Modern, future proof broadband gets a hearing in the California senate today, with public call in comments allowed

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

A faster and modern broadband speed standard for California is scheduled for its first hearing at the state capitol this afternoon. Senate bill 1130 by Lena Gonzalez (D – Los Angeles) is set for a vote by the California senate’s energy, utilities and communications committee.

The hearing will be conducted partly in person, in the cavernous senate chamber, and partly online. One beneficial side effect of the covid–19 emergency is that Californians can participate in the legislative process and make their views known remotely, without having to trek to Sacramento and fight their way through the squads of hired guns and corporate lobbyists that usually occupy the halls and hearing rooms of the capitol. The committee posted a phone number and access code for call-in comments on its webpage. Check the page before you call in – numbers and procedures could change.

The bill would raise the minimum eligibility standard for infrastructure subsidies from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) from 6 Mbps download/1 Mbps upload speeds – a level supported by 1990s technology – to 25 Mbps down/25 Mbps up. Broadband systems built with that money would have to deliver service at a minimum of 100 Mbps down/100 Mbps up, a speed level that only fiber can provide at consumer market prices and quantities, instead of the DSL-based 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up that the CASF program allows now.

Other provisions in the bill would require subsidised middle mile infrastructure to be offered to all on level terms – “open access”, in other words. Last mile projects might also have to be similarly available, depending on circumstances.

SB 1130 is quarterbacked by the Electronic Freedom Foundation, and includes a long list of supporting organisations. Including the Central Coast Broadband Consortium, which submitted a letter supporting the bill (full disclosure: I drafted and submitted it). As did the North Bay North Coast Broadband Consortium.

The committee staff analysis is posted online. It has a long list of supporters and a shorter, more predictable list of opponents, which includes Frontier Communications, Charter Communications’ and Comcast’s lobbying front organisation, and Charter itself. It contains some odd arguments against open access middle mile infrastructure – I don’t know who told staff that ISPs or local governments can’t figure out how to sell wholesale services. That’s nonsense – they do it all the time. It also recommends lowering the standard for subsidised infrastructure to speeds of 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up, which suits monopoly model incumbents who want to minimise investment and maximise profits by minimising service levels. The analysis also argues against raising broadband speed standards because urban and suburban communities might end up being eligible for upgrade subsidies. It is not a particularly well informed analysis, unless you think monopoly model cable and telephone companies are the best source of information.

Rumblings from Sacramento indicate that the usual bunch of big cable and telco incumbents, and their non-profit fellow travellers, are working to kill the bill. Although they haven’t all gone on record yet, it’s the same cast of characters that gutted the CASF program in 2017 and turned it into an incumbent-centric piggy bank. We’ll have a better idea of what that opposition looks like after the hearing today.