CPUC considers pole access, Google and fiber

Update, 23 March 2017: the CPUC voted 4 to 1 to approve the Digital 299 grant this morning, and unanimously approved Google’s purchase of Webpass and the enquiry into expanded utility pole access.

Three important decisions are in front of the California Public Utilities Commission this week: a $41 million (or perhaps $47 million) grant for a northern California middle mile fiber project, formally considering whether telephone companies can attach wireless gear to utility poles and what the aesthetic impacts might be, and allowing Google to buy Webpass, a mostly wireless Internet provider that’s also licensed to offer wireline service.

Although the pole access decision is routine – it would not establish new rules, just begin the process – the scope of the commission’s enquiry will be broad. But apparently that’s okay with utility companies, since none filed any objections. You can safely bet, though, that anyone with a stake in wireless services or utility poles will be watching it like a hawk.

The Webpass purchase is also uncomplicated on the face of it. Since Webpass has a CPUC-granted license to operate as a telephone company – a certificate of public convenience and necessity (CPCN) – Google needs permission to take it over. The transaction attracted the attention of a chronic protester, who was ultimately convinced to go away, and it has big implications for both current Webpass customers and Google’s plans (or lack thereof) to be a broadband service provider. Once it owns Webpass and its CPCN, Google can claim all the privileges of a phone company, including potentially the right to hang wireless equipment on utility poles.

Digital 299 is also on the agenda for this week’s CPUC meeting. It’s a proposed 300 mile fiber line linking existing routes that run through the Sacramento Valley along the I-5 corridor to the Humboldt County coast and points in between. There’s a draft decision on the table that would approve a $41 million subsidy from the California Advanced Services Fund, and commissioner Carla Peterman has promised to offer an alternate version that would add another $6 million.

The pole access item and the Webpass transfer are likely to be approved without comment – so far, there’s no indication otherwise – but the Digital 299 project faces an uncertain future. Two commissioners – Martha Guzman Aceves and president Michael Picker – have already expressed opposition. If just one of the three others join them, it’s dead.