UKIAH — Trish Steel is the chair of the Broadband Alliance of Mendocino County (BAMC), a non-profit group that advocates for rural broadband development. Recently, she has been thinking hard about two programs to pay for the infrastructure she believes in. One is the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Connect America Fund, which is available only to Incumbent Local Exchange Carriers (ILECs) like AT&T, which were providing local telephone service when the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was enacted. The other funding program is the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF), which has been making grants to small rural internet service providers since 2008, and is due to run out of money soon.
The BAMC’s overarching argument is that reliable communications technology is vital to a strong economy. One of its functions has been connecting local business people to government grants to bridge the digital divide. At the most recent meeting, Jim Persky, of Pacific Internet, an independent internet service provider in Ukiah, spoke about his frustration with AT&T.
“I’m trying to figure out the character that AT&T reminds me of,” he told attendees at a recent BAMC meeting. “It’s the Wicked Witch from the Wizard of Oz, because every time it rains, they both disappear.” AT&T has a variable number of “floater technicians,” who work around the state, but Persky said the company cites excessive workload as the reason for long waits in addressing problems, sometimes as many as five a day.
One way that small, rural, locally owned internet service providers have gotten funding for broadband infrastructure is by using grants from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF), which come from fees on intrastate phone calls. While CASF has funded dozens of communities, including Indian reservations, public safety entities, and healthcare facilities, the program is down to $100 million and has $144 million worth of projects in its docket. However, Assembly Bill 1758, which would have reauthorized CASF, stalled in committee in April, 2016. According to BAMC’s website, this bill failed due to strong industry opposition.
There are also federal monies, called Connect America Funds (CAF II), which are only available to incumbent providers such as AT&T and Frontier. In 2015, AT&T accepted close to $427 million a year for the next six years from this program. The company plans to provide fixed wireless service to over 141,500* homes in California, but has not yet specified exactly where those homes will be.
At a recent Board of Supervisors meeting, AT&T Vice President of External Affairs Marc Blakeman laid out a plan to provide “last mile” service to homes and businesses in the area. To be eligible for the CAF II subsidies, the company must meet several obligations, including continuing to provide voice service and internet speeds that meet or exceed 10 Megabits per second (Mbps) download, 1 Mbps upload. The rates must be comparable to that charged in urban areas, about $72 per month. The project must be 40% completed by the end of 2017.
Blakeman identified 14 sites for new towers, and eight towers that would need to be upgraded, in order to accommodate the new technology. He asked the supervisors for a streamlined permitting process for these towers, as well as assistance in identifying landlords on private or government-owned land where the towers would be located.
Steel’s concern, she said, is that while the federal CAF II subsidies are welcome, they will not be enough to bring adequate broadband to all of Mendocino County’s rural residents. “The state program needs to be re-authorized,” she insisted. “Economic development really depends on broadband.”
*The original version of this story cited 14,500 as the number of homes to which AT&T is planning to provide wireless service. That number is actually 141,500.
Sarah Reith 14 November 2016