UTOPIA inks MOU to give rural broadband an open access boost in California

California’s Golden State Connect Authority (GSCA) struck a partnership deal with UTOPIA Fiber, aiming to leverage the latter’s open access network expertise as it works to expand rural broadband in the state.

UTOPIA Fiber's Deputy Director Kimberly McKinley told Fierce the memorandum of understanding it signed with GSCA formalizes the pair’s commitment to work together, but said the details of what exactly that will entail are still being hashed out. Generally speaking, she noted UTOPIA can provide operational and marketing support, as well as advice on how to create an ecosystem of internet service providers and engage with the community.

“We know some of the pitfalls that cities and communities and counties are going to run into and we can help them navigate through some of the challenges” involved in building open access networks, she explained. “You have to have the skillset internally to understand the dynamics of an open access network. I think it is more complicated than people necessarily understand, but it’s simpler if you’re working with people who have done this for so long.”

UTOPIA previously announced 19 open access projects in its home state of Utah, as well as work in Bozeman, Montana, and Idaho Falls, Idaho. Its partnership with GSCA will be its first foray into the state of California.

Formed in August 2021, the GSCA is a joint powers authority comprised of 38 member counties which was created with the express goal of capitalizing on California’s $6 billion investment in broadband to increase access in their territories. Member counties include all of those in northern California above Sacramento, as well as several running along the eastern side of the state, Monterey and San Luis Obispo in the west and Imperial in the south.

GSCA Executive Director Patrick Blacklock told Fierce it has a three phase roadmap to achieve its objective. The first phase involves applying for a technical assistance grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration to help ensure its member counties can develop strategic broadband plans. The second phase entails helping member counties who want to deploy broadband networks on their own by providing a technical review of projects and partnerships they’re considering.

The final phase includes the deployment of actual last mile fiber. Blacklock said it’s currently in the process of identifying a handful of sites where it plans to roll out access. Once it demonstrates success in those locations, the idea is to scale out from there, he added. Blacklock said the sites are still being chosen but there will likely be around a half dozen which are scattered across the geographic range of its membership.

“Our interest is to go and provide fiber where private providers are either unwilling or unable to do so,” he explained. “We’re not interested in being in competition with an entity that’s already deploying fiber, rather to provide fiber to those areas of our rural communities where no one is currently doing so or has plans to do so.”

At the moment, Blacklock said forward progress on the demo sites is limited to preliminary engineering work while the GSCA waits for the California Public Utilities Commission to create the application process for the $6 billion funding pot. But that money is worth the wait given it will make projects in rural areas more economically viable, Blacklock said.

In terms of why it’s interested in the open access model championed by UTOPIA, Blacklock said it offers an opportunity for municipal officials steward development of the network while also ensuring competition for residents.