The Long Road to Building a Gigabit Fiber Optic Network

On February 1, 2013, Spiral Internet submitted a California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) grant application to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to build a phase one $27.5M gigabit fiber to the home (FTTH) project. We titled it the Nevada County Connected Project. Yes, just like what Google Fiber is doing in Kansas City, Austin, Provo and now multiple other urban areas. For this project, 60% of the funding would come from CASF, and the remaining matching amount raised by private investment.

In order to determine the best way to start, we hired a Maryland-based firm in early 2012 that ran us (and western Nevada County) through a rather vigorous feasibility study. In the end they identified, and we agreed, that we would start in a 26 square mile area in the southeastern part of the county. It is a “u” shaped area that starts at Whispering Pines / Crown Point Circle / Loma Rica Road in the north; down Brunswick Rd / Hwy 174 to the Placer County border on its eastern side; and on the western side down La Barr Meadows Road / Dog Bar Road (to the east of Alta Sierra) ending in the Lodestar area. The project will provide ultra high speed Internet access to 3,400 households and 400 business; each with a 100% fiber optic connection to symmetrical gigabit speeds.

Out the door, we were told by the CPUC staff that we submitted the best grant application they had seen. We were thrilled about that. As each submitted grant application allows the incumbent providers to challenge it, we were also told that we were one of the most challenged projects. There was a deep group sigh about that, but we were undaunted.

Refuting those assertions required vigorous testing of cellular signals (driving every road and showing that one could barely make a 3G telephone call in the area) and hundreds of calls to cable company customer support (to show their real borders). Late last summer, we effectively pushed away the challenges from Comcast, Suddenlink and Verizon Wireless.

The only other incumbents who could potentially challenge the project were the existing fixed wireless providers. These wireless Internet service providers (WISPs) broadcast Internet access from local hilltops or, sometimes, existing towers. Out the door, DigitalPath supported the Spiral project knowing that ubiquitous fixed wireless Internet service is incredibly difficult to provide in the area due to high forestation and geographic diversity (i.e. hills and canyons). Unfortunately, SmarterBroadband chose to challenge the project full on.

Now, you may — or may not — know that SmarterBroadband received an American Recovery and Reinvestment Act $1.87M grant / $600k loan in September 2010. That project is described as follows on the ARRA website:

The SmarterBroadband Project by SmarterBroadband, Inc. of Grass Valley, California, in Nevada County, will bring high quality fixed wireless service to one of the more geographically challenging areas in California. The SmarterBroadband Project covers 435 square miles of rural, mountainous, and wooded territory and will deliver speeds up to 6 Mbps and more to residents, businesses and critical community facilities in this largely underserved area. Wireless Access Points for customer connections will enable 6Mbps plus to the end user. Licensed backhauls will form a high speed carrier grade ring between major sites to ensure maximum uptime. Two independent Internet Backbone connections will provide internet connectivity redundancy.

The SmarterBroadband Project is required to be completed by September 2015. It is now almost 3 1/2 years along, with 18 months to go. Upon completion — according to the ARRA funding guidelines — the project is required to be able to connect the 25,000 “underserved” households (data provided by Nevada County GIS team) within the 435 square mile project area with 6Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream speeds. You can see the project’s progress on the Recovery.gov website, by clicking here.

Clearly that would be wonderful for western Nevada County, if it was even remotely attainable. Currently, SmarterBroadband provides service to only 6% of those potential customers. (This calculation is based on SmarterBroadband owner Adam Brodel’s statement in the March 6, 2014 issue of The Union that “we have 1,500 customers.”) Now remember, not all of those customers have access to the required “line-of-sight” needed for that fastest access; often relegated to much slower 1 Mbps or even 768 kbps or 512 kbps downstream  and 256 kbps upstream speeds (as posted on the SmarterBroadband website).

There is no question that it is a daunting task to provide 6 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream fixed wireless Internet service to 25,000 households in western Nevada County terrain with a $2.4M budget. The real concern is will ARRA find itself with a failed project come September 2015.

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5 comments to The Long Road to Building a Gigabit Fiber Optic Network

  • This stalemate that stands in the way of progress to construct critical telecommunications infrastructure for our region points up the folly of government subsidy programs basing eligibility on arbitrary standards that are technologically obsolete at the moment they appear in print.

    Fixed terrestrial wireless providing a user experience akin to first generation DSL is only an interim solution on the way to ubiquitous fiber to the premise infrastructure — and nothing more. Moreover, it’s a limited solution insofar as the Sierra Nevada foothills region isn’t Kansas or West Texas and has significant terrain and flora challenges that make reaching all premises technologically difficult.

  • Justin

    This is disappointing with the opposition, as where I live on the Dog Bar area we are in the no mans land and have no options for high speed internet. SmarterBroadband and their 1 million dollar grant has yet to be able to give me a high speed option for me and my family. If they aren’t able to do it (and so far they have had almost 4 years), let someone else do it.

  • Thanks for the input Justin. It would help us if you could send your street address to us (support@spiralinternet.com).

  • Zack Jones

    I live out on rollins park drive in grass valley.

    As a current Smarter Broadband customer, with no other option but dial up, I’m glad that they are providing me with at least some small bandwidth but I’m disappointed that they would challenge a much faster option becoming available. I really struggle to make due with their bandwidth and data caps and would LOVE to have an option to move to fiber.

    I really hope we can move past this and you guys are able to begin
    your roll out soon.

  • Thanks Zack. We are diligently working on getting our project’s funding approved. It would help us if you could tell us what speed of service you have signed up for with SmarterBroadband. We need both download and upload speeds per your contract with them, not what you actually experience (which we know is problematic). Couple that with your address, and this helps us a lot. If you send it as a comment, I will not post that to the website. You can call us as well at 478-9822. Just ask for me.

    Thanks,
    John Paul
    Spiral Internet, CEO

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