Broadband rocks the 80s in California public housing

10 August 2014 by Steve Blum
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There’s an odd debate going on over whether broadband service standards should be lower in public housing projects than in the rest of California, at least when the infrastructure is subsidised by the California Advanced Services Fund.

The California Public Utilities Commission is developing rules for spending $20 million on upgrading broadband facilities in public housing. The money comes from the same pot as the state’s primary broadband infrastructure subsidy program, which sets a minimum of 6 Mbps download and 1.5 Mbps upload speeds for systems it funds.

Except maybe when those systems are in public housing projects.

A CPUC staff report started out by recommending that subsidised public housing broadband facilities meet the same capacity standards as other CASF-funded systems…

Staff recommends the Commission require applicants to build networks capable of providing Commission-defined served speeds, but not insist on bandwidth requirements.

That’s fine up to a point: whatever is built should be capable of supporting modern broadband needs and speeds, and there’s nothing wrong with offering subscribers the option of paying less for slower service. But if a basic price – $10 per month?, $20? – is set for public housing residents, then the basic service should meet the same minimum speed that other Californians can expect as a baseline (albeit with slower, cheaper options available) when taxpayers are footing the bill.

There’s no consensus on that point, though. The California Emerging Technology Fund is recommending that the basic public housing service speed be set at 1.5 Mbps up and down, and the CPUC’s office of ratepayer advocates is pushing for 3 Mbps down and 1.5 Mbps up.

There’s little reason not to use the 6 down/1.5 up standard. If standard ethernet cabling and reasonable electronics are installed, capacity is not an issue. The only significant limiting factor is the amount of backhaul bandwidth available, but that’s something that can be determined ahead of time and there are few enough circumstances where stinginess is truly justified.

On the other hand, if wireless distribution is used – WiFi, for example – both capacity and service levels become problematic. Which is true regardless of the backhaul bandwidth available. Which is why any grant application that proposes to use wireless technology to distribute broadband service within a public housing project should be treated with extreme skepticism.

Making public housing eligible for CASF infrastructure grants was a good idea, justified by broadband’s potential for creating opportunities and improving the quality of life for residents. They shouldn’t be short changed by making them captives of inadequate technology, shoddy engineering or poor service.