Golden State Connectivity Authority and UTOPIA Fiber to Build Open Access FTTH Network Across Rural California

Last week, the Golden State Connectivity Authority (GSCA) announced it has entered into formal partnership with the municipally owned open access network UTOPIA Fiber, for the Utah-based owner and provider to design, build, and operate a new open access fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) network across the 38 rural counties in the state of California. It's a move that not only offers the chance to bring future-proof connections to millions of rural California households in the near future, but have wide policy and industry implications for open access fiber networks down the road. 

Local Governments Band Together

The Golden State Connectivity Authority is a joint powers authority (JPA) created by the Rural County Representatives of California (RCRC), which represents more than three dozen rural counties across the state. RCRC seeks to tackle the variety of shared problems that the state's rural communities face by advancing concrete policy solutions across transportation, energy, natural resources, governance, healthcare, and a collection of other arenas. 

The Golden State Connectivity Authority (see image right) is one of its most recent projects, and explicitly aims to improve Internet access via municipal solutions. Its mission is to "assist rural counties in identifying pathways for development of internet infrastructure within their communities, including the construction of municipal-owned and/or operated internet systems, among other options." GSCA leverages the collective power of the RCRC membership for financing efforts, to go after state and federal funds, and to combine the efforts of bringing together leadership to bridge the digital divide for Californians living outside of urban areas. RCRC member counties constitute about 14 percent of the state's population, or about 2.1 million households. 

Under its Joint Powers Agreement, the GSCA has wide latitude in pursuing solutions to the digital divide for its members, including owning infrastructure, issuing municipal and industrial development bonds, establish nonprofit entities to expand access (including through digital inclusion programs), and setting rates for service. It held its first meeting in late December 2021.

The announcement, along with the wealth of state funding programs announced by California over the last year, will provide new opportunities for local communities to get connected.

A New, Massive, Open Access Fiber Network

There are few details beyond the press announcement at this time, but so far, it looks like the undertaking will take aim for areas of RCRC member counties where communities are plagued by underinvestment by the private marketplace and build new, publicly owned, open access infrastructure. In an email to ILSR, Communications Director Carolyn Jhajj shared that efforts will be focused on last-mile connections and, rather than build out RCRC member counties ubiquitously, will instead focus on unserved and underserved portions of the county.

UTOPIA is the natural partner for such an endeavor, operating the largest open access fiber-to-the-home network in the country with about 150,000 passings.  “UTOPIA Fiber has proven itself to be an industry leader with demonstrated expertise in establishing and operating an Open Access network that invites Internet service providers to compete for customers, resulting in price and speed choices for consumers," GSCA Board Chair and Calaveras County Supervisor Jack Garamendi wrote about the announcement. Still, even if just one in ten homes are connected to the new GSCA-owned network, it will more than double UTOPIA's current operations.

UTOPIA Fiber Executive Director Robert Timmerman said in the press announcement:

This partnership will help change the lives of millions of Californians, providing modern-day connectivity to residents and businesses who will be able to fully participate in the digital economy and enjoy a higher quality-of-life. Not only does high-speed broadband enable remote working, learning, and telehealth, it also provides the infrastructure needed to power better wireless coverage and advanced precision agriculture—and that’s just the beginning. We’re very excited for what’s to come. 

According to RCRC, the project will be going after state and federal funding, but will also seek capital from the bond markets. There's no word yet on where the first builds will take place, or when the partnership might break ground.

More Open Access Networks

Late last year, UTOPIA announced it was partnering for a similar undertaking in Bozeman, Montana to extend the city's fiber ring to more than 22,000 homes across the city. That endeavor is slated to begin construction this spring, and be complete in three years.

In a report released late last year, the Electronic Frontier Foundation emphasized the opportunities to leverage open access fiber infrastructure to get more American households connected to future-proof telecommunications infrastructure. It demontrated that in comparison to the traditional, vertically integrated model, where Internet Service Providers (ISPs) own and operate every part of the network, open access fiber networks can reach many millions of more households in an economically sustainable way. The result would be fewer tax dollars needed to incent investment, and more competition and lower monthly costs for the average household.

With these announcements in California and Montana, as well as the array of Washington state Public Utility Districts embarking on builds after the legislature lifted the state's preemption laws against retail service, 2022 is looking like a good year for open access networks.

Listen to the Episode 39 of the Connect This! Show below (starting at 19:05) to hear Kim McKinley, Chief Marketing Officer of UTOPIA Fiber, talk a little more about the partnership.

Listen to Episode 4 of the Connect This! Show to hear more about open access networks. 

Header image from Flckr use Bob White via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0