CPUC adds California money to federal broadband subsidy bids. If

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Cvin fiber marker sr49

Internet service providers might get California help to improve their chances at winning in the Federal Communications Commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction. Broadband infrastructure subsidies from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) could be added to their bids, per yesterday’s decision by the California Public Utilities Commission.

If.

If commission staff opens a second window for CASF grant applications quickly enough. If those proposals leverage RDOF money. And, particularly, if there’s any money left in the fund.

The decision also tweaked rules for broadband facilities grants in public housing and allowed CASF money to be spent on technical assistance for tribes (but not for other primary jurisdictions, such as cities or counties).

CASF rules set an annual date for project proposals. Usually, it’s the first of April, but it was bumped to May this year because of the covid–19 emergency. The CPUC received 54 applications totalling $533 million in requests, which is twice the theoretical CASF funding limit and more than three times the money that’s actually available.

That prompted the head of the CPUC’s communications division to send out a warning to applicants that it would be in their best interest to go after RDOF money too. A bill attached to the state budget tweaked the law to allow CASF money to go to co-funded projects that meet RDOF eligibility standards, instead of the usual, and pathetic, 6 Mbps download/1 Mbps upload speed limit on project area eligibility.

Yesterday’s decision, written by commissioner Martha Guzman Aceves, gives staff discretion to allow a second round of applications that “incorporate federal broadband funding opportunities, such as RDOF”.

The objective is to help California get its fair share (or a bit more) of the $16 billion in RDOF money that the FCC will award by reverse auction in October. Adding CASF subsidies to project financial models will allow for more aggressive bidding, giving Californian Internet service providers a competitive edge over ISPs in other states.

The mechanics of how that is supposed to happen are still to be determined. There’s a standard six month timeline for reviewing and approving CASF grant proposals, so standard procedures won’t work for an auction that’s a little more than two months away. The big if – if CASF money is available – also has to be answered.

To do that, the 54 pending applications need to be trimmed – some or all rejected completely, or proposals and service areas adjusted to allow RDOF to backfill project budgets.