By Cyrus Farivar
The California Senate Budget Committee passed a comprehensive bill Wednesday aimed at expanding broadband infrastructure across the state, setting up all-but-certain passage in the state Assembly and the Senate.
Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, announced his support for the bill this week, calling it “historic,” but it was unknown when precisely he would sign it into law.
If the bill is enacted, the state would spend $5.25 billion on broadband expansion, including $3.25 billion on a so-called open-access middle-mile network. The wonky term describes the often expensive network infrastructure connecting the so-called internet “backbone” to the “last mile,” where a local internet service provider, or ISP, connects to individual households. The “open-access” term means both public and private ISPs would be able to connect equally.
While there such publicly funded networks in other states, the California version would be likely to be a much greater state-level network than has been built anywhere else in the country. Broadband experts say such middle-mile networks can encourage new ISPs to build faster and less expensive access to the internet to compete with existing providers.
It can be difficult and expensive to connect the landing stations, sometimes called global connection points, to local providers. The problem is often worsened in poorer and rural areas because large ISPs may not see them as profitable.
In an op-ed published Wednesday in Capitol Weekly, a state government-focused publication, the head of the California Cable & Telecommunications Association, an industry group, asked that the bill be amended to focus largely on “unserved” areas where not even a single provider offers minimal broadband service. AT&T made similar comments in a letter to the governor last month.
But Vinhcent Le, a technology equity lawyer with the Greenlining Institute, an advocacy organization in Oakland, said large ISPs see the bill as a “huge deal” that could spur new competition with incumbent providers, like AT&T, even in major urban areas.
“I think this is something that should have been done 10 years ago,” he said.
During the hearing Wednesday, Sen. Mike McGuire, a Democrat who represents Marin County, north of San Francisco, and a coastal stretch to the Oregon border, said the state cannot rely on private companies to expand access statewide.
“We’re not in it for the profit. This state is in it for the people,” he said. “More competition will bring down the prices for everyone in this state.”
California’s nonpartisan legislative research arm, the Legislative Analyst’s Office, found last month that poorer households across the state largely correlate with lower broadband adoption rates.
Similarly, the broader American digital divide was starkly illustrated last month when the National Telecommunications and Information Administration published a comprehensive map showing that many poor, rural and tribal areas of the country lack quality and affordable service.
“California is blessed with having a lot of global connection points,” said Ernesto Falcon, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital advocacy group.
“What the state is designing to do is bridge the capacity gap between the backbone to all communities,” Falcon said. “If global connections are LAX [Los Angeles International Airport], then this is building the way for people to take a freeway to get to the world.”