War for California's broadband future isn't (quite) over

18 September 2017 by Steve Blum
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The politics of broadband in California are largely driven by the campaign cash that incumbent telephone and cable companies – and sometimes the unions representing their employees – stuff into the pockets of senators and assembly members. That influence is moderated by the energetic, but often futile efforts of broadband activists across the state. So it was with assembly bill 1665, which is on its way to governor Brown’s desk.

If he signs it, AB 1665 will transform the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) from a useful source of capital for broadband companies that aim to inject at least a little competition into California’s highly concentrated, sclerotic broadband market into a $300 million slush fund, mostly for telcos with rural monopolies, like AT&T and Frontier, but also allowing a taste for cable companies, like Comcast and Charter.

The fight against the pork barrel that AB 1665 became was led by a loose coalition of regional broadband consortia representing largely rural, coastal areas, beginning at Del Norte County on the Oregon border and running south through Monterey County, skipping San Francisco and San Mateo counties, which have stayed out of the fray. Independent Internet service providers and the umbrella organisation which represents many of them – CISPA – were also on the front line.

Their reaction was swift to the lopsided votes that put AB 1665 on track to become California law. You can read a running compilation here, but Sean McLaughlin, the executive director of Access Humboldt put it well…

Sadly, in AB 1665 public interests have been subverted to benefit private interests. We know that the broadband provider industry, rooted in a history of monopoly dominance over the telecommunications marketplace, has captured our legislature when a thoughtful proposal for public support to bridge the digital divide is perverted into a thoughtless gift to private interests.

The official vote tallies notwithstanding – politics is a complicated sport – several lawmakers stood against the tide of lobbyist cash and love. First among them was senator Mike McGuire (D – Healdsburg), who challenged the conventional, campaign contribution-centric wisdom at the California capitol and openly opposed AB 1665.

Senate majority leader Bill Monning (D – Monterey) refused to vote in favor of the bill. Assemblymen Mark Stone (D – Santa Cruz) and Marc Levine (D – San Rafael) signed on as co-authors months ago in the hope of reaching a sane result, and then conspicuously withdrew their names when the pork turned rancid. They all deserve thanks.

Several – but not all – republicans opposed AB 1665. Assemblyman Randy Voepel (R – Santee), who previously endorsed an independent CASF proposal in his district, voted no and was joined by seven of his assembly colleagues, most from southern California’s Axis of Anita Bryant, but also including Jordan Cunningham from San Luis Obispo.

The war isn’t quite over. Broadband advocates will make their case to Brown, and then wait. He has until 15 October 2017 to decide.

I’m part of that loose coalition. I’m involved and not making any apologies. Take it for what it’s worth.