Will FCC’s Connect America Fund transform these rural communities?

By Patric Hedlund, TME

Update: AT&T has cancelled this meeting for the second time. A note from an AT&T spokesperson the afternoon before the meeting said the company needed to do additional engineering research on one of their proposed towers. No alternate date has been proposed.
This month, on February 24 at 1 p.m., Pine Mountain residents were invited to a town hall meeting to learn why AT&T has been studying this region, why they want permission to build cell towers on PMCPOA land, and what the company’s plans may be. That meeting was cancelled at the last minute, with no alternate date was proposed.

Residents still joke about living in an electronic Appalachia. It was only four years ago (in 2014) that Verizon finally brought cell phone services to the area.

Bridging the Digital Divide

Bridging the digital divide is not a slogan to these rural Mountain Communities. It is a daily concern. So there has been high interest in all the cell tower applications for this region that were submitted by AT&T to the county in 2017.

In July 2017 a conditional use permit for an 80-foot wireless communication tower, disguised as a monopine tree, was requested for the south end of the Viewpoint Court cul de sac in Piñon Pines.

Residents in Lake of the Woods must still drive three miles down the road to make a cell phone call to the doctor. But a 75-foot-tall wireless communication tower (with an equipment shelter disguised as a bell tower) was sought by AT&T in May 2017 at 6700 Lakewood Drive, near the Shepherd of the Mountains Lutheran Church.

That same month, May 2017, a conditional use permit was sought by AT&T to build a 74-foot-tall monopine wireless communication facility at 3977 Park Drive at the southwest edge of Frazier Mountain Park.

As this flurry of corporate activity is underway, neighbors, businesses and public agencies must often check with each other to try to figure out why their internet or phone service is going down.

For entrepreneurial millennials, the lack of robust high-speed broadband has been a hindrance to buying houses here to use this area as an incubator from which to launch startup web-based businesses.

Until last year our local schools were unable to fully participate in the state academic testing process (in the way urban schools do) because of inadequate internet access.

Why All the Mystery?

On March 8, 2018 Piñon Pines residents have a hearing in Bakersfield about another cell tower AT&T wants to build. The Kern County Planning Department received a petition with 150 signatures expressing concern about aesthetics and health. AT&T won’t say why they want the tower.

Reporters’ inquiries to numerous corporate officials and AT&T press officers presented no answers of substance.

Connecting America Fund II

Now we have a 26 page document from AT&T Senior Vice President Marc Blakeman in which he explained to Kern County Supervisors the big picture of what is taking place here.

In 2013 the Federal Communications Commission launched the second step in its Connecting America Fund (CAF) to bring high speed internet access to rural America.

The CAF Phase II project targets areas such as ours, which are sparsely populated with homes spread across the landscape, often with miles of wildland and forest between them.

This makes these expensive places (the FCC says “high cost”) in which to build hardwired communications infrastructure.

Instead, AT&T is building a fixed wireless internet infrastructure, using the towers.

Their objective is to provide a minimum of 10 megabits per second download and one megabit per second upload internet service (10/1Mbps) with limited latency, in line with the FCC’s 2013 specifications.

In 2016 Blakeman told Kern County AT&T now expects to exceed “4G LTE” performance at prices comparable to those charged for the same services in urban settings.

AT&T also expects to offer bundled services, such as DIRECTV and voice transmission.

Meanwhile, Frazier Mountain Internet has launched its own system upgrade plan which Scott Rosen said will be active in many parts of the mountain within weeks.

CalNeva has also upgraded its system in the past year.

Photo captions:

In a presentation to the Kern County Board of Supervisors on October 18, 2016, AT&T Senior Vice President Marc Blakeman said the company will build fixed wireless internet infrastructure.

AT&T’s map makes it clear that the entire Mountain Communities area qualifies as part of the FCC’s CAF Phase II region.

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This is part of the February 16, 2018 online edition of The Mountain Enterprise.

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