Bright Fiber high-speed internet project approved for Nevada County | TheUnion.com

Bright Fiber high-speed internet project approved for Nevada County

The California Public Utilities Commission on Thursday unanimously approved the Bright Fiber high-speed internet project.

The commission's vote means a $16 million grant initially given to Nevada County-based Spiral Internet is now in the hands of Race Communications, a Bay Area company. The vote also approved Race's acquisition of Bright Fiber, which it will operate as a subsidiary.

Race declined to release the price of Bright Fiber's sale.

The project, expected to affect almost 2,000 homes, is slated for completion by May 2020. Race said it will consider additional projects after completing an engineering and construction analysis, which will include new grant rules.

The total project cost is around $27 million, which includes private investment.

The proposal for the Bright Fiber project initially called for the infrastructure to rest primarily underground. Race said it amended the project because of increased costs, with 75 percent now planned on existing poles. The remainder will be underground.

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"Race is humbled and grateful that the commission has moved quickly to approve this transfer of control of Bright Fiber and review the needed … project changes so that Race can construct this important project for the community," said Raul Alcaraz, Race's president, in a release.

A town hall meeting about the project is scheduled for Jan. 30. Race said it soon will reveal the time and location of the meeting.

Project

A handful of Nevada County officials attended the utilities commission meeting held Thursday in San Francisco. They urged the commission to approve the deal.

"Access to broadband is a crucial resource," Supervisor Heidi Hall told the commission moments before its vote.

CEO Alison Lehman told commissioners the lack of internet access in Nevada County means students without access at home are disadvantaged. Stephen Monaghan, the county's chief information officer, said people complain to him weekly about the lack of broadband.

"In my opinion, the complaints have gone up," he said. "We need this project."

Previously in limbo after Spiral Internet said it couldn't obtain enough private funding to secure the grant, the Bright Fiber project now can proceed. In a release Race said the commission extended the deadline to complete construction on the project to 2020. It's already done engineering work on the project and intends to immediately start the permitting process with local government.

Advocates of the project have touted it will bring a gigabit internet connection to Nevada County. Almost 2,000 homes are in the service area along Highway 174.

"It's been a 10-year journey to arrive at the point where construction can finally begin on this transformational gigabit fiber project in an area of rural Nevada County, where broadband internet access is severely limited," said John Paul, president of Bright Fiber, in Race's release.

Sold to Race, Bright Fiber will focus its work on the high-speed internet project. Paul retains Spiral Internet, which offers web hosting, email and DSL resale services.

Issues

Paul and supporters celebrated when in December 2015 the utilities commission awarded over $16 million in grant funds and a $500,000 loan. The money was for the first of three planned project phases.

Race has since said it doesn't need the loan.

Paul has said he needed to get over $10 million in private funding — a requirement of the grant. Realizing a possible Bay Area investor wouldn't materialize, Paul in December 2017 contacted Race Communications. Discussion paused when a different company stepped in, though those talks stopped and Paul continued speaking with Race.

The process again stalled in July, when the utilities commission chose to examine public comments it had received. Some people argued against what they called inadequate public notice to object, having the project above ground and a $119 down payment some already had paid.

Race said all public notice requirements were met. Additionally, it called it necessary to have portions of the project above ground. The $119 payments would be applied to a customer's first bill, or be refunded if requested.

To contact Staff Writer Alan Riquelmy, email ariquelmy@theunion.com or call 530-477-4239.

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