CVIndependent

Thu02222018

Last updateWed, 27 Sep 2017 1pm

Since 2007, the California Legislature has worked to encourage the development of telephone and Internet access through the California Advanced Services Fund. The fund provides financial assistance to both large telecommunications companies—including Frontier, AT&T, Charter and Cox—and independent broadband projects driven by community organizations that partner with smaller Internet service providers.

Thanks in part to the fund, the Legislature has grown closer to its goal of deploying broadband Internet service to 98 percent of Californians by 2017. But as the end of 2017 drew closer, many California legislators wanted to update the broadband-support program. The result: AB 1665, aka the Internet for All Now Act, which was authored by eastern Coachella Valley Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia.

After overwhelming approval in both houses, the bill now sits on the governor’s desk, as of this writing.

“We know that having broadband Internet access improves the state’s economy, enhances educational opportunities, and benefits public safety, (as well as) our medical field and patient care,” Garcia said during a recent phone interview. “Even in the Coachella Valley, civic participation requires a connection to the Internet now. So this law supports a program that invests in and ensures that the infrastructure is in place for the purpose of allowing carriers to connect all these homes, businesses, schools, hospitals, clinics and public safety services in remote areas, allowing them to communicate. It’s vital to what we all do on a daily basis.”

Garcia said the Legislature set the 98 percent connectivity goal about a decade ago. “We have now gotten to about 94 percent or so, and that last (unconnected) percentage happens to be in mostly underdeveloped areas like the eastern Coachella Valley, Imperial County and other rural parts of the state. So that’s what this program will do.”

However, the bill did not make it to the governor’s desk without controversy.

Stephen Blum is an executive team member of the Central Coast Broadband Consortium, a California Public Utilities Commission-funded group engaged in broadband planning and development in the state, He’s also the president of Tellus Venture Associates, his own broadband-development consulting agency. He is not fan of the Internet for All Now Act version that made it to the governor’s desk.

“There have been attempts in the last legislative session and the two previous sessions to put more money into the (CASF) fund, more or less keeping the program as it was,” Blum said. “This year, things changed. The incumbents (large corporate ISPs) including AT&T, Frontier and the California Cable and Telecommunications Association jumped in and said, ‘We want the bill to be X, Y and Z.’ … Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia took it and started adding language that reflected the desires of these cable and telephone company incumbents.

“The bill went through three revisions, and each time, more perks were added for the incumbents. So as it’s written now, AB 1665 is going to put $300 million into a CASF infrastructure grant account and make it virtually impossible for independent projects to be funded. Essentially, then, it becomes a fund for AT&T and Frontier to use at their discretion.”

Blum said some of the changes made to the act baffled him.

“One of the things this bill does that boggles my mind is it lowers California’s broadband speed levels—and it’s a significant change,” he said. “Right now, an area is fundable if there’s no existing service that provides 6 mbps (megabits per second) download and 1.5 mbps upload speeds. That’s the standard. This bill changes it to 1 mbps up. Now, that doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it is, because the difference between 1.5 or 1 mbps up is the difference between 1990 DSL systems and contemporary copper system architecture and electronics. You can take a 1990 DSL system, do relatively minimal upgrades to it, and reach the 6 down, 1 up speed standard required. You can’t get 6 down, 1.5 up without going in and doing substantial work. That’s the change that AT&T and Frontier pushed very hard for, because that allows them to do minimal upgrades in rural areas to meet their obligations. Now they’re going to have to invest even less money—because the state will pay for it.

“If you’re in an area that falls under the CASF umbrella … you’re looking at a future where you’re going to have service somewhere in the 6 to 10 mbps download range, and 1 mbps upload range, and that’s not going to change for 10 to 20 years, because once this stuff is in, there’s no point in upgrading it.”

Garcia defended the changes made to the bill.

“There are places throughout the state that still have absolutely no Internet service whatsoever,” Garcia said. “The intention of the bill is to get people connected. The debate was: Why would we allow for certain areas that are already connected to increase their speed capacity? We laid out a goal, through a bipartisan effort of Republicans and Democrats from both rural and urban parts of the state, to make sure that the primary focus of this legislation was to serve the unserved populations. We had people push back, saying that we should be trying to get higher network speeds in places that already had connectivity, and we wrestled with that. What we decided is that we could (try for higher network speeds) after we connect everybody to some service in the areas still having no service. So, modifications to the bill were made where we were not able to appease everyone, but get enough support to move the bill forward.”

Another controversial aspect of the bill: For “last mile” projects that connect established “mid-mile” broadband pipelines to end users like homes, hospitals or businesses, those end users will have to participate financially in the funding of their access. Is that reasonable or fair when the target population is disadvantaged?

“The thought was that there should be some investment, or ‘skin in the game,’ on everyone’s part in order to be considered for access to CASF grants, and ultimately be connected,” Garcia responded.

The Independent asked whether there is some sort of means test built into the bill in order for disadvantaged end users to obtain financial support via the CASF.

“There is a means test through the CPUC,” Garcia said. “There was some confusion that this bill was attempting to just give people free Internet access—that it was like a welfare-type of program where if you signed up, you got free Internet. That’s nowhere near the real case. We’re talking about infrastructure being developed, and that makes it that much more accessible for people to connect to some type of broadband service.”

Blum said when we spoke that he was hopeful the legislation was not a done deal.

“When it gets to the governor, I think there’s a conversation to be had at that point,” he said. “We think that’s where the final decision will get made, and we feel that’s still an open question.”

Published in Local Issues

A young lawyer for the Environmental Protection Agency had a heavy feeling as he headed to work one recent morning.

Like many EPA staffers, he’s been distraught over the steady stream of negative news about the Trump administration’s plans for his agency, and what it all means for his future. That morning the White House had released its budget proposal, calling on Congress to cut 31 percent of the EPA’s budget, more than 50 programs and 3,200 of the agency’s 15,000 employees.

The lawyer’s subway stop, the Federal Triangle Metro Station, dumps people out under a grand archway between two entrances to the EPA’s ornate limestone DC headquarters. As he went up the escalator, he encountered a small group of people standing in the cold wind, passing out fliers and holding signs that read: “Fight climate change; work for California.”

A man with a bushy gray mustache exclaimed: “I’m recruiting for California jobs!” and introduced himself to the EPA lawyer as Michael Picker, the president of California’s Public Utilities Commission, which regulates electric companies and other utilities.

Picker explained that he has 250 job openings—and more on the way. California’s Air Resources Board and Energy Commission also have opportunities for federal employees frustrated with the direction in which the Trump administration is headed.

“All the jobs will have impacts on climate change in some ways,” he said.

Picker’s recruitment drive is more than a publicity stunt: His agency is short-staffed already, and he’s steadily losing employees to retirement. He needs reinforcements to meet an enormous challenge in front of him. He needs to ensure that electric utilities make the investments necessary to generate enough clean energy to meet California’s ambitious climate change goals. (California is committed to getting 50 percent of its power from renewable energy by 2030.)

The EPA lawyer said his encounter with Picker last week lifted his spirits giving him a sense of “relief” and “hope.” He’d already considered seeking a job in California, where the state government has a strong commitment to environmental protection.

“There’s a pull and a push, especially with the budget coming out,” added the lawyer, who like other EPA staffers, didn’t want his name used for fear it would put his job in jeopardy.

This was just the kind of encounter that Picker hoped for when he decided to turn an already-planned trip to Washington, D.C., into a mini recruiting mission. His goal was to try to lure talented federal employees to California state government by promising them a chance to work someplace still committed to fighting climate change. He also spent a morning passing out fliers at the Energy Department. But he was especially happy with how things went outside EPA’s headquarters.

One EPA staffer ran inside and returned with a resume. An EPA engineer asked for extra fliers for his colleagues. Picker passed out business cards, offering to help the D.C. refugees navigate the cumbersome hiring process at California state agencies. “Thank you for offering to rescue us!” one EPA staffer bellowed as he walked past.

Picker’s challenge is bigger than getting companies to generate cleaner electricity. He also has to ensure they make investments to transform the electric grid to meet the challenges of all the additional renewable power that’s coming online.

The grid was designed as a centralized system where electricity was generated by relatively few large power plants. The grid now needs to get a lot smarter to manage many thousands of new sources of power, from large-scale solar and wind farms to solar panels on top of people’s homes. Cleaner electricity isn’t enough: California also wants to shift its vehicles to clean electricity: “That’s why we need people—to help build the infrastructure California needs to get greenhouse gases out of our economy. These tasks aren’t going to solve themselves.”

Despite all the rhetoric from the White House and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt about major plans to transform the agency and downplay climate change, there hasn’t yet been a big exodus. EPA employees are passionate about the mission of the agency, and so far, many staffers say they’re still doing their usual work.

“Because nothing drastic has changed yet at EPA, people don’t have immediate pressure to leave,” said another EPA staffer who spoke with Picker. “You saw people taking those fliers. So it’s not that people aren’t thinking about it.”

She said she thinks California is smart to try to lure away the EPA’s talented employees at a time when their current employer is making it clear their work isn’t valued. She will definitely consider moving to California for a job, she said.

Fundamental changes are on the way, given that Pruitt and President Donald Trump have vowed to undo the biggest efforts undertaken by the EPA during the Obama administration—regulations to slash greenhouse gas emissions from cars and power plants and protect wetlands and waterways. Trump took a big step today with an executive order undoing many Obama-era regulations. EPA staffers will now be charged with justifying the elimination of regulations that they or their colleagues spent years crafting.

None of the EPA staffers I spoke with were willing to have their names published.

“We’re all afraid now of retribution if we talk. It’s already started to happen,” said one staffer.

John O’Grady, president of a national council of EPA employee unions, said EPA employees are right to be cautious. “We all pretty much are aware we cannot speak out in the press; that would not be a very smart move on the part of an employee.”

As Picker was wrapping up for the morning, a bundled-up bike commuter rode up to ask about an application he’d already sent in. Picker promised to help and then took a photo with some volunteers who had showed up to help him pass out fliers. One was a corporate lawyer, another a former Energy Department official, and third a solar executive from Oregon who was in town for business.

“I’m disillusioned by Trump’s budget proposal,” said Tom Starrs, a vice president of SunPower Corporation. ”On the other hand, I’m inspired by California continuing to address climate change and by the support at every level of government in California. It’s a unified front on climate change. It’s wonderful to see.”

Correspondent Elizabeth Shogren writes for High Country News, where this story first appeared.

Published in Environment

The Palm Springs Unified School District is expected to save more than $6.9 million in energy costs over the next two decades after the installation of solar systems at campuses across the district.

Among the 11 sites, including the district’s service center, is Cathedral City High School, where district officials are planning to hold a “flip the switch” event on Monday, Oct. 28.

Some of the solar systems are already in place, and the rest are expected to be installed by the end of the year, according to information distributed on a district PowerPoint presentation. The district includes schools in Palm Springs, Cathedral City, Desert Hot Springs, Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage and Thousand Palms.

With five different rate tiers between May and October, calculating the district’s power rate is complex, said Julie Arthur, executive director of facilities and planning for the district. However, the district has projected a savings of $6,949,731 over the next 20 years.

That figure assumes a roughly 2 percent annual increase in energy costs. Arthur said the true savings could be as much as $25 million, or even more, because the district has historically seen 3.75 percent increases, Arthur said.

“Just this summer, Southern California Edison had a 5 percent rate increase, so we’ve already saved 5 percent,” Arthur said.

(In an annoying bit of bureaucratic nonsense, Robert Villegas, a Southern California Edison spokesman, referred questions about rate increases over the years to the California Public Utilities Commission. When asked for that information, California Public Utilities Commission information officer Christopher Chow referred us back to Southern California Edison.)

Arthur said the district had explored wind energy as well, but opted for a solar solution with SunEdison, which assumed the installation and equipment costs. The district is only required to pay for the state inspections. Arthur did not know the precise cost, but estimated it would be roughly “a couple thousand” per site.

Because the solar panels will continue to generate power during the summer months when school is out, yet area energy consumption is at its peak, school and company officials called the partnership “a win-win.”

The school board approved a 20-year energy-service contract with SunEdison. It effectively locks Palm Springs Unified in to the 2012 rates the district paid to Southern California Edison.

“Wouldn’t you love to pay the same amount for your gallon of gasoline for the next 20 years?” Arthur said.

Formed in 2003, SunEdison focuses on making and installing solar systems for schools, prisons, commercial buildings and utilities.

“I’d love to have solar panels at every school,” Arthur said. “We just don’t have the parking lots to make it an option.” She said the district is also looking to add two additional school sites: Raymond Cree and Nellie Coffman middle schools.

Palm Springs Unified is one of three school districts statewide with SunEdison contracts.

“It seems to be mostly Southern California schools that are showing interest at this point,” said Dawn Brister, a SunEdison spokeswoman. “Palm Springs is an early adopter for solar. They really are ahead of the game.”

The district’s move to solar was part of its 2010 energy master plan, said Shari Stewart, Palm Springs Unified’s school board president.

“One of our main objectives is to go as green as possible, if we (can) save money,” Stewart said.

As for other valley school districts: Desert Sands Unified, which includes schools in Rancho Mirage, Indian Wells, Palm Desert, Coachella, La Quinta and Indio, is “researching potential projects but (has) nothing in the works at this time,” said Cynthia McDaniel, assistant superintendent of business services.

It is unclear whether Coachella Valley Unified has or is exploring solar power. Anita Meraz, a spokeswoman for the district with schools in Indio, Coachella, Thermal, Mecca and Salton City, did not return multiple emails or calls to her office and cell phone.

“I’m happy we’re one of the first,” said Stewart, of Palm Springs Unified. “We’re going to be saving a tremendous amount of money over the long haul.”

Published in Local Issues