Five turning points for broadband policy battles in 2016

31 December 2015 by Steve Blum
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Five policy decisions will drive broadband service in California, for good or ill, in 2016. Two will come at the federal level, two from the California Public Utilities Commission and one from the state legislature. There are more of course – encryption, privacy and implementation of California’s new wireless site shot clock are examples – but these are the ones I’ll be closely following as the new year begins:

  • Assembly bill 238. Introduced by Santa Cruz assemblyman Mark Stone early in 2015, it attempts to raise the minimum Californian broadband standard to 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up for subsidy purposes. It was stalled by a combination of expected incumbent opposition and unexpected pushback from rural interests fearful that subsidy money they – wrongly – considered their own would be diverted to urban areas. A new version that addresses some of those concerns and adds more money to the kitty is in the works.
  • CPUC decision granting mobile carriers open access to utility poles. This decision was bumped from December to January 2016, which is common enough for a complicated and fraught issue. If the commission adopts the language currently on the table, mobile carriers would be able to routinely install equipment, such as microcells, on utility poles so long as technical requirements are met.
  • Charter’ Communications’s attempt to buy Time Warner and Bright House. The CPUC is reviewing the transaction and could nix it completely, wave it through as it did with Altice’s purchase of a controlling stake in Suddenlink, or impose conditions, for example build out requirements in low income communities aggressively redlined by Charter. If it goes through, the Californian broadband market will be dominated by an oligopoly of four: AT&T, Frontier, Comcast and Charter.
  • Common carrier status for broadband providers. Easily the most momentous decision of 2015, the Federal Communication Commission’s net neutrality ruling brings broadband under the same umbrella of common carrier regulations that covers mobile and wireline voice service. Different services and different technologies are treated differently at this point, but expect the trend to be toward more government intervention and not less. None of this matters, though, if a federal appeals court overrules the FCC and that’s the decision that matters in 2016. Most observers are betting on the rules withstanding legal challenges, perhaps with some trimming around the edges, but nothing is certain.
  • Federal preemption of state restrictions on muni broadband. The FCC also said states can’t restrict where cities can offer broadband service (if they’re allowed to offer service at all). That ruling is also in a federal appeals court and the challenge, mounted by Tennessee and North Carolina, appears to be on firm legal ground. As it stands it has little impact on California, because we have almost no specific restrictions on muni broadband. If we want to keep it that way, though, we should be hoping the appeals court sides with the states and throws out the FCC’s rules. Establishing direct federal oversight of muni broadband might seem like a good idea when a muni-friendly administration is in office, but it could be hell under another regime. Better to make Californian policy choices in California.

Most of these questions should be answered in the first few months of 2016, which is about as far as my crystal ball can see. Other issues will rise to the top of the hit parade as the year goes on and that’s when the real fun begins. Stay tuned.