Inyo County is constructing a plan to equip the Owens Valley with “technical infrastructure” in an ambitious proposal it has dubbed the 21st Century Obsidian Project.
“It is the future,” said Inyo County Administrator Kevin Carunchio, who compared the need for digital fiber today to the need for electricity at the turn of the last century. “Everything in life as we know it is being driven off of fiber. It’s critical infrastructure.”
Carunchio, who has taken charge of the project along with Inyo County Director of Information Services Brandon Shults, envisions technology as the key to the growth of the Owens Valley.
With the completion of Digital 395, Carunchio said, “We have the best middle mile project in the country. There’s nothing technologically superior to Digital 395, yet people aren’t building out of it … we have this fire hose and people are sipping from it out of cocktail straws.”
Jokingly describing himself as “impatient,” Carunchio said instead of waiting for contractors to take on the projects themselves, Inyo County will hold the reins.
“We’re thinking of it as roads,” said Inyo County Information Services Director Brandon Shultz, explaining that, while Inyo County will be applying for grants similar to those for which Race Communications applied to tackle the Gigafy Mono Project, they will be moving forward regardless.
“If we want to compete with the urban areas we’re going to need this kind of infrastructure, and the private sector won’t pay for it because there’s no return on investment. We don’t care if we get paid back in 40 years,” said Shultz.
The Obsidian Project will approach its funding in essentially the opposite direction as the Gigafy Mono Project, he said.
“It’s not an either-or proposition,” said Carunchio. “The model currently being deployed in Mono County could be duplicated in Inyo and what we’re trying to do with Obsidian in Inyo could be duplicated in Mono.
“The deal with final mile networks as opposed to middle mile networks is middle mile networks need to get done regionally. They go across huge expanses and multiple jurisdictions, and we all came together and got it done. But when you’re dealing with final mile projects it’s really a neighborhood by neighborhood proposition and that is what is so key.”
“We don’t have to do the whole valley at one time,” said Shultz. We look for areas that have got low-hanging fruit…we’re going to look for first unserved communities because those are ripe for grants.”
Darwin has been held up as an example of a community that would greatly benefit from broadband and qualifies for grants, but is economically very difficult to reach.
Mono County’s Information Technology Director Nate Greenberg said that “[the estimate for] building up to Darwin is $3.5 million, and there’s only 40 homes up there, so the cost is astronomically expensive compared to [Gigafy Mono],” which had a per-household cost of about $12,000—still considered expensive. When doling out grants, the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) doesn’t just look at need. “They look at it as how many people benefit from the overall project expense,” said Greenberg.
“But that’s where you say ‘either put up or shut up,’” said Carunchio of funding the connection to Darwin. “You either had electricity or didn’t have electricity 100 years ago.
“Nothing in our society is stopping,” Carunchio said, “it’s all gonna be run over a fiber network so guess what? Darwin becomes medieval if they only have 30 megabytes of service.”
Shultz expects that a contract for the beginning stages of the Obsidian Project will be completed in late winter or early spring of 2016. Inyo County put out a Request for Proposals (RFP) in December of 2014 and so far two companies have expressed interest in the project, one of which is Praxis, the contractor behind the Digital 395 Project.
Carunchio said that the Obsidian Project, named in honor of the smooth black stones that gave Eastern Sierra natives a technological advantage in tool-making, will do the same for its modern residents. “We are [connecting] the most underserved communities in so many senses, and they will end up with some of the most state-of-the-art technology in the nation,” he said. “And I think that’s beautiful.”