Broadband Bills Abound in Early Introductions
December 10, 2020
Bills introduced on the first day of the new session are often seen as a barometer of where the Legislature will focus their energy in the coming year. To the extent that holds true, counties can expect to see significant action on broadband in 2021. California’s progress in closing the digital divide has been steady, but slow, for the past 20 years or more. The new energy on the issue—illustrated by these bills and by the recent activity and upcoming action plan from the California Broadband Council—is a sign that counties can hope for more progress in the near future.
The pandemic’s effects–from distance-learning to telecommuting to sheltering at home–have brought into sharp relief the long-standing divide between Californians with reliable broadband at home and those without, elevating its importance among policymakers. CSAC’s board of directors has identified broadband funding and reform as a top legislative priority for the association this year and these bill introductions show that several legislators have done the same.
AB 34, by Assembly Members Al Muratsuchi, Eduardo Garcia, and Miguel Santiago, would put a state general obligation bond on the November 2022 ballot. The bill does not yet include specifics about the size of the proposed bond or its uses, but the intent is to fund increased access to broadband services to rural, urban, suburban, and tribal unserved and underserved communities. The press release announcing the bill envisions a bond of up to $10 billion and includes the following statement from CSAC Vice President and Siskiyou County Supervisor Ed Valenzuela:
“Broadband access and digital connectivity are as much about equity as they are the economy and education. The COVID-19 pandemic spotlights the divide between digital ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. In our era of telehealth, distance learning, telework and more, it is unacceptable that millions of Californians remain in the dark. There are virtually no educational or economic opportunities without reliable access to broadband, and too many rural, suburban and urban communities remain frozen out. This bond will provide the immediate, significant funding necessary to connect all of California’s communities and ensure equitable access to public health, public safety, education, entrepreneurship and economic opportunities.”
Notably, Asm. Muratsuchi represents much of the area included in the new South Bay Fiber Network, a publicly managed fiber ring that provides faster, cheaper broadband to the participating agencies and that they are planning to use as a foundation for further development and expansion.
Two other bills, SB 4, by Senator Lena Gonzalez, and AB 14, by Assembly Member Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, would reform the CASF programs that subsidize broadband infrastructure projects in unserved and underserved communities. Last year, differing visions for these reforms resulted in neither author’s bill passing. This year, the two legislators are co-authoring each other’s bills and have committed to reaching agreement. The much-needed reforms include:
- Making more money available through the CASF programs.
- Authorizing a revenue bond of up to $1 billion based on CASF revenue.
- Explicitly allowing counties to build and operate internet access services.
- Developing a model policy for streamlined land use approval and permit processes for broadband infrastructure.
- Prioritizing last-mile projects in unserved areas.
- Limiting the ability for incumbent providers to block other applicants’ projects.
Other bills worth mentioning, but without any substantive language yet, include AB 41, by Assembly Member Jim Wood, which would strengthen California’s “Dig Once” policy to put conduit in state highways during construction projects, and SB 28, by Senator Anna Caballero, which would aim to improve rural broadband and reform DIVCA, the 2006 law that transferred franchise authority for television and internet services to the state from counties and cities.
CSAC’s Government, Finance and Administration team will continue to advocate for county priorities in these bills and provide updates as the Legislative session continues.