California senate committee votes to give telcos $300 million for slower broadband

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

The California legislature continued its love affair with telecommunications companies on Wednesday. The senate’s energy, utilities and communications committee, chaired by Ben Hueso (D – San Diego), voted 8 to zero to approve assembly bill 1665 in its current form and send it on to the senate appropriations committee for further review.

It wasn’t exactly unanimous. One senator, Mike McGuire (D – Healdsburg), who had opposed the bill, abstained when the vote was taken, as did two republicans, Anthony Cannella (R – Merced) and Mike Morrell (R – Rancho Cucamonga).

The version that was approved by the senate EU&C committee was the one that was put on the table in July, when telco and cable lobbyists convinced the author, Eduardo Garcia (D – Imperial County), to add more perks for them and more barriers for would-be competitors. However, it’s not clear whether a third helping of pork proposed by the EU&C committee staff would get slathered on as it winds through the legislative process.

AB 1665 would lower California’s broadband standard from a minimum of 6 Mbps download/1.5 Mbps upload speeds, to 6 Mbps down/1 Mbps up. That’s despite a move by the federal agriculture department to set the minimum acceptable speed for rural areas at 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up.

The bill would also re-write the rules for the state’s primary broadband construction subsidy program – the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) – in such a way that it will be difficult, if not impossible, for anyone other than AT&T or Frontier Communications to tap into the $300 million allocated for infrastructure grants. It adds further sweeteners for incumbents, such as letting them use CASF grant money to pay for operating costs and, in a nod to the cable industry, allowing them to launder it through individual property owners in order to avoid any direct oversight by the California Public Utilities Commission, which oversees the fund.

Next stop for AB 1665 is the senate appropriations committee. If it gets a green light there, it’ll go to a floor vote by the full senate, and then back to the assembly to reconcile the different versions passed by the two houses.