California broadband subsidy program heads for the deep freeze

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With the stroke of a pen, governor Jerry Brown transformed the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) into a piggy bank for AT&T and Frontier Communications. Carve outs for federally subsidised service areas and the right of first refusal on unserved areas give them an opportunity to claim CASF money for the projects they want to do, and block independent projects virtually everywhere else in their service areas.

Going forward, two questions need to be answered: what will happen to pending CASF infrastructure grant applications and how will the California Public Utilities Commission implement the new rules?

Earlier this year, the CPUC went through a preliminary information gathering exercise, in anticipation of assembly bill 1665 becoming law. No conclusions were reached, but one can hope that action will come faster than the 14 months it took to get from the last legislative rework of the CASF program to the first applications accepted under it. Technically, that application window is still open and a project proposal could still be submitted but, given that AB 1665 took effect immediately, there’s no clear path for review and approval.

The same is true for the four pending CASF grant applications. One, in the Kennedy Meadows area in the southern Sierra was submitted by the Ducor Telephone Company is on reasonably firm ground, at least from a statutory perspective. Ducor is a small rural incumbent telco, and has the same rights as Frontier and AT&T in its very limited service area.

But the other three – Surfnet in Santa Cruz County, Renegade in Santa Barbara County and the second phase of the Connect Anza project in Riverside County – are less certain. Past practice indicates that those applications should be evaluated under the rules in effect when submitted. But all three are, to one extent or another, in Frontier’s newly protected service area. Frontier tried to stop a San Bernardino County project by falsely claiming 1. they would have the entire area upgraded by August (they didn’t) and 2. that protecting federally funded areas was already California policy (it wasn’t); it is safe to assume that opposition to the pending projects will be just as fierce and disingenuous.

The only certainty is that nothing will happen quickly. Two of those projects – Surfnet and Ducor – have been stuck in the evaluation process for more than two years, despite a CPUC time limit of three and a half months for such reviews.

The days of big, state-subsidised independent broadband projects are over in California.