Years ago, we noted that despite being one of the world’s largest economies, the state of California had no broadband plan for universal, affordable, high-speed access. It is clear that access that meets our needs requires fiber optic infrastructure, yet most Californians were stuck with slow broadband monopolies due to laws supported by the cable monopolies providing us with terrible service. For example, the state was literally putting obsolete copper DSL internet connections instead of building out fiber optics to rural communities under a state law large private ISPs supported in 2017. But all of that is finally coming to an end thanks to your efforts.
Today, Governor Newsom signed into law one of the largest state investments in public fiber in the history of the United States. No longer will the state of California simply defer to the whims of AT&T and cable for broadband access, now every community is being given their shot to choose their broadband destiny.
How Did We Get a New Law?
California’s new broadband infrastructure program was made possible through a combination of persistent statewide activism from all corners, political leadership by people such as Senator Lena Gonzalez, and investment funding from the American Rescue Plan passed by Congress. All of these things were part of what led up to the moment when Governor Newsom introduced his multi-billion broadband budget that is being signed into law today. Make no mistake, every single time you picked up the phone or emailed to tell your legislator to vote for affordable, high-speed access to all people, it made a difference because it set the stage for today.
Arguably, what pushed us to this moment was the image of kids doing homework in fast-food parking lots during the pandemic. It made it undeniable that internet access was neither universal nor adequate in speed and capacity. That moment, captured and highlighted by Monterey County Supervisor Luis Alejo, a former member of the Sacramento Assembly, forced a reckoning with the failures of the current broadband ecosystem. Coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic also forcing schools to burn countless millions of public dollars renting out inferior mobile hotspots, Sacramento finally had enough and voted unanimously to change course.
What is California’s New Broadband Infrastructure Program and Why is it a Revolution?
California’s new broadband program approaches the problem on multiple fronts. It empowers local public entities, local private actors, and the state government itself to be the source of the solution. The state government will build open-access fiber capacity to all corners of the state. This will ensure that every community has multi-gigabit capacity available to suit their current and future broadband needs. Low-interest financing under the state’s new $750 million “Loan Loss Reserve” program will enable municipalities and county governments to issue broadband bonds to finance their own fiber. An additional $2 billion is available in grants for unserved pockets of the state for private and public applicants.
The combination of these three programs provides solutions that were off the table before the governor signed this law. For example, a rural community can finance a portion of their own fiber network with low-interest loans and bonds, seek grants for the most expensive unserved pockets, and connect with the state’s own fiber network at affordable prices. In a major city, a small private ISP or local school district can apply for a grant to provide broadband to an unserved low-income neighborhood. Even in high-tech cities such as San Francisco, an estimated 100,000 residents lack broadband access in low-income areas, proving that access is a widespread, systemic problem, not just a rural one, that requires an all hands on deck approach.
The revolution here is the fact that the law does not rely on AT&T, Frontier Communications, Comcast, and Charter to solve the digital divide. Quite simply, the program makes very little of the total $6 billion budget available to these large private ISPs who have already received so much money and still failed to deliver a solution. This is an essential first step towards reaching near universal fiber access, because it was never ever going to happen through the large private ISPs who are tethered to fast profits and short term investor expectations that prevent them from pursuing universal fiber access. What the state needed was to empower local partners in the communities themselves who will take on the long-term infrastructure challenge.
If you live in California, now is the time to talk to your mayor and city council about your future broadband needs. Now is the time to talk to your local small businesses about the future the state has enabled if they need to improve their broadband connectivity. Now is the time to talk to your school district about what they can do to improve community infrastructure for local students. Maybe you yourself have the will and desire to build your own local broadband network through this law.
All of these things are now possible because for the first time in state history there is a law in place that lets you decide the broadband future.