John Leopold: Expanding Broadband Makes A Difference
By John Leopold
County Supervisor, First District, Santa Cruz County
February 13, 2015 — Santa Cruz
As the County Supervisor for the First District, I represent many residents who live in the unincorporated areas of our County. While most of these residents are in the urban communities of Live Oak, Soquel and Santa Cruz Gardens, I also represent many in the Soquel Hills, Happy Valley, North Rodeo Gulch, and the Summit area. The more rural residents live outside the urban services line established by the voters in 1978 and don’t have access to services common throughout most of the county. A critical deficit is the availability of wired broadband services to support educational needs and economic development. Working together with residents, I led an effort for a major expansion of these services over the last few years.
The availability of broadband services is crucial for families and businesses. The value of homes is directly affected by the availability of broadband services. I hear from residents throughout the rural part of the First District about the challenges they face in the real estate market, business, and day-to-day life due to the lack of quality internet access. Consulting with County staff, I recognized a fortuitous set of circumstances that collectively could help solve this problem for some residents in the rural part of the First District.
For over 30 years, the County and City of Santa Cruz had a consent decree with our cable providers as part of our franchise agreement. This judgment helped reduce cable bills by approximately 25% over the life of the agreement and had key provisions for providing services to rural areas that might not always be financially attractive for the cable company. Unfortunately, in 2006 the State Legislature voted to remove the ability of local communities to negotiate their own franchise agreements with cable companies and instead replaced this with a contract negotiated at the state level. To our great advantage, then-Assembly member John Laird got a special carve out for Santa Cruz County until July 2014, which proved beneficial to hundreds of residents in the county.
Working with residents in the North Rodeo Gulch and Summit areas, we identified nearly 500 homes that did not have access to cable (and by extension cable broadband). As the County negotiated our last consent decree with Comcast we got their agreement to string cable to these homes at no cost to the consumers. After we signed the decree and announced this significant expansion, hundreds of other summit residents asked for inclusion.
While we were not able to negotiate the same agreement for these additional residents, there were still provisions for serving rural areas based on density. We worked with Comcast to identify the costs to provide cable service for another 400 homes on the Summit. Our consent decree required Comcast to pay for a portion of this new install but residents were required to raise $250K to finish the build out. The community organized themselves in a modern day “barn raising”. They raised over $150K but were still short. Fortunately, our negotiators had added a 15 cent charge to each cable bill to assist with rural access, which provided the final funds.
Today, hundreds of homes have access to wired broadband services due to the support provided by local government. These communities have used their new resources in creative ways. In the North Rodeo Gulch neighborhoods, they used the relationships they built through their advocacy to organize a bulk purchase of propane. The process also strengthened a fledgling group in the Summit area, the Santa Cruz Mountain Alliance, which is now tackling how to address their fire safety needs and develop strong economic development plans. These examples of bringing communities together in an effort to provide valuable broadband services will have lasting effects on the lives of these rural residents.