Broadband plan gets go-ahead
August 9, 2004
The last major hurdle for the Truckee Donner Public Utility District’s proposed broadband service was cleared Wednesday.The six commissioners of the Nevada County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo) gave the district the go-ahead to begin providing broadband services to its customers. LAFCo approval was necessary before the district’s board of directors could officially vote on whether to build the proposed fiber-to-the-user system. If passed and plans proceed as expected, construction could begin in October.LAFCo gave the district conditional approval on the new utility in 2001, and Wednesday’s meeting gave LAFCo commissioners the chance to hear from district staff and the public on whether the broadband plan was viable and if reasonable financing was available. Discussion also focused on whether the district’s power and water assets are protected.Compared to past meetings on the broadband issue, Wednesday’s LAFCo meeting drew a full house. Approximately 80 people packed the district’s offices in Truckee.During the meeting, LAFCo commissioners heard testimony from the LAFCo ad hoc Telecommunications Committee, which reviewed the district’s business plan for the broadband utility as well as the its Risk Mitigation Plan, which is designed to protect the district’s water and electric customers from having to subsidize the new service in any way.Both the business plan and the Risk Mitigation Plan were found to be workable and up to LAFCo standards by the committee. However, there were those in the audience who disagreed with the committee’s findings.David Gilles, vice president of operations for Cebridge Connections, which is currently in the process of acquiring USA Media’s cable and Internet assets in Truckee, argued that the district’s planned broadband utility is “a very risky experiment – one that threatens local ratepayers.”Gilles claimed that a number of other communities like Truckee have seen failed attempts by public bodies to introduce broadband services, and that “In the PUD’s case, the risk of failure is compounded by a business plan that is filled with many faulty assumptions.”Those assumptions include the expected rate the district will be able to charge customers for broadband and cable services, the expected cost of programming it will have to pay its suppliers and the expected market penetration of the district’s broadband and other services.On the other side of the issue, Jim Maass, president of the district’s board of directors, argued that the utility would never have proposed getting into the broadband business if the people of Truckee were happy with the options offered by the private sector.”There has been a tremendous amount of influence and pressure upon me from community members to get this project going,” Maass said. “I think it is important to understand that public ownership of utilities – be they electric, water, broadband, whatever they might be – is for the benefit of the consumer, the customers, and not for the bottom line.”Speaking of Cebridge Connections’ written criticism of the district’s plan, which was submitted to LAFCo commissioners before Wednesday’s meeting, Maass said, “Why is Cebridge so concerned about us failing? If we fail, we’re gone. I propose they’re not concerned about us failing, they’re concerned about us succeeding. And if we never get onto the playing field at all, they win and Truckee loses.”Other speakers included a number of Truckee residents, most of whom expressed their support for the district’s broadband plan.”I trust the PUD because it is a community organization. Because I, as a ratepayer, elect the members of the board to deal with the details and to make the best judgment,” said Tahoe Donner resident Lyn Zucconi. “When the PUD [broadband] comes along, I will switch everything over to them.”Another Tahoe Donner resident, Joel Erickson, said he sees the district’s broadband utility as fundamental to the Truckee economy.”I’m one of those people who telecommutes to the Bay Area. I’ve been through the USA Media experience and dumped them, and I’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” he said. “In my opinion, it’s almost an obligation for the PUD to provide that infrastructure. It’s almost like roads, water and electricity. It’s going to be a fundamental, basic building block for the community and the economy of the future in this area.”But Glenn Curtis, who lives in the Coachland Motor Home Park and works for USA Media, said that, “As a long-time resident of Truckee, I wish the PUD would focus more on existing problems with our water and power. We can’t afford what this town refers to as ‘affordable housing,’ so tell me, will the average citizen be able to afford this new service? How can we justify spending more money on something the town already has?”When the public commentary was over, LAFCo commissioners voted unanimously to give the district’s board of directors the go-ahead to proceed with the broadband plan should the directors choose to do so.”The challenge now shifts to the PUD board of directors,” said LAFCo Chairman Paul Norsell. “The public has an awesome responsibility to keep the board in line and tell them when you think they’re right and wrong and advise them.”The other commissioners agreed that it is not LAFCo’s place to evaluate the district’s broadband business plan, but only to ensure that water and electric ratepayers in the district are protected from having to foot the bill for the new utility.”It is my understanding that our charge here is not to determine whether of not this boat will float, but is to protect the ratepayers for water and electric from being robbed to make this boat float in case it sinks down,” said Commissioner Ron Nulph. “And with that understanding I’m satisfied with the risk mitigation plan as it’s being presented and I think that those protections are being done.”At this point, the future of the district’s broadband plan rests in the hands of the district’s board of directors who may give the final go-ahead to the plan as soon as their next scheduled board meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 18.Members of the public who are interested in the TDPUD’s actions are encouraged to attend the TDPUD board of directors meetings, held the first and third Wednesday of each month at 7 p.m. in the TDPUD building at 11570 Donner Pass Road.