Mark Monroe Guides Ahead-of-Schedule Middle Mile Program


A proposed budget from the governor’s office steps back from guaranteeing more money amid rising costs.

Jake Neenan Mark Monroe Guides Ahead-of-Schedule Middle Mile Program Photo of Mark Monroe, director of California’s Middle-Mile Broadband Initiative from Linkedin

During the days in advance of the California Broadband Summit, Broadband Breakfast is profiling the leading state officials and their roles in California broadband.

June 5, 2024 – California’s middle-mile broadband program is ahead of schedule, the state says. But a budget proposal from the governor’s office adds uncertainty to the effort.

The state’s Middle-Mile Broadband Initiative was stood up in 2021. A full $6 billion was allocated by the state for expanding broadband access, with $3.25 billion of that set aside by the state for an open-access, middle-mile fiber network. An additional $550 million was added to that the next year, followed by $73 million more from a federal grant in 2023. 

Middle-mile infrastructure runs between communities and connects their local networks to the internet backbone. It’s a prerequisite for the connections to individual homes and businesses targeted by other broadband funding programs. The government-owned network will also be open-access, meaning multiple providers will be able to use it to transfer their subscribers’ data.

 Years of work between the California Department of Technology, tasked with handling the middle-mile effort, and the California Public Utilities Commission, which manages broadband and telecom regulation in the state, went into settling on plans for 10,000 miles of fiber for the network in May 2022. 

In July of the next year, the Middle-Mile Initiative Director Mark Monroe came to the Department of Technology with bad news: construction costs were looking 40 percent higher than initially anticipated.

On Wednesday at 1 p.m. PT
Panel 2: California’s Pathbreaking Middle Mile Program

In 2021, California unanimously passed SB 156, earmarking a $6 billion broadband investment to bridge the statewide digital divide. More than half of the funds had been funneled towards building open-access, state-owned middle mile networks with high capacity fiber. But with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recent proposed budget changes, how will California adapt? Is the state still positioned to capitalize on its new middle mile network? How will the stakeholders navigate a new pathway?

California Broadband Summit

The event in Sacramento on Wednesday, June 5 is part of the CalMatters Ideas Festival on June 5-6, 2024.

“We’ve had some robust inflation in the time since” the plans were drawn up, Monroe said a Middle-Mile Advisory Committee meeting. “But also understand that the federal [American Rescue Plan Act] funding that we’re using and that’s being made available throughout the country means that there is an increased demand for labor and expertise.”

The state proposed a phased approach in which the available funding would be used to build 8,300 miles of fiber and the remaining lines would be completed in a yet-to-be-funded second phase. Advocates were quick to point out that many historically disadvantaged areas would be relegated to phase two of the proposal, CalMatters reported at the time.

Amid that pressure, Governor Gavin Newsom allocated an extra $1.5 billion to the program as part of a proposed budget in January 2024. But last month his office put forward a revised version of that budget that would make that additional money option as the state deals with a deficit – the Department of Finance would be able to allocate it for the Middle-Mile program if it chooses, and would have to go to the legislature for approval. 

Some digital equity advocates view that as a cut. “Without a secured future investment, it is likely that only 80% of the MMBI network will be completed, and the network will not meet its intended goal of serving California’s most disconnected and historically disadvantaged communities,” the California Alliance for Digital Equity wrote in a statement.

“In other words, the MMBI is once again at risk of becoming a broadband infrastructure investment that effectively perpetuates the same divestment practices of industry stakeholders who have bypassed high-poverty urban, rural and tribal communities for generations,” the group continued.

The state legislature has until June 15 to approve a budget.

Last month the Department of Technology said more than 65 percent of the middle mile project has reached at least the pre-construction stage, which it said is nearly 15 months ahead of schedule. The state is planning to have the network fully finished by the end of 2026. 

The state has leased or purchased 3,920 miles of fiber and is set to finish construction on another 2,664 miles by the end of the year, with contracts to broadband providers and the California Department of Transportation.

The Department of Technology is currently looking for a nonprofit to partner with the agency to maintain and operate the network once it’s finished. Statements of qualification are due by June 24.