Will the Gold Country Broadband Consortium Deliver?

Many people received or were forwarded the invitation from the Sierra Economic Development Corporation (SED Corp) for this week’s March 29th kick-off workshop of the Gold Country Broadband Consortium, and probably have been wondering what it is all about.

After the Federal stimulus funds for broadband ended in 2010, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) realized that they would still have grant monies in the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF)* for broadband Internet deployment, yet correctly predicted there would be few takers once the 80% Federal match was no longer available after 2010.

(* The CASF is funded by a current .14% surcharge rate on revenues collected by telecommunications carriers from end-users for intrastate telecommunications services.)

• Three great things that happened in 2011

First, the CPUC voted to redefine what could be funded, changing the definition of broadband to be, at minimum, 6 Megabits per second (Mbps) down and 1.5 Mbps up. (Yes, currently available Internet access speeds — DSL/U-verse, cable, fixed wireless, are not symmetrical. That is why “fast” speed doesn’t often feel very fast. The new applications on the Internet are requiring symmetrical speeds, but they don’t exist here.) The good news is that western Nevada County, and most of rural California is now considered underserved.

Second, the grant levels were raised from 40% of any broadband project, to up to 70% for unserved areas and 60% for underserved areas. You can download the full 2011 CASF Annual Report in PDF format.

Third, funding was made available for “broadband consortia” to be formed, each made up of multi-county regions. These groups were to be formed for the purpose of  ”increasing broadband deployment, access and adoption in the regions of the state they represent.” Fourteen consortia were formed across the state in response to fund availability. Tellus Venture Associates has a good summary and map of this.

• The Gold Country Broadband Consortium was formed

Locally, SED Corp based in Auburn took the lead and applied on behalf of the newly formed Gold Country Broadband Consortium, which covers Sierra, Nevada, Placer, El Dorado, and eastern Alpine counties. The Consortium was funded in the amount of $150,000 for year one (March 1, 2012 – February 28, 2013), and $150,000 for up to two additional years pending annual reporting to the CPUC. A potential total of $450,000.

• All consortia, however, are not equal

The whole concept of broadband Internet consortia was rushed into existence in the second half of 2011 by the CPUC. Consequently, specific guidelines on how they were to operate, or how funds were to be spent were not set.

In some consortia, where broadband infrastructure does not yet exist, professional stakeholders in local broadband deployment form the leadership of the organization — see Northeastern California Connect Consortium and Upstate California Connect Consortium — which each received the same level of funding as the Gold Country Broadband Consortium.

Here, in a region where two American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) major middle-mile (or infrastructure) projects — Central Valley Next-Generation Broadband Infrastructure Project and Plumas-Sierra Telecommunications Middle Mile Fiber Project — as well as one “last-mile” (or service-to-the-home) project – SmarterBroadband Project — have been funded, the work of the local Consortium needs to move beyond just the surveys and mapping indicated in its proposed work plan. Identifying last-mile networks, for one, are key to the next steps.

• The local consortium — a consortium of one

As it has been presented so far, SED Corp only will lead the Gold County Broadband Consortium; determining the scope of its work and outcome, with apparent disregard for the ARRA-funded projects or other county-specific broadband efforts that have been underway for years. Although there are apparent “members” of the local Consortium, it remains to be seen if that membership has any say in its direction or work plan.

This leads us to the highly promoted kick-off meeting of the Gold Country Broadband Consortium on Thursday, March 29 and its misguided messaging on what the public should expect from the local Consortium funding.

“We will be making some big decisions and we need your input to put broadband into areas that need it! Don’t be left out. This is your chance to be heard!”

This messaging, unfortunately, has led to confusion on behalf of the public, who now believe SED Corp will be bringing broadband Internet access to their home or town. Which it will not. And “big decisions” does seem to be a bit of a stretch. It has also put into question, and pushed aside, some of the local organizing initiatives mentioned above that are already underway. Not a good thing. We have also already heard that some local communities will be showing up with “signed petitions” asking for broadband.

• Fulfilling the goals of CPUC funding

The potential confusion at this workshop doesn’t seem like it will serve the intent of the consortia goals. We hope SED Corp will step back after this event, and meet with key Gold Country Broadband Consortium stakeholders to create a work plan and strategy that matches the realities of our counties. Otherwise, the CPUC is spending almost a half a million dollars gathering data via surveys and drafting more maps to show what we don’t have in our five-county Consortium. Something that had been done previously via SED Corp’s receipt of a California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF) grant just three years ago.

This when, in fact, funded projects here are either already building, or just ready to build, the fiber optic infrastructure that will deliver ultra-high speed Internet access in rural California.

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