Slow connection

With Internet speeds down across the board, Oroville officials push for better service on behalf of businesses

Sandy Linville, president and CEO of the Oroville Area Chamber of Commerce, says unreliable telecommunications lines hamper businesses downtown and beyond.

Sandy Linville, president and CEO of the Oroville Area Chamber of Commerce, says unreliable telecommunications lines hamper businesses downtown and beyond.

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

Sandy Linville could only shake her head and laugh at the irony. Sitting in her office at the Oroville Area Chamber of Commerce, on the western edge of downtown Oroville, Linville had just attempted to call up the contact information for her broadband consultant when she got a familiar error message.

There is no Internet connection.

It was a Monday (Feb. 6) at 11:45 a.m., between bursts of rainfall. Since she had no service, no one downtown had service, she said, because all share the same AT&T lines. Linville could not reconnect for the next 45 minutes.

“Goes to show you what we deal with,” said Linville, the chamber’s president and CEO. “It’s a perfect, key example.”

Businesses that rely on e-commerce, credit-card transactions and telecommunications over that network go stagnant when their service goes down.

“It makes it difficult for them to do business,” Linville said, and also hampers the city’s ability to attract new businesses.

Mayor Linda Dahlmeier, in a Jan. 17 letter to AT&T decrying the level of service and absence of broadband, asserted that Oroville “cannot build a community for tomorrow with an infrastructure from yesterday.”

Linville agrees. With the chamber, and in her dual capacity heading the city’s economic development agency, she sees challenges citywide for commercial and industrial enterprises.

“The lack of reliable, high-speed Internet isn’t just a downtown problem; it’s an Oroville problem,” she said. “It’s a rural California problem.

“There are blank spots in Chico, too. Even downtown Chico has problems; out by the airport has problems. I think Chico is wired a little bit better, probably because of the population size, so there is the business case for the [telecommunications companies], but there still are those bald spots.”

Lack of broadband service downtown—and throughout Oroville—is holding back business growth, says Mayor Linda Dahlmeier.

Photo by wayne t. wilson

Oroville has entirely different issues. Dahlmeier explained that a lattice of copper lines laid by AT&T crisscrosses the city. Junction boxes may get invaded by water or insects; in fact, causes of service interruptions include rain, spiders and spiderwebs.

Depending on the location, Comcast or AT&T may have installed more modern cable. However, both Linville and Dahlmeier said the utility can charge tens of thousands of dollars to extend the wiring to a business; sometimes, even then, parts of the line may remain original, with new lines simply grafted.

To provide the infrastructure at no charge, Dahlmeier said, the telecom giants want a 20 percent return on investment “including in rural communities.” She told Comcast: “You might be able to get a 20 percent return on your investment on a 35-story high rise in San Francisco; I barely have 35 businesses downtown.”

The mayor continues to apply pressure, lobbying AT&T and Comcast with the pitch that “rural communities are the fiber that holds urban communities together. If it weren’t for us, they wouldn’t exist!”

Dahlmeier, on behalf of the city, operates on one track. Linville, on behalf of the chamber and economic development, is working on another effort, to which businesses and residents can contribute.

Linville has reached out to regional/independent service providers. While the smaller companies do not have the resources to rebuild the telecommunications infrastructure for the entire city, they can partner with others and also secure grant funding.

Linville cited Spiral Internet, which serves Nevada County. Spiral started providing service to the Grass Valley area in 2006, including DSL over AT&T connections; two years ago, it launched the first gigabit fiber-optic network in rural Northern California.

Grant funding tends to go where need gets demonstrated. Due to the way AT&T and Comcast are permitted to report data to the California Public Utilities Commission, the need in Oroville may not appear on paper as great as in person.

Jason Schwenkler, director of Chico State’s Geographical Information Center, said that the utilities can report a “census block” (comparable to a city block) as fully served at a certain level if one address in that census block measures at that level. So, if one home or business receives Internet at a certain speed, the CPUC considers the entire block at that level.

The GIC at Chico State gets more specific information from, a website offering a tool through which users can measure their service speed and have that data uploaded to a map. Through this, interested parties can ascertain a more detailed representation of telecommunications coverage.

“[Critics] like to attack the map,” Schwenkler said, “but the reality is the map is the best thing we’ve had ever…. It’s been a struggle for years and years and years and years.

“Most funders, one side of the coin you get frustrated [at their reliance on statistics], but on the other side of the coin you can’t blame them because they’re not living in your neighborhood—they don’t know truly what your experience is—so they just have to take the best information they have.”

Linville hopes she, Dahlmeier and others in Oroville can create a case for change, saying: “It’s hard for us to operate in the 21st century when we don’t have 21st century technology.”