El Dorado County places fiber internet access on the table | SierraSun.com

El Dorado County places fiber internet access on the table

Mountain Democrat

El Dorado County supervisors are considering next steps in implementing countywide fiber internet access, after a discussion at their Sept. 18 meeting.

Supervisors received a presentation from Diane Kruse, CEO of NEOConnect, a Colorado-based company that examines and implements strategies related to fiber internet access.

Kruse noted that this is an era of fast-growing technology and being able to keep up with the growth will help residents and businesses. Online tasks which require adequate internet speeds include schoolwork, job applications and at-home businesses. Kruse also noted that many cities are on track to switch to “smart” utilities and vehicles, which depend on up-to-date infrastructure.

No action was taken at the meeting since the presentation was for informational purposes only, outlining the feasibility of bringing countywide fiber internet access to residents and businesses.

In her presentation, Kruse addressed funding projections and what the county’s role could be in the process, whether as a provider, a customer of a provider or part of a private-public partnership.

Though county supervisors approved six broadband internet towers the week prior at their Sept. 11 meeting, those towers are run solely through AT&T and are unrelated to the fiber item discussed Sept. 18.

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However, infrastructure provided by the AT&T towers will contribute to the wider goal of bringing better internet access to residents and businesses in the county, according to Kruse.

“I think they’re complimentary in that an extensive communication strategy needs to address all things about public safety, broadband, cell wireless services,” Kruse said. “All of those things, from an infrastructure standpoint, need to be upgraded.”

District 2 Supervisor Shiva Frentzen, who serves on a technical advisory committee, explained that internet access can be compared to water access: if a water district doesn’t bring a pipe or infrastructure all the way to a home, that resident won’t have access to water. If the infrastructure is weak, similar to broadband internet with poor connection and low speeds, the resident’s water pressure will likewise be weak.

But if better infrastructure is in place, Frentzen explained, the water will have a stronger flow, making it easier to complete tasks. Fiber would bring higher speeds to residents who have low-speed broadband in place and access to residents who don’t have broadband at all.

Kruse said that many county residents are at or below 6 megabit per second (mbps) upload speeds and 1 mbps download speeds, paying between $60 and $100 a month for services. With fiber, according to Kruse’s projections, gigabit speeds — meaning 1000 mbps for upload and download — would cost about the same as what they’re paying now.

But overall, the infrastructure could cost the county between $290 million and $353 million, Kruse said. Exact cost is not determined at this point because it will depend on who pays for equipment and installation, and additional funding opportunities may be available.

Kruse and the county supervisors addressed a variety of funding possibilities, from an upfront, one-time residential fee to pay for fiber installation, to grants, to a possible tax assessment.

Kruse’s presentation and projections looked only at the latter option, which posited residential tax increases of $150 to $300 a year. At $300 a year per county resident, Kruse estimated that the county could pay for its fiber structure after a decade.

Though there was no formal analysis on an upfront, one-time charge to residents in Kruse’s report, she said it would be less than the total 10-year cost of $3,000 per resident, since it would not have to account for interest.

Kruse also cited a 2015 study from the Fiber Broadband Association, which said homes with a fiber internet connection may have a 3 percent higher property value than homes that do not. Homes with the gigabit connection analyzed have a 7 percent higher property value, according to the same study.

Though many details in the countywide fiber discussion are preliminary at this point, Frentzen said the county has been talking about increasing internet access for its residents and businesses since the early 2000s. Talk of countywide fiber internet, Frentzen said, didn’t surface until about two years ago when she brought the topic to fellow supervisors.

Though Kruse and county spokeswoman Carla Hass were unwilling to speculate on when fiber internet services could come to the county, Frentzen said her personal goal when she started the discussion was to get services up and running within 10 to 15 years.

“That was really my goal and … this stuff takes time,” Frentzen said. “Sometimes you have a strategy and it may not work and you need to regroup. This is a longterm goal for county residents and economic development for El Dorado County.”

County staff has been directed to look into additional grants and funding opportunities for fiber implementation. Community outreach also was highlighted as an important next step, whether in the form of surveys, flash votes, polling or workshops.

A policy and ordinance on the topic could come back to the board in coming months, as well.