California broadband subsidy law demands equal treatment for all, rich and poor alike

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One of the mysteries surrounding Californian subsidies for broadband infrastructure is the abysmally low standard that the California Public Utilities Commission imposes on the people who live in public housing, and only on them. The thicket of laws that govern the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) initially set aside $20 million to pay for broadband facilities in public housing communities, with the possibility of adding more when it runs out.

The CPUC is in the middle of rebooting the CASF program, after the California legislature added to the mess by turning the general infrastructure subsidy program – with $300 million in new money – into a piggy bank for AT&T and Frontier Communications. In the process, it’s freshening up the rules for improving broadband access in public housing.

The first draft of the new rules keeps the minimum service speed for subsidised public housing broadband facilities at 1.5 Mbps for downloads, with no requirement at all for uploads. That contrasts with the 6 Mbps down/1 Mbps minimum that the CPUC (and the legislature) thinks is good enough for everyone else. It isn’t, but that’s a separate barrel of pork.

The draft rules justify digging a deeper digital divide by declaring subsidised broadband in public housing is “not intended to replicate the robust level of connectivity of a commercial provider”. The problem with that, as pointed out in comments filed yesterday by the Central Coast Broadband Consortium, is that the language of the law – sausage though it may be – sets the same standards for everyone…

Because 1. An unserved residence is one where service at 6 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds is not available, 2. Grants for broadband infrastructure projects in Public Housing may only be made to an unserved residence, and 3. The purpose of all CASF infrastructure projects is to raise the service available to all Californians above the statutorily defined unserved threshold, we must conclude that it would be illegal to fund an infrastructure project, of any kind, that did not provide service at 6 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds or better.

The CPUC is due to vote on the changes at its 21 June 2018 meeting.

The complete set of CASF reboot documents is here.

I drafted and filed the Central Coast Broadband Consortium’s comments. I’m not trying to feign impartiality. Take it for what it’s worth.

Correction: an earlier version of this post contained a typo. The minimum speed that CASF-subsidised broadband projects in public housing communities must “provide residents with” is “1.5 mbps per unit”, not 1 Mbps per unit. The fault is mine and it’s been corrected above.