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Up to Speed

news2Newly approved state funding means better broadband infrastructure for Santa Cruz County

Streaming an episode of “Game of Thrones” is serious business. When swept away to such a realm of suspense, there’s no bigger mood killer than the constant fits and starts of a slow Internet connection—imagine, if you will, a sudden stop just as the infamous “Red Wedding” scene begins to unfold. We frantically hit reload, let slip a few choice curse words, or maybe shake angry fists at the Internet gods.

But the problem lies beneath our feet. Underground, overworked tubes of fiber optic cables are backed up with the information from thousands of other computers, all accessing the Internet at the same moment.

“A lot of what we do now requires high-speed Internet at large capacities,” says Second District County Supervisor Zach Friend. “Imagine it being a pipe that you push water down and it currently can’t hold the amount of water that’s being sent down it. We want to expand the capacity to meet the current needs and the expanding needs.”

But there is more at stake than streaming your favorite TV show. The sluggish Internet abilities take the biggest toll on tech startups and home-based businesses who require high bandwidth capacity to thrive, and professionals in fields like medicine and higher education who suffer when they can’t send data to colleagues in an efficient manner.           

To change this, Friend and others in local government have collaborated with the private sector, the Central Coast Broadband Consortium (CCBC), and individuals at UC Santa Cruz, among others, to improve the broadband infrastructure within the county and along the Central Coast. The goal was to spur economic growth and improve the lives of residents in the region by advocating for a new broadband “backbone.”

After two years and five months of letters, meetings, surveys, proposals, and paperwork, their efforts are about to pay off.

On April 10, the California Public Utilities Commission granted $10.6 million to fund a new 91-mile broadband network extending from the City of Santa Cruz south through Aptos, Capitola, and Watsonville, and farther down into Monterey and San Benito counties.

“It will be a huge boon for some of the most economically disadvantaged areas from Santa Cruz to Soledad,” says Friend.

Funding for the project comes in part from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF), a compulsory telephone surcharge that is collected to improve the broadband infrastructure in areas that either are underserved or are not served by current Internet service providers.

The state funding represents approximately 80 percent of the total $13.3 million price tag of the estimated two-year project. Sunesys, a fiber-optic telecommunications service provider based out of Pennsylvania, will contribute the remaining 20 percent of funds, and will build and own the broadband network for a minimum of five years. Once the conduit is in the ground, Sunesys will sell the broadband connectivity to Internet service providers at whole sale rates.

The broadband “backbone” will allow local Internet service providers like Cruzio Internet and Surfnet Communications to compete with incumbent corporate providers such as Comcast and Verizon, according to Mark Morgenthaler of Surfnet Communications.

“The big carriers have already built fiber through the community and paid for it, but the rates that they set in the community are so high that you can’t buy it and resell it and make any kind of profit,” says Morgenthaler.

Aside from getting permits approved, one of the biggest challenges for those pushing for the broadband project, such as Steve Blum, president of Tellus Venture Associates and board member of the CCBC, was proving that the incumbent Internet companies were not actually providing the services that they were claiming to.

“In order to do that we had to produce a lot of quantitative data and that was a challenge, but it was also successfully met. It took a lot of hard work by a lot of people,” says Blum.

This hard work came in the form of driving out to the areas that were underserved or not served by incumbent providers, like Comcast, and testing whether the incumbent’s claims that they were serving these areas were true by spot checking the actual coverage present in these locations.

UCSC network engineer Jim Warner and director of IT Brad Smith were instrumental in gathering and analyzing the data. The pair also worked closely with Sunesys in 2010 when the company installed the broadband conduit line from Sunnyvale to the City of Santa Cruz.

When pegging who will benefit from the newest expansion of broadband, Morgenthaler points to four key groups.

“The first one is the residents who are going to get better broadband at lower prices. The second one is the cities and counties,” says Morgenthaler. “The third is the universities and colleges—Cabrillo, UCSC, CSUMB. And the fourth group of people that benefits are the local ISP’s [Internet service providers].”

Looking ahead, Smith foresees high school and junior college students prospering from higher bandwidth, as well as the students and faculty at UCSC. Smith also sees those in healthcare and emergency services benefitting from the new fiber. Most of all, Smith hopes that citizens and local Internet service providers will take full advantage of the broadband backbone when the project is complete.

“If you think about roads, it’s like we’re building the first highway down the middle of this area,” he says, “and now all the branching roads need to be built off of the side of it.”  

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