California broadband infrastructure money tapped for mapping project

21 August 2013 by Steve Blum
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Truth is more expensive than fiction.

The core information resource used by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to decide where to subsidise broadband infrastructure projects is the California Broadband Availability map. It was originally funded by a $2.3 million grant from the federal stimulus program in 2009.

Over the past four years, it’s gone from being a difficult to read PDF printout to an interactive platform that can show broadband service availability down to the census block level, and includes both data provided by service providers and information gathered independently by the CPUC and others. There are plans to add more “ground truthing” data and tools to the map, and eventually achieve street address granularity.

Although it’s received a lot of criticism, most of it comes from people who love what it does but are frustrated it can’t do more. Local broadband advocates make it a starting point for confirming or debunking coverage claims made by carriers and independent Internet service providers use it to find market gaps where they can come in and compete.

The money runs out in a year, and CPUC staff is proposing to tap the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) for $1.5 million to keep the mapping program moving forward through June 2015. Assuming that’s just a starting point, it equates to about $2 million a year on an ongoing basis.

The money goes to CPUC staff who manage the program, Chico State University which builds and maintains the website and does a lot of the independent data collection work, and Cal State Monterey Bay, which developed the mobile testing app that’s used to verify, or not, claims made by mobile carriers.

Personally, I think it’s money well spent. Without the ability to analyse broadband availability, it’s very easy for the CPUC, ISPs and the public to waste far more than that on misdirected projects and missed opportunities. But it’s open for public discussion. The commission is scheduled to vote at its meeting on 19 September 2013, where the public may speak, and there’s a process underway to gather formal written comments on the proposal.

Whatever you think about it, if you care how state broadband subsidy money is spent in California and what kind of information is available to the public, speak up.