Central Coast broadband plan clears hurdle for federal funds

Santa Cruz Sentinel

A $55 million, private-public initiative to link Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Benito counties via broadband, high-speed Internet has cleared a critical hurdle and local advocates say they have a good shot at securing necessary federal stimulus funds to foot the bill.

A lot of projects don’t make it past the first step to the due diligence phase, said Joel Staker, a network administrator for the city of Watsonville, which has taken the lead on shaping the proposal.

“I believe we’ve gotten through most of the heavy stuff now. We feel like we have a good handle on it,” Staker said. “Hopefully we do better than all the others.”

The grant application is spearheaded by members of the Central Coast Broadband Consortium, a diverse coalition of public and private entities that have been working for years to bring high-speed Internet to the Monterey Bay and Central Coast area. They say it is critical to the future of the region.

Under the plan, the broadband link would be a data highway that leads to the door of anchor institutions. Anyone will be able to connect to the highway along the way. Internet provider Cruzio, which is just completing a broadband link to Silicon Valley, is acting as the project manager of the grant and, if funding is secured, will oversee construction.

Last week, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced 29 awards totaling $404 million as part of a $7.2 billion Broadband Technology Opportunities

Program. It was the beginning of the second round of grants funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to “support the deployment of broadband infrastructure, enhance and expand public computer centers and encourage sustainable adoption of broadband service.”

In the first round, the administration awarded 82 grants worth $1.2 billion for projects affecting 45 states and territories. While the Central Coast Broadband Consortium made it into a final pool of candidates, the people involved must now pursue further intensive due diligence at this point to win an award. Grant awards are to continue on a rolling basis through Sept. 30. The Consortium should know by then if it makes the final cut.

The consortium is seeking about $43 million from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration fund. About $12 million in matching or in-kind contributions have been secured. If the proposal is accepted, the plan is to build about 312 miles of broadband fiber from downtown Santa Cruz into rural parts of Monterey and San Benito County. Construction would include about 112 miles of underground fiber and 200 miles above ground linking to 237 community anchor organizations on the Central Coast, including schools, colleges, libraries, healthcare providers and public safety entities. Advocates say data transmission will be 10 to 100 times faster than what exists now for most people. The project would be a boon economically if the area, they say.

“I feel better and better about the project after going through the financials and technical architecture and vendor quotes,” said Chris Nekalson, co-owner of Cruzio. “This project is very solid.”

Ideally, the project would extend from Santa Cruz through to Watsonville next year, to Salinas and Monterey in the second year and to King City and Greenfield by the end of the third year of construction.

For the cadre of broadband advocates working on the due diligence phase of the grant proposal, the last few weeks have been a series of laptop meetings, e-mails and phone calls to shore up support, tackle financial issues and clarify the project for the NTIA. The group must respond to 39 additional questions about the business plan by the end of the month.

“We feel we have a great project,” Staker said.

This article first appeared here.


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