A decade late and megabucks short, Kern County fiber project gets environmental approval

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Caltrans slow 2

After ten years of review, the California Public Utilities Commission is about to approve environmental clearances for a middle mile fiber project in Kern County, subsidised by the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF). Mediacom, a cable company that owns a handful of scattered systems in remote parts of California, applied for a $286,000 CASF grant in 2009, intending to build a 32 mile middle mile fiber route from Inyokern – an unincorporated community along U.S. 395 near Ridgecrest – to its system that serves the Lake Isabella area in eastern Kern County.

The CPUC speedily approved the grant, which represented 40% of the total cost of the project at the time. Back then, CASF typically subsidised less than half of the construction cost of broadband infrastructure projects. These days, that figure could be as high as 100%.

It’s not a complicated build, or one that should raise legitimate environmental objections. The plan was, and still is, to install fiber generally along state route 178, mostly by burying it in the already-developed right of way. Some problematic segments would run on existing pole routes or, in one case, underneath a bridge.

The draft resolution that the CPUC is scheduled to vote on next week doesn’t explain why it took a decade to figure out that the environmental impact of such a project is effectively nil. Anecdotal reports over the past decade have pointed the finger of blame at federal agencies and Caltrans, all of which have a role to play. But the CPUC is the lead agency for environmental approvals of this sort, and ultimately bears responsibility for getting it done.

A lot has changed since 2009. The cost of installing broadband conduit has steadily increased, largely due to demand for new fiber growing faster than the supply of contractors and skilled workers able to install it. Another factor is a state law, passed in 2014, which imposes so-called “prevailing wage” requirements on CASF projects. Instead of paying market rate wages, contractors on CASF-subsidised projects have to pay union scale rates blessed by a state agency. The CPUC has, however, approved grant supplements in the past to cover the difference.

Even so, what was a six-figure construction project in 2009 is easily a seven-figure project today. Assuming Mediacom builds the project, it might reasonably conclude that it would have come out ahead financially if it had paid the entire 2009 tab itself.