Upset that their cities are the only two in Ventura County without high-speed Internet access, Ojai and Fillmore officials are accusing Pacific Bell of discriminatory practices that they say hurt their abilities to attract new businesses.
"It is our belief that our communities are effectively being 'red-lined' based upon population and income levels . . . and long-term business development potential," states a draft letter by city officials to the telephone company.
"We are of the opinion these factors are discriminatory," the letter continues, "and restricting our communities' abilities to attract high-tech industry and commerce and to serve the needs of our existing residents and businesses."
But John Britton, media director for Pacific Bell, said the company's only obligation is to provide basic telephone service. The high-speed Internet service is deregulated, and Ojai and Fillmore don't have enough potential customers to be profitable, Britton said.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday September 27, 2000 Ventura County Edition Metro Part B Page 2 Zones Desk 2 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Pacific Bell--A story Tuesday inaccurately quoted John Britton, media director for Pacific Bell. Britton said his company is committed to providing some type of high-speed Internet service to all of its customers. He did not say that it is unprofitable to do so in the cities of Ojai and Fillmore.
Digital Subscriber Line, or DSL, runs over standard telephones lines at a higher frequency than voice telephone calls. It can stay connected to the Internet without interrupting telephone conversations and enables users to send and receive a heavy volume of electronic data almost instantaneously. Pacific Bell charges $39.95 a month for the service.
Without DSL or another type of high-speed Internet connection, Ojai and Fillmore officials say they will be unable to attract businesses that use the service, and a portion of their tax base could drain away in a highly competitive business environment.
"The impact will exacerbate the problems we already face (namely being rural, somewhat isolated communities) which are presently preventing us from bringing more business here today," the cities' letter says. "Our communities need a level playing field in order to compete in the economy of the 21st Century."
Officials in both cities say the problem is their demographics. Fillmore has a population of 13,000, with more than half the households considered low-income; Ojai has only about 8,000 residents, with a median income of roughly $33,000.
Fillmore Councilman Roger Campbell dismissed PacBell's reasoning for not providing DSL service as "nonsense," saying that smaller cities have as much right to high-speed service as their bigger neighbors.
"We're talking about long-range investments," Campbell said. "If they did a survey of our town, they'd find there's a whole lot of people here who want it."
"We feel they have some obligation that goes beyond just business and the marketplace," added Ojai City Manager Andy Belknap.
Fillmore's City Council approved the joint letter to Pacific Bell two weeks ago, and the Ojai council is expected to approve it at its meeting tonight. City officials hope to arrange a meeting with telephone company representatives to discuss the issue.
The cities also plan to send their letter to state lawmakers and regulatory agencies. County Supervisor Kathy Long has already lent her support by lobbying Pacific Bell for the DSL service.
Although the telephone company plans to spend $6 billion over the next three years to bring high-speed Internet service to about 80% of its customers, Ojai and Fillmore are not on that list, Pacific Bell officials said. The company expects to wire the two towns for some type of high-speed service within five years, officials said.
It is inappropriate, Britton said, for Ojai and Fillmore to single out PacBell. Other companies can provide DSL service to Ojai and Fillmore if those companies are willing to invest in equipment to run through Pacific Bell's lines.
Meanwhile, at least one Ojai businesswoman says she needs high-speed Internet service now. Carole Topalian, a partner in Elements, a home-based graphic design and photography company, has Internet customers across the country and in Singapore. She said her relatively slow analog connection affects her ability to expand her business, and she has considered moving out of Ojai.
"It's putting us behind in being able to compete because other companies can get quicker access," she said.
Mark Schniepp, director of the California Economic Forecast Project that studies growth trends in Ventura County, said despite a high-tech expansion elsewhere in the area, growth prospects for Ojai and Fillmore are "not robust." Even if the cities get high-speed Internet access, that doesn't mean businesses will come.
But there are other reasons to get the service, said Howard Smith, president-elect of the Ojai Valley Chamber of Commerce. People who live in Ojai and commute to work elsewhere tend to spend their paycheck near where they work.
If more of those people can work in Ojai, they'll spend their money in town, Smith said, and it will keep more cars off the often-congested Highway 33, another concern to Ojai residents.
Both towns have been trying for two years to get Pacific Bell to provide the service, said Roy Payne, Fillmore's city manager. He described suggestions from Pacific Bell that Fillmore do a survey of how many residents might want the service as a "delaying tactic," because he said PacBell has no intention of providing DSL.
"They're giving us a lot of lip service but no real action," Payne said.