More push for more money for northern California middle mile project

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The Digital 299 middle mile fiber project under consideration for a $42 million subsidy from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) will have been under review for a year and half, if the California Public Utilities Commission votes on it as scheduled next week. Yesterday was the deadline for submitting comments – pro or con – and seven organisations did so.

The applicant, Inyo Networks, is asking the commission to increase the grant to $49 million. The original request was for $51 million but it was cut because CPUC staff determined that the area is largely underserved – i.e. substandard service is available – rather than completely unserved following challenges by local wireless providers. The difference is that underserved areas are eligible for subsidies amounting to 60% of construction costs, while unserved areas get 70%. One of those wireless operators is back at it, asking the commission to reject the grant. Velocity Communications claims it’ll be upgrading service in the area real soon now.

The California Center for Rural Policy and the California Emerging Technology Fund filed comments backing the request for more money. So did Frontier Communications, the incumbent telephone company along much of the 300 mile route. But Frontier also backed away from any commitment to upgrade its own customers in the area to the CPUC’s minimum standard of 6 Mbps download and 1.5 Mbps upload speeds.

Other opposition came from the usual suspects. The proposed route links the northern California coast and the rugged and sparsely populated terrain along state route 299 to long haul fiber in the Sacramento Valley. Of necessity, a middle mile project has to begin in a served area and it happens that the connection points are in or near Charter Communication’s service area around Redding. So Charter and the cable industry’s Sacramento lobbyists objected, asking the commission to slow things down. Sounds so reasonable, except that the grant application has already been under review for a more than a year longer than allowed by the CPUC’s rules. Delay a project long enough, and you’ll kill it.