Digital 395 April groundbreaking unlikely

Digital 395 will finally break ground this month—but probably not in California, according to Praxis Associate CEO Michael Ort, the private-side developer for the project.

Ort hoped to turn the first California shovelful of dirt for the giant, 600-mile, high-speed broadband cable project over within the next few weeks. But on Wednesday, he said delays in the California sections of the project, due mostly to the regulatory requirements of some of the state and federal agencies that manage the land along the route, have slowed the project down to the point where an April groundbreaking is unlikely.

“Issues like the desert tortoise, issues like how to protect the streams and creeks and dry drainages that are along the project’s route; all of these agencies have different regulations and we have to meet them all,” he said.

He does expect the state to issue a “Finding of No Significant Impact” or FONSI, document within the week; a necessary step in the environmental analysis process that has been underway since the project was first approved. Although the document is required to break ground, Ort said he still has to finish addressing various agency concerns.

The Digital 395 project is expected to employ about 250 people working for one and a half years, with an expected completion date of next July. The project was originally about 560 miles long. It has since grown in length, due to some of the reroutes that have had to be done to avoid sensitive plants and animals.

“Nothing’s been easy,” Ort said.

But maybe that is to be expected, too.

“It’s an audacious undertaking,” he said. 

The company will lay a 42-inch wide trench alongside U.S. 395 between Barstow and Carson City; one of the biggest infrastructure projects in the history of Mono and Inyo County. It will provide the most advanced broadband capabilities available to 36 communities in three California counties, including Mono, Inyo and Kern counties, and Carson City in Nevada. 

All of the scientific and research facilities along the route, including Mono County’s Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Lab and the White Mountain Research Lab in Inyo County, will get enough broadband to meet their needs at least for a decade, Ort said. The same goes for every school, business, hospital, public safety organization, and, of course, private resident in the project area.

Contractors who might want to work on the project must be bonded and insured to work on a state project, he said.

Mono County is anticipating the project’s completion eagerly, especially in light of the major broadband service problems in Mammoth in particular. On Tuesday, the Mono County Board of Supervisors took a step toward assigning a county point person to the project.

“We need someone to monitor this thing from beginning to end,” said District 4 Supervisor Tim Hansen. “Someone needs to be on the ground, be willing to get dirty, if need be.”

“I feel the same way,” said District 1 Supervisor Byng Hunt.

But the board stopped short of appointing anyone to the project, after realizing that county staff still needed to discuss the matter internally. The board will take up the issue again next week.

Whoever is appointed by the county board of supervisors to the Digital 395 project will also serve as a member of the Eastern Sierra Connect consortium that was created last year to identify beneficial broadband projects for the area and to facilitate getting those projects funded. Although Praxis is responsible for the construction of the broadband “backbone,” the many hundreds of connections between the backbone and the communities and facilities it will serve will be the responsibility of various ISP providers. That means dozens of possible competitors for the jobs. 

Eastern Sierra Connect is one of 14 similar consortiums in the state. It has a funding source of $150,000 a year for the next three years to do this work, according to Dana Stroud, a local marketing consultant and member of the consortium.

Despite his frustrations, Ort did say he believes the project will still make the July 2013 deadline set by the federal government, which funded $80 million of the $101 million project as part of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act.

“We are so close to the end,” he said. “We will get there.”