If red tape could carry data, California would lead the broadband world

4 April 2016 by Steve Blum
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A Shasta County broadband project is trapped in California’s web of environmental regulations, and it’s going to cost taxpayers $400,000 or more to pull it out. Not to mention that the rural phone company building the project has to stump up a few hundred thousand dollars of its own.

In 2013, the California Public Utilities Commission approved a $3.1 million grant from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) to the Happy Valley Telephone Company to pay for 60% of the cost of upgrading its network in and around the small Shasta County town of Olinda to VDSL2 technology. It involved installing new electronics and building 16 miles of connecting fiber.

CASF rules make it plain that successful applicants have to submit environmental assessment information to the CPUC before work can begin, to ensure compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). What wasn’t clear at the time was that the CPUC was going to turn around and charge for doing that review. According to a draft resolution recommending an increase in Happy Valley’s grant

Following award of the grant on October 3, 2013, Happy Valley submitted its [preliminary environmental assessment] to [the CPUC’s] Energy Division’s CEQA Team, and learned that it would cost an additional $666,422 or $771,630 for the CEQA Team’s consultant to review their PEA and draft either a Mitigated Negative Declaration or an Environmental Impact Report. Based on this estimate by the CEQA consultant, E&E, Happy Valley requests 60% of this amount from the CASF, which amounts to either $399,853.20 or $436,978.

In the past, the CPUC has approved extra money for CASF projects that ran over budget due to the cost of jumping through hard coded environmental hoops, among other red tape. Common sense says that stringing 16 miles of fiber optic cable or, god forbid, burying it will do no actual harm to the environment in one of California’s rural communities. At least nothing that’s going to cost $700,000 or $800,000 just to figure out. We’re not talking about running a bulldozer through old growth redwoods. But so long as imaginary adverse impacts hold the attention of predominantly urban lawmakers, Californians will have to endure the very real economic damage done by these rules.