Mobile carriers' broadband coverage claims challenged by ISPs

Availability maps submitted by mobile telephone carriers are a problem for local Internet companies trying to expand and improve broadband service in California’s central coast region.

Representatives from six Internet service providers – Central Coast Internet, Charter, Cruzio, Razzolink, Redshift and Surfnet – participated in a workshop yesterday organized by the Central Coast Broadband Consortium (CCBC). A number of concerns were discussed, including construction permits, funding, and coordination with other utility and local government projects.

But the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) was the hottest topic. The next round of CASF grant and loan applications closes in February. The program pays for up to 70% of broadband construction costs with grants and up to an additional 20% via loans. Applicants have to show that residents of a given area don’t have access to service that meets the California Public Utilities Commission’s standard of 6 Mbps down and 1.5 Mbps up. (There’s lot more to it, full criteria and requirements can be found here).

The group examined preliminary availability maps produced by the CCBC, using the latest data provided to the CPUC by wireline and wireless companies. Looking just at the claims made by mobile carriers, it appeared that adequate broadband service was available to large swaths of the region, which includes San Benito, Monterey and Santa Cruz Counties.

The problem is that coverage claims appear to based more on theoretical models than actual measurements, and don’t take into account critical limitations such as the number of customers that can supported at the same time in a given area and the actual delivered speed, particularly inside homes and offices. Being able to quickly download email on a smart phone is not the same thing as streaming HD video in a living room or shipping large data files to clients.

The CPUC’s mobile field testing program has gone a long way towards debunking some of the information submitted by mobile carriers, but challenging the existing map data for a specific project requires a lot more work. Workshop participants, including other CCBC members such as U.C. Santa Cruz and the City of Watsonville, agreed to work together to help improve the quality of regional broadband availability data.

Next steps for the consortium include working with UCSC on more specific measurement techniques and continuing to build the regional broadband database developed by Watsonville. This ongoing project is funded by a CASF consortia grant approved a year ago by the CPUC.