CPUC urged to keep broadband promotion subsidies provider neutral

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Broadband promotion grant rules should have air tight guarantees that the money won’t be used to promote any particular Internet service provider. That’s the consensus of several organisations that reacted to a draft decision that would have the California Public Utilities Commission set up a broadband “adoption” program, subsidised by the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF).

As the new rules were being developed, big, incumbent ISPs argued, in effect, that they should be able to leverage the money to supplement their subscriber acquisition – aka sales – efforts. The first draft of the rules is a little ambiguous on that point. Although the money would flow through (presumably) non-profit organisations, partnerships with ISPs are encouraged. No one seems opposed with the idea of working with ISPs. After all, the goal is to convince more Californians to buy Internet access and join the online world. ISPs have to be part of the mix for that to happen.

But exclusive deals are something else again. Big ISPs such as AT&T, Frontier Communications, Comcast and Charter Communications don’t play well with others. As anyone who has watched the parade of sock puppets that the big carriers march into legislative hearings can tell you, when they can rope non-profits into working for them, they will. In its comments to the CPUC, the California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF) said Frontier wants to do exactly that…

Currently, CETF is being pressured by Frontier Communications to have CBO grantees for adoption outreach market only Frontier’s affordable offer. This is contrary to the role of a non-profit organization to educate a potential subscriber to all affordable offers available, and help choose the best one for his or her needs.

Most of CETF’s funding comes from Frontier and Charter these days, to run such subscriber acquisition campaigns in their territories.

The Greenlining Institute, TURN (aka the Utility Reform Network, aka Toward Utility Rate Normalisation) and the CPUC’s office of ratepayer advocates also pushed for clear language banning exclusive deals between grant recipients and ISPs. As TURN and Greenlining put it

The Commission should ensure that those partnerships do not require digital literacy programs to exclusively promote one Internet Service Provider’s services at the expense of competition and informed consumer choice. These program participants are exceptionally vulnerable in that they have been recently introduced to the internet and on-line environment and presumably have little to no knowledge regarding the various options and “players” in the marketplace. These consumers will likely be looking to these programs for guidance and advice on adoption options. These consumers should not be misled or otherwise given the impression that they do not have a choice for internet services through program materials, branding, or other marketing materials solely from the ISP partner that would likely be accessible during the grant- funded program.

Rebuttals, should there be any, are due next week. The CPUC is scheduled to make a final decision on 21 June 2018.

The complete set of CASF reboot documents is here.