The Union: Internet for All bill, funding broadband projects like Spiral, signed into law

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Internet for All bill, funding broadband projects like Spiral, signed into law
by Liz Kellar, October 17, 2017

Gov. Jerry Brown on Sunday signed into law AB 1665, also known as Internet for All, allocating $330 million to expand broadband internet infrastructure into rural communities.

Internet for All became controversial, however, because the California Advanced Services Fund provides financial assistance to large telecommunications companies like as Frontier and AT&T, as well as independent broadband projects such as Spiral Internet’s high-speed fiber optic network project here in Nevada County.

Critics of the bill charged that it will make it virtually impossible for independent projects to be funded, in part because AT&T and Frontier pushed to make changes to the bill to lower the required broadband speed levels.

The change allows those companies to do minimal upgrades in rural areas to meet their obligations, critics alleged. And that will make it difficult, if not impossible, for independent projects to receive funding.

But John Paul, Spiral’s CEO, isn’t worried.

Spiral’s funding for its first phase has already been awarded, $17 million granted in late 2015.

“That money is ours,” Paul said.

The Internet for All bill collects more money to put into the California Advanced Services Fund, “so we can in fact apply for Phase 2 and 3, which we plan to do imminently,” he said. “That money will be available Jan. 1.”

The issue that caused concern, Paul explained, was that AT&T and Frontier — which owns a network that extends into the Highway 174 corridor — are “incumbent companies” in the area that were awarded funds through the Federal Communications Commission to serve rural areas.

There is language in AB 1665 that mandates against double finding, and AT&T does have some project areas in western Nevada County, Paul said.

But because Spiral had to jump through years of hoops to get its initial grant — including having to defend the project against legal appeals — Paul is confident that his company will sail through the funding request for the next two stages.

Spiral first applied to the California Public Utilities Commission for the California Advanced Services Fund money in 2013. But the process ended up taking more than two years, because SmarterBroadband, a local fixed wireless provider, had federal funding and asked for an extension to complete its project.

“They were claiming 100 percent coverage,” Paul said, even though the area was densely forested and geographically diverse.

SmarterBroadband’s project was “speculative,” he said; Paul estimated that its fixed wireless system could not realistically achieve full coverage, saying, “There’s just way too many hills.”

During the funding battle, the public utilities commission eventually determined, based on the data provided, that SmarterBroadband could only provide 20 percent coverage. And that meant that Spiral’s project could be funded, Paul said.

Both SmarterBroadband and ColfaxNet filed legal challenges; the commission eventually found no merit in their claims, Paul said.

“We won, we proved we were accurate in our assessment,” he said. “Their technology can’t serve (this) rural area.”

So the three long years that went into winning that first round of funding should make for smooth sailing in the next funding round, Paul said.

“I have a pretty good case,” he said. “I feel really solid about that.”

To contact Staff Writer Liz Kellar, email or call 530-477-4236.

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