Broadband Bills Could Bring Funding, Additional State Oversight

A slate of broadband-related bills now before state legislative committees would bring more than $10 billion in funding to bear on closing the digital divide, and ensuring unserved and underserved areas get high-speed Internet.

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Statehouse committees have yet to decide which bills are placed in suspense and which continue onward, but a robust slate of proposed legislation could make this a record year for the advancement of broadband – and stimulate opportunity for private-sector IT companies.

Lawmakers have worked for years to pass bills that would give residents more and faster high-speed Internet, but the COVID-19 pandemic brought tremendous additional urgency to their quest as millions of Californians shifted almost overnight to working and learning from home. In its own assessment, CalMatters counted no fewer than 20 active bills related to broadband; nationally, Government Technology* highlighted vice presidential involvement in the issue and its inclusion in the Biden administration’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal. Here are California bills to watch:

Assembly Bill 34, from Assemblymembers Al Muratsuchi, D-Torrance, Miguel Santiago, D-Los Angeles and Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia, D-Coachella, would enact the Broadband for All Act of 2022. If approved by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, it would send a $10 billion general obligation bond measure to voters in an effort “to help close the digital divide throughout California” according to Muratsuchi’s office. It would also place considerable responsibility on the California Department of Technology, according to Assembly analysis, requiring it to implement the “Broadband for All” infrastructure and services grant program, giving preference to applications that would leverage private, federal or local funding; that serve “unserved areas or disadvantaged communities”; and to projects with multiple benefits. At least one-quarter of the program’s funds would be designated for projects in unserved or disadvantaged areas. The bill cleared the Assembly Committee on Privacy and Consumer Protection April 22, landing at the Assembly Appropriations Committee where it will be heard Wednesday.

AB 14, from Garcia and Assemblymember Mark Stone, D-Monterey Bay; and state Senate Bill 4, from Sen. Lena Gonzalez, D-Long Beach would focus more funding on broadband. AB 14 would, generally, extend and modify the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) by “increasing the minimum speed” of CASF-deployed broadband infrastructure; and propose a new funding stream. It would continue CASF funding in perpetuity “with a surcharge not to exceed an unspecified percentage of an end user’s intrastate telecommunications service costs”; and would change project eligibility to “infrastructure capable of providing broadband access at speeds of at least 25 megabits per second (Mbps) downstream and 25 Mbps upstream with a goal of 100 Mbps downstream.” It would have the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) prioritize “specified” broadband infrastructure grants to projects in unserved and high poverty areas; authorize local education agencies to report pupils’ distance learning needs around computing and the Internet to the California Department of Education; and require CDE to compile and post those needs annually on its website. The bill would also task the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development (GO-Biz) to work with stakeholders on streamlining local land use approval and permitting for broadband infrastructure deployment by June 30. It was referred to Assembly Appropriations on Wednesday. SB 4 would also convene GO-Biz and stakeholders on land use approval and permitting; and it would extend the CASF, helping “address the infrastructure barriers to broadband access,” according to Senate analysis. It would change the CASF surcharge in ways that “may stabilize the fund’s revenues”; and would modify the definition of an unserved area to one where “at least 90 percent of the population has no facilities-based broadband provider offering service at speeds of at least 25/3 mbps” – expanding the communities eligible for CASF grants. The bill is next slated to be heard by the state Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday.

AB 1560, from Assemblymember Tom Daly, D-Anaheim, would require the state superintendent of public instruction, by April 1, 2022 and then annually, to survey local educational entities and report to the Legislature on pupils without “computing devices that meet the minimum performance standard for distance learning,” and pupils without residential broadband. The bill would authorize the superintendent to issue eligible pupils from kindergarten-12th grade “a computing device” that meets those minimum performance standards; and require the superintendent to keep an online list of broadband options for low-income residents. The bill would also authorize CDT to enter into a “sponsored service agreement” on behalf of a local educational entity to provide free or reduced-cost residential broadband to eligible K-12 pupils. It was referred to Assembly Appropriations on April 22; it’s not clear when it will be heard.

SB 743, from Sen. Steven Bradford, D-Gardena, would create a grant program to “support broadband adoption in public housing, including for computer labs, digital literacy and other adoption programs,” according to Bradford’s office. Specifically, it would require the CPUC to create a grant program to fund “broadband adoption, digital literacy and computer equipment for eligible publicly supported communities, as defined,” for “either one-time funding for computer equipment and to establish computer labs or ongoing funding for up to three years for broadband service and digital literacy programs.” It’s headed to Senate Appropriations, although it’s unclear when it will be heard.

AB 1483, from Assemblymember Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, would activate the California Broadband Council – which last year created the Broadband Action Plan 2020, California Broadband for All, – to ensure “all relevant state agencies” know what they have to do to implement that plan’s recommendations – instead of the previous 2008 Broadband Task Force Report. The bill will be considered by Assembly Appropriations, though it’s not clear when.

*Government Technology magazine is a publication of e.Republic, which also produces Techwire.
Theo Douglas is Assistant Managing Editor of Techwire.