Wednesday, May 08, 2013

California lawmakers revise legislation governing Internet infrastructure subsidy program

California lawmakers are scaling back a previously proposed increased appropriation for the state’s broadband infrastructure grant and loan subsidy program. As amended this week, SB 740 would also redefine the policy goal of California Public Utilities Commission’s California Advanced Service Fund (CASF) to fund projects to ensure broadband access to at least 98 percent of California households by 2016. SB 740 would also prioritize funding for those areas of the Golden State deemed to be “unserved.” The CPUC has defined this to mean “an area that is not served by any form of wireline or wireless facilities-based broadband, such that Internet connectivity is available only through dial-up service or no broadband service can be identified.”

From a practical perspective, this means only modest wireless Internet infrastructure projects will be subsidized by the CASF since unserved areas per the CPUC’s definition are likely to be very thinly populated. These will also likely be very low budget projects per the CPUC’s decision to require project sponsors kick in 30 percent of the project costs for unserved areas.

The CPUC has also written the CASF rules to discourage community fiber builds by allowing projects in “underserved areas” only if the area has no wireline or wireless service offered at advertised speeds of at least 6 mbps download and 1.5 mbps up. That means an area that is only partially served by an existing wireline providers could not be overbuilt to fill in the coverage gaps. Under the rule, such project would also not qualify since wireless providers could merely advertise service at the minimum speeds, further slicing and dicing a potential fiber service area such to render the project ineligible under the rules. On top of that, the rules require community fiber project sponsors to kick in 40 percent of the project costs – an onerous burden for newly formed entities.

The upshot is California policymakers will end up going through the motions and the CASF monies left largely unspent as sizable areas of the state unserved by the incumbent telephone and cable companies are consigned to technologically substandard, low value Internet service options.

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