Compressed deadlines at the California legislature will leave several telecommunications bills for dead, as attention turns toward the 15 June 2020 constitutionally mandated date for passing the annual state budget. With weeks taken out of the normal schedule by the covid–19 lockdown, and committee work hampered by social distancing and quarantine measures, far fewer bills are expected to make it out of the Sacramento sausage machine this year.
All four bills are in the appropriations committees in their respective houses. Typically, appropriations committees give bills a short, pro forma hearing, and then put them on ice until legislative leaders meet behind closed doors to decide which ones will go forward.
A fifth bill is stalled in the telephone and cable company-friendly assembly communications and conveyances committee. SB 431. Introduced by senator Mike McGuire (D – Sonoma) and joined by Steven Glaser (D – Contra Costa), the bill would have given the California Public Utilities Commission the job of setting performance reliability standards for cell sites statewide and for all other telecoms infrastructure in high fire risk areas. To say the least, that’s not a welcome change for AT&T, Comcast, Charter and other monopoly model service providers. Because it began life in the senate last year, the deadline for moving out of the communications and conveyances committee is 31 July 2020.
With the caveat that death is never final at the California capitol and bills can be resurrected at any time, this year roadkill includes:
SB 1206. Authored by senator Lena Gonzales (D – Los Angeles), it aimed to set a statewide standard for microtrenching, which involves installing fiber optic cables in narrow street cuts. Or not so narrow – the bill would have expanded the definition of microtrenching to a technically ridiculous eight-inch width. SB 1206 never made out of the senate’s in-box.
A bill aimed at upgrading broadband service at fairgrounds in California was introduced in the assembly by assembly Robert Rivas (D – San Benito). Assembly bill 2163 would “ensure that all California fairgrounds are equipped with adequate broadband and telecommunications infrastructure to support local, regional, and state emergency and disaster response personnel and operations”.
In its initial form, AB 2163 doesn’t answer the key question: where does the money come from? Earlier conversations about improving broadband facilities at fairgrounds opened up the possibility of raiding the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) for that purpose, but the draft doesn’t mention that. CASF is California’s primary broadband infrastructure subsidy program. The last time legislators took it up, they turned CASF into a piggybank for monopoly-model incumbent service providers, like AT&T, Frontier Communications and cable companies.
The bill does open the door a crack to general broadband infrastructure improvements, but just a crack. It calls for “fostering new economic opportunities in neighboring communities”, which might mean better public-facing broadband infrastructure. Or it could mean better online livestock auctions at county fairs. We’ll see.
At this point, AB 2163 is a statement of intent rather than fully fleshed out legislation. That’s common practice this early in the session. More meat will probably be added to the bill once it makes it to its first committee hearing, probably toward the end of March. That’s when we’ll have a better idea if it’s intended to make meaningful upgrades to the woefully slow broadband infrastructure that’s common in rural California, or if it’s just a way to add money to the internal information technology budgets for the California office of emergency services and/or the department of food and agriculture.
An early clue will be which committee (or committees) are assigned to review it. A proposal to dip into CASF or to do much of anything that’s related to telecoms infrastructure would have to go to the industry-friendly assembly communications and conveyances committee. If it’s just about departmental IT budgets, then it might be run through the public safety and/or agriculture committees. So far, that assignment hasn’t been made, and doesn’t need to be for a few weeks yet.
As you might guess from reading this post, let alone this blog, I have opinions about how to improve broadband infrastructure in rural California, which I’ve shared publicly and privately. I’m not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.