The California Public Utilities Commission has decided that broadband subsidy proposals can be challenged almost forever, instead of right up until the moment commissioners vote, as it has allowed in the past. It rejected an appeal of a 2017 grant by a wireless Internet service provider in Trinity County, Velocity Communications, ruling that once a draft decision is issued, ISPs can’t submit speed test data that purports to show that the area in question is “served” and thus ineligible for a California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) grant. That’s good news.
The bad news is that until the draft decision is issued – typically a month before the commission votes – incumbents can take all the pot shots at grant applications they want. By rejecting the appeal, commissioners put their stamp of approval on the routine practice of ignoring the deadlines they set. It’s OK, they said, for Frontier Communications to persistently lobby staff after the formal challenge period closes…
Velocity is correct that Commission staff accepted a late filed challenge from Frontier…the deadline for submitting letter challenges to a CASF application is 14 days after web posting of the CASF application by Commission staff. Historically, Commission staff has been lenient with this requirement and accepted late-filed challenges after the 14-day period out of an abundance of caution…
What Velocity fails to acknowledge, however, is the significant difference between Commission staff accepting a late filed challenge while the evidentiary record is still open compared to accepting new evidence after the proposed resolution has been issued and the evidentiary record has been closed. There is no statute, Commission decision, resolution, or rule prohibiting Commission staff from accepting a late filed challenge while the evidentiary record is still open (prior to the issuance of the draft resolution), which is what staff did in regard to Frontier’s challenge.
Allowing ISPs to file perpetual challenges to broadband infrastructure projects wouldn’t be a huge barrier if the CPUC otherwise stuck to its schedule, which calls for a final decision on proposals within three and a half months. But abuse of its open door policy – Frontier is a major offender – creates delays that can drag on for years and effectively kill independent projects that incumbents find inconvenient.
That’s why the region qualified for a $47 million broadband infrastructure grant from the California Advanced Services Fund. That money will mostly go toward building a 300 mile long fiber network, generally along State Route 299, but $1.5 million will be spent on last mile, gigabit service for the town of Lewiston in Trinity County and $3.1 million will pay for up to 15 wireless towers along the line. The result will be three big, competitive kicks…
Cheap (relatively) Internet bandwidth. Assuming the system is run on an open access basis with reasonably transparent pricing – likely, at least at first, but not guaranteed by the CPUC – any ISP will be able to bring in gigabits of capacity at prices that match or beat what’s available to mainstream communities in the Sacramento Valley.
Ready made towers, with backhaul included. If the price is right, mobile carriers will come, as Frontier Communications, the only wireline company along the route, seems to know. It vociferously objected to this common sense add-on to the project. Given that it has no qualms about accepting federal subsidies for service that fails to meet Californian standards, it’s a safe bet that Frontier’s motivation isn’t concern for taxpayer dollars.
A shining testament that a better world awaits. People living in the 300 homes in Lewiston – a town that makes Boron look like an LA suburb – will get a symmetrical gigabit for $60 a month. Their neighbors along SR 299, and particularly in the communities that the CPUC unjustly chopped from the project), will know what’s possible and will not have to accept poor mouthing from incumbent providers.
Don’t get too carried away by the competitive prospects. Internet access along the Digital 299 route will be greatly improved and core broadband infrastructure will be much better than similarly remote areas of California, but the economics of broadband along the Digital 299 route will, absent additional subsidies, keep service levels low and/or prices high by urban standards.
Push back on public funding will only increase. Attempts to put more money in the CASF kitty are stalled in Sacramento and CPUC president Michael Picker, who echoed incumbent talking points before voting *no* on the Digital 299 grant, is embracing the monopoly first model of FCC chair Ajit Pai.
But even if it’s not a free market paradise the Klamath region has a fighting chance, where before it had none. That’s a win.
The Digital 299 middle mile fiber project will receive a $47 million subsidy from the California Advanced Services Fund. The line begins in Shasta County, just south of Redding where it will connect to long haul fiber on the I-5 corridor, and runs along State Route 299 through Trinity County, ending on the coast in Humboldt County at Eureka, with laterals to a potential submarine cable landing site on Arcata Bay and Humboldt State’s marine lab in Trinidad. It also includes a spur up to Hoopa tribal lands along State Route 96. It’ll be built and operated by Inyo Networks/Praxis Associates, the commonly owned companies responsible for the similar Digital 395 project in eastern California.
The California Public Utilities Commission voted 4 to 1 to approve the grant yesterday, with president Michael Picker voting no. It pays for 70% of middle mile construction costs – $45 million of $65 million total – and 60% of a small last mile build for 300 homes in the Trinity County community of Lewiston, $1.5 million of $2.4 million total. People living in Lewiston will be able to get symmetrical gigabit Internet service for $60 per month.
Originally, Inyo Networks proposed offering this fast and cheap package to a total of 1,000 homes, in Douglas City, Hayfork and Burnt Ranch as well as Lewiston, but it had to slash 700 homes from the last mile component of the project. That was because Frontier Communications protested, promising instead to upgrade broadband speeds to 1,200 homes in the area to 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds. That’s something Frontier has to do anyway, to meet requirements attached to federal broadband subsidies it’s accepted. It’s also below the CPUC’s minimum 6 Mbps download and 1.5 Mbps upload standard, but Frontier dodged around that requirement by telling the CPUC that it “estimates that approximately 70 percent of these households will receive speeds greater than the minimum speed (12 mbps down and 2 mbps up, or higher)”.
The project budget also includes construction of up to 15 towers that would be attached to the network and provide a platform for mobile carriers, public safety radio systems and other wireless services: potential middle mile fiber customers, in other words.
In a 4 to 1 vote, the California Public Utilities Commission voted to spend $47 million on the Digital 299 middle mile fiber project this morning. It’s a 300 mile network connecting Trinity and Humboldt counties to long haul routes in Shasta County. The no vote came from president Michael Picker.
When it was proposed in August 2015, the applicant – Inyo Networks – asked for a $51 million grant, based on the assessment that the project area was unserved, in other words, there was no broadband service available at all. That would have made the project eligible for 70% funding from CASF. However, after it had been under review for a year and a half – despite the fact that commission rules call for that work to be completed in three and a half months – that figure was trimmed back to $41 million. CPUC staff rated most of the territory as underserved – eligible for only 60% funding – and accepted late objections from Frontier Communications and Charter Communications which resulted in the majority of the included last mile service area being taken out and a reduction in the middle mile subsidy, respectively.
When the Commission first considered the project last month, Inyo Networks and supporters from the Humboldt area asked for $6 million more for the project, as well as easier completion bond requirements. At the time, commissioner Carla Peterman said she’d draft an alternate resolution that would do that. Instead, the original resolution was rewritten – it was published last week, but I missed it – to raise the grant amount and relax bonding specs. That means that there will only be one resolution on the table – the lower cost option is gone, absent a move by commissioners to revive it.
The big question now is whether it can muster three votes. At last month’s meeting, president Michael Picker said he’s “likely to vote against this under any circumstances”, and rookie commissioner Martha Guzman Aceves expressed similar skepticism. That means fellow rookie Clifford Rechtschaffen, Liane Randolph and Peterman will all have to vote yes. Otherwise, Digital 299 dies.
A proposal to build a 300 mile middle mile fiber network connecting remote communities in northern California to high speed Internet access might or might not be in line for extra cash. The Digital 299 project would go through the mountainous terrain along state route 299 from Redding in the Sacramento Valley, through Trinity County and on to Eureka on the Humboldt County coast.
No action was taken, but commissioner Carla Peterman promised to draft an alternate version of the decision and bring it back for a vote. It’s an open question, though, whether at least two other commissioners will go along with it. Liane Randolph indicated she was favorably inclined, but as he often does, CPUC president Michael Picker complained about a lack of strategic broadband vision – ironic, since it’s his job to provide that kind of leadership – and said “I’m likely to vote against this under any circumstances”.
It was the first time the two newly appointed CPUC members, Martha Guzman Aceves and Clifford Rechtschaffen, had a chance to consider CASF broadband infrastructure subsidy policy or specific proposals. Rechtschaffen echoed Randolph’s comments, but Guzman Aceves joined Picker in taking a harder line. Like Picker, she also pushed back on a second CASF grant proposal, for the Light Saber project, a small fiber-to-the-home system in a leafy neighborhood in southern Santa Clara County. It’s a much smaller build, but still involves a substantial amount – $1 million – and Guzman Aceves was skeptical about spending state subsidy money on high income communities.
The Light Saber proposal was pulled indefinitely, at least until commissioners have a chance to consider setting broadband deployment priorities. Digital 299 will likely back for a second look sooner, perhaps at the next commission meeting in March.
Other opposition came from the usual suspects. The proposed route links the northern California coast and the rugged and sparsely populated terrain along state route 299 to long haul fiber in the Sacramento Valley. Of necessity, a middle mile project has to begin in a served area and it happens that the connection points are in or near Charter Communication’s service area around Redding. So Charter and the cable industry’s Sacramento lobbyists objected, asking the commission to slow things down. Sounds so reasonable, except that the grant application has already been under review for a more than a year longer than allowed by the CPUC’s rules. Delay a project long enough, and you’ll kill it.
Another major middle mile fiber project is queued up for approval at the California Public Utilities Commission. A draft decision that would grant a $42 million subsidy from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) to the Digital 299 project was published just before the Christmas break and is expected to be up for a vote by commissioners in February. Inyo Networks – the company behind the Digital 395 system and other CASF-funded projects – made the proposal in August 2015.
The project would build a nearly 300 mile fiber optic line west from the Interstate 5 corridor south of Redding, where connections to long haul intercity networks are available, through the mountains of Shasta, Trinity and Humboldt counties along state route 299, to two locations along the Pacific coast, at Eureka and Trinidad. According to the draft resolution…
With this project, Inyo plans to: (1) bring ultra-fast and secure broadband backhaul to isolated underserved and unserved communities along the Highway 299 corridor and to those adjacent within a 15-mile distance from the backhaul; (2) establish peering points in Eureka and in the North Sacramento Valley for interconnection with other transport providers to ensure network reliability and improve the quality of educational, government, public safety, and health facilities in the project area; (3) improve cellular data services in a heavily forested, mountainous region;2 and, (4) provide high-speed, last-mile service to the community of Lewiston in Trinity County.
The project includes a small last mile component in Lewiston in Trinity County, where residents will be able to buy a symmetrical gigabit of Internet service for $60 a month, and a discounted 25 Mbps package for $30 per month. The bigger benefit, though, will be to other retail broadband service providers and major institutional users – mostly state, local and tribal agencies – along the route, and to communities along California’s north coast that lack redundant, high speed middle mile connectivity to major Internet exchanges.
A 200+ mile long fiber optic project that would link the northern California coast to the Sacramento Valley and cost $73 million to build was turned in to the California Public Utilities Commission yesterday. The intention is to secure a $51 million grant from the California Advanced Services Fund to pay for 70% of the cost.
This latest proposal is similar, in that it includes a handful of last mile projects in communities along State Route 299 between Eureka and Redding, and provides opportunities for other service providers to upgrade broadband broadband speeds and reliability for even more homes. Yesterday’s application talks about reaching 1,000 homes but that’s just for the four last mile service areas in Lewiston, Douglas City, Hayfork and Burnt Ranch. The under and unserved region along the Digital 299 route encompasses something like 10,000 eligible homes, at least according to a quick estimate I ran yesterday.
The project includes plans to reach more than a hundred government sites, including schools and public safety facilities, as well as hospitals and clinics.