Anza Electric Cooperative meets with the California Public Utilities Commission

From left to right, Erinne Roscoe, Steve Reneker and Rachelle Chong listen intently to Kevin Short’s ConnectAnza update at the Anza Electric Cooperative meeting with the California Public Utilities Commission, Aug. 2. Diane Sieker photo

The Anza Electric Cooperative hosted a meeting with California Public Utilities Commission’s Bill Goedecke and several key people involved in acquiring a second California Advanced Services Fund Infrastructure grant. The grant is for the second build phase of the ConnectAnza fiber optic internet service offered by the cooperative to its members.

General Manager Kevin Short called the Aug. 2 meeting to order, welcomed the guests and began introductions around the room.

Attending the meeting were Martha van Rooijen of the Inland Empire Broadband Consortium; Steve Reneker of Riverside County Information Technology; Rachelle Chong from the Law Offices of Rachelle Chong; Short of the Anza Electric Cooperative; Manager Debbie Winger from ConnectAnza Telecommunications; Administrator Shawn Trento of ConnectAnza Network; Jennifer Miller, AEC government relations liaison; Yuri Gudino, AEC administrative assistant and AEC Director Stephan Lauzier.

Also present were AEC members Bill and Noel Donahue; Brian Crater, the associate executive director of Camp Ronald McDonald in Mountain Center, California; Erinne Roscoe with 96.3 KOYT-FM radio and Ruth Watling of Friends of the Desert Mountains.

Short opened by giving an update on the ConnectAnza advancement to date.

“Our progress in the first phase of the project is well ahead of schedule,” Short said. “We anticipate completing the distribution backbone by October 2017, while connections to our members’ homes and businesses continue to pick up speed.”

Garner Valley, Pinyon and Mountain Center are the next major build areas.

AEC has filed a grant application with the California Public Utilities Commission under the California Advanced Services Fund program. The program provides much-needed funding to help bridge the “Digital Divide” in rural areas and helps the cooperative build the fiber optic network for their members. AEC has been very successful in the first CASF grant build phase and are now seeking a second phase of funding under the program for the Phase 2 areas.

According to the CPUC website, “CASF grants and loans are designed to assist in the building and/or upgrading of broadband infrastructure in areas that are not served or are under-served by existing broadband providers. Under rules adopted in D.12-02-015, California provides grants of up to 70 percent of construction costs for projects in unserved areas and up to 60 percent of construction costs for projects in under-served areas. The Revolving Loan Program provides supplemental financing for projects also applying for CASF grant funding. Using the same project and applicant eligibility requirements as the Infrastructure Grant Program, CASF applicants may obtain loans of up to 20 percent of projects costs, with a maximum of $500,000.”

It goes on to explain, “An ‘unserved’ area is an area that is not served by any form of wire line or wireless facilities-based broadband, such that internet connectivity is available only through dial up service. An ‘under-served’ area is an area where broadband is available, but no wire line or wireless facilities-based provider offers service at advertised speeds of at least 6 mbps download and 1.5 mbps upload.”

The CPUC approved one resolution for a grant amount of $2,662,450 to Anza Electric Cooperative’s ConnectAnza project, Dec. 27, 2015, extending high-speed broadband service to approximately 3,751 households in the under-served communities of Anza, Aguanga, Lake Riverside Estates and Reed Valley in Riverside County. The project is ongoing.

Short stressed that, “It’s very important for everyone to understand that the backbone completion is the first step to getting access to everyone. There are several steps in the process that then follow, and we are working diligently to get fiber available to all of our members as fast as possible.”

Telecommunications giant Frontier has challenged the second CASF grant for which the AEC has applied. Frontier claims that they will be serving the Phase 2 area with DSL internet service sometime in the future but are not able to commit to an exact date of completion. ConnectAnza is in the former Verizon territories acquired by Frontier and share some overlap with federally funded areas. This action by Frontier will slow the process down considerably and must be resolved to proceed with funding the grant.

There is also an issue with a study that must be conducted regarding the scenic designation of State Route 74 and the environmental and view impact of additional wires added to the poles. This study can take over a year to complete.

As described in the project description given to the CPUC, “ConnectAnza will deploy a fiber optic cable on existing poles and rights of way and establish a network of sufficient capacity to establish high speed, quality internet service for Anza Electric Cooperative’s existing service territory, covering over 500 square miles, located wholly within western Riverside County. The area encompasses the communities of Mountain Center, Pinyon Pines and Garner Valley which totals approximately 200 square miles of our service territory. These areas are home to nearly 1,200 residents and several businesses. ConnectAnza, as an integral part of AEC, will provide reliable, affordable broadband high speed, fiber-to-the-home internet service to its member-owners at the lowest possible cost.”

The project has been supported by all area elected officials and 93 percent of the local residents and businesses. ConnectAnza Phase 1 is successfully underway with a generous CASF grant under the phase 1 application.

Goedecke was gathering information to bring to the commission in regards for the need for high speed internet access in the Phase 2 territory and helping to obtain material to help the CPUC investigate Frontier’s challenge to the grant.

The attending AEC members told their stories about the need for high speed internet services in the under-served areas in Pinyon, Mountain Center, Garner Valley, Anza and Aguanga. From the ability to communicate if power is interrupted, transferring of medical records, working from home, alerting people on social media of traffic incidents and fires to connecting students to lessons and enabling local businesses to advertise, the rural areas should not be left behind in the technological age.

The Donahues described the benefits that the ConnectAnza Wi-Fi has had on the Community Hall and the people that come to use the facility.

Roscoe spoke of 96.3 KOYT-FM’s position in the community as an information hub in case of disasters such as wildfires and major earthquakes. The radio station streams on the internet as well as the airwaves and depends on high speed internet to help get their messages out. Social media was mentioned as a communication tool that also depends on good internet speeds to be able to keep residents informed.

Winger described the AEC’s digital training classes and the certified refurbishing of old computers into affordable units for members to buy at very low cost. The economic situation, depressed job opportunities and low median incomes are all factored into the real need for the best technology that can be provided.

Trento spoke of his teaching computer classes to local residents.

“Sometimes I am teaching people for the first time,” he said. Many of his elderly students have never operated a computer before.

Crater of Camp Ronald McDonald spoke at length about the very real requirement for a reliable high speed internet offering at the center.

“We are the most remote camp,” he said, “The physicians are really isolated.”

Camp Ronald McDonald hosts children with cancer and their families, and there are acute medical needs at the facility at any given moment.

Short mentioned that the AEC does and will continue to donate internet service to such nonprofits as the Community Hall and Anza Civic Improvement League, local fire stations and in the future to Camp Ronald McDonald, the Girl Scouts’ Camp Schermer, Lake Hemet Campground, Hurkey Creek Campground and the University of California Riverside’s Deep Canyon Research Facility in the Phase 2 territory.

Goedecke was listening. He asked for clarification on many statements, making sure he was clear on understanding the needs set forth. He was on a fact-finding mission and was supplied with a truckload of useful information to assist in securing the grant funding.

So what can the cooperative members do to help secure the grant and overcome Frontier’s challenge?

“Pinyon, Garner Valley and Mountain Center deserve internet service, too,” Short said. “We have overwhelming support from the area residents.”

He stressed the need for letters of support to be sent or forwarded to CPUC.

“We are asking our members to send letters of support to CPUC commissioners and staff, detailing the impact (of broadband) on their lives and in their businesses,” Short said. “It’s crucial that the CPUC hear from our members regarding the importance of high speed internet access and how it will positively affect their lives.”

Updates on the progress of the CASF loan will be published as soon as they are available.

For more information on sending your story to the CPUC, please visit ConnectAnza’s website at www.connectanza.org/ or call the office at (951) 763-4333.

To learn more about the CASF grant, please see www.cpuc.ca.gov/General.aspx?id=8246

To sign the online petition of support, please visit www.change.org/p/california-public-utilities-commission-approve-connectanza-phase-2-casf-grant?recruiter=632199815&utm_source=share_petition&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=share_email_responsive.

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