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Santa Cruz County broadband policy initiative becomes a model for California

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Santa Cruz innovation gains traction in California.

The effort to clear obstacles to better broadband infrastructure in Santa Cruz County was widely praised by local elected officials and telecoms company representatives from across California, at a two day conference in Sacramento last week, organised by the California Emerging Technology Fund and Valley Vision.

“It’s a very effective process”, said Marc Blakeman, an AT&T staff lobbyist who spoke to the eighty-plus people in attendance. As the roundtable discussion turned to local challenges in other parts of the state, elected leaders repeatedly cited Santa Cruz County’s broadband infrastructure policy as a model to follow.

“The real driver for our policy initiative was the gap in our professional economy”, explained Patrick Mulhearn, the policy director for Aptos supervisor Zach Friend, who sponsored and guided the development of the resolution that was approved earlier this month. The goal is to “provide opportunities for a professional class to flourish in Santa Cruz County”.

Supervisor Friend worked with county departments and set up one-on-one meetings with service providers, something Blakeman said was a key to the success of the initiative.

Mulhearn ran down the list of elements that were crafted together into a comprehensive set of policies: a “dig once” process that requires notification and an opportunity for broadband companies to join in whenever a street is cut open; master lease agreements to simplify access to county facilities; routinely including conduit in public works projects, new developments and land divisions; and treating broadband projects like any other utility, subject only to a technical and safety review by county engineers.

That last measure produced a surprised and delighted gasp from Laurie Miller, AT&T’s director of construction and engineering, who deals daily with the complicated and time consuming approval process that’s otherwise typical in California.

“It doesn’t have to be baby steps”, Mulhearn told the roundtable audience. “I encourage you to be agressive and forward thinking”.

Cut Californian red tape to connect Californians

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“California needs to stop pursuing its own regulatory agenda”, said Rob Volker, CEO of the California Broadband Cooperative, the organisation that will operate the Digital 395 middle mile system. Getting approvals from dozens of agency – federal, state, local, tribal – consumed two out of the three years that were scheduled and budgeted to complete the project, driving the price up by $25 million. $10 to $11 million of that extra cost will come out of the California Advanced Services Fund, which might otherwise might have gone towards new broadband infrastructure elsewhere in the state.

He was speaking at a conference in Sacramento last week that brought together about eighty local elected officials, state and federal agencies and telecommunications providers. It was organised by the California Emerging Technology Fund, with considerable help from Valley Vision, the lead agency behind the Connected Capital Area Regional Broadband Consortium.

Kish Rajan, the head of the governor’s office of business and economic development, didn’t go quite that far but did urge a better balance between protecting what California has now and building for its future.

Lori Acton, a councilwoman from the City of Ridgecrest, along the Digital 395 route in eastern Kern County, called for the state to step in and standardise the process for approving broadband projects across California. Others, such as Mayor Cecilia Aguiar-Curry from the City of Winters in Yolo County, thought the answer was just the opposite, advocating greater local control and autonomy.

Regardless of how to go about it, there was general agreement among elected officials and industry representatives that barriers should come down and broadband construction treated like water or electricity or any other utility project.

“I can’t understand why we’re struggling to take this on as a utility”, said Lee Adams, a supervisor from Sierra County.

Broadband incumbents and local leaders see similar broadband challenge in California

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You have to bury the lie before you can bury fiber.

Hundreds of thousands of Californian homes do not have access to modern broadband service. Building infrastructure to reach them is a priority for industry, and local and state government. There was wide agreement on both points at a conference held in Sacramento that brought together elected officials and broadband professionals from every corner of California.

The event was organised by the California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF), with the assistance of Valley Vision, the lead organisation in the Connected Capital Area Broadband Consortium.

Sunne Wright McPeak, president of CETF, framed the problem as she kicked off the two-day event, saying that getting California to the point where 98% of homes have modern broadband access means deploying infrastructure to half a million more. That’s been CETF’s goal and it’s now the State of California’s, thanks to senate bill 740, which was recently signed into law. Even then, a quarter million Californian homes would still be effectively unserved.

But for once, everyone agreed on the magnitude of the problem, including industry representatives. An AT&T lobbyist, Marc Blakeman, stuck to the company’s standard mobile-first talking points, but also talked up the wired upgrades they’re doing in more lucrative urban markets and did not dispute the size of the overall statewide gap.

An overdue and very welcome about-face came from Comcast’s staff lobbyist Scott Adams, who acknowledged that only 96% of Californian households have access to wired broadband and admitting “it’s been increasingly difficult to address the remaining four percent”. Comcast seems to be giving up the claim that only 12,000 homes are unserved, a lie repeatedly told by their hired gun John Moffat and California cable industry lobbyist Carolyn McIntyre as they unsuccessfully tried to kill SB 740.

There was no mistaking the tension and distrust between the major incumbents and political leaders, but there’s no longer any doubt about the broadband gap all want to see closed, and the urgency of doing so. That’s a huge step towards fixing it.