Telecoms lobbyists tell Calfornia lawmakers which side of the digital divide they’re on

Lobbyists for AT&T and the California cable industry gave state assembly members clear insight into why rural broadband development is such an intractable challenge. It wasn’t exactly the insight they were planning to deliver – that consisted mostly of platitudes about the wonderful work they’re doing and the evils of subsidising independent companies that would dare to compete against them. The insight came from the way they tried to divert attention away from the rural questions that the assembly’s select committee on the digital divide in California is tasked with answering, and toward the investment they’re indisputably making in more lucrative urban areas.

Bill Devine, a staff lobbyist for AT&T, talked at length about the $7.4 billion investment that his company has made in California. He mentioned wireline in passing, but came back time and again to extoll the wonders of AT&T’s mobile service. Which is where most of that spending is going – even wireline work is tilted heavily toward reaching cell sites with fiber. Some of that construction is in rural areas, but not much in relative terms. Devine characterised the rural share as “hundreds of millions of dollars”. Not chump change, but that’s about a tenth or less of AT&T’s spending. In other words, urban areas – 5% of the state, geographically – get something like 90% or 95% of AT&T’s upgrade investments while rural areas – 95% of California – get the leftovers. Population density is a factor, but geography matters too. You can’t concentrate spending so heavily on 5% of California without ignoring infrastructure needs in the rest.

Carolyn McIntyre, representing the cable industry’s lobbying front in Sacramento, was asked directly if her support for extending broadband service to at least 98% of Californians was based on a statewide aggregate, or if that’s a goal that should apply region by region. “Statewide” was her answer. Which suits her cable company clients just fine. They, too, are happy to concentrate their investments on dense and affluent areas and, like Charter Communications in the Salinas Valley, redline the rest.

The message, albeit unintended, was clear: big cable and phone companies are a big part of California’s rural digital divide problem, and have no interest in being part of the solution.