Broadband reformers face off against cable, telco monopolies in California senate. Again

3 December 2020 by Steve Blum
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Liberty valance duke

Broadband infrastructure and financing reform will be one of the first policy initiatives out of the gate when bills start dropping at the California capitol on Monday. Senator Lena Gonzalez (D – Los Angeles) will introduce a measure that picks up where the effort to pass senate bill 1130 left off in September. Gonzalez and her fellow senators reached an agreement with governor Gavin Newsom on how California should subsidise broadband infrastructure and what minimum service levels should be, but SB 1130 died when assembly leaders killed it, as AT&T and cable companies pay them to do.

You can click here to read the draft text of the bill. Its main points are:

  1. The eligibility standards for grants from the CASF infrastructure account for projects proposed via the existing program remain the same. With minor exceptions, that means 6 Mbps download/1 Mbps upload speeds. The current 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up standard for CASF-subsidised infrastructure is eliminated, and replaced by a “goal” of 100 Mbps down, with details left to the CPUC to work out.
  2. But absent a new legislative mandate, funding for the existing infrastructure program ends, as would automatic funding for the consortia, adoption and public housing accounts. Any additional spending for these existing programs beyond what’s already in the kitty requires specific authorisation by the legislature.
  3. The old infrastructure subsidy program is replaced by a new bond fund designed for local agencies and non-profits, and intended to be used to build new networks. Eligibility and construction standards for the new program would be set by the CPUC.
  4. Instead of a narrow and capped tax on in-state telephone calls, CASF would be funded by an ongoing excise tax of up to 23 cents a month on “access lines”. The bill counts access lines using the method that determines who pays the tax that supports the state’s 911 system. Critically, that method is intended “to ensure that all forms of telephonic quality communications that connect to the 911 emergency system contribute to the State Emergency Telephone Number Account”, and it ropes in broadband lines that support VoIP and mobile service.

Other changes in the bill include ending incumbent’s jus primae noctis right of first refusal over unserved communities and assigning the job of exploring “ways to facilitate streamlining of local land use approvals and construction permit processes” for broadband projects to the governor’s business and economic development office, AKA GO-Biz.

It’s an excellent bill. It replaces an overly prescriptive and bureuacratically unworkable CASF program with one that fuels projects via the sophisticated, well established public financing ecosystem.

Gonzalez’s bill is unlikely to make it through the Sacramento sausage factory unscathed. Monopoly model incumbents and their sock puppets sow confusion and cash among lawmakers, in the hope of beating down yet another chance at modern broadband service for Californians. Much will depend on who gets key communications committee assignments in the assembly and senate, and how much money AT&T, Comcast, Charter Communications and the rest stuff in their pockets.

But with crusades such as this, I fall back on the wisdom of Robert A. Heinlein:

Certainly the game is rigged. Don’t let that stop you; if you don’t bet you can’t win.