'Broadband for California' Bill Aims to Ease Deployment for Local Governments, Service Providers

One piece of broadband legislation still making its way through the statehouse is aimed at making it easier for local governments and Internet service providers to access funds for high-speed broadband projects. A critic, however, charges it would "upend" the direction of state funding and potentially shift focus away from areas that lack service.

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A broadband bill from a Southern California state senator that could have significant ramifications for both public and private sectors remains active in the Legislature despite financial considerations amid an historically difficult budget year.

Senate Bill 1130 from state Sen. Lena Gonzalez, D-Long Beach, the so-called “Broadband for California” bill, will have a hearing July 14 before the state Assembly Committee on Communications and Conveyance, following a bipartisan vote June 26 to move it off the Senate floor. (The Legislature is in recess until Monday.) Generally, the bill would make it easier for local governments and Internet service providers (ISPs) to access monies in the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF), and complete high-speed broadband projects in unserved and high-poverty areas. Among the takeaways:

• Authorized by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) in 2007, the CASF is capitalized by a revenue surcharge on end users that telecommunications carriers collect for providing “intrastate telecommunications services,” according to the CPUC. It generates $645 million for the CPUC to provide “broadband access to no less than 98 percent of California households in each consortia region.” The fund is allocated to accounts for broadband adoption, infrastructure grants and public housing as well as rural and urban regional broadband consortia grants and a line extension pilot program.

Among its aims, SB 1130 would require the CPUC to “develop, implement, and administer the CASF program to encourage deployment of 21st century-ready communications”; set the CASF goal to providing “high-capacity, future-proof infrastructure …” by Dec. 31, 2024; and require the CPUC, when approving infrastructure projects, to approve those with the goal of “providing high-capacity, future-proof infrastructure to households that are unserved areas, as defined, or unserved high-poverty areas.” The bill would require the CPUC to prioritize projects in unserved areas and unserved high-poverty areas, and would resolve any double-dipping for projects already funded by federal grants.

In an argument supporting the bill, included in analysis by the Senate Rules Committee, Gonzalez said high-speed broadband Internet for all state residents is the first step toward closing the digital divide. Her legislation would, she said, reform how CASF operates.

“Currently, the CASF has roughly $300 million available and it is not being accessed by the communities that need it the most or accessed at all. SB 1130 will make it easier for local governments and internet service providers of all sizes to access this fund to carry out high-speed broadband projects in the state unserved and unserved high-poverty areas,” Gonzalez said.

• In its analysis, the committee found the bill would modify the definition of an “unserved” area that could qualify for broadband infrastructure funding; would restrict projects to only those doing broadband Internet; and would require any project getting funding for “middle mile” broadband infrastructure to “offer ‘open access’ to multiple broadband re-sellers.” Among its changes relative to projects’ eligibility and approval, SB 1130 would mandate projects stand up infrastructure that can offer broadband access at speeds of a minimum of 25 megabits per second (mbps) downstream and 3 mbps upstream, and with a latency low enough “to allow real-time, interactive applications to unserved areas and unserved high-poverty areas,” to be eligible for grants. Currently, local governments and smaller ISPs often don’t qualify for CASF grants “because the speed qualifications are set so low (6/1 mbps),” George Soares, a policy consultant in Gonzalez’s office, told Techwire via email.

“SB 1130 raises those speed standards, allowing more unserved areas to be covered. This legislation is different because it raises speed standards, adds open access provisions, and future proof fiber infrastructure requirements,” Soares said.

• The state Senate Appropriations Committee found the bill “could result in unknown cost pressures, likely in the millions of dollars (special fund), due to an expansion of the number of unserved households/areas that would be eligible for funding from the CASF program.”

• Other supporters of the bill include the California Broadband Cooperative, the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association, the League of California Cities and the Los Angeles County Office of Education. Opponents are the California Cable and Telecommunications Association (CCTA), Charter Communications, Frontier Communications and the San Gabriel Valley Economic Partnership. Arguing against the bill, a CCTA representative said in the committee analysis the bill “would completely upend the Legislature’s direction that the CASF program fund infrastructure in areas that still lack any Internet connectivity, which is almost entirely in remote rural California.” In a time when many rural parts of the state still lack broadband service, the bill would allow CASF grants for upgrading existing networks unless they already offer speeds of 25/25 mbps, the representative said, adding that classifying an area as “unserved” unless it has “symmetrical speeds” of 25/25 mbps “would potentially deem all areas of California as unserved since few, if any, ISP’s currently provide service with symmetrical speeds.”

Theo Douglas is Assistant Managing Editor of Techwire.