In an unlikely rural broadband success story, a fiber optic underground cabling project for the community of West Point broke ground June 4. That means about 80 Volcano Communications Co. subscribers in downtown West Point will soon have access to gigabit internet speeds, symmetrical upload and download speeds, digital cable, video streaming and reliable voice services at no cost. An update to a county roads policy played an essential role by alleviating permitting costs on Volcano’s end.
“This project is a great example of the county working with private industry to get things done,” said Calaveras County District 2 Supervisor Jack Garamendi. “Having internet is an important asset to providing an economic base and high quality of life for our residents. I am pleased that they are providing that opportunity.”
A transfer from traditional copper-based services, the upgrade will be a high-capacity replacement with the ability to get dramatically faster broadband speeds, according to Frank Leschinsky, the public sector manager at Volcano Communications.
A West Point resident, Leschinsky is a “firm believer in what this technology will do for the economy, jobs and businesses that would want to relocate to the area. If there’s no broadband of that caliber, then people won’t relocate there.”
Economic Development Director Kathy Gallino said the increased connectivity will be more than just an economic boost for the region.
“Having connectivity is such a big deal in many ways,” she said. “It’s going to appreciate the value of property and it’s great for public safety and health.”
For a small internet provider, installing fiber optic lines underground is a high-cost investment with low returns, even with support from federal and state programs. That said, the opportunity to increase public safety in the event of a wildfire outweighed those expenses for Volcano, Leschinsky said.
It’s also good news for local businesses, since most companies rely on high-capacity internet for online sales in one way or another, Gallino said.
Downtown West Point consists of about 80 Volcano subscribers, split evenly between residents and businesses, based on Leschinsky’s estimates.
“One of the first questions people ask when they’re moving up from the Valley and the Bay Area is ‘How fast is your internet?’” said Bryce Randall, owner of Sam Snead Real Estate in West Point. “We get people moving up that work from home and they have to have state-of-the-art internet.”
Improving connectivity in the region may also help garner more responses for the 2020 Census.
Counting population and households, the census provides the basis for more than $675 billion in federal funds annually to support programs that impact housing, education, transportation, safety, employment, health care and public policy, according to the Census Bureau’s website.
Since it’s being conducted electronically, “Places that don’t have high-speed and broadband internet will be severely disadvantaged,” Gallino said.
The fiber optic installations are expected to be complete by the end of the year.
Leschinsky said the company plans to convert entirely to underground fiber optic broadband in its service area within the next seven to 10 years. That spans the communities of Camanche, Glencoe, Ione, Kirkwood, Pine Acres, Pine Grove, Pioneer, Rail Road Flat, Volcano and West Point.
A pilot project for fiber?
Garamendi said the county has been coordinating with Volcano for the past few years on the project. The hold-up? A costly, outdated permitting process.
The problem was the county didn’t have a fine-tuned standard for fiber optic installation projects, Public Works Director Josh Pack told the Enterprise in a June 11 phone interview. Rather, when a utility planned to dig a trench for fiber lines – consisting of a pipe and low-voltage conduit less than two-inches thick – it was held to the same standards as water and sewer lines.
“We worked with them to develop a new standard to reflect that fiber optic is a different animal,” Pack said. “When a fiber optic trench fails, you don’t have hundreds of thousands of gallons of water or sewer pumping onto the roadway and ruining the roadway. We saw we could have a different design for the pipe and still get the protection we need.”
Pack stressed the efficiency of marrying utility and road projects where possible, calling the West Point partnership a creative pilot project.
On a broader scale, county officials are working to establish a “Dig Once” policy to establish new road repair requirements for utilities when trenching to lay water, sewer, natural gas, fiber optic, telephone and electric lines. The plan is taking a hard look at public safety, preservation of public property, site maintenance conditions, materials and equipment standards, trenching and compaction requirements and insurance requirements.
Over the next five years, the county plans to invest more than $20 million in pavement repairs, rehabilitation, and restoration efforts throughout Calaveras County.
In a presentation to county supervisors May 28, Pack said that while many of the utilities that work within county rights-of-way are sufficient in their efforts to repair roadways after trenching, some are not.
Taxpayers suffer as a result, he said, referencing potential for vehicle damage, rideability and aesthetic concerns, increased maintenance costs and safety concerns.
“In most circumstances, we would ask them to restore the road back to its (original) condition,” Pack said. “A road is like a house and we’re the owner of the house and utilities are the renters. We want to make sure when they move out they leave the house in good shape.”
The new policy could potentially request greater restoration efforts of utilities through a cost-sharing agreement.
In some cases, a properly restored trench may be in better condition than adjacent portions of road, Pack said. For utility installations on roads that are scheduled for resurfacing or repaving under the county’s Public Works Capital Improvement Program, applicants will have the option to make an “in-lieu cash contribution” to Public Works to fund their pro rata share of pavement restoration costs.
“If we have a repaving (or resurfacing) job, can we take advantage of that to either promote or encourage utilities to repair, replace or install equipment?” Pack said.
The goal is to save the applicant money on the permitting side while also achieving a quality repair job. Pack estimated that the policy will be before the board for final adoption by early fall.