CENIC Tour Gathers Connectivity Ideas From Regional Broadband Consortia
Many rural areas in California still lack reliable, or any, Internet connectivity. To find ways that CENIC can help, President and CEO Louis Fox is visiting all 17 regional broadband consortia in California in partnership with California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF) leaders. Broadband consortia are local efforts organized to improve and expand Internet access and funded by the California Public Utility Commission. Each community is unique and so requires solutions tailored to local circumstances and challenges.
The goal of the listening tour is to gather ideas and strategize with local stakeholders to develop new or improved pathways to connectivity. “We’re trying to understand the issues and contexts around obstacles to Internet access across California’s complex geographies and to find opportunities to converge on common strategies,” Fox said.
In some rural areas, Internet service providers face high costs to install and maintain the necessary broadband infrastructure, so such projects are unattractive given the difficulty of generating a return on investment. “Demand aggregation” strategies bring together diverse stakeholders — including homes and businesses as well as anchor institutions such as schools, libraries, and medical facilities — and package public and private resources in a way that supports a compelling value proposition for commercial providers.
Through this statewide tour, CETF and CENIC staff are working to identify connectivity gaps, potential funding sources, ways CENIC’s statewide network might be used, and relationships with broadband providers that might be leveraged. For each meeting, CENIC staff prepare inventories of CENIC members within the consortium’s territory that are connected to the CENIC backbone or are planning to connect. Projects that are under consideration for development can be used by communities in aggregation strategies. Fox and CETF representatives will gather information to devise preferred scenarios to present to consortia leaders and other stakeholders. So far, Fox has visited the Pacific Coast, Inland Empire, Central Coast, Gold Country, North Bay/North Coast, and Southern Border broadband consortia.
Sharing Best Practices
At the Inland Empire Regional Broadband Consortium (IERBC), Executive Director Martha van Rooijen said collaborating has been key to successful broadband campaigns. Making broadband a regular agenda item for regional council of government (CoG) meetings has helped IERBC bring Internet access to several communities. CoGs bring together area mayors, city managers, planners, and other decision-makers. “They’re sharing best practices and tips on grant funding that’s available, and they’re working through policy and programming of projects in the region,” she said.
In addition, including broadband infrastructure in city development plans helps keep everyone informed, van Rooijen said. “If you’re a city planner, you would mark off if there’s telephone service, but you don’t necessarily mark off if there’s broadband service,” she said. “Connecting the planning process through city, county, and regional government with broadband consideration will help improve service.”
Towns in the Inland Empire have found unique ways to pay for Internet service. In Loma Linda, the city owns and operates its own fiber-optic network with residents paying a fee for Internet on their water bill. The city of Beaumont has encouraged all new houses to be wired with fiber, a modem to be supplied, and residents to have Internet through their homeowners' association dues. Ontario created a master plan for broadband, built the network, utilizes Inyo Networks as a contractor to run it as “OntarioNet,” and promotes its gigabit speed to entice economic development. In addition, Rancho Cucamonga adopted a Fiber Optic Master Plan that addresses the need for “dig once” policies, which mandate fiber installation in government-funded road projects.
Several communities now have or are in the process of getting high-speed Internet with funding from the California Advanced Services Fund. In Anza, more than 4,100 households are served through Anza Electric Cooperative. More than 12,000 households within San Bernardino County — in Helendale, Phelan, Red Mountain, and Wrightwood — now have access, including gigabit service, available from Internet providers Race Communications and Ultimate Internet. Frontier Communications was recently approved to serve over 300 homes in Lytle Creek as well.
Pictured: Stakeholders met at the Inland Empire Regional Broadband Consortium’s annual meeting. Front row: Assemblymember Eloise Gomez Reyes, 47th District; Martha van Rooijen, executive director, IERBC; Kevin Short, general manager, Anza Electric Cooperative; Ally Hetland, marketing and sales manager, Race Communications; Louis Fox, president and CEO, CENIC; Luis Portillo, director of public policy, Inland Empire Economic Partnership; Sandra M. Cuellar, director of government affairs for Inland Empire, Charter Communications; William O. Bayne, PE, president, Bayne and Associates; Marissa Schnur, project manager, IERBC. Back row: Greg Walker, CEO, Great Harvest Community Center; Jim Miller, VP sales and marketing, Race Communications; Tom Mullen II, chief data officer, County of Riverside; Mickey Yates, CFO, Great Harvest Community Center.
Raising Broadband Standards
Some California consortium leaders say setting a higher standard for broadband service would give the state more power to encourage ISPs to install rural broadband connections, increase connection speeds, and support competitors formed by municipalities. Meeting the broadband standard is required to get government funding for certain rural broadband projects, and raising the standard would shine a light on communities without adequate service. California’s minimum speed standard is 6 Mbps download, compared to the national Federal Communications Commission’s standard of 25 Mbps download.
Under the Telecom Act of 1996, the Federal Communications Commission is required to routinely assess whether broadband is "being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion," and take action if not. Part of that effort involves periodically updating the standard definition of broadband to ensure it meets technological advancements and consumer expectations. The standard was last updated in 2014. “We think California should have a gigabit standard,” van Rooijen said. “CENIC, as a leader statewide, can help with state policy to establish guidelines on what California thinks is an acceptable level of Internet.”
Involving Research and Education Networks
Research and education (R&E) networks like CENIC play a vital role in broadband landscapes, according to The Quilt, a national coalition of non-profit research and education networks including CENIC. The Quilt recently weighed in on how a new federal program can help expand broadband in underserved rural and tribal areas throughout the United States.
The USDA’s Rural Utilities Service plans to distribute $600 million in grants and loans through the “e-Connectivity” pilot. The Quilt’s recommendations for the program include considering the broadband needs of communities and regions — not just census blocks — and funding middle-mile infrastructure, which presents the main challenge for rural access. Funding middle-mile infrastructure, The Quilt said, will help deliver sufficient broadband access to both residences and community anchor institutions.
Broadband infrastructure consists of the backbone, middle mile, and last mile. The backbone is made up of high-capacity fiber networks like CENIC. The middle mile links the backbone to local ISPs’ networks, often providing the connection between larger cities and rural towns. The last mile brings the local ISPs’ connection to homes and businesses.
Deploying Hybrid Strategies
Getting Internet to the most remote rural areas will sometimes necessitate hybrid strategies that combine two or more broadband technologies, said Fox. Working collaboratively, private-sector technology companies and government and nonprofit community organizations can develop comprehensive strategies that stitch together fiber, fixed wireless, LTE, and possibly unlicensed spectrum and TV Whitespace technologies. “While CENIC has been for most of its history a fiber-based public benefit corporation, we have found that partnerships with fixed wireless companies, like GeoLinks have allowed us to extend symmetrical gigabit last-mile connections to individual schools and libraries in rural communities that had previously had little or no bandwidth. We now have more than 50 similar projects in production,” Fox said.
Another example of a hybrid success story is Gonzales, an 8,000-person town in the Salinas Valley. The rural community has high-speed Internet thanks to a fiber optic network from Santa Cruz to Soledad, which was built by Sunesys (now part of Crown Castle), a private sector partner of CENIC, with CASF grants and service commitments from CENIC. The middle-mile project brought the CENIC backbone close enough to Gonzales and other nearby communities that building local last-mile networks became profitable for ISPs and WISPs (wireless ISPs).
“So, this is what brings communities along,” said Stephen Blum, president of Tellus Venture Associates, who specializes in developing new community broadband systems. “Now, companies are looking to connect to the network, and they have a competitive reason to improve service.”
Furthering CENIC’s Mission
CENIC’s mission is to connect California to the world, providing cost-effective, high-bandwidth networking to universities, schools, libraries, and affiliates to advance innovation, collaboration, and economic growth. To do this, CENIC collaborates with nonprofits such as regional broadband consortia, and a host of other government entities, private businesses, and broadband networks around the state, country, and world.
“CENIC is showing the path forward for special dedicated networks to help achieve the state's goal of bringing access to 98% of households,” said Sunne Wright McPeak, CETF president, and CEO. “Further, it is becoming clear that the research mission of CENIC members is advanced through ubiquitous high-speed Internet infrastructure with all residents online."