The Forbes Ag Tech Summit opened in Salinas yesterday, for the fourth year in a row. The headline act was editor-in-chief Steve Forbes’ interview with Stephen Censky, the deputy secretary of the federal agriculture department.
Agricultural technology depends on broadband, Censky said, but access is a serious challenge in the rural areas where it will be deployed. Of the 24 million people in the U.S. who don’t have broadband available to them, 80% live in rural areas.
It’s an even bigger problem when service levels are considered. Censky reiterated the agriculture department’s position that the minimum needed – for all rural users, not just tech savvy growers – is 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds.
That level of service is often unavailable in rural communities, and even though the Federal Communications Commission agrees that 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up is the proper “baseline” speed for 2018, it reckons communities with 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up to be “served”. The California legislature sets the bar even lower at 6 Mbps down/1 Mbps up.
Figuring out where to find it can be a problem. Censky pointed out that the broadband availability data collected by the Federal Communications Commission comes from the companies themselves, and there’s no easy way to confirm that it’s accurate, or to drill down to see who can and can’t get it.
“There might be a location or two that have broadband, but not whole counties”, Censky said. “For agriculture to succeed in this day and age…you do need reliable access to broadband…for all precision agriculture, you need broadband”.
Censky held out the hope of more federal dollars for broadband infrastructure development, saying there’s $1.4 billion in the agriculture department’s budget for broadband grants and loans. How much of that money is realistically available in California is an open question, though. He had high – and well deserved – praise for rural electric cooperatives, which are taking the lead in broadband deployment in many parts of the U.S. Unfortunately, utility co-ops are rare in California – there are only three.
Underground utility construction and other projects that involve work on city streets in Salinas will include dig once requirements, thanks to an ordinance approved by the Salinas city council. The new rule requires notification of telephone, cable and other telecoms companies whenever such work is done, and gives them an opportunity to include their own conduit in the project. Once completed, there will be a five year moratorium on any excavations in that particular location.
All construction, reconstruction, repaving of a City right of way shall include a provision for the installation of a public utility infrastructure, such as conduit, tube, duct, or other device designed for enclosing telecommunications wires, fibers, or cables, wherever practical and feasible…
To the extent feasible, the Director of Public Works or his/her designee shall notify (or require an applicant for such work to notify) all known telecommunications service providers of an impending excavation and afford all such service providers the opportunity to utilize the excavation to install, upgrade, co-locate, repair or improve their telecommunications facilities during such an excavation project. Any such notice shall be provided at least 30 days prior to the commencement of excavation. All service providers utilizing the same excavation shall be responsible for their proportionate share of the excavation costs, including but not limited to the costs of permitting. Such excavation shall not take place more than once on a particular City street within a 5-year period.
The ordinance reinforces the City of Salinas’ current practice of installing city-owned telecoms conduit in public works projects. In the relatively short time this shadow conduit policy has been in place, the city has built up an inventory of three miles of conduit that’s available to support broadband projects, and has plans to build 20 miles more in the next few years. And that’s not including new development that’s also on the books.
The City of Salinas has officially released a request for proposal, looking for telecommunications companies that are interested in using its municipal conduit system and other local assets to build out a high speed broadband system in key commercial and industrial areas…
The City of Salinas owns a total of 16,000 feet of telecommunications conduit that is available for use (see above referenced study) by respondents. Approximately 5,400 feet is in the core downtown business district, 1,600 feet in or near the planned Agricultural Technology Corridor and another 9,000 feet in an unincorporated area southwest of the city. Over the next ten years, the City plans to build an additional 108,000 feet of conduit, with construction in key areas – downtown, the Agricultural Technology Corridor, Alisal Marketplace and new developments in north Salinas – planned to be completed in two to five years. In addition, the City has an ongoing policy of installing telecommunications conduit in excavations in the public right of way and in other public works projects.
The information requested in the RFP is relatively top level – the objective is to get sufficient information about technical and business plans without putting too much of a burden on respondents.
The project is the result of a broadband study and plan I developed for Salinas last year. The Salinas City Council adopted it on 15 December 2015. It leverages several long haul fiber optic lines that run through the city already, and one that’s under construction by Sunesys LLC. Funded by a California Advanced Services Fund grant and available on a open access basis for a fixed price of $8.50 per mile per month, the Sunesys line will connect Salinas to Silicon Valley via Santa Cruz, as well as linking to major fiber access point locally and in Soledad, and providing in-town connections.
Written questions are due on 10 February 2016, there will be a pre-proposal meeting on 9 March 2016 and responses are due on 21 March 2016.
With big and small agricultural companies expanding in downtown Salinas and the southeast area of the city earmarked as an Ag Tech Corridor, the need for better broadband infrastructure is becoming critical. Yesterday, the Salinas City Council voted to ask for proposals from potential private sector partners who are interested in using city assets to build out high capacity networks.
Generally broadband infrastructure in the City of Salinas is average, as compared to California as a whole, and above average compared to other communities in Monterey County. AT&T and Comcast offer broadband service to nearly all homes and businesses in Salinas, on generally the same terms and at the same service level as elsewhere in California. Broadband providers that specialize in serving business customers are also present in Salinas, although not on a widespread basis.
Despite this focus, data provided by AT&T and Comcast to the California Public Utilities Commission indicates that the underlying broadband infrastructure in commercial and industrial areas of Salinas, and in the southeast area in particular, is substandard.
Salinas is served by several fiber optic routes that provide connections to major Internet exchanges in the San Francisco Bay Area and southern California, and, in some cases, are capable of providing local service directly to locations within the city.
The City of Salinas owns approximately 16,000 feet of conduit that is available to support construction of additional fiber optic networks, and has plans to build 108,000 feet of additional conduit in the next few years.
The next step is for the City of Salinas to issue a request for proposals from interested and qualified companies for using the existing and planned fiber lines traversing the city and city-owned conduit and other resources to build out broadband infrastructure in the downtown and Ag Tech Corridor areas. The council approved a draft RFP, and the final version should be released soon. More on that later.
Rapidly changing business models and utility needs are providing opportunities for small businesses in the twenty-first century. That was Commissioner Catherine Sandoval’s message to several hundred entrepreneurs in Salinas yesterday, at a small business expo and matchmaking fair sponsored by the California Public Utilities Commission.
“We created a way for them to legally move forward and create new opportunities,” she said. It’s the CPUC’s job to ensure that regulated utilities “provide safe and reliable service at just and reasonable rates”.
To do that, the CPUC classified crowdsourced ride sharing platforms as charter party carriers, which fall under a different set of rules than traditional taxis.
Other opportunities include innovative technologies and business models that help Californians save energy and water, two resources that are in perpetually short supply here.
The event was co-sponsored by Comcast and organised by the Monterey County Business Council and its Procurement Technical Assistance Center. Major telecommunications, water and energy companies were on hand, along with several state agencies. They met one-one-one with small business people who traveled to Salinas from all over California. One even flew in from Connecticut.
More expos will be held in coming months elsewhere in the state. It’s part of an ongoing CPUC effort to connect regulated utilities and state procurement officers with small businesses.