The week AT&T, cable lobbyists ran up the score in Sacramento

25 April 2016 by Steve Blum
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It could have been a winning week (or two) for broadband infrastructure advocates in the California capitol, but instead last week turned into a victory march for AT&T and cable lobbyists as they fought to further entrench the cosy monopoly/duopoly conditions that underpin their business models. I’ve been blogging more or less on a play by play basis, but I think it’d be helpful to try to pull it briefly together.

It comes down to four key assembly bills, all of which landed in the assembly utilities and commerce committee over the past couple of weeks:

AB 1758 – an effort by Santa Cruz democrat Mark Stone to raise California’s broadband standard to 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds, and put $350 million into the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) for infrastructure upgrade subsidies and a variety of other programs.

AB 2130 – a counter to Stone’s bill written by AT&T and carried by assemblyman Bill Quirk (D – Hayward), it would have ended ancillary CASF programs for public housing and regional consortia, added a new, $100 million infrastructure program rigged to highly favor incumbents and all but close the door to independent projects.

AB 2395 – Another AT&T-written bill, this one was fronted by Silicon Valley democrat Evan Low. A classic piece of obfuscation, the rhetoric focused on the geeky details of transitioning voice service from legacy analog systems to digital technology, which is something that most agree is necessary, albeit with different opinions regarding timing and other details. But it also includes language allowing AT&T to replace copper lines in rural and inner city areas with wireless-only service at will, and all but remove it from regulatory oversight.

ACA 11 – an amendment proposed by Mike Gatto (D – Los Angeles) that writes the California Public Utilities Commission out of the state constitution and puts utility regulatory decisions into the hands of the legislature. If it gets two-thirds approval in the assembly and senate, it goes on the November ballot for a vote.

AB 1758 died in committee due to lack of support, particularly from Gatto, who serves as chairman. AB 2130 followed into oblivion – with AB 1758 gone, there was no further need for it. AB 2395 and ACA 11 were both approved by lopsided majorities, and are headed to a second committee review, ahead of a vote by the full assembly.

The California assembly, or at least the utilities and commerce committee, is pointing in a clear direction: a smaller role for state government in telecoms regulation and subsidies. That would be wonderful if the result were likely to be a freer market with more innovation and competition. But that’s not the way to bet.

Incumbents, with AT&T in the lead, are carefully unpicking Californian telecoms policy, scrapping inconvenient restraints on monopoly power while keeping barriers to competition in place. That’s bad news. But there’s good news too: it’s still early in the game.

I’ve advocated for and helped to draft AB 1758 and its predecessors. I’m involved and proud of it. Take it for what it’s worth.