Digital 395 closes in on the finish line


High-speed broadband project will be operational by July 31 deadline, developer says

It’s really going to happen.

The huge infrastructure project called Digital 395 that will connect the Eastern Sierra to the rest of the world—with enough of the fastest broadband speeds available to last the region a decade—will be finished on time, according to its developer, Praxis Associate CEO Michael Ort.

“You’re still optimistic?” asked Mono County Supervisor Byng Hunt on Tuesday, May 7.

“You’re damn right,” Ort said, listing the fiber in place, and the connection anchors and infrastructure already in place along the 600-mile-plus fiber optic project that roughly parallels U.S. 395 from San Bernardino County to Carson City.

He said rumors that Praxis might need an extension to make the project operational are unfounded.

“An extension might be used for administrative purposes only,” he said.

“We will apply for one, as a safety valve,” he said, noting that his company might use the time to finalize on-paper details. “But we will have the project built and our intent is to deliver the service by the end of July.”

The massive project has been called, by one of its biggest proponents, former Mono County Supervisor Duane “Hap” Hazard, “the biggest infrastructure project in the Eastern Sierra since the L.A. Aqueduct”—and for good reason.

The project, funded by federal American Reinvestment and Recovery Act money and some state money to the tune of about $101 million, has faced everything from deep snow in the Sierra to blistering heat in the Mojave Desert over its almost three-year lifetime.

Endangered Desert Tortoises, hundreds of Native American and other archeological sites, and many more issues have been bypassed, bored under, or otherwise mitigated to the satisfaction of dozens of different governmental agencies.

The extreme topography of the Eastern Sierra also presented a challenge, Ort said in previous interviews, especially when combined with the time constraints laid on the project by various agencies concerned about wildlife, cultural site, plants and other issues.

For example, state and federal concerns for the Eastern Sierra’s species of sage grouse (a likely candidate for the Endangered Species Act list if populations decline) have forced Praxis to plow through deep snow near the Virginia Lakes area this winter—in advance of the grouse’s spring nesting season—to lay fiber, rather than wait until the snow melts as the company would otherwise have done.

The many archeological sites that litter the Eastern Sierra have often had to be bored under, sometimes with bores as long as 4,500 feet, he said, adding time and expense to the project.

Aging power poles that now carry the limited broadband available in the Eastern Sierra are another issue, Ort said Tuesday.

“As it turns out, a year ago, the state PUC changed its pole calculations for pole loading,” he said. “Poles that would have passed a load calculation before won’t necessarily pass now. Most of June Lake’s poles would likely fail this test.”

In fact, he said, about 60 percent of all of the poles will likely fail, meaning more undergrounding of fiber—an especially expensive proposition in the solid granite that surrounds June Lake.

But all of these obstacles are surmountable—and by the July deadline, Ort told the supervisors.

In addition, he said, broadband service that incorporates the speeds provided by the Digital 395 project and that will be provided to customers by private carriers such as Suddenlink and Schat could well be available the day the project is completed, if the carriers have been working toward that goal, Ort said.