Incumbent friendly broadband pork bill drops in California assembly

10 December 2020 by Steve Blum
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Pure pork 685

The fight over California’s broadband future resumed in Sacramento on Monday, with the battle line unchanged from August’s stalemate. As expected, senator Lena Gonzalez (D – Los Angeles) introduced senate bill 4, which sunsets the current, anaemic California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) program, and replaces it with a more robust broadband bond program aimed at local agencies. It reflects the compromise between Gonzalez, her fellow senators and the governor’s office in the closing days of the 2020 legislative session.

But it takes three to tango in Sacramento. The assembly’s leadership – speaker Anthony Rendon (D – Los Angeles) and democratic floor leader Ian Calderon (D – Los Angeles) in particular – bowed to the hundreds of thousands of dollars that they’ve been paid by AT&T, Comcast, Charter Communications and other incumbents, and killed the deal.

A competing bill, larded with payoffs to incumbents and locking in California’s deep digital divide for a generation, was also on the table in August. It was ghost written by an incumbent funded and advised non-profit – the California Emerging Technology Fund – and carried by assemblywoman Cecilia Aguiar-Curry (D – Yolo), who has also pocketed unhealthy bundles of telco and cable cash.

It died too, but Aguiar-Curry is back with another no pork barrel left behind proposal. Assembly bill 14 would sorta raise California’s minimum broadband to 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload speeds – within AT&T’s capability in communities it hasn’t redlined – but also pushes money toward a long list of users – e.g. schools, hospitals, public safety agencies – that share two important characteristics: 1. they’re politically popular (police departments excepted at the capitol) and 2. they lack the expertise or the motivation to do anything except write big checks to AT&T and the cable companies.

Gonzalez’s SB 4 aims at a 100 Mbps standard, but lets the California Public Utilities Commission work out the details – a safer bet than letting cash hungry lawmakers decide.

The prospects are better now for a useful broadband bill to emerge from the Sacramento sausage machine. Better, but I wouldn’t say good yet. Aguiar-Curry is poised to do the same thing she did this past session: confuse the conversation while amending her bill bit by bit to make it ever more delightful for incumbents and their fellow travellers. The only wager I’m ready to make is that the final decision won’t be known until the 2021 legislative session’s closing hours in September.