30 Years of Cruzio Internet: Our Interview with Peggy Dolgenos

By Cat Johnson

Thirty years ago, Cruzio Internet launched in Santa Cruz. The pioneering company, which is one of the largest independent internet service providers in California, has since helped countless businesses and people connect with others, both locally and globally. Recently, Cruzio made a significant investment in downtown Santa Cruz: an all-fiber gigabit network.

I chatted with Cruzio co-CEO Peggy Dolgenos about the company’s pioneering move to bring fiber to downtown Santa Cruz, the challenges of getting reliable internet to underserved areas of the county, and the vision for Cruzio moving forward. Here are the highlights of our conversation.

Cat Johnson: What are you up to at Cruzio? How are things going?

Peggy Dolgenos: This year is our 30th anniversary. And that’s unusual for an internet company. We’re like the golden oldie of tech companies in town.

My husband and partner, Chris Neklason, and I started as young idealists in our twenties, setting up something we believed in but few people had ever heard of. When we started Cruzio, my brother said, “Internet…doesn’t that have something to do with the space program?” That he even knew that much was surprising. And today, 30 years on, the internet is everything and everywhere.

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People may not know the local history of the internet, and how Santa Cruz was at the forefront nationally.

It was a pretty crazy time back in the late-’80s early-’90s. There was a tech boom in Santa Cruz. UCSC had a great Computer Science department—and some big tech companies were nearby, like Seagate and Borland and The Santa Cruz Operation, where Chris and I worked as software engineers. It was really exciting to be part of that, and the early internet was quickly taken up by that community.

Chris and I used the internet in our jobs, and we saw an opportunity to make it available to people who weren’t yet exposed to it through school or work. We bought a computer and set up a connection at our house, in a spare bedroom. Our first customers were people like us, who knew about email and stuff like that through work. It wasn’t sophisticated back then, and it wasn’t very easy to use. We charged customers $5 a month so that we could afford the telephone lines that we used for the connections.

There were a lot of other people in Santa Cruz, mostly associated with UCSC, who were also taking chances and trying things. There was a Santa Cruz whole geek culture; it was a social thing, much more than a business, mostly kids in their teens and twenties.

“Early geeks” playing a Multi User Dungeons and Dragons game. Chris Neklason, one of the founders of Cruzio and still co-CEO, is on the right.

“Early geeks” playing a Multi User Dungeons and Dragons game. Chris Neklason, one of the founders of Cruzio and still co-CEO, is on the right.

People set up “Geek Houses” with the best connections they could get. They’d sit in their living room and play online games — Cruzio set up a MUD, or Multi User Dimension where people could write their own pieces of a fantasy game. Other people did the same. It was almost all text-based, we didn’t have many graphics yet. There were parties, there were costumes, there were online personas. Many local BBSs, which were precursors to the internet: The Armory, Sense Media, Gorn.

Technology seems like such a solid, even boring, thing. But discovering and exploring new technology can be liberating and exciting.

Cat Johnson: How are you going to celebrate your 30th anniversary?

Peggy Dolgenos: We’ll have a big party on the first Friday in November. We always have big parties, and this one will be huge. Last time, for our 25th anniversary, we had searchlights over the building, two live bands, three fog machines. This year we’ve got to beat that, which should be pretty fun.

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With that in mind, we’re having a jingle contest! We’re a thirty-year-old company and we’ve never had a song. So we’re offering a cash prize, $1,500, plus a year of coworking or internet service for the first place song. Any type of music is okay, and we’re hoping to get a big variety of entries. We’re not that big a community, so it seems like there’s a pretty good chance to win! Every entry gets a prize if the contestant comes to our anniversary party. The deadline for entries is October 1, 2019, so please get working! Details are at jingle.cruzio.com.

Cruzio will also be looking for people who were in the tech community in the late-’80s and early-’90s. We’d love to interview anyone in the Santa Cruz community about their experience in Santa Cruz when things were just getting started.

Cat Johnson: How are things going with Cruzio fiber?

Peggy Dolgenos: We’ve built our downtown fiber network and can serve 1,200 addresses in downtown Santa Cruz with gigabit fiber. It’s currently only $49.95 per month for gigabit internet–and it’s really gigabit internet. We have a direct connection to the motherlode of internet. We’re not going through Silicon Valley and sharing with communities there. It’s all devoted to Santa Cruz, so speeds are more reliable.

Everyone who lives or works downtown should check us out and get gigabit internet — you’ll get the best service, the price is low, and you’ll help us expand to get great internet to the rest of Santa Cruz County.

It makes a difference to have competition in the marketplace, and it’s unusual for a community our size. No national company was going to be doing fiber in Santa Cruz County before we announced that we were going to build an all-fiber network. We made nationwide news and all of a sudden, big telecom jumped in with fiber, too. By supporting us, our customers helped get better internet to their neighbors, even those who weren’t with Cruzio.

If we do well with the downtown fiber, our next goal is to expand the fiber network to other parts of the city and the county—to get everyone equal access. One of our aims it to get fiber to mobile home parks.

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We already lit up one mobile home park: El Rio, at the end of Pacific Avenue. That’s a speed test from El Rio in the picture above—that’s a long way from our speeds 30 years ago, by the way. Nearly a thousand times faster!

The mobile home parks tend to have sub-standard internet, like a lot of lower-income places, and we thought it was a pretty Santa Cruz thing to do to light one up with the best of the best.

El Rio was a lovely project, and it worked out so well that we’re now seeking a grant from the state to do more mobile home parks around the county, because most of them are not well served right now. The state of California has a fund for exactly this purpose—to provide internet to underserved communities.

Having broadband access is so important, and small and rural communities often get left behind.

We are very concerned about rural and low income parts of Santa Cruz County. There is no way they’re going to get decent internet unless the community gets together.

We have customers all over the county, and we’re very interested in serving our customers who are out in rural areas. They call us and ask for fiber, but it’s very expensive to build that. We do the best we can, and try to grow our network to reach folks. Sometimes neighbors organize themselves and we can serve rural communities with that help. But we regularly reach out to our elected officials to say, hey, this is a situation that’s going to need help.

In fact, the rural situation is getting worse. Lots of people rely on old DSL connections and the copper lines supporting them are being abandoned by the phone company. So these people have very little now, and what they do have is going away. We’re very concerned about that.

When you talk about the community getting together to help solve this, what would it take for rural areas to get internet access?

There are a bunch of solutions. With one group of customers, a few dozen people reached out to us. One of them had a house that could see our mountain access point, and that person put up a tower so we could serve their neighbors.

Another person was very techie and even started their own ISP! We helped them out with planning and we provide the main connection that they sell to their neighbors.

Then there are grants, and paying attention to the politics of it. For example, should phone companies be allowed to drop their obligations to maintain copper lines in rural and low-income areas? They constructed those networks with government help.

A lot of municipalities are getting involved in building and supporting local internet. If people pressure their local representatives, whether a mayor, or city council, or county supervisor, when they’re building a road, they can put infrastructure under the road. It’s not that expensive, but there’s just not a budget for it. Even the RailTrail, as it’s going in, we’d love to see conduit in it.

It seems like Cruzio has momentum, even with some challenges.

We are building and expanding and we’ve successfully built this downtown network. We’re able to reach a lot of different parts of the county with fixed wireless, which is a technology that’s really come a long way.

We’re able to get even gigabit speed internet to people with wireless, which is fast to build. In the long run, we’d rather have underground infrastructure, but in the short run, we can do fixed wireless and upgrade to underground as more people come on board and we can make the numbers work. So, yes, we have momentum.

Cat Johnson:What’s your future vision for Cruzio? Best case scenario, what would you like to see?

Peggy Dolgenos: The best case scenario is just for us to be able to continue expanding our network and reach everyone in the country with fast internet at a reasonable price. We think that’s what people need to carry on their lives—whether you have a business in your home, or just want to play games, or do homework. It’s really what people need to live in these modern times. And if our experience is a guide, they’ll need even better internet in the years to come.

To be able to live in Santa Cruz County, which we love, and function as a modern human with the same kind of communications abilities as people in LA or San Francisco, is a challenge, and we’re determined to meet that challenge.

Cat Johnson is a writer and content strategist based in Santa Cruz.