By Deb Murphy
Inyo County’s 21st Century Obsidian Project was born on a long road trip to the west side of the mountains.
Kevin Carunchio and Brandon Shults, Chief Administrative Officer and Information Services Director, respectively, spent the time trying to figure out how to bring high speed internet access to all the small nooks and crannies of the county.
The result was a vision and a request for proposals that went out in November 2014. Potential contractors were asked to help with funding, build and maintain the capillaries of fiber-optics branching out from the main artery, Digital 395, charging service fees set by Inyo. Who could turn down that concept?
“At the time it was really out of the box thinking,” said Shults. Since then, the box has expanded and there are similar projects around the country.
And while the project didn’t ignite rabid interest from the get-go, the County has re-starting discussions with the California Public Utilities Commission for grant funding in the southern part of the county.
Obsidian is still alive.
The project was the solution. The problem was the economics of scale. Once Digital 395 was up and running, there were basically no internet providers jumping at the chance to finance a strand to places like Darwin with its economically unfeasible three dozen or so residents forced to listen to the drone and static of dial-up access.
But those providers could pay fees to access existing connections, bringing high-speed connections to places like Darwin.
A March 2012 Los Angeles Times article highlighted Darwin’s frustrating dial-up regime, illustrating that folks who choose to live in areas identified as, not just rural but, “frontier,” still want to maintain contact with the rest of the world, even if they choose not to live in it.
Shults anticipated support from Owens Valley providers. While Sudden Link indicated initial interest, that interest evaporated. It was the same problem—the economics of no-scale.
Back to the request for proposals, two companies responded; Praxis, the contractor on Digital 395, was the only one willing to go whole hog.
“We had an unofficial nod on funding from the CPUC for connections to Darwin,” Shults said. But the commission had a staffing change and the new guys took a second look at the grant and denied it. But, recently the County met with the CPUC, bringing more data. The commission will review the grant.
Shults’ explanation makes sense. Private businesses have to show a decent and relatively quick return on their investment. The County’s in the business of providing services to its residents.
If the return on that investment takes a while, so be it.
Right now, Praxis and County Counsel are reviewing a very complex contract.
“Once this gets started,” Shults said, “we can leverage (the first phase) for additional funding.”
Darwinites may still get to download movies off Netflix.

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