California broadband subsidy bill slows down to 25 Mbps copper speeds, with “a goal” of fiber for all

4 June 2020 by Steve Blum
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Broadband projects subsidised by the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) wouldn’t have to be all fiber, according to the latest changes to senate bill 1130. The amendments, published late Tuesday night, lower the minimum broadband service speeds supported by new, subsidised infrastructure from 100 Mbps download/100 Mbps upload, which only full fiber to the premise facilities can deliver on a mass market basis, to 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload, which is within the range of middling copper-based DSL systems. The bill’s author, senator Lena Gonzalez (D – Los Angeles) agreed to amend it during a senate committee hearing last week.

The eligibility standard remains 25 Mbps down/25 Mbps up. An area that lacks service at that level would be eligible for CASF subsidies but, in theory, the money could pay for a system that only supports 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up. Even so, it’s a huge improvement on the pitifully slow 6 Mbps down/1 Mbps up minimum that the California legislature enacted three years ago when it turned CASF into a piggybank for monopoly model incumbents that pay big bucks to lawmakers for those privileges.

The bill still defines “future-proof infrastructure” as something that delivers broadband service at speeds of 100 Mbps down/100 Mbps up, but the text no longer mandates that the California Public Utilities Commission “shall…approve projects that provide” it. Instead, CASF subsidies only have to be awarded “with a goal of providing” that level of service. A “goal” in this context is something you hope to achieve some day, not something you need to do right away.

As SB 1130 now reads, the hard requirement for a CASF grant award is “the project deploys infrastructure capable of providing broadband access at speeds of a minimum of 25 mbps downstream and 3 mbps upstream”. That’s not fiber, but it’s better than the current construction standard of 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up, a level of service that can be met with a minimal upgrade to a 1990s DSL system.

The contradiction of having a construction standard that’s lower than the eligibility standard will be a red flag as SB 1130 moves through the legislative process, so expect more changes. The next step is for the senate appropriations committee to approve it. The deadline for a decision, which will be made by legislative leaders behind closed doors, is two weeks from tomorrow.