Hop in a time machine, transport yourself back to the late 19th century, and you'll get an idea of the challenge faced by the foothill economy today.

Back then the telephone was about the most revolutionary device in the nation. Until Alexander Graham Bell's invention, pony express was as fast as communication got.

So you can imagine how enthusiastic turn-of-the-century Sonora and Angels Camp business owners might have been about getting those newfangled contraptions into their stores. The ones with the most foresight, no doubt, realized that widespread telephone service was the key to prosperity.

Fast forward to 2008 and you'll find a similar drama unfolding. Except now the key to success is not the ubiquitous telephone, but broadband Internet access.

Today molasses-slow dial-up Internet is to broadband what Pony Express was to the first phones. Again the most forwarding looking among us have realized that widespread, readily available, high-speed computer service could be the key to future prosperity.

There are some differences: In 1895, Sonora had 13 phones and the entire state directory fit into a book that was about a half-inch thick.

Today, broadband coverage is common in California's urban areas and available to about 45 percent of Tuolumne and Calaveras customers. That the technology is here is good news, but is of little solace to those just beyond the range of today's coverage.

There is good news, however, for the high-speed deprived:

The Amador-Tuolumne Community Action Agency has won a $250,000 grant aimed at enhancing broadband access in five counties, including Tuolumne and Calaveras. The cash, in the form of a California Emergency Technologies Fund grant, will identify unserved and undeserved broadband areas, encourage computer literacy among residents and develop a plan for the disabled to access broadband.

ATCAA has tentatively scheduled a presentation on its plans for April 30 at the Sonora Elks Lodge. Details are also available on the project's Web site,

Not only that, but ATCAA is working with Golden State Cellular in applying for a state grant of more than $1.5 million available to phone companies for infrastructure improvement. In this case, the state cash which would cover about half total costs would be used to upgrade existing cellular towers to include broadband capabilities.

Fully behind the ATCAA efforts is Network Sierra, a citizens' group formed more than a year ago to bring widespread broadband access to Tuolumne County. Tuolumne County Supervisor Teri Murrison, who has worked closely with Network Sierra, is optimistic.

"I see this as our big chance to get the broadband coverage we've all been wanting," she said.

If she's right, expanded high-speed Internet could be a beacon shining through the economic gloom.

Network Sierra member Linda Stern, a product manager for Sonora-based Internet consulting firm Front Porch, sees better coverage as a key to stimulating the economy by drawing new business and skilled labor to the area.

"It's a huge, influential factor," she said shortly after Network Sierra was formed. "When you have broadband, all of sudden you're connected to the world, and when you don't, you're out of it."

Couldn't have been said better by a 19th century telephone pioneer.