Municipal broadband under attack in the California legislature

9 May 2013 by Steve Blum
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Cable lobby streams war channel in Sacramento.

It’s doubtful that telco and cable lobbyists could get an outright ban on municipal broadband as far as a floor vote in the California legislature. They managed that much in Georgia, with no result. Democrats and rural Republicans combined to vote down a ban in March, and a similar dynamic is likely here in California.

What they can do, though, is try to hamstring municipal broadband projects bit by bit, and they’ve made good progress so far this legislative session.

The California Cable and Telecommunications Association (CCTA) is the front group for cable industry lobbyists in Sacramento. They’ve been very public in their opposition to municipal broadband, starting with comments made to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) late last year, regarding the idea of expanding eligibility for California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) subsidies beyond traditional telephone companies.

The CPUC is still mulling it over. Meanwhile, in a bipartisan vote, a state senate committee has approved restrictions on CASF funding for municipal broadband that might have been written by the CCTA. I say “might” because telephone company lobbyists are eagerly working legislators too, and I’d hate to deny them proper credit for what is clearly a tag team effort.

In the California assembly, another CASF bill has CCTA’s fingerprints all over it. A proposal to direct $25 million from CASF to broadband construction and sales programs in public housing – an idea the incumbent carriers already love – has the added bonus of requiring cities and other public housing operators to allow cable companies to wire buildings and sell television service to residents.

Just to apply for the CASF money, a city would have to give up its ability to negotiate with some service providers in exchange for access to public housing residents. There are good arguments for and against a city doing so, but making it mandatory takes money or other benefits off the table.

Any given municipal broadband initiative – residential, commercial or middle mile – might or might not be a good choice. But if industry lobbyists get their way, it won’t be a choice at all for cities in California.