Calif. Groups Clash on Free Broadband Rule for Public Housing
Don’t cut a free broadband requirement from California Advanced Services Fund public housing account (PHA) rules, The Utility Reform Network (TURN) urged this week. The California Public Utilities Commission posted comments and replies this week on a staff proposal in docket R.20-08-021. TURN reacted to a suggestion by the California Emergency Technology Fund (CETF) to consider removing the proposal's requirement to provide five years free.
The groups responded to a Nov. 28 CPUC ruling by Commissioner Darcie Houck seeking comments on revised staff proposals to make edits and clarifications to PHA and tribal technical assistance application requirements and guidelines. Entities awarded grants to deploy middle-mile infrastructure “are required to maintain the broadband network and offer free broadband service that meets or exceeds state standards for a period of five years after project completion for residents of the low-income communities that the project serves,” the revised PHA proposal said. Existing guidelines require applicants “to provide broadband service that meets or exceeds state standards … at no cost to residents of the low-income community the project is intended to serve upon project completion.”
“Consider options for addressing the burden of 5 years of operating costs for applicants,” CETF commented. “This current requirement seems to be the most significant deterrent for affordable housing organizations to apply for [PHA] funds. In particular, it has been difficult for organizations with existing properties to fulfill this requirement, as they do not have the money in the property budget to cover this cost.”
It might help to include a shared cost incentive, assistance from the California Teleconnect Fund or by working with affordable housing organizations to seek U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development assistance, said CETF: Other options include eliminating this requirement or reducing the number of years required to provide free internet; waiving the requirement for some, like small or rural properties; or allowing applicants to tap the FCC's affordable connectivity program (ACP) to reduce costs.
“CETF’s recommendation runs afoul of the letter of the CASF PHA authorizing statute because it would adopt a contorted definition of ‘free,’” TURN replied Wednesday. “The authorizing statute requires CASF PHA grantees to offer ‘free broadband service,'” and the dictionary defines free as “not costing or charging anything,” it said. “By this definition, ACP services are not ‘free’ because providers charge for those services, which the subscriber pays -- in full or in part -- using the ACP benefit.” Also, because it’s possible ACP “could run out of funds, it is unlikely that the state legislature intended for ‘free broadband service’ to be depending on such uncertainties.”
TURN doubts the five-years free requirement is deterring PHA applicants, the consumer group said. “Based on a cursory review of the CASF PHA projects and applications” on the CPUC website, “the Commission is currently receiving an influx of CASF PHA applications that it has not seen in nearly a decade.”
The CPUC should clarify that free service requirements can’t rely on ACP, commented San Francisco city and county. “The [PHA] is intended to provide a lasting free service to residents of California’s most disadvantaged communities. By contrast, the ACP has an uncertain future and is intended to operate on an individual, rather than a community basis.” The Center for Accessible Technology agreed the free requirement shouldn’t depend on public subsidies. “While ISPs may provide broadband service at no cost to consumers after subsidies from the [ACP],” said CforAT, “broadband service reliant on subsidies is not truly free, nor does it guarantee that all residents in a project area will receive service at no cost.”