California legislature looks at muni broadband rules. Beware

5 February 2018 by Steve Blum
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Municipal broadband is on the line in the California legislature. Assemblyman Ed Chau (D – Monterey Park) introduced assembly bill 1999 last week. As drafted, it would do two things: require muni broadband systems to abide by network neutrality principles and remove restrictions that effectively prevented community services districts from getting into the Internet service provider business.

On the face of it, AB 1999 is straightforward. It succinctly lays out net neutrality rules – no blocking, throttling or paid prioritisation – and applies them to broadband services offered by cities, or by the special districts that are particularly authorised to do so by Californian law.

Public utility districts, municipal utility districts and infrastructure finance districts are allowed to get into the telecoms business with no restrictions. Community services districts can only do so if “if the district is unable to locate a private person or entity who is willing or able to provide broadband service”. Even if it does, if someone rocks up later and offers service then the district has to sell or lease the system “at fair market value”.

AB 1999 would remove that restriction and give community services districts the same options as utility and infrastructure financing districts.

All that is fine. The problem is that broadband bills that are introduced with good intentions – Chau gained cred with AB 375 last year, which would have established state Internet privacy regulations – are often flipped as they move through the legislative process. That happened to AB 1665. It started out as a carrier-neutral broadband infrastructure subsidy bill, but was rapidly rewritten into an incumbent piggy bank by telco and cable lobbyists and pushed through by biddable lawmakers.

And that’s the danger with AB 1999. Net neutrality regs are well and good, but it’s an industry issue, not a particular problem for muni broadband operations. It’s a fair argument that community services districts should be allowed to offer broadband service, but there’s also a case to be made that they shouldn’t get into the public utility business – that’s what utility districts are for.

In the unlikely event that AB 1999 is passed as currently written, it’ll do no harm and might do some good. Once cable and telco lobbyists get their hands on it, though, and offer friendly amendments to their special friends on key committees, it’ll be a different story. Stay tuned.