One Special District's Push for Broadband

Garrett Dunwoody, IT systems and technology manager for the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District in the San Francisco Bay Area, on his agency's unique connectivity challenges.

by / October/November 2018

The issue of connectivity and access to broadband remains persistent through many swaths of rural America. Groups overseeing natural lands also encounter connectivity struggles as they navigate the day-to-day difficulties of managing open space. The Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District (MROSD) manages and protects 63,000 acres down the middle of the San Francisco Peninsula into San Mateo and Santa Clara counties in California. The district was formed in 1972 and is charged with building and managing a regional greenbelt in perpetuity. The area includes two dozen nature preserves and is operated by a staff of about 180.

Garrett Dunwoody, who has a background in public-sector data science, oversees the Information Systems and Technology Department at MROSD and has been leading efforts to improve connectivity among the organization’s various offices.

1. How has MROSD been working to improve connectivity?

A lot of our field offices are in remote locations within our preserves. So we’re in the process right now of working with Comcast Solutions to implement what we’re calling a districtwide fiber-optic network. We’re connecting all of our field offices with fiber-optic cabling.

This project is twofold. One is the capital project to actually run the fiber-optic cable to those various locations. And then the second part of the project is more services-based. What we’re building is what Comcast calls Ethernet Network Service. We’ll basically be connecting our field offices all within a virtual private network [VPN].

2. How will a strong fiber backbone (valued at about $250,000) improve the workflow and operations for workers spread across MROSD’s thousands of acres?

It will allow field staff to interface with the work-order system we’re implementing, our enterprise GIS, because our field locations are “mesh networks,” where somebody in a ranger truck, or somebody walking around in the courtyard with a tablet, will be connected to our network. They’ll be able to download their work orders for the day and take them offline to go to the field to get their work done. Our experience for our field staff, rather than having them need a VPN into the file server or the finance system, will be all within our network. That’s the big 800-pound gorilla that we’ve been trying to tackle.

3. When will the project be completed?

We’re in contract right now. We’ve had the various site walk-throughs. The construction components are in permitting. I think based upon some preliminary new numbers, it will probably be close to March 2019. That’s when the actual fiber line will be connected to our field offices.

4. Did MROSD look to other nature preserves or government agencies charged with managing natural lands as a template for how the Open Space District should structure connectivity?

We didn’t necessarily look at a particular organization to see how they did a similar project. As a special district, I think we’re different enough that a lot of the technical components are unique to us, meaning the location of our facilities, who might be our service providers, things like that. But we did do a pretty deep dive into the various solutions that were out there.

Skip Descant Staff Writer

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.