New digital literacy, broadband access grant program approved by CPUC

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The California Public Utilities Commission approved a new broadband promotion program at its meeting in San Francisco yesterday. Via the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF), the program will award grants for digital literacy training and community broadband access projects. Non-profit groups, schools, local governments and other not-for-profit organisations can compete for the $5 million initially available, with the first round of applications due on 31 August 2018.

There’s a fast lane – expedited review – for applications requesting grants of $100,000 or less, and that meet other specific requirements, such as serving a low income community and offering technical support. In addition, preference will also be given to projects that serve rural areas and/or people with “limited English proficiency” and “limited educational attainment”. Grants can pay for up to 85% of eligible project costs.

One knotty problem is evaluating the effectiveness of “broadband adoption” projects. Strictly speaking, adoption is a marketing metric, typically expressed as the percentage of people who buy a particular category of services or products. The obvious solution is to get subscriber data from Internet service providers, but that’s something that big ISPs, and particularly AT&T, do not want to do. They treat it as proprietary information. One possible work around is to sign non-disclosure agreements, and the CPUC will work on creating a standard one for grantees to use. But the CPUC isn’t requiring ISPs to participate, so it might not get very far.

The commission also made relatively minor changes to its existing grant program for public housing communities. It didn’t change its standards, though. Unlike other CASF-funded infrastructure projects, which have to offer at least 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds, facilities in public housing only have to deliver 1.5 Mbps down, with no particular upload requirement.

The new adoption program – $20 million total – was created by the state legislature last year, when it turned the lion’s share of CASF – more than $300 million – into a piggy bank for AT&T and Frontier Communications. Those new rules are still under development at the CPUC, with a final version expected by the end of the year.