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MBEP conference follows local path to ubiquitious regional broadband

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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”.

Monterey Bay broadband expert group offers conduit design advice

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It’s one thing to say that empty telecoms conduit – shadow conduit – should be installed anytime a street is repaved or a utility trench is dug, but that begs a question: what kind of conduit, and how should it be designed?

To answer that question, the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership and the Central Coast Broadband Consortium convened a technical expert group that included senior public works engineers, Internet service providers, underground construction contractors and manufacturers. An intense discussion at an afternoon meeting at U.C. Santa Cruz produced a draft set of shadow conduit specifications and guidance, which then circulated through several rounds of revisions.

Consensus was reached on a number of key items, including appropriate conduit size…

  1. 2-inch conduit is sufficient for multiple high capacity fiber cables using current technology (432 strands or more), and can be subdivided using inner-duct that would allow multiple service providers to share a single conduit.
  2. 4-inch conduit has even more capacity but, due to its larger size, can present design problems, for example when connecting to vaults. This size of conduit was standard when telecommunications systems depended on thick bundles of copper cables, but is not necessary for most modern fiber applications. However, 4-inch conduit should be considered for installation on bridges, railroad crossings and in other circumstances where future changes would be particularly difficult or impossible.
  3. Smaller conduit, e.g. 1.25-inch, is useful when it is not possible to install 2-inch conduit or when many, separate conduits are installed. It may be preferred when conduits are expected to be used by a single service provider, rather than shared among many over time, or when it meets the needs of an anticipated project or service provider.

Other specs included vault and hand hole placement, conduit system design considerations and preferred installation locations.

The document is intended to guide shadow conduit design decisions, not dictate them. It represents the broad consensus of the expert group members, but actual designs will ultimately depend on the specific circumstances of any given project or jurisdiction.

The next subject that the MBEP/CCBC expert group plans to tackle is microtrenching. It’s a fiber installation technique that, on the one hand, reduces project costs, but on the other hand can impact street service life and maintenance costs.

MBEP/CCBC Shadow Conduit Specifications version 1.0

Regional economy depends on infrastructure, particularly fiber and conduit

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More broadband equals more work and fewer cars on the road.

“The most important infrastructure for the future is fast, reliable internet connectivity”, said Bud Colligan, co-chair of the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership (MBEP) as he opened a day long conference on the state of the region’s economy. He said that incumbent telephone and cable companies have a big role to play in that, but “it is in our public interest to have a level playing field with robust competition”.

Broadband is intertwined with other infrastructure problems. Rebuilding or expanding roads, for example, offers an opportunity to put conduit in the ground. Colligan said MBEP would be working to make sure that dig once policies developed by the Central Coast Broadband Consortium – under consideration now by several local agencies – are approved and implemented by every city and county in the region.

Some – both the City and the County of Santa Cruz, for example – have adopted those policies, but actually getting broadband conduit into open trenches is still a challenge. “There’s a tremendous problem because the budgets for the roads don’t include any money for conduit, even though it’s so inexpensive”, said Peggy Dolgenos, CEO of Cruzio, a local Internet service provider, pointing out that it’s as much about transportation as it is about telecoms. “One of our goals is to get 3,000 people off the roads…one of the ways we’re trying to do it is better broadband”, she said.

“I urge all the elected officials in the room, it’s something that you all have to ask for in every meeting”, Colligan concluded. “If we’re not making this minimal investment right now…then we’re really being penny wise and pound foolish”.

Accelerating technological change triggers regulatory reflex in Santa Cruz

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San Francisco voters decisively rejected an attempt to clamp stiff limits on Airbnb and other online platforms that make it possible for people to rent out spare rooms and empty houses by the day. The measure was on the ballot in the first place “because the hotel industry is threatened”, said California lieutenant governor Gavin Newsom. He was the keynote speaker at the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership’s state of the region conference in Santa Cruz.

It’s not only the hotel industry that’s feeling the heat. Property owners can often make more money on a daily basis via Airbnb and similar outfits than they can renting out houses and apartments by the month. Reducing the supply of traditional rental properties raises the price. It’s no surprise, just simple microeconomics.

One solution is to embrace the market and build more places to live. But whether it’s meant for the open market or government managed programs – so called affordable housing – new construction faces vocal opposition from neighborhoods and seemingly endless regulatory hurdles. “If there’s one thing I would do, it is change CEQA [the California environmental quality act] to make it possible to build more housing in ways that are predictable”, Lynn Reaser, chief economist at the Fermian Business and Economic Institute told the audience.

That’s not likely to happen. Newsom made it clear that it’s a third rail he won’t step on – he jokingly said he was willing to get out front on “marriage and marijuana” but not CEQA.

Which leaves regulation as the tool of choice for confronting the law of supply and demand, something Santa Cruz mayor Don Lane favors. “The greatest need we have in our communities is affordable housing, more than visitor accomodations”, he said.

Managing a shortage is not the same thing as fixing it, though. Newsom said that economic change is accelerating. “The tech genie is out of the bottle, you can’t stop the future”, he said.

Saving the environment doesn’t have to mean choking off local infrastructure and economic growth

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You can protect the coast without littering it with red tape.

To keep Santa Cruz’s tech economy growing, basic infrastructure has to get better. Broadband is a big part of it, but so is housing, transportation and office space. A day long conference in Seaside in January – the kick-off event for the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership – brought business and government leaders together from Monterey, San Benito and Santa Cruz counties to talk about creating the right conditions for an entrepreneurial culture to grow.

Nearly everyone pointed to the limits imposed by ageing or non-existent infrastructure. It’s a primary barrier – you can’t run a high tech company without high capacity broadband access, for example – but it’s also a necessary first step to overcoming other challenges as well. You need educated and motivated people, and expensive homes and jammed roads make the central coast region unattractive to the talent local companies need most.

Infrastructure improvements, though, are delayed and, sometimes, stopped altogether by challenges made under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), often by people with little or no direct involvement in a project.

“CEQA is being abused by every NIMBY and special interest group across the board,” said Chris Thornberg from Beacon Economics, the conference keynote speaker. Fixing it means doing three things, he said.

“I would not allow anyone who’s not involved to use it,” Thornberg said. “Unions should not be allowed to use CEQA” as a tool in negotiations. Second, “overall, we need to make the entire system much clearer and more transparent.”

Finally, it needs to be drawn back a bit in terms of its power to constrain, Thornberg said. “I think CEQA is a little too weighted in terms of protecting the environment, at the cost of economic growth.”

Safeguarding California’s natural wonders and quality of life is important, but it doesn’t take an endless, byzantine and expensive process to do it.

Santa Cruz tech companies need housing to draw talent to attract investment

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Talent and attitude are the key to building a high tech economy in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties. That’s the message from executives at four of Santa Cruz’s hottest start up companies, speaking at the kick off conference for the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership (MBEP) on 29 January 2015.

“There’s not a thriving scene of professionals in Santa Cruz yet,” said Carolyn Hughes, VP of talent and culture at Looker. Her company maintains a shared work space in San Francisco, allows employees to work remotely two days a week, and pays for rooms in a local hotel so commuters can work in Santa Cruz the other three. One of the barriers to convincing people to make the move is finding jobs for spouses and partners.

“We have senior folks and the entry level talent, but we’re trying to fill that gap in the middle,” said Keri Waters, COO at Vivo Technology.

Start ups need access to angel funding and venture capital, which is easy to find over the hill. But Silicon Valley investors don’t naturally look to the central coast to find opportunities.

“They don’t see as driven a group of workers as on the other side of the hill,” said Brian McDonald sales VP at PredPol. The area “doesn’t resonate as well with investors.”

Looker has raised a lot of a capital, Hughes said, but “our challenge has been to demonstrate that we can adequately deploy that capital” in Santa Cruz.

“Can Monterey County have it’s own unique culture but still drive growth?” asked Jeremy Almond, CEO of Scotts Valley-based PayStand. “Santa Cruz and Monterey are less about pure work/life balance. It’s a little bit like having your cake and eating it too.”

Infrastructure, particularly the lack of affordable housing, is the biggest barrier to attracting and keeping the people the region needs to fill talent gaps, according to the panelists.

“That’s our highest pain point right now,” Hughes said.

Other infrastructure problems include lack of parking, clogged roads, scarce office space and limited broadband availability.

It’s important to keep in mind, though, that the problems Santa Cruz start ups are experiencing are problems that come with success. Much of the discussion that followed was about how to repeat Santa Cruz’s success elsewhere in the region, where the supply of resources and infrastructure still exceeds demand.

The goal for the more than 200 regional business and government leaders who took part in the conference, and MBEP’s reason for existing, is to build an entrepreneurial ecosystem. That “starts with research and intellectual property, and then applies talent and capital,” according to Bud Colligan, CEO of South Swell Ventures and MBEP’s co-chair. It’s not about changing the essential nature of the region, but adapting it to the realities – the opportunities – of California’s high tech economy.

“We can either be crushed by the wave or ride the wave,” Colligan said. “I prefer to ride the wave, having been crushed by waves many times.”