CPUC broadband subsidy skepticism grows, grants on hold

A proposal to build a 300 mile middle mile fiber network connecting remote communities in northern California to high speed Internet access might or might not be in line for extra cash. The Digital 299 project would go through the mountainous terrain along state route 299 from Redding in the Sacramento Valley, through Trinity County and on to Eureka on the Humboldt County coast.

Yesterday, the California Public Utilities Commission weighed a recommendation from staff for a $41 million subsidy from the California Advanced Services Fund against pleas from local communities along the proposed route for an extra $6 million that they believe is necessary to make the project financially viable. They also asked for a waiver of performance bond requirements and closer coordination of environmental reviews.

No action was taken, but commissioner Carla Peterman promised to draft an alternate version of the decision and bring it back for a vote. It’s an open question, though, whether at least two other commissioners will go along with it. Liane Randolph indicated she was favorably inclined, but as he often does, CPUC president Michael Picker complained about a lack of strategic broadband vision – ironic, since it’s his job to provide that kind of leadership – and said “I’m likely to vote against this under any circumstances”.

It was the first time the two newly appointed CPUC members, Martha Guzman Aceves and Clifford Rechtschaffen, had a chance to consider CASF broadband infrastructure subsidy policy or specific proposals. Rechtschaffen echoed Randolph’s comments, but Guzman Aceves joined Picker in taking a harder line. Like Picker, she also pushed back on a second CASF grant proposal, for the Light Saber project, a small fiber-to-the-home system in a leafy neighborhood in southern Santa Clara County. It’s a much smaller build, but still involves a substantial amount – $1 million – and Guzman Aceves was skeptical about spending state subsidy money on high income communities.

The Light Saber proposal was pulled indefinitely, at least until commissioners have a chance to consider setting broadband deployment priorities. Digital 299 will likely back for a second look sooner, perhaps at the next commission meeting in March.