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Should Caltrans Get in the Business of Laying Broadband Conduit?

In the past, that job has largely been left to Internet service providers. But some advocates and lawmakers think it would be more effective for the state to take more of a "DIY" bent.

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In the past, that job has largely been left to Internet service providers. But some advocates and lawmakers think it would be more effective for the state to take more of a "DIY" bent.

Proposed legislation circulating at the state Capitol would give Caltrans that task, under what's commonly known as a "dig-once" approach. The requirement would be restricted to locations that are designated "priority areas" under the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF), a state grant program launched a decade ago to help close the digital divide.

According to the bill in play (AB 980) from Assemblymember Jim Wood, D-Healdsburg, Caltrans would, on a department-led highway construction project, lay broadband conduit in communities that are deemed underserved or unserved according to the CASF standard.

Wood told a state legislative committee last month that it's "shameful" there are still communities in California, mostly rural, that are entirely without broadband or at least adequate connectivity.

"We're at a point today where private companies are unwilling to invest in infrastructure in areas where populations cannot provide the companies sufficient returns. Yet these communities cannot grow their economies and prosper without access to broadband," Wood said.

Wood asserted that there are nearly 30 cities and counties in California that have adopted such a "dig-once" policy. One of those is Sonoma County, where Wood lives, he said.

A convergence of recent events may give AB 980 some momentum toward passage. Notably, on Thursday the state Legislature narrowly approved a 12-cent gas tax hike in order to fund an ambitious $52 billion plan to fix California's roads and bridges. So construction should be on the way.

Wood said Caltrans also is working to implement a new law, initiated through a bill he authored last year, that requires the transportation department to develop guidelines to ensure to facilitate the installation of broadband conduit on state highways. Those guidelines should be finished by the end of 2017, Wood added.

Those guidelines were discussed at a California Broadband Council meeting this week:

#CalTrans rep reports on stakeholder meeting w/ #broadband providers to ensure they have ability to put conduit in while roads r open. #cbc — Rachelle Chong (@rachellechong) April 5, 2017

AB 980 is supported by the California Center for Rural Policy, the Utility Reform Network, Rural County Representatives of California, and California Cable and Telecommunications Association. No opposition is yet on file. The legislation is co-authored by Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, the former mayor of the city of Winters and a community broadband advocate.

A recent staff analysis from the Assembly Committee on Transportation noted some interesting recent history related to conduit and the state highways.

Caltrans, as a part of the California Broadband Initiative developed in response to Governor Schwarzenegger's Executive Order in 2006, instituted a policy to encourage broadband co-location within the state highway rights-of-way. For seven years, the department announced each upcoming highway project and invited telecommunications providers to lay conduit as a part of the project. In the end, not one provider participated in the project, and Caltrans disbanded the effort. Telecommunications providers can still access Caltrans' rights-of-way to install conduit via the department's encroachment permit process, however.
Matt Williams was Managing Editor of Techwire from June 2014 through May 2017.