Plenty of broadband money for some in rural California, if there's cooperation

4 November 2015 by Steve Blum
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Worlds apart.

If the two primary California and federal broadband subsidy programs – the California Advanced Services Fund and the FCC’s Connect America Fund – were coordinated, many rural areas could see significant infrastructure upgrades. Maybe even fiber to the home systems, or at least fiber to the node. As it is, though, those two programs run completely separately, even to the point of having such disparate service standards that broadband systems built for one wouldn’t necessarily meet the requirements of the other.

That was the bottom line of a presentation I gave last week at a workshop on energy, water and telecoms issues organised by the California Public Utilities Commission. The standard in California is 6 Mbps down/1.5 Mbps up, the federal benchmark is 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up. So a CASF-funded project wouldn’t have to meet the federal download minimum, and a federal project would fail to meet the Californian upload standard. Neither would come close to the FCC’s advanced – translation: urban – standard of 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up. Both could be built in the same community with public subsidies, at least in theory.

Combining the money from the two programs could produce a much better result. Using a few rough assumptions, I ran the numbers for some southern California communities. The results were startling.

For example, assuming Frontier is allowed to buy Verizon’s wireline systems in California, it will receive something like $1.9 million from the federal CAF program to upgrade broadband service in Anza, in Riverside County. The Anza Electric Cooperative is asking CASF for $2.8 million for a fiber to the home project covering much of the same area. But Frontier could just as easily apply for CASF money, use the federal dollars as matching funds and receive a total of more than $6 million. That comes out to $4,100 per home, which should be enough – more than enough – for an incumbent telephone company to do a full fiber upgrade too.

The numbers are starker in other towns. If AT&T combined state and federal funds in Ponderosa in Tulare County, as much as $9,100 per household would be available. Frontier could get $13,000 in New Cuyama in Santa Barbara County. And the list goes on.

The objective isn’t to shovel as much public money as possible at a particular community or company. It’s to upgrade broadband infrastructure to the point it’s able to meet the needs of Californians for the next few decades. In many cases, the barrier to achieving it is a shortage of intelligent cooperation, not a lack of money.

Community broadband perspective presentation, CPUC workshop on the water/energy/communications nexus, 30 October 2015