Electronic Frontier Foundation: California Legislation to Make Significant Investments in Public Broadband
BY ERNESTO FALCON
The California Legislature finished the 2020 session without doing anything to address broadband access in response to the pandemic. While the California Senate sent much-needed legislation to the Assembly, it was not allowed to move forward from there. That meant no help for the more than 1 million students lacking sufficient Internet access to engage in remote education, or for the countless other Californians relying on their home access to engage in remote work. This year, Senator Lena Gonzalez, the original author of EFF’s sponsored legislation S.B. 1130 to convert the California Internet infrastructure program, is back with a new bill to take action this year, after close work with many of her colleagues.
This new legislation, S.B. 4 - Broadband for All, takes a different approach than the original S.B. 1130 by creating a new program that will help local governments build their own broadband options. In fact, it enables local governments to make a massive billion dollar investment in public infrastructure by unlocking the bond market for local communities. This new bond program would enable local governments to secure long-term low-interest financing in the same way electricity was paid for in deep rural markets. Those investments, designed to give long terms—multiple decades—to repay the bonds, will be in fiber optic infrastructure. This makes the most sense, as fiber optic is the only data infrastructure proven to last that long, and remain useful as an asset.
California’s current law (known as the California Advanced Services Fund or CASF) has failed to meet the digital divide challenge. It discriminates against local community bidders to build broadband infrastructure, favors spending state money on slow outdated infrastructure, does not cover all rural and low-income Californians, and has been underfunded. A recent study found that California, despite having CASF already, is the the state with the largest number of students in the United States that lack sufficient access to broadband. This lays the weaknesses of CASF bare, showing it is a grant program investing in obsolete infrastructure, at 100% cost to the state, that collects very little actual money to spend.
S.B. 4 remedies this problem by making improvements to the grant program that are more modest than S.B. 1130’s goals, but updates the way the state collects revenue for the program with an “access line” charge. This revenue amendment is critical, because the state’s original way to collect money has been hindered by federal deregulation of the telecommunications industry, and has not kept pace with the way we use communications infrastructure. Absent this change, it’s likely that funding for this program will continue to decline despite the fact that a growing number of Californians depend (and pay for) communications services. Arguably the most consequential change S.B. 4 makes is eliminating the expiration date for revenue collection, allowing the state to do more to permanently close the digital divide with large scale investments every handful of years until every Californian has access to the Internet service they need.
Other changes the program makes are as follows:
1.Stabilize and expand California’s Internet infrastructure program (CASF) and allow the state to invest $100s of million on broadband infrastructure every year until the digital divide is closed.
2.Enable local governments to bond finance more than $1 billion with state support to secure long-term low-interest funding to build local infrastructure.
3.Build broadband networks that meet the goals of the Governor’s Executive Order with an emphasis on scalability to ensure future proofing in infrastructure financed by the state. This ensures access is built to last for the 21st century.
4.Direct support towards low-income neighborhoods that lack broadband access.
5.Expand eligibility for state support to all rural Californian communities
Now it is time to rally Sacramento to get these changes made into law and start eliminating the digital divide.