The FCC Could Help Make Good Local Broadband Models Great

Santa Cruz, California

Santa Cruz, California

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Santa Cruz County has taken steps to improve internet accessibility in its rural parts but wants local government to have more of a say in federal and state broadband policy discussions.

WASHINGTON — Santa Cruz County, California has spent the last five years removing policy barriers to local broadband deployment.

Located 30 miles south of Silicon Valley, the second smallest county in the state has a population of around 250,000 across its coastal and rural areas.

In 2013, Santa Cruz County approached internet service providers and asked them how it might streamline broadband infrastructure installation, receiving the same response:

“Local governments are impediments to the process and our permitting processes interfere with their development timelines,” said Patrick Mulhearn, policy analyst with the county, during a Thursday afternoon Next Century Cities congressional briefing in D.C.

So Santa Cruz County changed its culture to one of customer service, issuing technical specifications for conduit and rights of way.

A master lease agreement was created making it easier for ISPs to use county facilities, as was a broadband master plan identifying areas, including rural areas, lacking access. The county mapped conduit versus fiber routes as part of the plan.

Santa Cruz County has already defined “small cells” ahead of the realization of 5G technology.

Discretionary permits were changed to administration permits, so now all ISPs need to do is to meet their criteria, saving time as well as money because the fees charged now match costs.

While major ISPs could be profitable in the county within five years, Mulhearn said, most want return on investment within 18 months at the latest.

“Other communities are just so rural that it doesn’t make sense for a for-profit, Wall Street-type company to drag fiber … miles down the road,” said Jeremy Pietzold, Sandy, Oregon city council president and Sandynet chair.

About 20 miles east of Portland, near Mount Hood, Sandy has around 11,000 residents and “realized we would dry up as a town” without broadband Pietzold said.

Because incumbent ISPs were only offering dial-up internet the city developed its own digital subscriber line— now operated by a wireless internet service provider. Fiber was run to every house in town at a 60 percent take rate with the monthly price for gigabit internet $59.95.

Incumbent ISP started offering DSL in short order, and even the local cable provider got into the internet game while lowering its prices.

Local broadband experts at the briefing agreed they want more of a voice in policymaking and seats on the Federal Communication Commission’s Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee.

Pietzold hopes the FCC will provide federal loan guarantees, cut some of the red tape and possibly issue another Broadband Technology Opportunities Program stimulus treating it like a utility.

Mulhearn wants to see the FCC mandate regional broadband planning agencies similar to what the 1962 Federal-Aid Highway Act did.

“We frequently aren’t consulted when these policies are being made,” Mulhearn said.

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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