Sunday, May 02, 2010

California legislation would expand subsidy program

As the U.S. Federal Communications Commission considers retasking the Universal Service Fund that was originally formed to subsidize voice telephone service in high cost areas to advanced telecommunications infrastructure, California is considering urgency legislation to expand and make permanent its own similar subsidy program.

The California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) was established by the California Public Utilities Commission in December 2007 to subsidize advanced telecom infrastructure in high cost unserved and underserved areas of the state. Up to $100 million was allocated from a 25 percent surcharge on intrastate long distance calls, with the CASF surcharge offset by an equal reduction in the California High Cost Fund-B surcharge created to subsidize deployment of basic voice telephone service.

SB 1040 would leave the CASF in place indefinitely and expand its budget to $250 million with up to $25 million available in any given fiscal year. The urgency measure also liberalizes the use of CASF funds. To subsidize broadband infrastructure construction, $20 million would be allocated to grants and $3 million for loans.

One of the most important elements would be a new Regional Broadband Consortia Grant Account that earmarks $2 million in technical assistance grants to fund the cost of broadband deployment activities other than actual infrastructure construction. The money would be available to a wide variety of groups including local and regional governments, schools and colleges, health care providers, libraries and community-based organizations.

This is a critical element of the bill since many such entities that were interested in applying for broadband infrastructure grants and loans appropriated in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 lacked adequate funding to retain experts to help them with the engineering and business planning work needed in order to prepare project proposals.

A California Senate floor analysis of SB 1040 notes the Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee was told at a Feb. 16 hearing that four percent of Californians - 1.4 million people in mostly rural areas, do not have access to broadband service. Only about half of Californians have Internet access at speeds meeting the CPUC's definition of basic broadband of 3 Mbs down and 1 Mbs up.

SB 1040 is advancing without opposition and would become law immediately after being signed by the governor. The CPUC would then open a rulemaking proceeding to implement the new CASF provisions later this year.

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