Caltrans backs off requiring extra conduit in highway projects, but broadband cooperation door still open

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Caltrans updated its “user guide” for installing broadband infrastructure into highway projects. The big change is the elimination of a shadow conduit requirement – telecoms companies that take advantage of opportunities to install facilities in highway projects are no longer obligated to install extra conduit and fiber for Caltrans, at their own expense.

On the whole, it’s not a killer change. The more independent broadband infrastructure in the ground – Caltrans is nothing if not independent – the better. But Caltrans still has the option to pay for any conduit and fiber it might want to add. Since it doesn’t typically make its telecoms facilities available to private companies, the impact on competition is nil. Except where municipal broadband is concerned. Caltrans will cooperate with local agencies, in its own way, and in theory the less inventory it has, the less there is that might be shared. As a practical matter, though, the impact isn’t significant.

The important thing this is that independent Internet service providers and local agencies still have a clearly defined onramp to Caltrans projects. It takes some initiative, though. Caltrans publishes an interactive map showing where it’s planning to do some work – there’s a link to the current version on Caltrans’ wired broadband page – but it’s up to ISPs and agencies to keep track of what’s going on in their areas. Once a likely project is identified, Caltrans says that “companies or organisations working on broadband deployment may collaborate with Caltrans to install a broadband conduit as part of a project”. The next step is to email the Caltrans single point of contact for the district that’s involved. A link to the current list of those contacts is also on the wired broadband page.

This is all the result of assembly bill 1549, passed in 2016. It didn’t put Caltrans in the broadband business as we originally hoped, but it did open a plainly marked door for cooperation. It’s up to ISPs and local agencies to walk through it.

I served on Caltrans’ conduit task force and I’ve advocated for and helped to draft AB 1549. I’m involved and proud of it. Take it for what it’s worth.