California broadband rodeo kicks off again

2 January 2017 by Steve Blum
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But no room for a working clown.

Strap in for the ride – 2017 is shaping up to be a Bizarro rerun of 2016, at least where broadband policy is concerned. Last year’s most contentious policy broncos are in the chute, ready for another go round with a new cast of cowboys in Washington and Sacramento.

Top draw is common carrier status for broadband service, also known as title II, AKA net neutrality. The republican rump majority on the Federal Communications Commission – Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly – have targeted the Obama administration’s marquee telecoms policy initiative for a preemptive weed whacking. That 2015 decision isn’t settled law yet – court appeals continue – but at one point last year it looked like it was in the bag.

No longer.

Here in Deep Blue California, we don’t use anything as crude as a weed whacker – we legalised weed, dammit – but last year’s battles are shaping up to be refought as well.

The California assembly has hived off telecoms policy into the communications and conveyance committee; transportation and telecoms are the two sectors that are being tugged out from under the California Public Utilities Commission’s purview. A radical jurisdictional realignment is a step too far for this year, but you can expect two key rematches and one overtime attempt at running up the score.

Bet on AT&T to redouble its effort to write its own permission slip to yank out wireline service wherever it fails to meet profit goals in rural and inner city California. Assembly bill 2395 died last year due, in no small part due to union opposition, but expect to see it rise from the grave. Several different attempts at topping up the California Advanced Services Fund – the state’s primary broadband infrastructure subsidy program – also went down in flames last year, but another try is underway.

The legislature and governor signed off on a bill in 2015 that puts a tight shot clock on wireless permit reviews by local governments, but it’s not permissive enough for wireless carriers, or wireless infrastructure companies like Mobilitie. Efforts are underway in both Sacramento and Washington to continue the roll back of local discretion.

My predictions: common carrier status for broadband will survive 2017 but maybe not 2018. The CASF reboot will be fought to a draw again and the legislature will make it easier for mobile carriers to install small cells and other wireless facilities. Son of AB 2395 is a toss up. If AT&T makes sufficient concessions to pull the unions onside, it’ll fly. If not, expect to see it for a third time in 2018.

Happy New Year.