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Broadband coming to Mendocino County

A road through trees with a shiny green trail alongside it, symbolizing internet connectivity.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:3-GIS_lighted_road_broadband.jpg
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https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:3-GIS_lighted_road_broadband.jpg
GIS-lighted road with broadband, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The State of California plans to install fiber along the state highways, while the county will be responsible for organizing $57 million worth of last mile fiber in unserved communities.

May 20, 2022 — Mendocino County is set to receive $57 million for last-mile broadband internet infrastructure. With the passage of Senate Bill 156 last year, which provides more than six billion dollars for broadband in the State of California, the county is considering 27 projects in unserved communities, where it must spend the money before January 1, 2027.

The plan is for the county-led last mile projects to be taking place as the State installs middle mile infrastructure along the state highways that criss-cross the county. Supervisor Ted Williams said the two sets of projects are funded slightly differently, with the county not receiving the actual money to fund its portion of the work.

“That $57 million won’t come in the form of a check to the county,” he said. “The model has us steering these funds to be used in the way we think best serves our county. All five of us (county supervisors) should be thinking about how to accomplish the goal of ubiquitous broadband.” He said a previous effort to map projects to serve the unserved showed approximately $550 million worth of projects, “so on one hand, $57 million is historic…it’s also 10% of what we were originally looking at.” He hopes that, with lots of cheap fiber available, small internet service providers will step in to offer service to people in outlying areas.

Jeff Tyrell, the Administrator of the Broadband Alliance of Mendocino County, provided more detail, cautioning that $57 million doesn’t go as far as it used to. The cost of the 27 last-mile projects came out to $69 million. But Tyrell said that estimate did not exclude the middle mile projects, which will be paid for by the state. “So I’m confident that under those cost structures, if they're accurate, the real total of those 27 projects would come in line with the $57 million,” he said, but added that the cost of fiber has risen by 15% in the last year, and labor costs may have doubled.

Carrie Shattuck, a frequent critic of the Board, wondered if the new service would overlap with areas that are already served by the incumbents, like AT&T and Comcast. The Board hopes that the cheaply available, government-owned fiber soon to be installed along the state highways will encourage competition, resulting in lower prices for consumers. Shattuck pointed out that $57 million for 27 projects comes out to just a little over $2 million for each project. “I'm sure it’s going to cost far more than that, just in the Covelo area alone,” she said, not to mention environmental studies and permits and the possibility of hiring outside consultants. “In the long run, is that even going to come close to the amount of money that’s needed to get this to these areas?” she asked. Williams agreed that the money is unlikely to fulfill every need, but said the alternative is sending the one-time money back to the state. As to cost overruns, Shattuck wondered if the county would be required to fulfill contracts if the money runs out in the middle of a project. Williams does not believe those overruns will impact the county.

The planned trenching to install fiber along Highway 162 leading to Covelo is part of the state middle mile project, not the last mile work that the county is responsible for organizing. Supervisor John Haschak told Shattuck that “If the middle mile is all covered by the state, in theory, that means that we will complete those routes that were on state highways. We just need to decide what the final mile is with the $57 million.”

Tyrell said the environmental studies would not eat into the $57 million award, explaining that “The Local Agency Technical Assistance grants, which provide the environmental studies, is supplemental to the federal funding account of California Advanced Services Fund. So you don’t have to do the environmental studies or the feasibility studies out of the last mile dollars. The $57 million remains intact. And all of it is grant funded. None of what I spoke about today comes out of county dollars, except for the staff time of existing employees.”

Projects could start as early as July of this year.