Two bills before the California legislature in its final month of session, S.B. 1130 and A.B. 570, chart very different courses for the state’s broadband infrastructure program. In considering them, the state faces a  fundamental question about how to invest its money: in modern, high-capacity fiber networks, or slow wireless and DSL copper networks.

EFF has researched—and devoted substantial legal and technical expertise to—this very question. The choice is clear. If we are not spending resources into building, brick-by-brick, and as soon as possible,  21st-century access by extending fiber deeper into communities, we stall efforts to end the digital divide. Spending money on slow speeds and legacy networks will end up costing taxpayers a substantial amount more.  Why? Because they will fail to provide useful access to modern applications and services, let alone next generation Internet products. Worst yet, they do not offer a meaningful way to transition toward the gigabit era. In other words, the “cheaper” option now means that California will still have to replace these networks with fiber eventually, to keep pace with demand and stay competitive with other parts of the United States and the world.

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SB 1130 Charts a Course to Equality of Access and Ending Decades of Neglect for Communities that Major ISPs Have Ignored 

Communities that are suffering today do so because, for more than 15 years, neglect from major national ISPs and a lack of government involvement have deprived them of investments in fiber infrastructure. Major national ISPs deployed fiber deep into areas that represented the top half of the income scale and primarily within cities, leaving rural and low-income people behind. This is well-documented through federal data. But the debate as to whether state policy should stand for the proposition that all California residents deserve the same access to the Internet is ongoing. 

Areas of the state that have deep, dense fiber networks have cheaper, faster connections that have allowed them to transition to remote work and education, which have become even more important as the state responds to the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, the communities that lack fiber have seen their Internet connections systemically fail. We predicted this outcome at the beginning of the pandemic, and worked closely with Senator Lena Gonzalez in Sacramento to introduce S.B. 1130, to  end this inequality of access as state law. In partnership with Common Sense Media, which has produced definitive research to show that remote education needs far exceed the federal minimum standard of broadband (established at 25 mbps for download speed /3 mbps for upload speed in 2015), we have been pushing Sacramento to equip the state with a 21st-century infrastructure plan. All roads to the broadband future runs through fiber, and state policy should be focused on extending it to everyone.

AB 570 Funds the Wrong Infrastructure in the Wrong Century and Leaves Too Many Behind. But This Can Be Fixed.

The proponents of A.B. 570—namely its sponsor, the California Emerging Technology Fund—fundamentally do not agree that all communities deserve the same 21st-century ready access to the Internet. If they did, they would not have drafted legislation that is affirmatively anti-fiber in rural markets, and prioritizes DSL upgrades and cell tower deployments that were already happening with private dollars under federal law. They wouldn’t be pushing legislation that affirmatively ignores close to 1 million Californians who lack high-speed access today from receiving help from the state. The common refrain in all of these arguments is that a future where we try to help everyone with high-speed access to close the digital divide is “aspirational.” And that is categorically wrong. Modern economies all around the world, including those that are smaller than California’s economy, all have universal fiber plans. Smaller states with limited budgets such as Utah and North Dakota are rapidly approaching universal fiber. We should be asking ourselves why our current policies of favoring slow networks have failed us, rather than doubling down on them as A.B. 570 would do. 

When the average North American city already enjoys speeds averaging 250/250 mbps for its wealthier residents (which stems from upgraded cable vs fiber competition), Californians should soundly reject attempts to spend 100s of millions of dollars on 25/3 mbps for low-income and rural areas. Such an approach is both wasteful and unfair to those communities. It does nothing to bring us an iota closer to resolving the digital divide problem, it just swaps it with a speed chasm. A.B. 570’s approach is not a bridge to the future, it is a link to the past that will just delay, at great expense, steps to address the undeniable fact that meaningful participation in today’s and tomorrow’s Internet requires fiber in your community.

We Can All be Winners, Especially California Residents, if the Legislature Fixes What’s Wrong with AB 570

The path to fixing  AB 570 is simple, straightforward, and ultimately necessary as it likely lacks the votes it needs to pass with its outdated 25/3 mbps plan. But its outright failure would be bad for Californians, in general, because financing broadband infrastructure is good policy. Lawmakers must simply be thoughtful about what type of infrastructure they fund and who benefits from these networks.

Before moving it forward, the legislature should adjust the type of networks A.B. 570 builds by increasing the minimum speeds offered to 25/25 mbps to push fiber closer to these communities. The federal definition of broadband, set at 25/3, is completely and utterly useless by any metric that measures its application in the modern economy. The state should not bake such a backwards-looking number into its infrastructure plan. California has a history of raising standards above the federal minimum when it has been needed in areas such as wages and environmental standards, and there is no good reason we shouldn’t embrace doing the same  with broadband access. In fact,the Trump Administration’s FCC is already looking to finance gigabit fiber in rural markets and the House majority has approved a 100/100 mbps standard for broadband access.

The most important issue that A.B. 570 correctly highlighted is the difference between the zero-access population, and the population that has Internet access, but not high-speed broadband access. But its current drafting tackles this issue by picking winners and losers, and cuts off far too many people in need of help (close to 1 million Californians). The better approach would be to simply dedicate a majority of the revenues A.B. 570 raises to the zero-access population with their own specialized budget with the state government. Arguably, the communities most left behind will be the most expensive to serve. Dedicating a greater portion of state resources to them—especially if we’re extending fiber—makes the most sense until they are connected. Once that goal is done, revenues can be fully focused on finishing the job of delivering at least one high-speed access point to all Californians who lack it, as laid out in S.B. 1130. 

Lastly, the state is going to have to tackle how it finances these efforts in a sustainable, long-term way. Currently, money collected for the broadband effort comes from in-state telephone calls—which is illogical because we’re building out broadband connectivity, and people are abandoning telephone lines. In the future, the state needs to decide where it collects its revenues to finance the broadband infrastructure program. Relatedly, recent discussions about opening up the bond market to long term debt financing of these types of infrastructure projects hold tremendous promise, and we support that, too. Such an approach would reflect what already happens in the EU and Australia, where long-term, low-interest loans are made available to deploy fiber. If we want to close California’s digital divide within 5-10 years, we need a large infusion of money upfront to get that started to build out fiber. Fiber optics will last decades after even a 30-year loan, and our engineering analysis has found that it will remain useful, potentially even to the advent of the 22nd century.

But the clock is ticking. The legislature only has a few weeks left to make the right calls.  If you live in California, your voice is needed now more than ever.

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