Tag Archives: casf

Shift California’s broadband subsidies from consumer upgrades to paying incumbents to serve public agencies, CPUC told

by Steve Blum • , , ,

There’s an idea on the table to make it even easier for big, monopoly model broadband service providers to tap into the taxpayer-funded telecoms piggybank created by the California legislature when it approved assembly bill 1665 a couple of years ago. AB 1665 rewrote the rules for the state’s primary broadband infrastructure subsidy program, the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF).

The latest proposal to remake CASF surfaced at a panel discussion organised by the California Public Utilities Commission in Sacramento a couple of weeks ago. One of the panelists, Sunne McPeak, the CEO of AB 1665’s sponsor, the California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF), signaled that she wants to expand CASF to include, among other things, funding “public safety” projects.

On the face of it, that sounds like a wonderful thing, but it would be a radical change for CASF. It means flipping the fund from building infrastructure and increasing broadband availability for everyone to, in effect, subsidising ongoing operating expenses for public agencies. In other words, CASF would be absorbed into the state’s information technology budget, whether or not (likely, not) extra money was put into it.

Even if CASF money was strictly limited to paying for construction costs, it would act as an operating subsidy by offsetting upfront installation charges, which are paid out of public agency budgets, either all at once or over time. It’s a golden opportunity for companies like AT&T that can shift resources and facilities away from less profitable homes and small businesses, and toward more lucrative institutional services in rural areas where they maintain monopoly control.

A remote fire station or a county fairgrounds might get wicked fast broadband service – as it should – but it would be a zero sum game with the local economy ending up on the losing side. The better way to do it is to upgrade rural broadband infrastructure, particularly middle mile fiber, that serves everyone, public safety agencies and ordinary people alike.

It might or might not be too late to roll this gift to major incumbents into a bill during the current legislative session. The workings of the California legislature are more opaque this year, with greater power to decide the fate of bills given to committee chairs who can, and do, collect cash from politically generous cable and telephone companies. It’s possible to slip special benefits into existing bills, or create brand new ones via the gut and amend process, as the legislative session winds down to its September conclusion.

This year, next year or the year after: keep a close watch.

AT&T, Charter, Comcast, Frontier, Digital Path challenge California broadband subsidy proposals

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Santa barbara county pole 29oct2015

Of the 13 new projects proposed for construction subsidies from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) in May, only four are unchallenged: three proposed by Charter Communications in Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties, and one proposed by a wireless Internet service provider in Sonoma County. The rest face objections from incumbent Internet services providers that want to protect their turf.

Ten challenges, plus a snarky letter from AT&T, were filed against broadband projects being reviewed for CASF grant eligibility by yesterday’s deadline. Under the rebooted CASF rules, an incumbent provider has, effectively, five weeks to submit evidence that it offers broadband service at the California legislature’s pathetic minimum of 6 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds in census blocks where a CASF infrastructure grant is requested.

None of the publicly distributed challenge notifications contain any details about incumbents’ broadband coverage or availability. That data is submitted separately to CPUC staff. But if you want to read the notices, you can find them here.

Charter Communications and Frontier Communications are challenging each other’s projects. Frontier is fighting Charter’s request for $277,000 to build 12 miles of new lines in Perris in Riverside County; Charter objects to Frontier’s $1.7 million project in the Taft area of western Kern County.

Charter also joined with Comcast and, sorta, AT&T to try to block a $5.3 million proposal from Cruzio to offer fiber-to-the-home service to 13 mobile home parks in Santa Cruz County. Comcast and Charter filed standard challenge notices and presumably provided valid broadband availability data to CPUC staff; AT&T sent a letter helpfully reminding CPUC staff to read the rules.

The most prolific challenger, though, is Digital Path, a Butte County-based wireless ISP that apparently wants to kill six proposals to build out broadband service to nearly a thousand homes in Lassen, Modoc and Plumas counties. It’s challenging Frontier’s $11.8 million DSL upgrade plan for the northeastern corner of California, and four FTTH and one FTTH/wireless hybrid projects, also totalling $11.8 million, proposed by Plumas-Sierra Electric Cooperative.

I’m collecting the 2019 CASF infrastructure grant proposals here. Information about the program is here. All the CASF-related documents I’ve collected in 2019, including the challenge notifications, are here.

The Central Coast Broadband Consortium assisted Cruzio with its Equal Access Santa Cruz grant application, and I was a part of that effort. I’m not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.

Picker quitting as CPUC president, as soon as Newsom picks a replacement

by Steve Blum • , ,

Picker 20may2019

Michael Picker will step down as president of the California Public Utilities Commission sometime in the coming weeks or months. He made the announcement at the end of last week’s CPUC meeting…

I’ve made comments, mostly joking, about retiring before I have to buy a new business suit, and more recently I’ve been thinking about retiring regardless of how shabby my clothing is. So you always can think of reasons of why you should stay and why you’re essential in the greater purpose of the organisation that you serve.

But to be honest with you it makes a great deal of sense for me to leave after the wildfire proceedings are voted out and the governor’s ninety day plan is released and then we have a plan for actually meeting our responsibilities in that plan. That’s been my conversation with the folks in the governor’s office and I made it clear that I’ll stay around until they’ve found the person that they want to replace and fill the position at the CPUC.

I’ll probably talk more about it as we get closer and they get closer – it could be as soon as July but probably more likely sometime after July. I can’t really say because I think they have to think long and hard about the needs of the organisation and the direction that they want to go to find a person to replace me. So thank you.

Picker was first appointed to the commission by then-governor Jerry Brown in 2014, and promoted to the top job a year later when Michael Peevey’s term as president expired. His retirement is not shocking news. He had a close, long term working relationship with Brown, but there’s no indication that he’s a member of governor Gavin Newsom’s inner circle.

On the other hand, it would be hard to find someone more qualified to be CPUC president than Genevieve Shiroma, Newsom’s first appointment to the commission earlier this year. Her resume includes an engineering degree, a career as a senior manager at the California Air Resources Board, and 20 years experience on both the Sacramento Municipal Utilities District board and the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, including terms as board president and chair, respectively.

The “folks in the governor’s office” might not need to think very long or very hard.

Wireline broadband service “is essential”, CPUC told. Again

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Cpuc enbanc 20may2019

The question of whether mobile broadband will replace wireline service reared its ignorant head again at a California Public Utilities Commission broadband discussion in Sacramento last week. Citing his wife’s preference for a mobile phone, CPUC president Michael Picker questioned the idea that “broadband to the home” is a good way of getting service to under and unserved communities, via the state’s primary broadband infrastructure subsidy program, the California Advanced Services Fund.

The panel’s best response came from Ana Maria Johnson, a program manager with the CPUC’s public advocates office. Echoing findings already made by the CPUC as well as the Federal Communications Commission, she said you need both…

A wireline broadband connection is essential. It’s not a substitute for your mobile broadband. When you have a wireline connection coming to your home you set up a wireless router where you can use your different devices – your laptop, you have your your desktop, you connect all the devices that you need. Students, in doing homework, need that wireline connection. They’re using a Chromebook, or they’re using a tablet, but they’re connecting through their wireless router on the wireline connection, because of the speed and capacity that they need to be able to do that work. Your mobile phone is essential as well, but it’s a complement to your wireline connection. So I don’t think it’s one or the other, but we know that the wireline connection is critical.

The idea that wireless networks can, via the magic of 5G and elsewise, provide all the capacity residential users need is a favorite talking point of mobile carriers, and particularly AT&T, which wants to rip out its rural copper networks. Depending on which stats you look at, in-home wireline data use is one or two orders of magnitude greater than mobile data consumption, and both continue to grow. Mobile carriers are pushing, and investing, as fast as they can just to keep pace with the demands of smartphones and other devices that can’t be reached any other way.

You need both.

California broadband subsidy proposals total $44 million as challenge period opens

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Krrbi update 3may2019

Two more proposals for California broadband construction subsidies were posted on the California Public Utilities Commission’s website yesterday, bringing the number of pending applications to 15, for a total of $44 million in grants requested from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF). One project involves an upgrade to an existing wireless Internet service provider’s facilities near Petaluma, in Sonoma County. The other is a request for more money for a stalled middle mile project in Humboldt County.

In 2013, the Karuk Tribe, working with the Yurok Tribe, received a $6.6 million grant to build a middle mile fiber route that would connect tribal lands and other nearby communities in northern Humboldt County to long haul fiber networks. The project never got fully underway, though. So it was redesigned, with a bigger budget. Originally, the entire project would have cost $13 million, split nearly evenly between the CASF grant and money contributed by the tribes. Now, it’s specced to cost $26 million, with more than two-thirds of that coming from CASF. The new grant request is for $11 million, bringing the total state subsidy to $18 million.

The Klamath River area is remote and lacks modern broadband service. Poverty levels are high, and infrastructure, in general, is lacking. On the face of it, the rebooted Klamath River Rural Broadband Initiative is exactly what CASF was created to fund. The question will be whether a middle mile project first developed under the old CASF program will still be fundable under 2017 rules written and rigged for the benefit of major campaign contributors incumbent service providers. Frontier Communications is the legacy telco in or around that part of Humboldt County, and lobbied hard for those changes. Now, a middle mile fiber project can only receive CASF subsidies if it is “indispensable” to delivering last mile service to homes, and federally subsidised areas are off limits to everyone except, in this case, Frontier.

The new rules don’t apply to the original grant but likely will for any new money, particularly since the project was significantly redesigned. Frontier can be counted on to guard its turf, and not always with the full truth. It won’t be an easy decision for commissioners.

The Sonoma County proposal was submitted by Web Perception, a WISP that has several access points near Petaluma. It’s asking for $5.1 million to add back haul capacity and an access point to its existing system. It claims that the upgrade will make it possible to reach 5,500 homes it can’t reach now, at least, presumably, at the California legislature’s woeful minimum speed level of 6 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload. Based on the map prepared by the CPUC, this project could also run into trouble with the new eligibility restrictions.

The next step is to sit back and wait for challenges from providers that might claim to already offer service in the 14 project areas proposed for CASF subsidies in this latest round (one pending application was submitted last year). Incumbents have three weeks to file their objections.

Karuk Tribe, Klamath River Rural Broadband Initiative Project Update, 3 May 2019

WebPerception, Rural Internet Service Expansion into East Petaluma / West Sonoma, 1 May 2019

I’m collecting the 2019 CASF infrastructure grant proposals here. Information about the program is here.

The Central Coast Broadband Consortium assisted Cruzio with its Equal Access Santa Cruz grant application, and I was a part of that. I’m not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.

Charter is first major cable company to apply for California broadband subsidies, but on its own terms

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Silver wheel ranch

Four more broadband infrastructure grant proposals, filed by Charter Communications, surfaced yesterday. That brings the number of pending applications for California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) construction subsidies to 13, which total out to $27.6 million. Cruzio and Frontier Communications also submitted applications on Wednesday, and the Plumas-Sierra Rural Electric Cooperative filed last Saturday.

Charter is asking for $1.7 million to build out to the 467 homes in the four project areas. Per household costs range from a $1,500 to $14,000. Two of the projects are for mobile home parks, one in Oxnard in Ventura County and the other in Moreno Valley in Riverside County. Another project would extend Charter’s existing system to a street in the San Bernardino County community of Highland, and the fourth is for twelve miles of “new fiber and coax plant” in Perris, in Riverside County. The publicly released project summaries don’t specify what kind of equipment Charter would be using, but the claimed maximum speed level – 940 Mbps download/35 Mbps upload – is consistent with DOCSIS 3.1 technology.

This is the first time that a major cable company has applied for CASF subsidies. A small cable company, CalNeva, received a $511,000 grant in 2017, but up until now the big Californian players – Charter, Comcast, Cox and Suddenlink – have refused to participate. They’ve been reluctant to expose themselves to the regulatory oversight and public benefit requirements that California Public Utilities Commission programs entail.

Those requirements are still too much for Charter, though. It’s asking the CPUC to waive a two year price cap and ban on installation fees that’s standard for service offered via CASF-funded facilities. It doesn’t offer any public policy justification for the exemption, saying only it would have to establish “a separate billing operation” for the subsidised homes and offering the counterintuitive argument that “consumers will be protected from rate increases and benefit from promotions by having the same rates as those available to all of Charter’s California customers”.

That logic is, well, let’s say odd for several reasons. There’s nothing preventing Charter, or any other CASF recipient, from offering customers lower prices. And exposing subsidised customers to the same price hikes that “all of Charter’s California customers” face would hardly be protection from rate increases.

It’s also not obvious that Charter would have to build a new billing system. It’s common practice in the cable and satellite industry to sign contracts with, say, apartment complexes and homeowners associations that include special pricing for particular services. It’s not exactly the same thing – such services are usually billed on a bulk basis – but typically customers also have individual accounts for market rate options.

I’ve never worked with Charter on that kind of arrangement, but I have with others, including Comcast. Billing systems are flexible enough to handle those kinds of exceptions, not to mention the complex and frequently changing mix of promotional rates, incentives to prevent disconnects and other special offers. The technical solutions aren’t necessarily elegant, but it’s not rocket science either. In my experience, the bigger problem is clueless or commission-hungry customer service reps who don’t, or won’t, pay attention to what the billing system is telling them.

Charter deserves credit for at least trying to work with CASF and the CPUC, even if a price protection waiver is “a precondition of its participation in the program”. It’s not easy finding service providers willing to take on the job of building out infrastructure in unserved and often remote communities, with or without taxpayer subsidies. But it’s also reasonable for taxpayer money to come with some strings attached.

Charter Communications – CASF grant proposals, 1 May 2019
Country Squire Mobile Estates, Moreno Valley (Riverside County)
Orchid Drive, Highland (San Bernardino County)
Perris Plant Extension, Perris (Riverside County)
Silver Wheel Ranch Mobile Home Park, Oxnard (Ventura County)

I’m collecting the 2019 CASF infrastructure grant proposals here. Information about the program is here.

California broadband subsidy grants trickle in at the deadline

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Verizon taft 2dec2014

There was no last minute rush yesterday as the window closed for California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) broadband infrastructure grant applications. Only two companies submitted a total of three project proposals. It’s possible that other applications were submitted but not publicly distributed as required, but for now three, plus five from Saturday, are what we have. I’ll take a deeper dive into all of them later, here’s the short version for now:

Frontier submitted two applications, an $11.8 million proposal to extend service to 146 homes in the Lassen and Modoc County communities of Alturas, Ravendale and Standish, and a $1.7 million proposal to reach 235 homes in and/or around Taft in Kern County. That’s a project that will be welcome. Western Kern County is oil country, and was never upgraded to even 1990s vintage DSL by Verizon, which operated the telephone system until it was acquired by Frontier in 2015. The picture above shows some of the mess that Verizon left behind.

I did an infrastructure assessment study for Taft in 2015, which built on a broadband workshop I conducted in 2014. There’s no doubt the need exists.

On the other hand, both of Frontier’s project summaries indicate that the money would be used to upgrade service to households that are not eligible for CASF funding, including some that they’re already receiving federal subsidies to serve.

Cruzio proposes to extend fiber to the home service to 940 low income homes, and the business offices of 13 mobile home parks in the Santa Cruz County communities of Soquel, Pleasure Point and Capitola. The Equal Access Santa Cruz application asks for a $5.3 million grant.

When the five CASF project applications submitted by the Plumas-Sierra Rural Electric Cooperative last weekend, and Frontier’s proposal for the Colfax and Weimar communities in Placer County submitted late last year are added in, there are now nine grant proposals pending, totalling $27.6 million. With $300 million added to the CASF infrastructure program in 2017, there’s enough money available to fund them all.

Equal Access Santa Cruz, Soquel, Pleasure Point, Capitola (Santa Cruz County)

Frontier Communications
Northeast Project Phase 1 (Lassen and Modoc counties)
Taft Cluster (Kern County)

Plumas-Sierra Rural Electric Cooperative
Elysian Valley-Johnstonville (Lassen County)
Eureka-Johnsville (Plumas County)
Keddie (Plumas County)
Lake Davis (Plumas County)
Mohawk Vista (Plumas County)

I’m collecting the 2019 CASF infrastructure grant proposals here. Information about the program is here.

The Central Coast Broadband Consortium assisted Cruzio with its Equal Access Santa Cruz grant application, and I was a part of that. I’m not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.

Plumas and Lassen County broadband projects proposed for California subsidies

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Mohawk vista

Applications for broadband infrastructure subsidies from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) are due tomorrow, but the Plumas-Sierra Electric Co-op (PSEC) wasn’t in a mood to wait. It submitted five project proposals on Saturday, totalling $12 million in grant requests.

PSEC serves Plumas, Sierra and Lassen counties in northeastern California, and is one of three electrical service cooperatives in the state. It branched out into broadband service several years ago and has received both state and federal grants to build out its network.

Four of the proposals are for pure fiber-to-the-premise projects that would serve a total of 521 homes and 32 businesses in the Plumas County communities of Eureka-Johnsville, Keddie and Mohawk Vista, and Elysian Valley-Johnstonville in Lassen County. The cost per location is high, ranging from about $11,000 to $48,000 per home, and $11,000 to $44,000 per location (business and residential) overall.

All four proposals exceed the $9,300 per household cap set by the California Public Utilities Commission, which runs the CASF program. The projects could still be funded, but it will take a majority vote by the full commission to approve the applications.

The fifth project, for Lake Davis in Plumas County, uses a hybrid design – some homes would be served directly by fiber, others would rely on fixed wireless links. It would reach 185 homes and two businesses.

Each of the proposed projects includes middle mile fiber facilities, to connect to the Internet through PSEC’s core network.

These applications, and the others that are expected to drop tomorrow, are the first under the new CASF broadband infrastructure grant rules approved last year by the CPUC. It’ll be the first chance to see what kind of projects can be developed, and ultimately approved, in the new world created by the California legislature in 2017, when it bowed before the deep campaign cash pockets of AT&T, Frontier, Comcast and Charter, and passed assembly bill 1665. That law tipped California’s broadband subsidy playing field precipitously in favor of those deep pocketed incumbents. We’ll soon know if it was money well spent.

Project summaries:

Elysian Valley-Johnstonville
Lake Davis
Mohawk Vista

AT&T, Comcast blamed for stonewalling burnt out Paradise residents, as CPUC approves broadband grant pilot

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

California wildfire ruins

The California Public Utilities Commission decided to be more generous with broadband construction subsidies for low income home owners and tenants yesterday, but also took aim at AT&T, Comcast and other big telecoms companies that refuse to take advantage of state broadband subsidies or cooperate with communities that need service. Commissioners voted to raise the proposed limit of $5,300 on line extension program grants to $9,300 per household, as they unanimously approved implementation plans for the $5 million pilot project, paid for by the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF).

Commissioner Martha Guzman Aceves, who is in charge of the overall CASF program re-write, criticised the major players for not using it to upgrade infrastructure in communities that lack adequate broadband service. One example, she said, is the town of Paradise, which was largely destroyed by a deadly wildfire last year and which she recently visited…

One of the main areas they wanted to raise with us was the telecommunications needs in the town, and they expressed a lot of the difficulty with the lack of communication during the response and warning time. But also now, in trying to get real, concrete commitments from both AT&T and Comcast in what the rebuild looks like. There was concern that, given that even prior to the fires not all the community was served, that after the fires there’s nothing really requiring them, for all the community to be served, still. And certainly nothing requiring the type of infrastructure and technology upgrades that all Californians need today. So I did want to highlight and invite AT&T and Comcast to utilise the underutilised CASF grant program for these types of infrastructure needs, including the line extension program that we just approved today, and encourage them to take this state subsidy to really build out, not just in the community of Paradise, but in many of the communities that find themselves in a similar situation.

That’s the big question yet to be answered: will those big, incumbent ISPs will participate and build out facilities to unserved, low income homes? The line extension program was originally proposed by Comcast, as a way of laundering state grant money through residents so it wouldn’t have to answer directly to the CPUC, which is anathema to cable companies. The ball is now in their court.

The other substantive change to the first draft, which was published last month, include boosting the percentage of costs covered by the grants from 95% to 100% of construction budgets – the remaining 5% would have been paid by Internet service providers who ultimately received the money. AT&T didn’t like the idea of paying anything, and none of the Internet service providers who commented – which also included Frontier Communications and Comcast’s and Charter Communications’ lobbying front organisation – liked the $5,300 limit. The final, approved version raised it to match the amount allowed for staff-level approval of other broadband infrastructure grants from CASF.

More information and key documents about CASF broadband infrastructure, public housing and other grant programs are here.

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.