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George Boardman: Another delay in our struggle to become competitive in 21st century

Observations from the center stripe: Dam edition

ONE MORE time for critics of the Oroville Dam: Nobody died in last winter’s “disaster”… TO GET enough votes to pass their latest attempt to repeal Obamacare, Senate Republicans are offering Sen. Lisa Murkowski what some are calling the Alaska Purchase … A LOT of Rep. Doug LaMalfa’s constituents are going to lose what little medical coverage they have if the Graham-Cassidy bill passes … I WONDER how many of those people who want the government out of medicine will sign up for Medicare when they turn 65 … THE GIANTS have been showing a pulse recently, which means they’ll probably avoid losing 100 games this season …

Nevada County’s long-promised high-speed fiber optic network has been delayed again, and John Paul, CEO of Spiral Internet, is not making any promises about when groundbreaking will occur and the first customers will receive service.

Perhaps Paul has concluded that he is no good at making predictions. As recently as May, he told the Economic Resource Council that high-speed internet access would be available to its first customers in late fall.

Then there was February, when he said the first customers would be online by late spring.



Of course, in October of 2016, Paul predicted service by spring of this year.

Lack of such connectivity guarantees an area will be left behind as the economy increasingly demands that companies compete not just with their neighbors next door, but with the entire world.

And when the state Public Utilities Commission approved $16.7 million is taxpayer funds for the project in December of 2015, Paul said groundbreaking would take place in spring of 2016, with some homes getting service in fall 2016.




I guess his prediction in 2015 that it would take five years to provide service to 11,000 homes won’t come true either.

Paul did tell The Union recently that he expects to break ground next year, but won’t commit to a date. “Nothing happens in a timely way, so I’m reluctant to put any dates out,” he said. “Our hope is that we can announce those (dates) soon.”

That groundbreaking would be the first stage of a three-stage project, a 26-square-mile area that includes about 2,900 homes and 340 businesses around Highway 174 and Dog Bar Road. Private funding totaling $12 million was also raised for the project, and additional money will be needed to build out the last two stages.

It has taken over a year to complete the environmental report. Now Spiral can begin the network design, which will have to be approved by the county and city of Grass Valley before permits can be issued. Paul expects that process to take a few months.

“We are a startup enterprise,” Paul explained. “We’re building an infrastructure that will be around 50 to 100 years; it’s definitely been a learning curve for us.”

If the project is ever completed, it will provide high-speed internet service to less than 20 percent of the 53,000 housing units in Nevada County, and a small fraction of almost 12,000 businesses, according to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau.

That means the parts of the county that aren’t serviced by the cable companies will have to get by with tin-can-and-string technology that will do nothing to attract the high-tech jobs we’d love to have up here. Of course, none of that will matter until the ERC figures out what it wants to do with its life.

County officials have pointed to Spiral Internet’s project as proof they are responding to the desire for the kind of competitive internet communications system that will boost our economy. Supervisor Ed Scofield had Paul address at least one of his town hall meetings in the South County, presumably evidence the supervisors are getting something done.

Of course, nothing has really been accomplished. We’re going to be last on the list of the big internet providers when it comes to getting state-of-the-art service; they’re too busy building out their networks in Sacramento and Placer counties.

Adopting their usual posture of leading from behind, the supervisors prefer to let others solve the problem instead of providing the leadership required to come up with a innovative solution — like, for example, creating our very own high-speed communications utility.

The county could create its own public utility with the specific task of bringing high-speed communications to the county. Startup costs could be funded by a bond issue that would be retired with profits generated by the utility. And instead of spending a lot of time and money trying to acquire rights-of-way, the utility could make a deal to run its equipment along NID land. The same people who need water also want high-speed internet service.

I know this wouldn’t be as simple as I make it sound. It would never make economic sense to provide high-speed internet service to some remote residents, and there may not be enough customers outside the Comcast/Suddenlink service areas to make this pencil out.

I wrote about this topic two years ago, and the concept has since picked up steam across the country. From cities as large as Chattanooga, Tenn., (now “Gig City,” according to its promoters) to four rural counties in Minnesota that pooled their resources to provide high-speed broadband to 6,000 rural households and businesses, people are taking the initiative to be competitive in the 21st century.

More than 80 cities, towns and counties have built their own government-owned, fiber-based internet systems in recent years. Cities like Cedar Falls, Iowa, that provides internet speeds of over 1 gigabyte per second to its 45,000 residents.

“From an economic development point of view, fiber optic high-speed internet is the fifth utility” after electricity, gas, water and sewer, said Lisa Skubal, vice president of economic development for the Cedar Valley Chamber of Commerce. “We live in such a globalized society right now that having broadband connectivity is imperative for business.”

Lack of such connectivity guarantees an area will be left behind as the economy increasingly demands that companies compete not just with their neighbors next door but with the entire world.

As for Spiral Internet? When the PUC approved the state grant, the vote was 4-1. Chairman Michael Picker dissented, saying: “I think it’s still a very speculative project.”

George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays by The Union. Write to him at ag101board@aol.com.


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