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Cell tower

Napa County wants reliable cellphone and broadband Internet service available everywhere within its borders and to keep these services running during emergencies such as last year’s wildfires.

“Access to information—we really do need to treat it as a basic human need,” Supervisor Belia Ramos said. “We need to treat it the same as water. We need to treat it the same as electricity, heat, garbage service.”

Other supervisors agreed.

“The carriers tell the state, the regulatory authority, ‘95 percent coverage,’” Supervisor Diane Dillon said. “We know that’s not true. But to prove it, you have to prove they’re wrong. We have to pay for mapping.”

She doesn’t want communication dark holes in the county.

“Our goal here is to have this kind of access be like landline access was treated in the 1930s.” Dillon said. “Everyone should have it.”

The county has identified nine priority areas that could benefit from new fiber and cellular infrastructure. They are Browns Valley, American Canyon, Wild Horse Valley Road, Rim Rock, Monticello, Oakville, St. Helena, Pope Valley and Calistoga.

On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors approved a $100,000 maximum contract with Magellan Advisors to do a fiber infrastructure engineering assessment study.

Even cities can face challenges. Ramos said she lives in suburban American Canyon. She can have only one Internet provider because fiber doesn’t run on her street. Fiber wasn’t installed on the last three blocks of her neighborhood.

Last year, Napa County found out how an emergency can wreak havoc with modern communications, just when the services are needed the most.

During the Atlas, Partrick and Tubbs fires of 2017, County emergency officials used Nixle to communicate with the public. Yet a survey of 2,000 residents found 87 percent lost cell service, 73 percent lost Internet service and 67 percent lost land-line service.

Many of those emergency Nixle messages during the early hours of the fires warning of evacuations and danger disappeared into a void. A report by the North Bay/North Coast Broadband Consortium documented the frustration that some people felt because of the information blackout.

“We never received any type of alerts that would tell us what was happening,” one resident near the Partrick fire said in the report. “Nixle is fine, as long as there is cell service and internet.”

The October 2017 wildfires destroyed or damaged more than 340 cell tower sites in the region, a county report said. Discussions in the aftermath arose about having such things as battery backups on towers or bringing in mobile towers to replace damaged ones.

Napa County is working on communications issues as part of the North Bay/North Coast Broadband Consortium along with Sonoma, Marin and Mendocino counties.

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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He has worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield.