The debate over California’s primary broadband infrastructure subsidy program continues. Another round of comments landed at the California Public Utilities Commission Friday, with ideas – some good, some not – for changing the way the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) is run.
I drafted and submitted the Central Coast Broadband Consortium’s (CCBC) contribution. There are many administrative, practical and, yes, political details to be worked out. Which is a large part of the problem with the program: the grant application and review process is complicated, time consuming and capricious. Improving it requires fewer details, more predictability and rapid decision making.
Time is the most precious commodity…
The CCBC has developed and assisted in the development of CASF-funded projects since 2009. It is an increasingly difficult challenge to recruit qualified infrastructure grant applicants. The delays, uncertainty and litigation involved in the review and approval process are the primary reasons qualified companies refuse to participate. Subsidy levels can be a consideration too, but other funds can often be identified to backfill project budgets when CASF eligibility is assured and schedules are short.
Money can be made. Time cannot.
The more complicated the process is and the more opportunities for incumbents to game the system, either by exploiting an overly intricate scoring system or by endless litigation of independent proposals, the less the likelihood is of meaningful service and infrastructure upgrades in deserving communities.
Since the California legislature voted to turn CASF into a piggy bank for big incumbents last year, the pipeline of independent broadband projects has run dry. Naturally, it has not stopped Frontier Communications from gaming the system to maximise the taxpayer dollars it rakes in, while minimising its service obligations.
In theory, the draft overhaul of the program should be complete by the end of the year, although it might take a month or two (or three…) for CPUC commissioners to come to a decision. In the meantime, the debate continues.