Library struggles with slow Internet
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE — The El Dorado County Library, South Lake Tahoe Branch is an island, sitting separate from any other building and cutoff from modern communication technologies. As a county property, it’s separate from a city system that is making efforts to keep up with technological demands.
A hub for many who would otherwise find it hard to access the Internet, the library faces challenges providing its patrons with Internet speeds that can meet modern demands.
“When we look around the library and we see 20 people using the Internet we know two things. We know, No.1, that people need Internet for their day-to-day communications. Whether it’s for business or personal use, people are using the Internet. The second thing we know is that our current Internet service cannot support this need,” Branch Manager Katherine Miller said during a Tuesday night presentation.
“We want people to walk into the library and connect online. We want them to be able to find jobs online. We want them to be able to apply for unemployment online,” she said.
Miller said that on busy days it can be challenging to access things as basic as an email account.
“When someone comes in and they can’t open an email, it hurts. It hurts to not be able to provide a basic service for our public,” she said.
“Folks who work in town are now required to have a food handler’s permit. That food handler’s permit is like a three-hour test. They have to watch videos online. If we don’t have the capacity so they can watch those videos, they can’t get their food handler’s permit and they can’t keep their job,” she said.
The library is isolated and on a piece of land on Rufus Allen Boulevard that is not connected to a system that can support modern Internet technology, such as fiber optic cabling. Currently, neither Charter Communications nor AT&T have found a viable investment plan to connect the library to those technologies.
Ideally, Miller said, the library would eventually connect to the Corporation for Education Network Initiatives in California (CENIC), a statewide network that could provide service hundreds of times faster than what the library currently offers. However, it is still unclear when that could happen or even if it will.
“The school district down the street is connected to CENIC. The college is connected to CENIC. We’re talking to CENIC right now and asking, ‘how do we make this work?’”
For now, Miller and staff are considering three options that they hope will be a temporary measure until they can connect to CENIC.
First is an AT&T option that would offer 50 megabits of speed, compared to the current 3 megabits, and would cost $963 monthly, a significant increase from the $240 the library currently pays.
Second is an option by Charter that would offer 60 megabits and would cost $80 per month, but the library would have to cover more than $38,000 in construction costs to bring a line into the library.
Third, a workaround within the current system that would use a separate office to allow the South Lake Tahoe branch access to faster Internet, roughly 50 megabits, and would cost about $440 monthly. The third option, however, has not been approved.
Estimates for a 10-year period suggest that the Charter Communications option would be approximately $10,000 cheaper than the internal workaround option. However, Miller said, the initial construction costs exceeding $38,000 make it less viable. Additionally, if the library is able to connect to CENIC, for example within five years, the Charter option becomes less cost effective.
Though it is still unclear how much Internet service would cost under CENIC, Miller said it would likely cost less than the $240 per month the library currently pays.
Miller is trying to find a solution to the slow Internet problem before the summer, when traffic in the library increases significantly.
Patrons and employees of the library are not the only ones disconnected from the modern world of high-speed Internet.
Around the Lake Tahoe there are large areas and smaller pockets of land that do not have the infrastructure to connect to modern Internet highways, according to Bev Ducey, program manager for Connected Tahoe, a Tahoe Prosperity Center program.
In the South Shore, those who are unserved or underserved may find it harder to attain a faster Internet connections because there are no large areas that would represent a viable investment for Internet providers. There are only small isolated areas such as the library.
The El Dorado County Library, South Lake Tahoe Branch falls under the category of underserved when it comes to Internet connectivity, Ducey said. Areas with download speeds slower than 6 megabits are considered underserved.
“You know, we’re trying to go to one-on-one computing with the kids (at schools), but if the kids can’t get connectivity at home, then there’s not a lot they can do with that once they get home,” she said.
The basin faces problems with both middle-mile connections, lines that connect the cyberworld physically over large stretches of land, and last-mile, which connect individual properties or clusters to the larger lines.
Competition between providers is limited, largely because the Tahoe Basin is not an easy area to access, Ducey said.
In the South Shore, Charter Communications and AT&T receive most of the business. It is also challenging to find projects that make fiscal sense to connect underserved areas.
Connected Tahoe received a $167,000 grant in May to address the connectivity problem in the Tahoe area.
Currently Connected Tahoe is working to attain grants that could fund between 60 and 70 percent of construction costs to connect unserved and underserved areas. However, AT&T has not yet met with Connect Tahoe staff to discuss plans. Charter Communications has submitted a budget to its corporate offices and Ducey said she hopes they will hear back by the end of January.
For now, the library and other small parts of the South Shore remain detached from the modern world of communication technology.
“We need to examine our commitment to technology,” Miller said. “Technology is the backbone for what we do, and if we don’t have that strong foundation, if we don’t have that strong backbone, we’ll have difficulty moving forward.”
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