Every so often, James McMaster would stop his distance-learning PE lesson and say, “Hey, if you guys can hear me, somebody move.”
If one of the Alder Creek Middle School students moved, McMaster knew his internet was still working.
Since school started back up in the beginning of September, he hadn’t been able to rely completely on seeing all of his class members’ faces on Google Meet because his internet connection didn’t have the bandwidth to manage such a task. If there was no response to his plea, or if students began commenting on not being able to hear him, it was time to take his family from their house in Armstrong Tract and seek out a better internet connection … like in front of the nearby high school.
“My kids are sitting in the car and I’m in the back, have my truck tailgate down, and I’m teaching from the parking lot of Truckee High School,” McMaster recalled. “… That almost became a daily basis. Sometimes we would check in [at home], I would check the bandwidth. I’m like, oh, we’re looking pretty good, even though it was way low — we’re talking under 10 [megabytes per second or mbps]. All of a sudden, literally like clockwork, school would start and then it would go down.”
In his household, McMaster was competing for internet usage with his wife, also a teacher, and two kids, who were part of the distance learning gang, too. They were all in need of a solid connection, and their provider, Suddenlink Communications, wasn’t providing one.
From July up until Oct. 18, McMaster and his family lived with touch-and-go internet, scheduled seven appointments with techs at Suddenlink (two of which were no-shows), purchased one new modem, filed three Federal Communications Commission complaints and two Town of Truckee complaints, held numerous conversations with the corporate Suddenlink office, and, finally, benefitted from a working connection after two different technicians replaced wiring from the street to the McMaster residence.
“We’re still under 100 megabytes per second and we pay for up to 400,” McMaster said. “There has been some improvement but obviously it’s taken a long time.”
McMaster is not alone in his Suddenlink trials — any nearby neighborhood’s Nextdoor conversation will tell you as much. And that was even before COVID-19 hit, when working and schooling from home became such a norm that people moved from cities up to the Truckee/North Tahoe region in bulk just because they could.
It’s that influx that’s caused more strain on the network, and while Suddenlink employees say the company is committed to upgrades, the patience of local agencies and counties (not to mention community members themselves) is waning rather quickly.
Keeping up with the digital age
In general, Ian Fitzgerald, chief information officer for the Truckee Donner Public Utility District, said there was a startling upward trend in the increase in reliance on internet and streaming services — “an explosion in the use of data” as he described it — even before 2020.
“The amount of data, the cord-cutting, going to 4K video, and now COVID and going to distance learning, working from home, the number of people working from home…” he continued. “I don’t think there was an [internet service provider] that could even think about what occurred in the last two to three years, let alone in the last year.”
But companies are trying to keep up. Ashwin Bhandari of Altice USA, Suddenlink’s parent, noted that his staff has “seen data usage in Truckee and in our California markets double due to more people working and learning from home full time” since March.
The network remains reliable, he furthered in an email, despite this increased traffic.
“But we are continuing … to support the increase in data consumption,” Bhandari said. “We are currently in the process of upgrading the network to add more capacity and support more simultaneous users, leading to a better customer experience.”
Suddenlink’s nationwide infrastructure improvement projects were initiated back at the beginning of COVID-19, and several of them are nearing final stages of completion, including field electronics and additional market routers (both part of critical network infrastructure that provide power and delivery service to the customers), plus an increase in long-haul bandwidth to carry data in and out of an area.
“We have a very engaged regional leadership team with local leadership in each area we serve to ensure the health of our local markets,” Bhandari said of Suddenlink’s local focus. In addition to the network infrastructure improvements, he added, “Delivering a great connectivity experience to our customers is incredibly important to us.”
Bhandari did not speak to a local fiber option (a conduit that uses light signals to relay digital code) when questioned specifically. Fiber, though limited in availability, is a technology that provides more reliability and greater speeds.
“Humans have seen the capacity limits of coaxial [also known as cable internet],” said Fitzgerald with the TDPUD. “… With fiber optics, or light on the fiber optics, humans haven’t seen the capacity yet. It’s unlimited based on the technology that we’ve developed on either end of it [the rate at which data can be received or sent].”
AT&T offers fiber services in Incline Village, and Teresa Mask, spokesperson with the internet service provider, told Moonshine that its customers’ needs for high-speed internet means the company’s investment in wireless capabilities and fiber is ongoing.
That, and slower internet options are being phased out.
“As of Oct. 1, we’re not accepting new orders for DSL service 6 mbps and slower,” Mask explained. DSL connections utilize phone wall jacks and work through existing telephone networks. “While current DSL customers will still be able to continue their existing service, they’ll eventually have the ability to upgrade to faster services too.”
Though AT&T’s internet presence rounds out around the West and North shores of Tahoe, as well as Truckee, a preferred-to-remain-nameless Suddenlink technician informed the Ink for a previous article that he’d installed Suddenlink for two AT&T executives and a couple AT&T technicians because it provided better service in the rural mountain region (read Why-Fi!?!? for more).
In addition to Suddenlink and AT&T, Earthlink also claims a workable connection, and in Incline Village, Charter Spectrum is a popular route to take.
If efforts for better broadband are to be localized, the Truckee Donner Public Utility District is your guy (at least in Truckee). The Town of Truckee itself neither manages nor has significant weight in the process of internet discussions, though Bronwyn Roberts, communications analyst with the town, said there are internal discussions about said topic.
Under enabling California legislation, however, the PUD has the capability to become a broadband provider.
In fact, about 20 years ago, a project at the PUD sought to do just that, with plans to install fiber in the Truckee community. It made enough headway (installing fiber optics, building a system, and acquiring cables in Truckee) to give the town a foundation for a future home to fiber optics community-wide, though the fiber-to-home link isn’t available yet.
“A lawsuit and some pretty aggressive market moves by the current suppliers put a halt to that project, and that delay in turn eventually halted completion of it,” said Steven Poncelet, public information officer with the PUD.
Those suppliers did respond to this move by the PUD, Poncelet went on, and invested in the area — not solving the problem, “but it got better.”
Rem Scherzinger, the TDPUD’s new general manager, said the deployment of those investments by the suppliers, however, were patchwork and unfocused: “So that’s something that [we] here at the district are looking at to try and help the community understand that and try to find a solution out of that space.”
The TDPUD’s power remains, however latent. Under Scherzinger’s guidance, the wheels for progression are starting to turn again.
“I’ve asked the board to put together a committee,” he said, “so the board is now being informed, and as soon as we have some of these studies ready, we’ll bring the committee public and the public will start to be able to come in and enjoy the information that we’re delivering. Then at some point we’ll go to the full board and ask for reinitiation.”
Because the PUD already handles water and electric, staff is keeping in mind how the addition of another utility might fit in with the existing two.
“[What] if we offered [fiber] to all 20,000 metered accounts?” Scherzinger asked. “Could we handle it? Do I have enough staff, do I have enough buildings, do I have enough infrastructure to do the work and still deliver high-quality water and high-quality electric service? We’re not going to let the third service infringe on the performance of the other two.”
There’s the cost to consider as well, which TDPUD staff can provide a fairly exact dollar amount for: Between $5,000 and $7,000 per house to trench in fiber.
“We’ve got to find another way to bridge that last mile as a community so that we’re not adding another $7,000 to somebody’s property tax,” Scherzinger said.
No magic switch solution
The West and North shores of Lake Tahoe sit differently than Truckee in that there aren’t special districts harnessing latent powers. Rather, it’s county staff going to bat for its residents.
Dieter Wittenberg, IT manager for the telecommunications division at Placer County, says roughly nine out of 10 internet complaints he gets are about district five, the rural portion stretching from the eastern edges of Auburn up to Tahoe — Supervisor Cindy Gustafson’s district.
“In particular, most of the complaints I receive are about Suddenlink as a provider,” Gustafson said, adding that constituents comment on Suddenlink’s nonresponsiveness to requests and missed appointments. “… People wait all afternoon and they don’t show up, those sorts of things. I don’t see any excuse for that. I mean, you can’t text or email or call somebody and let them know?”
In addition to dealing with complaints from residents, the county serves as an advocate. Placer distributed a survey at the beginning of October to understand the quality of internet service its residents receive. Using this information (the survey is open through Nov. 14) and the aforementioned complaints, Wittenberg said he has plenty of conversation starters with the Suddenlink staff.
He and Gustafson met with Suddenlink at the end of October to discuss improvements. Wittenberg said there won’t be a “magic switch” solution to suddenly give everyone internet, but meeting on a regular basis will push things forward.
Many community members have called for a revocation of the county’s franchise agreement with Suddenlink. To that, Wittenberg responded: “That sounds great, but then what? If you revoke the franchise agreement, it doesn’t mean that suddenly services get better.
“I think the biggest challenge in all of this is there’s no teeth in any agreement,” he continued. “There’s really [no] ‘thou shalt do and must provide x.’ To me, if they [the local suppliers] don’t have that, they’re not bound by anything. I’m not a big regulation guy, but I will say there’s some value at times in holding people accountable to service levels.”
Gustafson mused over the possibility of forming a community service district or facilities district to handle local internet — something similar to the TDPUD’s latent powers, but said in general, the Placer board of supervisors would want to leave the role in the private sector.
“But when the private sector fails and it affects people’s lives, government sometimes has to step in and interject,” she said. “That’s the role I’m looking for: What is the right impetus to get more investment and service to our constituents?”
Both Wittenberg and Gustafson are also considering higher-up methods for internet improvement.
“The other options we have are obviously to elevate it to our state assembly and senators, to our congressional representative, to our U.S. senators,” Gustafson said. “Wherever we have to go.”
California’s internet regulations have oft been discussed on a statewide level. Most recently, the state legislature is seeking to improve internet speeds by setting a baseline at 25 mbps downstream (the rate at which data can be received) and 3 mbps upstream (how quickly data can be sent). The goal, set through AB-570, is for internet speeds of 100 mbps both up and down.
Such speeds are something ACMS teacher McMaster thinks the area deserves — and not just because of the teaching-over-broadband trial he went through for a month and a half.
“We’re growing,” he said. “Definitely our population has increased, so the demands have increased … Now [internet is] like water, like electricity. We can deal without it for a short term, but we can’t deal with inadequacies for the long term.”