Frontier’s Colusa DSL subsidy request breaks rules, which is OK if everyone can play

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Frontier Communications wants $253,000 from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) to upgrade its copper DSL facilities in the town of Colusa, in rural Colusa County. Its existing service in and around the community relies on a mix of 1990s vintage DSL and more advanced ADSL2 and VDSL technology. It’s proposing to upgrade its central office to extend its VDSL capabilities, and run fiber to the county fairgrounds in town.

The justification for the project, as described in the public summary Frontier distributed, is 45 homes that either don’t have any broadband access at all, or the service they have delivers less than 6 Mbps download or 1 Mbps upload speeds. Which is in line with the changes incumbents lobbied for last year, when the California legislature effectively turned CASF into a piggy bank for Frontier and AT&T.

What isn’t in line with past practice, or the legislation, is Frontier’s plan to use the subsidised upgrade to improve service for 2,300 homes that do have access to that pitifully slow standard of service. Or to build what is, by some definitions, a non-essential middle mile fiber line to the fairgrounds.

All that may be a good thing, and if Frontier’s rationale – which isn’t explained in the public document – is accepted by the California Public Utilities Commission then other important projects in underserved communities might be able to move forward as well.

But Frontier’s motive is not likely to be so noble minded. It has a history of viciously contesting CASF projects proposed by independent Internet service providers in similar circumstances. Frontier’s past challenges – sometimes based on false information – have forced independent applicants to trim their grant requests on a pro-rata basis to prevent subsidisation of “served” homes, or to withdraw their proposals completely. A more plausible interpretation is that Frontier thinks it can get away with scooping up as much taxpayer money as it wants.

The CPUC is in the process of rewriting the rules for the CASF infrastructure subsidy program, and Frontier’s Colusa project might or might not fit within it. I hope the CPUC clearly states that it does. Upgrading decaying rural DSL service is worthy, even if the company involved is, in effect, overbuilding itself.

Allowing upgraded – or newly built – infrastructure to serve the dual purpose of boosting service for “served” as well as “unserved” homes would make it easier for independent competitors to develop projects that do more than offer the marginal technical improvements Frontier is proposing. Which would be a genuine step forward for rural California.