Tag Archives: caltrans

Microtrenching bill lands in California senate with the wrong answer to the right question

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Microtrench

Microtrenching – cutting a narrow slit in a road, inserting fiber and sealing it with glue – is an excellent tool that can result in faster broadband infrastructure deployment at lower costs. But like any tool, it’s only useful when it suits the job at hand. One of the main reasons – I’d say the main reason – the technique isn’t used more often is that there’s no set of best practices, design specifications and employment parameters that is commonly accepted by broadband companies, utility operators and, crucially, the public works and transportation officials who are responsible for road construction and maintenance.

A bill now pending in the California senate addresses that problem in a useful way: give Caltrans the job of sorting it all out and coming up with model specifications for cities and counties to use.

Unfortunately, that’s the only useful bit of senate bill 1206 by senator Lena Gonzales (D – Los Angeles), who introduced it in its present form last week. The rest of SB 1206 is a wish list that ranges from the legally dubious – have Caltrans write and impose a one size fits all permit ordinance on every city and county in California, to the technically ridiculous – redefine a microtrench from a narrow saw cut to an eight inch wide excavation.

Rigorous microtrenching specifications and guidelines developed and adopted by well respected civil engineers would be tremendously helpful to broadband providers, construction companies and everyone else who wants to see universal, high quality broadband service in California. “Everyone else” includes public works and transportation professionals, who likewise want better broadband service for their communities.

Done well and appropriately, as in the City of Loma Linda in southern California, microtrenching can offer great benefits to a community. When it’s done poorly and with little forethought it can be a disaster, as Google learned the hard way in Louisville, Kentucky. A trimmed down SB 1206 that’s sharply focused on figuring out what works and what doesn’t would be a big step forward for broadband development in California.

Caltrans floats “Dig Smart” ideas to put more broadband conduit in the ground

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

California’s department of transportation, AKA Caltrans, is a step closer to actively collaborating with broadband service providers and local governments to put more conduit in California’s thousands of miles of state highways and make it available. It published a Dig Smart white paper that summarises “dig once” policies that have already been adopted by cities and other states. Those policies are intended to ease the way for telecoms companies to install conduit when road construction or utility excavation projects happen, and to encourage them to take advantage of the opportunity.

The white paper doesn’t offer any hard recommendations, but it does outline policies “which may be investigated” by Caltrans as it moves ahead with implementing a law – assembly bill 1549 – which was passed four years ago…

  • Resource Sharing
    • State [departments of transportation] make agreements with service providers to exchange the use of right-of-way
      or existing conduit infrastructure for the use of fiber optic services
  • Joint-Trench Agreements
    • Require providers of broadband services and other utilities to install infrastructure at the same time, in the same trench, or in the same conduit, and share the cost of installing the infrastructure
  • Moratorium on excavation to preserve new roadway construction and encourage utility coordination planning
  • Encourage the use of trenchless technologies, such as:
    • Horizontal Directional Drilling: A trenchless method of installing underground pipes,
      conduits and cables along a prescribed bore path by using a surface-launched drilling rig
    • Micro-Trenching: Digging a small trench just inches under the road surface along the
      curb line to install fiber optic lines
  • Information Sharing
    • Provide access to fiber, conduit and projects maps
    • Notify telecommunication companies of projects where broadband infrastructure can be
      installed
  • Reduce permitting costs and wait time for projects which implement coordinated utility planning

If you’re interested in the topic, the white paper provides an interesting overview of dig once programs at the state, local and federal levels. There’s no timeline for adopting a comprehensive dig once, or dig smart, policy, but the agency is moving in that direction. Caltrans is often criticised for being slow to change, but the flip side is that once its gets moving, it moves relentlessly.

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

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

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

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.

Actually, there is broadband money in the big federal budget bill

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Update: Trump signed it. Done deal.

Update: the U.S. senate approved the bill this morning, now it’s up to president Donald Trump to sign or veto it.

An extra $600 million was added to federal broadband subsidies for rural areas, in the mammoth, all-in-one spending bill passed by the house of representatives yesterday, and up for a vote in the U.S. senate today. I missed it Wednesday night as I was skimming through its two thousand-plus pages, but the sharp eyed journos at Politico’s Morning Tech newsletter caught it.

The money is tagged for “a new broadband loan and grant pilot program” run by the federal agriculture department’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS). It doesn’t define what exactly the program is supposed to be piloting, though. Aside from language barring overlapping loans or grants, the only direct instructions in the bill set out specs for determining whether or not a rural community is eligible…

At least 90 percent of the households to be served by a project receiving a loan or grant under the pilot program shall be in a rural area without sufficient access to broadband, defined for this pilot program as 10 Mbps downstream, and 1 Mbps upstream, which shall be re-evaluated and redetermined, as necessary, on an annual basis by the Secretary of Agriculture.

RUS already uses a 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up eligibility criterion for its other rural broadband programs, but any infrastructure it subsidises has to be capable of supporting service at the Federal Communications Commission’s advanced services standard of 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up.

That’s significantly better than the slow, 1990s DSL speed levels demanded by telco and cable lobbyists and approved by California’s lawmakers last year. Assembly bill 1665 lowered California’s minimum acceptable broadband speed to 6 Mbps down/1 Mbps up, and allowed California Advanced Services Fund subsidies to be spent on infrastructure as slow as 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up.

Questions still to be answered about the new federal program include what sort of broadband service providers are eligible – RUS rules and traditions favor the small rural cooperatives and telephone companies prevalent in the midwest and south, but not so common in California – and how the money will be split between grants and loans.

Dig once, broadband spectrum added to federal budget bill

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Broadband is getting a boost in the mammoth spending bill under consideration today in the U.S. house of representatives. But not cash.

Instead, the deal negotiated by republican and democratic congressional leaders rolls in a telecoms bill unanimously approved earlier this month by the house of representatives. It includes some useful, if mild, dig once requirements for federally funded highway projects – state transportation agencies will have to share construction plans, but not necessarily trenches, with Internet service providers and local agencies – and it frees up 255 MHz of spectrum for broadband use.

The bill – formerly house resolution 4986, now called the Ray Baum act – also consolidates several broadband-related reports that the Federal Communications Commission is supposed to periodically issue into one “communications marketplace report”. That’s not a popular idea among consumer advocacy organisations. In a blog post, Phillip Berenroick with D.C.-based Public Knowledge argues that…

By substituting a one-stop-shop report covering the entire communications ecosystem in place of the current reporting regime that takes a detailed, focused look at competition among individual services, the FCC will ultimately receive less accurate, granular, and relevant data across all of the services included in the Communications Market Report. As a result, both policymakers and the public will have less detailed information to understand each individual market.

That’s not necessarily true. The FCC isn’t required to diminish the quality of its work, although it’s not crazy to think it might. I have some misgivings about that provision too, but I also think it’s long past time to start dismantling the artificial regulatory distinctions between broadband companies, based on their corporate ancestry. AT&T and Comcast, for example, offer the same kinds of services in the same markets. There’s no reason for them to have to play by two different sets of rules. In that regard, consolidated market evaluations are a step in the right direction.

The bill has to be approved by both houses of congress before Saturday, otherwise the federal government grinds to a half. Again.

Text of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2018, 21 March 2018

Unanimous dig once vote puts broadband conduit in federal highway plans

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Broadband infrastructure, and service providers, will have to be included in planning done for federally funded highway projects if, as expected, the U.S. senate goes along with a bill – house resolution 4986, aka the Ray Baum act – passed by the house of representatives last week. State transportation departments wouldn’t be required to include conduit and other telecoms facilities in projects, but they would have to share their construction plans with broadband companies and other state and local agencies, and do a minimal amount of coordination. The goal is “to facilitate the installation of broadband infrastructure” and “minimise repeated excavations” in roadways.

It’s a weak dig once program, but it’s a step in the right direction. It won’t have much impact in California because pretty much all of what’s required in the federal bill is already done here. Caltrans has a broadband notification and coordination program in place, the result of assembly bill 1549, which passed two years ago. At most, the program might need some minor tweaks if the federal bill passes.

HR 4986 covers a wide array of other broadband issues. It funds the Federal Communication Commission’s budget for the next two years and fiddles around with some job descriptions, programs and tasks. It also bundles in some of the Mobile Now act which, besides the dig once requirements, includes a plan to free up 255 megahertz of spectrum for broadband service – on both a licensed and unlicensed basis – and points the FCC toward allocating even more spectrum in the 3 GHz to 4 GHz and millimeter wave ranges for broadband uses.

Odds are HR 4986 will be approved by the senate. Broadband development is one of the few issues that republicans and democrats can agree on. The house vote to approve it was unanimous. It might be bundled into a massive federal budget bill that’s expected – or at least hoped for – later this month.

Caltrans opens the road for broadband projects

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

California highway projects are now broadband projects too. Or can be. Caltrans wrapped up development of standard rules and procedures for adding third party conduit to highway construction projects, and published a guide for “Wired Broadband Stakeholders”. It covers “partnering”, which is adding a separate, third party trench to a road project, and “co-location”, which involves Caltrans and a third party both installing conduit in a Caltrans trench.

There are limits on who can participate. Local government are eligible. So are non-profits, cable companies and certified telephone companies. The policy doesn’t exactly rule out small Internet service providers that haven’t gone to the trouble of getting a certificate of public convenience and necessity from the California Public Utilities Commission, but those that haven’t will have an uphill battle that they may not win.

Anyone adding a trench or conduit to a Caltrans project will have to bear the full cost, including design and construction, encroachment permits (which are required) and reimbursement of any extra state money spent by Caltrans as a result.

What Caltrans isn’t doing is getting into the broadband infrastructure business itself, unless a local agency is involved…

Caltrans will not share Caltrans-owned conduit, duct, or fiber optic cable strands with broadband providers. Caltrans may choose to share conduit or fibers with local government agencies for exchanging transportation data and services as part of a regional communications network infrastructure.

Broadband projects will be managed at a district level – Caltrans has 12 districts that cover the state – with a designated, single point of contact to respond to enquiries. A list of eligible projects has been posted, and will be periodically updated.

Caltrans was spurred into action by assembly bill 1549, which was passed in 2016, and by subsequent follow up negotiations last year. The final document is the result of a series of meetings with representatives from broadband companies and regional broadband consortia, including myself.

Downloads

Caltrans Wired Broadband Facility User Guide, 1 January 2018

Caltrans template broadband construction contract, 1 January 2018

Caltrans template broadband design contract, 1 January 2018

Links

General Caltrans information for wired broadband projects.

Includes links to a map of Caltrans highway projects and district contacts.

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.

Caltrans’ broadband conduit policy posted

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Broadband companies and local governments now have standard procedures to follow when they want to add conduit to a Caltrans highway project. Click here for the handbook. I’ll have more details in the coming days, once the dust clears from CES and the start of a new legislative year at the California capitol.

Caltrans agrees to add conduit to highway projects

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Slow is a lot better than Stop.

More broadband conduit might be going into California highway projects over the next few years. A deal was struck between a north coast assemblyman – Jim Wood (D – Healdsburg) – and Caltrans: Wood drops his current effort to write conduit obligations into law, and Caltrans promises to rewrite its policies to be more accomodating to broadband infrastructure. According to a press release from Wood’s office…

“Caltrans has been a willing participant in discussions during the past two years as we have tried to move the needle on expanding Californian’s access to broadband,” said Wood. “Adopting a ‘dig once’ policy for these priority areas is an important advancement and we could not have done it without recognition by Caltrans that they play a meaningful role in facilitating expanded access to broadband.”

“In addition to improving mobility, we realize many benefits to communities and businesses can be realized through collaboration,” said Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty. “While performing our primary duty of maintaining California’s transportation infrastructure, it makes sense to achieve economies of scale where we can in order to maximize the benefits to Californians.”

By Caltrans installing conduit during planned road work, the cost of installing cable at a future date can be mitigated – often reducing costs to pennies on the dollar because trenches would only be opened once, rather than multiple times…

Last year, progress was made when AB 1549 established the “Broadband Task Force,” a process by which Caltrans brings together stakeholders to identify opportunities where companies can collaborate to install broadband conduit as part of future Caltrans projects. The first and very productive meeting was held with more than a dozen stakeholders earlier this month and regularly scheduled meetings will continue.

I participated in that meeting with Caltrans a couple of weeks ago. There was a genuine desire to cooperate with broadband infrastructure development efforts. But it’s a big organisation that moves slowly and doesn’t always implement policy on a statewide basis – Caltrans’ regional districts have a lot of autonomy.

This agreement is progress. If it means that Caltrans is moving – in its slow but inexorable way – toward being a broadband development player, it’s a win for everyone.

Caltrans conduit bill introduced in Sacramento, again

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Another try at getting Caltrans to think about broadband when it designs highways is underway in Sacramento. Assemblyman Jim Wood (D – Healdsburg) introduced assembly bill 980 last week, which would require Caltrans to “install a broadband conduit capable of supporting fiber optic communication cables” in a limited set of highway construction projects.

The limited set consists of priority areas as determined by the California Public Utilities Commission. In 2014, the CPUC endorsed a priority list of 182 communities in 47 counties that regional broadband consortia had identified as lacking adequate broadband service. Since then, a handful of subsidies from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) have been approved for infrastructure construction projects in or near a small number of those communities – Petrolia, in Humboldt County, is one – and the list has also figured in other efforts to close California’s digital divide, for example in the Salinas Valley, in Monterey County, where Charter Communications was required to upgrade its analog digital plant in order to gain CPUC approval to buy Time Warner’s cable systems.

The CPUC is evaluating the way it sets priorities for CASF grants, so that list of 182 communities could be edited or even scrapped altogether. As currently drafted, AB 980 allows for changes of that sort.

The real question is whether Caltrans will be able to block AB 980. Broader dig once and shadow conduit requirements were originally included in a bill that received wide support in the legislature last year. Unfortunately, intransigence from Caltrans led to a veto threat from governor Jerry Brown and it was pretty thoroughly watered down. There’s no reason to think that Caltrans will be any more cooperative just because the shadow conduit requirements in AB 980 involve fewer projects, but Brown and his advisors might be more receptive to a bill that’s smaller in scope and targets communities that have a documented broadband infrastructure gap.