Eastern Sierra road could become literal “information superhighway”
It’s a project so big, there’s every reason to believe it will never happen. But it just might, and if it does, it could represent an event almost as earthshaking as the rise of the mountain ranges that line both sides of U.S. 395, turning the long stretch of road into a literal “information superhighway.”
The Eastern Sierra Broadband project, or “Digital 395,” as it’s come to be known, is a 2-year endeavor that, when completed, is designed to flood the corridor with a level of high-speed Internet service never before seen in the region.
Digital 395’s success depends on funding to install a 364-mile fiber optic “backbone” cable that would run through Kern, Inyo and Mono counties. Primarily using right-of-ways already in existence, the cable would run from Mojave to Bishop, cross over to Casa Diablo, go around the backside of Crowley, up Green Church Road to Bertram Flat Road past Walker, and terminate somewhere in the Minden-Gardnerville area in Nevada.
The project is being driven by Vallejo-based Praxis Associates, which started out as a development company specializing in building rural communities. Having experience with bringing utilities to the middle of nowhere, the idea for the Digital 395 took shape when Praxis executives saw the downturn in the real estate market coming some two years ago. Once the federal stimulus package became a reality, the company saw the more than $84 million Digital 395 concept as suddenly feasible.
Once the “backbone” is online, “edge outs” can be extended to communities such as Benton, Chalfant, Swall Meadows, Paradise, Crowley and along Hwy 6 into tribal lands, giving little ‘ol Mono County as much speed and power as any metropolitan area in the country. Those “edge-outs” can extend as much as 10 miles with no signal loss, and 25 miles with minimal degradation.
The business model is akin to that of a rural electrical cooperative, purchasing bandwidth at volume rates and reselling it to homes and businesses. And it would be an open system, meaning multiple companies can buy space on the network, the size of which would be considerable. Technology currently in the ground utilizes between 4 and 12 strands of paired fiber. The fiber in the Praxis project would contain 243 strands, allowing the network to handle the 100+ million bits per second rate, which is quickly becoming the 21st century standard, and likely taking decades to max out, if ever.
The cable’s technology is reportedly almost beyond cutting edge, capable of handling data speeds 100 times greater than those currently available, allowing services to become available, such as interactive gaming and streaming high-definition video, remote diagnostics and even remote robotic surgery by doctors.
Digital 395 sounds great, but it’s hardly a slam dunk for funding, at least not yet, facing some fierce competition for stimulus funding from projects in larger municipalities, such as Los Angeles. On the upside, the project has some distinct advantages most of those other projects don’t have. For starters, there’s the service area, which targets a large swath (roughly 10%) of central and eastern California.
Next, it hits three key stimulus-funding triggers: defense contractors (including Kern County’s China Lake base to the south, and the Marine base in Mono County to the north), schools from K-12 and colleges all along the route, and tribal lands. And finally it’s “shovel-ready.” All the engineering — wetlands crossing, hard rock, bridges, overpasses, and archaeological and biological studies — is reportedly completed. Plans are already drawn up and crews could start immediately. They just need funding.
In a July 15 brief to Town Council, Mammoth Tourism and Recreation Director Danna Stroud said, “Praxis …thinks the hard part is not boring through solid rock, but penetrating the rules, guidelines and administrative obstacles that society has created.”
At the outset, Praxis planned to fund Digital 395 entirely with a portion of President Barack Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) dollars.
California is expected to receive about $85 billion of the $787 billion federal stimulus money pledged nationally. The fed has allocated $7.8 billion for rural broadband, and the state is seeing $935 million for California expansion. Praxis has stated that without ARRA funding, it’s likely the project will not be built.
One potential obstacle has been put up by the state of California , which has said it will require 20% in local matching funds, something none of the local counties is thrilled about.
Mono County, for one, has already indicated that a match requirement would effectively factor out its participation. Praxis has offered to kick in $10 million of the gap, and get paid back long-term via a modest user fee that would be generated through operation of the nonprofit. The rest would come from a mix of local in-kind contributions, and some California Advanced Services Fund (CASF), money accumulated over the years from a telephone bill surcharge.
U.S. Senators Boxer and Feinstein are both behind the project, as is Congressman Buck McKeon. (Boxer and McKeon formed a powerful alliance that helped pass the Omnibus Public Lands Act earlier this year.) Partners being lined up for support include diverse public and private entities such as both the Town and the County, Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, Southern California Edison, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Mammoth Hospital, cable companies (NPG and Schat), both Eastern Sierra and Mammoth Unified school districts and the Benton Paiute tribe, among others.
Quantifying job creation is a controversial part of the stimulus package, but the project’s two-year construction period is estimated to yield about 900 annual jobs, the vast majority of those based in California. That figure doesn’t include the jobs generated once buyers are on board the system.
Oh, and remember that accidental cable cut last year, the one that plunged much of the Eastern Sierra into digital darkness? This network is said to be “self-healing.” If it’s ever damaged, it can re-route traffic from a different direction until the cut is repaired, all but eliminating outages.
“There have only been two events in my lifetime that match it in terms of scope: the Los Angeles aqueduct and the 395 itself,” commented Mono County District 2 Supervisor Hap Hazard. Announcement of the stimulus grant awards is expected in September.