California’s new muni broadband law establishes rights, and net neutrality responsibility

3 October 2018 by Steve Blum
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California governor Jerry Brown actually signed two network neutrality bills into law on Sunday. The Big Kahuna was senate bill 822, which establishes net neutrality rules for Internet service providers doing business in California. But alongside it was assembly bill 1999, which, among things, requires publicly owned broadband systems to abide by net neutrality principles, whether or not their private competitors have to.

It’s a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it’s good thing for muni broadband systems to operate on a net neutral basis, both from a public policy and a customer service perspective. On the other hand, it might not always be a viable way of doing business. If SB 822 is tossed out by a court, and the current anything goes federal policy stays in place, then a few years from now the broadband business might look completely different. If muni broadband systems are handcuffed to a business model that is no longer competitive, the only ones who will benefit are the big, monopoly model ISPs like AT&T, Charter and Comcast. That’ll be a problem to worry about later, though.

AB 1999 does two other things. It lifts a restriction on community service districts (CSDs) that effectively bars them from the broadband business. It was the only meaningful restriction on public agency broadband on the books in California.

The bill also clearly spells out that cities, counties and certain kinds of special districts, including CSDs, county service districts, utility districts and infrastructure financing districts can offer broadband service. It’s long been assumed they can, but there wasn’t much in the way of explicit legal authority. Cities have a long history of precedent to rely on, but other kinds of agencies don’t have that level of confidence to fall back on. I know from experience that there is a huge difference between “there’s nothing that says you can’t” and “the law specifically says you can” when you’re trying to convince local officials that a broadband enterprise is a good idea.

But there’s also potential danger. A law that explicitly allows muni broadband service is a tempting target for corporate lobbyists who want to fiddle with it, to the benefit of their business models and at the expense of the public. We’ll have to keep a permanent watch on California’s new muni broadband law.