Broadband Innovations Offer Strategies and Approaches for Closing the Digital Divide

960 540 Deb Kollars

Microtrenching is an innovative broadband installation technique that connects neighborhoods to fiber more quickly (Photo: Shuli Hallak/Wikimedia)

Across California, experts, community leaders and broadband providers are pushing forward with innovative strategies and models to close the Digital Divide. During California Forward’s recent Building Equitable Economies webinar series, several promising innovations were highlighted and explored.

The series, which ran between February and April, was designed to address racial and economic inequities across a broad range of issues. The series drew attendees into timely conversations about climate resiliency, criminal justice, housing, broadband access, youth engagement, and more.

On April 1, April 8 and April 15, the series focused on a critical challenge facing the state: how to bring affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband to areas that are unserved or underserved. The webinars, which CA FWD co-hosted with the California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF), featured a cross-section of innovative strategies and models focused on three key areas: governance, funding, and providers.

A brief recap of each broadband presentation follows. They can be accessed here.

April 1 Webinar: Focus on Funding Innovations

During the first broadband webinar, “Broadband Funding Innovations,” Sunne Wright McPeak, CETF president and CEO, noted that multiple strategies are moving forward to close the gap between those who have adequate broadband and those who don’t.

CA FWD Leadership Council Co-Chair John Chiang underscored the importance of closing the divide and introduced the findings of the 2021 Statewide Broadband Adoption Survey, conducted by the University of Southern California in partnership with CETF. The survey found that broadband adoption rates in California have continued to improve, but remain insufficient, especially for vulnerable populations.

“Broadband is a modern day necessity, not a luxury,” Chiang said. “We need electricity. We need water. And we need broadband.”

The webinar featured a presentation by a team of experts from Ernst & Young Infrastructure Advisors, LLC, which helps governments, community organizations, and the private sector with strategies, financing and execution of large infrastructure projects, including broadband deployment.

Marc Powell, Ernst & Young senior managing director and strategy leader, explained the firm’s approach to mapping the economics of deployment as a means of driving greater coverage for people and communities. Such mapping includes analysis of the demographics, market conditions, building costs, and barriers to deployment in particular areas.

As Powell explained, “The challenge is always one of economics.” Such analysis can help to inform strategies to address the challenges, including permitting solutions, facilitating right of way access, and identifying shared ownership and funding approaches such as public-private partnerships.

April 8 Webinar: Focus on Governance Innovations

During the April 8 webinar, “Broadband Governance Innovations,” CA FWD CEO Micah Weinberg noted that “tremendous racial, economic, and geographic disparities” exist across the state’s broadband landscape, with rural areas and low-income communities often struggling with inaccessible, inadequate, or unaffordable service.

Presenter Cole Przybyla, director of innovation and business assistance in Tuolumne County, described efforts in the Central Sierra, where five counties have banded together to find ways to improve broadband service to residents, businesses and institutions. The counties — Tuolumne, Calaveras, Alpine, Amador and Mariposa —are developing a joint plan to improve broadband availability in the area.

In a smile-inducing moment at the close of the webinar, Przybyla announced he had just received word that Tuolumne County would receive a $500,000 federal CARES Act grant through the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration to develop the plan.

Presenter Jacki Bacharach, executive director of the South Bay Cities Council of Governments, described the Council’s initiative to bring high-speed broadband to 15 cities in Los Angeles County. The Council led development of the South Bay Fiber Network project — a municipal fiber network designed as a “middle-mile ring” with lateral connections to municipal and public agency sites around the South Bay.

In a key innovation, the Council covered the $6.9 million in needed capital costs by using sub-regional transportation funds through Measure M, which was approved by Los Angeles County voters in 2016 to fund rail, bus and bicycle-related improvements. The Council won support for use of the Measure M funds by documenting how technical transportation needs would be served, and emphasizing that broadband is an important means of reducing traffic congestion by encouraging telecommuting, telemedicine, and digital municipal services.

“The trip not taken in Los Angeles County is an important congestion reliever,” Bacharach explained. The Network has greatly reduced costs for the connected cities and is expected to expand in the future to more government buildings, anchor institutions, office parks, private buildings, and potentially residential areas.

April 15 Webinar: Focus on Provider Innovations

The April 15 webinar, “Broadband Provider Innovations,” explored efforts by private providers to bring broadband to more people

John Paul, chief business development officer for Spiral Fiber, described his firm’s plan to construct an all-underground fiber optic network to serve 12,000 homes and 400 businesses in Western Nevada County, where Nevada City and Grass Valley are located and forested lands and rough terrain have presented deployment challenges.

Spiral Fiber received approximately $16 million from the California Advanced Services Fund to advance the project, and is in final stages of securing $12 million in matching private investment. Educational efforts to galvanize business and residential support and political will were instrumental in driving this solution. As Paul explained, “It takes perseverance. You really have to know you’re in it for the long haul.”

Presenter Doug Patterson, regional director for Crown Castle, described a technical innovation known as microtrenching. This underground fiber construction technique is helping to make installations of conduit and microfiber faster and less disruptive to roadways and communities, he said. Crown Castle, a shared infrastructure company, is expanding its use of microtrenching, replacing traditional boring methods, to drive investment in fiber deployment.

“It’s deploying at a speed that is days compared to weeks and months,” Patterson explained. Using this technology, the narrow installations are typically 2 inches wide and between 16 inches and 26 inches deep, which help avoid deeper utility infrastructure while also protecting the installations when surface road work occurs. Crown Castle has achieved nearly 40 miles of microtrenching in the City of Los Angeles over a 14-month period.

In a related advancement involving aerial deployment, Crown Castle worked with the City of San Jose to install network in the city’s right of way in multiple neighborhoods under a single “term permit,” rather than the more conventional approach of securing multiple individual permits.

In a related presentation, presenter Kome AJise, executive director of the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), described the model resolution that SCAG developed to streamline and coordinate permitting processes for broadband deployment across jurisdictions. It has been adopted by four of the six counties within SCAG, as well as by SCAG and the San Diego Association of Governments.

SCAG is now in the process of analyzing ways to streamline and standardize permitting across the dozens of cities and jurisdictions within the SCAG region. The idea, Ajise said, is to replicate some of the standardized processes that have been developed for road construction projects. “The same can be had for broadband,” he noted.


Deb Kollars

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