Tag Archives: plumas sierra

CPUC knows how to end taxpayer-funded middle mile fiber grabs. As it should

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Connected central coast 625

It can be done right. As it has.

One of the challenges to broadband subsidy proposals submitted to the California Public Utilities Commission this week shows why open access middle mile fiber is a necessity for closing rural broadband gaps, and how the lack of it is a major barrier to improving Internet service in California.

Plumas Sierra Telecommunications, which is the telecoms arm of the Plumas Sierra Electric Cooperative, objects to Frontier’s request for money to pay for a building a middle mile fiber route to reach the towns of Herlong and Janesville in Lassen County. Plumas Sierra doesn’t object to spending California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) subsidies on middle mile fiber. It wants Frontier to make use of the CASF-funded middle mile fiber that it’s built, rather than using more CASF money to overbuild it.

Parsing Plumas Sierra’s objections illustrate a major problem with the way in which CPUC approves middle mile projects. Plumas Sierra claims that it “already provides wholesale services via its existing middle-mile fiber-optic infrastructure with high-quality and reasonable price levels”. Translation: we don’t lease subsidised dark fiber to competitors, but we will sell them higher priced services over it.

Frontier does the same thing. It received $11 million from CASF last year for a project to build 137 miles of middle fiber and upgrade DSL facilities in Lassen and Modoc counties. Dark fiber strands on that network are not available on the open market.

The result is a patchwork of taxpayer-funded middle mile routes scattered across rural California that private companies can use to extract monopoly profits – “rents”, in microeconomic terms. CASF rules allow broadband companies to indulge in this sort of rent seeking behavior at public expense.

There are exceptions, though. The CPUC recently imposed open access obligations on a middle mile project that it funded for the Karuk Tribe in Humboldt County, and six years ago it did the same for a route now owned by Crown Castle in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties. That project has been up and running for three years, and supports a growing ecosystem of independent broadband operations (see the image above).

The CPUC can change its open access middle mile policy on its own. Or perhaps the California legislature can be persuaded to do it. Senate bill 1130 is still alive at the state capitol. As presently written, it would make open access mandatory for any CASF-subsidised middle mile infrastructure. Either way, it needs to be done.

CPUC approves $12 million subsidy for six broadband infrastructure projects

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Six of the eleven broadband infrastructure projects on the California Public Utilities Commission’s agenda yesterday were approved for subsidies from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF). The other five were bumped to the CPUC’s next meeting, on 19 December 2019. Links to the most current resolutions are below.

Cruzio’s Equal Access Santa Cruz project was approved, without changes, for a $2.4 million grant. The commission rejected an attempt by Charter Communications to re-litigate its earlier and unsuccessful attempt to kill it. In doing so, commissioners reiterated that incumbent broadband service providers get one, and only one, opportunity to block proposed projects…

Staff also agrees with [the Central Coast Broadband Consortium] and rejects Charter’s request to remove a census block from the project area because Staff has already made a determination on the challenge. [CPUC Decision 18–12–018] set forth a clear process for challenges and Staff‘s determination of the challenge stands.

All five of the projects proposed by the Plumas Sierra Electric Cooperative (PSEC), totalling $9.7 million in grants, were approved too. The commission accepted PSEC’s field test data that demonstrated the lack of mobile broadband service in its Lake Davis project area.

Two projects proposed by Frontier Communications and three by Charter Communications are on hold. Both companies filed comments asking for more money than recommended by CPUC staff. As with the Cruzio project, Charter attempted to re-litigate its opposition to Frontier’s project plans in the Taft area of Kern County. It also objected to pricing obligations that CASF rules would normally impose on the projects that it proposed. It’s not surprising that it’s taking a couple extra weeks to get to a decision on those five projects.

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.

CASF broadband infrastructure grant resolutions, as approved 5 December 2019:
Cruzio – Equal Access Santa Cruz
Plumas Sierra – Mohawk Vista Mid-Mile/Last Mile
Plumas Sierra – Elysian Valley Mid-Mile/Last Mile
Plumas Sierra – Keddie Mid-Mile/Last Mile
Plumas Sierra – Lake Davis Mid-Mile/Last Mile
Plumas Sierra – Eureka Mid-Mile/Last Mile

CASF broadband infrastructure grant resolutions bumped to 19 December 2019:
Charter Communications – Highland Orchid Drive, Country Squire Mobile Estates , Silver Wheel
Frontier Communications – Northeast Project: Phase1
Frontier Communications – Taft Cluster

All documents collected in 2019 regarding the CASF program and projects are here.

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

Cooperative broadband is rare, but successful in California

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Rural utility cooperatives have gotten a lot of good ink recently, as a possible alternative to investor-owned broadband companies. Although it’s a business model that’s far more common in the U.S. midwest and south, it’s been successful in California too. At least as far it goes – there are only three rural utility co-ops here.

Anza Electric co-op in Riverside County is in the process of building a fiber to the home system using a grant from the California Advanced Services Fund. By FTTH standards, it’s an inexpensive build – about $1,200 per household, total – primarily due to the fact that Anza already owns the necessary poles and conduit.

Plumas-Sierra Electric co-op has subsidiary that’s a wireless Internet service provider serving parts of Plumas and Sierra counties, and a bit of Lassen County. It’s tried for CASF in the past, too, although it ultimately withdrew its application. The third rural California co-op – Surprise Valley in Modoc County – isn’t in the broadband business, but two of three isn’t bad.

Rural utility co-ops are creatures of the federal agriculture department’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS). It’s one of three basic utility business models, the other two being investor owned utilities, like PG&E, and municipal utilities.

The investor owned variety predominates here, but where there are exceptions, California tends toward muni electric utilities – either cities, like Palo Alto or Santa Clara, or special districts, like the Sacramento Municipal Utilities District. Californian muni electric utilities have been largely successful when they’ve dipped a toe in the broadband business, particularly as dark fiber providers, although there is one big exception – Alameda had to sell its cable system at a loss.

Elsewhere in the U.S., there are rural utility co-ops that are in the telephone business. In California, small rural phone companies fill that niche in the eco-system.

The co-op business model has also been used for middle mile projects. Digital 395 is owned by the California Broadband Cooperative and was funded by an ARRA stimulus grant, and there’s another – the Mid-Atlantic Broadband Cooperative – in Virginia, funded by tobacco settlement money. However, those are not the traditional, federal agriculture department sponsored utility co-ops.

The cooperative business model is very effective, when it suits local circumstances. The RUS-backed version, though, isn’t a viable way of creating a competitive service – if there’s an incumbent provider, that option is off the table for all practical purposes.

Last mile Internet service grows from northern California middle mile project

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Another state and federally subsidised middle mile project is spawning last mile service in northern California. Plumas-Sierra Telecommunications (PST), which is a subsidiary of the Plumas-Sierra Rural Electric Cooperative, provides Internet service to rural communities in Plumas, Sierra and Lassen counties. It recently filed an application for a $677,000 grant from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) to build out last mile service to 4,400 homes and businesses using middle mile fiber it built using money from the 2009 federal stimulus program and CASF. That fiber network now connects PST’s service area to long haul routes that go through Reno, Nevada.

The publicly available summary that PST circulated doesn’t offer much detail about its last mile project proposal, except to say it “will use wired and wireless technology” and offer service starting at 10 Mbps down/5 Mbps up and topping out at 75/10. It’s likely, though, that most or all of the consumer-grade service it intends to provide will be delivered via fixed wireless systems: that’s what it told the California Public Utilities Commission when it got the middle mile grant in 2010, which is consistent with the low per-premise cost in the new proposal.

PST applied for a subsidy of $154 per premise. Under CASF rules, they can ask for 60% to 70% of total construction costs, so the total per premise cost of the project is presumably somewhere between $220 and $257. That won’t buy much copper or fiber.

The PST proposal goes into the hopper with ten other applications. Like the rest, it can be challenged by other service providers who meet the CPUC’s minimum service standard of 6 Mbps down/1.5 Mbps up, if there are any. Given the remote location and the fact that no one challenged them the last time, that seems unlikely.