A placeholder bill that originally targeted the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) – the state’s primary broadband infrastructure subsidy program – was gutted, amended and turned into a subsidy program for after school Internet access for elementary and high school students. Assembly bill 1409 is carried by assemblyman Ed Chau (D – Los Angeles), who made a tech policy name for himself last year when he authored California’s new online privacy law.
As originally submitted, AB 1409 made what amounted to an inconsequential typographic change to the law that rewrote the CASF program in 2017. The usual purpose of such bills is to get something into the hopper ahead of the legislature’s annual deadline for introducing new legislation, with the intent of maybe doing something with it later.
That something turned into subsidies for “homework gap projects”, which are defined as projects that provide “pupils in kindergarten or any of grades 1 to 12, inclusive, with after school access to broadband, such as Wi-Fi enabled school buses or school or library Wi-Fi hot spot lending”. The money would come from the California Teleconnect Fund (CTF), which pays for broadband service for schools, libraries and some non-profit organisations, usually to help close the gap left by the federal e-rate program, which funds most, but not all, of the cost of such service.
It’s an incremental change. Both CTF and the federal e-rate program are already used to pay for free broadband access, via WiFi at schools and libraries, and some school districts have toyed with the idea of extending some kind of wireless service to students at home. Hotspot lending – allowing students to, say, take home an active 4G wireless router – and WiFi on school buses are already arguably eligible for CTF money, and some districts or libraries might already be doing it.
AB 1409 would clear up any doubt, and potentially create a whole new category of publicly subsidised broadband service. It could also open the door to boondoggles: there’s already an ecosystem of companies and organisations that push projects of dubious value to educators with little knowledge of technology and no experience as service providers. The bill scheduled for its first hearing in the telco-and-cable-friendly assembly communications and conveyances committee ton Wednesday. It’s worthing keeping an eye on.