Now or never: California broadband subsidies will end without fast action

21 October 2016 by Steve Blum
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It’s not just the lakes that are drying up.

No more money will be flowing into the California Advanced Services Fund to pay for broadband infrastructure subsidies. The program has hit the limit set by the California legislature, and the tax that funds it will no longer be collected.
By this time next year, if not sooner, the infrastructure kitty will likely be spent down to zero. If more money is ever going to be added, it’ll have to happen soon. When CASF runs out of money, it’ll go into a bureaucratic deep freeze: paperwork will be processed for existing projects, but any forward looking activities will end. Thawing it out will take years. The last time CASF was fully rebooted was in 2010, and the first grant applications weren’t accepted until more than two years later.
Troublesome though it may be, that’s not the big problem. At this point, the tax that funds CASF has merely lapsed. Restarting it will be difficult enough, given the increasingly aggressive lobbying against it by AT&T and the cable industry’s political front organisation, the California Cable and Telecommunications Association. But it would still be just a restart.
If we get into 2018 with no renewal, CASF will be a different and perhaps unmanageable political animal. The tax that funds it will have faded far enough into memory that reinstatement will be perceived as imposing a new tax, rather than taking an existing one off an unintentional hiatus.
Even if democrats win a two-thirds supermajority in the California legislature in November and gain the ability to approve taxes and budgets without republican concurrence, it’ll be a steep, uphill fight. Broadband infrastructure is not at the top of wish lists at the state capitol. There is a multitude of interest groups with far more photogenic and heart rendering causes, and with the political muscle to push to the head of the line. A new broadband tax – that’s how it’ll be spun – will please few voters and upset corporate lobbyists, who can wipe away their tears with fistfuls of campaign cash.
It would be a crying shame.