California broadband subsidy program pumped $35 million into infrastructure in 2019

30 December 2019 by Steve Blum
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Dig once conduit 1oct2019

The California Advanced Services Fund (CASF), the state’s primary broadband infrastructure subsidy program, closes out 2019 with thirteen projects funded – $35 million in grants total – and no backlog of stale applications. That success is a welcome change from past practice, when project proposals sometimes languished for years. Changes made to the program by the California Public Utilities Commission in 2018 paid off, producing a consistent and predictable process.

Casf 2019 broadband infrastructure grants

Congratulations are due both CPUC staff who implemented the changes and managed the program, and to commissioner Martha Guzman Aceves who led the effort to rewrite the rules and procedures. It was tough job, given that lawmakers paid more attention to the checks they get from AT&T, Comcast and the like than to California’s broadband needs when they rigged the CASF program in favor of big, monopoly model providers.

Incumbents’ cash still mattered, and not in a good way. Frontier Communications came away with the most CASF money and will do the least with it. Three grants totalling $12.0 million were approved for DSL upgrades in Kern, Lassen, Modoc and Placer counties. Frontier only committed to offer slow service at 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds, despite the subsidies. It had four projects on the table this year, and requested $16.1 million. One, in Colusa County, was rejected because Frontier (and Comcast) already provided service in the proposed area. Subsidies for other projects were trimmed, partly for the same reason and partly because Frontier tried to double dip and get state and federal funding for the same homes.

Plumas Sierra Electric Co-op received $9.7 million for five projects in Plumas and Lassen counties, which was $2.2 million less than it originally requested. Nearly all of the 414 funded homes will get full fiber-to-the-premise (FTTP) service. A handful of remote residences will be served from that fiber infrastructure by wireless extensions.

Two companies received CASF grants for mobile home parks. Cruzio, an independent Internet service provider based in Santa Cruz, won $2.4 million to serve seven parks in Santa Cruz County with gigabit class FTTP service. It initially requested $5.3 million to build out to 13 parks, but challenges from Comcast and Charter Communications (and a snarky letter from AT&T), and review by CPUC staff, eliminated six of them.

Charter also received money to extend its hybrid fiber-coax plant to two mobile home parks, in Ventura and Riverside counties, as well as a neighborhood in San Bernardino County. It asked for $1.7 million and got $1.4 million. Most of the difference is due to the rejection of a fourth application in Riverside County, following a challenge from Frontier.

A half-assed $5.1 million request from a Sonoma County wireless operator didn’t make it through the process either.

The CPUC approved an additional $9.1 million for Race Communications’ Gigafy Phelan project. The extra money is necessary because utility pole inspection practices are increasingly rigorous and California labor costs, particularly for fiber optic work, are up. Relative to other CASF-funded builds, Gigafy Phelan is a mega-project. It’ll bring full FTTP facilities with gigabit service at DSL prices to 7,600 homes in San Bernardino County. Because Gigaphy Phelan was originally approved under the old rules, CASF is only paying for 60% of the project’s costs. Race has to contribute $24.5 million in matching funds.

There’s only one CASF request still active. The Karuk Tribe is asking for an increase of $11.3 million for its long-stalled project to bring Internet service to communities in and near its lands in Humboldt County. The initial request was made in May, but middle mile connectivity problems remained to be solved. The (probably) final proposal (see map below) was submitted earlier this month.

Karuk map casf krrbi 10dec2019

Links to 2019 CASF project applications, challenges and approvals are here.