Digital 395 on hold pending stimulus funding
The Digital 395 broadband “superhighway” project had hoped for a decision on whether it would receive part of President Barack Obama’s stimulus funding by Sept. 24, but as Phase 1 of the funding came and went, the 448-mile cutting edge enterprise is still on hold.
It’s not, however, dead … far from it in fact, as members of the Eastern Sierra Council of Governments (ESCOG) learned from Praxis executive Michael Ort during the organization’s regular meeting in October. Ort is sheperding the project through the local, state and federal corridors of power, and said that while there are still hurdles to be cleared, he thinks the project, which would bring the latest in broadband technology to multiple points along U.S. 395 (thus the name), is “likely to be funded.”
One of those hurdles is a challenge to the project’s service footprint area, to which Orts said Praxis has already responded. That challenge did, however, hamper funding above 80% of Digital 395’s $101.4 million price tag. Ort said Praxis can fund 10% and via a mix of options find the dollars for another 10%.
Another hurdle is getting the fed to approve the deal. “We’ve had 4-5 meetings with the California Public Utilities Commission, and state and federal legislators,” Ort said. “We’ve had mixed support at the federal level, mostly for political and ideological reasons.”
On the upside, however, Ort reported that support at the state level is much broader, and that the fed has indicated it will be looking to California for guidance when making a decision.
“Assemblyman [Tom] Berryhill and others [in the legislature] think [Digital 395] is exactly what ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) is all about,” commented ESCOG Board member Susan Cash.
Part of ARRA calls for $702 billion to be spent on broadband development nationwide. Of that, $935 million is to be spent in California. Part of the problem: applications in the state total more than $2 billion.
“Applying for this type of funding is really tricky, it kicked my butt, I know that,” Ort said. “On one hand, if your project is too small, it’s not considered ‘stimulative.’ If it’s too big, it can be perceived as lacking focus.”
Ort said he’s garnered unsolicited bipartisan support from areas in Southern California that have no “boots-on-the-ground” interest in Digital 395, such as a letter of support from a state senator in Palm Desert, and another from Burbank.
Even the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, while not exactly throwing itself at the project as a partner, has extended an olive branch of sorts, saying it might be able to provide route access along the aqueduct system, should Praxis need that option.
Digital 395, which would likely be run much like a rural electric cooperative, proposes to lay a single, cable network with 14 nodes covering immense chunks of Kern, Inyo and Mono counties. D395 would start in Barstow and terminate in Carson City, Nev. Ort said he’s already had interest from numerous private businesses, and plans to make access available to 395’s Native American reservations as well.
Critics of the project say they don’t like the idea of a federally funded broadband network. They think private enterprise should be allowed to compete for providing the service. Praxis, however, argues that Digital 395 is akin to putting in a section of the nation’s highway system, which they say has always been a legitimate function of government.
Praxis further stated that private attempts could take decades to put together and lead to a patchwork quilt type of network that suffers from a lack of overall consistency.
Prior to Ort’s update, Schat.net president Aaron Schat told ESCOG members he also has an ARRA funding request in, and expressed somewhat lukewarm support for D395, though he qualified that by adding he’s looking at his ARRA broadband project as a “fallback” in case the Praxis project doesn’t happen.
Schat has reportedly said he’s concerned that Praxis may be trying to position itself as a “last mile” provider to compete with Schat and NPG Cable among others. Praxis has never said or published anything to indicate such an intention.
Should the Praxis project be shelved, Schat gave ESCOG members a general description of his proposal, which would help in boosting bandwidth to certain parts of the corridor. However, covering less area and employing more conventional technology, it arguably wouldn’t equal the size and scope of the Digital 395 project.
ESCOG member and Mono County Supervisor Hap Hazard said he’s heard similar grousing from some businesses in his district, many rural farms, all critical of the private versus public funding and the president’s controversial stimulus program. “I put it to them this way … the money’s already spent or is going to be spent. You can have it spent here, and potentially open up avenues that will help the area, or give it to a tumbleweed museum in the midwest,” he said.
Maggie Thompson, NPG Cable General Manager, is a big fan of the project. “A project such as this one only comes along once in a lifetime,” Thompson said.
Funding announcements were expected by early November, but have been delayed until Nov. 20. Recent testimony from area officials before the state’s stimulus funding committee in Sacramento seems to indicate that, should funding from the fed be disbursed as expected, enough committee members are inclined to support D395’s approval.