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Broadband in the 2022 County Budget

As I said in the previous posting, I was pleased that in the discussion of broadband at the April 6 meeting of the County Council there was consensus that it’s time for the County government to run fiber in Los Alamos County. The  FY2022 PROPOSED BUDGET does not reflect that consensus. A search for “broadband” finds that only on four of the 448 pages is it mentioned. Here is what it says:

  • On page 4 “Improving access to high quality broadband” is listed as one of seven “Priority Areas” specified by the Council. The text is “Enabling reliable high-speed broadband service throughout the county by determining appropriate investments (e.g., conduct a community needs analysis, evaluate technical options).”
  • On page 28 amongst 10 pages of Management Action Plans in response to Council Priority Goals of “Improving access to high quality broadband” broadband gets 1/3 of a page. The Management Action Plan there is “Pursue ‘middle mile’ of high speed broadband network”, and the Narrative/Analysis is “ASD is working on broadband options with PW. A phase one project has been identified and included in the new FY budget options request that will go to Council in April. It will include a community needs analysis to evaluate what level of service is currently available from which vendors, where, and at what price (detailed capacity analysis). It will also include an evaluation of what customers (residential and commercial) want and what they are willing to pay – with consideration of whether or not customers might switch to obtain more for less (this will include a detailed market analysis and absorption projection).”  Cross-cutting impacts: Housing, Business Environment. The Lead Staff is CMO/ASD/IM, and the Status/Deadline is On Going.
  • On page 178 in “FY2022 Budget Options” the second B level option is a one-time expense of $175K for “Broadband Consulting”. The Detailed Notes are, “Consulting services for the Broadband study initiative. Provide community needs analysis to evaluate what level of service is currently available from which vendors, where, and at what price (detailed capacity analysis) along with detailed market analysis and absorption projection.”
  • On page 430 the budget option from page 178 is repeated.

In the sections on broadband, the text of the proposed budget uses the following abbreviations for units in the County: PW Public Works; ASD Administrative Service Department; CMO County Managers Office; IM Information Management. The text also refers to the “middle mile” which I think means a connection off of the hill to the trunk that Redi-Net runs from Santa Fe to Taos. At the April 6 Council meeting there was speculation that Xfinity and LANet share the use of a middle mile link off of the hill that Lumen (the phone company) built for the benefit of LANL. I recommend the brief Wikipedia article on “middle mile” which says in part “However, middle-mile access, where bought from the incumbent operator, is often much more expensive than either, and typically forms the major expense of non-incumbent broadband ISPs. The alternative, building out their own fibre networks, is capital-intensive, and thus unavailable to most new operators.”

The budget proposal fails to take County responsibility for broadband seriously. A recurring budget item for staff oversight of broadband in the County is appropriate whether or not the County owns or operates any part of a telecommunication utility. The level of staff understanding demonstrated at recent Council meetings is not sufficient. Here is a list of some staff activities that the budget should fund:

  • Know what telecommunication utilities residents are using. That is to include what they are paying for and what they are getting.
  • Make public the knowledge of telecommunication services available in the County.
  • Know how telecommunication utilities that operate in the County provide the services that they offer. That includes the last mile technology and the middle mile.
  • Understand how residents connect with schools and LANL.
  • Know what telecommunication services other community owned utilities, eg, Kit Carson Electric Co-op, are offering. Understand the technologies, financing, and business models that they use.
  • Understand the technical and financial aspects of various last mile technologies, eg, is it plausible that in the near future wireless to the house will bypass fiber as the optimal technology.
  • Keep track of external funding opportunities that exist and as they emerge.
  • Understand the options for a County owned telecommunication utility in terms of technology, financing, and business model.
  • Get rough estimates of design/business options.  Choose one in consultation with Council. Flesh out the chosen design to get a good cost estimate, and then pursue funding.

While staff will need external help to understand some of those issues, staff should take responsibility for maintaining the expertise. It will take staff expertise and flexibility to move forward successfully. The 2012/2013 study and design was prepared with constraints imposed by Council at the time that forced the design into the most expensive possible regime, and when the price came in Council chose not to pursue it.  If Council takes a more flexible approach this time that relies on staff expertise, it is more likely to be successful.

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