Regional Broadband and Stimulus Funds

When the Federal government announced that $7 billion would become available to improve the broadband infrastructure, some folks around here got excited. When it became clear that much of the funding would be given to help rural and under served areas, some of those folks got to work.

At first it seemed the best approach would be to cobble together a regional proposal that would present a large enough profile to draw the attention of the funding agencies. To that end several people from HSU, the Humboldt Area Foundation and other agencies began to plan a strategy to bundle a number of possible projects that would span multiple counties, bring middle mile fiber through several paths, provide redundancy and offer access to local ISPs to serve rural areas. The idea was modeled on a regional water resources project that got high praises from state officials.

Then the Feds handed down the rules. You see, all this work was speculative. No one really knew what the rules for applying would be. But the people I met with felt a regionally organized and presented application would be preferred to a bunch of unrelated, potentially competing smaller proposals. Wrong. The Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA) laid down rules that essentially derailed any kind of regional aggregated application. I won’t go in to details about those rules here.  But suffice to say that in one sense, everyone who wanted to do a broadband project in the area was on their own. How the Feds expect to sort out the potentially competing proposals, especially with our unique regional geography, demographics, economics and history of broadband activism is beyond me. And may be beyond them as well.

While the dream of a grand unified regional broadband proposal has died for this round of funding, the groundwork that was laid for such a project may not go in vain. For one, there has been a coalescing of county government and economic development people who have been attempting to vet some of the known projects being put forward. They have identified  four projects that they feel have the potential to meet many of the goals they were striving for in their own proposal. These are:

Redwood Telephone: Which would build a middle mile fiber network from Southern Humboldt to the Oregon border and connect to Charter Communications in Oregon and AT&T fiber in the south. This proposal features Fiber to the Premises along the 101 corridor and feeders in to the rural areas of the region. They also promise low cost fiber for government services.

AccessMendo: Would build a middle mile network for Mendocino County but will also extend in to parts of Southern Humboldt.

Broadband Associates: The original company that won state funding for building a fiber line along the 299 corridor. This project would provide access points for wired and wireless ISPs to offer last mile services.

IP Networks: Originally this proposal was going to build middle mile along the Highway 36 corridor. But in the last few days seems to have morphed in to a complete loop that ties Highway 36 to a fiber line along 299 and provide access points along the way. As the deadline for applications approached (originally this was supposed to be Friday, August 14) this proposal has continued to morph.

The proposals have been seeking letters of endorsement from government entities and other organizations and people of influence. But with such a short turn around time, shifting proposals and a shortage of expertise for assessing  the proposals, many have been relying on Kathy Moxon from the Humboldt Area Foundation to provide some guidance on what to endorse. The deadline for applications has since been extended to August 20, so I assume the field will change again between now and then.

Once this round of proposals get shipped out with whatever viability they can muster, people will begin planning for the next round of funding, which appears to be several months off, armed with what was learned and organized in preparation for this initial round. I have no idea if any of the above proposal will get funding, or if some others that I am not aware of will find favor with the Feds.

So much still seems to be unknown about this process. But I’m certain that by the time the next proposals are due the landscape will be sure to have changed considerably.

Broadband and the Stimulus Funds

Update (6/9/09): Access Humboldt recorded the event and the video is online.

Today the RTC sponsored a luncheon that was intended to elucidate the confusing information surrounding the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), how it might affect our region and specifically the prospects of improved broadband deployment. The room at the Red Lion was full of movers and shakers in economic development and Internet access interests.

Before the main attraction, though, we were treated to Nick Roney who won the annual  Don Wolski Memorial Scholarhip award. Nick read, and spontaneously augmented, his winning essay about online games and how they might extend in to useful purposes using their developed technologies and the players’ skills. His essay will appear as part of RTC’s ongoing Tech Beat articles in the Times-Standard. We also honored Chris Crawford for his hard work for RTC and especially the volunteer hours he continues to contribute to keeping the Tech Beat articles running with fresh content.

The main program featured Michael Kraft, Sean McLoughlin and Connie Stewart who each tried to provide a perspective on ARRA and how it will affect our region.

Michael, Executive Director of the North Coast Small  Business Development Center, provided a general look at how small businesses could take advantage of the funds. As the money will largely be delivered to government and non-profit agencies, small businesses will mostly benefit from a kind of trickle down affect wherein they may experience increased business from projects that will require contractors to actually do the work, and, of course, from the result of any large projects generating increased economic activity. However, a loan program that will be administered by the Small  Business Administration (SBA) will offer low cost loans of up to $35,000 to businesses that would otherwise be healthy if not for the recession itself. It’s unclear to me how a business might qualify for this niche loan, but if you feel you might, I would contact the SBA as the program will be available as early as June 15th.

The heart of the program dealt with broadband projects that are being developed to take advantage of ARRA and other stimulus funds. There’s been some controversy over who, what and how proposals are being developed to access the funds. However, it’s increasingly clear that there is no formal group attempting to muscle out others to gain an advantage with the Federal Government. There are, however, individuals who have a vision of widespread deployment of multiple fiber routes creating a robust, redundant and open system for the region.

Among the issues appear to be: 1) How to streamline policies and permitting across multiple regions and agencies in order to make proects feasible within budgets and timelines directed by the stimulus funds; 2) While ARRA funds offer to cover a large percentage of the cost of building mulitple fiber, the region will have to come up with ongoing management and maintnenance costs (how this will happen is unclear and will probably result in many individual solutions depending on the specific project; 3) Policy issues of open access and open competition for last mile deployment of services must be addressed; 4) Ongoing ownership of networks, which is related to the latter is completely unknown, but most systems will probably result in some public/private partnerships; 5) These and many other issues still have yet to be worked out,  yet they need to be in some degree, in a short amount of time, in order to even apply for the funds.

One effort is attempting to pull together several counties in order to create a regional application that would have a good chance of being awarded is using a model that created a regional plan for managing water resources. This model would create a Memo of Understanding between the four counties of Humboldt, Trinity, Del Norte and Mendocino that would become the formal agency (is agency the correct word?) to submit an application for funds to build these multiple fiber lines.

I am aware that other groups (private organizations, local tribes) are also putting forth their own plans. Some may agree to partner with this regional proposal, others will probably go forward with their independent proposals.

If all of this sounds confusing, it is. In fact, while people are trying to figure out the best possible solutions, the rules for applying have not even been solidified by the Federal Government. To add to the confusion, the State of California has its own evolving agenda and will try to influence both local proposals and how the Federal Government decides what proposals should be accepted. All this while California’s budget remains in crisis mode.

These notes are my interpretation of what’s going on and are not necessarily intended to be definitive, nor comprehensive. Even though I am a board member of RTC, I am not writing on their behalf. There is much more I have left out of this report. Feel free to add your own take in the comments.

Lay Fiber Everywhere Dammit!

Ars Technica points to a new bill introduced by Rep. Anna Eschoo. Here’s the essence of the bill/article:

The bill would require new federal road projects to include plastic conduits buried along the side of the roadway, and enough of them to “accommodate multiple broadband providers.” Conduits must meet industry best practices for size and depth, and road builders must include hand holes and manholes along the route to gain access to the conduit. Each conduit will also include a pull tape for fishing new fiber through the line.

It’s about time someone introduced this concept. But it should be pushed down to the state, county, and city levels as well. And not just with new construction. Every time a trench is opened on an existing road to repair a sewer line or a water line or whatever, lay the conduit! Deploy the fiber.  The cost at that point is minimal. The future payoff is enormous. If you don’t think fiber to the premises (FTTP) is where we’re headed, then you haven’t got your rabbit ear antenae twisted in the right direction. It’s coming. Even in here on the north coast. Lord, let me live so long.

CPUC Approves Fiber Project

Yesterday the CPUC approved Broadband Associates’ funding for building a second fiber line from Redding to Eureka with plans to serve the communities along the 299 corridor.

The project generated some controversy when  it was first made public. Some thought it a waste of money when lower cost technologies such as microwave and wi fi networks would be adequate. Others believe Broadband Associates incapable of carrying out the project. Still others have had problems with the funding process and even the concept of public/private partnerships.  However, from what I could tell, the proposal has overwhelming support from business, government and technology industry leaders in the region.

It’s interesting to note that 5 projects were approved yesterday but the press release only talks about 2 of them, Broadband Associates’ being one. The funds awarded totalled $8,047,552 and the fiber project alone will get $7.8 million of that. So, this is by far the most ambitious project to come out of this round of funding. It’s also curious that the press release discussed servicing the towns along 299, but made no mention of the potential alternative to the current single fiber route owned by AT&T. While serving the rural areas is certainly important, the vitality of the region continues to hang by that single strand. I think most of us are equally eager to see this how this project will improve that situation.

Are You Tired of Broadband Talk Yet?

The RTC luncheon on Monday was a great success. Erin Tracy from the Times-Standard did a good recap, and Ryan Burns from the Northcoast Journal has provided some nice personal details to fill out some of the atmospherics, including a little showdown between Mwichale Brinskele, CEO of Broadband Associates and Mike Ireton, owner of a wireless internet service provider (WISP) basee in Willits.

Neither reporter addressed a couple issues I’d like to bring up.

We had a good turn out that included the 2 newest members of the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors, Mark Lovelace and Clif Clendenen. What happened to the other 3? Broadband issues are vital to the regional economy and safety of the region. Are the other Supes not interested?

The financial viability of the Broadband Associates project has brought up, although not directly at the luncheon. One of the stumbling blocks for the much ballyhooed IP Networks fiber project that was supposed use the Highway 36 route has been the reluctance of major tenants such as Suddenlink, CENIC or even AT&T to sign on to use the line. So I asked Marie Bianco from Broadband Associates how dependent their plan is on getting thes major incumbent ISPs to commit to using their new line. She assured me that they have business cases that work with or without their commitment upfront. But it’s hard to imagine an $18 million fiber line being supported by a few hundred, or even a few thousand wireless subscribers. So, it seems that they must believe once they begin to complete sections of the line, once they start to light up fiber, these major players will be ready to sign up. But that’s a big gamble their investors have to be willing to take.

On the other hand, from what I hear the IP Networks line is still in the works. And there may be others trying to bring service to our area. If so, why? What is the true market value of broadband demand in our area?

I just hope one of them succeeds.