Party power (or lack thereof) shapes California broadband spending plans

by Steve Blum • , , , , ,

The practical side of political alignment.

More than two-thirds of the seats in both the California Assembly and Senate are held by Democrats. That means it’s possible to add money to the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) and change its direction with no support at all from Republicans and no fear of losing the political cover a supermajority vote provides.

During hearings and meetings in Sacramento last week, Democrats focused almost exclusively on using CASF to increase the number of Californians who use the Internet. The preferred means is funneling the money through existing channels, such as public housing, schools and community groups, that are dear to core supporters. There was no pretense about objectives. Earlier talk of pilot programs and buzzwords like smart housing were absent.

Republicans either followed their lead or remained silent. This time around they have little incentive to support the infrastructure subsidies that are popular in rural areas. It appears Republicans have decided to either use what bargaining power they have to add their favored programs to the mix, or wait and score points with their political base by opposing any spending at all.

Rhetoric aside, both sides of the aisle are also in alignment with incumbent cable and telephone companies. Signing up new subscribers meets carrier needs, subsidizing competitive infrastructure does not.

It’s unlikely the final bill would completely eliminate CASF infrastructure spending. The money comes from a surcharge on telephone bills. A fee, technically, and not a tax, so it’s supposed to be spent for the benefit of the people paying it. It’s a grey area: cautious maneuver is safe but a sudden and complete change of course could jolt an effective opposition into life.

The next step is a hearing on 2 April 2013 in the Senate energy, utilities and communications committee.