CPUC asks FCC to ignore attempts to block broadband subsidies for a million Californians

19 May 2020 by Steve Blum
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Digital path april 2020 rdof challenges

Internet service providers are trying to fence off their turf from competitors who might bring faster, and maybe even cheaper, broadband service to rural communities in California, and across the U.S. They challenged the Federal Communications Commission’s preliminary list of census blocks that are eligible for subsidies from the new Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), which is scheduled to award $16 billion in broadband subsidies via a reverse auction in October.

An article by Joan Engebretson in Telecompetitor gives a good overview. California’s second and third biggest telcos – Frontier and Consolidated – claimed that they offer broadband service of at least 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload speeds in more than 30,000 blocks across the U.S. that the FCC tentatively classified as eligible for RDOF subsidies. Many of those census blocks are in California.

But they weren’t the greediest challenger. The national champion in that regard is Digital Path, a northern California wireless Internet service provider (WISP). It told the FCC to block broadband subsidies in 40,000 census blocks, all in California. There are 987,000 people living in those census blocks, which stretch across 27 mostly rural counties. Add in the people who live in census blocks challenged by telcos and other WISPs, and the total climbs to more than a million.

The California Public Utilities Commission, along with telecoms agencies in other states, tried to make sense of this mess. As many have found, it’s very difficult to figure out who is trying to block what – the FCC didn’t set any standards or format requirements for challenges. Yesterday, CPUC communications division director Rob Osborne filed a letter with the FCC, asking it to just say no

In California alone, CPUC staff estimates that incumbent carriers and providers have challenged areas of RDOF eligibility impacting what appears to be hundreds of thousands of housing units, potentially reducing needed federal broadband dollars for our state by hundreds of millions of dollars. Nationally, as we certainly hope the FCC has come to understand, the significant potential loss to rural America is far greater…

Given the lack of a uniform submittal procedure, open and accessible data, a formal rebuttal process, and consistent with positions the CPUC has advanced, CPUC staff urges the FCC to reject all the challenges before moving forward with RDOF Phase I. At this juncture, any public benefits of the auction, and the large public investment represented by RDOF Phase I, will be jeopardized if this haphazard challenge process is left to stand. If the challenges are not dismissed in whole now, thousands of square miles of rural America and millions of unserved Americans are at risk to remain unserved after RDOF concludes.

So far, the FCC hasn’t paid any attention to the CPUC or other state-level agencies. It ignored a request from CPUC president Marybel Batjer to delay RDOF subsidies while all the problems are worked out. Democratic FCC commissioners objected to the way the FCC’s republican majority has pushed ahead, seemingly intent on handing out the money just ahead of the November presidential election.