It is the best of times, it is the worst of times (for broadband grants). The state of California just initiated a state broadband grant program that is likely to spend money without doing much actual good for rural broadband. This can be contrasted to the grant program in Minnesota that has already funded a lot of rural broadband networks in communities that would have otherwise not probably ever gotten it. Comparing the two programs shows that it’s not good enough to lobby for and get a state broadband grant program. It’s important to get the details right to make sure that any such program is effective and creates maximum public benefit.
The California grant program is called the California Advanced Broadband Services Fund (CASF) and was recently granted funding by Assembly act 1665 and signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown. The CASF program is not new, but this recent act changes some of the grant rules and infuses $100 million of new funding into the program.
Interestingly the new law takes effect immediately (which is not normal for this kind of legislation) and this leaves four existing open broadband grants under the older CASF open for question because while they were filed under the old rules it seems like they will be judged under the new rules.
The big problem with the grant program is that it allows first right of refusal to the incumbent telcos in any propose service area. Like with most of America, the rural areas with poor broadband service in California are mostly in areas where AT&T or Frontier Communications are the incumbent telephone company.
It is this right of refusal that is going kill any real value of the grant program. For example, somebody might file to build fiber to customers in a small town or farming area. The incumbent telephone company can block the grant application by filing one of their own. But they don’t have to match the speed or technology of the first grant and could instead ask to build something else, such as upgrading existing DSL or cellular broadband. This effectively gives the incumbent telcos veto power over any grant request.
I’ve been reading local California consultants like Steve Blum who expects the incumbents to kill most projects. It’s possible they might let a few through in areas that they don’t want to make investments, but their lobbyists were successful in changing this law to make it easy for them to grab all of the funding if they choose to do so.
This contrasts greatly with a grant program that is doing things the right way – the Border-to-Border grants in Minnesota. In that programs the legislature has set aside funding now for four straight years that provides grants up to a 50% matching for qualifying broadband projects. So far the state has provided over $85 million to the program.
The incumbent providers have the ability to challenge a grant request, but only on a very limited basis. One of the parameters used to judge a grant request is whether a particular area is unserved or underserved with broadband, with this determination made from broadband maps that were created using ISP-reported data. The incumbents can challenge a grant request if they believe that the proposed service area has better broadband than is claimed by the mapping process. They also can challenge a grant if they have near-term plans to build broadband that is fast or faster than that requested by a grant request.
Since most of the Minnesota grant requests are requesting money to build fiber directly to customers there have been no serious challenges by the incumbents. There have been a few challenges that disputed the available speeds in an area.
The net result of the Border-to-Border grants is that small towns and rural farm areas all over the state are getting a real permanent broadband solution due to the assistance provided by the grants. There are a number of independent telephone companies and small cable companies in the state that are competing with each other to grab new territories that are made feasible due to the grant program.
There is no telling if the Minnesota grant program will continue because it’s been funded during a period of state budget surpluses. It’s expected that the budget will be tighter in 2018 and we’ll have to see if they keep the grants going. But this has been, by far, the most effective state broadband grant program in the country. Other states like Ohio are looking to use the Minnesota model in developing a new grant program.
It’s my understanding that the California grant legislation started out with good intentions but got hijacked by the ever-present telecom lobbyists in the legislature. The original sponsors of the grant asked the governor to veto the bill, but for some reason it’s gone ahead. Instead of an effective grant program that will help rural areas get real broadband, the California CASF is instead going to be a state version of the FCC’s CAF II program that also funnel money to the large incumbent telcos to make marginal improvements to broadband. The new CASF is one of the worst uses of tax dollars that I can imagine – it will enrich the bottom line of the telcos without making any significant improvements in rural broadband.