CPUC debates fairness of giving big broadband subsidies to tiny communities

by Steve Blum • , , , , ,

“It’s a little frustrating that this would be one of the last places you’d expect high quality internet service, yet you have communities like Point Arena and Gualala that don’t have service at all,” said commissioner Michel Florio this morning, as the California Public Utilities Commission discussed a proposal to give a $1.8 million subsidy to Ponderosa Telephone Company to build a fiber-to-the-home system in the remote Madera County communities of Beasore and Central Camp. It would deliver 50 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload speeds to homes that currently lack even landline telephone service.

Commissioners are wrestling with the project’s cost per home reached – somewhere between $55,000 and $11,000, depending on whose numbers you believe. Either way, it busts the CPUC’s cap – so far – of $10,000 per home for California Advanced Services Fund subsidies. The U.S. Census Bureau counts 32 occupied residences in Beasore and none at all in Central Camp but Ponderosa claims there are 159 occupied dwellings between the two areas. The Forest Service says the census figures are low but so far hasn’t endorsed the higher number. It’s clear, though, that many – likely most – of the houses in the area are vacation homes.

“The very purpose of the CASF program is to do these kinds of things,” said commission president Michael Peevey, as he pushed to move ahead with the grant. “How much more information do we need?”

At least a clearer idea of how many people actually live there, according to commissioners Catherine Sandoval and Carla Peterman. There was a fundamental concern about how to manage CASF fairly. “Many of the people paying the surcharge [that funds CASF] don’t have access to this level of service”, said Peterman.

In the end, commissioners asked staff to get better numbers and come back in two weeks. Then they’ll have to decide if the needs of people in the area justifies raising the current subsidy limit. Florio was was skeptical.

“If these are cabins where people go to get away from the city”, he said, “people may be going there to get away from the accoutrements of modern life”.