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The Small Town That Perfectly Illustrates America’s Digital Divide

Imagine you’re the kind of person who drives out to see submarine-cable landing sites for fun. This should not require too much imagination. We’re talking about places in the world where the Internet rises out of the ocean. Of course you’re the kind of person who wants to see that.

Now imagine you’re in San Francisco. You have two options for landing sites to visit for a day trip. You can drive south to San Luis Obispo, where there are a few cable landings in close proximity to each other; or north, to Manchester, where there’s only one landing for the Japan-U.S. Cable Network. Fate sends you to Manchester. “Fate” in this instance may mean a preference for really scenic drives.

I first learned about the Manchester cable in an excerpt from the cable station’s internal company newsletter in a hacker magazine from 1995 found in the Prelinger Library in San Francisco. It made the station sound like a pretty cool place to work. I was particularly intrigued by the part about Floyd the technician, who “lives in his deluxe RV at the KOA during his work week.” Sadly, I didn’t see a deluxe RV in the KOA when I drove up, or during any subsequent visits.

Here is what happens when you go to see this submarine-cable landing site: very little. The actual station is, like much critical network infrastructure, designed to be ignored. The fences and buildings obscured by shrubbery don’t really scream
“please call the intercom at the gate.” When you call the intercom at the gate, he will tell you, in an annoyed voice, that they don’t give tours. He will not tell you his name. It will be as thrilling as it sounds.

Ingrid Burrington

When AT&T first built the the Manchester Cable Station in 1956, it was referred to as the Point Arena Cable Station. Point Arena is the next town over from Manchester, and it’s where the continental U.S. is geographically closest to the Hawaiian Islands. This proximity was one of the primary motivations for placing the cable landing out here.

Point Arena has a population of less than 600 people and a Main Street that is, in fact, the main street in town. It is a town with a mix of people who moved to the area in the 1960s and 1970s to get “back to the land” and their now-jaded children, people who come from generations of local fishers, loggers, and farmers, and people who are likely to pack the bar on Main Street on Poetry Night. And, like many of the other towns around it, it’s a town that has historically had pretty limited Internet connectivity, and very few options for even getting online.

Strands of unused, inaccessible fiber-optic cable are a painfully literal rendering of the digital divide.

The fiber-optic cable that emerges from the Manchester Cable Station-and the many other cables that converge in the area because of the submarine cable-mostly bypass residents in its immediate vicinity. According to the best estimates of the Broadband Alliance of Mendocino County, roughly half of the 34,000 households in the county have only marginal or no broadband access.

The story of the Manchester cable and the struggle to bring connectivity to the Mendocino coast is in many ways a familiar story of digital divides in rural America, although it’s perhaps more rife with irony in its literal disconnect. Here, strands of unused, inaccessible fiber-optic cable running along the Pacific Coast Highway are a painfully literal rendering of the digital divide, and the political machinations that keep that divide in place.

* * *

Historically, Point Arena’s economy has primarily relied on fishing, logging, and agriculture. In the last 30 years, that economy has waned, and the area has been increasingly dependent on tourism (buoyed by the creation of the California Coastal National Monument in 2000). Between 1951 and 1998, Point Arena’s economy was also supported by a small Air Force Station up on Eureka Hill Road. The Point Arena AFS was one of many bases rapidly built out in response to the Korean War, and maintained as a node in defense systems of the Cold War. Starting in 1960 it served as a radar station for the Air Force’s Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE), a computerized defense network that laid a lot of groundwork for the research and development that went into ARPANET.

Read the original article here.