George Boardman: Bright Fiber, Verizon show what happens when leadership is lacking
July 22, 2018
It is said we live in an interconnected world, but two recent developments in Nevada County suggest our movers and shakers can't connect the dots that link state-of-the-art communications to economic development.
While they aren't directly related, the decision by Spiral Internet to give-up on its plan to build a high-speed fiber optic network in Nevada County and Verizon's decision to abandon its effort to build more cell towers in Nevada City reflect a lack of vision and leadership that keeps Nevada County an economic backwater.
Spiral Internet's effort to build the so-called Bright Fiber high-speed network has been a disaster in the making for more than half a decade, yet county officials and business leaders have done nothing except hope Spiral CEO John Paul could bring the project home.
Paul succeeded in getting the California Public Utilities Commission to fork over almost $17 million to help fund the project, but has done little else since the money was awarded in December 2015. What followed was a string of broken promises and missed deadlines while Paul unsuccessfully tried to raise an additional $12 million required by the state.
Did this raise alarm bells among our decision makers? Apparently not. Instead, Paul was trotted around to the Economic Resource Council, and various chamber and other community groups to give progress reports on a project that was going to transform communications in the foothills. This supposedly showed our leaders actually care about economic development.
Now everybody is running for cover. Tim Corkins, interim executive director of the ERC, complained to The Union about Paul's management of the project, pointing to Paul's inability to get the private investment required before the state funds could be spent. That required a group like the ERC to help save the project, according to Corkins, a characterization Paul disputes.
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Did it ever occur to the ERC that Paul was in over his head, and maybe — just maybe — it should try to recruit a company with more experience and firepower to either partner with Bright Fiber on the project or buy out Spiral's interest? If the ERC's leaders ever have such a proactive, creative idea, it would seem to be a first in that organization's history.
Then there are our elected officials. Just last month, the Grass Valley and Nevada City councils along with the Board of Supervisors passed resolutions in support of high-speed internet service.
"It was just to show support to companies like them that are willing to come forward and spend money on broadband projects," board chair Ed Scofield told The Union. Other than encourage the PUC to approve Spiral's grant request, the supervisors have done nothing to push this project along.
But that doesn't mean nobody in the Rood Center cares.
Supervisor Heidi Hall recently wrote the PUC to complain that "her constituents are seriously impacted by the severe lack of broadband access" while county CEO-to-be Allison Lehman wrote the PUC that the rural county area is in dire need of better internet access to promote economic development.
Maybe the two of them can convince the other four supervisors to become active leaders instead of passive observers. For starters, the county could stop handing out patronage to the ERC and the various Chambers of Commerce and invest the money in an economic development office, an agency that might have been able to convince a competent communications company to build the fiber optic network by now.
As things stand now, what little that has been accomplished may disappear altogether. Spiral is selling the project to Race Communications, which actually has experience doing this kind of work, pending approval by the state PUC. The state agency said it has put the sale on hold until at least November while it reviews public comments on the transaction.
Race, which has had little to say about the deal, though filed a formal response to comments Friday, is basically purchasing the right to invest $12 million in the project. How much energy do you suppose the company wants to spend responding to complaints about its plan to build part of the network above ground while it waits for approval to close the deal?
MEANWHILE IN NEVADA CITY
Then there is Verizon Wireless, which has abandoned a 3.5-year effort to improve wireless communications in Nevada City by installing eight cellular antennas on top of a building that would rise no more than 9.5 feet above the building's parapet. The Planning Commission rejected the proposal — and the City Council affirmed the decision — after hearing complaints the antennas would degrade the historic downtown area and create unspecified health problems.
The people who are concerned about the look of downtown apparently have no problems with paved streets and electric lights, and the health-scare mongers pointed to the usual junk science that can't come up with an increase in brain cancer or any of the other ills said to be caused by cell phones.
Verizon was trying to improve its 4G wireless technology, which will soon be replaced by 5G technology that promises much faster downloads that are the key to connected devices, autonomous cars, and delivery drones that are said to be the wave of the future. But this technology will require many more input and output antennas — perhaps an antenna on every corner—and you know what that means to the public's safety.
But don't worry: Nevada City Council member Reinette Senum, a big fan of junk science and conspiracy theories, is looking out for the public's welfare. She wants Nevada City to enact a six-month moratorium on such technology while the city creates a telecommunications ordinance that would give the city more power over the placement of small cell antennas.
Of course, Senum has apparently already made up her mind. When the Palo Alto City Council gave Verizon permission in May to place cellular antennas on utility poles, Senum commented on the Palo Alto Weekly's website that the media "ignored justifiable public outcry over health risks" and then listed — in great detail —11 supposed dangers of 5G technology.
That's the kind of open-minded, forward-thinking leadership that has made this area what it is today.
George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays by The Union. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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