Unfinished business will finish off California’s broadband subsidy program in 2021

23 December 2020 by Steve Blum
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Sick piggy bank 685

California’s primary broadband infrastructure subsidy program – the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) – ends 2020 with a dwindling account balance and many unanswered questions about how that money will be spent. Last week, the California Public Utilities Commission approved a $7.6 million grant to Race Communications for a fiber to the premise (FTTP) project in Williams, in Colusa County, and a $3.7 million grant to the Plumas Sierra electric cooperative for a project, also FTTP, in Lassen and Sierra counties.

CPUC president Marybel Batjer pulled four other projects from the agenda for “further review” without further explanation. The likeliest explanation is that the draft resolutions approving the projects have loose ends that need tying up. One project is on Hoopa tribal land in Humboldt County and overlaps with federally subsidised areas – the draft resolution on the table is vague about how to resolve that conflict. Another draft resolution, for a project proposed by Digital Path, mostly in Sutter County, is ambivalent about whether it should be approved at all. And the other two grant proposals are from Frontier Communications, which is mired in bankruptcy proceedings, and which are the subject of yet another tiresome and untimely wave of scorched earth litigation by Charter Communications.

Heading into 2021, there are 43 broadband infrastructure grant applications that are still undecided, plus a draft decision that might offer additional money to Internet service providers, including current CASF applicants, that won $695 million worth of federal broadband subsidies to serve Californian communities. Add it all up, and the total of all the projects that are or might be proposed could be more than three times the $163 million (by my estimate) remaining in the CASF infrastructure subsidy account.

But probably not.

Some of the pending CASF grant projects are hail mary applications that are unlikely to pass muster. Others will be trimmed, or even scrapped completely, because money from the federal Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction went to other ISPs who will offer service in the same communities. RDOF winners might find it difficult to meet the conditions that the CPUC is likely to attach to supplemental CASF grants that they would otherwise be eligible for.

It’s possible, even likely, that there will be a few dollars left in the CASF kitty when the dust settles in the spring. But only a few. That gives fresh urgency to the effort building in Sacramento to transform CASF from an eternal arm wrestling contest over marginal infrastructure builds into a grown up public financing program that can back meaningful broadband upgrades for all Californians.

I’m advocating for senate bill 4, and for other useful changes to California’s broadband policy. I am involved and proud of it. I am not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.