A notable aspect of California’s eight-year-old program to subsidize the cost of constructing Internet telecommunications infrastructure is the general lack of participation by incumbent telephone and cable companies. In that regard, it has not fulfilled the usual public purpose of subsidy programs designed to help offset the costs of building and operating telecommunications infrastructure in high cost areas such as those used for landline telephone service.
The program, the California Advanced Service Fund (CASF), is administered by the California Public Utilities Commission, which is directed under California Public Utilities Code Section 281(a) to "administer the CASF to encourage deployment of high-quality advanced communications services to all Californians that will promote economic growth, job creation, and the substantial social benefits of advanced information and communications technologies..."
Instead, the CASF has subsidized mostly middle mile fiber and a small number of last mile wireline and wireless projects by non-incumbents. The last mile projects have nearly all been located in remote areas of California not served by the incumbent telephone and cable companies. Proposed projects elsewhere such as the Bright Fiber project in the Sierra Nevada foothills have been subject to lengthy bureaucratic delays under CPUC rules governing CASF eligibility.
The rules parse the state into thousands of discrete “unserved” and “underserved” areas where existing providers don’t sell specified advanced telecommunications services and authorize incumbents to challenge projects that would overbuild them and fall outside of these designated areas. The rules and a federally-funded project by the CPUC to map these areas have served to erect red tape roadblocks that stymie projects proposed by non-incumbents as project proposers, incumbents and consumer advocates argue over the mapped territories and boundaries. These parochial disputes have chewed up enormous amounts of time and resources and delayed construction of much needed telecommunications infrastructure, defeating the public policy intent of Section 281(a).
While California is not among about 20 states that have statutes designed to protect incumbents from overbuilders, the CASF rules have operated to produce a similar result, leaving millions of California residents without robust wireline Internet service options. California innovated much of today’s information and communications technology and is rightly regarded as a leader in the field. However, when it comes to advanced telecommunications infrastructure, the Golden State is a laggard.