CPUC rejects almost all attempts to block broadband infrastructure subsidies

2 February 2018 by Steve Blum
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Just a relative handful of census blocks in California will be excluded from state broadband infrastructure subsidies as a result of the first round of jus primae noctis right of first refusals granted to incumbent providers by the California legislature. Four service providers filed claims, and three were completely rejected by California Public Utilities Commission staff. The fourth was partially accepted.

Only one of California’s big monopoly-model broadband service providers tried – unsuccessfully – to make a play. Charter Communications’ notice was rejected. It was not a right of first refusal filing, but rather – as CPUC staff correctly noted – was “an informational submission”. Charter wants the CPUC to block competition in areas where it is obligated to upgrade its analog-only systems to full digital service by this coming November (not May 2019, as it falsely testified in its informational submission).

In order to claim the privileges of jus primae noctis right of first refusal granted by the California legislature, Charter would have to promise to extend service to every home in the census blocks it’s carving out. That would be a wonderful thing, but that’s not what Charter intends to do. It’ll pump digital services through cable plant it’s already installed, but won’t go any further, unless doing so would reach homes with sufficient disposable income to meet Charter’s business model objectives. Which it’ll do anyway, jus primae noctis notwithstanding.

One claimant – Conifer Communications – won the right to block Californian subsidies in a some – but not all – of the census blocks it tried to grab. Whether that ends up being meaningful is another question. In theory, Conifer is obligated to upgrade its service in the census blocks claimed. As a matter of practice, it’ll have a basis for arguing that since it didn’t get everything it wanted, then it needn’t do anything.

Anza Electric Cooperative wasn’t as fortunate. Its claim was tossed because it specified census block groups instead of census blocks. A rational person might conclude that a promise to serve an entire census block group means that all census blocks within it will be served, but rationality is not the same as being bureaucratically correct.

Geolinks’ claim failed on a couple of accounts. It didn’t specify which census blocks it would fully serve. Instead, it drew a line around a larger territory and promised to upgrade whatever unserved census blocks that area might contain. Plus, the rules of the game limit jus primae noctis the right of first refusal to existing service providers. Geolinks doesn’t have its own infrastructure yet in the Monterey County communities it targeted.

There’s still room for administrative appeals and legal challenges, but not a lot of hope. Assuming prospective broadband service competitors pay attention to the fine print, the 2018 round of jus primae noctis right of first refusals has done little harm.