Fiber-Optic Network Construction Highlights Widespread Lack of Broadband in Salinas Valley, Calif.

The $13.3 million fiber optic spine between Santa Cruz and broadband-deprived areas of the Salinas Valley is a huge step forward in bringing the unserved areas of Santa Cruz and Monterey counties into the 21st century.

by Ryan Masters, Santa Cruz Sentinel, Calif. / January 22, 2016
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(TNS) -- This week construction begins on a 91-mile fiber optic network that will run from Santa Cruz to Soledad via Moss Landing, Castroville, Chualar and Gonzales.

The project, which is expected to take two years to complete, will be built and operated by Sunesys LLC, the same company that connected Santa Cruz to the relatively inexpensive and reliable Internet bandwidth in Silicon Valley, according to consultant Stephen Blum of Tellus Venture Associates.

While this $13.3 million fiber optic spine between Santa Cruz and broadband-deprived areas of the Salinas Valley is a huge step forward toward bringing the unserved areas of Santa Cruz and Monterey counties into the 21st century, it also highlights how little of the region has access to broadband.

A group of local stakeholders led by Rep. Sam Farr, D-Carmel, and members of the Central Coast Broadband Consortium took advantage of USDA Under Secretary for Rural Development Lisa Mensah’s first visit to California Thursday by pitching a plan to extend the Sunesys broadband project from Soledad to Greenfield and King City.

UC Santa Cruz and Internet provider Cruzio served as anchor tenants for the initial Sunesys project, which connected Santa Cruz to the Silicon Valley. As a result, broadband is “pretty good” in Santa Cruz, according to Blum, but gets progressively worse the farther south you travel. Soledad to King City and much of North Monterey County is completely unserved, he said.

While some cities and government entities have broadband connections, they are not shared with the public.

“Fiber optic cable runs through much of the Central Coast region, but it doesn’t stop. A great freeway exists, but there are no offramps,” said Blum.

In addition, many of the rural residents of the Salinas Valley face varying rates from their cable provider, Blum said. While customers in more urbanized centers may pay $70 a month for 200 channels of television and 60 gigabytes of Internet, rural customers pay $107 a month for only 37 channels of analog television, he said.

Watsonville Mayor Felipe Hernandez pointed out the huge impact broadband would have on Salinas Valley region’s agriculture industry, specifically its ever more sophisticated use of technology.

Blum also pointed out that many Silicon Valley companies are taking demonstration projects to places such as Austin, Texas instead of the Salinas Valley because of the latter’s lack of broadband infrastructure.

Robert Tse, community planning and development specialist for the USDA’s rural development division, suggested the project might piggyback on a new Department of Defense initiative to improve broadband around military bases such as Fort Hunter Liggett in South Monterey County.

Joel Staker of the Central Coast Broadband Consortium estimated the project would cost between $20 million and $30 million, half of which the group was hoping the USDA would be capable of funding.

After quietly listening throughout the entire discussion, Mensah thanked the stakeholders for their time and commitment. She also said that the USDA no longer had grant money available for such projects, but a long-term loan was not out of the question.

“I can see that the scale of need and gaps in service are severe in your region,” Mensah said. “However, I am concerned that if government steps in to accomplish this we would be displacing private industry, which is something we are very careful not to do.”

©2016 the Santa Cruz Sentinel (Scotts Valley, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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