Tag Archives: casf

Middle mile fiber link to California’s north coast gets $47 million

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The Digital 299 middle mile fiber project will receive a $47 million subsidy from the California Advanced Services Fund. The line begins in Shasta County, just south of Redding where it will connect to long haul fiber on the I-5 corridor, and runs along State Route 299 through Trinity County, ending on the coast in Humboldt County at Eureka, with laterals to a potential submarine cable landing site on Arcata Bay and Humboldt State’s marine lab in Trinidad. It also includes a spur up to Hoopa tribal lands along State Route 96. It’ll be built and operated by Inyo Networks/Praxis Associates, the commonly owned companies responsible for the similar Digital 395 project in eastern California.

The California Public Utilities Commission voted 4 to 1 to approve the grant yesterday, with president Michael Picker voting no. It pays for 70% of middle mile construction costs – $45 million of $65 million total – and 60% of a small last mile build for 300 homes in the Trinity County community of Lewiston, $1.5 million of $2.4 million total. People living in Lewiston will be able to get symmetrical gigabit Internet service for $60 per month.

Originally, Inyo Networks proposed offering this fast and cheap package to a total of 1,000 homes, in Douglas City, Hayfork and Burnt Ranch as well as Lewiston, but it had to slash 700 homes from the last mile component of the project. That was because Frontier Communications protested, promising instead to upgrade broadband speeds to 1,200 homes in the area to 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds. That’s something Frontier has to do anyway, to meet requirements attached to federal broadband subsidies it’s accepted. It’s also below the CPUC’s minimum 6 Mbps download and 1.5 Mbps upload standard, but Frontier dodged around that requirement by telling the CPUC that it “estimates that approximately 70 percent of these households will receive speeds greater than the minimum speed (12 mbps down and 2 mbps up, or higher)”.

The project budget also includes construction of up to 15 towers that would be attached to the network and provide a platform for mobile carriers, public safety radio systems and other wireless services: potential middle mile fiber customers, in other words.

CPUC approves Digital 299 fiber project, Webpass transfer, pole access enquiry

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In a 4 to 1 vote, the California Public Utilities Commission voted to spend $47 million on the Digital 299 middle mile fiber project this morning. It’s a 300 mile network connecting Trinity and Humboldt counties to long haul routes in Shasta County. The no vote came from president Michael Picker.

The CPUC also unanimously approved Google’s purchase of Webpass, a mostly wireless broadband provider that is also licensed as a wireline telephone company – hence the need for commission review – and granted a request to begin consideration of new access rules that would allow licensed telephone companies to hang wireless equipment on utility poles.

All or nothing for Digital 299 tomorrow

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Update, 23 March 2017: the CPUC voted 4 to 1 to approve the Digital 299 grant this morning.

The Digital 299 middle mile fiber system will either get all of the $47 million that its backers are requesting from the California Advanced Services Fund, or it won’t be subsidised at all. The California Public Utilities Commission will make that choice tomorrow, assuming the current schedule holds, when it considers whether or not to fund a 300-mile fiber route that would begin near Redding, where it would connect to existing fiber lines along the I-5 corridor, and run through Trinity County and terminate on the Humboldt County coast, at Eureka and Trinidad.

When it was proposed in August 2015, the applicant – Inyo Networks – asked for a $51 million grant, based on the assessment that the project area was unserved, in other words, there was no broadband service available at all. That would have made the project eligible for 70% funding from CASF. However, after it had been under review for a year and a half – despite the fact that commission rules call for that work to be completed in three and a half months – that figure was trimmed back to $41 million. CPUC staff rated most of the territory as underserved – eligible for only 60% funding – and accepted late objections from Frontier Communications and Charter Communications which resulted in the majority of the included last mile service area being taken out and a reduction in the middle mile subsidy, respectively.

When the Commission first considered the project last month, Inyo Networks and supporters from the Humboldt area asked for $6 million more for the project, as well as easier completion bond requirements. At the time, commissioner Carla Peterman said she’d draft an alternate resolution that would do that. Instead, the original resolution was rewritten – it was published last week, but I missed it – to raise the grant amount and relax bonding specs. That means that there will only be one resolution on the table – the lower cost option is gone, absent a move by commissioners to revive it.

The big question now is whether it can muster three votes. At last month’s meeting, president Michael Picker said he’s “likely to vote against this under any circumstances”, and rookie commissioner Martha Guzman Aceves expressed similar skepticism. That means fellow rookie Clifford Rechtschaffen, Liane Randolph and Peterman will all have to vote yes. Otherwise, Digital 299 dies.

Broadband subsidies should be spent on California’s future

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There’s more than $100 million left for broadband infrastructure subsidies in the California Advanced Services Fund and the California Public Utilities Commission is considering whether to set its own, statewide priorities for spending it. The first draft of a staff white paper that looks at objective methods of determining those priorities is open for comment, and I submitted three recommendations on behalf of the Central Coast Broadband Consortium on Friday…

  1. Be forward looking in assessing broadband development needs. Adopting the 10 Mbps download/1 Mbps upload speed standard, as the draft white paper in effect does, is a step backward for California, rather than a sorely needed leap forward. The technology and infrastructure required to deliver service at that level is inferior to that required to meet the CPUC’s current minimum service level of 6 Mbps download/1.5 Mbps upload speeds. Likewise, eliminating areas from consideration that are partly served by fixed wireless service will leave hundreds of thousands of Californians with either no broadband access at all or service that has no standards of reliability, affordability or public safety to meet.

    Instead, the commission should base its needs assessment on the availability of service that meets the federal 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload standard for advanced services and complies with the same kind of quality, reliability and integrity requirements that the commission mandates for other telecommunications service providers.

  2. Assess social impact as well as economic feasibility. When the CCBC conducted its priority-setting exercise in 2014, we evaluated both the social impact and the economic feasibility of pursuing broadband infrastructure projects in the areas we assessed. The draft white paper properly and cogently assesses economic feasibility, but does not consider social impact.

    We recommend running, as we did, a separate social impact analysis based on population (as opposed to number of housing units or households), number of community anchor institutions, the proportion of the community that would be reached by CASF-funded projects, and median household income. The result would be two analytical tools that could be applied by policy makers, and that could be rolled up, as we did, into a single, unified ranking.

  3. Apply the results of the analysis on a prospective basis. As of today, seven CASF broadband infrastructure grant proposals are pending and have been under review for an average of 435 days, 330 days past the deadline established by Decision 12-02-015 and reaffirmed by Resolution T-17443. Two major projects, Digital 299 and Gigafy Phelan, have been awaiting action for 586 days. These seven projects required hundreds of thousands of dollars and thousands of hours to prepare, and were submitted in reliance on good faith and the published criteria for such grants, as established by the commission.

    The delays and inconsistencies in the review and approval of CASF infrastructure projects has made it very difficult to find capable, reputable and financially able private sector partners. If the commission breaks faith with applicants and applies any new project criteria or priorities retroactively, it will make such recruitment impossible.

The first hint as to what commissioners will do with the remaining CASF money and, perhaps, what they think of the draft methodology should come on Thursday, when they consider a $41 million grant proposal for Digital 299, a northern California middle mile project.

CPUC considers pole access, Google and fiber

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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.

To attract broadband investment, the CPUC has to be a trustworthy partner

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Yesterday, the California Public Utilities commission held a workshop in San Francisco to talk about setting priorities for broadband infrastructure subsidies and to review the methodology and policy assumptions behind a recently published draft white paper on the topic.

Much of the discussion focused on how those priorities would be used to evaluate projects currently proposed for grants from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF), as well as any new ones that might develop. There was considerable concern that applications submitted under the current first come, first served procedures will be tossed out and new proposals solicited.

If that happened, it would be a very bad move by the CPUC.

It takes a lot of time and money to plan a CASF infrastructure project and prepare a grant application. There are seven pending projects and five of those have been gathering dust under review for more than a year, despite commission rules that call for a decision within three and a half months. The CASF program depends on recruiting private sector partners who are willing to raise the necessary matching funds – typically 40% of the tab – and risk spending the upfront money to submit a proposal and shepherd it through the vetting process, with no guarantee of success.

That’s a tough sell under any circumstances. But it would be all but impossible if the rug is pulled out from under the current batch of applicants. They relied on the approval criteria and review deadlines as published and promoted by the CPUC. It would be a pure bait-and-switch ploy to change the game after they’ve invested years and, in some cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars in vain attempts to play by the rules.

Trust is a fragile thing. CPUC must maintain it if it wants private companies to buy into its priorities, whatever those turn out to be.

CPUC considers picking up prevailing wage tab for FTTH project

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Overruns on a fiber to the home build in San Bernardino County offer a glimpse into the cost of a 2014 law that imposed union wage and work rules on broadband infrastructure projects subsidised by the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF). Assembly bill 2272 ended an ongoing dispute over whether CASF-funded projects are subject to California’s so-called prevailing wage law, which generally applies to public works projects.

Historically, the requirement to pay the prevailing wage in any given region for work done with public money has been interpreted by state labor regulators to mean workers have to be paid and projects have to be managed as if a typical union contract was in place, even if no union is involved. In some cases, it can double labor costs.

As it turned out, most CASF grant applicants assumed the worst and factored prevailing wage rules into their project budgets, even before AB 2272 passed. But not everyone got the message. In December of 2014, after AB 2272 had been signed into law, Ultimate Internet Access, Inc. (UIA) applied for CASF grants for two FTTH projects, in Wrightwood and Helendale, in southern San Bernardino County (the Wrightwood project area also includes Los Angeles County).

The company did not know about the prevailing wage rules, or at least did not factor them into its budget. The California Public Utilities Commission reviewed and approved both grants – $1.4 million for the Helendale project – likewise without considering prevailing wage implications. UIA began work in Helendale, and apparently had largely completed it before finding out that it owned an additional $714,000, “mainly in retroactive pay for work already completed, to comply with the prevailing wage requirements”, according to a draft decision now in front of the CPUC.

Presumably, a similar request to cover higher labor costs for the Wrightwood project is also on the way.

As written, the draft decision approves paying an extra $428,000 from CASF for the Helendale project. That represents 60% of the overrun, which is the standard subsidy percentage for this kind of project. That’s a 31% increase in the project’s cost to taxpayers, completely due to California’s prevailing wage law, according to the draft.

The CPUC is scheduled to vote in March on whether or not to pick up the tab.

Make California broadband subsidy decisions on basis of impact, says CPUC draft

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Given that there’s limited state subsidy money available for broadband infrastructure upgrades in California, it makes sense to spend it in a way that’ll have the greatest impact on the greatest number of people. That was a major concern at the last California Public Utilities Commission meeting, when some commissioners pushed back on proposed infrastructure construction grants from the California Advanced Services Fund, at least partly because it wasn’t clear how the projects that were on the table fit within overall, statewide priorities. Or what those priorities might be.

A possible methodology for making those decisions was floated by CPUC staff, in a whitepaper published last Friday. You can read the details of how the data was crunched in the paper itself. In general terms, the analysis began by comparing the housing density of areas that lack acceptable broadband service – the CPUC’s baseline standard is 6 Mbps download and 1.5 Mbps upload speeds – and coming up with 46 Californian communities with population density greater than 150 households per square mile. That list was narrowed down by filtering out areas with problematic terrain, or that don’t meet the CASF “unserved” legal requirement, or where a fixed wireless operator is present, regardless of the standards (or lack thereof) those operators meet, or that have broadband service that meets the federal government’s lower standard of 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up (boosting upload speeds requires a higher level of technology and greater service provider diligence than improving download speeds).

That left 13 communities that were designated as “high impact areas” and would move to head of the CASF subsidy line if this preliminary methodology is eventually adopted.

The whitepaper’s analytical approach is very similar to the one that the Central Coast Broadband Consortium used in 2014 to identify the areas in our region where broadband construction subsidies would likewise have the greatest impact. In fact, it uses our initial density-based screening criteria, with much appreciated due credit. There’s a fair debate to be had over which metrics to use and how to weave them into an analytical framework, but the basic approach is correct. With dwindling funds and dimming prospects for getting more, CPUC broadband subsidy decisions should be driven by objective data and systematic analysis.

California broadband subsidies back on the table in Sacramento

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The California Advanced Services Fund (CASF), which is California’s primary tool for subsidising new broadband infrastructure in under and unserved areas is once again in play in Sacramento. Friday was the deadline for lawmakers to introduce new legislation for the 2017 session, and four CASF-related bills are now in the hopper.

However, none of the bills are substantive at this point. All four are simply placeholders, awaiting agreement, action or obstruction from the players involved. Friday was the deadline for new bills, but once a bill has been introduced, it can be amended without limit, including replacing the text completely and substituting what amounts to a completely new bill – also known as gut and amend – almost right up to the end of the legislature’s session in August.

Assembly bill 854 was introduced by assemblywoman Cecilia Aguiar-Curry (D – Yolo County). Aguiar-Curry is new to the legislature, having formerly been mayor of Winters, where she was a strong advocate for broadband development. As written it makes a couple of meaningless edits to the law that authorises CASF. That might not be its final form, though – now that it’s drafted, it can be edited as the year goes on.

The same is true of AB 928 by assemblyman Bill Quirk (D – Hayward) and senate bill 460 by senator Ben Hueso (D – San Diego County). Both make the same small edit – changing a notional deadline from 2015 to 2020.

Last year, Hueso, who is the chair of the senate’s energy, utilities and communications committee, used a CASF-related bill to allow more time to use the money to install broadband facilities in public housing properties. Quirk also rocked up with a CASF-related bill last year, but it was an AT&T-written counter move to a bill that would have added more money to CASF and increased the opportunities for building new infrastructure. It’s likely that Quirk, who has shown no real interest in broadband development beyond what AT&T and other incumbents prefer to do, intends once again to use his bill as a bargaining chip if and when a fully fleshed out CASF bill is under serious consideration.

The final bill, AB 1655 by Eduardo Garcia (D – Riverside County), has more new text in it, and even goes so far as to create a new pot of money to fund broadband marketing efforts – adoption programs is the term used – and generally restructure the program, but it is simply a framework for discussion at this point. As written it contains no new money for CASF, which is dwindling down, and doesn’t have specifics about how the program would be run.

None of the bills are ready to be considered, but the placeholders are on the table and the backstage wrangling can begin.

CPUC broadband subsidy skepticism grows, grants on hold

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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.