Golden Bear fiber plan not sturdy enough to survive incumbent challenges

5 March 2014 by Steve Blum
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The two thousand mile, $120+ million Golden Bear middle mile fiber network is officially dead. Snaking through the canyons and river valleys of far northern California, the project was touted as a way of bringing fast, inexpensive backbone connectivity to areas far removed from bandwidth-rich regions to the south.

Effectively, backers were asking for 100% grant funding from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF). Nominally, the limit is somewhere between 60% and 70%, depending on the level of broadband service, if any, that is available. There’s at least some support on the commission for popping that limit, at least for a middle mile project that lights up economically disadvantaged areas, such as the Sunesys proposal in the Salinas Valley. But the rules also limit funding to areas where residents can’t get service that hits 6 Mbps download and 1.5 Mbps upload speeds, and there’s little enthusiasm for subsidising fiber builds on routes where it’s already available.

Golden Bear failed on both counts. According to a story in the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, a flood of challenges from incumbent service providers such as AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and others forced the original plan to be scaled back to the point where it didn’t make technical or economic sense, so the backers pulled the plug.

There were other problems with the proposal, not least the lack of skin the backers were putting in the game. Originally, the applicants asked for $119 million from CASF to pay what was positioned as 90% of the cost of building about a thousand miles of fiber and leasing another thousand. But it soon became apparent that the 10% match was conceptual: in kind contributions at best. Although details were closely held, the total cost to CASF was believed to have climbed into the $140 million range.

It’s not a total failure, though. Past experience with grand fiber plans that don’t fly on the first try shows that the technical and business planning done and community support gathered can be leveraged for incremental, rational projects. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, it’s not the end or even the beginning of the end, just the end of the beginning.

Tellus Venture Associates assisted with several CASF proposals in the current round, including the Sunesys middle mile project, so I’m not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.