Pictured: A Digital 395 cable placement crew/
Digital 395 is coming one county closer to completion, Praxis Associates CEO Michael Ort reported at Tuesday’s Inyo County Board of Supervisors meeting. Construction headed by Praxis began late last year in Mono County and Nevada, and is now continuing into Inyo County during what Ort described as an exceptionally cold, early winter. Ort related a recent story about rescuing a cable-laying crew from the Virginia Lakes area in Mono County using snowmobiles when a big snowstorm hit. “It reminded me of the Donner Party,” he said wryly. “Only they got a better meal at the end.”
Winter weather is just one of the many challenges facing the completion of the fiber optic project, which aims to create a broadband link between Barstow and Carson City by July of this year. “The permit process took us all the way through the sixth of August,” Ort explained. “We have literally less than a year to construct.” Permitting and cultural review has been a lengthy effort largely due to the over 40 different agencies involved in the project, which, according to a Mono County press release in November of last year, resulted in over a hundred different issued permits.
“As I said at one of our first meetings, it’s easier for us to drill through solid rock than penetrate the labyrinth of rules and regulations,” Ort said. Many of those rules and regulations pertain to cultural sites on tribal lands, and to environmentally sensitive areas. Ort reported the construction team’s first encounter with a desert tortoise at the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station; “It’s very challenging, dealing with a desert tortoise habitat,” he said. Digital 395 also crosses through areas known for sage grouse and goshawk nesting sites, which means construction must occur during certain, seasonal windows to avoid any threat to the birds.
When it comes to sites of cultural significance, “We either go around or bore under sensitive areas,” Ort explained. This has cost the project not the $4-6 million originally budgeted for cultural and environmental mitigation, but closer to $23 million. “We’ve had to suck [that cost] up in other ways by cutting staff, and by being aggressive with contractors and suppliers,” Ort said. “We’re in a constant revision of the budget.”
That said, Ort assured Inyo County Supervisors that Digital 395 is still looking good, cost-wise. “We’re very comfortable about getting all of the network in by July,” he said. According to Ort, progress is going well on the ‘backbone’ of the project, with 203 miles (3.2 million feet) of conduit installed, 116 miles of fiber optic cable installed, and 15 of 84 project segments completed. “We’ve gone through some of the most difficult segments,” Ort said.
In Inyo, the project will now focus on closing the gap between Bishop and China Lake, with the main construction effort beginning on Feb 4 and running through April 22. Construction crews have already completed portions at China Lake, Casa Diablo Road, and Highway 6 to Poleta Road.
Supervisor Linda Arcularius noted that Digital 395 has a great deal of oversight from both the federal and state government, in addition to local agencies. Ort agreed; “The federal government places a great deal of vigilance on the project,” he said. “The State also completely scrutinizes expenditures. We also have an independent auditor who is monitoring the project as well.”
Negotiations with local agencies are also far from over, given the recent example of a challenge to construction along Casa Diablo Road. Supervisor Jeff Griffiths brought up a complaint expressed to him about the visual impact of Digital 395 to the Casa Diablo tablelands area, asking Ort if there was any validity to the concern.
Ort explained that the route taken by the project was on the edge of the road on the eastern shoulder. Construction adhered closely to the road in order to create minimal disruption to the landscape, which has been shaped by thousands of years of pyroclastic flow. Said Ort, “The Bureau of Land Management said we had incurred into areas we shouldn’t have incurred into, and as a result, asked us to stop construction. Right after we plow, we end up with boulders. It looks unpleasant before we remediate. The plan isn’t to leave it that way. We’ll fix it, we just need to be allowed to get back in there when the BLM and us come to a final resolution.”
Challenges like this one are what make the Digital 395 project both literally and figuratively groundbreaking. As Supervisor Arcularius observed, “This is a huge project. You had a lot of unknowns to begin with, and people put their reputations on the line to accomplish it. What you’ve learned is really important information.”
Michael Ort agreed. “I think this project is a microcosm,” he said. “I think this is a learning opportunity for the nation.”
Once the Inyo County portion of the project is completed, Ort promised connectivity all the way to Barstow. “There’s still quite a lot of construction required in Mono County and Nevada, so this project is not like the transcontinental railroad,” he said. “It’s a little more like the Big Bang.”