California assembly committee digs a deeper digital divide

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Broadband service expectations are low and the appetite for funding independent, competitive broadband infrastructure is vanishingly small in the California assembly. Or at least in the communications and conveyance committee, which took up assembly bill 1665 yesterday.

Carried by assemblyman Eduardo Garcia (D – Coachella), AB 1665 would reinstate a tax on telephone bills and add $300 million to the California Advanced Services Fund’s (CASF) broadband infrastructure subsidy kitty (and $30 million to other programs).

But it would subsidise a dismal broadband landscape. The minimum speed standard would be lowered to 6 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload, and Internet service in vast swaths of rural California would be reserved for AT&T and Frontier Communications, the state’s two major incumbent telephone companies.

AT&T and cable industry lobbyists endorsed the bill – the latter having negotiated an end run around regulatory obligations and the elimination of money for public housing broadband facilities – while Frontier’s representative pushed for even more protection from competition.

Committee members – democrats and republicans alike – praised the bill. Assemblyman Evan Low (D – San Jose) said that getting connectivity throughout the state is important “from a Silicon Valley perspective”, ironic since the bill downgrades service standards to accomodate the legacy 1990s DSL technology that Frontier and AT&T still maintain in both urban and rural California. But not so much in his district.

The only dissenting voice came from assemblyman Jim Patterson (R – Fresno), who wasn’t particularly opposed to the bill’s intent but took the opportunity to vent his frustration with the California Public Utilities Commission, which runs CASF. In the end, he abstained while all the other committee members present voted yes.

AB 1665 isn’t fully baked yet. Key provisions were laid out in a committee staff analysis, but exact language still has to be written and then accepted by cable and phone companies, among others. So more surprises are possible. The next stop for the bill is the assembly appropriations committee.