As 2022 began, there were 17 municipal broadband providers in California. That number will increase to 18 when Beverly Hills Fiber, in the city of Beverly Hills, starts signing up customers later this year, according to ConnectCalifornia, whose website describes the company as “a market research firm and boutique consultancy for broadband and related connected home service companies in the California market.”

It’s possible the city of Indio could become No. 19—and the first city in Coachella Valley—to build own fiber-based broadband network. In late October of last year, the city launched its Fiber Master Plan project, with a goal of ascertaining whether the quality of life and real-world functionality of residents and businesses would be improved if the city could help provide them with high-quality, affordable and consistent broadband access.

Kevin Snyder, Indio’s director of community development, is awaiting the results of a survey of Indio’s residents and businesses.

“I would say that there are probably two major objectives,” Snyder told the Independent. “One is that fiber has become very important to the economic development of communities. So, in many ways, it’s become as important to economic development as having water services or good roads. … The other is the social activity aspect. During the pandemic, those communities that, as a whole, did not have good broadband access were challenged in (providing) access to the internet, and the services on the internet, whether it was for schooling, for business purposes, or for access to health information.

“Broadband, in many ways, is going to help close the gap between haves and have-nots. If (the city) doesn’t have good available broadband, then there may be businesses that don’t want to come to the community, or there may be businesses that leave the community. Also, there may be businesses that won’t expand their operations in the community. … You have to have that valuable infrastructure in place. It has to be strong, resilient, redundant and available.”

The aforementioned Indio Broadband Survey, through which Indio households and businesses can share their thoughts and needs, is slated to run through Sunday, Jan. 16. The survey is detailed, wide-ranging and lengthy; some might even call it complicated. Was there concern that the survey’s length could discourage participation?

“To be honest with you, we struggled with that,” Snyder said. “Every community that does this type of survey on this topic (has issues), because the subject matter is quite technical. And it’s very hard, if not impossible, to get it totally into layman’s terms.”

Brooke Beare, Indio’s director of communications and marketing, said the information being gleaned from the survey is much-needed.

“Essentially, what we’re asking people to do is help us shape our digital roadmap,” Beare said. “It’s integral to how we communicate with each other, and also how we educate our children. During the pandemic, it was so difficult to make sure that everyone had equitable internet access so that they could work remotely.

“In the future, if we ever have a situation like the last few years, where internet access became a lifeline for many folks, we won’t have citizens experiencing difficulty getting online.” Kevin Snyder, Indio’s director of community development

“At last count, we had less than 200 survey respondents, so we’re utilizing all of the ways that we can conceive of (to engage more respondents). … We’ve offered opportunities for people to be introduced to the survey at a number of different outreach events,” including the Indio California BBQ State Championship and Festival and the Indio International Tamale Festival. “In order to get a good understanding, the survey needs to have some specificity, which means it’s going to take longer than a minute or two. … That is a challenge. So I think that helping people to understand the value (the Fiber Master Plan) could bring to their lives in the future is where they can find the reward.”

After the survey is closed, the data will be interpreted quickly.

“We’ll take the information, download it and have our consultants go through it,” Snyder said. “We’ve kind of fast-tracked this, because we know that there’s going to be a lot of funding coming down the pike from both the federal and state governments. We want to make sure the city has answered some of these important policy and strategic questions so that we’re in a position to receive some of that funding, if it’s appropriate. We’ve established a pretty quick turnaround, and we’re hoping to have this wrapped up by mid-spring of 2022 with our council, so that we’re positioned as the federal and state agencies start doing their grant processes or direct appropriations.”

According to ConnectCalifornia, “of the 17 current municipal broadband providers in California, only six of them offer residential services, with just three offering FTTH (fiber to the home) service in the last mile. The rest focus on enterprise and business services, or are exclusive to municipal services and anchor institutions like hospitals, libraries and schools.”

It’s not clear yet what types of service Indio may provide.

“We’re looking at what is the best service-delivery model,” Snyder said. “It could be a public-oriented delivery model, which some cities have done, where they’ve built up their own broadband infrastructure. It could be a public-private partnership where we partner with one or more private companies to build out that infrastructure, or it could be entirely private, and we would be more on the policy side helping to guide and facilitate that. Part of this master-planning process is to look at what is best for our city, and it’s different for every community. We could do it by ourselves, or we could do a public-private partnership.”

Regardless of the model selected, Indio’s leadership intends for the city to be the first in the Coachella Valley to establish a secure broadband future for its population.

“I think the ultimate objective is to position our city strategically to ensure that we are able to offer a broadband infrastructure at a consistent and high-quality level to address the economic development and social-equity issues that we’ve identified,” Snyder said. “Many communities don’t know exactly where to go with broadband, because, although we’ve been doing roads and water and sewers for a long time, broadband is relatively new, so the service models for broadband are still evolving. We will be working with our consultants, our City Council, our city manager and other key staff, as well as the community, to really understand what is the best delivery model, and what is the most realistic delivery model.”

“Residents and businesses (are prioritized) to help the economic development of the city and its growth, and to make sure that on the social-equity side, broadband infrastructure is reasonably and fairly distributed across the community. In the future, if we ever have a situation like the last few years, where internet access became a lifeline for many folks, we won’t have citizens experiencing difficulty getting online. We don’t want to have school districts sending school buses out with Wi-Fi to support neighborhoods. Ideally, we’ll have a strong network backbone to make sure that things like that don’t need to happen.”

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Kevin Fitzgerald

Kevin Fitzgerald is the staff writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. He started as a freelance writer for the Independent in June 2013, after he and his wife Linda moved from Los Angeles to Palm...