Newsom’s broadband budget language doesn’t translate to infrastructure

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

San benito pole route 13apr2019

Broadband references are sprinkled into California governor Gavin Newsom’s state budget proposal but, taken at face value, he’s focused on shifting money from hard capital infrastructure projects to soft programs and annual operating budgets.

Although tagged as an infrastructure investment in Newsom’s budget summary, his “Broadband for All” initiative is about operations, comprising four elements: mapping, education spending, “optimising” existing resources and “prioritising connectivity across executive actions and policies”.

The California Public Utilities Commission already has a fine mapping program, which Newsom wisely intends to expand. It’s the brightest broadband item in his budget. If the CPUC is allowed to combine availability data with comprehensive network maps, inventories of state owned facilities and construction cost data, and make it public, then independent broadband infrastructure projects become more feasible.

Feasible, but not funded.

Consistent with past practice, Newsom proposes to spend $261 million on broadband facilities and information technology acquisitions for schools over the next five years, which is praiseworthy (as are many other items in the $153 billion budget) but has rarely improved broadband infrastructure that’s directly available to consumers and businesses. Keeping broadband top of mind in state government is likewise a good thing, and when agencies look outward and cooperate with private sector telecoms companies – Caltrans’ dig once program is a good example – the general public benefits. More often, though, connectivity improvements are limited to meeting agencies’ internal IT needs. Still, it’s a step in the right direction.

It’s Newsom’s third bullet point – “optimising use of existing resources” – that threatens to divert what little money California spends on general broadband infrastructure development to other purposes. As his budget summary explains…

Informed by GIS-based mapping, the state will review existing fund sources available for broadband adoption and activities. This review will include the California Teleconnect Fund, the California Advanced Services Fund [CASF], and federal funding opportunities to maximize the return on existing investments. In total, these funds provide approximately $900 million over the next five years that can be targeted to critical broadband activities statewide.

The California Teleconnect Fund subsidises broadband service for schools and other organisations. Federal broadband funds are speculative at best – so far, California is shut out of the federal agriculture department’s newest broadband infrastructure subsidy program.

What’s left is CASF. Which holds the only money – somewhere around $300 million – that California earmarks for general broadband infrastructure construction. Which isn’t specifically listed as one of California’s “critical broadband activities”.

Adoption – digital literacy and broadband subscriber acquisition programs – gets a mention. Schools are in for a lot of love. Libraries and state IT departments get a nod too. Broadband for businesses and consumers? Nada.

Schools and community programs are wildly popular; government operations are Sacramento’s core business. Subsides for independent broadband infrastructure are neither, and are opposed by monopoly model incumbents who pay lawmakers millions of dollars to pay attention. Newsom’s budget offers no challenge to that status quo.