California muni broadband bill lands on governor Brown’s desk

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Net neutrality isn’t the only broadband issue awaiting a decision from California governor Jerry Brown. As the legislative session wound down to a close last week, the California senate and then the assembly approved assembly bill 1999 more or less on party lines – democrats mostly voted aye, republicans no.

AB 1999 explicitly sets out in law what has been the practice and, to the extent its been challenged, the long standing precedent that Californian cities and some kinds of special districts can build broadband systems and offer service, whether or not it’s in competition with cable and telco monopolies.

The bill also removes the only significant barrier to public broadband that’s clearly written into California’s statutes: the byzantine restrictions – amounting to a ban for all practical purposes – on community service districts (CSD) that want to get into the broadband game. CSDs are halfway houses for unincorporated communities that want a higher level of municipal services, but don’t want all the legal and financial overhead that comes with being a fully incorporated city. Yet.

Net neutrality requirements are also written into AB 1999, but it’s a double-edged sword. Broadband service provided by a local agency has to adhere to the basic net neutrality principles: no blocking, throttling or paid prioritisation. That seems to be a good deal for muni broadband customers, but it comes with a risk. If private sector Internet service providers don’t have to follow net neutrality rules, that may be a competitive advantage for muni ISPs. But if Internet fast lanes, slow lanes and no lanes become the norm, muni systems would likely face higher costs to swim against the tide, and would have to charge customers higher prices. Or would simply be undercut by monopoly-model competitors who can shift costs to make monthly subscription rates look cheaper.

Governor Brown has until the end of September to decide what to do with AB 1999, and the hundreds of other bills approved last week by California lawmakers.