California is facing a broadband access crisis, as parents are relying more on the Internet every day trying to keep their jobs in the midst of the pandemic while remotely educating their kids. The people of California need help, and the state should move forward now to begin the work needed to finally close the digital divide. Yet with just hours left in this year’s legislative session, the California Assembly refused to hear SB 1130, or any deal, to expand broadband access—a refusal that came out of the blue, without any explanation to the more than 50 groups that supported this bill. And that kind of blockade is only possible at the direction of California’s Speaker of the Assembly, Speaker Anthony Rendon.

A deal to expand broadband would have secured more than 100 million dollars a year to secure access to high-speed Internet for families, first responders, and seniors across the state. Senator Lena Gonzalez built a broad coalition of support for this bill, and had the support of the California Senate and Governor Gavin Newsom.

As Sen. Gonzalez said in a press release on the bill, “During this crisis, children are sitting outside Taco Bell so they can access the Internet to do their homework, but the Assembly chose to kill SB 1130, the only viable solution in the state legislature to help close the digital divide and provide reliable broadband infrastructure for California students, parents, educators, and first responders in our communities.”

Yet the Assembly insisted on poison pill amendments that support big industry instead of California residents and families. Despite your hundreds of phone calls and letters of support for this bill, the Assembly failed to do what’s right by the people of California this session.

We won’t stop fighting. EFF was proud to co-sponsor this bill with Common Sense Media, and will continue to explore all options to get the state to address this problem in the coming months and next session. Why? Because we, too, believe that every student should have an Internet connection at least as good as the Taco Bell down the street.

Playing Politics With Necessities

SB 1130 was in a strong position heading into the Assembly. The California Senate on June 26, 2020, voted 30-9 to pass the bill, giving its stamp of approval to update the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) to expand its eligibility to all Californians lacking high-speed access. The bill paved the way for state-financed networks that would have been up to handling Internet traffic for decades to come, and would have been able to deliver future speeds of 100 mbps for download and upload without more state money.

The pandemic has exposed how badly a private-only approach to broadband has failed us all. The Assembly failed us, too.

Under the current law, only half of Californians lacking high-speed access are eligible for these funds, which also only requires ISPs to build basic Internet access at just 10 mbps for download and 1 mbps for upload. This is effectively is a waste of tax money today because it does not even enable remote work and remote education. Recognizing this, Senate leadership worked to address concerns with the bill, and struck a nuanced deal to:

  1. Stabilize and expand California’s Internet Infrastructure program, and allow the state to spend over $500 million on broadband infrastructure as quickly as possible with revenues collected over the years
  2. Enable local governments to bond finance $1 billion with state support to secure long-term low interest rates to directly support school districts
  3. Build broadband networks at a minimum of 100 mbps download, with an emphasis on scalability to ensure the state does not have to finance new construction later
  4. Direct support towards low-income neighborhoods that lack broadband access
  5. Expand eligibility for state support to ensure every rural Californian receives help

Yet the Assembly proposed amendments that would have weakened the bill and given unfair favors to big ISPs, which oppose letting communities build their own broadband networks. After repeatedly stalling attempts at negotiation, refusing to consider amendments, and using their delays as an excuse to hide behind procedural minutae, the bill was shelved at the direction of Assembly leadership on August 30, prompting our call for them to act before the session ended.

Assembly leadership and Speaker Rendon chose the path of inaction, confusion, and division—instead of doing the work critical to serve Californians at school and work who are desperately in need for these critical infrastructure improvements while they seek to shelter in place.

Why We Can’t Let Up

We will keep fighting. We got so close to expanding broadband access to all Californians—and that’s why the resistance was so tenacious. The industry knows their regional monopolies are in jeopardy if someone else builds vastly superior and cheaper fiber to the home networks. Support is building from local governments across the state of California, which are ready to debt-finance their own fiber if they can receive a small amount of help from the state.

Californians see this for what it is: a willful failure of leadership, at the expense of schoolchildren, workers, those in need of telehealth services, and first responders.

By not acting now, the Assembly chose to leave millions of Californians behind—especially in rural areas and in communities of color that big ISPs have refused to serve. The pandemic has exposed how badly a private-only approach to broadband has failed us all. The Assembly failed us, too.

We’re thankful the Senate, the governor, and supporters like you stand ready to address the critical issue of Californians’ broadband needs. California must not wait to start addressing this problem. EFF will continue exploring all options to close the digital divide, whether that happens in a special California legislative session, or in the next session.

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