Technologically Hobbled

March 11, 2008

Among the projects discussed in the Work Plan Review presented to the Town COWncil on February 26th was the udder-ly pressing and depressing issue of the widespread lack of access to high-speed Internet service in Woodside. While presented by Susan George as only as a ‘B’ priority, it got a lot of well deserved attention from the COWncil.

There has long been friction between the Town and Comcast, which provides cable service to our COWmunity. In late January, Comcast did an end-run around the Town and received a state franchise license to operate in Woodside. What does this mean? As Susan George said, “What it really means is, we thought we had no impact on Comcast before, wait ‘til you see it now…”

It’s a real issue. Between 75-80% of the Town does not have access to high speed Internet service. Compare this with our neighboring COWmunity of Portola Valley, which is 100% built out now that Comcast is providing service to the last remaining portion of town. For some reason, even though Woodside hired the same consultant around the same time as Portola Valley did in the late ‘80s, they have complete coverage while we languish in the virtual Dark Ages.

This certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed by COWs – Susan George said that she gets weekly questions about the lack of service. Her reply to these concerned citizens has been, “It’s not really our responsibility to provide high speed Internet,” but concedes it would be “desirable.” Whose responsibility does she think it is? COWs cannot individualy negotiate franchises with cable providers. Desirable? Of course it is. You simply cannot get access to much of the content on the internet in a timely fashion without a high-speed connection. It’s incredibly frustrating and a waste of time to attempt to work at home, research, watch videos, download music from iTunes, or do anything involving sending or receiving large files.

This is a dollars-and-cents, bread-and-butter issue for many COWs. Graphic design work, large design files, and videoconferencing are impossible to accomplish. That makes it a “green” issue as well – lack of access to these technologies, no doubt forces some people to commute who could otherwise comfortably telecommute from home. Concern was also raised at the Town COWncil meeting that property values might be depressed by the absence of high-speed Internet service – after all, if you had the choice between two similar properties, one that had access to 21st Century technologies and one that didn’t, which would you purchase?

Woodside’s unique geography, outdated phone network, and wooded nature make it somewhat difficult to string connections. COWncilmember Tanner said there would be “too many holes” for coverage by wireless communications, and that there would be antennas pointing “everywhere.” Of course, this is part of the larger battle regarding cell phone / wireless communications needs vs. the proliferation of cell phone towers. It was suggested that there are probably places in Woodside where service could be provided, but many folks object to cell towers in their area, despite the fact that today they can be quite innocuous. There are even many places in Town where it is not possible to get access to satellite Internet because signals are completely blocked by trees and mountains. Satellite, of course, is not the best option anyway (see here for a comparison of speed and costs), but is often in Woodside the only option.

We applaud the COWncil for rejecting the “B” priority and making it clear that they want to study the issue in more detail and really work for a solution. This would involve at the very least providing high-speed connections to certain areas of the Town, though the battle over who and where would receive access could get controversial. There was some discussion about retaining a consultant, and Susan George suggested forming an ad-hoc committee of technically inclined citizens – as she noted, there’s “a lot of people who know a lot about this stuff” in Woodside. The COWncil also talked about trying to get some help from the business and engineering departments at Stanford to study the access problems in Woodside, and to put together some numbers on how much various options would cost to implement.

Susan told the COWncil that she would put this issue on a COWncil agenda in the near future, and we hope she means it. After all, the issue of streaming the COWncil meetings on the Internet was to be “studied” for the better part of a year and then dropped unceremoniously, with no explanation, at this same meeting (see our article here). We urge the Town of Woodside to seriously pursue this issue. It is ironic that the vast majority of the Town of Woodside, home to so many tech gurus, does not have access to modern technology.

Of course, we’d like to make it easier for you to watch our Moo-Tube videos of the COWncil meetings every month, too. After all, just because the Susan George and the COWncil are not interested in showing you what goes on, doesn’t mean you are not interested in watching them in action.

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