UCSC research helps extend Internet backbone in Santa Cruz, Monterey counties

A detailed survey of unmet broadband needs by UC Santa Cruz information technology experts proved key to the approval last month of a $10.6 million state grant to extend a fiber optic Internet backbone from Santa Cruz into the Salinas Valley.

The 91 miles of new fiber will bring high-speed Internet access to underserved communities and also provide a critical independent redundancy to existing  network lines. Five years ago, Santa Cruz County and portions of Santa Clara County went Internet dark when vandals severed four AT&T fiber optic cables near San Jose.  

The state Public Utilities Commission last month approved the grant by the California Advanced Services Fund that will pay 80 percent of the cost of installing new lines and bolstering broadband services from Santa Cruz south. The fund collects a small amount of money each month from phone customers.

UCSC, which has been involved in broadband planning for years, saw the opportunity to help bring high-speed Internet to underserved communities and bolster and secure the campus's access. UCSC faculty and students use massive amounts of data transmission for research in genomics, astronomy, and big data studies among other projects.

Brad Smith, UCSC's director of research and faculty partnerships in Information Technology Services, said the state was looking for proposals to increase broadband access to areas with poor service. The university, meanwhile, saw the need for another high-speed information pipeline so it wasn't reliant on a single line coming over the hill from Sunnyvale. That line was installed four years ago in a collaborative effort with the university and others and linked the UCSC campus to the California Research and Education Network (CalREN).  

"What if there were a fire," said Smith, who is also an adjunct professor of computer science. "We were looking madly to get something south."

UCSC partnered with Sunesys, a telecommunications company that provides fiber optic networks, to apply for the grant and establish the new data link. Sunesys installed the line four years ago from Silicon Valley to UCSC.

That line has now been extended into downtown Santa Cruz where Cruzio Internet resells high-speed service. The new backbone will allow existing Internet service providers such as Cruzio to build out their networks and provide high-speed alternatives to those owned by AT&T, Comcast and Verizon.  

The new fiber to be installed over the next two years is known as "middle mile." Jim Warner, a UCSC network engineer, said Cruzio and Surfnet Communications, another ISP, can tap into it and provide "last mile" retail service. Smith said the capacity of the network is "pretty much unlimited. As demand grows we can load more and more data on these pipes," he said.

To help secure the grant, Smith and Warner visited Monterey County communities, tested service levels and completed surveys and data analysis to show the state that existing networks were not providing service at a level that matched their coverage claims.