Long shot broadband infrastructure financing option approved by California legislature

17 September 2019 by Steve Blum
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A bill that has the potential to funnel California public employee retirement fund money toward broadband infrastructure investments is heading to governor Gavin Newsom’s desk. AB 1212, carried by Marc Levine (D – Marin) , requires state agencies to send a list of priority infrastructure projects to various public employees retirement boards for their consideration. “Telecommunications” is included in the list of eligible infrastructure types, along with “power, transportation, ports, petrochemical, and utilities”.

The catch is that the lists would come from agencies that are “responsible for infrastructure”. While there’s any number of agencies that might want to build broadband infrastructure for their own use, there isn’t one that pursues public-facing projects. The California Public Utilities Commission funds broadband and telephone projects proposed by others, but doesn’t sponsor them. Still, AB 1212 would crack open the door, and there might be creative ways of walking through it.

AB 417, by Joaquin Arambula (D – Fresno), was also passed on to the governor. It assigns various responsibilities for rural economic development to the California food and agriculture department. How much of it is window dressing is open to debate but one item on the punch list is “making recommendations” for “increasing broadband access” in rural communities. That’s a pretty weak broadband development mandate, but it’s better than none at all. Call it a small step in the right direction. So is AB 488 by Cecilia Aguiar-Curry (D – Yolo). It adds a representatives from the food and agriculture department (as well as the state librarian and the governor’s tribal advisor) to the California Broadband Council.

One promising broadband subsidy bill, albeit for service rather than infrastructure, bit the dust early in the session. AB 1409 by Ed Chau (D – Los Angeles) would have created a fund for “homework gap projects”, which amounted to subsidising take-home wireless hotspots for students and providing WiFi access on school buses. It died behind closed doors in the assembly’s appropriations committee.

Overall, the California legislature ended its 2019 session with a few, relatively minor telecoms policy changes for Newsom to consider. One way of looking at it is that lawmakers did little harm this year, despite AT&T’s best efforts. The relative lack of attention to broadband infrastructure could be a blessing in disguise. The last major broadband infrastructure subsidy bill, 2017’s AB 1665, gutted the California Advanced Services Fund program and turned it into a piggybank for big, monopoly model incumbents.