The California Public Utilities Commission decided to be more generous with broadband construction subsidies for low income home owners and tenants yesterday, but also took aim at AT&T, Comcast and other big telecoms companies that refuse to take advantage of state broadband subsidies or cooperate with communities that need service. Commissioners voted to raise the proposed limit of $5,300 on line extension program grants to $9,300 per household, as they unanimously approved implementation plans for the $5 million pilot project, paid for by the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF).
Commissioner Martha Guzman Aceves, who is in charge of the overall CASF program re-write, criticised the major players for not using it to upgrade infrastructure in communities that lack adequate broadband service. One example, she said, is the town of Paradise, which was largely destroyed by a deadly wildfire last year and which she recently visited…
One of the main areas they wanted to raise with us was the telecommunications needs in the town, and they expressed a lot of the difficulty with the lack of communication during the response and warning time. But also now, in trying to get real, concrete commitments from both AT&T and Comcast in what the rebuild looks like. There was concern that, given that even prior to the fires not all the community was served, that after the fires there’s nothing really requiring them, for all the community to be served, still. And certainly nothing requiring the type of infrastructure and technology upgrades that all Californians need today. So I did want to highlight and invite AT&T and Comcast to utilise the underutilised CASF grant program for these types of infrastructure needs, including the line extension program that we just approved today, and encourage them to take this state subsidy to really build out, not just in the community of Paradise, but in many of the communities that find themselves in a similar situation.
That’s the big question yet to be answered: will those big, incumbent ISPs will participate and build out facilities to unserved, low income homes? The line extension program was originally proposed by Comcast, as a way of laundering state grant money through residents so it wouldn’t have to answer directly to the CPUC, which is anathema to cable companies. The ball is now in their court.
The other substantive change to the first draft, which was published last month, include boosting the percentage of costs covered by the grants from 95% to 100% of construction budgets – the remaining 5% would have been paid by Internet service providers who ultimately received the money. AT&T didn’t like the idea of paying anything, and none of the Internet service providers who commented – which also included Frontier Communications and Comcast’s and Charter Communications’ lobbying front organisation – liked the $5,300 limit. The final, approved version raised it to match the amount allowed for staff-level approval of other broadband infrastructure grants from CASF.