Report and Analysis on the Broadband Master Plan

The following summary was offered by SCCBC Chair and Cofounder of Cruzio Internet, Peggy Dolgenos. 

In 2013, the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors voted to create a Broadband Master Plan. They hired a nationally known consulting firm called Design Nine in November 2014 to assess the existing situation in the unincorporated areas of the county and to propose possible actions. The report was made public last week and was discussed at the Supervisors’ meeting on February 11th. Click here to read the full report.

The findings weren’t surprising: the broadband situation in Santa Cruz County is not good. At best, most people in the County have access to what the firm terms “little broadband,” which is DSL or cable. There is little choice in speed, price or features, and national providers have no plans for major upgrades.

The report describes the need for broadband, both nationally and locally, citing a plethora of facts and statistics. Suffice to say it’s important and getting more so. It also mentions that all told, County residents, businesses and other institutions currently pay $200 million per year for Internet and other telecommunications over the existing infrastructure.

The report also highlighted, as an opportunity, the Sunesys fiberoptic backbone, paid for largely by grants from the state, which will run from Santa Cruz to Soledad and will be installed in 2016.

Design Nine went through possible ways to improve our lack of broadband: 1) Let private companies continue to use their own investment and determine their own development activities, as they have done for the last two decades. 2) Create a government-owned and operated network. 3) Engage in a public-private partnership. The firm clearly favored the third option.

Additionally, the firm did an analysis of what it would take to construct the kind of broadband facilities which can serve the telecommunication needs for decades — namely, starting by installing fiberoptic cable to serve dozens of buildings in key neighborhoods. Once a first project was finished, the network could be extended from there. They examined several areas, no doubt suggested by County staff, and estimated the cost to serve them — if all the proposed work was done, about $9 million. They suggested various methods for financing, building and maintaining a fiberoptic network under the supervision of the County.

Author Analysis: Design Nine clearly had a favorite methodology. They were correct about the need and value of Internet around the County — in fact they probably underestimated the lack of options in rural areas. As for precedent, a number of local governments (not a large number — under 50) around the USA have created their muni networks and the report mentioned many of these. Overall, I think they are correct that some community action is needed or else many parts of the County will be left behind, including government facilities. The idea of a public-private partnership may be a necessary one, but it’s risky and will require a good business plan. Another question is whether County staff is ready to take on the level of control proposed in the report. The benefits of their proposed new entity and the infrastructure it’s charged with building would be the opportunity for many companies to compete to sell services (e.g. Internet, telephone, video, security), and for a more rapid and widespread development of Internet infrastructure than would otherwise happen. The downside is a threat of public efforts interfering with private business, which could be controversial, and the risk of making a mess of a big project. It is the opinion of this author that some community action is necessary, whatever it might be. Infrastructure is expensive, and we’ll have an even more uneven system if it’s left to grow without attention and help. In discussion, John Leopold mentioned working together with Comcast in the past, and perhaps that could be extended to other providers as well — whether in a joint enterprise, as described in the report, or in smaller projects.