Legislators should aspire to meet Californians' broadband expectations

17 August 2017 by Steve Blum
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Higher broadband standards are a threat to legacy telephone companies, like AT&T and Frontier Communications, and to cable companies, like Charter and Comcast. But for different reasons.

When the Federal Communications Commission set the speed standard for advanced telecommunications services at 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload in 2015, legacy telcos pushed back because their copper line systems couldn’t come anywhere near it, except in affluent, “high potential” areas where the short return on investment is high. You might think cable companies would have been happy, since they easily exceed that benchmark, but that wasn’t the case. Cable’s political action platoons immediately attacked it because they – rightly – feared being slapped with the monopoly label if consumers only had one choice for broadband service deemed sufficient by the FCC.

So far, cable and telco lobbyists haven’t been able to convince the FCC to dumb down the 25/3 standard, although the commission’s new leadership is seriously considering it. Instead, they’re denigrating the standard at every opportunity by calling it “aspirational”, rather than practical, despite the fact that it’s been adopted as the minimum level for subsidised rural service by the federal agriculture department.

They’re pushing the aspirational argument in Sacramento, as they flex their financial muscles and push friendly legislators toward lowering California’s broadband standards as well.

Assembly bill 1665 would drop the minimum acceptable level of broadband service in California to 6 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds, and funnel infrastructure construction subsidies directly to legacy telephone and, in some cases, cable companies. Independent projects, of the sort that have brought truly advanced fiber service to rural communities, would be locked out.

Those defending the bill, including non-profits hoping to tap what little money might otherwise become available, have taken up the aspirational meme, using it derisively when anyone points to the irrationality of dropping California’s already low broadband standard, instead of raising it to the level consumers need, and buy when they can.

The fate of AB 1665 will be determined in the next two or three weeks, once lawmakers return from their summer vacation. Californians’ legitimate expectations – for broadband service and legislative performance – should not and cannot be dismissed as mere aspirations.