California public housing broadband subsidies extended

28 September 2016 by Steve Blum
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Governor Jerry Brown signed senate bill 745 yesterday, extending the life of the California Advanced Services Fund’s (CASF) public housing broadband program.

It’s a good news/bad news sort of bill. On the one hand, instead of expiring at the end of this year and being re-absorbed into other CASF accounts, the money that hasn’t been spent yet will remain available through 2020. Originally, $20 million was set aside to subsidise broadband facilities (but not the service itself) in public housing communities, and $5 million was allocated to pay for broadband marketing and digital literacy efforts aimed at convincing residents to get online. So far, only about $5.5 million has been approved to install broadband facilities and $1.6 million for the so-called adoption programs. There’s still a stack of pending grant proposals, and another application window closes shortly, but those take time to work through their way through the approval process. There will still be millions of dollars left to spend next year.

Then there’s the bad news. The cable industry’s lobbying front in Sacramento, the California Cable and Telecommunications Association, managed to slip a last minute change into the bill which will ban subsidies for broadband facilities in public housing communities that already get Internet service from cable or telephone companies. Even if the proposed service is free WiFi and a cable broadband subscription costs more than residents are allowed to spend under public housing eligibility rules.

The new rules don’t take effect until January, but with cable companies – Charter and Cox, particularly – aggressively challenging past decisions to subsidise broadband facilities at properties they serve, we’re unlikely to see many more grants like that awarded, if any at all.

This year was a tough one for broadband advocates at the state capitol. A much bigger effort to top up the whole CASF program failed in March, and senator Ben Hueso (D – San Diego) deserves much credit for stepping into the breach with SB 745. It isn’t perfect, but it salvages as much of the CASF public housing broadband program as was possible and leaves the door open to continue the fight next year.