Broadband gaps to fill, but willingness to do so in northeastern California

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Many homes will still be without broadband service in northeastern California, even after upgrades paid by the federal Connect America Fund (CAF-2) program are complete. That’s mostly because the census blocks deemed eligible for the subsidies by the Federal Communications Commission are limited – many thousands of unserved homes are outside of those areas – but also because the FCC doesn’t necessarily require that all homes in a given census block be served.

I ran an analysis for the California Center for Rural Policy (CCRP), ahead of a meeting with Frontier Communications executives and supervisors from the six counties – Lassen, Modoc, Plumas, Shasta, Siskiyou and Tehama – in the region. It was organised by CCRP and the California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF) and held in Redding on Thursday. It was a follow up to the agreement negotiated between Frontier and CETF, during the regulatory review process that led to approval of Frontier’s purchase of Verizon’s wireline telephone systems in California.

The subsidised census blocks in Frontier’s service territory are concentrated in Modoc, Lassen and Shasta counties. Once the CAF-2 funded census blocks are built out – the deadline is the end of 2020 – there will still be about 1,500 homes without access to wireline broadband service. In those blocks alone. Pulling back and looking at the entire six county region, including AT&T’s territory (but not areas served by small rural phone companies), there will be more than 30,000 homes without access, with about a third of those in Plumas County.

One approach to fixing the problem is to build more middle mile fiber deeper into the region, to make last mile build outs less expensive and boost capacity all around. I ran that analysis too. A Digital 395-scale project – 500 miles, say, of dark fiber through a strategic corridor at a $100 million-plus cost – could, for example, boost wireline broadband availability in Modoc County from the current 36% to 74%, and from 56% to 81% in Lassen County.

There are other ways to approach it, particularly when there’s an incumbent telephone (or cable) company that’s willing to address the problem. As Frontier was in last week’s meeting. The company has a stated policy of working with local communities – doing more than just giving money to a softball team, as one exec put it – and so far, they’re living up to it. The problem of connectivity in northeastern California isn’t solved yet – that’ll take years – but at this point everyone involved is pushing toward a real solution. That alone is a refreshing change.

Tellus Venture Associates presentation, Northeastern Broadband Meeting with Frontier Communications, 23 June 2016