Skelton: Newsom wants California state-owned broadband

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When private enterprise cannot – or will not – provide a vital public service, then it is the government’s responsibility to intervene.

In the last century, a growing California desperately needed reliable water supplies, which is why state, federal and local governments have responded with massive plans.

When we needed a network of freeways to facilitate economic expansion and mobility, the federal and state governments collapsed.

Some local governments have created public power systems to provide electricity when private utilities either won’t or charge too much.

Many California political leaders dreamed of a high-speed rail line connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco. So the state government began to build a high speed train with the permission of the voters.

But wait! The latter did not work very well. It’s astronomically over budget and way behind schedule.

The bullet train project is one reason the Legislature is not rushing to embrace Gov. Gavin Newsom’s ambitious proposal to quickly expand broadband Internet connections to all Californians.

There is internal doubt that the California State Government can handle such a large and new project.

“Given the state’s track record in areas such as bullet train, lawmakers are quite reluctant to endorse a big new idea,” said an assembly insider, who did not want to be quoted by his name expressing doubts about the governor’s plan. .

“When I looked at the map of fiber lines going up and down in the state, I thought of the high speed train map. A great idea. A great project. But we want to make sure it’s fleshed out.

OKAY. But surely there is also another reason – the underlying reason – why legislative leaders do not side with their Democratic colleague on his bold idea.

Powerful AT&T, a very generous contributor to lawmakers’ campaign jackpots, opposes the governor’s plan. The same goes for the cable television industry. They are opposed to the state creating competitors.

No one inside the Capitol or who deals with lawmakers speaks publicly about the fact that the legislature plays soccer with powerful interests. The initiates reject the idea and smile sheepishly.

“We need our leaders to stand up against these corporate giants,” former presidential candidate Tom Steyer said last week at a Zoom press conference with several broadband advocates making the pitch. promotion of Newsom’s plan.

I asked Los Angeles County Supervisor Holly Mitchell, who previously chaired the State Senate Budget Committee, about AT&T’s influence over the legislature.

“You are making a good point,” she said. “That’s why we need voices like mine and others in local government to speak out. “

She is a strong supporter of Newsom’s proposal.

“There are so many children in my community who are very late for school” because they do not have access to the internet and were unable to attend online classes at home during the pandemic, Mitchell said.

In one community, Watts-Willowbrook, 35% of children do not have the Internet at home because they cannot afford it, she added.

Shameful. It’s just not a good idea for the California tech innovator when education-hungry kids from low-income families have to sit with their laptops in front of a Taco Bell to access Wi-Fi for work. in class at a distance.

This disproportionately affects black and Latino children, studies show.

“Digital redlining creates a kind of structural racism that we cannot tolerate,” said David Rattray, CEO of Unite-LA, an education reform organization.

“We now have the ability to bridge the digital divide within our grasp. “

Mitchell also points out that “fewer and fewer government programs – Medi-Cal, CalWorks – are phone-based. They are all internet based. You need high speed internet to get through.

“If you don’t have broadband access, you are not part of the digital economy,” says Graham Knaus, executive director of the California State Assn. of counties, which is pushing for Newsom’s plan.

“High-speed internet is an essential utility for the 21st century – as the telephone was from the 20e century, ”says Gayle Miller, deputy director of state finance.

California may be the tech capital of the world, but it lags behind other states when it comes to high-speed internet access.

It’s a question of economy: ISPs do not profit from selling good services, if any, to families in many low-income communities. The poor simply cannot afford it. There is also little return in many sparsely populated rural areas.

Newsom wants to spend $ 7 billion to build a state-owned broadband network along highway rights-of-way in communities up and down California. Any business could lease network space and provide Internet service to communities. The state would help financially.

This would increase competition and reduce costs for consumers, theorizes the governor. Currently, providers own the networks and monopolize the service.

Newsom says 83% of Californians use broadband, but only 52% have broadband service. The difference between low speed and high speed is the equivalent of an old clamshell cell phone versus a modern smartphone, an official told me.

Of the $ 7 billion, $ 5.5 billion would be federal stimulus funds to be contracted by the end of 2024. Use it or lose it. The state’s share would only be $ 1.5 billion.

“It took a lot of courage for this governor to invest $ 7 billion,” says Rattray. “He fights with a lot of donors.”

By passing a state budget of $ 264 billion last week, the legislature also allocated $ 7 billion. But only $ 2 billion would be federal money – $ 5 billion would come from the state. A billion dollars would be allocated annually for seven years.

Federal money would not necessarily be wasted, according to policy experts in the Legislature. It could be used for other things.

Carolyn McIntyre, president of the California Cable & Telecommunications Assn., Points out that her group is not opposed to the governor’s goal, but only to his specificities to achieve it.

Newsom and the legislature are expected to agree on a plan this summer – something more like the State Water Project than the bullet train.

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