Tag Archives: casf

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.

Cable to defend Californian monopolies with attacks on independent projects

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Comcast, Charter Communications and other cable companies are demanding the right “to challenge each and every application” for broadband infrastructure subsidies from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF). Their lobbying front organisation, the California Cable and Telecommunications Association (CCTA), made their perpetual litigation plans clear in a new round of comments on the California Public Utilities Commission’s plan to reboot the program.

The cable companies also want to be able to block independent projects by cherrypicking homes and neighborhoods census blocks using the right of the first night right of first refusal given to them by the lawmakers they’ve generously funded in return. CCTA called universal service requirements advocated by other organisations “especially unreasonable”.

Like the cable lobbyists, AT&T repeated many of it previous arguments in its comments. But it did make one statement about funding middle mile facilities that is both true and useful for developing economically viable broadband projects…

If a CASF applicant and middle-mile provider cannot agree on access rates, terms, and conditions through arm’s-length negotiation, that alone is evidence that the middle-mile provider’s proposed rates, terms, and conditions are not commercially acceptable for the project at issue, and that building middle-mile infrastructure is “indispensable” to the project.

Middle mile infrastructure that connects local, last mile networks to central Internet hubs, such as those found in Silicon Valley, is essential. Incumbents – AT&T included – have used their control over those choke points to keep broadband prices high and competitors out. The CPUC should subsidise more middle mile fiber construction whenever possible, but that money should come with the same strings attached to last mile projects: grant recipients should offer it on the open market at published rates.

Several other groups submitted comments, also mostly restating earlier positions. The North Bay North Coast Broadband Consortium weighed in for the first time, urging the commission to hold incumbents accountable when they exercise a right of first refusal but don’t build out, and to give priority to projects that offer faster broadband speeds than the pathetic 10 Mbps download/1 Mbps upload service that the California legislature agreed to subsidise.

North Bay North Coast Broadband Consortium
CPUC Public Advocates Office (formerly known as the office of ratepayer advocates)
Greenlining Institute
TURN

AT&T
California Cable and Telecommunications Association (lobbyists for Comcast, Charter and other cable companies)
California Emerging Technology Fund
Geolinks
Race Telecommunications
Small Local Exchange Carriers (small, rural telcos)

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

Comcast and Charter fight for right to charge “exorbitant prices” for broadband connectivity

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Comcast’s and Charter Communications’ lobbying front in Sacramento – the California Cable and Telecommunications Association (CCTA) – doesn’t want the California Public Utilities Commission to require companies that receive broadband infrastructure subsidies to make any commitments about the prices consumers will be charged, or to offer an “affordable broadband plan for low income customers”.

In comments they submitted regarding the CPUC’s proposed reboot of the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) broadband infrastructure subsidy program, the cable lobbyists claimed that the requirements – some of which have been in place for many years – are illegal.

The lobbyists also told the CPUC that it can’t limit Charter’s and Comcast’s right to charge “exorbitant prices” for middle mile connectivity and, in the process, block competition by independent broadband providers.

CCTA objected to a new rule that would allow streamlined review of middle mile proposals in “a situation where a provider…only offers service at exorbitant prices”. Their claim is that “affordability” has nothing to do with the “availability” of middle mile service.

Bullshit.

Middle mile service links a local broadband provider – aka the “last mile” – to a major hub, such as a data center in Silicon Valley, where interconnections between networks are thick and the magic of the Internet happens. If an independent Internet service provider wants to build a last mile network in a poorly served community, the middle mile connectivity problem has to be solved in way that makes economic sense. When incumbents, like Charter, Comcast, AT&T or Frontier, kill an independent’s business model by jacking up middle mile prices – as they are allowed to do – they are deliberately making that service unavailable.

CCTA also continued to argue for the right to perpetually and continually challenge proposed projects. Derailing project applications with late challenges, sometimes based on false claims, is a tried and true tactic that incumbents use to protect their monopolies in communities where 1. their service is poor, and 2. so are residents.

The cable companies have never liked the CASF infrastructure subsidy program, and they have handed bags of cash offered cerebral arguments against it to California’s lawmakers in largely successful attempts to cripple it.

CCTA’s comments are worth reading as a reminder of why the CASF program was created in the first place.

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

I drafted and submitted the comments filed by the Central Coast Broadband Consortium. I am not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.

Telcos, cable companies should face consequences for filing false California broadband data

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

AT&T, Frontier Communications, Charter Communications and Comcast have to file reports with the Federal Communications Commission detailing where they offer broadband service, how fast it is and what technology they use. The California Public Utilities Commission uses that information, along with other sources of data, to determine if particular areas or communities are eligible for broadband infrastructure subsidies, via the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) program.

The CPUC is rewriting the rules for those subsidies, as a result of the generosity of California lawmakers who rigged CASF so that big, monopoly model telecoms companies get a shot at hogging all the cash.

The availability data that those incumbents provide is of dubious quality. It’s largely based on marketing claims, and not on actual speed tests or subscriber information. The CPUC’s proposed new rules highlight comments that I drafted and filed in May on behalf of the Central Coast Broadband Consortium in which we called out, as an example, obviously false data that AT&T submitted about fiber to the home service.

The CPUC draft diplomatically attributes AT&T’s false reports to “miscoding”. We filed comments last week suggesting that this isn’t the time to be speculating on AT&T’s motives or possible excuses for giving the CPUC and the FCC bad information…

We did not attribute this false data to miscoding. AT&T has established “AT&T Fiber” as an “umbrella brand” which includes technology such as “the former AT&T GigaPower network” which does not, in all regards, meet the Form 477 definition of “fiber to the home or business end user”. It is reasonable to posit a connection between AT&T’s brand positioning and its Form 477 submissions.

In its comments, Race Communications, which has received several CASF grants to build FTTH systems in rural communities, urged the CPUC to hold companies accountable for their data…

The [proposed decision] properly notes that these errors have major consequences for the CASF program, because corrections are time-consuming for the Communications Division Staff, and errors cause confusion and frustration for communities and CASF applicants who must rely on the maps for eligibility decisions. Race contends that the Commission should take a more aggressive enforcement stance if data is consistently provided to the Commission that is erroneous and/or overstated by a particular existing provider. Providing erroneous data on coverage is a [CPUC rule] violation and should be treated as such.

The rule in question says that AT&T – and everyone else who does business with the CPUC – must agree “never to mislead the Commission or its staff by an artifice or false statement of fact or law”.

Just so.

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