Friday, July 10, 2009

California PUC adopts order aimed at leveraging federal broadband infrastructure grants

The California Public Utilities Commission announced July 9 it has adopted a proposed order designed to leverage and maximize California's share of $7.2 billion set aside for broadband infrastructure construction in unserved and underserved areas of the nation in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

The decision pertains to grants of up to 80 percent for such projects administered under the $4.7 billion National Telecommunications and Information Administration's Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP). It would cover half of the minimum 20 percent BTOP match required of those proposing broadband infrastructure projects, bringing the potential total combined federal/state subsidy level up to 90 percent for approved California BTOP projects.

The CPUC supplemental BTOP funding would be allocated out of the regulatory agency's California Advanced Services Fund (CASF). Created in 2007, the $100 million CASF is funded by a surcharge on intrastate long distance calls, of which about $80 million remains unspent.

Projects that qualify for the supplemental grant match will have to meet a higher minimum thoughput standard than under the BTOP. While the federal standard is just 768 Kbs for downloads and 200 Kbs for uploads, under CASF rules the minimum is 3 Mbs down and 1 Mbs for uploads.

While the current CASF rules restrict funding to wireline and wireless providers that have been certified by the CPUC, the decision contemplates making the CASF funding available to entities that aren't providers such as local governments and nonprofits. That would require legislative authorization under an urgency bill currently pending in the state Senate, AB 1555.

Lawmakers should approve this measure and sent it to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. California cannot rely exclusively on providers to close the digital divide and build out badly needed broadband infrastructure; local goverments and telecommunications cooperatives need to be part of the solution.

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