New effort to unlock Caltrans' trove of broadband assets

11 January 2016 by Steve Blum
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Don’t even think of it.

There’s a huge difference in time and cost between building a fiber optic network from scratch – digging trenches and installing new conduit – and creating one using existing resources. That’s how Lit San Leandro and the City of Watsonville’s municipal dark fiber network came to be. It’s doable when cities like San Leandro or Watsonville track conduit, and make that information available to the public.

Get outside of a city, though, and it’s a completely different world. In California, it usually means working with Caltrans – the California Department of Transportation – which has a well earned reputation for a glacial work ethic and opaque procedures.

The department is difficult enough to work with when you know they have something: a road or bridge, for example, where you want to install conduit. But try to find out about other Caltrans assets, like the extensive system of telecommunications conduit it owns and operates for its own purposes, and you’re out of luck. Absent an inside source, there’s no way to know where it owns conduit or has allowed others to install it, other than walk out the route yourself.

That’s why assemblyman Jim Woods (D – Healdsburg) has introduced assembly bill 1549. It would require Caltrans to play nice with the public when it comes to conduit. As the draft of the bill currently reads…

The department shall maintain an inventory of all conduits that house fiber-optic communication cables located on state highway rights-of-way. The department shall make the information available to the public upon request.

It’s due for a hearing later today in Sacramento. The language might get trimmed back a bit, for example limiting the requirement to newly installed conduit, but even so it would be a good first step towards putting Caltrans’ broadband infrastructure to work for all Californians.