It will take money, time and political will to get there, those involved in the effort say, but in every delay lie missed economic opportunities. Meanwhile, the divide grows between urban and rural, and wealthy and low-income communities.

Many see broadband as the fourth utility, alongside water, electricity, and gas. It’s that important.

What is broadband?

To consider the difference between a typical cable-provided internet connection and a fiber optic one, picture a 2-inch-wide pipe.

Now, picture fiber optic as a 15-foot-wide river.

The river allows for 10 movies to download in a second, has the capacity to run an entire business remotely, allows autonomous cars to travel freely as passengers tap their iPhones or laptops, and opens the door for communities with the river running through it to be global leaders in energy efficiency, health care, and technology.

And more and more places in the U.S. are missing out on that opportunity, writes Susan Crawford in her just-released book, “Fiber: The Coming Tech Revolution ― and Why America Might Miss It.”

In the book, Crawford, who uses the pipe and river examples, makes the case for why it’s so critical to get broadband speeds to everyone and uses places that have done it as case studies.

“All the policies important to us as a country — becoming the most advanced health care nation in the world, the most energy efficient, the most innovative, the most resilient — depend on having last-mile fiber and advanced wireless services available cheaply to everyone,” Crawford writes. “We must do better.”

Fiber optic cables are strands as thick as human hair that transmits information through coded beams of light down (usually) glass pipes. What makes broadband so key is it’s symmetrical, meaning speeds to upload information are as fast as speeds to download it.

VIDEO: How to use an internet speed test to check just how fast your connection is

Wiring up the Central Coast

The Broadband Consortium of the Pacific Coast is funded by the California Public Utilities Commission as part of its mission to improve broadband deployment, access, and adoption across the state.

In 2016, the consortium commissioned an analysis of Ventura County’s situation. Cities received anywhere from a low B to a D rating, said Mike Pettit, the Ventura County government’s assistant chief executive officer, and former information technology director.

Pettit envisions a countywide network of broadband that provides access to everyone for work, education and the overall quality of life. Being able to work remotely, for instance, only works if the right technology is in place.

“We really need to get out in front of the growing demand. If we don’t, we’ll be further behind strategy planning and preparing for the future,” Pettit said.

Bill Simmons, the consortium’s coordinator, said central to the effort was having political and civic leadership.

“You’ve got to reach a tipping point. More and more cities and the elected officials are moving forward with strategies and plans and investments,” he said.

MORE: Broadband networks, fiber optic cables could help detect earthquakes

Members of the consortium are collectively and individually working on the matter, in some cases helping to link up partners.

Take Santa Paula’s 1,500-home development Harvest at Limoneira, formerly known as East Area One. The developers struck a deal with San Luis Obispo-based Digital West to lay fiber optic cable while the ground was open, said Bruce Stenslie, president, and chief executive officer of the Economic Development Collaborative, which acts as the fiscal agent for the consortium.

“That’s purely a private-sector solution. The scale of it works, and you can lay it fairly inexpensively,” he said. “Those are the kinds of relationships that we’re trying to nurture.”

The effort is so vast, it would require a spectrum of involvement. Public bodies need to prioritize the spread of broadband and develop policies that encourage investment by private telecommunication companies, Stenslie said.

Although the private sector is seen as lifting the heaviest load, in terms of infrastructure and financial investment, the public sector will need to play a big role, too, those involved say.

Grades were higher were in east Ventura County, where Verizon had installed fiber several years ago as part of its FiOS operations. Frontier Communications Corp. has since taken over those operations, as Verizon left the landline broadband market here.

That brings up a problem: the lack of competition among internet service providers and unwillingness to invest in broadband, which Crawford and other research traces back to deregulation over the past 15 to 20 years.

Who gets broadband? Follow the money…

Powerful technology companies lobbied for and now control how and where to unroll fiber. Largely, that’s been in wealthy communities where people can afford expensive broadband.

“They have no incentive to charge less or to upgrade to fiber,” Crawford said during an interview with CDT’s Tech Talk.

Listen to the interview below.

What wound up happening is a cable provider has a basic monopoly over the internet.

“Companies decide who to serve and on what terms,” Crawford said.

That’s the case in much of the city of Ventura, where one cable company rules the roost. That means some business owners must leave their work, to go home or a coffee shop to get high-moving internet that’s not available on site.

Other businesses simply go without or elsewhere because the cost of internet is too high or not available at the speeds they need.

A key part of the equation is having California increase its connection requirements, Simmons said. Right now, there’s a significant imbalance on requirements for downloading and uploading information  — those for downloading are significantly faster. “Speeds aren’t fast enough for our future needs,” he said.

Stenslie said another issue is that the California Public Utilities Commission requires cable companies to hit the speeds they promise, but it doesn’t have to be all the time. It could be at 3 a.m. when no one else is online, he said.

Anything less than 100 megabytes won’t allow a business to operate effectively in the 21st century, he said.

Ventura’s broadband champion…

George Amandola is a familiar face to many in Ventura. For the better part of two years, the business owner has been a regular fixture at City Council meetings.

At a meeting in January, Amandola spoke during discussion of a routine item: the capital improvement plan, which lays out work on the water and sewage systems, roads and other infrastructure planned for the months and years ahead.

By the time the next capital improvement plan is approved, he said, 12 months will have passed along with $60 million worth of planned projects. Each time a road is dug up is a missed opportunity to put in fiber, he said.

Amandola was pushing the city to get a “dig-once” policy in place. Basically, that means if a road is being dug up for water, sewer, energy or other work, fiber optic cable is laid.

It is not a new consideration. The 1999 Ventura Vision statement listed as one of its objectives the importance of coordinating projects such as the installation of “new fiber optic cables, waterline with routine road maintenance for greater efficiency.”

Twenty years ago, the City Council had the foresight to consider these things, he said. Now, an analysis of the market, business, and financial implications by Magellan Advisors was being delayed. The city in July hired Magellan for $83,700 to do that work, which would include a dig-once policy.

The work was expected to be done by January; it’s since been bumped to June.

“The question I have: Is it apathy or negligence at this point? Which is it?“ Amandola asked.

To Amandola, it’s a matter of economic vibrancy, of what businesses Ventura could attract and what the city could be with broadband. After a recent Economic Development Committee meeting, where staff members updated the group on those efforts, Amandola said he was heartened to see leadership on the issue, particularly from council members Cheryl Heitmann and Christy Weir.

One of the complicating factors of developing a dig-once policy becomes who pays for the work, and who coordinates between the involved agencies, Stenslie said. The fiber itself isn’t that expensive, so getting it in when the road’s open is important.

Stenslie said local governments can also encourage provider access to publicly owned ducts and conduits.

“Make clear to potential providers what is the regulatory landscape and what are the requirements. Allow multiple provider access to utility poles and rights of way,” Stenslie said. “All of this helps promote competition.”

Oxnard’s untapped fiber market…

Oxnard hired Magellan around the same time as Ventura. But Oxnard has a good start on the effort. It has close to 38 miles of fiber in the ground that’s ready to be tapped, said Keith Brooks, information technology director for the city.

The fiber was installed as part of a traffic update Oxnard did some years ago. Ventura is hoping to do the same with its planned traffic light upgrade.

“We knew the future was fiber, and we had to take action,” Brooks said.

Like the city of Ventura, Oxnard surveyed businesses about their broadband needs. In a few months, they’ll return to the City Council with recommendations for where to start.

“The first question we ask when we do community meetings is: Would you buy a house somewhere where you have no internet?” he said. “And neither would a business locate where there’s no internet connection.”

Brooks said people need that fourth utility or they can’t function.

“People are paying a lot of money for fairly low speeds,” he said. “We need to be gigabit or better if we want to be an attractive location for businesses, to relocate to expand their operations. There’s a pent-up need and that’s what we’re trying to meet.”

Getting broadband to everyone. It can be done.

In many countries in Asia, the government has led the charge in getting broadband. In South Korea, Crawford writes, there are 375,000 miles of fiber optic cables and the county has spent $100 billion since the 1990s laying out the network.

The result is cheap internet service with basically no lag time that’s available to every home and business.

Getting that kind of access into everyone’s hands will mean the difference between a society of equal access and equity and one that leaves millions behind.

“Today, a thriving life does involve having a fiber connection that’s responsibly priced and ubiquitous,” Crawford told CDT’s Tech Talk.

It is, she said, as important as basic education.

Simmons said Ventura County has a lot going for it and a lot to offer.

“We really are a unique place to try new things and show where innovations can occur,” he said. “That’s what’s exciting to me.”


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