Tag Archives: infrastructure

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

by Steve Blum • , , , ,


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.

Newsom’s broadband budget language doesn’t translate to infrastructure

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

San benito pole route 13apr2019

Broadband references are sprinkled into California governor Gavin Newsom’s state budget proposal but, taken at face value, he’s focused on shifting money from hard capital infrastructure projects to soft programs and annual operating budgets.

Although tagged as an infrastructure investment in Newsom’s budget summary, his “Broadband for All” initiative is about operations, comprising four elements: mapping, education spending, “optimising” existing resources and “prioritising connectivity across executive actions and policies”.

The California Public Utilities Commission already has a fine mapping program, which Newsom wisely intends to expand. It’s the brightest broadband item in his budget. If the CPUC is allowed to combine availability data with comprehensive network maps, inventories of state owned facilities and construction cost data, and make it public, then independent broadband infrastructure projects become more feasible.

Feasible, but not funded.

Consistent with past practice, Newsom proposes to spend $261 million on broadband facilities and information technology acquisitions for schools over the next five years, which is praiseworthy (as are many other items in the $153 billion budget) but has rarely improved broadband infrastructure that’s directly available to consumers and businesses. Keeping broadband top of mind in state government is likewise a good thing, and when agencies look outward and cooperate with private sector telecoms companies – Caltrans’ dig once program is a good example – the general public benefits. More often, though, connectivity improvements are limited to meeting agencies’ internal IT needs. Still, it’s a step in the right direction.

It’s Newsom’s third bullet point – “optimising use of existing resources” – that threatens to divert what little money California spends on general broadband infrastructure development to other purposes. As his budget summary explains…

Informed by GIS-based mapping, the state will review existing fund sources available for broadband adoption and activities. This review will include the California Teleconnect Fund, the California Advanced Services Fund [CASF], and federal funding opportunities to maximize the return on existing investments. In total, these funds provide approximately $900 million over the next five years that can be targeted to critical broadband activities statewide.

The California Teleconnect Fund subsidises broadband service for schools and other organisations. Federal broadband funds are speculative at best – so far, California is shut out of the federal agriculture department’s newest broadband infrastructure subsidy program.

What’s left is CASF. Which holds the only money – somewhere around $300 million – that California earmarks for general broadband infrastructure construction. Which isn’t specifically listed as one of California’s “critical broadband activities”.

Adoption – digital literacy and broadband subscriber acquisition programs – gets a mention. Schools are in for a lot of love. Libraries and state IT departments get a nod too. Broadband for businesses and consumers? Nada.

Schools and community programs are wildly popular; government operations are Sacramento’s core business. Subsides for independent broadband infrastructure are neither, and are opposed by monopoly model incumbents who pay lawmakers millions of dollars to pay attention. Newsom’s budget offers no challenge to that status quo.

Trump’s budget plan puts broadband funding, mapping on table

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Broadband gets several call outs in the proposed budget released yesterday by the Trump administration. One initiative is endorsed for another year, two are re-promised and one appears to be a response to widespread criticism. Line item figures haven’t been published yet, but even just the overview runs to 150 pages. Details on plans are scarce, but the broadband snippets that were included tell an encouraging tale.

Agriculture secretary Sonny Perdue has bucked the administration’s love fest with big, incumbent cable and telephone companies and pushed for community-based broadband service, particularly via rural electric coops. His department has also adopted a much friendlier attitude toward independent broadband providers in its ReConnect infrastructure grant program. The administration’s budget summary gives him props for that…

The Budget focuses on core Departmental activities such as agricultural research, rural lending, and protecting the Nation’s forested lands and private agricultural lands, while also supporting the Secretary’s efforts to improve services and expand broadband.

The so-called trillion dollar infrastructure program sets aside $200 billion “for other infrastructure priorities”, with “a portion” of it earmarked to…

Promote visionary projects and technologies that can strengthen our economic competitiveness, including 5G wireless communications, rural broadband, advanced manufacturing, and artificial intelligence.

The plan also promises continued efforts to make better use of wireless spectrum and a fresh look at the much criticised broadband data collection and mapping work carried out by the Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration…

The Budget supports the application of innovative spectrum access techniques, spectrum sharing technologies, and spectrum leasing options to enable smarter and more efficient ways to leverage the Nation’s valuable and finite spectrum resources. As part of the Administration’s commitment to the Heartland, the Budget funds broadband mapping work to support ongoing efforts to increase the availability of affordable, reliable, and modern high-speed internet access in rural and underserved communities.

On the other hand, nothing is said about the federal government’s primary broadband subsidy program, the Connect America Fund. It’s run by the FCC and is directing billions of dollars to incumbents, much of which will be wasted on replacing rural copper networks with low capacity wireless service.

Presidential proposals are little more than openers in congress’ annual budget game. With spending bills constitutionally required to begin in the democrat-controlled house of representatives, it’s a safe assumption that lots of changes will be made as the process proceeds through the summer.

Newsom’s budget plan lowers barriers to public broadband financing

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Following up on one of the items in his campaign manifesto, California’s new governor, Gavin Newsom, might make it easier to finance municipal broadband projects. One of the many, many ideas offered in his maiden budget proposal is to make it easier to form enhanced infrastructure financing districts by eliminating requirements for voter approval of bond issues…

Various economic development tools have been introduced following the dissolution of Redevelopment Agencies (RDAs), including Enhanced Infrastructure Financing Districts (EIFDs). However, only three EIFDs have been formed since statute created them in 2014. EIFDs can be created by cities or counties without voter approval and expend tax increment revenues without voter approval. However, an EIFD must receive 55-percent voter approval to issue debt.

The Budget encourages the formation of additional EIFDs through removal of the 55-percent voter approval requirement to issue debt. This change will allow EIFDs to support longer-term infrastructure commitments, similar to former RDAs.

Although it’s always been arguable that EIFDs can build and operate publicly-owned broadband infrastructure, the California legislature removed all doubt last year when it passed assembly bill 1999. Public agencies in California – cities, counties and special districts, including EIFDs – were given explicit authority to get into the broadband business.

As with the redevelopment agencies that were killed off by the legislature in 2012, an EIFD would repay the debt with future increases in tax revenue attributable, in theory, to the infrastructure improvements. It’s a complicated process. Even if Newsom succeeds in making it easier for EIFDs to borrow money, that doesn’t mean it’ll be easy.

Forming an EIFD will not be the first step towards a community broadband project. It will come further down the road, after a city or other local agency decides it wants to get into the broadband business. But it’s one more tool in the kit, and that’s useful.

One foot of sea level rise puts thousands of miles of fiber underwater

by Steve Blum • , ,

Climate change poses a significant threat to telecommunications infrastructure. That’s the conclusion of a recently published paper by three researchers from the University of Oregon and the University of Wisconsin.

The authors took standard electronic map data – i.e. geographical information system/GIS files – showimg major fiber routes and overlayed it with coastal flooding predictions made by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The data shows thousands of miles of long haul fiber at risk…

The results of our analysis show that climate change-related sea level incursions could have a devastating impact on Internet communication infrastructure even in the relatively short term. In particular, we find that 1,186 miles of long-haul fiber conduit and 2,429 miles of metro fiber conduit will be underwater in the next 15 years. Similarly, we find that 1,101 termination points will be surrounded by sea water in the next 15 years. Given the fact that most fiber conduit is underground, we expect the effects of sea level rise could be felt well before the 15 year horizon. Interestingly, we find that the risks over longer time scales do not increase significantly. Specifically, there is only a modest increase in the amount of additional Internet infrastructure that will be under water at the 6 ft. rise level (the 100 year projection) vs. the 1 ft. rise level (the 15 year prediction)…

Our results show that communication infrastructure in New York, Miami, and Seattle, respectively, are at highest risk. We also quantify the impact to individual service providers and find that CenturyLink, Intelliquent (formerly Tinet), and AT&T are at highest risk.

California also faces significant risk, according the authors. They list San Francisco, Palo Alto and Los Angeles in the top five of several risk categories, primarily because of the high concentration of telecoms assets.

It appears that the authors assumed that the fiber routes in their database are all underground. Some of that infrastructure is likely strung on utility pole routes, but the principle is pretty much the same: coastal flooding can disrupt fiber infrastructure, and it doesn’t matter much if it’s entire routes or just chunks.

The danger might not be as imminent as the authors assume – a one foot sea level rise in the next 15 years is a pretty aggressive forecast. Even so, it’s a factor that needs to be considered in planning new fiber construction, for redundancy as much as for additional capacity, and in maintenance budgets for existing routes.

MBEP conference follows local path to ubiquitious regional broadband

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Bringing ubiquitous high speed broadband to the Monterey Bay region requires goals set and pursued at the grass roots level, but benchmarked against a regional plan and standards. That was the top line consensus from a roundtable brainstorming session at the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership’s third annual State of the Region conference, held last week in Monterey.

The region takes in San Benito, Santa Cruz and Monterey counties. It quickly became apparent that one size would never fit all in an area that bundles high tech Santa Cruz and uber-rich Pebble Beach with Salinas Valley farming towns, the Paicines cattle country and the isolated peaks of the Santa Lucia and Gabilan mountains. The solution was a five step process that creates a range of commonly defined standards and objectives that would be applied locally, as deemed appropriate by individual communities:

  • Get upfront, region wide buy-in to a regional broadband development master plan with a small contribution to its cost from a sufficient number of local governments, businesses and other organisations. If they’ll pay a little to create the plan, then it’s likelier they’ll pay more to implement it. If not, it’s best to know now.
  • Prepare the master plan and in the process establish a broadband development baseline and a ladder of well defined service tiers above it.
  • Outline the steps necessary to reach each successive tier, with options for a local government to go it alone or collaborate with similar situated communities across the region.
  • Create a neutral certification program that documents and validates each community’s climb up the commonly agreed service tier ladder.
  • As each step up the ladder is certified, automatically move to the next one, at a pace determined by local needs, aspirations and resources.

The group also made it clear that broadband service standards aren’t only about speeds. Affordability and direct access to basic building blocks, such as dark fiber, are just as important. So is differentiating between residential needs and the more complex and tightly defined broadband service requirements of businesses.

The next step is to form a regional leadership team that will, as the roundtable session’s title put it, move “from ideas to action”.

Bipartisan bill limits federal environmental review of telecoms projects

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Just don’t disturb the ground.

A bipartisan bill introduced in the U.S. senate aims to put some common sense into environmental law, at least where wireless facilities are concerned. Co-authored by U.S. senators Roger Wicker (R – Mississippi) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D – Nevada), senate bill 1988, aka the Speed act, would exempt a “communication facility installation” from federal environmental and historic reviews, if there’s already infrastructure in place in the project area.

Wireless infrastructure gets additional exemptions. Federal, state and local agencies would be barred from conducting reviews otherwise called by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) or requiring others to do so if the proposed wireless facility is:

  • In an existing public right of way, and
  • Any ground disturbance is limited to that right of way, and
  • The structure is no more than 50 feet tall or 10 feet higher than existing structures already in that right of way, whichever is higher, and has no guy wires.

There’s no blanket preemption of local and state authority in the bill. The exemptions are limited to federal law. It specifically says that “nothing in this section shall be construed to affect…the authority of a State or local government to apply and enforce the zoning and other land use regulations of the State or local government to the extent consistent with” federal law.

Its effect in California will be limited. Here, NEPA generally applies only when federal agencies or land is involved in a project. Usually, it’s the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) that governs environmental reviews and it would not be affected by the bill as currently written.

I would not give S-1988 much of a chance of making it into law as is, though. The big reason is that telecoms bills – even widely supported bipartisan ones – have gotten stuck in congressional gridlock over the past couple of years. If it gets unstuck, telecoms lobbyists will try to add perks, particularly ones that would similarly preempt state and local laws. Some or all of the language could also get rolled into other bill, such as happened with dig once legislation, which was incorporated into, and then cut from, the still-stalled Mobile Now act.

Industrial, commercial Star Ratings produce broadband development roadmap

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Broadband infrastructure analysis has two primary goals: 1. figure out what’s available now and whether it meets needs, and 2. identify and evaluate options for further development. Last year, Tellus Venture Associates created the Star Rating tool to assess broadband infrastructure in industrial and commercial areas.

It takes into account available service and existing infrastructure, and compares it to a range of benchmarks, including commodity business-level broadband, enhanced “megabit” and “gigabit” class service, and dark fiber. It’s flexible enough to accomodate a diverse range of data sources, including standard California Public Utilities Commission broadband availability reports, system diagrams provided by small Internet service providers, and local agency records, such as conduit maps, and zoning and business license information.

We initially developed it to simply determine whether current industrial and commercial infrastructure and service matched up with local economic development objectives. In the Broadband Infrastructure Assessment and Action Plan we recently completed for the City of West Sacramento, we turned it into a forward looking tool, and used it to predict the outcomes of different broadband development scenarios.

The currently available commercial/industrial broadband service in West Sacramento rates one-half Star overall, with some census blocks in the 2 Star and 3 Star range. But there are several under-utilised fiber routes that pass through West Sacramento, and the city owns an extensive conduit system, including shadow conduit prospectively installed during public works and major private developments. We ran two more scenarios to evaluate how those assets could be put to use, and assess the economic development impact of doing so.

The results were dramatic. Just by putting existing, commercially available fiber to use, West Sacramento’s overall rating rose to a full 1 Star. When city conduit was factored in, it jumped to 2 Stars, with some census blocks earning 4 Stars and 5 Stars.

The overall rating is interesting, but it’s the specific parcel and census block evaluations that are now truly useful. The city, commercial/industrial real estate owners, and businesses and tenants now have, as West Sacramento mayor Christopher Cabaldon put it, a “dashboard” to drive decisions and implement specific projects.

City of West Sacramento Broadband Infrastructure Assessment and Action Plan, 30 March 2017
Presentation to the West Sacramento City Council, 5 April 2017

Broadband infrastructure follows roads and rails to West Sacramento

by Steve Blum • , , ,

The railroads and freeways that made West Sacramento a logistic hub brought robust fiber optic infrastructure with them. As a result, the city is criss-crossed by long haul and metro fiber lines and hosts two data centers. That’s the one of the top line results of a study completed by Tellus Venture Associates and presented to the West Sacramento city council last week. Other findings include…

  • Along with excellent industrial grade fiber networks and data centers, the City of West Sacramento owns a significant amount of telecommunications conduit that can be used to leverage those assets.
  • The primary broadband infrastructure in West Sacramento, which is owned by AT&T and Wave, is near average when compared to California as a whole, receiving a “C-” grade (1.9 out of 4.0). That’s on a par with many Silicon Valley communities.
  • Nevertheless, consumers and business people generally believe that the Internet service they receive is not fast enough or reliable enough for their needs.
  • Mobile broadband service varies by provider, with some offering citywide coverage and others showing significant gaps in availability and/or capacity.
  • A glaring digital divide exists, with half of households adopting broadband at a significantly lower rate than Californians overall. This split correlates to economic status. Households with lower broadband adoption rates have an average income of about $41,000 per year, while those with higher rates average $75,000 and up.

Top of the policy and project recommendation list is for West Sacramento to keep doing what it’s already doing right – installing conduit in public works projects and leasing it to telecoms companies, for example – and build on that base by looking at extending fiber and conduit to industrial areas that need it.

Addressing the digital divide is also needful, and the City will be doing targeted public outreach to identify specific broadband development targets. Recommended next steps also include advocating for residents with state and federal regulators and policy makers, including urging that temporary low income programs offered by broadband providers be made permanent.

City of West Sacramento Broadband Infrastructure Assessment and Action Plan, 30 March 2017
Presentation to the West Sacramento City Council, 5 April 2017

FCC set to preempt local right of way and permit authority

by Steve Blum • , , ,

A sweeping review of how cities and counties manage public roads and approve construction permits for wired and wireless broadband infrastructure is on the table at the Federal Communications Commission. If approved, two draft decisions would, among other things, start the process of setting tighter limits on how and when local governments can establish standards for digging trenches or planting poles and boxes in public rights of way, and make wireless permit shot clocks absolute with an automatic deemed granted decision once time limits have expired and a ban on court challenges by local governments.

Federal laws and regulations give cities 60, 90 or 150 days to either approve permits for wireless facilities, depending on the type, or deny applications on a narrow set of grounds. In California, if the clock expires then the application is automatically granted (under state law for the 90 or 150 day clock, under federal law for the 60 day clock), but there is a window for court challenges. Some of the measures under consideration by the FCC would narrow that window, perhaps even close it completely, and would preempt any state discretion over how the time limits are managed, extended and enforced.

The FCC is also thinking about creating time limits for local review of broadband construction plans, including applications for permission to cut into streets and lay conduit and fiber lines, and to install vaults, boxes and poles (including, presumably, wireless towers by another name) along roads and on sidewalks. Along with that, the FCC could limit the fees that local governments charge for permits and restrict the scope for negotiation with would-be broadband infrastructure builders.

Other ideas under consideration include reforming pole attachment rules – a major barrier for new broadband service providers – and preempting state rules that govern when and how telephone companies can yank out copper networks. Last year, AT&T tried to ram a similar measure through the California legislature, but couldn’t overcome opposition from unions and other groups. That bill hasn’t resurfaced yet, and might not need to if the FCC federalises the process.

New wireline and wireless infrastructure policy is still far from final. All the FCC would do at its meeting later this month is begin the process for making the new rules, although the way the request for comments is currently framed shows that Pai has a pretty good idea of what he thinks needs to be done. Besides those two rulemaking proceedings, Pai also wants change how middle mile services are regulated. The FCC was on the verge of approving new rules last November, but was short circuited when Donald Trump won the election – more on that later. Changes to the Connect America Fund rural broadband subsidy program will also be considered, along with new rules for radio and TV stations.

Some ideas in the hundreds of pages of proposals are worthy and some are not. And changes could be made before the FCC votes on 20 April 2017. After that, there will be months of comments, replies and debates before actual new rules are drafted and, presumably, approved. So this isn’t the time to panic. Pai should be commended for publishing the full text of his proposals weeks ahead of the meeting, as he promised to do when he assumed the chairmanship. Previous FCC chairs kept the details secret until after commissioners voted, and sometimes for weeks after that. Now, even if we don’t like it, at least we know what’s coming.

Accelerating wireline broadband deployment by removing barriers to infrastructure investment, draft notice of proposed rulemaking, notice of inquiry, and request for comment, 30 March 2017
Wireless infrastructure, draft notice of proposed rulemaking and notice of inquiry, 30 March 2017
Business data services in an internet protocol environment, draft report and order, 30 March 2017
Connect america fund, draft order, 30 March 2017