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.