Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Third front opens in advanced telecommunications infrastructure subsidy wars

A third battlefront is opening between shareholders of big telephone and cable companies and the broader public interest over rules governing federal and state subsidies to boost access to affordable and reliable advanced telecommunications. It’s over so-called “technological neutrality” and specifically fiber to the premise (FTTP) versus wireless distribution infrastructure.

The other two likely points of contention are over the accuracy of the Federal Communications Commission’s forthcoming “broadband maps” to determine how much funding states will receive through the federal Infrastructure Bill’s Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program (several states lack confidence in any federal maps, preferring their own maps that could them at odds with the federal government) and whether proposed BEAD infrastructure projects proposed by public and nonprofit fiber to the premise (FTTP) providers include sufficient “unserved” addresses not advertised reliable service with throughput of at least 20 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up.

The big investor owned, vertically integrated providers want the subsidies to go toward any technology that’s capable of meeting minimum throughput (100/20) and reliability. But at least some policymakers argue the best use of public dollars is to invest them in more durable FTTP infrastructure given its 30-50 year or longer lifespan and headroom to accommodate the well-established trend of increasingly bandwidth hungry end user device applications. They include the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the federal agency administering the BEAD state grant funds and the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) at the state level.

On April 21, 2022, the CPUC issued a final decision adopting staff proposed rules for its Federal Funding (capital subsidy) Account (FFA) based on the grant rules promulgated by the U.S. Treasury Department for State and Local Government Capital Projects Fund contained in the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). For advanced telecommunications infrastructure, those rules limit funding eligibility to “reliable wireline broadband infrastructure.”

Similarly, the CPUC FFA decision favors FTTP, noting “fiber optic infrastructure is scalable and enables the next generation of application solutions for all communities.” That displeases large incumbent providers that regard fixed wireless as a “firewall” to protect their nominal service territories from government owned and nonprofit providers that would use the federal subsidies for their own fiber builds, according to Steve Blum of Tellus Venture Associates, a consultant to California cities and counties.

Large incumbents including AT&T, Consolidated Communications, Frontier and trade associations CTIA and US Telecom - the Broadband Association are backing an urgency measure pending in the California Legislature to counter the CPUC decision, expressly authorizing wireless internet service providers to receive CPUC infrastructure subsidy funding. It's opposed by an association of 39 California counties and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Current California law, Public Utilities Code Section 281(f)(1) requires the CPUC award infrastructure subsidies on a “technology-neutral basis, taking into account the useful economic life of capital investments, and including both wireline and wireless technology.” The CPUC FFA decision incentivizes fiber given its longer lifespan compared to fixed wireless infrastructure. “Our determination of what wireline technologies offer reliable service is consistent with the Final (U.S. Treasury Capital Projects) Rule, which found that these legacy technologies typically lag on speeds, latency, and other factors, as compared to more modern technologies like fiber," the CPUC decision states.

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