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The Digital 395 project is as hard as it comes

January 28, 2011

Michael Ort, CEO of Praxis Associates. Mammoth Times Photo/ Wendilyn Grasseschi

“As hard as it comes.”

That’s what the man in charge of Digital 395 said about the rush to get the massive project completed by its July 2013 deadline.

Not an easy feat – laying 583 miles of spun glass high speed optical cable from Barstow to Reno.

“If we don’t get it done by July 1, 2013, the money goes away,” said Michael Ort, CEO of Praxis Associates and the original mind behind the $101 million Digital 395 project that is right now under way out your back door.

In fact, the light blue and white trucks of the project’s many surveyors and planners have been plying Eastern Sierra towns almost daily for the last several months, with plans to step up activity as the snow melts.

The scale of the project, and the challenges that go with it, are keeping Ort awake at night, even as he said it would get done on time.

He’s is trying to figure out how to get the project’s environmental analysis, rights of ways and every other detail through a tangled maze of more than 19 local, federal and state agencies, none of which have ever done such a huge project, let alone coordinated with other agencies on a project of this scope.

“We are the second biggest broadband project in the country that was funded from the federal governments $4 billion in grants from ARRA (American Reinvestment and Recovery Act) telecommunication projects,” he said.

“And the time to do it is tight.”

And although the end result will look innocuous enough; 583 miles of thumb-sized cable buried deep in a narrow trench and covered with dirt, rock, sage and juniper, the effects will be anything but.

The project stands as one of those almost impossible-to-understand-from -here things that will nevertheless transform the opportunities and pathways for the Eastern Sierra.

“The biggest infrastructure project ever to hit the Eastern Sierra since the L.A. Aqueduct,” said Mono County Supervisor Hap Hazard.

“This valley had the L.A. Aqueduct to mark the agricultural age, Highway 395 to mark the Industrial Age, and now, you will have Digital 395 to mark the digital age,” Ort said.

“These will be the projects that have shaped this valley the most profoundly in all its long and storied history.”

“Imagine what life would be like if, in the 1990s, the internet, cell phones, fax machines, voice mail and smart phones hadn’t come to the Eastern Sierra and we were here now without them. That’s what it would be like in five, 10 years, here, if this project hadn’t gotten funded,” he said.

It might sound like hyperbole, but that was easier to say before the $101 million in federal and state funding was tied down for good.

The project was one of the top three recommended by the state of California for funding, since it would act as a redundancy in connectivity, should anything disastrous befall either side of the Sierra.

Or, before the image of what exactly can be done with the between 10 and 40 gigabytes of data per second starts to sink in.

Although at first some local broadband providers were skeptical about the project competing with their services, Ort said increasingly, they are on board now.

The schools, hospitals, military institutions, and government agencies that straggle along U.S. 395 have been on board all along, seeing the project as a literal lifeline to the future,

Ort was in town this week, running down innumerable details of archeological finds, environmental analysis and just plain old, slow-moving government bureaucracy.

He appealed to a whole group of agency members Thursday, telling them, “We can’t do this without your help.”

“We need you to put this project as a priority, as many of you already are,” he said.

The biggest challenge besides the timeline is that the grant administrators were not necessarily prepared for how complicated it would be to get all the federal and state agencies whose land the project will travel through, signing off on their respective responsibilities for wildlife, archeological finds, etc., in time to meet the fed’s self-imposed deadline.

“They seem to think this could be done with a desktop review by them,” he said.

Difficulties aside, the project will get done, with the first shovelful of dirt turned sometime in late summer.

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