Microtrenching bill lands in California senate with the wrong answer to the right question


Microtrenching – cutting a narrow slit in a road, inserting fiber and sealing it with glue – is an excellent tool that can result in faster broadband infrastructure deployment at lower costs. But like any tool, it’s only useful when it suits the job at hand. One of the main reasons – I’d say the main reason – the technique isn’t used more often is that there’s no set of best practices, design specifications and employment parameters that is commonly accepted by broadband companies, utility operators and, crucially, the public works and transportation officials who are responsible for road construction and maintenance.

A bill now pending in the California senate addresses that problem in a useful way: give Caltrans the job of sorting it all out and coming up with model specifications for cities and counties to use.

Unfortunately, that’s the only useful bit of senate bill 1206 by senator Lena Gonzales (D – Los Angeles), who introduced it in its present form last week. The rest of SB 1206 is a wish list that ranges from the legally dubious – have Caltrans write and impose a one size fits all permit ordinance on every city and county in California, to the technically ridiculous – redefine a microtrench from a narrow saw cut to an eight inch wide excavation.

Rigorous microtrenching specifications and guidelines developed and adopted by well respected civil engineers would be tremendously helpful to broadband providers, construction companies and everyone else who wants to see universal, high quality broadband service in California. “Everyone else” includes public works and transportation professionals, who likewise want better broadband service for their communities.

Done well and appropriately, as in the City of Loma Linda in southern California, microtrenching can offer great benefits to a community. When it’s done poorly and with little forethought it can be a disaster, as Google learned the hard way in Louisville, Kentucky. A trimmed down SB 1206 that’s sharply focused on figuring out what works and what doesn’t would be a big step forward for broadband development in California.