FCC chokes on Digital Path’s map spam, CPUC still chewing on it as broadband subsidy decisions for rural California are made

2 July 2020 by Steve Blum
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Nearly 426,000 California “locations” – homes, businesses, institutions – are eligible for the Federal Communications Commission’s $16 billion broadband subsidy auction in October. The California Public Utilities Commission has about $145 million for broadband infrastructure grants, primarily in rural communities. Both agencies have to sort out challenges from incumbent Internet service providers that want to block subsidies in order to protect their turf, as well as decide where to spend subsidy dollars.

In theory, the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) could bring faster, cheaper and more reliable broadband to as many as 8 million rural Californians, because the program’s rules require ISPs to serve everyone in a given area, whether eligible for subsidies or not. It won’t be that many in practice, but it will be more than some rural Internet service providers hoped. Half a dozen wireless ISPs (WISPs) and several wireline incumbents tried to maintain their monopoly hold on large swaths of rural California by filing dubious, if not out right bogus, claims that they provide adequate service in tens of thousands of census blocks.

At the top of the list is Digital Path, a WISP that operates in many rural Californian communities with a base in the northeast of the state. It challenged more census blocks than any other ISP in the U.S.

Digital Path gave the FCC a list of 40,000 census blocks where it claims to offer service at a minimum of 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload speeds to nearly a million Californians. That’s fast enough that those census blocks wouldn’t be eligible for RDOF money.

As it turns out, the FCC wasn’t planning to offer subsidies in at least 35,000 of those blocks. Of the remaining 5,000 blocks, the FCC only deemed Digital Path’s map spam valid in 1,300 blocks. Even so, that was enough to eliminate about 22,000 mostly rural Californians from potential federally funded broadband service upgrades.

Digital Path’s federal filing could – should – complicate, and maybe kill, its own requests for California broadband subsidies. In May, it submitted 11 applications asking for a total of $4.8 million from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF). To get CASF money, applicants are required to assert that each census block where they want to build is eligible for the program. Which means it lacks broadband service at a minimum of 6 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds.

Of the 492 census blocks where Digital Path is applying for CASF money, 419 census blocks are included in Digital Path’s federal challenge.

In other words, in April Digital Path told the FCC it offered broadband service at a minimum of 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps in those 419 census blocks, then a month later told the CPUC those same blocks were eligible for CASF subsidies because the available service was slower than 6 Mbps down/1 Mbps up. That assertion may have been based on the CPUC’s online eligibility map, which would not have included the service reports that Digital Path submitted to the FCC four weeks prior. Apparently, the “continuing obligation to make corrections” to service reports that Digital Path cited in its FCC challenge letter doesn’t extend to the CPUC.

In June, Digital Path made another attempt to prevent potential competitors from using subsidies to provide faster, cheaper and/or more reliable service. It filed another batch of broadband speed claims with the CPUC, challenging 12 projects proposed for CASF grants – nearly twice as many as the next most prolific challenger, Frontier Communications (which has its own credibility problems).

With $533 million in CASF grant proposals competing for $145 million in available funds, legitimate challenges will play a role in determining who wins. Character should count, too.

The Central Coast Broadband Consortium (CCBC) supported Charter’s San Benito County proposal and assisted Etheric Networks with its application. The Connected Capital Area Broadband Consortium (CCABC) assisted DigitalPath. I assisted the CCBC and the CCABC, and also kibitzed on other projects. I also have opinions about what the CASF program should be (in case you haven’t noticed). I’m not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.