AT&T Gets Assemblymember Sharon Quirk-Silva To Push A Shitty Bill Undermining State Efforts To Deliver Affordable Fiber
from the this-is-why-we-can't-have-nice-things dept
While it got lost under the obsession with “big tech,” California has been doing a lot of interesting stuff in a bid to counter “big telecom.” The state not only implemented new net neutrality rules requiring that telecom monopolies behave, it’s building a massive new open access fiber network that should go a long way in driving broadband competition to market, expanding broadband access and lowering costs.
The $6 billion program breaks down this way: $3.25 billion will be used to build and maintain the open access fiber network open to all competitors. $2 billion will be spent on “last mile” connections connecting this network to customer and business addresses. And $750 million for a loan loss reserve fund to bolster the ability of local governments and nonprofits to secure financing for broadband infrastructure.
Combined with the Biden infrastructure bill (which will also drive $42 billion toward potential competitors, while prioritizing the broad deployment of fiber), this is all a bit of a nightmare for regional telecom monopolies that have grown accustomed to feckless bureaucracy and unchecked monopoly power for the better part of a generation.
So as the EFF notes, companies like AT&T have introduced legislation in California to try and unwind some of the efforts. A.B. 2749, authored by Assemblymember Quirk-Silva, does several things that are largely just giant favors to AT&T, including:
- weakens language ensuring that broadband providers must deploy fiber, allowing companies like AT&T (with a very long history of failing to follow through on fiber promises) to substitute wireless for “future-proof” fiber.
- eliminates restrictions requiring that ISPs deliver affordable access to every Californian (AT&T would much prefer to price gouge customers in captive and marginalized markets).
- places an arbitrary 180-day review shot-clock on the review of applications for federal funding, which will short-circuit public provider efforts to deliver fiber (AT&T is a fierce opponent of community broadband efforts challenging its dominance) and give bigger, deeper pocketed giants with ample resources a leg up in getting taxpayer money.
In most developed nations, when you’ve got a natural monopoly dominating a market, regulators step in to level the playing field, developing policies that drive competition, innovation, and affordability. But AB 2749 steps in undermine much of the California’s government effort to do that, in part by crippling the California CPUC’s ability to ensure even, affordable deployment of broadband.
U.S. history is filled with examples of state and federal governments throwing billions in taxpayer dollars at AT&T in exchange for fiber networks they then half-deploy. It’s basically just throwing money in a giant pit, as nobody tackles the monopoly itself, or the lack of competition and high prices that result. Instead, you get a lot of hand-wringing and feel good language about the “digital divide.”
Enter the CPUC, whose new evaluation criteria for infrastructure grants heavily favors both a 10-year price commitment and the creation of a $40 plan at 50/20 mbps. That’s not the dreaded “rate regulation” telecom executives are terrified of, but it does require that if taxpayer money is going to be used for projects, those projects will need to provide fairly uniform, affordable broadband access.
Natural monopolies like AT&T, of course, don’t like this. They’ve spent more than thirty years tilting the playing field so that competition is a pipe dream in many parts of the U.S. So it has convinced a bunch of corrupt legislators to try and cripple the California CPUC’s ability to require lower-cost tiers:
A.B. 2749 says the CPUC cannot require internet service providers to provide a basic service tier and regulate the pricing. If it were to pass, your taxpayer dollars will pay an Internet Service Provider’s (ISPs) construction costs and then that ISP can still charge you high rates on the networks built with your money. Despite a supermajority of Americans viewing broadband access to be as important as water and electricity and having no choice in provider, the market is such that you have to grit your teeth and accept the high prices set by monopolistic ISPs. A.B. 2749 would further entrench this exploitative status quo.
Again, telecom will convince many politicians and pundits that this is all “government run amok,” and that the correct path forward is just to let telecom monopolies like Comcast and AT&T do whatever the fuck they want. But that’s been the U.S. telecom policy paradigm for the last thirty years, and you can pretty clearly see what the end result of that is: patchy, spotty, expensive service and shitty customer support.
California’s answer has been to not only construct a massive new open access middle mile network to boost competition and drive down the costs to provide service, it’s opening the door wide to the various creative approaches to fixing the digital divide: cooperatives, utilities, local governments, public/private partnerships, and others. Again, AT&T doesn’t want that. It wants absolute power.
Keep in mind that this latest legislative gamesmanship (again, all orchestrated predominately by AT&T) is occurring in what’s purportedly one of the most progressive states in the nation. Which gives you a pretty good idea what telecom policy looks like in states like Tennessee, Missouri, or Nebraska.
California’s broader plan is a direct assault on telecom monopolization, and a welcome punch to the gut of a problem we’ve let fester for years. Corrupt lawmakers have sold the longstanding lie that letting monopolies run amok, and slathering them with unaccountable subsidies, results in free market Utopia. AT&T, and its numerous paid allies, would very much prefer that this dysfunction continue in perpetuity.