The Growth in 'Underconnected' Californians Should Alarm Us

San Jose Mercury News

By Michelle Quinn | August 1, 2016

At first glance, the latest data on California's digital divide looks like amazingly good news.

A whopping 84 percent of Californians now have access to broadband internet at home, up 9 percentage points since 2014, according to a new Field Poll.

At that rate, the digital divide -- the gulf between the information haves and have nots -- could be wiped out in less than three years.

But most of those gains have come from increased smartphone use. In the past year alone, there's been a near doubling -- from 8 percent to 14 percent -- of state residents now online because of smartphones. Meanwhile, the percentage of Californians connecting to the internet via a laptop or a desktop has remained flat for several years.

"That is the biggest problem," said Mark DiCamillo, director of The Field Poll, which conducted the survey for the California Emerging Technology Fund, a nonprofit focused on broadband deployment and adoption.

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Refund Program to Help Expand Broadband Internet Service

Sacramento Bee

By Rachelle Chong and Lloyd Levine | July 12, 2016

his year is turning out to be a bellwether year for internet law and policy. In June, a federal court ruled that high-speed internet is an essential “utility” and should be available to all Americans. In February, the Federal Communications Commission redefined broadband internet as a Title II common carrier service, moving it from an information service to a telecommunications service.

Because of these decisions, federal law now requires that broadband infrastructure be extended to all households, and that the digital divide must be closed, meaning all Americans must get trained in basic internet skills to be digitally literate.

California, like the rest of the country, still has much work to do to close the digital divide. According to the 2015 Field Poll study, one-fifth of Californians do not have high-speed internet at home. More startling, an April 2016 Public Utilities Commission report found that only 43 percent of rural households have access to reliable broadband service.

The divide is due to the cost of broadband for consumers and the expense involved in deploying infrastructure in rural and remote areas. Laying fiber optic cable in a state as large and geographically complex as California is expensive. Incentives have proved necessary to entice competitive internet service providers to make the required capital outlays and investments in infrastructure. This is why during our terms of government service, we conceptualized and helped found the California Advanced Services Fund program at the PUC.

The fund program is an innovative public-private mechanism. It funds broadband infrastructure in areas with no internet service or very slow dial-up service; in other words, where the free market – consisting of telephone companies, cable operators, wireless internet providers and others – has failed to bring fast internet services to its residents. Funding for the program has come by charging a few pennies per month on Californians’ phone bills and by requiring matching funds from willing broadband providers.

To date, the program has funded 56 broadband projects, bringing broadband to over 300,000 households. The average cost per households has been $1,363, of which only $441 has come from the program because California has been able to leverage federal funds. The program is highly cost effective at achieving its mission, especially when compared to the federal Connect America Fund average of $2,550 per household.

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Home Internet Adoption by Californians with Disabilities: An Interview with Thomas Foley of the World Institute on Disability

Over the past three decades, the lives of people with disabilities have improved significantly because of access to high-speed Internet.  The World Institute on Disability (WID) has been a witness to and participant in this phenomenon.  Founded in 1983 by disability community leaders, WID’s mission is to eliminate barriers to full social integration and increase employment, economic security, and health care for persons with disabilities in communities and nations worldwide.

Since 2013, WID has collaborated with the California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF)—a nonprofit directed by the California Legislature to close the Digital Divide—to better understand the degree to which Californians with disabilities are served in their access to the Internet.  Findings from the 2014 survey have informed government, nonprofit, and corporate leaders about the importance of digital access for the disability community.

Results from the 2015 survey, “Home Internet Adoption by Californians with Disabilities,” show that 66% of Californians with disabilities have access to high-speed Internet, up from 4% in 2014—yet trailing the larger population by 13 percentage points.  Other findings from the 100-person survey include:  $10 a month is what non-Internet subscribers say they can afford (versus $50 to $70 a month); over half of respondents say their disability makes it difficult to use a device to go online; and about a third of respondents use an assistive device or software to access the Internet, increasing the cost to get online at home.

CETF sat down with Thomas Foley, WID’s deputy director to learn more about the study.

How do findings from the 2015 WID-CETF survey differ from the previous one, and what do they tell us about the challenges to broadband access and adoption for Californians with disabilities?

FOLEY:  We’ve seen a slight overall uptick in in adoption for people with disabilities between 2014 and 2015—from 62% to 66%. We believe this is due to a concentrated effort to focus adoption outreach directly to the disability community through trusted partners, such as the California Foundation for Independent Living.  We will be very interested to see if adoption rates continue to increase when we survey participants again for the 2016 survey.

Is there enough focus on the affordability of high-speed Internet for Californians with disabilities?  And, if not, what legislative or other measures could be taken to increase affordability?

FOLEY:  We know that folks with disabilities are tremendously overrepresented in the lower income demographics, not only in California, but nationwide, so cost is always a concern.  That said, most survey recipients report that about $10 per month is what they would be willing to pay for a broadband connection and the California Foundation for Independent Living has been doing a great job connecting consumers to a product at this price point.  Policy options that could increase the number of organizations offering all people with disabilities a $10 per month service would go a long way to helping to narrow the Digital Divide.

Tell us about the development of assistive devices—are the ones on the market solving the problems people with disabilities face getting online?  

FOLEY:  There is a multitude of products that help folks with disabilities gain access to the Internet.  From laptops with voice output, to mobile devices with built-in accessibility features, to switch-enabled browsing options—an increasing number of products are competently addressing access issues for people with disabilities.  The price of many of these options, however, remains outside what most people with disabilities can afford.  In addition, the Internet itself has to be consciously designed to enable access.  Design standards, such as W3CAG2.0, provide guidance to help make the Internet accessible to people with disabilities.  But if developers ignore this guidance, accessibility and the promise of the Internet will suffer.

How could the State of California reach its 80 percent adoption goal among Californians with disabilities?

California can increase access for people with disabilities by partnering with local and regional disability organizations connected in their communities. These organizations are trusted partners and help to provide access to all types of services within the community, including Internet access.

To read the full 2015 survey, “Home Internet Adoption by Californians with Disabilities, click here.

Life Without Internet in Yolo County

Davis Enterprise

By Don Saylor and Cecilia Aguiar-Curry | June 22, 2016

Access to high-speed Internet (broadband) is no longer a luxury. It is a basic necessity in both rural and urban settings to support our community members with their education, access to health care and economic competitiveness in today’s digital economy. While Yolo County sits just to the west of the California state Capitol, funding for broadband infrastructure has been a consistent challenge.

Knights Landing is a rural community just 10 miles north of Woodland. Youth regularly gather outside the Knights Landing Library after hours. These students aren’t congregating to cause trouble; they are accessing the library’s Wi-Fi signal — the only high-speed internet available to them for homework and other needs.

In Knights Landing, a community of 1,000 residents — where 23.5 percent live below the poverty level, 14.7 percent are unemployed and 91 percent of school children are eligible for free or reduced-price meals — there is no affordable means for residents to access broadband (high-speed internet) at home.

The lack of connectivity in Knights Landing is not an isolated situation. This story is one we hear time and time again from people in the communities throughout Yolo County and beyond. These aren’t mountaintop vacation homes lacking access to broadband; these are homes of hard-working residents who are an integral part of our community.

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Bridging the Digital Divide for Families Can Improve Student Outcomes


By Delaine Eastin |May 23, 2016

California, once revered as a top school system, now ranks among the bottom in the nation. Despite being one of the most expensive states to live in, California is near the bottom in per-pupil spending. Inadequate funding has led to teacher training and retention problems, overly large classes and the fewest number of counselors, nurses and librarians per student of any state. Most disturbing, we are experiencing low achievement for too many students.

This comes at a time of historically high rates of poverty and income inequality.  Amidst all this bad news, however, there is an overlooked bright spot: parent engagement through educational technology. Not only are online teaching and learning aids transforming the learning potential for students, they are providing a revolutionary way for parents of all backgrounds to engage in their children’s education.

We’ve always known that parent engagement matters. And over the past decade, a ream of academic studies has confirmed that parent engagement – across income, ethnicity, race and geography – is a key to student learning and academic success.  Yet parent engagement tends to be higher at higher income schools – and that’s because wealthier parents generally have three things poorer parents don’t have: time, money and access.

Educators can’t solve parents’ time and money problems. But there is plenty we can do about access. One promising approach is an innovative program called School2Home that’s been adopted in 11 low-performing middle schools in five California districts. The program, where I’ve served as a coach for educators, is showing that Internet access and digital literacy training can provide significant benefits for students, teachers and parents.

School2Home is based on the simple recognition that around 30 to 40 percent of low-income California households do not have high-speed Internet and that this “digital divide” is widening the academic achievement divide. For that reason, School2Home has set out to: get students connected to the Internet at home through affordable broadband programs and low-cost computers; provide parents the digital literacy skills they need to engage with teachers, schools and their children’s learning; and train teachers to use the increasing abundance of hardware and software to the benefit of their students’ education.

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Broadband: The PUC, Mergers and Public Benefits

Capitol Weekly

Sunne Wright McPeak | May 10, 2016

California once again is defining a new era of public benefits from corporate consolidations in advanced communications and high-speed Internet access.  Consumers and residents will be measurably better off as a result and California will move closer to closing the Digital Divide.

Last year Frontier Communications acquired Verizon’s wireline network and now Charter Communications is buying Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks with a decision pending before the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) on May 12.  Neither the U.S. Department of Justice nor the Federal Communications Commission found legal objections to these mergers.  But, it is the CPUC that has required public benefits that will bring high-speed Internet access (referred to generically as “broadband”) to more than 250,000 unserved rural households and will get connected more than 600,000 low-income households in their service areas.  Perhaps as important, both Frontier and Charter have agreed to enter into sincere partnerships with community organizations to harness the power of public-private collaboration to better serve all consumers.

To be sure, the CPUC procedure is unique in the nation and allows participation from any interested party, resulting in a more elaborate set of challenges and issues for the companies to navigate.  CPUC Code 854 makes clear that utilities companies seeking merger or acquisition approval must provide short-term and long-term economic benefits to ratepayers (customers). Specifically, paragraph B of Code 854 states:  “Before authorizing the merger, acquisition, or control of any electric, gas, or telephone utility organized and doing business in this state, where any of the entities that are parties to the proposed transaction has gross annual California revenues exceeding five hundred million dollars ($500,000,000), the commission shall consider each of the criteria listed in paragraphs (1) to (8), inclusive, and find, on balance, that the merger, acquisition, or control proposal is in the public interest.”  It means, among other points, that the merger must “provide mitigation measures to prevent significant adverse consequences which may result.”

In gaining approval from the CPUC, Frontier agreed to extend broadband to 107,000 unserved households, upgrade more than 250,000 underserved locations, install 50 Wi-Fi locations, and set an aspirational goal of getting 200,000 low-income households online with affordable subscriptions.  Frontier also is donating 50,000 Internet-enabled computing devices and $3 million to support community-based organizations (CBOs) to do outreach and digital literacy training for low-income families.

Charter, which will have 2.4 times the number of low-income households than Frontier in their California new service area, has agreed to extend broadband to 150,000 unserved households, provide free public access at 75 anchor institutions, distribute 25,000 out-of home hotspots, participate in the California telephone lifeline program, and set an aspirational goal of getting 350,000 low-income households online.  Charter also will be launching a $15 per month affordable subscription (for 30 Mbps download and 4 Mbps upload) across their national footprint for families with students on free-or-reduced lunch and seniors on SSI, for which about half of all low-income households will be eligible.   To reach others, Charter is contributing $32.5 million to engage people with disabilities, support CBOs to do outreach and digital literacy, and implement a school-based program in disadvantaged neighborhoods—estimated to reach another 100,000 low-income families.  Charter also has committed to hire 10,000 workers of color and add 3 minority directors to their corporate board.

Although the process has been arduous for all participating parties—and we at the California Emerging Technology Fund know first-hand what it took to reach agreement—bottom line is that the Charter application is in the public interest and results in significant public benefits to help close the Digital Divide in our beloved Golden State.

The assigned CPUC Administrative Law Judge has issued a Proposed Decision, which incorporates all these public benefits and makes them enforceable by the Commission—another key tool to protect consumers.  This all adds up to Charter’s application is being supported by an impressive group of community advocates—National Diversity Council, Chicana Latina Foundation, Radio Bilingue, Youth Policy Institute, Southeast Community Development Corporation, YMCA of Long Beach, human-I-T, and the Black and Latino Legislative Caucuses.  Further, it also should be noted that those of us who have settled with Charter had the benefit of participation from other key parties who held strong in their principles—including Greenlining Institute, Center for Accessible Technology, TURN, and the CPUC Office of Ratepayer Advocate.

We encourage the CPUC Commissioners to approve the Charter Proposed Decision with confidence that they are serving the public interest and once again making California a trailblazer in closing the Digital Divide.

Sunne Wright McPeak is the president and CEO of the California Emerging Technology Fund and former secretary of the California Business, Transportation and Housing Agency.

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Engage Parents as Partners to Close the Digital Divide


Suzie Boss | May 9, 2016

When Superintendent Darryl Adams arrived in the Coachella Valley Unified School District in California in 2010, he found himself in a community on the wrong side of the digital divide. Poverty is pervasive in this region southeast of Palm Springs, with nearly all students qualifying for free and reduced lunch. Some 68% of students are English language learners. Parents include migrant workers who come and go with the growing seasons.

"None of these kids were truly connected," says Adams. In the information age, he saw that disconnect from technology as "a form of educational malpractice." That's why he led his district on a successful campaign to put iPads into the hands of every student, preK-12, and support teachers in making the shift to digital learning.

But as Adams and others have learned, devices alone won't close the digital divide. To really level the playing field, kids also need access to high-speed internet when they take devices home. That's not yet the case for some five million U.S. households with children of school age, according to the Pew Research Center. When devices do go home, parents who may be unfamiliar with technology need to be ready to help their kids become digital citizens.

Efforts to close the digital divide continue at the federal level. President Obama's ConnectED initiative aims to close the technology gap in schools and connect 99% of America's students to high-speed Internet. Persistent obstacles to digital equity are addressed in a new report, Opportunity for All? Technology and Learning for Lower Income Families. The authors find that, while most parents recognize the benefits that technology offers their children and themselves, many lower-income families are "under-connected," often relying on mobile devices with only limited functionality. The Council of Economic Advisers, in this issue brief, shows that the poorest neighborhoods and most rural places still have the farthest to go to close the divide.

Some schools aren't waiting for help to arrive. As a homegrown solution, they are enlisting parents as partners to help close the digital divide.

"With the right approach, technology integration leads to better engagement with parents along with better academic outcomes," says Agustin Urgiles. He directs an initiative called School2Home, funded by the California Emerging Technology Fund and The Children's Partnership. School2Home partners with low-performing middle schools to support technology integration in both urban and rural areas of California. Currently, 19 schools in 10 districts are involved. The School2Home model is comprehensive by design, incorporating planning, teacher professional development, evaluation, and more.

There's one unusual catch: Before kids get their devices, parents have to participate in several hours of technology training. Parent classes start with equipment basics, but quickly move on to more advanced topics, such as how to check students' progress online, communicate with teachers, and encourage online safety and digital citizenship. "Once we get to 80% of parents trained," Urgiles adds, "you see a transformation of the school culture."

At Winters Middle School, a School2Home partner site in northern California, the initial goal of 80% parent engagement wasn't high enough. Principal John Barsotti set the bar at 100%, arguing that "all kids need access." Micah Studer was a brand-new assistant principal when the 1:1 Chromebooks rollout launched in summer 2014. He led the charge with parent classes on weekends and after school. The school provided childcare to families that needed it and snacks for those who came hungry. "Getting to that first 80% was easy," Studer says in hindsight. He was thrilled with the quick results, "but as John [Barsotti] reminded me, the goal was 100%."

To engage the hardest-to-reach families, Studer and team "worked the phones like we were running a major political campaign." Sometimes the barrier turned out to be a scheduling challenge for parents who were working two jobs to make ends meet. Sometimes language concerns were the issue. "We started communicating almost everything in both English and Spanish," Studer says. "That tells our parents: You are a valued member of our school community. Your language is not a barrier to participation."

To reach the very last holdouts, Studer went to a community housing project and conducted tech lessons around kitchen tables. He says that experience taught him, "It's not enough to open the door and invite parents in. You have to be willing to walk through the door yourself and go into the community."

Winters Middle School is now in its second year with School2Home. The rollout has reached all 350 students in grades six to eight. Teachers work with an instructional technology coach to explore various uses of technology, such as Google docs or Edmodo to encourage online collaboration. One of the best indicators of success, from Studer's perspective, is that the "cool factor" is wearing off. "We don't want kids to think this is flashy. We want technology to be an everyday tool," he says, and something that everyone uses.

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To Prosper, State Must Close the Digital Divide

Sacramento Bee

Barbara O'Connor | April 27, 2016

Unfortunately, the Legislature failed to act last week and it could set back for years the progress that California has made in closing the digital divide.

The chairman of the Assembly Utilities and Commerce Committee deferred to industry interests and went against a large and diverse coalition of elected officials and community organizations working to close the divide in both rural and urban areas. That caused Assemblyman Mark Stone, a Scotts Valley Democrat and author of Assembly Bill 1758, to pull the bill.

Supporters of the Internet for All Now Act include Valley Vision, Communication Workers of America, the California State Association of Counties, the League of California Cities, Rural County Representatives of California, California Black Chamber of Commerce, La Clinica de la Raza, the Youth Policy Institute and United Ways of California.

The act would authorize collection of an existing modest surcharge on phone bills into a fund to support construction of broadband infrastructure into unserved rural communities and to help low-income households get online.

The fund was established by the Legislature in 2008 and has been an effective tool for leveraging private and federal investments into communities without adequate high-speed Internet access. The legislation would cap the annual amount received from consumers to less than what was collected in each of the last two years.

Rarely is there an opportunity to invest in the future and provide relief to consumers. Further, legislators must understand that the existing surcharge is the only available source of money to help close the digital divide without enacting a new fee or tax or authorizing a new budget appropriation. This mechanism must be made to work or there will be years more of delay in achieving equitable Internet access.

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$32.5 million from "New Charter" for digital inclusion in California: A national model?

National Digital Inclusion Alliance

Bill Callahan | April 21, 2016

As the FCC nears a decision on the proposed merger between Charter Communications, Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks, digital inclusion advocates in California have negotiated a $32.5 million deal with "New Charter" that could support broadband adoption by hundreds of thousands of low income families in the state.

Now the big question is: Will the FCC make the California agreement a model for communities affected by the merger throughout the U.S.?

Under California law, the transfer of cable franchises required for the proposed merger must also be approved by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). The California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF) has led a statewide coalition calling on the CPUC (as well as the FCC) to withhold that approval unless the merged company, calling itself New Charter, agrees to a number of conditions to help overcome the digital exclusion of millions of residents in Los Angeles, San Diego, San Bernardino, Riverside and other affected urban and rural communities.

Ever since the "New Charter" companies first told regulators they intended to merge last Summer, they've been promising a new affordable rate plan for some low income customers. Specifics of that plan were finally provided to the FCC in December. The proposed New Charter plan -- essentially, 30 mbps Internet service with no data caps for $14.99 a month -- would be available to families with children eligible for the Federal school lunch program, as well as customers 65 years of age or more who receive Supplemental Security Income, i.e. very low-income seniors. The offer includes no specific funding for marketing, and no investment of any kind in digital literacy training or support for the families and seniors who are its intended customers.

CETF and other digital inclusion advocates have been arguing for months that the New Charter plan should be open to many more low-income households, come with meaningful performance benchmarks (i.e. millions of new adopters), and be accompanied by a large financial commitment to support community-based outreach and training. Until recently, New Charter rejected all such proposals.

But two weeks ago, after months of public controversy and with a CPUC administrative law judge about to make his recommendations to the full CPUC, New Charter quietly reached an agreement to gain CETF's support. The deal became public last week as part of the judge's recommendations. 

The Charter-CETF agreement doesn't affect New Charter's low income rate plan, which will still apply only to School Lunch families and very low-income seniors. But it includes major concessions on the issues of benchmarks and funding for community outreach and training. Here's how CETF summarizes those provisions:

Within 5 years, New Charter agrees to make a good faith effort to enroll 350,000 broadband low-income customers in its California service area. Outreach to target low-income communities will be by community-based organizations, schools, libraries and other non-profit organizations. An outreach plan will be developed by June 30, 2017.

New Charter and CETF will collaborate on communication, marketing, and outreach efforts to low-income communities about the availability of affordable broadband service, including in language and in culture using ethnic media that serve the target communities.  New Charter may also provide its local programming resources for this effort.

New Charter will provide CETF $6.5 million annually over 5 years, for a total commitment of $32.5 million, to invest in community partnerships with nonprofit organizations, including schools and libraries, that can serve as “trusted messengers” for encouraging low-income customers to subscribe to high-speed Internet service at home in the New Charter service areas.

CETF will work with organizations that serve people with disabilities to ensure equitable outreach to this population and opportunity for broadband adoption.

Other provisions guarantee deployment of New Charter broadband as well as wifi to some currently unserved communities, and free service for some community anchor institutions.  (See CETF's full summary of the agreement at

This is potentially a very big deal, not just for southern Californians but for the whole country.  There have been similar state-level regulatory agreements in the past between community advocates and major Internet carriers (notably in California, which is how CETF got its start). In this case, however, the proposed merger affects tens of millions of households in states other than California, and the terms of its approval by the FCC are apparently still being finalized. 

The FCC has routinely attached low-income rate concessions to big ISP merger settlements in recent years -- Comcast/NBC, Century Link, AT&T/DirectTV. But none of these settlements required the merged companies to reach specific adoption goals or commit to specific large-scale marketing expenditures -- let alone make significant investments in community digital inclusion efforts. 

But that's exactly what New Charter has just agreed to do in California. And it's exactly what some local NDIA affiliates have spent the past nine months asking the FCC to require New Charter to do on a merger-wide basis... in New York, Ohio, Wisconsin, Texas, Missouri, Kentucky, North Carolina, Florida, and Alabama among other places. Many proposed New Charter communities outside California -- e.g. Cleveland, Dayton, Kansas City, St. Louis, Buffalo, Rochester -- are among the nation's worst-connected.

Can the FCC ignore New Charter's $32.5 million commitment to digital inclusion in just one state? Or will this deal lead the Federal regulators to put community digital inclusion investment on their negotiating agenda on behalf of all the underserved communities served by Charter, Time Warner and Bright House?

We'll know soon.  Stay tuned.

Meanwhile -- nice work, California!

AT&T, Cable Lobbyists Gut California Broadband Subsidies

Steve Blum | April 20, 2016

Broadband infrastructure subsidies are off the table in Sacramento, thanks to a coordinated campaign by AT&T staff lobbyists and the cable industry’s political front organisation, the California Cable and Telecommunications Association (CCTA). Assembly bill 1758 was pulled by its author, assemblyman Mark Stone (D – Santa Cruz) after it became clear that the California assembly’s utilities and commerce committee was going to spike it at its meeting this afternoon.

Originally, AB 1758 would have put $150 million into the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) broadband construction subsidy account, and another $200 million in a range of broadband-related programs, including service for hospitals, facilities in public housing, digital literacy and marketing efforts and regional consortia.

A competing measure, AB 2130, written by AT&T and carried by an accommodating assemblyman, Bill Quirk (D – Hayward), was also pulled once the competitive threat posed by the open infrastructure grant program in Stone’s proposal was gone.

AB 2130 would have set up a $100 million infrastructure subsidy game and rigged it so that only incumbent phone companies could effectively play, putting the lion’s share into AT&T’s pocket with no meaningful strings attached. CCTA floated its own alternative, similarly designed to divert money directly to cable companies, but otherwise effectively the same as AT&T’s.

Stone’s offer of good faith negotiations and repeated attempts by Sunne Wright McPeak, CEO of the California Emerging Technology Fund, to find a middle ground were rebuffed. The chairman of the committee, assemblyman Mike Gatto (D – Los Angeles), gave no indication that he’s any less interested in advancing AT&T’s agenda than he was last week when he gushed over another of its measures – AB 2395 – designed to allow it to yank copper lines out of unprofitable rural and inner city markets.

So Stone’s bill is dead.

Although resurrection is always a theoretical possibility in the California legislature, if you have a broadband project to build, you’d have a better chance buying lottery tickets for it. There might be attempts to fund one or more of the ancillary programs in Stone’s bill, perhaps by cannibalising what infrastructure money remains in CASF, but don’t expect to see more broadband construction money added to California’s kitty this year.

I’ve advocated for and helped to draft AB 1758 and its predecessors. I’m involved and proud of it. Take it for what it’s worth.


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