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Middle-Mile Broadband Work Reaches Pivotal Stage

Members of the Middle-Mile Advisory Committee learned recently that state efforts to increase the availability of high-speed Internet have received additional federal funding, and construction should get underway this year in several counties.

Rows of yellow wires with blue plugs plugged in.
With nearly $4 billion in funding in place, construction on middle-mile broadband is poised to get underway in earnest, state officials told members of a key committee recently.

By year’s end, work is expected to be underway expanding California’s middle-mile broadband infrastructure by thousands of miles, officials from the California Department of Technology (CDT) and the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) told members of the Middle-Mile Advisory Committee at its meeting Friday. The committee follows development and construction of middle-mile infrastructure. California’s Middle-Mile Broadband Initiative (MMBI), per its website, aims to deliver equitable access to high-speed Internet to residents, making the inclusion of the unserved and underserved, anchor entities, tribal entities and agricultural regions its priorities. Among the takeaways:

  • Available funding has increased. Officials have moved into the execution phase of building out the state’s middle-mile broadband infrastructure after dedicating much of the project’s first year to planning. A primary focus has been optimization and weighing the state’s needs against available funding. But CDT learned June 16 that it has received a $73 million federal grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). This grant will be added to available MMBI funding, said Mark Monroe, MMBI deputy director. Total funding now available is $3.87 billion, which includes $3.25 billion from the American Rescue Plan Act and $550 million from the state General Fund.
  • Broadband needs and cost estimates have also risen. Preliminary estimates of what the state’s middle-mile broadband network would look like envisioned 8,000 to 8,100 miles of network — but after a public input and analysis process, officials released a map that expanded the network miles to 10,000, 26 percent longer than originally estimated. Construction bids for about half the network have come back 40 percent higher than anticipated, Monroe said, indicating there has been “robust inflation,” and that broadband funding that has been made available nationwide has resulted in an increased demand for labor and expertise. However, in addition to going out to bid, officials have used the flexible Request for Innovative Ideas (RFI2) procurement process that Gov. Gavin Newsom put in place early in his administration — which could include leases of infrastructure components and joint-build.
    “And we’ve learned that there’s a lot more opportunities available there than I think we were expecting and at a more cost-effective rate than we were expecting overall,” Monroe said.
  • Phase 1 likely to reach more than a half-million households. The $3.87 billion will be enough to develop about 8,300 miles during Phase 1 of the project, estimated to reach nearly 85 percent of state households unserved by broadband. Phase 1 should reach more than 570,000 households. It will include 4,500 miles of Indefeasible Rights of Use leases; 3,300 miles of construction with 1,800 miles of stand-alone Caltrans construction and 1,500 miles of joint-build industry partnerships; and 500 miles of purchases. Segments that are leased should be online and delivering connectivity in mid-2025. The NTIA grant will be used to build out spur lines to rural communities. Pre-construction planning and permitting are ongoing for the entire 10,000 miles, and alternative agreements are pending, according to a slide deck presented during the meeting. Design minimizes construction in areas where costs would be higher and nearly all of the design of the MMBI network will have 288-count fiber and frequent access points. California will own and manage the network.
  • Caltrans, contractors are nearly shovel-ready. Caltrans is “focused on handing work over to contractors and getting shovels in the ground, Janice Benton, the department’s assistant deputy director, Middle-Mile Broadband Initiative, told those assembled. The department expects one of its first work orders to be for a 10-mile segment of State Route 20 in Mendocino County, from Highway 101 to the Lake County line. Another work order is anticipated on nearly eight miles of Interstate 5 in Shasta County; and by year’s end, work orders are anticipated for nearly a dozen highway segments in counties including Los Angeles, San Diego, Ventura, San Joaquin, Santa Clara and Alameda.
Theo Douglas is Assistant Managing Editor of Industry Insider — California.