you want to get off your chest? Think you can help guide and inform public discourse? Then the North Coast Journal wants to hear from you. Contact the Journal at [email protected] to pitch your column ideas.

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