Fed awards $$ for Digital 395 project
Praxis CEO Michael Ort isn’t looking back. Much. Ort, whose company is spearheading the Digital 395 broadband infrastructure project, found out earlier this week that the company was awarded the final chunk of funding needed to start work on the fiberoptic data superhighway project.
In a statement issued Wednesday morning, Ort and the California Broadband Cooperative (CBC), the non-profit organization that will own and operate D395, said the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) awarded a broadband infrastructure investment grant to the CBC.
The grant, totaling $81.1 million, will fund the construction of the D395 middle-mile fiberoptic network between Barstow, Calif., and Carson City, Nev. The NTIA grant contributes up to 80% of the total project funding. The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and Praxis Associates, the project’s private partner, will provide the remaining funds. In December 2009, the California Public Utilities Commission, through its California Advanced Services Fund, awarded the project up to $19.3 million in state matching funds, entirely eliminating that burden from county and local governments. Inyo, Kern and Mono counties did, however, provide what Ort called “essential in-kind support” to the project as it was being developed for application.
Top legislators, including Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Congressman Buck McKeon (R-25th District) learned of the decision on Tuesday, but Ort and other key players were formally notified early Wednesday morning in a conference call that was followed by much celebrating, as the news made its way across the Eastern Sierra.
The $100+ million project relied heavily on obtaining funding from President Barack Obama’s American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA) stimulus package, which has been roundly criticized as not doing enough to fund projects that will actually stimulate the economy. Hardly a slam dunk, the project missed the first round of funding, and delays and a second application kept the drama at a fever pitch as it made its way through the second round.
Supporters locally and across the state of California have pushed hard to get the Capitol Hill funding committee for broadband projects and other considerations to take note of D395, as its become known, emphasizing its capacity to generate numerous funding streams upon its approval.
Among other things, income tax from the workforce, business revenue from providers signing on to use the network that will bring cutting edge broadband to a largely underserved portion of U.S. 395, not to mention some $2 million in sales taxes alone that will be paid on equipment for the project.
When completed, the 583-mile project will directly connect more than 237 hospitals, schools, libraries, military bases, local governments, last-mile service providers and other anchor institutions to the high-speed broadband network — as well as create, it is estimated, hundreds of long-term local jobs.
What Ort thinks was really key to getting the project approved was broad, bipartisan support. By the time D395 was winding its way through the corridors of power in the nation’s Capitol, it had the backing of not only Boxer and McKeon, but also local and county governments, numerous supervisors, California Assemblymen and State Senators, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, White House staff, and very likely even President Obama, who’s made it one of his administration’s stated priorities to bring broadband to underserved or previously unserved parts of the country.
“When you look it at on a practical level, and you leave philosophy and ideology on the sidelines where they belong, this is how you get things done,” Ort said. “Focus on a problem and work together to arrive at a practical solution.”
He’s happy, to be sure, but already starting to look to the project’s implementation and what happens once its online.
Cell service in remote areas is just one application he sees as helping benefit the region. “People use their phones for everything now, especially with all the G3 and G4 applications, and having smooth, seamless cellular will only enhance their having a good time, whether they’re visiting or locals,” Ort pointed out.
Mono County Supervisor Hap Hazard, who some thought crazy for getting behind the project from its early incarnation, turned out to be crazy like a fox. “I’m overjoyed,” Hazard said upon getting the news of the funding approval. “I’m thrilled for everyone, especially the Eastern Sierra.”
According to many familiar with the project, the deployment of D395 compares to the major historical milestones such as the Los Angeles Aqueduct and U.S. 395 in terms of its scope, scale and regional significance. Hazard said he’s gratified to be part of something so meaningful to the area. “When we got the additional funding from the CPUC, which their staff worked really hard to get, and it went from $10 million to almost $20 million, I knew we had a real shot.” Hazard said there are lots of people to thank. “It was a huge, team effort. All the partners who worked so hard and lent their support all deserve kudos.”
He also pointed out that funding the project, which he observed is every bit a highway, just one for data instead of cars, is exactly what government should be doing … fostering the environment for this type of vital infrastructure.
NPG Cable General Manager Maggie Thompson said, “NPG Cable is absolutely thrilled. We’re chomping at the bit to get started. Anything D395 needs from us, we’re here for them.”
“It’s the best economic news since the coming of the railroad,” observed High Sierra Energy Foundation Executive Director Rick Phelps. “It’s wonderful news!” Phelps observed that in this area, Boxer and McKeon have worked together well in a bipartisan fashion. “And this is exactly the kind of thing that your Senator and Congressman should work together on.”
“CBC thanks President Obama’s administration and the NTIA for bringing jobs to California, and for enabling the construction of this vital regional infrastructure,” said Robert Volker, CEO of the CBC. “We would also like to thank the state of California and representatives of local government in the Eastern Sierra for their tremendous support.”
Meanwhile, the contracts will soon be sent to the CBC for signing. The plan reportedly is for D395 construction to begin by spring 2011.