Taco Bell cares more about disconnected Californians than California’s leaders do

4 September 2020 by Steve Blum
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Salinas taco bell broadband

Kids sitting on curb in front of a fast food restaurant in order to get the broadband connection they need to go to schools that only operate online now is the best we can do now. The California legislature was diverted by pork barrel schemes from friends of AT&T, Comcast and other monopoly model incumbents, and finally bought into submission by the millions of dollars that those big telecoms companies pay them. Lawmakers took no action on bringing California’s broadband standard up to 21st century levels and did nothing to make it available to the millions of Californians who lack access to to it.

The California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) will run out of money this year. Or come close enough to doing so that next year’s action will be negligible. Either way, the end of California’s primary broadband infrastructure subsidy program will be upon us as we begin 2021.

The total of pending infrastructure grant applications is three times more than available funds, and there’s still the possibility of a brief opening for new projects that leverage state money for the federal Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction in October.

The legislature passed a bill in June that allows the CPUC to top up RDOF bids. The commission voted in August to “assign to and authorise staff to set additional infrastructure application windows”. So far, nothing has happened.

The money for CASF comes from a tax – euphemistically called a surcharge or fee – on in-state telephone calls, which is a diminishing source of revenue. The authorisation to collect it ends in 2022. Currently, it’s about half a penny on the dollar. To collect the full amount authorised, the CPUC would have to increase the rate to a full penny or more.

If the CPUC does that, then most of the pending applications could be approved and some money set aside for RDOF bids, if the largest and most speculative of the bunch are taken out. But the well will still run dry next year.

Keeping CASF going requires action from the California legislature. That didn’t happen in 2020, despite an all out push to raise CASF standards to meet 21st century broadband needs, and the start of a campaign to raise a meaningful amount of money to pay for it.

California lawmakers need to start caring as much as Taco Bell does about the public they both serve.

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.