CPUC’s RDOF kicker goes from incentive to afterthought with yet another delay

16 November 2020 by Steve Blum
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Road closed 2

In an email sent late on Friday, the acting executive director of the California Public Utilities Commission, Rachel Peterson, said most broadband subsidy decisions will be delayed to as late as 31 March 2021, including a proposal to top up bids for federal broadband dollars with money from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF).

If it happens at all. She said the “kicker” intended to incentivise bidders for Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) will “possibly combine state and federal funding” to “secure broadband deployment for more California residents”.

Possibly. Not certainly.

But certainly not before the Federal Communication Commission’s RDOF auction closes, and $16 billion goes to states and territories where ISPs bid the most aggressively.

The supplemental CASF money was intended to give a shot of financial testosterone to Californian Internet service providers and motivate them to go hard after federal subsidies to serve Californians stuck in the deepest digital divides. Instead, the kicker program is stuck in a bottomless bureaucratic hole.

RDOF contenders must either risk the FCC’s swingeing default penalties if the money doesn’t materialise as hoped, or bid within the limits of their own resources. The prudent ones will play it safe, which means disadvantaged Californians – disadvantaged not only by personal circumstance but by the high cost of doing business in this state – are out of luck.

It didn’t have to be this way. The kicker was authorised by the California legislature in June and CPUC commissioners delegated the job of implementing the program to staff in August. Which should have left plenty of time to get it done before the RDOF reverse auction began on 29 October 2020, let alone before it closes, either later this month or in December.

That would have been enough time, except the initiative descended into the CPUC’s pseudo-judicial mire instead of being implemented administratively, as other state agencies would do. Peterson’s email came a day after the CPUC administrative law judge managing the excruciatingly bureaucratic and unnecessarily litigious “proceeding” delayed publishing a draft plan until December, which means a final plan won’t be approved until mid-January. Or “possibly” not at all.

There are some rays of sunshine, though. Most CASF infrastructure grant decisions will be pushed deep into the new year, but six projects are heading to a vote by commissioners in December. Draft resolutions which would approve a total of $23 million in grants were also published on Friday. More about those tomorrow, but here’s the list with links to the draft resolutions:

Digital Path, Sutter and Placer counties
Frontier Communications, Crescent City
Frontier Communications, Smith River
Hunter Communications, Hoopa Valley
Plumas Sierra Telecommunications, Scott Road
Race Communications, Williams