Support crumbles for California broadband subsidy grab

10 July 2017 by Steve Blum
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UPDATE: the hearing on AB 1665 was delayed until next week. More info here.

Last week’s amendments to assembly bill 1665 went too far for many of the organisations that were supporting it, particularly those with an interest in developing broadband infrastructure and countering incumbent monopolies. The changes allowed AT&T and Frontier to fence off most of their rural California systems from potential competitors, while getting privileged access to the $300 million in construction subsidies contained in the bill. Other perks that were snaked in included tough – likely fatal – restrictions on independent middle mile projects, and a byzantine planning and review process that would make it virtually impossible for competitive last mile proposals to succeed.

Of course, AB 1665 would still lower California’s minimum broadband speed standard to 6 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds and allow Frontier and AT&T to protect 1990s-style legacy DSL systems from competitors with modern technology.

The bill’s sponsor, the California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF), has backed off a bit and taken the position of “support if amended”, although it’s not clear if it will simply accept cosmetic changes. CETF also has its eye on the $20 million that AB 1665 would allocate for digital literacy and broadband promotion programs run by non-profit organisations.

Several counties, along with the regional consortia representing them, have turned completely around and taken a full-on oppose position, and spelled out substantive changes that would be needed in order for them to get back on board. Some of the opposition letters are linked below. As the California Center for Rural Policy put it

As it was passed in the Assembly, the bill would have continued the progress of closing the Digital Divide in California. Amendments have changed this progress to legislation that provides rolling protectionism and blocks fair opportunities for small businesses to participate in the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF). Furthermore, it codifies that rural communities will receive heavily subsidized old technology limiting educational and economic opportunities to a large geographic area of the state.

AB 1665 is scheduled for a hearing this morning in the senate’s energy, utilities and communications committee. I don’t know exactly how many erstwhile supporters have flipped, but by some estimates it’s more than 30, including all the coastal counties north of San Francisco. The nominally neutral bill analysis done by committee staff, which was only made public this morning, removed a number of organisations from its support list, but only included one on the oppose list – the Central Coast Broadband Consortium, which sent in its initial opposition letter earlier.

Assembly bill 1665 opposition letters:

California Center for Rural Policy
Central Coast Broadband Consortium
Marin County
Sonoma County

Full disclosure: I’m on the Central Coast Broadband Consortium’s executive team and wrote the letter, then sent it with the consortium’s blessing. I am not a disinterested commentator, take it for what it’s worth.