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California Takes Major Steps Toward Universal Internet Service

Three new bipartisan bills are among the largest investments in broadband connectivity in the country.

After a victorious year of advocacy in support of bridging California's digital divide, broadband advocates and California lawmakers have partnered to pass two more major bills that will continue the progress toward providing all Californians with access to high-quality internet. The bills—SB 4 and AB 14, in conjunction with the budget actions in SB 156—invest a combined total of $7.5 billion in broadband infrastructure and represent one of the largest investments in public fiber in the country. In short, these bills represent a significant opportunity to make universal internet service a reality in California.

The first bill to pass—SB 156—which Common Sense advocated for, became law in July 2021 as part of the state's budget. The legislation includes four main components:

  • $2 billion for last-mile connections. Last-mile connections are the terminal lines that lead from a local network hub to an individual subscriber's location—usually the wires running from utility poles to a home and into the modem. In rural areas with few people, last-mile infrastructure can be prohibitively expensive for private internet service providers (ISPs) to build because the cost of construction can outweigh the profit from relatively few subscribers. That reality discourages private investment and leaves many rural Californians with little to no internet service. This $2 billion grant program will help pay for construction in these underserved areas.

  • $3.25 billion for middle-mile infrastructure. Middle-mile infrastructure, like the trunk of a tree, carries data to and from the many branching last-mile connections. This infrastructure is typically invisible to an average user, and consists of long underground or underwater cables that run between scattered local network hubs and centralized internet servers. SB 156 gives the state the power to significantly expand this infrastructure and provide access to it at low cost. Once in place, this infrastructure will make it much easier for local last-mile networks to tie into the wider internet, and its open access nature will allow multiple ISPs to compete for the same subscribers (meaning fewer Californians will be stuck with only one provider).

  • $750 million for a loan loss reserve program. This program will give local governments the financing they need to issue bonds and, through these bonds, generate billions to invest in high-quality fiber internet networks. Fiber networks provide the fastest, most reliable, and most future-proof type of connectivity available, but private ISPs build them only in select (typically affluent) locations where they're likely to receive a fast return on their investment. Local governments do not require fast returns, and SB 156 empowers them to build with the long-term goal of providing affordable, high-quality internet service to as many people as possible.

  • A broadband czar and advisory committee. These entities will provide tech support to local governments as they plan and construct broadband networks. This support will help communities that are looking to build networks for the first time, and it will improve the government's ability to incorporate constituent feedback. Given all the opportunities created by these bills and new federal programs, this support will be invaluable.

The other two bills are SB 4, which Common Sense sponsored, and AB 14, which Common Sense supported. The bills, signed by Governor Newsom in October 2021, function as a pair that complement SB 156:

  • Guaranteed future funding for the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF). CASF is the tool by which the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) expands broadband throughout the state. It funds the last-mile infrastructure program created by SB 156, connection to public housing units, public and after-school broadband access, and it supports grant applicants and broadband project development. SB 4 and AB 14 extend CASF's funding through 2032, which will enable the CPUC and its grantees to maximize the many opportunities created through recent federal spending, plan investments with the knowledge of long-term support, and ensure that SB 156 reaches its full potential.

We applaud Governor Newsom, State Senator Gonzalez, Assemblymember Aguiar-Curry, state budget leaders, and the many legislators, legislative staff, and advocates who worked tirelessly to achieve these bipartisan legislative successes. For the past year, these leaders have been willing to have uncomfortable negotiations with the telecommunications industry, make and stick with tough decisions, and prioritize funding for this much-needed community service.

Now it's time to begin the long task of implementation and oversight of these bills on behalf of the the 25% of California's students who lack internet access adequate for remote learning, the 10% of California's households who don't have access to a computing device at home, and the nearly 90% of California's rural residents who don't have access to fiber internet, among others.

Universal internet service will mean all Californians, no matter where they live or their income level, have reliable access to high-quality, affordable internet. Between these three bills and the recent federal infrastructure law, state leaders could make this a reality.We have reached the mountaintop of this fight. Now we must carefully descend the mountain with the prize in hand, while paying close attention to each step along the way.

Marvin Deon
Marvin Deon is vice president of California policy at Common Sense.