California broadband subsidy bill goes from farce to tragedy as Big Telecom gets right of the first night

13 August 2020 by Steve Blum
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Braveheart jus primae noctis

To ensure that money from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) doesn’t go to independent Internet service providers who might loosen cable’s and telco’s monopoly/duopoly grip on Californians’ broadband access, the newly amended assembly bill 570 gives incumbents a right of first refusal over any subsidised broadband infrastructure project proposed by anyone in their footprints.

A small tweak to the bill’s language gives cable and telephone companies a huge competitive advantage over independent ISPs. Current rules define grant eligibility on the basis of the infrastructure and service that’s available right now. AB 570 would base eligibility on what incumbents say they’ll eventually do after they see what an independent proposes.

The medieval jus primae noctis – right of the first night – better describes it than right of first refusal. Like a feudal lord bedding any bride within his fief, AT&T, Frontier, Comcast, Charter and other incumbents would be allowed to block project proposals by promising to upgrade service. To the bare minimum. Sometime in the future.

And claim the CASF subsidy for themselves in exchange.

Other changes to AB 570 include bumping California’s minimum broadband speed standard a bit, from 6 Mbps download/1 Mbps upload to 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up. That keeps it within the capabilities of AT&T’s and Frontier’s ageing DSL technology. And below the symmetrical 25 Mbps level that the California senate has already approved.

It also diverts broadband infrastructure money to government agencies, who would be able to pass it on to incumbents without obliging them to upgrade service for the surrounding community, and it lengthens the list of organisations that can claim CASF money for selling broadband subscriptions on behalf of incumbents.

The amendments follow a thorough ripping of AB 570 by a California senate committee last week. Monopoly model incumbents and their friends in and around the capitol – including, particularly, the primary author, assemblywoman Cecilia Aguiar-Curry (D – Yolo) – re-wrote their wish list in the hope of keeping the bill moving.

It’s not what senators had in mind.