Rural Placer County school gets high-speed Internet for first time

Carolyn Baldwin 9, center, uses an iPad connected to the Internet in her classroom at Sheridan Elementary School in Sheridan on Wednesday, after the school got its first high-speed Internet connection.
Carolyn Baldwin 9, center, uses an iPad connected to the Internet in her classroom at Sheridan Elementary School in Sheridan on Wednesday, after the school got its first high-speed Internet connection.

Students at rural Sheridan Elementary School got their own connection to the 21st century Internet on Wednesday when their small campus received a high-speed connection for the first time.

The students celebrated in style, spending part of the day singing along to YouTube videos and searching on Google. The fiber-optic cable installed by Kirkland, Wash.-based Wave, is the first high-speed Internet connection in Sheridan, several miles northwest of Lincoln in Placer County.

Prior to Wednesday, the school relied on an old copper-wire based line for Internet service. However, the connection was so slow and unreliable that students had to take buses to Lincoln for computer-based tests.

“No more spinning wheel of death,” Principal Melissa Willes told the school’s 80 students during an assembly to celebrate the occasion.

Willes was referring to the buffering time that often plagued online videos.

The wide-eyed students from kindergarten to fifth grade could hardly hold back their excitement. When Wave representative Mike Puckett spoke at the podium, he was bombarded by questions about computers and the Internet.

“What’s a flash drive?” one boy asked. “What is a gigabyte?” another girl asked.

Half an hour later, a group of second- and third-graders frantically typed questions into Google hoping to get answers on individual computers. Willes asked students to find the birthplace of Benjamin Franklin, the inventor of Coca-Cola and the capital of South Korea, among other questions.

When they found the answer to the last question, a few students didn’t know how to pronounce “Seoul,” the Korean capital.

Sheridan, an unincorporated community of 1,238 people, has long relied on phone and satellite connections for Internet service, which are slower than a dedicated fiber-optic network.

Puckett, Wave’s manager of strategic accounts, said the most challenging aspect of the project was the enormous cost of building a physical line from Wave’s nearest plant in Lincoln. The 6.5-mile fiber-optic line cost more than $200,000 and passes through wetlands and over railroad tracks.

A federal grant will pay 90 percent of the service cost because 75 percent of students at Sheridan school are low-income as determined by the federal subsidized lunch program, according to Willes. Western Placer Unified School District will have to pay $14,000 over five years for the service, but that has been offset by a $15,000 donation from the United Auburn Indian Community, which owns the Thunder Valley Casino Resort, Willes said.

Sheridan Elementary is the only school in the area. Graduates attend middle and high school in Lincoln.

“This is a big thing for the county,” said Dieter Wittenberg, information technology manager for Placer County. “It allows Wave to build services out.”

Recently, Wave has been on a building spree, with a goal of expanding its operations in the western United States. Other jurisdictions served by the provider include Auburn, Colfax, Rocklin and West Sacramento, along with a few cities in the east Bay Area.

“Rural markets are really tough to serve,” Puckett said. “It’s an investment, but the hope is to recoup the costs later.”

Fiber-optic networks are capable of carrying digital phone and cable signals, in addition to the Internet.

A 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center shows 70 percent of Americans have broadband at home, compared with only 3 percent of households in 2000. Pew also found that 20 percent of rural residents are offline compared with 14 percent of their urban and suburban counterparts.

Willes hopes teachers will incorporate the Internet into everyday classroom activities.

With the Internet, she said, “you can find it right now, and do it right now.”

Call The Bee’s Richard Chang at (916) 321-1018. Follow him on Twitter @RichardYChang.