Incumbents fighting CASF proposals

Five applications comprising three projects were submitted for California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) subsidies last month by competitive broadband service providers. All are under review by California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) staff. Incumbent carriers – AT&T and Charter Communications – have challenged all three projects (and four of the five applications).

Because of the way CASF rules are written, two of the projects – Race Communications in Kern County and WillitsOnline in Mendocino County – had to file two grant applications each. Race’s applications for an FTTH project have been challenged by AT&T and Charter Communications, which are the primary telephone and cable companies in the Mojave/Boron area. AT&T has challenged WillitsOnLine’s application for a DSL service in the Boonville area and ViaSat’s proposal for satellite-based service in Monterey County.

Monterey County mobile broadband coverage. Colored areas represent data submitted by carriers, circles are current CPUC field test points.

All five applications were submitted during the CASF “unserved area” filing window. An unserved area is defined as having no broadband service available, except for dial-up (or the equivalent) or satellite service (unless it’s CASF-subsidized). Cellular service counts, and AT&T’s challenges are based on its claims of mobile broadband availability.

The CPUC has an ongoing mobile broadband field testing program which relies on an Android app to measure actual speeds. It’s likely that the app will be used to help sort out the dispute. Measurements of all four major carriers would presumably be made, even though Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile are not contesting the grant proposals.

CPUC staff is independently vetting the applications. It’s likely some (or parts of some) will be deemed “underserved” areas, which means that broadband service doesn’t meet CPUC’s 6 Mbps down/1.5 Mbps up standard. In that case, the grants could be reconsidered in February, when applications are due for underserved areas and for projects that encompass both under and unserved territory.

ViaSat’s application is further complicated. The satellite Internet provider does not have a certificate of public convenience and necessity (CPCN). To get one, a broadband company has to submit a separate application and be approved by the commission. It comes with privileges and imposes responsibilities on a company, effectively making it a regulated telephone corporation. A CPCN (or a WIR – the mobile telephone equivalent) is currently a CASF requirement. ViaSat has applied for a CPCN and won’t be eligible to receive CASF money until and unless it’s approved.

Preliminary grant decisions could be made this month, but are likelier to come in January. After that, CPUC commissioners will have the final say.