A Vision to Develop a Roadmap for a Connected Borrego


Last updated 11/15/2021 at 1:53pm

Proposed Open Access Middle Mile segments by the California Public Utilities Commission staff did not include a segment to Borrego Springs. SANDAG has filed a comment with the CPUC to allow more local input on these decisions. Source: https://www.cpuc.ca.gov/industries-and-topics/internet-and-phone/broadband-infrastructure-deployment

I am a part-time resident of Borrego Springs and have worked in the telecommunications industry since 1990. The opinions expressed in this article are my own and do not represent my employers, past or present.

A roadmap appears at the end of this article. For more information and to contribute to this important work please send email to the infrastructure subcommittee of the Borrego Springs Revitalization Committee at the following email address: bsic92004@gmail.com.

The pandemic laid bare the extent of the Digital Divide. It exposed the different experiences of the broadband haves and have-nots. Knowledge workers were able to remote-work, order groceries and restaurant deliveries online, pursue work meetings and collaboration with online tools including Zoom and Teams, and binge-watch the latest entertainment and streaming "content."

Meanwhile, the digital have-nots struggled to access government services including applying for unemployment insurance and other forms of government assistance, scheduling Covid testing and vaccination appointments online, and availing of telemedicine to avoid traveling hours for doctor's appointments and risking exposure. Many seniors, who make up a large demographic in Borrego Springs, struggled with digital literacy, lacking familiarity, and ease of use with online devices and web applications. But perhaps no other demographic saw greater impact from the Digital Divide than our elementary, middle, and high school students. In Ocotillo Wells, the school district parked a school bus with a WiFi hotspot in the middle of the community. Through the pandemic, dozens of students attended school through this single shared cellular connection! We must do better by these kids.

The pandemic foreshadowed what our future holds. Children's education, access to government benefits, access to healthcare, economic activity and employment, all rely on broadband connectivity. Access to quality broadband at affordable rates is key to our future. After water, power and roads, broadband is the essential infrastructure for the future of Borrego Springs.

The Middle Mile

In broadband parlance, the middle mile connection is how communities like Borrego Springs connect to the worldwide internet backbone. The middle mile must be a very high bandwidth connection since it is shared by the entire community of thousands of residents.

In August, SB-156 passed unanimously in both houses, the California Assembly and the Senate. SB-156 has designated $3.2B to complete an open access middle mile network for the state, prioritizing building out the middle mile to unserved and underserved rural and tribal communities.

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) staff has proposed additional middle mile segments in San Diego County (see map). There is a proposed segment that connects Julian to Ramona via Santa Ysabel. Conspicuously absent is a middle mile connection to our desert and backcountry communities of Warner Springs, Ranchita, Borrego Springs, Ocotillo Wells, and Shelter Valley, as well as the Los Coyotes reservation.

The San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) Regional Digital Divide Task Force has been actively developing a regional strategy to address the digital divide, working with local governments, private internet service providers (ISPs) and local (non-profit) community-based organizations. SANDAG has submitted comments to the CPUC to allow more local say on where state funded middle mile dollars are spent in San Diego County. As Borrego Springs, we can assist SANDAG and San Diego County by having our own voice at the CPUC proceedings to ensure that an open access middle mile gets completed to our desert and backcountry communities in San Diego county.

Several years ago, a fiber-optic middle mile segment was constructed from Route 86 to Stirrup Road in Borrego Springs, mostly following the State Route 78 right-of-way. Our local ISP, Zito, uses this middle mile to deliver broadband to our community. Because this private middle mile network is not open access, another private ISP cannot use the middle mile connection to provide competitive broadband service to Borrego Springs residents. Open access middle mile will increase competition for broadband and we will experience more reliable and higher quality service from our ISPs.

The Last Mile

Your home internet connection, for most people in Borrego Springs, is provided by Zito. In this case Zito is considered the last mile internet service provider (ISP). Several years ago, the FCC defined a broadband connection as a minimum of 25 Mbps downstream speed and 3 Mbps upstream. A community such as Ocotillo Wells as well as many tribal communities where this minimum 25/3 broadband service is not available, is considered unserved. A community is underserved if some fraction of households in the community do not have access to 25/3 broadband.

The California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) has determined that any new state investments in broadband must deliver a higher quality broadband with a higher minimum standard: 100 Mbps downstream and 20 Mbps upstream (100/20). By this measure a much larger fraction of our rural and backcountry households are unserved or underserved.

In Borrego Springs, Zito, using coaxial cable, is the only option for wired broadband service. Several years ago AT&T used to provide broadband using DSL, but they have abandoned their responsibility to our community. In the absence of competition, Zito declined to upgrade their deteriorating installed plant, paving the way for a competitive fixed wireless provider. Camtech Broadband has stepped in recently with fixed wireless broadband service.

SB-156 also includes $1B for investment in rural last mile connectivity. Unserved and underserved communities or ISPs can apply for this funding. The application deadline is June 30, 2023.

In 2020, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) established the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund to award up to $20.4 billion to ISPs to deliver broadband to underserved communities. The reverse auction is by census block and the lowest bidder wins. The money is disbursed to the ISP over a 10-year period – the ISP must meet service targets including 40% completion by the end of year three, then 20% per year through year 6.

Wavelength LLC won the RDOF auction for Borrego Springs, Ocotillo Wells, and Shelter Valley (see map below). Wavelength is a very small local ISP that currently offers fixed wireless service to around 4,000 households in Aberdeen, SD, using cutting-edge millimeter wave technology to send ultra-high-speed Internet directly to a small smartphone- or table-sized antenna on the side of your house or your roof. The availability of an open access middle mile connection in our communities can facilitate the delivery of broadband by Wavelength.

Just to the north of us is a success story that offers a lesson on how a local cooperative can deliver fiber to the home to very remote, rural and tribal communities. ConnectAnza https://connectanza.org/ is a division of Anza Electric Cooperative providing fiber to the home internet service to electric coop members locally. Connect Anza launched residential internet services in 2015. Service is $49 per month for full duplex 100 Mbps downstream and 100 Mbps upstream (100/100). Anza Electric Cooperative won the RDOF auction for expanding service around Anza and along the Palms to Pines highway including Lake Hemet and even some locations west of highway 86 near Mecca.

Rural electric cooperatives have blazed the trail across the nation to demonstrate that fiber to the home is not just for urban communities. Rural electric cooperatives in North Dakota deliver high speed internet over 50,000 square miles. More than three quarters of rural North Dakotans have access to fiber broadband today, compared to only 20 percent of rural residents nationally. Nationwide, more than 110 rural electric co-ops have embarked on fiber optic projects to increase Internet access for their members. 31.3 percent of the fiber service available in rural areas is provided by rural cooperatives.

In addition to state SB-156 and the federal RDOF, broadband funds are also included in the pandemic relief bills passed in 2020 as well as the infrastructure bill of 2021. These funds are administered by different federal agencies, for example, the Broadband Infrastructure Program of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). We must actively pursue every opportunity to ensure that we are able to access our share of these billions of dollars of investment.

The Road Ahead

Broadband is key to our future. After water, power and roads, broadband is the essential infrastructure for the future of Borrego Springs. We need to take our first steps urgently on a multi-year plan to achieve a Connected Borrego where every household has access to affordable, high quality (100/20) broadband.

We are announcing the formation of a Borrego Springs Broadband Task Force (BSBBTF). The task force will organize and focus the work of our community towards achieving our goal of a Connected Borrego Springs.

We must establish a local effort that can channel federal, state and county initiatives and investments to deliver broadband to our community. Much work lies ahead. Here is an initial docket for the task force.

1. Become a party to the CPUC proceedings to ensure that the state investment in the open access middle mile reaches Borrego Springs. This is on a tight deadline.

2. Represented Borrego Springs on the SANDAG Digital Divide Task Force to ensure a voice for our community in the allocation of SANDAG, California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) and San Diego County investments in broadband.

3. Conduct a community-wide survey of residential broadband service. Elaine Tulving developed an initial survey and Martha Deichler and I collected 65 responses at community foodbank events this past summer. SANDAG is helping us collate and analyze the data.

The short survey can be completed online https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/2021_digitalequity. This link is being publicized via various community email lists as well as the 92004 group on Facebook. You can also scan the QR code with your smartphone camera to take you to the survey. Please take a couple of minutes to fill it out.

4. Conduct a survey of business broadband needs. Work with the Chamber of Commerce to document the potential economic benefits of access to high quality broadband for businesses in Borrego Springs.

5. Form a coalition of local stakeholders with critical broadband needs.

Education and Research: Schools (BSUSD), Library, ABDSP, UCI Steel-Burnand, ABDNHA

Healthcare: Borrego Health

Public Safety: Sherriff

Backcountry Monitoring: ABDSP

6. Partner with Local Utilities.

Partner with SDG&E for the potential to permit microgrid towers for fixed wireless use by Camtech or Wavelength.

Explore the potential for a local Broadband Cooperative with Borrego Water District (BWD) utilizing the pipeline right-of-way for (fiber conduits and network boxes).. Reach out to Anza Electric Coop as an advisor.

7. Establish relationships with Internet Service Providers (ISPs)

Negotiate and develop partnerships with current ISPs: Zito and Camtech Broadband.

Establish a partnership with Wavelength, the winning RDOF bidder.

Develop an RFP that can be used to explore new ISPs that may be interested in using the open access middle mile and utilizing SDG&E or BWD plants.

For more information and to contribute to this important work, please send email to the infrastructure subcommittee of the Borrego Springs Revitalization Committee at the following email address: bsic92004@gmail.com.