Walt Cook, The Union Democrat

By WALT COOKThe Union Democrat Local Internet service providers are scrambling to secure state and federal funds that will enable them to improve connection speeds in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties, and beyond. If the plans - possibly involving tower upgrades and new fiber-optic cables - come to fruition, the days of slow dial-up service, all that's available in some parts of the Mother Lode, could soon be over. But that's only if local providers act fast, according to Ben Hulet, CEO and president of Sonora-based Mother Lode Internet. He also owns Gold Rush Internet and Hub 3 Networks. "If we wait for out-of-town national providers to upgrade their networks in our region, we will be waiting a long time," Hulet said in a Feb. 9 letter to the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors, expressing concerns about local Internet access. "We must act now while government funding is available." Various economic development grants are being offered by the federal and state governments specifically for broadband - or high-speed Internet - upgrades in rural areas. Dan Rule, general manager of Jamestown-based Golden State Cellular, which is also a leader in the local broadband push, said the expansion effort would be hard without grants. "It has to do with economics," he said. The Mother Lode's low population - and thus small market - makes Internet providers hesitant to invest in costly infrastructure upgrades there, he explained, "but with these grants we can make it happen." According to a recent study, only one out of five homes in a five-county region - including Tuolumne, Calaveras, Amador, Mariposa and Alpine counties - has access to broadband service. Hulet has already found success in the grant-seeking process, and he's hoping for more. Last year, a partnership between his company and telecommunications provider Rapid Link Inc. was approved for $2.8 million in funding from the California Advanced Services Fund, designed to bring broadband to under-served areas. He is also in line for a $3.1 million CSAF grant. Hulet's project, according to grant documents, encompasses 3,063 square miles in Alpine, Amador, Calaveras, Tuolumne and Mariposa counties, and serves 14,629 rural households. The plan involves expanding backhaul to a regional network of towers focused to deliver high-speed service - up to 14 megabits per second - to rural areas. In comparison, dial-up Internet service, which utilizes a phone line, nets speeds of just a fraction of what Hulet is proposing. Hulet's project largely utilizes existing infrastructure. Hulet's plans have experienced one kink. The California Public Utilities Commission, which is overseeing the grant process, discovered that Mother Lode Broadband's partner, Rapid Link, didn't disclose a prior acquisition. The commission put the grant on hold, pending receipt of documents from Rapid Link, as a result. Hulet's partnership had competition for the state grant in the Golden Cellular Consortium, made up, in part, of Golden State Cellular. Despite failing to secure the state grant, Golden State Cellular has moved forward with some big plans. According to its General Manager Dan Rule, the company has recently invested $4 million in mobile broadband deployment. The cutting-edge 3G technology will allow faster wireless Internet speeds. Fifteen towers - six in Tuolumne County - have this capability now, Rule said, and are set for a commercial launch within weeks. In addition, sometimes in 2010, 41of Golden State Cellular's 56 Mother Lode tower sites are set to be 3G-capable. "This will allow customers to have a DSL-type experience on a handheld telephone," Rule said, adding that the technology would also benefit laptop users. In the meantime, Golden State Cellular hasn't given up its quest for government grants. It's hoping to secure funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, commonly known as the stimulus. Golden State Cellular is applying for stimulus funds as part of a consortium that includes the Central Sierra Economic Development District and various other entities. In addition, another effort is under way by service provider Open Range to bring broadband service to the Phoenix Lake area. Also, the Corporation for Education Network Initiatives in California is looking into a massive $150 million broadband project that would benefit 14 counties, including Tuolumne and Calaveras counties, by linking the foothills to main lines in the Central Valley. Like Golden State Cellular, Mother Lode Internet is also in the running for stimulus funds. Hulet raised questions about the arush for stimulus funds at a recent Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors meeting. He said he had just learned of the Golden State Cellular consortium's pending application and expressed support for it, though, he worried it could duplicate his company's efforts. "Competing applications will only fragment the grant application effort and reduce funding for each project," he said in a letter to supervisors. "It will fragment resulting services and reduce the likelihood of either applicant being successful." Hulet told supervisors his company is situated well to pull off a "middle mile" project, which would link homes and businesses to fiber optic cables. Both the consortium and Mother Lode Internet are vying for support for their projects from local officials throughout the Mother Lode. Rule stressed that his consortium's proposed stimulus-funded project - which would, in part, bring high-speed lines all the way from Amador County to Tuolumne County - will compliment Hulet's effort, not duplicate it. The Tuolumne County Administrator's Office noted at a recent meeting it's not clear how the federal grant applications will shake out. The stimulus-grant application deadline is in early March. "Staff is communicating with Mother Lode Internet to evaluate how they might contribute or benefit from this grant application," the Administrator's Office said in a recent memo to supervisors. Supervisor Teri Murrison told Hulet and members of the Golden State Cellular consortium at a recent meeting that it "behooves" them to cooperate rather than compete. Calaveras and Tuolumne county officials have touted broadband expansion as something that will make the area more attractive to potential businesses.