Google offers a better benchmark for Santa Cruz broadband policy

The color scheme is optional.

Santa Cruz County is moving closer to slashing red tape for broadband projects to the level urged by Google Fiber, in its talks with other cities in California and elsewhere in the U.S. That’s not to say that Google has any interest in putting a fiber system anywhere on California’s central coast. Nor that new broadband infrastructure rules are a done deal here. Not by a long shot. But it’s to the point where it’s more useful to compare Santa Cruz County to Google’s fast track than to the normal course of broadband construction in California.

Recently, the San Antonio city council rocketed through a master lease agreement with Google, the first step towards perhaps qualifying for its next round of fiber builds. At 6,400 words it’s five times longer than the template offered in Google Fiber’s City Checklist, but that’s largely because the average city attorney – hell, any attorney – loves to cover all the bases with as much verbiage as possible. Google’s representative at the meeting seemed to think it was a reasonable adaptation.

So how does the master lease template for telecoms equipment championed by Aptos supervisor Zach Friend and tentatively approved in January compare? Not too badly. The San Antonio lease was a targeted agreement to build fiber huts on city land, but the Santa Cruz draft is intended to cover a much broadband range of possibilities including attaching antennas to county owned towers and occupying space on county property. So the 9,200 words in the Santa Cruz document doesn’t seem far out of line.

There’s a major difference between the San Antonio and Santa Cruz master leases, though. The San Antonio lease allows Google to batch together paperwork and get pre-approval for all 40 of the fiber huts it plans to build, with exceptions specifically noted. There’s no such process contemplated in the Santa Cruz draft, which leaves it up to companies building broadband infrastructure to navigate through local permit, license and zoning rules, one at a time. That’s the sort of thing Google and AT&T have both said is a deal killer.

Solutions to that problem are on the table, though. Friend proposes to simplify that process by treating broadband facilities like any other utility project, subject only to relatively simple technical reviews rather than painfully drawn out zoning and design fights. And the City of Santa Cruz has pioneered an online system – OpenCounter – for streamlining all the other paperwork. Not as fast off the mark as Texas maybe, but so far more than enough to lead the California pack.