Big questions for a California broadband subsidy proposal, but worth answering

14 December 2014 by Steve Blum
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All over Helendale.

There’s a business case for resurrecting dead copper broadband systems. At least UIA thinks there is, given a sufficient subsidy from the California Advanced Services Fund. The company has submitted two projects for consideration for CASF grants in the current round. One is in Helendale, a small San Bernardino County community in the desert between Victorville and Barstow, where a cable system built by Falcon Cable – acquired by Charter Communications – was left to rot.

UIA proposes to re-plumb the original conduit with fiber…

Ultimate Internet Access…will utilize an abandoned Falcon Cable Company conduit system that currently passes 3150 residential lots within the primary community of Helendale…

[Helendale Community Services District] owns the cable infrastructure and we have a signed long-term lease agreement with this government entity. We will map the infrastructure, remove the cable from the conduit, clean the conduit and install the fiber network.

The $1.6 million grant request comes out to a subsidy of about $500 per nominal home – don’t assume that all of the “lots” are occupied, though. Even so, that’s a low number for a fiber-to-the-home project. On the face of it, the fact that there’s existing conduit makes for a relatively inexpensive build – 100 times cheaper than some other CASF projects.

There are a couple of soft spots in the application. Backhaul is via a licensed microwave link – likely fast, but not as likely to be able to support bona fide “services of 1 Gbps/1 Gbps, no cap, unlimited”. And if the conduit has not been mapped, let alone surveyed, then construction cost estimates contain a considerable element of hope.

Taken as a learning experience, though, it’s a welcome and worthy project. One of the big broadband challenges in California is figuring out what to do about legacy copper cable and phone systems in rural areas, many of which haven’t been upgraded to support broadband service. Charter has redlined other communities and AT&T. If UIA has an alternative, it’s worth pursuing.