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.