Tag Archives: casf

CPUC approves $12 million subsidy for six broadband infrastructure projects

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Six of the eleven broadband infrastructure projects on the California Public Utilities Commission’s agenda yesterday were approved for subsidies from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF). The other five were bumped to the CPUC’s next meeting, on 19 December 2019. Links to the most current resolutions are below.

Cruzio’s Equal Access Santa Cruz project was approved, without changes, for a $2.4 million grant. The commission rejected an attempt by Charter Communications to re-litigate its earlier and unsuccessful attempt to kill it. In doing so, commissioners reiterated that incumbent broadband service providers get one, and only one, opportunity to block proposed projects…

Staff also agrees with [the Central Coast Broadband Consortium] and rejects Charter’s request to remove a census block from the project area because Staff has already made a determination on the challenge. [CPUC Decision 18–12–018] set forth a clear process for challenges and Staff‘s determination of the challenge stands.

All five of the projects proposed by the Plumas Sierra Electric Cooperative (PSEC), totalling $9.7 million in grants, were approved too. The commission accepted PSEC’s field test data that demonstrated the lack of mobile broadband service in its Lake Davis project area.

Two projects proposed by Frontier Communications and three by Charter Communications are on hold. Both companies filed comments asking for more money than recommended by CPUC staff. As with the Cruzio project, Charter attempted to re-litigate its opposition to Frontier’s project plans in the Taft area of Kern County. It also objected to pricing obligations that CASF rules would normally impose on the projects that it proposed. It’s not surprising that it’s taking a couple extra weeks to get to a decision on those five projects.

The Central Coast Broadband Consortium assisted Cruzio with its Equal Access Santa Cruz grant application, and I was a part of that effort. I’m not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.

CASF broadband infrastructure grant resolutions, as approved 5 December 2019:
Cruzio – Equal Access Santa Cruz
Plumas Sierra – Mohawk Vista Mid-Mile/Last Mile
Plumas Sierra – Elysian Valley Mid-Mile/Last Mile
Plumas Sierra – Keddie Mid-Mile/Last Mile
Plumas Sierra – Lake Davis Mid-Mile/Last Mile
Plumas Sierra – Eureka Mid-Mile/Last Mile

CASF broadband infrastructure grant resolutions bumped to 19 December 2019:
Charter Communications – Highland Orchid Drive, Country Squire Mobile Estates , Silver Wheel
Frontier Communications – Northeast Project: Phase1
Frontier Communications – Taft Cluster

All documents collected in 2019 regarding the CASF program and projects are here.

Mobile data tests count more than maps, as CPUC votes on broadband subsidies for northeastern California

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Plumas eureka

A sharp-eyed reader of this humble blog spotted a gap in my collection of comments on the draft resolutions up for a vote tomorrow. H/T to David Espinosa, the manager of the Upstate and Northeast California broadband consortia, who sent me Plumas-Sierra Electric Co-op’s (PSEC) response to both the draft resolutions for its five proposed projects in Plumas and Lassen counties and the objections raised by the CPUC’s public advocates office. Links are below.

Short version: mobile broadband tests showing zero coverage trumped map models; PSEC added a low-income service plan and CPUC staff recommended extra funding as a result.

The big issue is whether or not one of PSEC’s projects – a proposal to serve 125 homes in the Lake Davis area of Plumas County – is located in an area that has no broadband service at all, other than satellite or dial-up. According to the CPUC’s published map, mobile broadband service is available there, so the project was deemed ineligible for bonus money. In its comments, PSEC provided test data that shows zero broadband availability from any of the four major mobile carriers. The discrepancy might be due to the time of year the CPUC took measurements. As PSEC pointed out

Foliage and tree canopy attenuates radio waves, causing signal degradation, particularly in rural forested areas; especially in fall and winter seasons. Topography also impacts mobile coverage. This Project is in rough terrain with dense tree coverage, resulting in less than adequate mobile coverage.

Based on the Broadband Map, the latest mobile coverage testing was carried out in 2017. It is likely that mobile testing was carried out by CPUC when weather was benign. However, deep in fall and winter seasons actual coverage and speed levels can be significantly less due to weather precipitations and winds.

CPUC staff accepted PSEC’s test data, and the draft resolution was revised, with the extra funding for completely unserved areas added back in.

The PAO objected to the price of PSEC’s proposed plan for low income residents, which also resulted in a lower subsidy amount. PSEC’s answer was to say okay, $15 a month it is. The subsidy bonus that goes along with low income service offerings was added back into the draft resolution.

I’m not a disinterested commentator, so take it for what it’s worth. I provided very minor assistance to Dr. Espinosa, who did the heavy lifting on the response to the original draft Lake Davis resolution. Congratulations to him and the team at PSEC on well-played applications for five needed projects.

Revised draft resolutions, 4 December 2019:
Plumas Sierra – Mohawk Vista Mid-Mile/Last Mile
Plumas Sierra – Elysian Valley Mid-Mile/Last Mile
Plumas Sierra – Keddie Mid-Mile/Last Mile
Plumas Sierra – Lake Davis Mid-Mile/Last Mile
Plumas Sierra – Eureka Mid-Mile/Last Mile

Comments
Plumas Sierra Electric Co-op – comments on the Plumas Sierra – Plumas Sierra – Lake Davis Mid-Mile/Last Mile, 20 November 2019

Plumas Sierra Electric Co-op – comments on the Plumas Sierra – Eureka Mid-Mile/Last Mile project, 21 November 2019

Plumas Sierra Electric Co-op – comments on the Plumas Sierra – Elysian Valley Mid-Mile/Last Mile project, 22 November 2019

Plumas Sierra Electric Co-op – reply comments on the Plumas Sierra – Keddie Mid-Mile/Last Mile project, 27 November 2019

Plumas Sierra Electric Co-op – reply comments on the Plumas Sierra – Mohawk Vista Mid-Mile/Last Mile project, 27 November 2019

All documents collected in 2019 regarding the CASF program and projects are here.

California broadband subsidies set for CPUC vote, as Charter attempts last minute hit (but not on its own grants)

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

As of last night, all 11 broadband infrastructure projects tentatively approved for subsidies from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) are slated for a final vote by the California Public Utilities Commission on Thursday. Arguments for and against the projects and grant conditions as drafted have also been filed. Links to (I think) all of the comments are below.

Frontier Communications made pitches for full funding of their projects as proposed, which were seconded by the California Emerging Technology Fund. Charter Communications made a similar plea, then went on to complain about two other projects – Frontier’s proposal for the Taft area of Kern County and Cruzio’s application for money to extend fiber to the premise service to several low income mobile home communities in Santa Cruz County.

Last June, Charter filed objections to both projects, claiming it already offered broadband service to the specific areas of the communities for which Cruzio and Frontier sought CASF subsidies. CPUC staff upheld some of Charter’s challenges and denied others. The new CASF rules adopted by the commission last year established a quick and transparent process for reviewing objections made by incumbents, which fixed a serious flaw in the CASF program – incumbents were allowed to endlessly challenge proposed projects that threatened their monopoly business models, right up to the eve of a commission vote.

The Central Coast Broadband Consortium responded to Charter’s intransigence (full disclosure: I drafted and submitted those comments) by pointing out that allowing perpetual litigation would lead to failure…

Applicants must spend time and money, often amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars, to prepare and process CASF infrastructure grant proposals. When faced with this significant expense, applicants must weigh it against the probability of success. Previously, the unlimited challenge opportunities afforded incumbent service providers acted as a significant barrier to independent project development. The experience of project applicants who hazarded this process convinced some to never attempt it again. After witnessing these travails, other independent service providers refused to participate in the program.

[The CPUC’s reboot of the CASF program] was wisely crafted to prevent de facto discrimination against independent service providers because their participation in the CASF program is essential to achievement of the program’s goals. Contravening [this decision] by allowing Charter to re-litigate its opposition to the Equal Access Santa Cruz project would, in turn, contravene the Commission’s responsibility to achieve those goals, as required by [California law].

We submitted largely identical comments regarding Frontier’s Taft project.

The CPUC’s public advocates office also weighed in, particularly concerning whether companies receiving grants should be required to offer low income customers affordable broadband rates and whether rules regarding price commitments for all subscribers should be followed – they’re in favor of both.

The next step is for staff to consider all the comments and replies, and make any changes to the proposed grants that seem necessary. The revised draft resolutions should be posted in the next couple of days, although it’s also possible that the commission’s vote could be bumped to a later meeting.

Charter Communications comments on the Charter Communications Highland Orchid Drive, Country Squire Mobile Estates, Silver Wheel projects, 21 November 2019
Public Advocates Office – comments on the Charter Communications Highland Orchid Drive, Country Squire Mobile Estates , Silver Wheel projects, 21 November 2019
Charter Communications – reply comments on the Charter Communications Highland Orchid Drive, Country Squire Mobile Estates, Silver Wheel projects, 26 November 2019

Charter Communications – comments on the Cruzio Equal Access Santa Cruz project, 25 November 2019
Central Coast Broadband Consortium – comments on the Cruzio Equal Access Santa Cruz project, 25 November 2019
Central Coast Broadband Consortium – reply comments on the Cruzio Equal Access Santa Cruz, project 2 December 2019

Charter Communications – comments on the Frontier Communications Taft Cluster project, 25 November 2019
Frontier Communications – comments on the Frontier Communications Taft Cluster project, 25 November 2019
California Emerging Technology Fund – comments on the Frontier Communications Taft Cluster project, 25 November 2019
Central Coast Broadband Consortium – reply comments on the Frontier Communications Taft Cluster project, 2 December 2019

Frontier Communications – comments on the Frontier Communications Northeast Project: Phase1 project, 21 November 2019
California Emerging Technology Fund – comments on the Frontier Communications Northeast Project: Phase1, project, 21 November 2019

Public Advocates Office – comments on the Plumas Sierra – Mohawk Vista Mid-Mile/Last Mile project, 25 November 2019
Public Advocates Office – comments on the Plumas Sierra – Elysian Valley Mid-Mile/Last Mile project, 25 November 2019
Public Advocates Office – comments on the Plumas Sierra – Keddie Mid-Mile/Last Mile project, 20 November 2019

All documents collected in 2019 regarding the CASF program and projects are here.

Frontier digs a deeper digital divide in rural California with taxpayers’ shovel

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Frontier verizon pole santa barbara county 10oct2015

A handful of rural communities in Lassen, Modoc and Kern counties will get their first taste of wireline broadband service from Frontier Communications if the California Public Utilities Commission approves infrastructure construction grants next month.

Unfortunately, it’s just a taste.

Frontier’s (and AT&T’s) strategy, as identified by a CPUC study earlier this year, of “disinvesting in infrastructure overall”, which is “most pronounced in the more rural and low-income service areas”, continues to be business as usual. Both of Frontier’s projects up for California Advanced Services Fund grants propose to deliver low speed service over ageing copper telephone lines. The $11 million would be spend on a desperately needed 137 mile fiber route and essential central office equipment upgrades, but Frontier’s interest in improving rural infrastructure, even when taxpayers are picking up the tab, ends there. As the CPUC’s draft resolution approving the Kern County grant describes the project, “Frontier will upgrade the existing communications facilities to increase broadband capacity but will not replace the copper cable infrastructure”. Likewise, the northeastern California project adds middle fiber and electronic equipment, but leaves “legacy copper infrastructure” in place.

It’s not an accident or anomaly. It’s deliberate.

Frontier continues to bleed customers and revenue, and selective fiber upgrades are the solution, according to CEO Dan McCarthy, who spoke about the company’s third quarter 2019 financial results

We achieved a sequential improvement in fiber net losses with only 1,000 in the third quarter. However, consumer copper losses of 52,000 were worse than the second quarter. In copper, although we experienced a sequential increase in gross additions, this was offset by a sequential increase in churn and we continue to manage this business for a decline. Fiber broadband gross additions increased sequentially in the third quarter and we also had a slight sequential improvement in fiber broadband churn. With the completion of the upgrades of the fiber network to be 10 gigabit capable, we have increased our emphasis on selling at higher speed tiers.

Frontier’s strategy is economically rational, and is probably its best shot at pulling shareholder value out of penny stock territory. What makes it rational, though, is the California legislature’s irrational (but well compensated) decision to subsidise 1990s era broadband service over 1890s era copper wires, and not hold incumbent telcos to the same standards in rural communities as they voluntarily and rationally adopt in densely populated, high income cities and suburbs.

CPUC queues up $24 million subsidy for 11 California broadband projects

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Mobile home park

Eleven broadband infrastructure projects by four companies will be considered by the California Public Utilities Commission next month. Draft resolutions approving California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) subsidies for 11 out of the 13 grant proposals submitted in the May application window were posted on Thursday. The drafts are linked below.

Making the CPUC’s new six month deadline for processing applications is a major milestone for staff, and they deserve congratulations. In the past, reviews have sometimes dragged on for years, with endless and often meritless challenges allowed from marginal broadband providers who wanted to fence off service-poor communities. There was mischief this time around – Digital Path, a wireless ISP, tried to claim a vast swath of northeastern California for example – but challenges were rigorously vetted.

The 11 grants total $23.8 million. The projects would extend broadband service to 1,219 homes, for an average subsidy of $19,500 each. There’s wide variance within that average, though, largely due to where those homes are.

Casf grant totals draft resolution 31oct2019

Frontier Communications is up for $11.1 million, which would pay for VDSL upgrades for the 263 homes in Modoc and Lassen counties in northeastern California and the Taft area in Kern County. According to Frontier, the technology is capable of delivering broadband speeds of up to 115 Mbps download and 7 Mbps upload, but the company is only promising to provide the CASF program’s absolute minimum of 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up.

Plumas-Sierra Rural Electric Co-op is in line for five grants in Plumas and Lassen counties, totalling $8.9 million. Most of the 414 homes will receive direct fiber-to-the-premise service at a minimum of 100 Mbps down/20 Mbps up, although the system will be able to deliver symmetrical gigabit service. One of the projects, in Lake Davis in Plumas County, is a combo fiber and wireless build, with about half the homes receiving fixed wireless broadband service at the minimum of 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up.

Cruzio, an independent Internet service provider based in Santa Cruz, has one grant for $2.4 million on the table. It targets 263 homes in seven mobile home parks in Santa Cruz County. It’s a full fiber-to-the-premise project, with symmetrical, 1 Gbps down and up promised.

Charter Communications has three grants totalling $1.4 million pending. The projects would extend its hybrid fiber coax plant to two mobile home parks in Riverside and Ventura counties and a neighborhood in Highland in San Bernardino County. The company promises to provide a minimum of 940 Mbps down/35 Mbps up speeds to a total of 279 homes. The draft resolution would also give Charter a pass on the CASF program requirement that monthly subscription prices, for at least some of a grant recipient’s broadband service tiers, be guaranteed for at least two years. A second exception requested by Charter – that it be allowed to charge for equipment and installation – was denied.

The $23.8 million total is $8.3 million less than originally requested for the 11 projects. Most were scaled back, for a variety of reasons including challenges from existing providers, overlaps with federally subsidised areas and due diligence verifications by CPUC staff. Two grant applications – one by Charter in Riverside County and another by Web Perceptions, a local wireless ISP in Sonoma County – are missing from Thursday’s batch. Charter’s proposed project in Perris in Riverside County was challenged by Frontier (and Charter returned the favor for Frontier’s Taft project, albeit only with partial success). Web Perceptions’ application wasn’t challenged but, judging by the publicly available information, it was poorly prepared. It’s a fair assumption that both were denied, but there’s no official word.

The Central Coast Broadband Consortium assisted Cruzio with its Equal Access Santa Cruz grant application, and I happily participated in that effort. I’m not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.

Charter Communications – Highland Orchid Drive, Country Squire Mobile Estates , Silver Wheel
Cruzio – Equal Access Santa Cruz
Frontier Communications – Northeast Project: Phase1
Frontier Communications – Taft Cluster
Plumas Sierra – Mohawk Vista Mid-Mile/Last Mile
Plumas Sierra – Elysian Valley Mid-Mile/Last Mile
Plumas Sierra – Keddie Mid-Mile/Last Mile
Plumas Sierra – Lake Davis Mid-Mile/Last Mile
Plumas Sierra – Eureka Mid-Mile/Last Mile

CPUC approves DSL upgrade subsidy for Frontier at $4,700 per home

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Weimar casf project

The California Public Utilities Commission approved a $693,000 grant to Frontier Communications from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) for a DSL equipment upgrade in the Placer County community of Weimar earlier this month. It was a considerably smaller grant than Frontier requested.

The project originally included the somewhat larger town of Colfax and called for a CASF subsidy of $2.3 million to reach 1,400 homes that, Frontier said, lacked access to broadband service at California’s pathetic minimum of 6 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds. Other Internet service providers in the area begged to differ, however. Two wireless ISPs, Colfax.net and SmarterBroadband, which have made a habit of blocking wireline upgrades, challenged Frontier’s request, as did the local cable operator, Wave. As a result more than two-thirds of the budget and nearly 90% of the households were chopped, and the cost jumped to $4,700 per premise…

Staff notes that this is a DSL project, and the cost would be higher compared to other DSL projects approved by the Commission. The total number of households for this project is 148, which is significantly less compared to other Frontier DSL projects that range from 234 to 1,017 total households. The higher cost per household is due to the low density of eligible households in the project area. Further, in addition to the equipment upgrades to the Weimar Central Office, Frontier must also upgrade equipment facilities at its Colfax Central Office in order to serve the Weimar project area. Due to the additional equipment upgrades required in Colfax, the cost per household increased by $1,000 overall.

Frontier gave up federal money for the area, in order to maximise its Californian subsidy, which covers 90% of the construction cost for the DSL central office upgrade and 1,000 feet of new fiber, apparently for a lateral connection to a middle mile route. Frontier is only promising the minimum performance level for CASF funded projects of 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up, but CPUC staff “estimates 50 percent of CASF-eligible households are within roughly 5,000 feet of Frontier’s terminals and should expect very fast service (25 Mbps to a maximum of 115 Mbps)”.

Frontier’s financial woes rated a mention, but didn’t raise any concerns. The CPUC resolution concluded that Frontier “has managed to stabilise its revenue and made significant efforts to reduce debt and improve its financial leverage profile”.

Picker ends his term as CPUC president

by Steve Blum • , ,

Picker 20may2019

Yesterday was Michael Picker’s last meeting as president of the California Public Utilities Commission. He stepped down at the request of California governor Gavin Newsom, who named Marybel Batjer, his strike team leader, to head the commission. She’ll be able to assume the job while the state senate decides whether to confirm her appointment.

Picker leaves behind positive accomplishments. He took over from Michael Peevey, who was under criminal investigation for backroom dealings. The switch from Peevey’s big man on campus persona to Picker’s soporific style was effective in dampening much of the heated criticism of the CPUC at the time. He brought order to the CPUC’s management and executive decision making processes, and pushed hard for a safety-first culture, both at the commission and at the companies it regulates.

Telecommunications policy in general, and broadband in particular, were not Picker’s forte. His focus was energy, particularly climate change and decarbonisation issues. When it came to telecoms, he typically took the side of monopoly model incumbents, although he tried to spin it differently.

In 2016, when the CPUC ultimately opposed AT&T’s attempt in the California legislature to kill its wireline obligations, Picker dissembled before voting in favor of giving AT&T what it wanted: he worried about preventing fiber upgrades – nonsense, AB 2395 had many faults but that wasn’t one – and talked about creating a technological road map first, something that would have required years to complete while the legislature would be voting in a matter of days.

It was common for Picker to take positions that aligned with the interests of AT&T and other major telecoms companies. He maneuvered a vote to allow telcos to pay fines to themselves when they fail to meet quality standards, he tried to kill an investigation of telco infrastructure and service quality, and he routinely said no to subsidies for independent broadband projects while finding no fault with similar grants to incumbents.

Picker’s most recent recital of AT&T talking points came during a workshop in Sacramento in May, when he questioned whether unserved Californians need wireline “broadband to the home”, because people can use mobile phones instead.

There’s no question that energy issues – near and long term – are the CPUC’s most pressing problems. Devastating wildfires and Pacific Gas and Electric’s bankruptcy can be directly linked to climate change. Picker was correct in putting energy at the top of his agenda. Being the odd man out on telecoms policy wasn’t helpful, but wasn’t a disaster either.

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.

“Hunger games” duels for broadband subsidies proposed by FCC

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Hunger games

Broadband subsidies from the Federal Communications Commission are paid for out of the Universal Service Fund" (USF) which, in turn, gets its money from taxes on telephone bills. The FCC runs four programs that way: the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (formerly known as the Connect America Fund), the e-rate program that pays for broadband service to schools and libraries, the rural health care program, which does the same for hospitals, and the Lifeline program, which buys down service costs for low income households.

Altogether, $11.4 billion was collected for the four accounts last year. The FCC’s republican majority believes “capping the Fund overall will strike the appropriate balance between ensuring adequate funding…while minimising the financial burden on ratepayers”. The next step would be “prioritizing the funding among the four universal service programs and…evaluating the tradeoffs associated with these funding decisions”.

Right now, budgets and priorities for the four programs (and the taxes imposed) are set individually. Instead, the FCC wants to lump together all the broadband (and legacy telephone) subsidy programs, set a limit on the total funding and then direct the money according its own priorities. That would provoke mortal combat according to democratic commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel who said it would “unleash[] a fight for support between connecting kids in schools and hooking up hospitals” and called the proposal “the universal service hunger games”.

The FCC is taking reply comments from interested parties about its proposal. On Thursday, the California Public Utilities Commission went on record opposing it. Directly or indirectly, California backstops those programs with money from state taxpayers, and limiting or shifting federal dollars could raise costs here.

Another problem with USF that the CPUC points out is that it’s funded by taxes on old school voice service, but the money mostly goes towards broadband…

The FCC has explicitly declined to assess surcharges on broadband Internet access service even though almost all the USF programs subsidize only broadband services…The FCC should address this discrepancy by expanding the base of services to fund the USF, rather than continuing to rely inequitably on a shrinking number of ratepayers who purchase the assessed services that fund the USF.

On top of that, the FCC claims that broadband is an “information” service, rather than a “telecommunications” service. Continuing to subsidise it with taxes collected via telephone bills could become problematic.

Final reply comments are due on 26 August 2019.

Caltech turns eastern California fiber network into earthquake detector

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Caltech readout

Fiber optic networks do more than just ride out major earthquakes without dropping a bit. They can also detect and collect data on the quakes themselves. Two major quakes – magnitude 6.4 and 7.1 – hit eastern California on 4 and 5 July 2019 respectively, in the high desert of Kern and San Bernardino counties, where seismometers aren’t thick on the ground. To understand what happened, and what continues to happen, Caltech scientists needed to quickly get more sensors into the field.

Fortunately, the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada – Mono, Inyo, Kern and San Bernardino counties in California, and Washoe and Douglas counties and Carson City in Nevada – has fast, earthquake ready fiber connectivity.

The Digital 395 open access fiber optic network, which links Reno to Barstow along the eastern Sierra, runs right through the area that was hardest hit. By connecting “surveillance technology initially developed for military and general security applications that can detect ground movement” to a single fiber strand, an underground fiber route – or sections of it, at least – can be used for “pre-shock detection of P and S waves across the fibers”, according to Michael Ort, CEO of Praxis Associates/Inyo Networks, which built and operates Digital 395. In other words, fiber optic networks can be used detect the big incoming shockwaves a few critical seconds before they hit, as well as provide valuable scientific data about the event.

Preliminary discussions about installing distributed acoustic sensing equipment had been held with Caltech, but everything went into high gear when the quakes began hitting Ridgecrest. Zhongwen Zhan, a Caltech scientist, asked about using one of Digital 395’s strands, and got a quick yes from Ort.

He hooked up his instruments on 9 July 2019, four days after the 7.1 quake and while the ground was still shaking with aftershocks. The results were immediate, with multiple (mostly small) quakes detected every minute, beginning as soon as the equipment was turned on.

“The fiber gave them about 5,000 sample points over 10km of fiber. Before they had only a handful of sample points in the area. So you got only “discrete points” of these, not the overall picture”, Ort said.

“This first time ever use of fiber has given us many data points, making our observations more complete and natural”, said Mark Simons, JPL chief scientist and CalTech professor of geophysics. “It’s a true breakthrough that will revolutionise our perspective and help with early warning”.

Digital 395 was built with money from the 2009 federal stimulus program and from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF). It was the first and the longest of the open access middle mile fiber routes funded by CASF, before the California legislature bowed to pressure (and money) from incumbent telephone and cable companies and banned those types of projects.