California broadband plan is slow and soothing, particularly for monopoly model incumbents

Dorothy poppy field

In August, governor Gavin Newsom said all Californians should have, at the minimum, 100 Mbps broadband service. He didn’t say how that would happen, though. The job was delegated to the California Broadband Council, a talking shop dominated by state government information technology managers. The final draft (not the final-final version) was published last week. It’s long on high sounding words about the universal need for broadband service and the wonderfulness of the benefits it brings, but endorses a much slower standard than the governor called for and has little to say about how to achieve even that much.

If platitudes could fill the gap between California’s digital haves and have nots, the broadband council’s draft would be a winner.

Instead of a 100 Mbps minimum, the misnamed “broadband action plan” calls for “high-performance broadband”. It’s not clear what that means, except the draft says that 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload speeds qualifies as “baseline” service, and misleadingly implies that the Federal Communications Commission agrees: 25/3 is “minimum” service in the FCC’s latest specs, and 50 Mbps down/5 Mbps up is “baseline”. 100 Mbps download/20 Mbps upload speeds, which meet the governor’s directive as well as the minimum needs of 21st century households, is “a goal”.

In public policy-speak, a goal is something that would be nice to have, but not something that anyone will be held accountable for achieving.

The slow broadband service standard and the complete lack of a meaningful action plan to achieve even that much comes as no surprise. The broadband council leaned heavily on lobbyists from monopoly model incumbents for advice and allowed an incumbent funded and directed non-profit – the California Emerging Technology Fund – to lead the process. Incumbents have been willing to accept 25/3 as a standard, so long as they’re not actually required to provide it, but nothing faster. On the other hand, the draft action plan is chock full of typical telco and cable demands such as streamlining permit processes and gaining more access to state property.

To be sure, there are items in plan that aren’t near and dear to incumbents’ hearts interests, but those are largely programs that are already underway, for example the California Public Utilities Commission’s affordability and service resiliency initiatives. There’s nothing new in the plan that would impede their ability to extract monopoly rents from Californians in exchange for poor service.