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SANTA CRUZ – Members of the Central Coast Broadband Consortium are optimistic that the region will soon receive a $450,000, three-year grant from the California Public Utilities Commission to promote – but not actually build – a broadband system linking Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Benito counties.
“It’s good to have some money to actually do the things we’ve been trying to do,” said Joel Staker, the Watsonville City network administrator and chairman of the Central Coast consortium. “We’ve spent a long couple of years working out what we should do and how to approach the problems.”
Public and private industry have complained for years that existing Internet channels, owned largely by AT&T, are limiting their ability to provide transmit large amounts of data quickly, hindering better services and competition in the marketplace.
The consortium, a diverse group of government, private industry, education institutions and others, is one of 15 groups to apply in August for funding from the CPU California Advanced Services Fund – Rural and Regional Urban Consortia Account.
Ten million dollars is available to help regional groups develop plans and policies that support broadband and increase adoption. This grant provides recipients with $150,000 annually for three years. Last month, the CPU conditionally approved funding for the Central Coast consortium along with six others and the vote is expected to be formalized Dec. 1.
“It’s very encouraging to be on the recommended list for CPUC funding and it’s great to have some validation of our efforts to bring more connectivity to the Central Coast,” said Peter Koht, economic development coordinator for the City of Santa Cruz. “This is a regional issue and it’s been wonderful to see so many stakeholders collaborate to bring this economic multiplier to our communities.”
If the PUC formalizes the awards as expected, the local consortium plans to use the money primarily in three areas: identifying where broadband conduits already exist, developing policies that support broadband and reaching out to underserved communities. The focus of this grant is to discover where all the parties can cooperate, share costs to get the job done.
It’s a much scaled-down vision compared to what the consortium put forth last year when it was seeking $56 million in federal stimulus funds to create a 312-mile broadband connection linking the three counties and Silicon Valley.
“We’ve gotten back to the original mission of the consortium to promote broadband development in the Tri-County area and work with government, private industry, nonprofit organizations and education to try to do things that are going to make it possible for us to have better broadband,” said Steve Blum, a consortium member and president of Tellus Venture Associates in Marina, a consulting company specializing in broadband development.
“I wish we’d gotten the $55 million grant,” Blum said. “That would’ve been nice, but it didn’t happen.”
That effort, however, made it possible to put together strong application for this grant, he said.
“We are on track now. It wasn’t a wasted effort.”
The group wants to catalog which municipalities, companies and educational institutions already have pieces of a broadband system in place to facilitate a cheaper collaboration of linkages so the entire system won’t have to be built from scratch when funds do become available.
Since most of the cost of building broadband connectivity isn’t fiber optics materials or conduits but digging up streets, the group also wants to use the grant to develop policies to encourage “open trench policies.” The idea is to share costs on projects that open up the ground so fiber optics can be put in place when someone is fixing sewer lines or laying water pipes.
“We can do a lot by collaborating,” Blum said.
The consortium will be looking at other successful broadband models, such as that in Palo Alto, which has managed to put in fiber optics over a period of time so users can hook in at minimal costs rather than pay exorbitant fees to a private monopoly, Staker said.
“Ultimately we’re not going to fix this thing until somebody spends millions of dollar to break the (data) transport monopoly,” Staker said. “AT&T owns it and really nobody else is willing to go up against them.” He estimates the cost at $150 million. “The key is open access, to be able to sell that transport to any company that wants to service businesses for a reasonable cost so you can actually compete against that monopoly.”
The third, smaller piece of the plan for the grant is to encourage people to use broadband, particularly in underserved communities.
Funds could be available as early as January.
“I think this is great,” Blum said. “You always wish you’d done this five years ago. On the other hand, it’s possible now. You have to focus on the possible and we can move forward from here.”
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