Broadband project tabled after study shows exorbitant cost

Barry Kaye

A $100,000 study commissioned by the cities of Dunsmuir, Weed and Mt. Shasta to assess the future of broadband in southern Siskiyou County left almost as many questions as it did answers.

The minimum cost of the broadband project – estimated at $15 million or an average of $3,030 per residence – was a deal breaker, according to local officials.

At a barebones level, the study projected that each mile of broadband wiring would cost $130,000. The grid to connect the three cities together is 112 miles long. That does not cover “lighting” the system – allowing actual data to flow – or connecting to individual businesses or residences.

The study was completed by CTC Technology and Energy based in Kensington, MD.

“That became the biggest issue. Money is simply not available,” said Weed Mayor Ken Palfini. “We looked to the state (for funding) but there is a lot of demand for the few dollars that are there.”

The stakes are high. A critical aspect to attracting new jobs and families to the area with kids to populate local schools is the notion of e-commuting. It is not going to work if someone is waiting to upload files locally while their colleagues in Cupertino are becoming slowly disgusted by the delay.

The three cities paid for the study by putting up $33,000 each. They even looked at going into business for themselves, whether it involved doing the infrastructure buildout and then renting the lines to commercial providers or simply running the entire operation as a retail service provider.

Both those options are viewed as not feasible. As such, the project is currently tabled.

“We are getting left behind because we don’t have the same tools,” Palfini said. “We are not alone. Rural America is in that box. We want to try and keep up.”

The so-called digital divide is not lost on local lawmakers. 1st District Assemblyman Brian Dahle, who sponsored a bill providing state funding for broadband in rural areas, said modern technology is no longer a luxury.

From online courses and educational videos to commercial businesses trying to download large amounts of data such as medical records or architectural blueprints, the demand for faster speeds shows no sign of slowing.

According to a recent report from the California Public Utilities Commission, less than half the households in rural areas have Internet speeds that are considered adequate by state standards.

“In the California economy, information travels at the rate of megabytes per second,” Dahle said in a prepared statement. “For most of the state, Internet speeds have not kept up with the pace of technology.”

Causes of the sparse broadband landscape can be attributed to several factors, including but not limited to rugged terrain, remote locations, gaps in infrastructure and small population centers.

More than 80 years ago, following the Great Depression, a similar technological challenge involved bringing electricity to rural areas. The Rural Electrification Act of 1936 provided federal loans to build the power infrastructure that brought electricity to farms and ranches.

Broadband may be the modern-day equivalent.

“I think it requires a government subsidy,” said outgoing Mt. Shasta City Councilman Tim Stearns.

“There are a couple different ways of doing that,” he said. “One way to do that is to give money to the providers. Another way to do that is to make the money available to local governmental entities or some combination of the two. So far in California, the money has gone to providers.”

Further complicating the issue is trying to determine which delivery option will stand the test of time. Technological product cycles are notoriously short-lived. Wireless is an example.

According to the CTC study, fiber optics, the core wiring of broadband, is one of the few technologies that can legitimately be referred to as “future-proof.”

“Wireless technologies cannot approach fiber’s capabilities, despite the current hype over ‘5G’ wireless,” the authors of the CTC study state. “A strand of standard single-mode fiber optic cable has a theoretical physical capacity in excess of 10,000 GHz, far in excess of the entire usable wireless spectrum combined, and thousands of times the capacity of any other type of wired medium.”

In the short term, that leaves competition for consumers in the private sector as the best hope that Internet service providers will do the buildout themselves.