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Fiber Dreams 

After years of false starts and evaporated deals, broadband redundancy might finally happen

There's a new fiber optic line in the works for Humboldt County, and this time it's totally, definitely for real according to the San Francisco company working on it. It's gonna happen. Well, barring any unforeseen permitting or weather issues, of course. But how likely is that?

By this point, locals are justifiably skeptical about efforts to bring broadband redundancy to the North Coast. Ever since AT&T installed the county's first high-speed fiber optic line in September 2003, business and government leaders have been pursuing a second one to serve as a failsafe against outages on the first. Over those six-plus years, we have grown increasingly dependent on high-speed Internet, to the point where a break in service -- as happens periodically, whenever AT&T's line gets severed by fire or a tractor or whatever -- practically grinds society to a halt. Banking, retail, even schools and hospitals now rely on their digital bond with the outside world.

A second fiber line would also help efforts to supply ubiquitous high-speed Internet in the region. Local Internet service providers could potentially tap into the new fiber trunk to provide "last mile" service to rural communities that flank the line. These are urgent needs, and so despite our accumulated disappointment, hope springs eternal.

The latest agent of fiber hope: Mary-Lou Smulders, vice president of strategy and implementation for Bay Area telecommunications firm IP Networks, Inc. (IPN). (If the company sounds familiar, it should. Read on.) Smulders saw our skepticism firsthand last weekend when she flew into the Arcata-Eureka Airport. On the curb outside she struck up a conversation with a sheriff's officer who happened to be standing there. He knew all about the issue -- told her how we've had and lost three project proposals in two years. Smulders found this interaction encouraging. Hell, most people don't even know what "broadband redundancy" means, she figured. The fact that we do shows how much we need it. IPN, she told the Journal Monday, will be the company that provides it.

"This is a real project," she said emphatically. IPN has two distinct advantages over other companies. In 2003 they negotiated a deal with PG&E that gave them access to any and all of the power company's rights of way for the purpose of fiber installation. Since then the company has laid hundreds of miles of fiber in the Bay Area while digging less than 500 feet of trenches. In Humboldt, IPN plans to drop fiber into PG&E trenches that parallel Highway 36 between Alton and Cottonwood.

The other advantage: Local wireless provider 101Netlink is partnering with IPN to supply broadband service to rural communities along that route. This qualified the project for a $4.2 million grant from the California Advanced Services Fund, a program of the state's public utilities commission. That money will cover 40 percent of the project's $10.5 million total price tag, Smulders said, with the balance to be paid by commercial tenants that sign up to use the line.

Here's why this may all sound familiar: The IPN proposal was first announced in 2008 at a Redwood Technology Consortium broadband forum. However, the project seemingly fell apart later that same year ("Low-Speed Broadband," Dec. 25, 2008). Representatives from both AT&T and Suddenlink had expressed support for a second line, with the latter identified at the forum as an anchor customer. But when it came time for firm commitments, IPN couldn't get a single wholesale tenant to sign on the dotted line. At the time, IPN President Gary George speculated that the economy was to blame.

With the economy now growing again, the project has apparently been resurrected. Smulders said she could neither confirm nor deny the involvement of any specific companies, though she seemed itching to do so. Nevertheless, she said IPN is so confident that corporate tenants will follow through this time around, they've assigned a full-time project manager and have been soliciting bids for the environmental and engineering work. "We will be awarding those contracts this month," she said. "That's how real [this project] is. I mean, it is coming." The line will be installed and operational by June 30, 2011, she promised. "That is a commitment." (Here is where she supplied the caveats about weather and permitting.)

Suddenlink Public Affairs Director Wendy Purnell would only say that the company is in discussions and remains interested in a redundant fiber line. Requests for comment from AT&T were not immediately returned Tuesday.

Somewhat less certain is IPN's pursuit of a third fiber optic line, which would be located along Highway 299. The company collaborated with the Hoopa Valley Tribe in an application for federal stimulus money. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 included $7.2 billion for broadband expansion. The proposal made it through to the "due diligence" round -- a major hurdle -- and a final answer is expected by the end of the month, Smulders said.

Gregg Foster, executive director of the Redwood Region Economic Development Commission (RREDC), has been around the block on these fiber endeavors. He initiated the Highway 36 deal with IPN while working for local media company Lost Coast Communications. Reached for comment Tuesday, he said he is cautiously optimistic.

"In my realm, I always know it's a real deal when things are being hung on wires or dug in the ground," he said. But Smulders' update over the weekend left him hopeful. "This is the closest we've ever been. If she has what she says she has, it sounds like there's a good shot."

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About The Author

Ryan Burns

Ryan Burns

Ryan Burns worked for the Journal from 2008 to 2013, covering a diverse mix of North Coast subjects, from education, politics and marijuana to human suspension, sex parties and amateur fight contests. He won awards for investigative reporting, feature stories and news coverage.

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