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A $13.7 million federal grant and another $1.7 million from the state of California will finance new telecommunications infrastructure in Plumas, Sierra and Lassen counties — infrastructure that will bring rural areas into sync with more populated areas.
The grants were awarded to Plumas-Sierra Rural Electric Cooperative (PSREC), a Portola-based electric cooperative with a long history of working to improve the quality of life in the community.
Bob Marshall, PSREC’s general manager, said, “Reliable and fast Internet is now vital for the health of any community. Speeds that were great three years ago are now inadequate. Service interruptions are frustrating as people are trying to work from home, trying to expand their businesses. We are hearing from numerous hotel/motels and RV parks that a lack of low-cost, high-speed Internet is costing them business. People are fishing and hiking all day and wanting to watch Netflix on their computers in the evening. We are hearing that homes without broadband sell for less than homes with broadband. It reminds us of the need for power in the ’30s and ’40s.”
PSREC’s latest major project is an effort to greatly improve the telecommunications backbone for northeastern California, specifically central and eastern Plumas County, eastern Sierra County and central and southern Lassen County. The federal grant will fund the construction of a fiber network in this region, owned by the Plumas-Sierra Telecommunications (PST) division of PSREC.
The driver of the project is to improve the affordability and availability of broadband to the local region. Local incumbent telephone companies will also benefit from the new fiber network and the additional capacity it will bring to the area.
Prior to applying for grant funding, a local broadband consortium comprised of hospitals, colleges, school districts, local government and economic development entities met with Plumas-Sierra. The group identified challenges related to the lack of bandwidth and its high cost in the area.
Economic groups and Realtors shared their frustration with lack of broadband and the effect on real estate sales and in attracting businesses to the area.
Lori Rice, chief operating officer for PSREC’s Telecommunications Division, said, “This was an impressive collaborative effort. Widespread support was required to get the grant and the data collected was extremely helpful for the grant application.”
The PST Fiber Project is a CCI (Critical Community Infrastructure) ARRA Grant. The purpose of these projects is to bring broadband services to rural communities that lack the broadband infrastructure seen in large cities and urban areas and to repair the communication deficiency that weakens small communities and adversely affects progress, jobs and the local economy.
This project will build a network with access to wholesale broadband, thus significantly lowering the cost and increasing the availability. The network will have interconnection points with existing carriers and providers of Internet service.
Furthermore, the capacity of the network will support all foreseeable future needs of the area and provides an opportunity to attract technology-based businesses to the area.
Two critical components of the grant are noteworthy. First is the intent to connect critical anchor tenants and safety services, such as next generation 911 services for the region.
Second is the “open access” nature of this network, which provides for leasing and selling capacity to any and all providers who want to sell their products or services over the network. This levels the playing field for all service providers to compete and gives the consumer better choices with more capacity at lower prices.
Plumas-Sierra currently offers ISP services through its telecommunications subsidiary and knows only too well the frustration of acquiring enough bandwidth to keep up with the consumer demand. Internet offerings and activities continue to require more and more bandwidth to perform.
Local ISPs offer good value, but battle to expand their services and increase available bandwidth due to the current constraints. Creative use of microwave and other house-to-house type systems have helped to make services available but they struggle with sustainability and growth.
The project is a three-year process with a federally defined start date of August 2010 (grant awarded) to July 31, 2013, at which time the project must be 100 percent complete. Plumas-Sierra is currently working through the federal and state environmental permitting stage and acquiring the required permits and easements.
The award conditions require that all permitting, including environmental, be 100 percent complete before construction may begin. Plumas-Sierra is hoping to break ground later this year.
The network begins in Reno, where wholesale bandwidth is currently available, and will head north to Hallelujah Junction. From Hallelujah Junction a western leg will head to Quincy, and a northern leg will reach to Susanville with a spur going to Herlong.
A spur of the system will also go to Loyalton. In Portola, the system’s main line will be on the north side of town, but a spur will run across the river and reach City Hall and Eastern Plumas Health Care. Another spur will run to PSREC’s Graeagle substation.
The main line runs all the way through Quincy and gets out as far as both Plumas District Hospital and Feather River College.
A map of the fiber project and project updates can be found on Plumas-Sierra’s website at the following address: psrec.coop/fiber_project.php.
What about Sierraville, Whitehawk, Meadow Valley, Chester, Westwood, etc.? When will the project serve them?
One of the most common questions PSREC receives is about expansion of the system to more towns. Marshall responded, “The grant was to get to ‘critical anchor institutions’ including schools, hospitals, public safety, Indian reservations, cities, the state and federal prisons and the Army base in Herlong. We also had to focus where we had electrical poles already in the ground so that we could get through the environmental process.
“This doesn’t mean that nearby communities won’t also benefit. It is so much easier to improve Internet access if a fiber system is nearby. Microwave and wireless systems can reach into adjoining communities and the reliability is excellent if most of the system is fiber based. Our other subsidiary, Plumas-Sierra Wireless, will be working with communities and businesses to expand the system past the grant footprint.”
One of the things that the PSREC staff stress is that it is not a fiber-to-the-home system. The grant was to improve the backbone telecommunications system and then PSREC’s other subsidiary as well as its competitors can expand their local offerings.
Rice said, “As an Open Access Network, the prospect is excellent for additional cellular carriers to take advantage of the fiber system and greatly improve their coverage along with voice and data services.”
Marshall serves on the board of the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative (NRTC), a service cooperative serving 1,200 electric cooperative and telephone cooperative members.
Elected by his peers to the NRTC board, he attended the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. “The CES is a fascinating event. The newest technologies are on display. Some of the products are just concepts that go nowhere. Other products are the wave of the future. One of the key trends I witnessed was an assumption that the entire consumer electronics industry will rely on high speed Internet access to function. The industry assumption is that everyone will have a 10-MB-per-second connection. Any area that doesn’t have those speeds will lose out.
“If we want to reverse the loss of jobs in our rural area, we need to make sure we are not left behind. That’s been our mission as an electric utility starting in 1937 and it’s our mission now.”
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