The technique of microtrenching offers telecoms and broadband providers a more cost-effective way to lay fiber cabling in cities and other areas. Given that there are still big chunks of California where people don’t have access to high-speed internet – why hasn’t microtrenching been adopted on a wide scale?
Microtrenching policy and regulation in California is sparse and mostly limited to local municipal codes. The cities of Fullerton and Loma Linda have used microtrenching to great effect, Oakland has dabbled, and San Francisco has been making the right noises, but the rest of the state hasn’t done much at all. This is, mainly, due to a lack of obvious standards for the technique. State-wide bills have been proposed to amend this issue, which are currently delayed due to Covid-19.
What Is Microtrenching?
Laying fiber networks in the traditional manner is very expensive. It requires digging down very deep to lay the cable. Even in new build developments this can be costly but, at least, it requires no service interruptions and no road closures while the work goes on. 1
In bigger, already established cities, laying fiber means major interruptions that cost the city a small fortune. Thus, there’s often resistance to laying fiber for high-speed internet.
Microtrenching is meant to resolve this problem. It’s a system whereby a very shallow channel is dug and then the cable is laid in that channel and the top is then rapidly sealed. It’s much cheaper and much less disruptive to carry out.
There were teething problems for this when trial projects were undertaken and while the original channels were too shallow, it’s now been determined that if you dig down about 6 inches, you can run the cable’s quickly and easily and they won’t re-emerge when people start driving over them.
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San Francisco’s public works code permits microtrenching in some instances, however the code only explicitly permits it in sidewalk portions of the right-of-way. 2
In practice, microtrenching is difficult to get approved in San Francisco, as documented in the ongoing struggle of local fiber upstart Sonic, whose CEO Dane Jasper has been an outspoken supporter of relaxed microtrenching policy and the need for more local competition in the private broadband sector. 3
As of this writing, there is a pending announcement from Monkey Brains, an operator with permission to carry out microtrenching, to low income homes in the city.
Microtrenching is permitted in Los Angeles. The city municipal code has some of the strongest clearly-defined microtrenching policies in the state of California. 4
Policy updates in 2019 reduced the barriers to installation and further defined the requirements of microtrenching for cable and conduit installation. 5
Bakersfield does not specifically confirm or deny the depth requirements for telecommunications cable or conduit in their municipal code. As of 2020 it does not appear that the practice of microtrenching has been utilized locally to install fiber or cable conduit in streets. 6
San Jose code of ordinances does not explicitly permit or forbid microtrenching for telecommunications. 7 However, the city’s positive reception and attempts to build a partnership with Google Fiber back in 2017 suggests that if a provider wanted to use microtrenching in the city, it would likely be approved. Policy reccomendations within San Jose have been specific and detailed on this matter, although Google Fiber ultimately did not enter the San Jose market.
Oakland does not specifically permit or forbid microtrenching in the city code of ordinances. However, they do discourage the disruption of streets in several circumstances, and only allow cable systems installed if the provider has a franchise agreement with the city. 8
When Google Fiber (a provider known for using microtrenching) entered the market, the city of Oakland worked with the provider to ensure that lines would be installed using pole attachements rather than conduit construction. 9
The city of Fullerton is something of a microtrenching success story and the company, SiFi Networks, launched their plan to provide coverage for the residents of Fullerton using this technique in June 2019. 10
The city expects that microtrenching there will be much more successful than it was in Louisville, Kentucky for the Google Fiber project – the project in Louisville was such a disaster that Google would end up withdrawing from the city and paying the city to clean up its mess.
Loma Linda is a city based around the healthcare sector and because that industry eats bandwidth, it was easy to justify expanding the city’s internet network to homes. However, the cost of rolling out high speed internet to homes turned out to be prohibitive. 11
That is until microtrenching made it possible to connect homes cost-effectively. This, it has to be stressed, is not a major rollout but it does prove the concept that microtrenching can effectively connect people to a network in an area where it would be otherwise uneconomic to do so.
Microtrenching In California: What’s Going On And Where?
Despite the obvious benefits that microtrenching can bring cities and communities where broadband high-speed internet is required, California appears to be lagging behind the curve on implementing microtrenching.
There is some argument that this is because there is currently no set of “best practice standards” and that means that broadband companies can’t offer up the design specs, employment parameters, etc. that would normally be used to justify large scale public works.
Sadly, instead of cities or the state seizing the nettle and deciding to create their own standards, legislators appear, to a large extent, to have buried their heads in the sand and decided to just ignore the possibilities that microtrenching might offer their cities.
This is particularly annoying for those in low income communities who often cannot access high-speed internet when coverage of a city is imperfect.
Lena Gonzales, a senator from Los Angeles, introduced a bill into the state senate in April 2020 to try and rectify this situation. However, the solution proposed appears to be even more severe than the solution to the Gordian Knot.
The upshot of the paperwork is that she proposes that Caltrans take over and decide on a “one size fits all” approach for all the cities and counties of California. It is also somewhat ambitious in that it tries to redefine a “microtrench” as an eight-inch wide cut in the ground.
It’s not known if Lena Gonzales’ bill has much hope of passing but it seems that Californians might want to cross their fingers in hope that it doesn’t but that it returns as a more focused paper which helps the broadband community effectively focus their efforts on creating the standards that cities and counties need to approve microtrenching projects.