Big telecoms’ one net neutrality victory in California is the one that matters

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

The California legislature’s failure to pass senate bill 460 in August, following large cash payments to key lawmakers by big telecoms companies, might come back to haunt network neutrality advocates. Carried by senator Kevin de Leon (D – Los Angeles), he allowed it to be shuffled off to the side as lawmakers approved SB 822, a comprehensive net neutrality bill authored by senator Scott Wiener (D – San Francisco).

With some exceptions, SB 460 would have required state and local agencies to buy broadband service only from providers that abide by net neutrality principles. Given that it’s the big telecoms companies – AT&T, particularly, but also Comcast, Charter and Frontier – that dominate the government services market, it would have been a powerful incentive for them to stick to those rules.

It’s also much safer ground for state-level action. SB 822 is on hold, following a federal court challenge, and it could be years before it has any effect, even if it survives the legal process. But SB 460 was about public procurement policy, and that’s something that federal agencies, particularly the Federal Communications Commission, don’t have much, if any, control over.

The FCC’s top staff lawyer, general counsel Tom Johnson, conceded as much during a recent appearance at a Washington, D.C. event, according to a story in Politico

Although the FCC believes it can override state net neutrality laws like the one in California, it hasn’t yet settled the question of whether it can challenge efforts to make net neutrality a requirement for state government contracts, Johnson said. “The commission has not taken an explicit position,” he said, adding the FCC hasn’t sought to intervene in such procurement-related actions for that reason.

De Leon never seemed to have a particular passion for net neutrality. He backed several bills aimed at high profile issues this past year, as he tried to gain some traction in his ultimately futile attempt to beat Diane Feinstein in the race for her U.S. senate seat. He had a hard time articulating a coherent argument for his bill; during one committee meeting, Wiener had to step in and explain why both bills were needed.

SB 460 was necessary because SB 822 was, and is, resting on shaky legal ground. With it off the table for the foreseeable future and SB 460 trashed, California will end 2018 exactly the way it began it: with no net neutrality guarantees at all.