Newsom, CPUC line up on (relatively) minor changes to California broadband subsidy program

5 June 2020 by Steve Blum
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Paicines pole route

A second, perhaps competing, revision to California’s broadband infrastructure subsidy program is queued up for possible consideration at the state capitol. The California Public Utilities Commission is proposing changes to the law governing the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF), to make it easier to use it to attract federal broadband money to the state by supplementing the budgets of projects competing for federal grants.

The administration’s proposal is flying under the radar right now. It’s consistent with the vague reference to better competing for federal broadband dollars in governor Gavin Newsom’s budget revision last month. And it’s one of a couple hundred budget-related bills floated by the administration.

One change proposed by the draft is to allow CASF money to be combined with federal funds, such as the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund program (RDOF) due to launch in October, even in areas that have broadband service at or above the dismal 6 Mbps download/1 Mbps upload speeds that lobbyists for monopoly model telcos and cable companies, and their allies, convinced lawmakers to set as California’s broadband standard in 2017. The CASF threshold for co-funding federally subsidised broadband projects would be “broadband service at speeds consistent with the applicable federal speed standards”. For RDOF, that means any community that lacks service at 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload speeds.

As far as it goes, the proposed bill is very useful. But it falls short of the statutory overhaul and more ambitious broadband service upgrade already under consideration in the state senate.

The draft bill echoes senate bill 1130, which would also raise CASF’s minimum standard. It references the same 100 Mbps service level for subsidised infrastructure but, as with the recent amendments to SB 1130, it’s only a goal and not a requirement – the CPUC would be free to fund systems that deliver slower speeds. But it’s a weaker echo. Other SB 1130 provisions – a 25 Mbps down/25 Mbps up minimum eligibility standard and open access middle mile requires, for example – are missing.

The draft bill is among more than a hundred “trailer bills” collected by the state finance department from various state agencies for consideration by the legislature as it works through the state budget for the fiscal year that begins in July. Another trailer bill proposed by the CPUC would raise salaries for commissioners. So far, the drafts amount to little more than executive branch requests. Legislators will have to introduce them as formal bills and then vote on – and possibly amend – them.

Trailer bills have legitimate uses. The original purpose was to make statutory changes necessary to implement the budget. But trailer bills get little or no practical public review and take effect immediately. It’s a legislative loophole that California lawmakers are increasingly using to sidestep opposition to bills that have, shall we say, limited popularity (h/t to Scott Lay at Around the Capitol for the pointer). That popularity can be limited to lobbyists with bags of cash to hand out to biddable senators and assembly members.

I’ve advocated for SB 1130, and for other useful changes to CASF. I am involved and proud of it. I am not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.