Tag Archives: casf

School bus WiFi and take home mobile hotspots for students funding in proposed California bill

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Jet school bus2

A placeholder bill that originally targeted the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) – the state’s primary broadband infrastructure subsidy program – was gutted, amended and turned into a subsidy program for after school Internet access for elementary and high school students. Assembly bill 1409 is carried by assemblyman Ed Chau (D – Los Angeles), who made a tech policy name for himself last year when he authored California’s new online privacy law.

As originally submitted, AB 1409 made what amounted to an inconsequential typographic change to the law that rewrote the CASF program in 2017. The usual purpose of such bills is to get something into the hopper ahead of the legislature’s annual deadline for introducing new legislation, with the intent of maybe doing something with it later.

That something turned into subsidies for “homework gap projects”, which are defined as projects that provide “pupils in kindergarten or any of grades 1 to 12, inclusive, with after school access to broadband, such as Wi-Fi enabled school buses or school or library Wi-Fi hot spot lending”. The money would come from the California Teleconnect Fund (CTF), which pays for broadband service for schools, libraries and some non-profit organisations, usually to help close the gap left by the federal e-rate program, which funds most, but not all, of the cost of such service.

It’s an incremental change. Both CTF and the federal e-rate program are already used to pay for free broadband access, via WiFi at schools and libraries, and some school districts have toyed with the idea of extending some kind of wireless service to students at home. Hotspot lending – allowing students to, say, take home an active 4G wireless router – and WiFi on school buses are already arguably eligible for CTF money, and some districts or libraries might already be doing it.

AB 1409 would clear up any doubt, and potentially create a whole new category of publicly subsidised broadband service. It could also open the door to boondoggles: there’s already an ecosystem of companies and organisations that push projects of dubious value to educators with little knowledge of technology and no experience as service providers. The bill scheduled for its first hearing in the telco-and-cable-friendly assembly communications and conveyances committee ton Wednesday. It’s worthing keeping an eye on.

CPUC proposes low income, no service available requirements for household broadband extension grants

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Remote road

The final piece of the California broadband subsidy puzzle is on the table. The California Public Utilities Commission posted a draft of the new “line extension program”. It’s a pilot project set up by the legislature in 2017 when it rigged the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF), turning it into a piggy bank for AT&T and Frontier Communications.

The line extension program was included at the urging of cable lobbyists, who wanted to tap the piggy bank too, but didn’t want to take on any of the regulatory responsibilities that normally go along with state broadband infrastructure grants. The solution was to launder the money through customers: if they live in a home that has no access to broadband, then they can apply for a grant and give the money to an Internet service provider willing to build a line extension to them. The ISP owns the new facilities, but doesn’t have to meet other CASF obligations such as price guarantees.

The new draft rules put tight restrictions on who can qualify for the money. Instead of being simply “unserved” as the California legislature defines it (i.e. without access to broadband service at speeds of at least 6 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload), a household has to be “non-connected”, which means it “does not have a service connection to any broadband service”, at any speed. Applicants have to live at the location that will be hooked up and have an annual household income that’s low enough to qualify for the CPUC’s other low income programs – about $34,000 for a couple and $60,000 for a family of five, for example.

There’s a per-household grant limit of $5,300 for a wireline connection and $500 for a wireless one, which can pay for up to 95% of the cost of the extension. The remaining 5% has to come from the service provider that will end up owning it. A project can include more than one eligible household, so the total grant could be more, but it could also be less if the new facilities also serve ineligible homes.

For the now, the CPUC is taking comments on the draft plan. Commissioners could vote on it as early as the end of April.

Broadband fading into dull necessity at California legislature

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Unlike electric service, broadband isn’t turning out to be a hot topic at the California capitol this year. Friday was the 2019 deadline for introducing new bills in both the assembly and senate. Nothing of any consequence directly relating to broadband issues dropped.

Only two bills address broadband head on – assembly bill 1409 by Ed Chau (D – Los Angeles) and AB 488 by Cecilia Aguiar-Curry (D – Yolo) – but neither breaks new ground as introduced. AB 488 would add a representative from the food and agriculture department to the California Broadband Council. It’s minor step, albeit useful. AB 1409 is a placeholder bill that targets the California Advanced Services Fund, the state’s primary broadband infrastructure subsidy program.

Placeholders are either a way of signalling that the author plans to take on an issue in a serious way later on, or it’s a way of beating the deadline by introducing a shell that can be turned into something real later on, via a gut and amend maneuver. It’s an opportunity for mischief.

Broadband plays a supporting role in a handful of other bills. In way, those might be more significant – increasingly, acceptable broadband service is being treated as essential to achieving major legislative goals, such as child development, public infrastructure upgrades and rural prosperity. Broadband access the door to “opportunities to improve agricultural productivity”, as AB 417 by Joaquin Arambula (D – Fresno) puts it, and a key measure of whether programs in disadvantage neighborhoods are achieving results, per senate bill 686 by Benjamin Allen (D – Los Angeles).

California legislators are worked up about what people do with broadband access, though. Particularly where their privacy is concerned. I count at least 17 bills – some placeholders, some a bit more specific – that deal with online privacy in general. Several specifically target California’s new privacy law, although none propose substantive changes yet. They all bear watching. Opponents – including telecoms companies that make generous payments to lawmakers – will lobby heavily to water it down.

Newsom appoints Shiroma, an engineer and ALRB chair, to CPUC

by Steve Blum • ,

Shiroma

Genevieve Shiroma is the newest member of the California Public Utilities Commission. Appointed on Tuesday by California governor Gavin Newsom, Shiroma will take the seat vacated in December by Carla Peterman. At the same time, Peterman was appointed to a seat on the Commission on Catastrophic Wildfire Cost and Recovery – a non paid position that requires no senate confirmation. It was created as part of the wildfire liability package – senate bill 901 – passed by the legislature last year.

The job of CPUC commissioner, on the other hand, pays $154,000 a year and the California senate has to confirm the appointment. Shiroma will be able to take her seat immediately, however, and serve without confirmation for the rest of the year.

Shiroma has an engineering degree from U.C. Davis and is currently the chair of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board. She’s served on the ALRB since 1999, following a 21-year career as an engineer and manager with the California Air Resources Board. She also spent 20 years as an elected director of the Sacramento Municipal Utilities District, including a stint as board president. SMUD provides electric service in Sacramento County.

Her track record indicates a preference for publicly-owned utilities, like SMUD, over investor-owned ones, such as Pacific Gas and Electric. According to a 2006 story in Electric Utility Week, as quoted by the CalWatchdog website, Shiroma campaigned for an unsuccessful ballot measure that would have seen SMUD take over thousands of PG&E customers…

SMUD’s initiative on the…ballot would have allowed the muni to annex about 70,000 PG&E customers in Yolo County in Northern California. PG&E spent more than $10 million to defeat the annexation, while the pro-annexation campaign spent about $1 million.

Shiroma brings important experience to the CPUC, particularly as a senior manager at a state agency and as a longtime commissioner and chair of a major regulatory agency. Neither job directly involved public utilities, but her tenure on the SMUD board gives her extensive electric industry oversight experience. On paper, at least, her C.V. puts her ahead of other CPUC commissioners, whose backgrounds tend to be more political than administrative or technical, and whose resumes are very light in terms of practical industry experience or technical education. It’s possible to learn a lot very quickly while serving on the CPUC – as some commissioners have demonstrated – but it’s also nice that Shiroma is beginning well up that learning curve.

Current CPUC president Michael Picker has two years left to go on his term, but if he voluntarily follows his friend and patron Jerry Brown into retirement, Shiroma would be well-placed to take over, which might (or might not – I’m just speculating) be what Newsom had in mind.

On the downside, Shiroma’s appointment leaves the CPUC without a telecoms expert, or even someone who brought a modicum of telecoms experience to the job. That’s a minor gripe, though – there’s no question that the electric industry is the commission’s – and California’s – top utility regulatory problem this year, and probably for many years to come.

AT&T, Frontier, Charter carve out exclusive California subsidy territory

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

As expected, AT&T and Frontier Communications blocked broadband infrastructure grants in vast swaths of rural California yesterday, at least for anyone but themselves. The companies filed reports with the California Public Utilities Commission stating they weren’t giving up federal Connect America Fund subsidies in any of the census blocks they claimed in 2015.

Charter Communications tried a similar trick, submitting a letter telling the CPUC where it will be upgrading video-only analog systems to digital capability later this year. There are a couple of problems with Charter’s promises, though. First, it’s admitting it hasn’t complied with the CPUC decision that allowed it to buy Time Warner’s cable systems in California. In that decision, Charter was ordered to upgrade all of its analog territory to digital capability by November, 2018. That deadline has already passed.

Second, Charter is invoking “the spirit” of the right of the first night first refusal granted by the California legislature, but not accepting any of the hard responsibilities that go along with it. As a practical matter though, if Charter delivers on its most recent promise, it could be enough to preempt any California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) grants to independent Internet service providers in its remaining analog service areas.

This right of first refusal for incumbents, and the additional privileges granted on top of it to Frontier and AT&T, were included in assembly bill 1665, which was passed by the legislature in 2017. The bill set aside $300 million for CASF infrastructure grants, and gamed the rules to make it easier for AT&T, Frontier and other incumbents to get their hands on it, but harder for potential competitors to qualify.

No other right of first refusal claims were distributed yesterday. Others might have been filed, but there’s no indication at this point that any were.

Last month, the CPUC restarted the program. The first batch of CASF infrastructure grant applications are due on 1 April 2019. We’ll find out then whether incumbents have left enough room for meaningful independent broadband upgrades anywhere in California.

Filings:

AT&T CAF–2 report, 15 January 2019
AT&T census block list, 15 January 2019
Charter Communications upgrade notice, 15 January 2019
Frontier Communications CAF–2 report, 15 January 2019
Frontier Communications census block list, 15 January 2019

CPUC approves ownership transfer, re-start of Nevada County FTTH project

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Bucket on pole

Updated at 10:41 with statement from Race.

The Bright Fiber FTTH project in Nevada County was resurrected this morning by the California Public Utilities Commission. In a unanimous vote (on the consent calendar, if you follow such things), the CPUC approved transferring control of Bright Fiber Network, along with a $16 million grant, to Race Telecommunications. Several people spoke for and against the project – wireless Internet service providers were against it, the Nevada County board of supervisors and the Gold Country Broadband Consortium were in favor.

After the vote, Race issued a statement that says, in part…

“Race is humbled and grateful that the Commission has moved quickly to approve this transfer of control of Bright Fiber and review the needed CASF project changes so that Race can construct this important project for the community,” said Raul Alcaraz, President of Race.  “Our team at Race has been blessed to have a successful track record of CASF projects, and we feel confident we can deliver a reliable, fast and affordable broadband system.”

Race and Bright Fiber will hold a Town Hall meeting for the community in the evening on Wednesday, January 30th to describe the amended project to interested community members and to answer any questions.  The location and time of the Town Hall will be announced shortly.

Nevada County FTTH project gets new lease on life

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Spiral event 30oct2014

Update: the CPUC unanimously approved the transfer of Bright Fiber Networks, and the $16 million CASF subsidy, to Race Telecommunications this morning.

The California Public Utilities Commission is scheduled to vote today on whether or not Race Telecommunications should be allowed to take over ownership of Bright Fiber Network, which received a $16 million subsidy from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) in 2015 to build an FTTH network to serve 1,900 homes near Nevada City in Nevada County.

The project was developed by Spiral Internet, a long established independent Internet service provider in California’s Gold Country. Spiral has been working to raise the necessary matching funds – $10.7 million – for the past four years, but has not been able to attract investors. If approved by the CPUC, ownership of Bright Fiber Network and rights to the CASF grant would be transferred to Race. Spiral would continue to operate its primarily DSL based ISP business.

Race brings two critical elements to the table: it has access to capital and experience building residential fiber networks in rural California. It’s received several CASF grants over the past ten years, and has what appears to be an excellent track record with the CPUC.

The project would be redesigned. Instead of laying fiber underground, as Spiral originally planned, Race would install cables on existing utility pole routes. The cost of the project to taxpayers would be $70,000 less.

Two wireless Internet service providers in the area – Smarter Broadband and ColfaxNet – filed bitter objections to the transfer of control, as they have done in the past. The draft resolution in front of the commission would reject their arguments once again.

As of last night, the resolution was on the commission’s consent agenda. Unless a commissioner asks that it be discussed and voted on separately, it’ll be approved along with several other items that are considered non-controversial in a single motion.

Tellus Venture Associates assisted Bright Fiber with preparation of its CASF grant application. I’m not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.

Fabricated sales forecasts are a bad basis for handing out broadband “adoption” grants

by Steve Blum • , ,

The California Public Utilities Commission launched a new, $20 million taxpayer-funded broadband “adoption” program last year. It was included in the $330 million gift to Frontier and AT&T (and Comcast and Charter and…) that the California legislature approved in 2017. The CPUC isn’t setting a quantitative adoption target, and is simply acknowledging that “the number of subscriptions to broadband service has been growing annually in California and adoption will inevitably increase”. Instead, the program is built around digital literacy training, and free Internet access points and equipment.

The CPUC went through one round of adoption grant proposals this past summer. Changes to the program are proposed, based on lessons learned.

Even so, organisations still have to forecast the “number of new residential broadband subscriptions resulting from the project” in their grant applications and provide “a summary of subscriptions resulting from the project” in order to collect their money. That’s driven by the legislature – assembly bill 1665 requires the CPUC to report back on “the number of subscriptions resulting from the broadband adoption program” that’s paid for by the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF). The CPUC will look at other ways to measure broadband uptake, but demonstrating a causal link between that rising tide and CASF dollars is impossible.

The implication is that the more new subscribers an applicant forecasts, the better the chances of getting money, even though the CPUC’s guidelines don’t say that. At best, that approach will produce unobtainable estimates, at worst it’ll lead to fraud.

To make the program work, the CPUC should focus on credibility and reject applicants who give in to temptation and offer inflated sales projections. Instead, priority should go to applicants who are honest about their mission and have a verifiable track record of producing results based on the accepted criteria of their professions. A non-profit or government organisation that promotes its worthiness or measures its success on the basis of sales that have to be closed by others – by for-profit Internet service providers – should be viewed with skepticism, to put it politely.

CPUC reboots California broadband infrastructure subsidies, as well as can be hoped

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

California has more than $300 million available to subsidise broadband infrastructure, thanks to a law passed last year by the California legislature. Also thanks to that law, the rules governing who can get the subsidies and where it can be spent were rigged, with the aim of protecting telco and cable monopolies, and funneling money into their pockets.

It was up to the California Public Utilities Commission to rewrite the rules that subsidy applicants have to follow and that govern how broadband subsidy proposals will be evaluated and approved. Or not.

That process went on for nearly a year, with lobbyists for Comcast and Charter Communications, lawyers for AT&T and a hodgepodge of staffers for Frontier Communications working hard 1. to prevent independent, competitive Internet service providers from getting any money, 2. to make sure they had unimpeded access to it, and 3. to avoid any inconvenient restrictions on what they could charge or what level of service they could deliver to subsidised communities.

Yesterday, by a unanimous vote, the CPUC approved new rules that both stay within the narrow lines drawn by telco lobbyists California lawmakers and provide independent, community-driven projects as good a chance of being funded as the law allows.

This rewrite of the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) program was led by commissioner Martha Guzman Aceves. Following the vote, she said the goal is to focus broadband infrastructure spending on the communities that need it most, and get it to them as quickly as possible…

This [decision] approved a framework towards meeting the regional goals, now, of 98% per consortia region – those are geographical regions throughout the state – to try to get more parity and access throughout the state.

The [decision] sets up a faster application review timeline, it sets up clear funding rules that allow an applicant to determine ahead of time how much funding an application is eligible to receive…

These new rules improve the accuracy of data, as well, used to determine eligibility. Over the years we’ve had many struggles here, in our decisions, about whether or not a community is served. And this provides much clearer rules to determine that.

The PD also prioritises low income areas, that are unserved and, at best, have dial-up service. The applications that serve these unserved low income areas will receive 100% funding.

The first application window for this new round of CASF infrastructure grants closes 1 April 2018.

Revision 2 of proposed decision of commissioner Guzman Aceves, implementing the California Advanced Services Fund infrastructure account revised rules, published 12 December 2018 and approved on 13 December 2018.

Revised appendix, detailing the application process and grant eligibility rules.

Links to other documents – decisions on other issues, drafts, comments and more – are here. I’ll post the final version of the decision and the appendix there, when available. But the final version should track exactly with the revision linked above.

I’ve been involved in the debate over the CASF program, and in assisting with project proposals since 2009. I’m not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.

California broadband infrastructure subsidy reboot ready for CPUC vote

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

The flurry of comments and rebuttals about proposed changes to California’s primary broadband infrastructure subsidy program – the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) – resulted in a few changes, generally for the better. A revised draft decision was published yesterday, ahead of a scheduled vote by the California Public Utilities Commission on Thursday.

Comcast’s and Charter Communications’ lobbying front organisation – the California Cable and Telecommunications Association (CCTA) – was rebuffed in its attempt to open up proposed CASF-funded projects to an eternity of challenges.

The revised draft emphasises that “there is only one opportunity to challenge a project” by demonstrating that existing service in the proposed area meets the California legislature’s pathetic minimum standard of 6 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds. That single challenge period ends five weeks after an application is submitted. CPUC staff has two weeks to post the application on the commission’s website and then incumbents have three weeks to try to kill it, if they think it threatens their monopolies. The one exception is if area is added to the proposed project during the review process, and then only the new territory is vulnerable to attack.

The revisions also put some additional streamlining in the review process, which has dragged on for more than two years in some cases. Any request for $10 million or less can be approved by staff, without having to be voted on by commissioners. The first draft had a $5 million limit. Most of the projects proposed over the past few years would have been comfortably below the new limit.

Incumbents are also opposed to a low income subscription option. The draft would subsidise an additional 10% of project costs – the baseline is 60% – if a $15 dollar a month package is offered to qualifying low income household. The cable lobbyists were joined by AT&T, Frontier Communications and a group of small rural telephone companies in objecting to it. Again, all they got for their troubles was a clearer statement of what the CPUC expects in return for giving them taxpayer money: “the low-income service offering must be offered throughout the entire project area and must meet all of the CASF performance criteria”.

At this point, a favorable vote by commissioners on Thursday is looking more likely. Yesterday, the draft was moved to Thursday’s consent agenda, which means it won’t even be debated. Assuming nothing changes (a reasonable, if not completely safe, assumption) it’ll be automatically approved along with a couple dozen other items in a single, bulk vote.

Revision 1 of proposed decision of commissioner Guzman Aceves, implementing the California Advanced Services Fund infrastructure account revised rules, 10 December 2018 (changes highlighted).

Revised appendix, 10 December 2018 (changes highlighted).

Links to other documents – decisions on other issues, drafts, comments and more – are here.

For more background information, click here.

I’ve been involved in the debate over the CASF program, and in assisting with project proposals since 2009. I’m not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.