Ethos Broadband representative Misti Willock and Sierra Electric Cooperative manager Denise Barrera told the Sierra County Commission this week that the project to deliver broadband access via fiber optic infrastructure had met with an unexpected hitch: the SEC utility poles are too short to support the needed cables. Willock and Barrera requested $1.9 million from the county to help SEC “make ready” an estimated 555 utility poles. The county commission agreed to provide SEC with $1,049,012.50 from the county’s share of the American Recovery Plan Act funds at the commission’s July 27 meeting.
This is the second time Ethos Broadband has met with an unexpected catch in their efforts to bring fiber optic broadband to southern Sierra County and a small section of Williamsburg in Phase 1 of the project. The first surprise was the requirement to obtain right-of-way access to properties of 1,400 potential customers before the Bureau of Land Management would grant a permit to begin construction.
Willock informed the commission that, after approximately four months’ work to contact potential customers, Ethos’s notaries public had filed the necessary easements with the Sierra County Clerk. Willock described the clerk’s office as being “insanely helpful.”
In an email interview, Willcock told the Sun that completion of the easement documentation was a “major milestone.” Ethos can now move on to applying for a construction permit from the Bureau of Land Management. While the federal permitting process is unpredictable, the company expects to start construction by the end of the year.
In March 2021, President Biden signed into law the American Rescue Plan Act. The legislation provides coronavirus recovery funds to state and local governments, with $65.1 billion allocated to counties. Sierra County has received half of its allotted $1,049 million and will receive a second installment in about a year. According to the U.S. Department of Treasury website, the funds are limited to supporting public health expenditures, addressing negative economic impacts caused by the public health emergency, replacing lost public-sector revenue, providing premium pay for essential workers and investing in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.
The county’s newly hired manager, Charlene Webb, deferred to County Attorney David Pato to explain the memorandum of understanding between Sierra County and SEC that was presented to the commission for consideration. Pato explained that the previous county administration (led by former County Manager Bruce Swingle) had believed that the best use of the ARPA funds was to assist SEC in making the infrastructure improvements needed for the broadband project. The commission was asked determine how much of the funds to allocate.
Commissioner Travis Day opined that he would prefer to transfer all of the funds to SEC since the county couldn’t really use the monies for any of the other allowable projects. “We could give it to local businesses, but we all ready maxed out the money we had to give (through the CARES Act), and we didn’t get any additional [requests] from businesses.” With no further discussion, the commission approved allocating all of the ARPA funds to the agreement with SEC.
Those funds fall short of the $1.9 million estimate Ethos provided the commission. In an email interview, Willock told the Sun that, to avoid further delays, Ethos will carry the added make-ready expense while working to secure additional grant funding.
Ethos hosted its first ribbon-cutting ceremony in the county this week to celebrate the completion of the Fiber Optic Education Network in Arrey. Ethos hopes to have the Sierra County project website fully functional before the end of the year so that prospective customers can determine which phase of the project will bring service to their area and enable them to pre-subscribe.
“As we all know, the last year and a half have shone a bright light on the need for broadband in our rural areas. It’s my hope that the permitting agencies will make it easier to gain permits . . . when service providers like us are building broadband networks for underserved or unserved communities,” Willock stated in her email. “As a community all of us need to change policies that impede broadband development BEFORE we take on the project.”
Clarification: Sierra County expects to receive a second round of Rescue Plan monies next spring. According to the U.S. Treasury Department website, “Local governments will receive funds in two tranches, with 50% provided beginning in May 2021 and the balance delivered approximately 12 months later.”