Case against San Bernardino FTTH embraces low federal expectations

A proposed $28 million grant for a fiber to the home project in the Phelan area of San Bernardino County has drawn two formal challenges. One, from Frontier Communications, was completely predictable, but the other, from the California Public Utilities Commission’s office of ratepayer advocates (ORA), was somewhat unexpected.

Only somewhat, because ORA has a track record of sporadically opposing grants for FTTH systems from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF). However, its objections usually second guess design or budget decisions. This time though, ORA is taking Frontier’s side, arguing that CASF subsidies shouldn’t be given for projects in areas where incumbents are getting federal money via the Connect America Fund program.

There are two big problems with that argument. First, the federal money generally pays for minimal upgrades to existing, and typically antiquated, broadband infrastructure. To get the money, Frontier only has to commit to providing service at 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds. In other words, substandard service that leaves communities underserved by the CPUC’s minimum benchmark of 6 Mbps down and 1.5 Mbps up, and therefor eligible for CASF money.

ORA makes much of Frontier’s claims that it can do better, but if this project is approved, Race Telecommunications will offer gigabit service for $60 a month to every home in its footprint. And that’s an enforceable obligation, since it’s tied to the grant money. Frontier, on the other hand, can’t be forced to deliver on its half promises about speeds and it’s making no commitments about prices.

Second, Frontier won’t be serving all the homes in Race’s proposed project area: the federal money is scattered around a checker board of census blocks, per the map above. Some people will be left without broadband service at all, and others will end up with speeds that wouldn’t have been considered sufficient ten years ago, let alone today.

The real problem is that the federal program is poorly designed. It pays for propping up incumbents’ slow service, out of date infrastructure and inconsistent deployment. If the aim is to avoid overlapping subsidies, then it’s the federal money that should be spent elsewhere. Its increasingly aggressive rhetoric and lawyerly intimidation notwithstanding, Frontier does not own exclusive rights to the Phelan community. The people – the ratepayers – there deserve advocacy too.