Geography is Everything - Episode 490 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast

This week on the podcast, Christopher is joined by Bob Marshall, General Manager of the Plumas-Sierra Rural Electric Cooperative and the Plumas-Sierra Telecommunications Company. During the conversation, the two discuss Bob’s love for the cooperative movement, how Plumas-Sierra relies on fixed wireless, cable and fiber to service their rural terrain, and how they are using a $23 million grant from CPUC (California Public Utilities Commission) to build out broadband service in challenging areas. Christopher and Bob also talk about the recovery role broadband infrastructure will play following last summer’s Dixie Fire, and how fire-prone communities might use satellite backhauls in case of emergencies.

This show is 30 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed

Transcript below. 

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Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.


Bob Marshall: If we say we can do it, we do it. So the state likes the fact that we do what we say we're gonna do and we can account for every dollar.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm

Christopher Mitchell: at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in St. Paul, Minnesota. Today I'm speaking with

Bob Marshall:, the general manager of Puma Sierra Rural Electric Cooperative and also the Puma Sierra Telecommunications Company, which is the subsidiary of the electric co-op. Welcome to the

Bob Marshall: Show. Thanks. It's great to be here.

Christopher Mitchell: I'm very excited to talk with you. We touched base earlier this week for the first time although I was a little bit familiar with some of the work that you've already done that we'll touch on. And the thing that I loved was you just immediately were saying that when it comes to California, you're pretty much interested in your co-op and Anza in terms of what they're doing for broadband when you know and I are very much on the same page in terms of that love of the co-ops. And lemme just ask you, where did that come from?

Bob Marshall: Funny California has so few electric. I had heard about 'em once at Berkeley, that's it once. And I was working at a municipal utility, Palo Alto and someone had said there was a job up here and applied for it. We drove over a certain pass and said, Oh my god, humans live here.

Christopher Mitchell: <laugh>

Bob Marshall:: Beautiful. There wasn't any jobs at the time and for it's sparse but beautiful. And I read a book called The Next Greatest Thing, It was the 50 year anniversary of the co-op movement and I actually, it's a coffee table book and I cried in it. It was just like this is how humans should do stuff. And just, so I got the job as member services director which is a broad portfolio of everything nobody else wants, energy services, et cetera. And then ended up being a, hey, that's a satellite dish, you wanna be involved. And I volunteered and it ended up eventually I became manager after some interesting years. So it really was just the model of the co-op model of we can do it if we band together just really inspired me.

Christopher Mitchell:: Excellent. So the electric co-op is something that everyone knows about and it generally goes back to the Roosevelt years in terms of their history. But tell us about how Puma Sierra got into telecommunications.

Bob Marshall:: We moved, my wife and I moved up from the Bay Area and were delighted and we rented a house, this little town of Komberg, it's population 200. There was one radio station there was no TV at all. And it was one of those, there's not a single service here so this area is just beautiful and I loved it. And parents had used to have a cabin in the woods and it's like, yay. Oh my God, there's no services. So when all the co-ops banded together informed the National Rural Telecommunication Cooperative, they started offering, trying to strike deals to offer Cban services, DirecTV. So it became an opportunity for me to say we could really provide value to the community but also have the community care that we're a co-op. It was the 50 year anniversary and all the people who started the co-op under Roosevelt were all dying. I mean literally I was getting interviews at the 50 year anniversary people who weren't around three years later . And so it really became a, hey we need to make the co-op matter. And it was a great opportunity.

Christopher Mitchell:: Now you might be laugh at me, but for people who aren't familiar with where Plumas and Sierra counties are California's freaking huge like I think if basically if you're in Sacramento and you drive, if you fly east toward Nevada just before you hit the state line, you're more or less in the right area. Is that right?

Bob Marshall:: Vaguely. And it's Highway I 80 goes north east up to Reno and we are north of I of Truckee by about an hour. Yeah it is. It's not too far past where the Donner party stop for the winter. Yeah. So we're northwest of Reno all along right on the border. There's two co-ops, one up in the corner of the state, then us Plumas Lason and Sierra County Mount Lassens in our county. So we're north of Lake Tahoe, north of Truckee North west of Reno.

Christopher Mitchell:: Okay. So you got involved when the other electric co-ops were starting to look at this, but when did you start doing fiber optic services? Presumably first for electric side stuff, but then how did you get into more using that for broadband for residents and businesses?

Bob Marshall:: So we did direct TV and we made very good money. It was very popular all across the country and we jumped into the internet and we did dial up. So we grew very organically from dial up to then some wireless with a company then our own wireless. Well okay then did satellite internet on wild. What was wild blue became vsat became exceed I, I've lost track what the official name is these days. . We were very big into that and we actually served a lot of the country and then we applied for in the recovery a R stimulus fund we applied and we didn't get the last mile grants, we got the mid mile grant. So it was very important because at and t couldn't give us any more T1 lines. We literally had six megs of back haul for our wireless and frontier was charging us some outrageous amount of money. And so we got the grant, we had to have six board meetings in six weeks to bring the board along. When you catch the bus, what do you do with it? So we went for it and that's what sort of launched the modern version, which is in the fiber optic


Christopher Mitchell:: People are trying to envision this. It's mostly forest land. I feel like it's a lot of small towns connected by roads that are probably beautiful drives but not exactly a lot of land that's available in between the areas that are settled or people. Do people live all throughout there or it's hard to tell from above?

Bob Marshall:: Yes. And it's a real interesting mix. You've got big valleys there's a giant flat, they used to be lakes actually and they filled in and it's twin sister literally is there. So you have valleys that are a lot of ag and should stay ag. You have lots of national forest then you've got a lot of private land. So definitely it's definitely a mix. Lots of five and 10 acre parcels. I'm on one of those little compact towns from the old days, little railroad towns, a lot of those. So real mixed two lane highways. And so you go from deep timber to the west to high desert to the east. And we do a little bit of Nevada, which is definitely high desert burning mans only 50 air miles east of us. Not even 40 air miles east of our system though many a mountain range.

Christopher Mitchell:: Now the way you described though sounds painful to serve. So what is your mix of services that you use to try and deliver people's service for today?

Bob Marshall:: The first grant was for a fiber optic backbone that went to the hospitals, went to the county seats, both Lassen county, Plums County and then the city in one town in Sierra Sierra County. So we had wireless, we used this to beef up our wireless system and increase speeds as we had thought we'd be a mid mile provider because at and t Frontier, the cable TV companies all said Hey this will be well great, we'll buy it from you. They were kidding us.

Christopher Mitchell:: , you weren't the only one .

Bob Marshall:: Yes, yes. And it, it's really what hit us was especially in at and t country, which is about half our territory. And people started saying that's great I'm glad you got the high school and the hospital now have fiber optic for telemedicine. When do you get into my house? And we would say, you have to understand that was a mistake

Christopher Mitchell:: , it'd be really great if you understood

Bob Marshall:: We're gonna try for some more grants. And so about two annual meetings and co-ops have annual meetings that are part carnival, part business meeting and we're explaining to the crowd about the grants and a familiar voice goes, When are you get into our house? And I sat down and the board president goes, Ain't that your wife ? And he is like, Yes, yes it was. And the next year we still were trying to drive the cable TV companies buy from us and they started to and board president gets up and just says Don't worry, I know you're all yelling at us, we're gonna get to everybody. I've written his speech and I had not put that in his speech. And it was like the board started looking at each other. We didn't vote on that but the crowd people would start in a lot of co-ops that weren't desirous of being in the business. People were gonna start running for boards if we didn't start providing the service. And so we started doing pilot programs with fiber optic in subdivisions and see what the take rate was and do ize gambles. We've stuck with wireless for the big valleys. I mean there can be a ranch with 2000 acres and one house. So using fiber there is gonna be rough unless we get continued grants. So we do wireless and we're hitting a hundred megs there And then we bought a cable TV company went defunct and we bought it for pennies and literally $4 for four different chunks on the sheriff's steps. The pull position is made it valuable, the system runs like garbage and we turned parts of it on and it runs okay for coax and through Dosis 3.0. But eventually we're gonna tear it all down and put up fiber optic so it became a mixed bag. Eventually we'll be wireless in the most remote areas and then we're quietly working to make more and more of a fiber optic.

Christopher Mitchell:: Now I think you just recently got some really good news in terms of grants to help you make some of these investments. Can you share what's happening there


Bob Marshall:: At the California Public Utilities Commission has given us just shy of 23 million of grants to get to very specific areas. It's an interesting puzzle piece in that it's very, it's carved out census blocks. So they say you get money to serve these 20 homes but not those. And it's interesting, the Ccpc is tired of being yelled at by people who are bypassed cuz other recipients will go to the grant recipients only and then they don't bother serving the people who they went down the street . And the C P C seems to what we're doing because we usually come in under budget when we say we're gonna do something, we're gonna do something. The board of directors is, are you gonna meet the deadlines? And I think the agencies state and federal are all sick of, give me the money in RDO for example. Oh I have no idea how I'm gonna serve there. Whereas if we say we can do it, we do it. So the state likes the fact that we do what we say we're gonna do. And same with Anza, the other co-op down south in broadband. Anza is the same way. Anza does what it says it's gonna do and we can account for every dollar because I can still account for the original construction in 37 come have extremely good bookkeeping. Cause if you don't, when you take federal money and you're an electric co-op, people get grumpy if you didn't do what you said

Christopher Mitchell:: , they get grumpy. They send out people that have handcuffs, right?

Bob Marshall:: ? Yes, exactly. Our first channel manager in 38 had that problem. So

Christopher Mitchell:: Lesson learned. Now,

Bob Marshall:: Yes,

Christopher Mitchell:: Correct me if I'm wrong. I think that the California program works. It's not like they just like, Oh it's gonna cost you $10,000 to do this home. Here's $7,500 you cover the rest. Their grants I think are a hundred percent of the cost for the areas that they're targeting. Is that right? Am I wrong with

Bob Marshall:: That Current For the current grants previous grants, they were a mixed bag. We got some in 2019 for construction in 2020 that were mostly 90 and a few hundred percenters. So we put up some of our own funds to match it a grant last year. And then these are all at a hundred percent.

Christopher Mitchell:: But then you have to put in your own money then to connect those others who are not part of that the layout plan or in the area that they're served.

Bob Marshall:: And we do that. And this electric utility we both will invest for the five year payback. You have to get a fast turnaround with telecom but also for electric. Electric will build a cada control lines. They'll put 72 count down to a substation and we'll route it appropriately and loop it if we can and then rent to the subsidiary who then sells to the customers. And that way it helps with capital. The rural utility service is okay with that as long as its primary functions electric. But electric loves to upgrade and run a modern grid but you just can't invest millions and not raise rates. So renting out the surplus capacity to the subsidiary is a way to make the electric utility whole and get to the rest of our member owners who aren't on the grant. Sometimes it's just a matter of well how can I gotta pay 300 bucks and that guy got 99, well the grant paid for him and no one's paying for you. You gotta hook up. So it's a hybrid and works. It's been working. Our biggest concern really is enough manpower to get the job done without hiring so many people that we have to lay 'em off when we're

Christopher Mitchell:: Done. The classic I think it was the Guinea pig moving through the snake problem . Some people don't like that visual. I I've gotten comments on .

Bob Marshall:: Okay I have quite a dark sense of humor so I think it's great.


Christopher Mitchell:: Now one of the challenges that you have right now is a part of your territory or else right next to it is the Dixie area where the Dixie fire was. Right. What happened there?

Bob Marshall:: So we serve of the leftovers and remnants and just north of us is the feather of a canyon and it's a staircase of pg e hydro plants and pg e cal fire has now finally said it was pg e, I'm not sure pg e has agreed with them. It burned it it crossed the Sierra. It ended up being from one end, the other end, which is pretty apparently there's only been two fires and Caldor fire was the other one in history that ever made it over the top. It burned through several communities, Greenville Canyon Dam, Indian Falls especially all took a real beating and then it burned in and around the northern part of our county as well, Almanor, Chester, Westwood, it burned around them that they're able to save the towns fire burned. And we had something else called the Beckworth complex that knocked down our system for a week on a whole chunk of our system. The Dixie fire burned through our lines but pretty minor compared to the towns town of Greenville for example. So an awful lot of infrastructure burned down and what we're seeing is that an awful lot of people moved away and they evacuated and without broadband. Looks like there's a real concern that will never be able to attract people back to that region. Some of the resort towns, yes, but again resort towns, you have service economy jobs and there's both an opportunity and a problem with in the recovery from the Dixie fire,

Christopher Mitchell:: One of the things that I originally said to you was, I understand that most things are going underground and you said underground is not a help in some of these cases because the fire actually destroyed some of the underground stuff as well.

Bob Marshall:: For me Undergrounding, that's a bit of a nuance there. So when pg e is going back, they are undergrounding along like highway 89 obscure highway, that curve and it's, but it's built into the crust of the earth. , I mean this is interesting digging and it's in granite a lot of times or else there's just chunks of granite in the middle of your ditch that don't have a bottom. The mantle I guess. So the problem is

Christopher Mitchell:: That gets wet down there

Bob Marshall:: . So the problem you've got is that on pg e is digging this insanely expensive ditch and what they say, well you say hey we'd like to join you. They say great, this is gonna be about 160 bucks a foot so we'll split it with

Christopher Mitchell:: You. Right that's always the question is do you have the extra costs or half of the costs?

Bob Marshall:: And that's the thing and that's a political issue. So from that side of it, if it's undergrounding, everybody is lots of people in that's not a bad situation. Or if you're on the valley floor in Indian Valley, which is what Greenville's in that burned, once you're in the valley, it's dirt and it's not bad digging. So the problem is when pg e is building overhead that it's an opportunity, it's not a fast opportunity but you can follow their polls and go. And so it's really finding a good path to this community these communities and building cost effectively to them or having someone else build to them. And then we do last mile. That's gonna be the real challenge up there.

Christopher Mitchell:: Well correct me if I'm wrong, maybe it wasn't you, maybe it was someone else who told me. My understanding was some of the stuff in conduit burned under the fires like being underground didn't help at all.

Bob Marshall:: Haven't heard that wasn't me. Have not heard


Christopher Mitchell:: That. Well then maybe I dreamed it. Maybe we shouldn't be spreading rumors. well

Bob Marshall:: Mean it's Frontier plays it. The big guys play it close to the chest. And I had thought in the canyon it's quite possible in town cuz they did underground in Greenville and some of that conduit may have especially the weak point junction boxes. six inches up in the air was hot enough, you're gonna be melting. You might be okay with the runs that are 18 inches down but you're not gonna be okay at the junction boxes. So wasn't me, For me underground is better and we would've been very happy if we had undergrounded our original era grant

Christopher Mitchell:: Back when labor was more affordable. .

Bob Marshall:: Yes, yes. Well and it's like, but the problem with grants, the other thing you get into though is that NPA and Squa, right? And it's when we took the grant, we are going through several hundred miles of, I dunno few a hundred miles of forest service roughly speaking and the selling point, we got a Cat X categorical exclusion that was no shovel needs to hit the ground for us to attach to our poles that run through the forest service and that let us make the deadlines. And so overhead's fast overhead doesn't disturb the soil. You don't need NPA and usually. And so yay you go and go fast. And that's the same problem we having staring at North p Palos County overheads fast underground, safer and more expensive.

Christopher Mitchell:: Yes. The other thing that I feel like you may have hit the jack pad a little bit on is it looks like as California's putting billions of dollars into middle mile, you seem to be in a priority area for one of the runs. How does that inter interface with your work?

Bob Marshall:: Giant, if we love the map. Now one of our brothers is not as happy with the map because they're duplicating a bit. But this, the Middle Mile project is project number two, which highway 36 which would connect to the end of our fiber optic line and then run along 36 into the burned areas of the Dixie fire towns of Westwood and Chester run then run down to Red Bluff in the Central Valley and I five which would be the main, I hate to call it the internet cuz that's technically not it, but there's multiple big carriers on I five. So that would greatly help us. And especially if the problem is with big maps in big round buffers is you can't quite see how far down it goes. It's like does that stop Animal Lake or does that go into into the burned communities? So we have questions and we are working with various entities that are just getting their feet underneath them to find out when. And so that's a real puzzler at the moment. It's very, very hard to get into these areas cuz they're doing road repair and tree removal and it's kind of brutal. And we have our own projects so we're trying to figure out how can we leverage what the state is doing? Well it's on paper looks great and will they do it in a fast enough manner is kind of the biggest question. And then can we finish building from the burned area south and make a ring? Because again, geography is everything in the Sierra and whether railroads are where they are because they could get a pass. I mean can we make a ring? And that'd be very valuable for us cuz again we, we've had four major fires in two years


Christopher Mitchell:: Unfortunately. Can expect that there would be more on the way and yes a ring would be great. The other thing is I do sort of wonder they're not doing it in the United States yet in any sort of scale, but I feel like a relationship with starlink might be useful to be able to turn on satellite in the lower orbit back haul in the event of a disaster like that to try to give you a little bit of an escape valve temporarily.

Bob Marshall:: Interesting. I hadn't thought of them as a back haul option. Interesting. Satellite's an interesting game. We had a lot of experience with wild blue which ran great in the early going and we went all in exactly what we shouldn't have

Christopher Mitchell:: But timing is everything.

Bob Marshall:: It had chip issues and we expanded when the wrong time. But problem with satellite is still always a fundamental. What you put up in the sky is what you get and there's no fixing it, there's no adjust. Whatever you did when it was on the bird on the rocket, there it is. And what is good service Now we're gonna go from a 50 by 10 package as a base package to a hundred by 20, which we have a little higher package to two 50 by a hundred. And you can't do that with satellite. And the other issue with satellite is always the more you load it up, the more you're doing a shared resource . Where with fiber do we say 10 gig cards, We meant hundred gig cards. , all you gotta do is change the cards out and you're off to the races.

Christopher Mitchell:: Yep. Yeah. Well I definitely don't think that with the kind of usage you're talking about, you'd be able to do it every day. But in the event of an emergency I feel like anyway, I've talked with some of the folks from starlink and I know that they've tried to help emergency responders in emergencies with that. The fact that they can drop a few hundred megabits on places at low latency now and anyway, it's just something I thought I'd throw out there and see if we'd cross your radar screen.

Bob Marshall:: Yeah, haven't yet. But interesting. We're looking at even if it's still gonna be two, three years before we get a ring done and we're actually trying to do a snowman figure eight configuration if we can pull it off. But that's some years away cuz we are hoping these towns building middle mile is not fast. Whether even if you're in Na Caltrans right of way, it's not a fast process. Grants take time to apply for et cetera. And we think both starlink and then a local wireless company may be very good short term solutions for everybody. Those towns, they may go back to DSL from the incumbent, but that's still gonna be limited by copper and poor uploads and all that.

Christopher Mitchell:: Last two questions. Are you in an area where you get snow by the foot? Is that something that happens in the mountains? That's beautiful? Yeah, ,


Bob Marshall:: When we recruit lineman from the Dakotas in Minnesota, we say it doesn't go below zero much and the snow falls straight down and stays there and linemen are like, really? Where is this paradise? You speak of . So yes, we had after some bad droughts, we had a very, very good December and then now we are having a nice dry January, fingers crossed for February.

Christopher Mitchell:: Excellent. Well I wish you luck and I want to end, but we started off before we started recording in the agreement talking a little bit about science fiction and I'm curious if there you have any recommendations of anything for a person you've never met a person who's listening to this show right now.

Bob Marshall:: I'll recommend an author as opposed to a book. The best author is Terry prt and it is absolutely I consider him, my whole family considers, considers him the modern Shakespeare. He passed in 2015 in my executive assistant, looked in and saw me just sobbing and was like, Are you okay? Your mom die? It's like, no, Terry PRT passed away. So that is the easiest recommendation on the internet. Has lots of recommendations on where to start because he had a whole series of books but it was about three or four in where he really hit his rhythm. So can't recommend it.

Christopher Mitchell:: Yes, that's the whole disc world universe. Wonderful. I've I've read more than half of 'em now. I'm a huge fan. Good oman's, just tremendous book. Hilarious book. . Let me recommend, I don't know if you have anything about Daniel Suarez. He's one of my favorite contemporary kind of near future science fiction. His most recent one is Delta V. It's about mining asteroids and Okay. The sequel should be out soon. I'm really hoping and I'm a huge fan of everything that he's written I think is brilliant except for Influx, which is just a bad book. So anything except for influx .

Bob Marshall:: Okay.

Christopher Mitchell:: I was not impressed with, And it is interesting from biotech to asteroids to just sort more AI type stuff, uhs a lot of good stuff. He's a Fortune 500 security consultant, so he is not someone who's too far out of line of what's realistic and very enjoyable.

Bob Marshall:: Well good. Oh good. It is. I've gotta have an endless stream of books or I'll go out of my Gord. Yes. Or as you said we chatted earlier about is or you can always pepper in an old Terry prt. I mean we have reordered almost everything in paperback, at least twice . Cause every person has read it and they just start falling apart.

Christopher Mitchell:: . Yep, yep. I keep an eye out. Any time any of them are on sale on Kindle, I immediately grab him.

Bob Marshall:: Yep. Yep. Good. Good.

Christopher Mitchell:: Great. Thank you so much for your time today. It's a wonderful conversation.

Bob Marshall:: No problem. It was a lot of fun. Thanks so much.


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