Santa Cruz County Moving Beyond Incumbent Inaction - Community Broadband Bits 295

When community leaders in Santa Cruz County, California, decided to take steps to spur economic development, they knew they needed to improve local connectivity. For episode 295 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, Policy Analyst Patrick Mulhearn from County Supervisor Zach Friend’s office talks with Christopher this week about the steps they’ve taken and their plans.

Santa Cruz County is a blend of beach activity, relaxing natural destinations, and inland rural areas. Silicon Valley is nearby and people who work in the tech industry live in the city of Santa Cruz or the rural areas around it and commute to work. Unfortunately, national providers have not kept up with high quality connectivity throughout the county. As is often the case, the incumbent providers have concentrated their efforts on specific areas, leaving rural Santa Cruz County behind. 

Patrick and Christopher discuss how the county took steps to accommodate the big ISPs and what happened next. They also talk about how some people in rural areas have taken steps to solve their problems despite the lack of action by incumbents and what county officials have in mind for the future.

This show is 23 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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Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. See other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance here.

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


Patrick Mulhearn: It's really going to come down to to local governments to to fill these gaps some way.

Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 295 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. California's Santa Cruz County is known for its bustling beaches and its natural inland beauty. It's within driving distance of Silicon Valley and offers a high quality of life for people who aren't interested in living in a large bustling city but still want the activities found in a coastal community. In this interview Christopher talks with Patrick Mulhearn from Santa Cruz County. He discusses how county officials turn to better connectivity as an economic development tool. And he describes the challenges they faced. He also talks about the policy change Santa Cruz County has adapted to encourage ISPs to improve services and the results of those changes. Patrick and Christopher also talk about what Santa Cruz County is working on next. Now here's Christopher with Patrick Mulhearn from Santa Cruz County in California.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis Minnesota. Today I'm talking with Patrick Mulhearn a policy analyst in the office of supervisor Zack Friend of Santa Cruz County. Welcome to the show. Thank you for having me. So let's just start with a little bit of Santa Cruz County, people may not be entirely familiar with your lovely little oasis south of San Jose. But what should people know about it who aren't familiar with it?

Patrick Mulhearn: We are the second smallest county by geography in the state of California around 250,000 people total in the unincorporated county. And in our various municipal jurisdictions about 150,000 just in the unincorporated county we are a coastal town. So there's a concentration of development along the coast by about 40 years ago. Locals put in a series of protective ordinances to maintain green space and agricultural lands protect them from development. So while we are pretty densely urbanized along the coast the interior is very rural and intended to be so for in perpetuity. It sounds like a lot of California. We are special in that we are also about 30 miles from Silicon Valley. So a great many of our residents here in the county commute everyday into Silicon Valley so they're engineers or employed by tech companies. Several of the major tech employers send buses down here to pick up their employees. So there are a lot of cars on our highway that are traveling north into Silicon Valley where we've become a bedroom community for Silicon Valley. So a lot of tech consumers here a lot of people that are very concerned about their access to the Internet

Christopher Mitchell: And you're on good terms with the city of Santa Cruz, right? and a fair amount of people live near the city but are in the county's jurisdiction. Realizing that the County of course has jurisdiction over the city but there's a fair amount of people. Despite the agricultural lands and whatnot that live outside of Santa Cruz, right?

Patrick Mulhearn: Yes, yes. Most of our unincorporated areas that are inhabited are what are considered rural residential areas so they are not concentrated aggregations of people but there are still aggregations of families and neighborhoods in fact on parcels ranging in size from from one acre to three acres. But will it'll still be a community of people all living together and all of those people are for the most part somehow involved in technology. So we have educators we have small business owners.

Christopher Mitchell: And as I said before a lot of commuters into Silicon Valley and I think it's worth noting that because of the nature of our conversation and talking about the kind of density and the the way that the population is distributed because both you and supervisors Zach friend have worked very hard to try to make Santa Cruz County as inviting to investment to improve telecommunications access as possible. That's my impression from afar.

Patrick Mulhearn: Yes yes absolutely that's that's been the plan.

Christopher Mitchell: So let's maybe start at the beginning. At what point did you come to realize that, you know, that at least the incumbents viewed some of the policies perhaps as restricting investment and that they would need to be looked at?

Patrick Mulhearn: This broad broadband policy was actually one of the positions that that Zach ran on. So we coming into office already had some idea of how he wanted to pursue this. But of course once we got into office we realized that things were a lot more complicated than they looked on the outside. Initially our goal was to improve economic development in the county by increasing the amount of broadband capacity so we can maybe lure high tech companies down here or even convince some of the larger tech companies who have a great number of employees down here to maybe create satellite facilities and then you know pipe in very high capacity high speed broadband into those areas so that it would be cost effective for them to have facilities down here. When we get when we actually started the policymaking process though we realized that like a lot of jurisdictions in California especially coastal jurisdictions the the land use ordinances and policies of the county were very restrictive designed to slow down and inhibit development and to preserve things the way they currently are. We also didn't have any money in the capital to actually build our own fiber networks or even to put in our own conduit. So we wanted to find a way to make it easier for other people to invest here. And we started our conversations with Comcast and AT&T specifically and then a couple of local Internet service providers. But our our initial focus was on the major international incumbent type facilities and asked them specifically well what is it that we're doing wrong. What is it that we're we're. What are our policies that get in your way. I mean they were they were very candid about the types of things that would make the Santa Cruz County more attractive. Now this is also occurring kind of at the same time as the Google Fiber craze was going on. And so we were also able to get a copy of the sort of the requirements that that Google had for their fiber initiative that the types of policies and ordinances that they would look for in a jurisdiction if they were to partner.

Patrick Mulhearn: And so we we also incorporated some of those ideas and to our initial policymaking. But the whole idea was because we had no public funding for it to find a way to encourage private investment. And so that that was our focus from the beginning.

Christopher Mitchell: And what kind of things were they noting? I mean did it have to do with taxes with no right of way permitting? What were some of their issues that they would like to resolve?

Patrick Mulhearn: Almost exclusively with the permitting process. The way things were set up before every every individual project had to have its own discretionary permit now. So we have two types of permits, you have discretionary permits and administrative permits and the discretionary type requires public notice. And it goes through a staff review process and at any point it could be derailed for any reason. It leaves a lot of a lot of opportunity for people to interfere with the development or to challenge it all the way up through this review process. While in administrative permit is basically if you take these boxes you if you meet these requirements then you are issued a permit. There's no discretion there's no public noticing requirement. Furthermore having to do individual permits for each of these projects required individual fees every time. And so it became quite expensive for anybody and time consuming to go through this process. So we initially focused on finding ways to aggregate all of the permits into one. So we were able to to able to streamline the process that way where you were you could provide all of your all the sites that are going to be working on. So for example AT&T if they wanted to put in 12 new boxes to serve their new fiber network they would just have to give us a list of all of all the boxes, meet all of the sort of the administrative requirements, and then we would issue them a permit that would be good for all of their devices. Initially we did a test run with their sort of their first round of permits to see how well it worked and whether it was going to work for them. And it seemed to. They were able to develop their infrastructure in about nine months. And that was all we heard from them. I should clarify that the projects that they were interested in working on were in areas that were already served by fiber. So they were improving at one point they had a fiber to copper to home system and they were upgrading it to fiber to home. So they were improving the, you know, their download speeds and their capacity but basically providing a product that was already available in the areas that they were working

Christopher Mitchell: Right in some ways it sounds like they had identified the audience that they felt they would get the most profit from and that they were the most focused on and they were you know just interested in serving that audience which is of course one of the critiques that many of us have which is that almost regardless of a permitting process that these companies are going to some of these companies are going to engage in some pretty significant redlining or a behavior that appears to be close to that.

Patrick Mulhearn: Yes unfortunately and it's, I mean, obviously for different reasons than we typically associate with redlining by the way. And they have a profit model that they intend to follow and they're going to go after the easy money which is high higher density areas just having more people per mile rather than miles per people. And that's that's the challenge for us.

Christopher Mitchell: And I think it's just worth reiterating I mean one of the concerns that any network builder has and a permitting process is that it be predictable and one of the biggest problems isn't necessarily the fee that's charged it's the amount of time it would take to go through it. So you took the you took that uncertainty out of it by finding ways of making sure that they'd be able to predict it. I mean you know when it comes down to filling out forms and things like that companies like AT&T have a million people that can do that. They have no problems with that. It's all about the predictability.

Speaker 7: Yes. And I think honestly that's has been part of the problem with development county wide in Santa Cruz County, California, is the predictability of the permitting process. Honestly, the pursuing reform just for broadband facilities has has opened up to include a wider discussion about permitting here for any project. And so I think that that's been kind of an unintended consequence of the conversation is that we were now also addressing how we process building permits for houses or for developments to to create. Like you say more a more predictable sort of arc.

Christopher Mitchell: Excellent. I think that's important. As someone who you know doing home improvement and things like that will have to be dealing with permitting. I hope all cities are are looking at that because it's a challenge. I think it's one of the bigger challenges that the young policymakers are going to have to deal with in terms of giving people faith in local governments. But I think the key lesson of what we're talking about here is actually that you addressed what is identified as the key bottleneck that large providers identify in terms of what discourages their investment. You remove that bottleneck and it sounds like the only thing that happened was areas that already had better access simply got much better access and the kinds of things that you wanted to happen which was far better access in the areas that had been left behind that those areas are still waiting for investment.

Patrick Mulhearn: Yes, that is 100 percent accurate. So now I mean we have gigabit speeds to people who had 500 megabit downloads previously and I still have 90,000 - 100,000 people who are scraping by with maybe they have a legacy DSL connection or they're using satellite or some other alternative or they're trying to negotiate with the incumbents to to run a line out to their neighborhood too. We've had we've had one neighborhood that's been successful with that.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. It's rough. And that's why, you know, most of the show focuses on what folks are doing to try to improve access because other they've given up on this sort of hope or or they never had it to begin with. So I think the second part of the show what I'd like to focus on is the sense of what comes next for Santa Cruz County.

Patrick Mulhearn: We have what we're calling a Broadband Master Plan and that initiative has been folded into a an inter-jurisdictional working group called the Fiber Initiative Team. And it's their job now and it includes policymakers from both the city and the county ,from our public works and planning departments, and our economic development department to try to flesh out our fiber map and to also identify areas where we think targeted investment should be made to improve broadband resources. The whole idea here is to act strategically find areas, for example, for economic development reasons could use better fiber access. We have, for example, a medical corridor with hospitals and doctors offices and medical imaging offices, and they're all concentrated in this area, and the fiber that is currently being sold, cyber access that's been currently being sold at these institutions, is kind of outrageously priced. And so we're wondering whether if we put in perhaps a municipal project or found some other way to to help someone else come into there, we might be able to leverage them a market environment that would allow for maybe lowering some of the costs and then we could perhaps attract some more startup type companies to come into that area. One of the nexuses that we're looking at is the University of California Santa Cruz. It's the home of the Human Genome Project. And so what are what are some ways that we can facilitate this nexus between the human genome project and our existing medical companies here. Maybe the catalyst would be better broadband access. So those those types of conversations that we're having at the fiber initiative team define better ways to utilize the existing network and to find ways to encourage economic development strategically from more rural areas though there there really isn't a lot of activity by the incumbents. Nor apparently any interest but we do have a local Internet service provider that is very interested in expanding their network. And about three years ago Sunesys has put a new four terabyte fiber trunk that goes straight through the middle of this undeveloped area in Santa Cruz County. And theirs is an open network so anybody can lease strands of fiber and run their own -- and run their own network off of that. And so this local ISP they're called CruzIO is looking to use that backbone to expand their network into the rural areas. And their plan is to use line of sight wireless broadband to beam their their product down into some of the topographically less accessible areas and then run fiber from nodes in those areas to the houses in the valleys and up on the hills. Right now it very much looks like a homebrew ISP. So we have one neighborhood where there is a guy who lives on a hill and he put a radio mast up there, catches the wireless signal, beams it down to another house below him, and then they are running their own fiber between the houses that way. So we're trying to find ways to facilitate that process make it easier for them again through permitting or land use decisions make it easier for them to expand on this. This very much homegrown Internet service provider that they're working on and we're looking to replicate that model in a couple of these these more, I won't call them dense, but there are rural residential areas with, you know, around 200 homes in the areas. And so we're trying to take this as a model and maybe we can reach these people that way. Doing it just sort of ad hoc homegrown network.

Christopher Mitchell: You know we've run across a number of these often actually in California or other western states where there's usually someone that's interested in figuring this out themselves sharing with their neighbors and see what's up what happens next. So it's it's great that that spirit is alive in your neighborhoods.

Patrick Mulhearn: Yes it's very exciting and they're very enthusiastic about it and honestly we have the right -- with the right people working on it because these people at their day jobs are our engineers for you know tech companies. So that's what they do.

Christopher Mitchell: People who you know if something doesn't work, they view that as a challenge, not a setback, right. Yes.

Patrick Mulhearn: Yes exactly, exactly.

Christopher Mitchell: Well that's terrific. I really appreciate you coming on to share information particularly about the actions you've taken and the results I'm sorry. You know as always that when you go through that kind of effort and you make something happen to find out that it's not generating the results you want. But I think it is it is good to have that hard evidence that some of the incumbents I don't want to paint with too broad of a brush. But no matter cities and counties do. There are a number of companies that simply will not solve the issue for low-income households or even people that just live in areas that might be a little bit harder to serve and we need to figure things out. So I'm glad that you're also working on that.

Patrick Mulhearn: It's really going to come down to to local governments to have to fill these gaps some way. It's often said that the states are laboratories of democracy and it really is the local government that are able to do these, pursue these harebrained policies to see what works. And so I think it's important that we all communicate with each other so we can see well this is working and this isn't working and maybe amongst all of us together we can create some kind of model policies that we can apply elsewhere throughout the country and maybe achieve some kind of success.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes, definitely. And that's one of the things that I'm sure that you appreciate especially since you have such a county that has such varied density and geography, is that we need many models because there's different types of communities the different kinds of models. So absolutely. Thank you for taking the time to come on and share your experiences with us.

Patrick Mulhearn: Thank you for having me.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher with Patrick Mulhearn from Santa Cruz County, California. We have transcripts from this and other podcasts available at Email us at with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @CommunityNets. Follow stories on Twitter. The handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other eyeless our podcasts Building Local Power and the Local Energy Rules podcasts you can access them wherever you get your podcasts like Apple podcasts or Stitcher never miss out on original research by subscribing to our monthly newsletter at Thank you Arnie Huseby for the song "Warm Duck Shuffle" licensed Creative Commons and thanks for listening to episode 295 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.