North County Fiber Ring.jpg

A map included in a report to the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors shows the North County Fiber Loop that would bring broadband internet access to remote and underserved communities as well as larger cities and towns.

All areas of Santa Barbara County and, eventually, San Luis Obispo and Ventura counties could have access to broadband internet service if a plan being formulated by a consortium of private, nonprofit and government entities comes together as envisioned.

In October, the County Board of Supervisors is expected consider whether to kick in $200,000 to develop a strategic plan for extending fiber-optic broadband access to North County communities with a connection to the South Coast.

The $200,000, roughly a third of the anticipated $300,000 total cost for the plan, would come from some $43.3 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds included in the county’s 2021-22 fiscal year budget.

On Sept. 21, supervisors heard an overview of the proposal, including the North County Fiber Ring, from Bill Simmons, collaborative developer for the Broadband Consortium of the Pacific Coast, which was formed in 2014 to coordinate creation of a broadband network for the Tri-Counties.

In 2020, Tellus Ventures gave Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties a “D” on the California Broadband Infrastructure Report Card. Ventura County rated a “C.”

To solve the problem, the consortium is working with the three counties, cities, educational institutions, the private sector, including service providers, and the nonprofit Economic Development Collaborative, EconAlliance and REACH, the Regional Economic Action Coalition.

Simmons on underserved populations.jpg

Bill Simmons, inset, collaborative developer for the Broadband Consortium of the Pacific Coast, explains the effort to provide broadband internet access to everyone in the Tri-Counties area for the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors in this screenshot from the livestream of the Sept. 21 meeting.

“The mandate is internet for all,” Simmons told supervisors. “What we all agree on is the need for fiber [optics].”

While many people have recognized the need for broadband internet access, Simmons said the COVID-19 pandemic really emphasized its importance as children needed high-speed access for schooling, governments needed it for meetings, and businesses needed it to connect with customers.

“Didn’t see COVID coming,” Simmons said. “It sure has been an accelerant, like lighter fluid on the barbecue. It’s changed the conversation dramatically. A mountain has literally been moved.”

The Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians got the ball rolling with grant funds to analyze the needs and develop a strategy for providing broadband service to the reservation, the site known as Camp 4 and surrounding Santa Ynez community.

Chumash representative Sam Cohen said the tribe explored two routes from the South Coast, one up Highway 101 and one up Highway 154 to the reservation, forming the base for the North County Fiber Ring.

“Having the redundant fiber [optics] from the north and the south is really imperative,” Simmons said.

The lines would then extend from Buellton on up Highway 101 to Santa Maria and west along Highway 246 to Lompoc and Vandenberg Space Port Base, then northward toward Casmalia.

Another section from Highway 101 would pass through Orcutt to connect with the line to Casmalia, which from there would extend north to Guadalupe, through Nipomo along Highway 1 and on to Pismo Beach.

The Highway 101 line would also extend north to Nipomo before cutting west to close a loop with the Highway 1 line, and another line would follow Highway 166 east to Cuyama.

Simmons said it will require innovative strategies to get broadband service to some of the most remote and underserved communities, like Cuyama.

“What the region really needs is a joint powers [agency],” he said.

Supervisors weren’t asked to make any participation or funding commitments Sept. 21, just to receive and file the report.

“What we’re asking, more than anything, is just to continue what we’re doing,” Simmons said.