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State Weighs Cuts to Middle-Mile Broadband Build

“So now, we at CDT will have to go through the process of deciding, well, given the funding that we currently have, how will we best proceed?” said Mark Monroe, deputy director of California’s Middle-Mile Broadband Initiative.

A multibillion-dollar plan to develop 10,000 miles of broadband infrastructure has hit financial headwinds, forcing the state to consider what not to build. Some construction is already underway.

State budget woes will not derail a major broadband infrastructure project in California, but cuts will be made. The question remains, where?

“We are in construction. We’re moving from the design and planning work that we’ve done, to actually being in construction across the state,” Mark Monroe, deputy director of California’s Middle-Mile Broadband Initiative, said during a panel discussion last week at the California Broadband Summit in Sacramento.

Monroe, who’s with the California Department of Technology (CDT), offered an update on the state plan to develop a 10,000-mile middle-mile broadband network — the foundational infrastructure from which to build last-mile service, bringing high-speed Internet to some of the state’s most rural and hard-to-reach locations. The now-nearly $4 billion effort, an initiative born out of the COVID-19 pandemic, is about two years in the making. But last year, amid a state budget shortfall, officials clawed back $1.5 billion, leaving the project short.

“But as we’re all aware of the budget challenges, that $1.5 billion had to be taken out,” Monroe said. This reduced the project to its original funding of $3.8 billion.

“So now, we at CDT will have to go through the process of deciding, well, given the funding that we currently have, how will we best proceed?” said Monroe.

When asked what parts of the 10,000-mile plan will be cut, Monroe said that piece is still being studied.

“None have been identified,” he said. “But we identified that we need $1.5 billion more to get to the full 10,000 [miles]. If we don’t get the $1.5 billion, as is currently proposed through the budget, then yes, we don’t know exactly where. We’re still trying to go through that analysis.

“Presumably, we’re not going to be able reach all 10,000 miles without the additional funding,” he added.

Rural advocates are urging state officials to maintain the middle-mile initiative.

“The state has made this huge investment in middle mile,” said Barbara Hayes, chief economic development officer for the Rural County Representatives of California (RCRC), in comments on the panel. “And we’re sitting on the precipice of a budget where they’re actually redlining broadband investment out. I know there are a lot of priorities. But this is truly an investment in the state’s future.”

The middle-mile project largely follows highways, in part because the state has access to this right of way. The California Department of Transportation is involved in pre-construction — permitting and design work — to roll out construction this year, Monroe said, adding that about 160 miles of construction around the state has been started. Construction will run until December 2026.

“We are introducing a new model for broadband deployment in California,” Hayes said, calling attention to the state’s plan for open-access, last-mile municipal fiber infrastructure. “This is a bold step the state of California took, with investing in open-access middle mile.”

This story was originally published in Government Technology, Industry Insider — California’s sister publication.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas for Government Technology magazine.