Political heat rising over California broadband giveaway bill

27 September 2017 by Steve Blum
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A so far successful attempt to funnel $300 million of taxpayer money to AT&T and Frontier Communications in exchange for substandard, monopoly broadband service is generating some unpleasant blowback for assemblyman Jim Wood (D – Healdsburg), one of its chief backers. Assembly bill 1665 was overwhelmingly approved by the California lawmakers in the closing hours of the legislative 2017 session.

It reinstates a tax on phone bills that would be earmarked for broadband infrastructure grants, made under new rules that 1. lower California’s minimum broadband standard to 6 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds, 2. allow AT&T and Frontier to fence off vast swathes of rural California, whether or not they upgrade service to even this pitiful level, and 3. restrict eligibility to the point that independent projects will be all but impossible.

Wood represents the northern California coast, which has benefited from several projects subsidised by the current California Advanced Services Fund program. Opposition from local elected officials and broadband advocates blossomed after the bill’s authors – notably including Wood – refused to work on language with anyone other than lobbyists and surrogates from big telecoms companies notorious for pumping cash into political pockets. The wave is now crashing over him, as local reporters, such as the Lost Coast Outpost’s Ryan Burns, pick up on the story

AT&T and Frontier lobbied Wood and the other co-authors, urging them to accept this lower standard for broadband speeds. And, indeed, in its final form the bill defines broadband speeds as just 10 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up. Its threshold for deeming a household “unserved” by broadband is even lower — 6 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up.

Wood’s response to the Outpost was puzzling: “I continue to lack a clear understanding of some of the concerns I have heard and read about AB 1665”, he wrote to them, going to on to claim that the tight circle he consulted, comprised exclusively of deep pocketed telecoms carriers and organisations with company representatives on their boards, was somehow representative of wider concerns.

AB 1665 is on governor Brown’s desk, awaiting his approval. Or veto.