Big incumbents tell CPUC to tilt California broadband subsidies in their favor

22 April 2018 by Steve Blum
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Four Internet service providers, all of whom have participated at one time or another in the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) infrastructure subsidy program, offered their ideas on how that money should be managed and allocated. So did a lobbying front representing cable companies – including Charter Communications, Comcast and Cox Communications – which have never participated. The big boys – AT&T, Frontier Communications and the cable industry – want grants on their own terms, while blocking competitors that might threaten their monopoly business models.

AT&T offered a long list of suggestions to the California Public Utilities Commission. Some had merit, for example including latency as an evaluation criterion for project funding and measuring project reach by total housing units, whether occupied or not. Others were self serving. AT&T heartily endorsed the idea of limiting project proposals to once a year – great for a large, bureaucratic organisation like itself (or even a medium sized one like the CPUC) but hellish for nimble competitors. It also wants the CPUC to not do any ground truthing and simply rely on AT&T’s service claims. Given AT&T’s inaccurate reporting, that would hardly be a benefit to communities that AT&T doesn’t consider to be high potential.

Frontier Communications essentially told the commission that it should just give it as much money as it wants, on demand. After all, what’s a piggy bank for if you can’t whack it with a hammer any time you’re running short?

Geolinks wants the commission to give wireless infrastructure proposals the same weight as fiber projects, arguing nonsensically that they “will likely offer the same speeds”. It’s a wireless Internet service provider that hasn’t applied for CASF grants but did try unsuccessfully to jump in via the commission’s right of first refusal process.

Race Communications has received several CASF grants and understands the process well, including the endless opportunities for incumbents to game the system and delay, or even kill, competitive projects. It makes several useful recommendations to streamline the CASF program so that it doesn’t favor companies, such as AT&T and Frontier, that have all the lawyers and lobbyists they need to create mischief.

The California Cable and Telecommunications Association (CCTA), which speaks for Comcast, Charter and Cox, among other cable companies, wants to slow the grant approval process down, opposing expedited reviews. Its major members have refused to participate in the CASF program in the past, because of the regulatory danger they perceive. Grants for independent middle mile projects, which are largely banned now by state law because of its own lobbying efforts and those of AT&T and Frontier, also drew CCTA’s attention. It wants the CPUC to make sure none slip through any loopholes.

The full list of CASF-related comments is here. The CPUC will accept rebuttals, the deadline is 1 May 2018.