Can Open Access Solve California’s Rural Broadband Dilemma?

One could be forgiven for assuming that California, a state famous for technology, would have better connectivity for even its rural residents.

But many of the state’s counties have profound broadband challenges, including the classic example of big telecommunications companies not investing in infrastructure in more remote areas due to a lack of a compelling business case.

This is part of the reason why the Rural County Representatives of California (RCRC), an organization that represents 38 of the state’s 58 counties, has chosen the open access municipal broadband model as the most viable solution to the high-speed Internet problems faced by its member counties.

And the rural counties won’t have to implement the open access network idea by themselves, thanks to a new partnership between RCRC affiliate Golden State Connect Authority and Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency (UTOPIA) Fiber.

Barbara Hayes, chief economic development officer for RCRC, said the decision to partner with UTOPIA was based on a simple question.

“What’s the path of least resistance that will get us to providing service to our member counties the quickest?” she said.

Hayes said RCRC looked at other broadband deployment models before landing on open access. The electric cooperative model, a hit in Mississippi, wouldn’t have panned out for all of California’s most rural counties.

“For a state as big as California, they’re not as prevalent as you would think,” Hayes explained. The state only has three such cooperatives.

Initially, RCRC thought it would emulate UTOPIA’s success as opposed to partnering with the Utah-based organization. But in the end, it made little sense to pursue the open access concept with a blank canvas, so to speak. Hayes said being able to lean on the expertise of UTOPIA is one of the most attractive aspects of the partnership.

“It could be years of work standing up an organization to build and organize this effort from scratch, or we can hit the ground running,” said Roger Timmerman, executive director and CEO of UTOPIA. “With a partnership with UTOPIA, we can identify an area, do high-level designs and estimates for that area, model that project out, and line up all the necessary materials, construction contractors, engineering contractors, and actually hit the ground with construction in a very short period of time compared to what an independent effort would look like.”

To date, UTOPIA has done about $450 million worth of fiber projects. Most of the projects are in Utah, where 19 cities have benefited from UTOPIA’s help. The organization also has projects in Idaho and Montana. All together, UTOPIA’s networks are approaching 50,000 subscribers. And Timmerman said the California partnership has “enormous potential” to be even bigger than the established Utah projects.

One of the most notable things about UTOPIA’s success is its lack of traditional broadband funding — notwithstanding that the organization isn’t opposed to California tapping into such funds where appropriate.

“[They’re] all paying their way,” Timmerman pointed out. “There’s no cost to taxpayers. There’s no subsidies. There really isn’t even grant money in those [existing UTOPIA] projects.”

Timmerman was quick to point out that UTOPIA had to be “stubborn” to make its model work. It didn’t have the economy of scale at first. It suffered through some unfruitful partnerships with providers. It was legally challenged by big incumbents.

But the broadband landscape is drastically different now.

“In recent years, things have changed,” Timmerman said. “The communities that are looking at different options have identified they’re going to have to step in … The previous attempts of just throwing subsidy money at incumbent providers was not providing them with long-term solutions. It’s just a short-term Band-Aid. Those incumbents keep coming back to the money pool, saying, ‘Give us some more money, give us some more money’ for small incremental upgrades, and they often don’t deliver on their commitments.”

Still, Hayes pointed out that the goal of open access isn’t to “knock anyone out of the way,” big companies included. On the contrary, open access has the attractive element of not requiring any company to pay for infrastructure. Instead, it gives any provider a roadway to communities that may have been unreachable before.

The benefits of open access to consumers is more obvious: multiple broadband options that can be switched out whenever a household wants.

“There’s no physical work needed [to switch broadband providers],” Timmerman said. “It’s simply an update to the configuration … It’s an instant thing. And that’s beautiful.”

For Hayes and her constituents, gigabit-level speeds will also be beautiful. She said RCRC is “looking to start the conversation at gig” — a previously unthinkable type of dialog for many rural Californians.

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