Cash for 2018 campaigns drives broadband decisions in Sacramento

by Steve Blum • , , ,

California lawmakers will tackle broadband issues in the coming year, but not ones that directly address the needs of businesses and consumers, or economic development goals of unserved communities. The hottest items will be reboots of two failed bills near and dear to the hearts of big telecoms companies.

Senate bill 649 was vetoed by governor Jerry Brown last October. It would have given mobile carriers, as well as telephone and cable companies, unlimited access to city and county-owned light poles, traffic signals and other vertical infrastructure at a token rental rate, far below market value. Brown said he liked the idea, but SB 649 went a bit too far. Talks are already underway between mobile interests and local agency representatives to see if there’s any common ground. If there isn’t, expect to see a nearly identical bill that’s trimmed just enough to pass muster with Brown.

Assembly bill 2395 was AT&T’s unsuccessful 2016 attempt to get permission to rip out rural copper networks and replace them with low cost and, often, federally subsidised wireless systems. AT&T’s wireless local loop technology can’t match the service provided by even mid-grade DSL, let alone the upgraded copper and fiber systems it installs in affluent neighborhoods, but that’s less of a problem now. Telco and cable lobbyists convinced lawmakers to pass AB 1665 and lower California’s minimum broadband speed standard last year, paving the way for rural broadband downgrades in 2018. AB 2395 will be back.

Don’t expect California to fill the regulatory chasm created by the Federal Communications Commission when it killed network neutrality rules last year. Any kind of broadband-specific consumer protection bill has little chance of making it through the California legislature next year. An Internet privacy bill – assembly bill 375 – died in a leadership committee this year, despite widespread and oh-so-sincere expressions of support from lawmakers.

Cable and telephone lobbyists killed AB 375, while moving SB 649 and AB 1665 through the California assembly and senate in 2017. This year, legislators will listen to them even more attentively: 2018 will be an expensive election year for candidates, and party leaders will be even less willing to upset big money donors.