CPUC offers plan to increase Internet use in communities that need it most

21 May 2018 by Steve Blum
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Disadvantaged communities are first in line for broadband education, marketing and access grants subsidised by the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) in a draft plan to implement a new “adoption” program run by the California Public Utilities Commission. The proposed decision, by commissioner Martha Guzman Aceves, also tweaks existing subsidies for broadband service and promotion in public housing communities and winds down a defunct infrastructure loan program.

Two kinds of adoption projects will be funded: digital literacy – i.e. training and marketing – efforts and broadband access programs that offer free Internet access and computer centers.

The proposed rules favor big projects. Grant proposals up to $100,000 will get expedited treatment – staff can say yes or no, without spending months on a formal vote by commissioners.

The draft has a simplified checklist that CPUC staff will use to rank proposals. Communities where annual median income is at or below $49,200 or where half the residents have limited English ability or have “only a high school diploma or less”, or have “some other demonstrated disadvantage which affects broadband adoption” will get priority. So will rural areas and projects that have community support and/or partnerships, and offer low or no cost Internet access.

The big telephone and cable companies wanted these programs to be tilted in their direction. Frontier thought those programs should be linked to its CASF-subsidised infrastructure projects, while the lobbying front for Comcast and Charter Communications – the California Cable and Telecommunications Association – gushed over the idea that grants should be tied to “partnerships” with incumbents, albeit non-exclusively. Guzman Aceves rejected Frontier’s cash grab, and broadened the allowable range of partnerships to include local community groups, non-profit and for-profit companies and any “other applicable organisation”. Incumbents can still play, but they don’t get a privileged position.

The public housing program was left largely unchanged. Cable company lobbyists failed to insert additional roadblocks. Service levels for subsidised broadband facilities in public housing communities are still pitifully poor, with a minimum download speed of 1.5 Mbps and no standard at all for upload speed.

The draft also closes down the broadband infrastructure loan program, which was scrapped by the legislature last year. Existing loans will continue as is, and the two pending loan applications will be converted to grants.

The schedule calls for the CPUC to vote on the proposed decision at its 21 June 2018 meeting, with the first round of applications accepted on 1 July 2018. Comments on the draft are due on 7 June 2018.

The complete set of CASF reboot documents is here.