For years, one of the chief goals of local government and business has been to bring a second fiber optic line into Humboldt County. The hope is that it a redundant line will provide backup service in the event that our main line, which runs along Highway 101, goes down.
On a few occassions in recent years, particularly bad fiber optic outages have crippled not only Internet access but phone communications, as well as key activities like banking and ATM services that now depend entirely on a digital communication link with the outside world.
Currently, there are two public initiatives to bring redundant fiber into the county. Both propose to run a new line east to the Interstate 5 corridor -- either along Hwy 299 or Hwy 36 -- bringing broadband access to rural communities along the way. Neither group has publicly announced any progress in recent months.
But what neither group seems to have considered is that it is that technologically speaking, at least, it's not necessary to run a new line all the way to the Central Valley. In recent days, many North Coast technology-watchers have been shocked to discover that there's already a live fiber optic line running through Trinity County, and that line predates our own connection to the fiber optic grid by as much as a decade.
Trinity County Chief Administrative Officer Dero Forslund confirmed to the Journal Tuesday that a fiber optic line depicted on a 2003 map put out by the Corporation for Education Network Initiatives in California (CENIC), a state nonprofit advocacy group, is in fact live and operational. The map shows a fiber line running northeast out of Cloverdale, up through Lake and Trinity Counties and into Oregon.
Theoretically, a redundant line to Humboldt could tap into this existing trunk. The barrier to access appears to be more a financial than a logistical, though: The owner of the line won't let the locals touch it.
"AT&T has fiber running north and south through the county," Forslund said Tuesday. "As we speak, no one has access to that."
Forslund said that a local Internet service provider has confirmed with AT&T that the line has spare capacity, but said that the company has made it clear that it is not currently interested in opening that capacity up for the use of locals along the line.
The company's position is a bit galling, Forslund said, since the county itself leases AT&T some of the right-of-way for the line, which he said is used exclusively for carrying AT&T's own communications traffic between California and Oregon. The line passes right through the center of downtown Weaverville, Forslund said.
The AT&T officer responsible for government relations along the North Coast could not be reached for comment.
Jonathan Speaker, chief operating officer of the Arcata Internet services company Streamguys, was one of the many local people working on redundancy issues who until earlier this week had no idea that there was an extant and operation Trinity County line. He said that the lack of transparency around these issues -- no one seems to possess a precise accounting of where existing fiber optic exist in and around the state -- means that it is essential for government to bring more weight to the table in negotiating for access to the utility.
"It appears to me that AT&T doesn't have a financial incentive to supply us with redundant fiber," Speaker said. "It's going to have to be mandated by the state."
In addition to the Trinity County line, there's another potential access point for redundant fiber to the county that doesn't get much notice. Crescent City gets its fiber optic connection from the north, in Oregon. According to Kathy Moxon of the Humboldt Area Foundation, another Humboldt County person deeply involved in the effort to bring a redundant line to the county, our existing fiber optic line now extends as far north as Big Lagoon -- only 55 miles from Crescent City, far nearer than even the Trinity County trunk line.
The CENIC map, which shows fiber optic lines "existing and under construction" at the time of its publication, shows several lines extending north along 101 to meet up with lines coming down from the south. For whatever reason, this gap was never breached. In the next couple of weeks, the federal government is set to publish guidelines for new broadband projects that will be funded under the federal stimulus act; to date, the Hwy 299 and 36 routes to the Central Valley are the only ones on the table, despite the apparent alternatives.
But the sudden appearance, to most, of an active fiber optic line on our doorstep last week has many in the community scrambling to figure out what else might be out there. The scene, currently, is a bit chaotic.
On Tuesday, Humboldt County Supervisor Mark Lovelace, whose election platform last year included the promotion of redundant fiber, said Tuesday that he had recently received credible information that there some sort of fiber optic line had already been laid in the Larabee Valley area, near Bridgeville -- though who laid it, or for what purpose, he could not say.
"As best as I've been able to make out, there is something going on out there, but as to when it was laid, or where it leads to or from, it's unclear," he said.