Digital 395 chief says project mostly on track for July 31 deadline

Rumors that project is broke are false, layoffs occurring as project winds down

Rumors that the Digital 395 project is broke and might not get completed are false, according to the project’s chief executive, Michael Ort.

“We are winding down,” he said. “That means we are not putting in 20 to 50 miles of conduit per month like we were and it also means we are beginning to lay some people off, so that might be where the rumors are coming from, but we will finish this project.”

Ort’s company, Praxis Associates, won a federal bidding process to do the massive, nearly 600-mile high-speed broadband fiber optic project to link Carson City to Kern County.

He said the project—originally projected to cost about $101 million and funded by mostly federal and state funds—is over budget by about $11.5 million.

That does not mean the project will not be completed, he said.

He is in the process now of requesting that money from the state’s Public Utilities Commission and he said the state has given him every indication that the money will come through.

“They are not going to let this project go unfinished,” he said. “It is considered to be too important to the Eastern Sierra and too important to the state.”

Worst case, he said, Praxis has prepared a “triage plan” to make sure the project is completed.

The project ran over the projected budget mostly due to what Ort calls “environmentals”—documentation, monitoring, and mitigation required by federal, state, and local agencies every time the fiber optic route runs into wildlife and cultural resources.

“We encountered 465 cultural resources alone,” Ort said, “and many of them had to be bored under (using horizontal drilling techniques) so we did not disturb the sites. That’s a lot of money and it added significantly to the cost of the project. Given that we had only six weeks to develop a budget, I believe we did a pretty good job, if not a perfect job, on figuring out a budget”

Cultural resources are most often Native American artifacts and sites, although the word also encompasses other historic sites, such as mining and refuse sites.

Another unexpected cost was a recent change by the Public Utilities Commission to regulations governing pole lines, he said.

The project has a federally set deadline of July 31, and Ort said that the vast bulk of the project would be completed by that point, including the section that provides the backbone fiber for “last mile” providers (like Verizon and Suddenlink) links to Mammoth Lakes.

One section still under construction is an area near the Crowley Lake dam, where the number of cultural resources and an associated permit process has slowed the project, he said.

In the meantime, local providers are gearing up for digital speeds that they advertise as being 10 and 20 times faster than the current broadband speeds.

According to Nate Greenberg, Mono County’s IT department liaison for the Digital 395 project, service to Mammoth Lakes Suddenlink customers is expected by the end of July.

Work will begin on S.R. 203 after the July 4 holiday, Greenberg said.