The Digital Marin Strategic Plan correctly prioritized the establishment of Digital Marin as the organization responsible for community engagement, needs assessment, funding identification, and implementation. The importance of maintaining local broadband leadership and strategy is underscored by the diverse challenges that need to be addressed. Numerous coastal Marin residents represent one end of the need spectrum with sparse, rural populations and geography challenges creating high capital costs for construction that leave them unserved. While residents in the Canal District in San Rafael are considered served with densities of more than 2,000 people per square mile, they represent the opposite end of the needs spectrum as many do not have broadband access in their living units. Those that do often cannot afford it. Addressing these disparate challenges cannot be accomplished by outsourcing leadership to a regional broadband company or initiative.
The potential for regional solutions to capture funding while solving only part of the problem and the negative outcomes that will result emphasizes the importance of maintaining a strict focus on Digital Marin as the chosen entity with the capacity to execute the tasks necessary for success inside the County. If this once-in-a-generation funding is mismanaged, it could fortify the remaining gaps by funding the wrong model and failing to create the desired changes, eroding public confidence and damaging Marin’s future funding prospects.
The funding available today will be captured and expended with or without Marin’s leadership. The challenge facing Marin is establishing internal governance structure capable of capturing and focusing the funding to benefit Marin. The availability of funding to support the development of new operations within Marin for the benefit of Marin residents highlights the need to avoid simply allowing existing regional or national operators to step in and consume these assets, as this will dilute the benefits to Marin. Because the available funding is focused on designing and constructing a generational broadband infrastructure intended to solve current gaps, the questions of significance are:
- What will get built?
- What business model will be used?
- Where will new infrastructure be built?
- Who will own and operate the assets?
The answers to these questions become increasingly important as the availability of public funding at the federal and state level to perform broadband planning and capacity building followed by capital funding results in, numerous entities, some public and some private, both large and small stepping forward with applications of varying merit.
Currently, Digital Marin is a community-driven organization completely inside of County operations. Digital Marin has already been awarded $950,000 in State Local Agency Technical Assistance (LATA) funding to support data collection, market analysis, shovel-ready design, and plan development. Digital Marin is also the only local government organization that successfully engaged Golden State Net (GSC), the State’s third-party open access middle mile administrator, to negotiate for the construction of more state-funded middle mile assets and access nodes in Marin. None of these benefits would have been realized without Digital Marin taking on the local leadership role and engaging with the communities and other stakeholders. The ability to develop local solutions that address the specific needs of each community, access public funding, and use it to create blended funding mechanisms that drive down the cost of capital and implement models that can successfully manage the shift of broadband from a luxury to an essential service in a way that benefits all stakeholders represent the key attributes unique to Digital Marin. It is these unique abilities that result from Digital Marin being a local, community-driven organization fueled by the funding access and expertise provided by the County that has the potential to not only bring about real solutions but to propel Marin County into the role of a national leader by demonstrating models that create next-generation ubiquitous broadband access and affordability.
The guiding principles outlined in the plan and adopted by the County and five (5) of Marin’s municipalities require community-driven solutions. Success will require granular needs assessments and robust community engagement that are critical to maintaining the momentum necessary to receive federal, state, and other funding. Hesitation on the part of County leadership in incubating Digital Marin as the organization with the necessary representation, expertise, ownership, and authority will result in the loss of community confidence and funding opportunities. These imperatives continue to recommend the evolution of Digital Marin into a formal organization capable of developing, managing, and owning public network assets.
Digital Marin has demonstrated substantial progress towards the goal of becoming the desired independent operating entity with the ability to inform and influence policymakers, make decisions, raise capital, and spend funds, as shown by its progress towards meeting the Strategic Plan’s goals largely within the time frames outlined in the plan. Continuing this progress will require allocating more resources within the County of Marin’s Information Services and Technology (IST) Department to nurture the fledgling Digital Marin organization until it can operate independently.
The IST Department has the technical expertise and proven leadership to continue serving as the County voice, operational arm, and trusted advisor for Digital Marin. The IST can best serve these needs due to its unique ability to serve as the liaison between the County Board of Supervisors (BOS) and the Digital Marin Board and implement guidance using the authorities and capacities conveyed by the County and any other supporting entities included by joint powers.
Operating under the direction of the County BOS, the IST Department has successfully and efficiently provided the necessary leadership, vision, and oversight to accomplish the action items outlined in the Digital Marin Strategic Plan. IST has also taken the initiative to collaborate with other community stakeholders in securing $950,000 in State Local Agency Technical Assistance (LATA) funding.
Digital Marin was established as a cross-sector collaborative working towards a future where everyone in Marin has access to high-speed internet that is available, affordable, reliable, resilient, and safe. Desired outcomes include:
- High-quality broadband is available to everyone in Marin.
- Everyone in Marin can take advantage of all online opportunities by having robust devices, digital literacy, and technical support.
Marin will be able to achieve a high rate of digital adoption that benefits everyone by improving security, privacy, and digital accessibility and increasing the public value of investments in broadband.
- Marin will have a community-driven organization with a mission to deliver broadband for all.
Achieving these outcomes will require identifying the optimal operating model(s) and the governance structure(s) capable of supporting the selected operational model(s). This report supports the County’s desire to protect its existing budgets, funds, and operations by identifying governance frameworks and operational models capable of being bootstrapped with minimal or virtually no County funding. This report provides recommendations that focus on the solution’s ability to achieve the desired outcomes as paramount while also giving preference to models that maintain a light touch by minimizing ongoing County involvement or investment beyond incubating initial projects and solutions. Any failure in strategy or implementation will exacerbate the underlying problems, waste funding, erode community confidence, and make it even more challenging to achieve the desired outcomes. For these reasons, while multiple options are considered, only the operational models and governance frameworks that can provide the desired level of access and affordability are recommended.