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A Strategic Approach to Connecting the Region

By Isa Avanceña

Valley Vision has led regional broadband access and deployment efforts in Sacramento, Sutter, Yolo, and Yuba Counties for several years now, but our involvement in a new and innovative statewide partnership is helping rural regions across California get connected, one transportation project at a time.

On October 17, the California Broadband Council (CBC) held its final meeting of 2019. Valley Vision’s Trish Kelly addressed the CBC on behalf of its Strategic Broadband Corridors (SBC) Task Force, to provide an update on the SBC Project, including its status, issues for consideration moving forward, and next steps.

The SBC Project was initiated in the Fall of 2018, at a Stakeholders Meeting on Strategic Corridors hosted by the California Department of Technology (CDT). At that meeting, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) highlighted its next steps in “Dig-Once” policy implementation, including the need to identify so-called “corridor gaps” — strategic corridors where no Internet service provider or public agency is prepared for installation of broadband infrastructure in alignment with construction of a transportation project. In response, Tom West — the Manager of the North Bay North Coast Broadband Consortium — volunteered for the 16-member Regional Broadband Consortia, funded by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), to develop a list of regional priorities and a statewide map for Caltrans and the California Transportation Commission (CTC). Thus, the Strategic Broadband Corridors Project was born, with the ultimate goal of engaging the Consortia to coordinate planning and development of broadband and transportation projects with Caltrans and the CTC.

As a follow-up to the initial Fall 2018 Stakeholders Meeting, the Consortia — including Valley Vision, which manages the Connected Capital Broadband Consortium — identified the SBCs in an initial draft report. While this was a promising first step, the report was overly broad, listing almost every major transportation corridor in California. Caltrans’ Chris Schmidt suggested that the Consortia further narrow the list by choosing three “priority” corridors per region. Valley Vision agreed to help coordinate these next steps, together with its partners — the California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF), the California Association of Councils of Government (CalCOG), California Forward (CaFWD), and CSU Chico. The CBC, the CPUC, other state agencies, and our congressional delegation – especially Congressman Garamendi and Congresswoman Matsui – all have been consistent champions for broadband infrastructure and very engaged since Fall 2018.

A scene from the post-Broadband Council meeting at The Gualco Group, Inc. on October 17

At the October 17 CBC meeting, Kelly provided updates on the delivery to Caltrans of the updated SBC report and maps with three “priority corridors” per region; results of the stakeholder meeting that took place in September, in which the Regional Consortia, CalCOG, the state agencies, and the internet service providers discussed issues and challenges in transportation policy and funding; and coordination with the Rural Transportation Planning Agencies (RTPAs). Kelly also highlighted the need for continued conversation around issues such as the regions’ eligibility for transportation funding to be used for broadband infrastructure deployment; the adoption of “Dig Once/Joint-Use” policies and planning; permitting challenges and variations across Caltrans districts; and overall funding availability/constraints with the CPUC.

After the meeting, partners, stakeholders, and representatives from state agencies gathered at The Gualco Group, Inc. to break bread and engage in dialogue on next steps towards digital equity. Bob Gore of the Gualco Group, Inc. spoke to the group about the importance of broadband to the Agriculture and Technology Development Roundtable; Bill Higgins of CalCOG gave a brief update of their work and expressed enthusiasm in further collaborating with partners; Susan Lovenburg of CaFWD spoke about the upcoming California Economic Summit in November and affirmed support for the draft Digital Equity for All document; and Sunne Wright McPeak of CETF expressed gratitude to all those present for their work in keeping the conversation going and pushing for continued progress, and to Stephanie Tom especially of the CBC for cultivating strong broadband partnerships and policy support. The event ended at sunset, against the beautiful backdrop of the State Capitol and Downtown Sacramento. It was a fitting conclusion to an afternoon spent recognizing the progress that had been made and, more importantly, gearing up for action in 2020.

SBC Project Next Steps and Issues for Consideration:

Caltrans committed to continue the process of updating and refining the list of strategic corridors, using input from CalCOG on transportation projects, and information from the CPUC on where fiber does or does not exist. Valley Vision will continue to work with CalCOG to facilitate coordination between Consortia across the state and the Rural Transportation Planning Agencies, with the goal of incorporating broadband infrastructure projects into forthcoming transportation projects and fostering “Dig-Once” and “Joint-Use” planning. SBC Project partners will be presenting their work to the California Economic Summit on November 7-8, 2019 to drive the agenda forward.

Valley Vision is working to ensure that urban and rural residents across the Sacramento region and the state have equitable access to information.

Issues that need to be elevated with the state by stakeholders include the role of broadband to achieve innovative mobility solutions for California’s regions; the challenges that Internet service providers face in the variable permitting processes across the Caltrans district offices; and the lack of federal funding for broadband infrastructure projects; among others. Persistent dialogue around these issues is critical, because better broadband infrastructure is indispensable for greater information and access to resources; improving the efficiency of the transportation system; and helping to meet the region’s greenhouse gas emission targets, through reductions in vehicle miles traveled.

Valley Vision’s Continued Work in Broadband:

Valley Vision recognizes that, notwithstanding California’s standing as the fifth largest economy in the world, poor connectivity persists throughout the Capital Region. In addition to its leadership role in the SBC Project, Valley Vision continues to advocate for the region’s connectivity through the management of other endeavors, such as the AgTech Pilot; the School-to-Home project; its policy work with numerous regional partners; and, most recently, working with the CPUC, the Federal Communications Commission, and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) on the challenges that the state and the Regions face concerning eligibility for federal funding programs such as the new USDA ReConnect Program.

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Isa Avanceña is a Valley Vision Project Associate supporting the Board of Directors, and the Innovation & Infrastructure and Leadership and Civic Engagement impact areas.