South Lake Tahoe focuses on broadband for all

Laney Griffo

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — As the city of South Lake Tahoe grows and tries to develop new economies, officials are focusing on improving broadband access for all the residents and businesses.

The pandemic highlighted the necessity of broadband access but the prevalence of internet access started growing long before everyone was locked down at home.

A 2021 Pew Research facts sheet showed that in 2000, only about 50% of Americans used the internet versus 93% of Americans who used it in 2020.

The Centers for Disease Control classified access to broadband as one of their social determinants to health, which are “conditions in the places where people live, learn, work, and play that affect a wide range of health risks and outcomes.”

The City is no different in recognizing the importance of broadband. The City’s Strategic Plan, which council approved in March 2021, has built environment listed at the first priority.

Bullet 1.1 under built environment has broadband for all, and states the city’s goal is to, “connect the community via high speed internet to serve the needs of local businesses, residents, and attract remote workers to the region. Develop a broadband infrastructure deployment plan that identifies fiber hubs, last mile transit, relay points, and redundancy. The City should explore innovative broadband models (ex: community co-op, municipal) and funding opportunities to implement projects. The City will ensure access (broadband and devices) to underserved communities.”

Before the city can provide broadband to all, it must take stock of what it currently has. The American Rescue Plan Act provided $400,000 to be used for broadband and the council approved $200,000 of that to be used for a feasibility study.

“The contract is going to look at developing a broadband master plan for us. We do have broadband in the city but what we want to do with this study is to really validate what we have,” said Anush Nejad, public works director. “The goal is to provide low-cost and affordable broadband for everyone, including residents and businesses. What we need to do first is do an evaluation of what we have.”

The feasibility study will consist of a speed test followed by an assessment of what needs to be done next. It will also include public outreach, as well as outreach to internet service providers to find the fastest speeds at the lowest costs.

The City contracts with private ISPs, such as Spectrum and AT&T, which all provide their own conduit system consisting of underground cables, overhead cables and Wifi. The study will look at those providers and decide if the city is getting the best possible service.

“That’s what the study will show, what do we need to do in terms of upgrading service, if that’s needed,” Nejad said. “My guess will be that, yes we need to upgrade the infrastructure.”

While the feasibility study will highlight the needs for South Lake Tahoe specifically, a basin-wide study done by Tahoe Prosperity Center showed that the basin is significantly behind cities like San Francisco for upload and download speeds.

“Within the Tahoe Basin underserved areas have download speeds under 6 Mbps, and 1.5 Mbps upload speed, as per the California Public Utilities Commission’s definition of minimum speeds. The average broadband speeds in San Francisco are 75.92 Mbps down and 25.70 Mbps up,” TPC’s website states.

Upgrading the infrastructure could mean increasing the size of the cables and connecting that to the regional system.

Connecting to the regional system is another one of Strategic Plan’s action items. El Dorado County provides access to much of the region but not within the city limits.

The county has been working with NeoConnect, which is a broadband consultant, to go after federal grants. El Dorado County approached the City to work together on pursuing grant funding.

“El Dorado County cares about South Lake Tahoe, they clearly see us as a partner, they have areas, towards Camp Richardson, where they’d like to get broadband to, so they brought this idea to us,” said Joe Irvin, city manager.

The plan is to expand the middle mile section of broadband, which is the physical fiber optic infrastructure needed to enable internet connectivity, all the way down Highway 89 from the Lake Tahoe Airport towards the Spring Creek Tract and then down U.S. Highway 50 to Stateline.

The project estimate is about $6 million and requires a 20% match, which is $1.2 million. The council appropriated 94% of the match and the county contributed the rest.

They are also working with Tahoe Prosperity Center to avoid redundancies, as well as Caltrans, since the project falls within their right-of-way.

The middle mile will connect with the regional network, such as the US 395 network, and the feasibility study will look at connecting the middle mile to residents and business doorsteps. So, both aspects of the project are needed to provide broadband for all.

Coincidentally, the funding for the middle mile project should be secured in six months and the feasibility study should also be complete in six months.

While getting cables to doors is important, Nejad said the feasibility study and the master plan that is developed after the study, will look at what technologies are available and what combination of technologies can get fast speeds at low costs.

The council is expected to approve a contract with a consultant for the study on May 3. Over the next six months, the City will hold several workshops to discuss broadband. Those dates haven’t been set yet.

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