Broadband infrastructure a low priority at California Assembly hearing

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Whose turn in the barrel?

I might have headlined this post “bridging California’s digital divide is a high priority”. That was the stated topic at today’s Assembly utilities and commerce committee hearing in Sacramento. Assembly members, representatives from urban non-profit groups and state and local agencies spoke eloquently about the need to improve California’s current 73% broadband adoption rate in order to equalize opportunities for all.

However, the financing source under consideration is money set aside for infrastructure projects in the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF). The committee chair, Steven Bradford, a Los Angeles area Democrat, is sponsoring assembly bill 1299 which would give urban public housing a place of honor in the CASF queue and allow money from the infrastructure fund to be spent on broadband adoption efforts.

Strictly speaking, promoting adoption – of broadband or any other service – means signing up more subscribers. In the context of broadband, though, the meaning has grown to include a wide range of educational, social service and marketing programs. Usually, it’s organizations like those testifying today that operate those programs. Ergo the interest in a new pot of money.

Those organizations, by the way, also included lobbyists from AT&T and the cable industry, and executives from Verizon (kudos to Verizon for sending people who actually run networks for a living). Promoting broadband adoption, in the traditional sense, is what they do.

“Maybe the majority of that money should go into adoption programs” said Carolyn McIntyre, a lobbyist with the California Cable and Telecommunications Association, as she urged assembly members to redirect CASF towards education and adoption efforts. And away, incidentally, from infrastructure projects that compete with her clients.

Subsidizing broadband infrastructure construction was characterized as a rural issue. Which is fair, given the list of projects currently competing for CASF funding. It doesn’t have to be, though. There are plenty of places in urban California that would qualify for CASF funding under current rules, if a telecoms company was interested.

But the telecoms companies testifying today clearly weren’t and the traditional urban organizations represented want, naturally enough, to run the sort of programs that spark their passion.

It’s a potent political brew.

Tellus Venture Associates assisted with several CASF proposals in the current round. I’m not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.