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Stay rational and deliver on broadband promises if you want more

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Not everyone feels a need for broadband.

There are two things rural communities in California have to do, to ensure broadband development efforts meet both current and future needs: focus the conversation on concrete, rational needs and demonstrate that existing resources are well and enthusiastically used.

That was the message from Eric Brown, CEO of the California Telehealth Network, at last week’sEastern Sierra Connect Regional Broadband Consortium’s conference in Ridgecrest. He was one of many state and local broadband leaders – and users – who talked about the future of eastern California’s economy, now that the Digital 395 fiber route is fully lit and increasingly serving businesses, organisations and consumers from Barstow to Reno.

The argument in Washington against building broadband infrastructure in rural areas is that “nobody is using what’s out there”, Brown said, pointing to promises to use Digital 395 made, and then broken, by both private organisations and public agencies. “I’m sitting down with congressmen who don’t think we need to invest in rural broadband”, he said. “Particularly from the southeastern part of the country”. Their worries are “objectionable content” and concerns that online terrorists will start recruiting kids out of local high schools.

That’s a world that’s far, far away from California (although Google seems to think that’s a good thing). And far, far away from reality. Whether you’re in California or the so called real world, rural communities are sprinting to keep pace with Silicon Valley, not rushing to retreat into the 20th century.

The conversation has to get back to the core challenge facing rural communities, Brown said. “They shouldn’t be taking about net neutrality, they should be talking about how to get you the bandwidth you need in the first place. Net neutrality is for urban folks who have more bandwidth than they know what to do with”.

Eastern California businesses challenged by booming bandwidth demand

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You got a job to do.

“Five of you can take out my Internet and I have 93 rooms”, Dan Spurgeon, general manager of the Marriott Springhill Suites in Ridgecrest said. That’s despite his recent 50 Mbps upgrade, which he will soon need to re-double. He was one of several local leaders speaking at the Eastern Sierra Connect Regional Broadband Consortium conference in Ridgecrest on Thursday.

Rapidly growing demand for more bandwidth – 40% year after year according to Spurgeon – is a major challenge for businesses and government agencies in eastern California. The Digital 395 project is now lit, but last mile and enterprise facilities have to be upgraded to make full use of it.

The China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station in Ridgecrest, for example, is still doing teleconferencing via ancient ISDN circuits (as well as having modern, fat pipes). “Ageing fiber optic infrastructure” on the base is “nearing end of life, it was installed in the early 80s, the mid 80s”, said Justin French, an IT executive there. “We need to look at the next five to ten years”.

Fixing it isn’t just a matter of finding the money. It’s also about taking down barriers that block construction. “I don’t need red tape”, said Kishor Joshi, president of Pertexa, a health care IT consulting firm.

It’s a problem that needs to addressed in Sacramento, said Kimberly Maevers, president of the Greater Antelope Valley Economic Alliance, a local economic development organisation. “We have to demand [California Environmental Quality Act] reform so the IBEW and any other special interest group can’t come in and hold us hostage”.

The only option is to build, and use, better infrastructure, said Eric Bruen, who runs the Desert Valleys Federal Credit Union. “If you’re not moving as fast as your consumer, you will be left in the dust”.

Praxis picked to build and run FTTH network in California’s Owens Valley

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“We’re in contract negotiations with Praxis now, and we hope to have a contract by February 10th”, Brandon Shults, the information services director for Inyo County, announced yesterday at the Eastern Sierra Connect Regional Broadband Consortium’s annual conference in Ridgecrest. He was talking about the 21st Century Obsidian Project, an ambitious effort to build a fiber to the home system down the western half of Inyo County – in other words, the Owens Valley.

Praxis is the company behind the Digital 395 middle mile fiber project, which runs north to south through the project area. It was one of two companies that submitted plausible responses to the request for proposal Inyo County floated last year. Responsibility for putting the funding together, and then building and running the system would fall to Praxis, but not ownership or end user service. According to the RFP

It is required that the network be an Open Access network. At the time of this request the County expects a three-layer model: the County will own the infrastructure; the selected respondent will manage, operate, and maintain the network; and services will be provided by third-party retailers.

There’s just under 8,000 homes in Inyo. All but a relative handful are in the project area, with the town of Bishop accounting for about two-thirds.

The RFP left the problem of paying for the system up to the bidder…

The County is aware of potential funding from sources such as the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), the venture capital fund Govtech, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), the iBank, locally issued bonds and crowd-sourcing such as that facilitated though various frameworks (funded.com, croudfunded.com, indiegogo.com, etc.) and other sources.

The County anticipates that respondents will have experience developing business cases as well as identifying and securing funding for projects of similar constitution. The County expects that the selected respondent will work with the County to articulate business cases and identify and secure funding whether from the County, the respondent, or a combination thereof.

Shults didn’t give any details about the funding or the business model under discussion. The contract hasn’t been finalised, so that’s to be expected. Praxis has come through on long shot proposals before: Digital 395 was nearly completely paid for by grants, about $80 million from the federal stimulus program and about $30 million from the California Advanced Services Fund.

Digital 395 fiber draws a last mile crowd in eastern California

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Faster residential and business broadband service – including gigabit-class fiber-to-the-home service in some communities – is following in the wake of the Digital 395 project, an open access middle mile fiber link from Reno down through eastern California to Barstow. The California Public Utilities Commission just approved a $4.7 million grant proposed by Race Telecommunications to build FTTH systems in four small Mono County communities using the Digital 395 backbone.

The areas around Aspen Springs, Chalfant, Crowley Lake and Sunny Slopes should see upgraded service in the next couple of years. Race is committing to offering residential service at set rates for at least 2 years, starting at $25 per month for 25 Mbps down and 15 Mbps up and ranging to $150 per month for 1 Gbps down and 100 Mbps up. The commercial rate card is higher – $60 for 25/15 and $200 for 100/50 – but the same, the resolution says, as what Race charges at the Mojave Spaceport, another CASF-funded project.

Two other project proposals, also leveraging Digital 395 connectivity, had been been submitted by Schat Communications, an Internet service provider based in Bishop, but were ultimately turned down by the commission. Schat asked for a combination of grants and loans from the California Advanced Services Fund totalling $3.8 million to build a WiMAX network, with fiber links to Digital 395, over a wider area of Mono and Inyo Counties, including the areas sought by Race.

Last year, the CPUC awarded CASF grants to Race for FTTH projects in Boron and the Tehachapi area. Two other proposals, for California City and Mojave, were pulled after Charter Communications upgraded its network in those communities.

The Race projects aren’t the first to take advantage of Digital 395. The bandwidth delivered by that system was quickly leveraged by SuddenLink last year, when it boosted speeds – up to ten-times – for existing customers in Mammoth Lakes at no extra charge.

Mono County homes line up for gigabit service

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Not well served. Yet.

Four small communities in southern Mono County could be getting gigabit class fiber to the home service by the end of 2015. The California Public Utilities Commission is scheduled to consider a resolution to spend $4.7 million on an FTTH project for the Aspen Springs, Chalfant, Crowley Lake and Sunny Slopes areas at its 26 June 2014 meeting.

The project was proposed last year by Race Telecommunications, one of five the company submitted in the current round of applications to the California Advanced Services Fund. Two projects – in the Tehachapi area and in Boron, both Kern County – were approved last year. The other two – in California City and Mojave – were pulled following a successful challenge by Charter Communications, the incumbent cable company. Previously warned that an application was coming, Charter upgraded its cable modem service in those two cities, making CASF funding for FTTH systems impossible.

The Mono County project encompasses 727 homes, for an average subsidy of $6,400 each. That’s higher than Race’s other two approved projects, but far less than the tens of thousands of bucks per household approved for CASF-funded projects in Fresno and Madera Counties.

The plan is to spend some of the money building a backbone connection to the Digital 395 middle mile system that runs through Mono County – also built, in part, with CASF subsidies. The incumbent cable company, Suddenlink, initially challenged the project but later withdrew the protest after determining it wouldn’t be able to leverage Digital 395 to upgrade service in those areas, as it did in nearby Mammoth Lakes.

Eastern Sierra consortium presents plans for building broadband out from Digital 395

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With the Digital 395 fiber optic backbone complete – running more than 500 miles from from Reno down the eastern side of California to Barstow – the focus in the region is on hooking up last mile broadband projects and extending middle connectivity to areas it doesn’t reach.

Julie Langou, the project manager for the Eastern Sierra Connect Regional Broadband Consortium, presented a plan for building out from the Digital 395 fiber route at the annual meeting of regional broadband consortia in Sacramento earlier this week.

There are several last mile projects either approved for California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) construction subsidies or under consideration in the region. In eastern Kern County, Race Telecommunications completed a last mile fiber build at the Mojave Air and Space Port, and was approved for two more in Boron and the Tehachapi area last year. It still has a grant application for FTTH systems in four small Mono County communities under consideration.

Schat.net has proposals for wireless systems in Mono and Inyo Counties, and Verizon received a grant to build out in the Crowley Lake area. Two more communities – Randsburg and Johannesburg – have been targeted as last mile priorities for the next round of CASF grants, assuming a willing applicant can be found. All except the Mojave and Tehachapi projects are more or less right on the Digital 395 system, although Verizon has its own fiber in the area that it reserves for its own use.

But Digital 395 doesn’t reach everywhere. Four communities – Twin Lakes in Mono County and Paradise, Tecopa and Homewood Canyon in Inyo – are on the consortium’s priority list as last mile projects with microwave connectivity back to the fiber route. And finally, a 30+ mile fiber middle mile extension along the Kern River Valley to Weldon is on the table. In 2009, Mediacom, a cable company with an emphasis on small towns, received a CASF grant to build out in the area, but so far has failed to meet its obligations, according to Langou. The Eastern Sierra consortium wants to see the project finished – either by Mediacom or someone else – and is looking to get additional money to bring Digital 395 connectivity to the area.

CPUC finds a legal way to treat ISPs as regulated phone companies

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CPUC sends a Schat across incumbents’ bow.

Buried in last week’s California Public Utilities Commission consent agenda was a resolution granting a certificate of public convenience and necessity (CPCN) to Schat Communications, an independent Internet servicer provider based in Bishop, on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada. Schat applied for the CPCN in order to qualify for California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) grants for two proposed last mile projects in Mono and Inyo Counties.

CASF rules are different now, but back in February, an applicant either needed a CPCN or the mobile telephone equivalent or at least have an active application in front of the commission. Golden Bear, Bright Fiber, Surfnet and Viasat were in the same boat, with CPCN applications pending. If a telecoms company has a CPCN, it means that it is a “telephone corporation” and can be regulated as such by the CPUC.

To one extent or another, all five applications were held up as the CPUC struggled with an institutional history of regulating telephone companies rather than ISPs and a state law, passed last year that expressly forbids the CPUC from exercising control over Internet protocol services, including VoIP as well as pretty much any other broadband-based content or service.

Nearly a year later, Schat is the first one to convince the CPUC that what it does is sufficient for it to be regulated (and given CASF grants)…

Schat Communications argues that its intention to provide “middle-mile transport service” and manage a network consisting of “conduits, ducts, poles, wires, cables and other property” qualifies it as a telephone corporation, and therefore a public utility. Public Utilities Code §710 does not preclude our regulation of “non-VoIP and other non-IP enabled” services such as the middle-mile transport intended by Schat Communications. Therefore, we agree with Schat Communications that it is a telephone corporation, and therefore a public utility subject to our jurisdiction.

It’s good news for the other applicants. Even though the law has since changed, a CASF applicant with a CPCN still has considerable advantages. It also opens up some interesting questions about middle mile service providers – say, AT&T or Verizon – that are moving toward IP-based networks, partly for technical reasons but also partly to escape regulation. It might not be as easy as they seem to think.

Tellus Venture Associates assisted with several CASF proposals in the current round, including Surfnet and Bright Fiber, so I’m not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.

Linux kernels find fertile ground in Inyo County

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Opening eyes to open source.

Inyo County, in remote eastern California, might be the first in the country where every student, from kindergartener to high school senior, is given a personal computing device in the public schools.

Terry McAteer, Inyo County superintendent of schools, made that claim last month at a forum organised by the Eastern Sierra Connect Regional Broadband Consortium. Every student in the county’s school system has an Acer Travelmate, a $320 netbook-class machine.

The hardware specs are decent enough – 1.6 MHz Celeron processor and 3.8 GB of RAM – but Linux is what keeps the cost down and performance up.

The devices are all provisioned and managed using the Ubermix platform, which was developed specifically to support Linux installations in schools. It bundles a customised version of Ubuntu Linux and the GNOME desktop environment, and about sixty open source applications into an easily installed package. Students can learn and experiment with it, but it can be easily managed – or completely restored – by school staff. It compares well to the Chromebook platform that’s finding favor in California libraries.

Younger students leave the computers at school, older kids can take them home. Parents can install the core applications, like Libre Office, on most any computer in the house, for more or less seamless transitions from school work to home work.

Students and parents who learn to be comfortable with the open source world will be more likely to stay with it over time, diminishing the gravitational attraction of Microsoft Windows and Office and setting the stage for cross platform – PCs, tablets, phones and embedded devices – implementations of Linux. It’s a barebones user experience, but it’s simple, functional and easy to learn. And delightfully subversive.

Sheer tenacity primes Boron FTTH for California broadband subsidy

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Boron upgrades from twenty mules to a gigabit.

On its fourth try, Race Telecommunications seems set to get public grant backing to build a fiber-to-the-home system in the small Mojave desert town of Boron. California Public Utilities Commission staff have released a draft resolution that, if approved by commissioners, would spend up to $3.4 million from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) to pay 60% of the cost of building a fiber optic network to serve about 900 customers in the Boron area, plus cover the cost of any state or federal income tax on the grant.

I wrote a long piece on the background of the Boron project in October 2012, when Race tried for 70% funding. That proposal was rejected because poor broadband service is available in the area. In order to qualify for 70% funding last year, projects had to be in areas with absolutely no wireline or terrestrial wireless broadband service at all. None of the projects submitted back then qualified.

In the current round, broadband infrastructure projects can get 60% of construction costs subsidised by CASF if the service area is underserved, which means, by California standards, there is no broadband service available that meets a minimum of 6 Mbps download and 1.5 Mbps upload speed.

Charter Communications tried to contest Race’s application, on the basis of coverage claims it provided to the CPUC’s broadband mapping program. On closer look, with the exception of a small area near Edwards Air Force Base, those claims turned out to be false and the challenge was rejected. Similarly, Verizon could not substantiate its blanket protest of CASF grant applications either. After trimming the area around Edwards, CPUC agreed with Race’s analysis that the Boron area is underserved.

Race also tried twice, and failed, to get grants from the federal broadband stimulus program in 2009 and 2010, for projects in Boron and other Kern County desert communities. Last February, it submitted five CASF applications. Two, for Mojave and California City, were rejected after Charter upgraded service, one in the Tehachapi area has also been recommended for approval and another, for four communities in Mono County, is still under review.

If approved, the Boron and Mono County systems will be two more victories for the Digital 395 project, which will shortly span eastern California with middle mile fiber stretching from Reno to Barstow. Both rely on Digital 395 for cheap backhaul, allowing Race to offer up to a gigabit of service for monthly prices ranging from $25 for 25/15 Mbps down/up, to $150 per month for 1 Gbps/100 Mbps. Further north, in Mammoth Lakes, Suddenlink has already boosted download speeds to 15 Mbps, up from the 1.5 to 3 Mbps range, at no additional cost to subscribers thanks to abundant bandwidth from Digital 395.

Commissioners are scheduled to vote on the Boron proposal at their 31 October 2013 meeting. A handful of other draft CASF project resolutions are expected to be released in the next few days, also to be considered at that meeting.

Tellus Venture Associates assisted with several CASF proposals in the current round, so I’m not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.

Policy initiatives maximise benefit of broadband trends

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Progressive broadband policy rates an A, nimbys fail.

I was one of the speakers at this week’s Eastern Sierra Connect Regional Broadband Consortium annual forum in Bishop, California. My presentation built on a talk I gave earlier this year at the Urban Land Institute’s spring meeting in San Diego.

Then, I spoke about five broadband trends that are shaping communities: the growing value of conduit, the growth of competition at the local level, the role of local government in building middle mile facilities, the coming explosion in wireless capacity and the way broadband access is changing life and work styles.

It’s not enough to just identify trends, though. So this time, I went into more detail about policies and initiatives that local governments and groups have implemented to take maximum advantage of the benefits.

Top of the list is building a reliable, online inventory of available assets, particularly conduit. The City of Watsonville is saving more than a million dollars on a municipal dark fiber network because it knows where conduit has already been installed, leaving only connecting segments to be built.

Giving any interested utility or local agency the opportunity to put conduit in the ground anytime a street is cut into is another. Key to these efforts is engaging and empowering public works people – experience shows that when they take ownership of a broadband project, progress is quickly made.

On the wireless side, intelligent planning and judicious encouragement of wireless facilities will prepare cities for the predicted 1000X boom in capacity as we move towards a 5G world in the next decade. And agencies can lean in to connected, public transportation-centric lifestyles by moving more government functions and teleworkers online and opening up access to data .