Earlier this month, the California state legislature quietly killed the ”Broadband for All” bill, SB-1130. The long-awaited bill proposed by Senator Lena Gonzalez (D-Long Beach) would have ended the digital divide for Californians by allowing the state government to actively upgrade internet infrastructure to meet 21st century connectivity standards. This bill would have helped bring internet to 1.3 million Californians lacking internet access and increased internet quality while lowering costs for millions more.
Due to shelter-in-place orders related to the coronavirus pandemic, even more essential services have moved online. This fall, 90% of California children were ordered to begin their school year exclusively online to help stop the spread of the virus. Many adults now rely on the internet more than ever to seek employment, do their jobs, get healthcare, find housing, and access government and financial services. The California State Senate had passed the bill on June 26, 2020, yet despite an increased need for internet service and broad support, SB-1130 was moved to inactive status on August 30 with no notice or explanation.
“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,” Sen. Gonzalez said in a press release.
SB-1130’s demise is the second time in two years that a public internet proposal in California has been shot down. In 2018, longtime supervisor and then-interim mayor Mark Farrell proposed a San Francisco public internet bill. The bill would have provided universal internet access for San Francisco residents and businesses, relieving them of the burden of high rates charged by corporations like Comcast. At the time the bill was proposed, the City had estimated about 100,000 city residents have no access to broadband service at all, many of them affordable housing residents and underserved housing populations. The project stalled when Farrell left office for the incoming mayor, London Breed.
“Internet access in 2020 should be viewed in many ways as a human right,” former supervisor Mark Farrell told the Chronicle recently.
In contrast to other services that require vast infrastructure, such as electricity and water, internet service remains mostly in the hands of private companies. Companies decide where to build infrastructure based on business interests, meaning many communities have slow service or no service at all because serving them would not generate a profit for the providers. These financial incentives can lead to what is termed “digital redlining,” by experts: broadband companies (such as AT&T in this example study) choose to provide faster internet access and better maintained infrastructure to rich neighborhoods and not to lower income areas – literally, a structural inequality. Studies show that low-income urban communities lack broadband more than rural communities and that people of color are disproportionately affected.
“The market simply will not provide the level of broadband access that democracy requires,” said Victor Pickard, a professor of communication at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, as quoted in Recode. “Internet service providers treat the internet as a commodity, as something they can make money on. They’re not looking at it as a public service … they’re looking at it as something that can expand their profit margins.”
California is not the only place in the United States with a broadband access problem, which existed before the COVID-19 pandemic brought more attention to the issue. Municipal broadband is explicitly roadblocked or outlawed in 22 states, according to a May 2020 report by Broadband Now. According to the report, many of these laws are a direct result of telecom industry lobbying groups seeking to limit government competition.
There has been no word yet from the California state legislature as to whether the bill will be revived.