Tag Archives: plumas sierra

Cooperative broadband is rare, but successful in California

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Rural utility cooperatives have gotten a lot of good ink recently, as a possible alternative to investor-owned broadband companies. Although it’s a business model that’s far more common in the U.S. midwest and south, it’s been successful in California too. At least as far it goes – there are only three rural utility co-ops here.

Anza Electric co-op in Riverside County is in the process of building a fiber to the home system using a grant from the California Advanced Services Fund. By FTTH standards, it’s an inexpensive build – about $1,200 per household, total – primarily due to the fact that Anza already owns the necessary poles and conduit.

Plumas-Sierra Electric co-op has subsidiary that’s a wireless Internet service provider serving parts of Plumas and Sierra counties, and a bit of Lassen County. It’s tried for CASF in the past, too, although it ultimately withdrew its application. The third rural California co-op – Surprise Valley in Modoc County – isn’t in the broadband business, but two of three isn’t bad.

Rural utility co-ops are creatures of the federal agriculture department’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS). It’s one of three basic utility business models, the other two being investor owned utilities, like PG&E, and municipal utilities.

The investor owned variety predominates here, but where there are exceptions, California tends toward muni electric utilities – either cities, like Palo Alto or Santa Clara, or special districts, like the Sacramento Municipal Utilities District. Californian muni electric utilities have been largely successful when they’ve dipped a toe in the broadband business, particularly as dark fiber providers, although there is one big exception – Alameda had to sell its cable system at a loss.

Elsewhere in the U.S., there are rural utility co-ops that are in the telephone business. In California, small rural phone companies fill that niche in the eco-system.

The co-op business model has also been used for middle mile projects. Digital 395 is owned by the California Broadband Cooperative and was funded by an ARRA stimulus grant, and there’s another – the Mid-Atlantic Broadband Cooperative – in Virginia, funded by tobacco settlement money. However, those are not the traditional, federal agriculture department sponsored utility co-ops.

The cooperative business model is very effective, when it suits local circumstances. The RUS-backed version, though, isn’t a viable way of creating a competitive service – if there’s an incumbent provider, that option is off the table for all practical purposes.

Last mile Internet service grows from northern California middle mile project

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Another state and federally subsidised middle mile project is spawning last mile service in northern California. Plumas-Sierra Telecommunications (PST), which is a subsidiary of the Plumas-Sierra Rural Electric Cooperative, provides Internet service to rural communities in Plumas, Sierra and Lassen counties. It recently filed an application for a $677,000 grant from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) to build out last mile service to 4,400 homes and businesses using middle mile fiber it built using money from the 2009 federal stimulus program and CASF. That fiber network now connects PST’s service area to long haul routes that go through Reno, Nevada.

The publicly available summary that PST circulated doesn’t offer much detail about its last mile project proposal, except to say it “will use wired and wireless technology” and offer service starting at 10 Mbps down/5 Mbps up and topping out at 75/10. It’s likely, though, that most or all of the consumer-grade service it intends to provide will be delivered via fixed wireless systems: that’s what it told the California Public Utilities Commission when it got the middle mile grant in 2010, which is consistent with the low per-premise cost in the new proposal.

PST applied for a subsidy of $154 per premise. Under CASF rules, they can ask for 60% to 70% of total construction costs, so the total per premise cost of the project is presumably somewhere between $220 and $257. That won’t buy much copper or fiber.

The PST proposal goes into the hopper with ten other applications. Like the rest, it can be challenged by other service providers who meet the CPUC’s minimum service standard of 6 Mbps down/1.5 Mbps up, if there are any. Given the remote location and the fact that no one challenged them the last time, that seems unlikely.