Op-ed: Digital Democracy Success in Inyo County

By Kammi Foote, Inyo County Registrar of Voters

Inyo County—a county of 10,000 square miles that contains Death Valley and three monumental mountain ranges—is both the second-largest county by area and the least populated by density in California. That is why high-speed Internet access was crucial to civic engagement in the November 2016 election.

Kammi Foote and Chuck Levin at the Inyo County Courthouse Saturday morning, August 20, 2016.

Kammi Foote and Chuck Levin at the Inyo County Courthouse Saturday morning, August 20, 2016.

Since 2014, the Inyo County Elections department has worked on several projects to enhance accessibility of public information. We have collaborated on a grant-funded project with ELECTricity to create a new mobile friendly website (http://elections.inyocounty.us/) at no cost to Inyo County citizens.

And we have added numerous no- or low-cost features to this website, including the ability for voters to verify that they are registered to vote in Inyo County, a tool to look up their polling place and see what’s on their ballot using their address, confirm that their mailed ballot was received and an interactive way to find out who their elected representatives are.

The fact is rural communities can face significant barriers to civic participation. Without easy access to online information, less people can connect to their government. Fortunately, that is not the case in Inyo County.

In the weeks leading up to the November 8 Presidential Election, the Inyo County election website received over 7,000 individual visits, including 2,641 on Election Day. That may not seem like a lot, but Inyo County has only 10,000 registered voters. This means that over half of them likely used our online services during this election.

Making voting information available online is one part of the equation, but voters also need to have a reliable way to access it.

Inyo has been wired for the last two years because of the Digital 395 project—so named because it runs along Highway 395—a 583-mile fiber optic network built from Barstow, CA to Carson City, NV. According to the California Public Utilities Commission, Digital 395 is slated to connect 28,127 households.

Digital 395 would not have been possible if the state hadn’t come up with a public-private mechanism in 2007 to pay for the broadband infrastructure that now runs through our county. That mechanism is the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF).

The CASF was established to affordably support the deployment of broadband to unserved and underserved areas of California. To date CASF has funded 57 projects and reached 300,000 households, but the California Public Utilities Commission program will be out of funds after it approves 14 pending projects. There are, however, many more than 14 broadband projects in California in need of funding.

To help meet this need, a network of civic organizations and legislators has launched an effort entitled “The Internet For All Now Act” to expand the adoption of broadband in California. If successful, this effort could help Inyo County’s most remote communities to be online and able to participate in our digital democracy.

Technology has the power to connect us to each other, to our government, and to important civic information. But if it isn’t accessible by everyone, it can actually widen our democracy’s existing digital divide.

As more civic and government resources are being put online, it will be even more important that people have reliable broadband through their devices and in their households.

We must not forget that the rural broadband buildout of today is equivalent—in both cost and socioeconomic necessity—to the rural electrification works of the 1930s. Just imagine what would have happened in Depression-era California if farmers had not gotten electricity. The benefits of broadband are no different.

I have seen the before and after of the digital divide. When I became Inyo County’s Clerk-Recorder & Registrar of Voters in 2010, we had a limited online presence, which meant that citizens had access to our office only during business hours for most services. Six years later, we have a robust online platform that engages a network of thousands of people and allows Inyo County to better function as an inclusive democracy.

There is just no doubt that the time is now to ensure broadband infrastructure in all of California. So please consider supporting the Internet For All Now Act to engage all California citizens in the fruits of digital democracy.

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4 Responses to Op-ed: Digital Democracy Success in Inyo County

  1. Roy December 4, 2016 at 10:15 am #

    Andy, You are comparing apples to oranges. The 1.54 Mbs T-1 lines to which you refer were old technology on Verizon’s old copper wired plant. This had nothing to do with the fiber optic plant I was talking about.

    FYI – In the early ’90’s Verizon (then Contel) built a state of the art fiber plant from Victorville to Carson City and they included empty conduit in the ground for the entire path for future fiber expansion – I worked on part of this project.

    When Verizon bought out Contel, fiber to home development was expanded. This included early plans for their world class FiOS service that today offers 50 mbs to 100 mbs high speed internet to your house for around $50 per month. And FiOS can include bundled TV and phone services for only a few dollars more. Since it’s inception and to this day FiOS remains the top rated service by consumers above cable and satellite delivered services.

    “Back in the day” I saw all of this develop from the cable TV side. I designed and built, or worked on, nearly all of the Cable TV plant from Ridgecrest up the Valley to Independence, Big Pine, Bishop and Round Valley. As far back as the late 70’s we designed and built cable TV plant in anticipation “convergence” – the idea that one day telephone and cable TV systems would be competing with each other with similar facilities.

    The area telephone companies were racing for the same goal as we. In the late 90s satellite delivered TV emerged giving consumers three choices! It looked like the monopolies were over – at least for a time.

    But Digital 395 came along and the areas move “convergence” faltered. Yes, we still have cable TV systems and Telephone companies. But it’s mostly the old technology Andy mentions – the migration to state of the art fiber to home technology was abandoned.

    Andy, it seems to me you are mostly concerned that Verizon is in business to make a profit. In order to make that product, Verizon would have had to work very hard to provide the highest, most reliable and affordable internet, TV and phone service because I can assure you this was certainly our goal on the cable TV side. More important, it would have been up to consumers to decide what service they wanted and what they were willing to pay for it.

    Instead the Federal Government essentially took over the areas fiber expansion. By in large it decides who gets what level of service and what the cost might be.

    I prefer it when multiple business compete for my business. We could have had this here but alas, we don’t.

    I very much regret having to move our business out of the area. This is my home. While in High School here, I worked on the original TV translators that brought the first TV to the Owens Valley. Then I got my first look at cable TV technology when area business people pooled there money to bring in all of the “LA Channels” to Bishop. In the 70’s I built and operated what is now KIBS-FM (back then we called it KIOQ). In the 80’s I moved on to develop and expand Cable TV service to Independence, Big PIne and Round Valley. In the 90’s I designed and built a new state of the art Cable TV system for Ridgecrest.

    This is when fiber began to emerge and the race to convergence was on!

    By 2000 we had a vision of the future and it was grand! Cable providers and the Telecos racing each other to bring the best and lowest cost service to the market first. Competing every month to provide the best and most reliable service.

    But the vision was dashed when Digital 395 and the Feds took over fiber expansion here.

    I’ll admit that I am a bit bitter – I saw it as the Federal Governments way trying to regulate and control this new and emerging but yet unregulated technology that exploded in the last 20 years.

    From the local Governments perspective it was a chance to move into the internet world with “other peoples money”. I reject the notion that the people of Inyo County got all of this for free. True, much (not all) of Inyo County’s cost came from Federal grant money but does it really matter to you, the tax payer, how you paid for it. Whether you paid Inyo County or the Federal Government it was all paid for by taxpayers. What SHOULD matter to tax payers is it cost a LOT LOT more with the Federal Government doing it.

    • Charles O. Jones December 5, 2016 at 11:11 am #

      You obviously have a long history with this issue on the Eastside. And yes, you do sound a tad bitter. That aside, your contention that “By 2000 we had a vision of the future and it was grand! Cable providers and the Telecos racing each other to bring the best and lowest cost service to the market first. Competing every month to provide the best and most reliable service.”??? Where is it? It’s 2016. Most of the Eastside has been living with antiquated and inadequate service for far too long. And there was no tangible progress to change this in the foreseeable future, at least not until the 395 project came along. Waiting for someone within a very volatile private industry to finally decide it would be worth their investment could end up being a very long wait. Too long. You had your chance.

      I consider this a basic service for our communities. I have no problem with some of my tax money, (local, state or federal) helping support a basic service that we all can benefit from. Especially since the private industry has failed to keep up with the times and the needs of our communities.

  2. Andy December 1, 2016 at 1:13 pm #

    Roy, I believe you are grossly misinformed. Prior to Digital395 my employer was paying close to $5K per month from Verizon for a couple of T1s. That’s less than 5 Mbits/s – about half of what many homes in metro areas get for ~$75/month.

    Furthermore, Verizon had little or no interest in supporting or upgrading our lines, even though we inquired continuously and would have paid for more if we could get it. Bottom line, Verizon doesn’t do Podunk because there’s no money in it.

    I’d suspect the prices you were quoted from Verizon didn’t go ‘way up’ but were simply the ridiculous rate they’ve always charged businesses in the valley. At $5K per month, $80K pays for itself in a little over a year and at the much higher bandwidths D395 provides even less proportionally.

  3. Roy November 30, 2016 at 4:24 pm #

    Digital 395 is a benefit? I don’t think so.

    The Eastern Sierra took a GIANT step backward when the government took over the internet backbone with the digital 395 project.

    We were going to build our TV Network operations center in the area but, instead, built it outside the area after Verizon and it’s competitors essentially pulled up stakes after government and institutional users moved over to digital 395.

    As a business, Digital 395 did not want to deal with us. The internet service providers they do sell to, were simply not able to accommodate our needs. To be fair, when pressed Digital 395 said they would sell to us but the connection fee was nearly $80,000 and the monthly rate was thousands of dollars – these are astronomical costs when compared to rates in a competitive free market environment .

    To be clear Verizon still owns the original fiber network connecting Carson City to Southern California. And they will sell us service. But without the institutional customers the cost went way up and Verizon’s support infrastructure left the area.

    There are many things governments do well but providing telecommunications services is not one of them!

    Don’t expect to see high tech companies and the high paying jobs they bring open up shop here.


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