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Final Stretch

Advancing Bill to Constrain Calif. BEAD Rules Raises Alarm

A bill that would restrict California regulators’ discretion to make extra rules for NTIA’s broadband equity, access and deployment (BEAD) program dismayed local and consumer advocates. With a month left in session, California legislators are also weighing broadband bills to require wireless eligibility for federal funding and to streamline broadband permitting. Assembly Communications Committee Chair Tasha Boerner (D) said the goal of her BEAD bill (AB-662) is to bring “accountability” to the California Public Utilities Commission.

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At legislative meetings this week, Senate and Assembly appropriations committees cleared some bills for floor votes and sent many others to the suspense file, a category reserved for bills deemed to be costly, setting them up for vote at later meetings. California fiscal committees must advance bills by Sept. 1; Sept. 14 is the last day for each house to pass bills, shows the Assembly calendar. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) then has an Oct. 14 deadline to sign or veto bills.

Senate appropriators added AB-662 to the suspense file Monday. With some exceptions, the bill would prohibit the CPUC "from imposing any additional rules, processes, procedures, prohibitions, funding prioritizations, or eligibility criteria on any applicant, as defined, that are not explicitly required by the federal guidelines,” said the committee’s bill analysis. Also, it would require the CPUC to use the most granular and accurate broadband availability data, decide on completed applications within 180 days, develop a middle-class affordability plan for broadband and report to the legislature by Jan. 10 on the feasibility of combining the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) Infrastructure Grant Account, CASF Federal Funding Account and the BEAD program into one last-mile broadband program. Also, it would require grant applicants to provide at least one low-cost broadband option and prohibit applicants from imposing fees on them unless approved by the CPUC.

Boerner wants to cut red tape "at the CPUC and avoid the mistakes of the past with their administration of the federal American Rescue Plan Act funding," the chair said in a Thursday statement. Unlike various other states, which have shovels in the ground and projects being built, the CPUC has been sitting on $2 billion dollars of broadband funding since 2021 because they created an unnecessarily complex program to award that funding,” she said. NTIA allocated the state $1.86 billion from BEAD. The CPUC didn’t comment Thursday.

States should have the ability to deliberate on their unique individual circumstances and craft requirements based on those identified needs,” emailed Chao Jun Liu, Electronic Frontier Foundation legislative associate. EFF opposes AB-662 unless amended. “Restricting the CPUC to what is ‘explicitly required by the federal guidelines’ sets a ceiling with what was intended to be a floor,” he said. An earlier amendment improved the bill by removing language that would have restricted the CPUC’s ability to provide a truly affordable plan, said the EFF official, but “we still find that the bill takes away critical CPUC discretion.”

AB 662 would strip the CPUC’s discretion” under BEAD and undermine program goals “by obstructing California’s ability to consider creative solutions from community and local stakeholders in the state’s design and implementation,” said Leo Fitzpatrick, The Utility Reform Network (TURN) telecom policy analyst: It “would effectively surrender California’s broadband leadership and partnership role with the NTIA, relegating the state’s BEAD implementation to minimum federal requirements while other states innovate and adapt the program to their needs.” Other consumer and local government groups, including Common Sense, Greenlining Institute, Media Alliance and Rural County Representatives of California (RCRC), opposed AB-662 unless amended in a June 23 letter to Boerner.

Boerner agrees with opponents that “addressing broadband affordability and digital equity are imperative to BEAD” but disagrees the CPUC should go beyond requirements in NTIA’s notice of funding opportunity, the lawmaker said. “I don’t agree that more regulatory requirements and administrative hurdles for applicants will help us with our goal of connecting every Californian.” Boerner expects Senate Appropriations to vote on AB-662 and other suspense bills Sept. 1, she said. If passed on the floor, the Senate-amended bill would need to return to the Assembly for concurrence.

Permitting, Wireless Measures

Assemblymember Juan Carrillo (D) expects the full Senate to vote within two weeks on his broadband permitting bill, his spokesperson said Wednesday. Senate appropriators advanced AB-965 to the floor Monday. If passed on the floor, the Assembly would have to vote again to concur with Senate changes. The bill would allow simultaneous processing of multiple broadband permit applications for similar project sites under a single permit, and require local governments to decide applications within a reasonable time. RCRC and other local government groups had been the bill’s main foes but became neutral after some Senate amendments (see 2306200053).

USTelecom supports AB-965 “because it will prevent delays at the local level and get Californians more quickly connected to high-speed internet,” a USTelecom spokesperson said Thursday. “Setting standards for broadband permit batching will help expedite the processing of identical permits in groups in local jurisdictions and speed up broadband deployment.” The Wireless Infrastructure Association is glad to see California legislators “taking proactive steps to reduce regulatory barriers to broadband deployment,” said Senior Counsel-Government and Legal Affairs Stephen Keegan. “As next generation mobile services continue to be rolled out, it is critical that network densification and expansion can happen with minimal delays.” Other supporters include Incompas, Crown Castle, Frontier Communications and the California Broadband and Video Association (CalBroadband).

Senate Appropriations placed in suspense last month a bill that would explicitly authorize wireless broadband providers to apply for CASF federal funding account grants. AB-1065 would have to go back to Assembly for a concurrence vote if passed by the Senate.

"AB-1065 makes the state’s goal of ‘Internet for All’ possible by allowing wireless broadband service providers to apply for CASF grant funding,” said sponsor Assemblyman Jim Patterson (D) in a statement Wednesday. “Under the right conditions, fixed wireless can provide high-speed broadband connections faster, cheaper, and more efficiently than fiber and other technologies.”

A wireless industry coalition including CTIA, WIA, Rural Wireless Association and the Wireless ISP Association in an Aug. 8 letter pressed Senate appropriators to advance the bill. TURN opposes. The bill was amended to give the CPUC some more discretion, but "the core issue remains that AB 1065 would allow public money to go toward infrastructure that is limited, unreliable, and inadequate when compared to fiber," said Alexandra Green, TURN telecom regulatory attorney.

More Calif. Bills

Other bills sent into suspense Monday by Senate Appropriations included AB-286 on adjusting state broadband map requirements, AB-296 on 911 public education and AB-1282, which would require a study on mental health risks of social media for children. The committee advanced to the floor AB-1194, which would say businesses aren’t required to comply with government requests for emergency access to personal information on abortion and contraception. The committee scheduled a Monday hearing to consider AB-41, which aims to tighten digital equity requirements in the state’s video franchise law, and AB-1546, which would extend the statute of limitations for privacy claims brought by the state attorney general.

AB-286 will improve California mapping quality by allowing customers to report actual speeds, said TURN Telecom Policy Director Regina Costa. TURN opposes AB-41, which "eliminates some important consumer protection tools" and may stymie CPUC efforts to address digital discrimination by franchise-covered networks, she said.

Assembly appropriators placed in suspense Wednesday SB-318 to require a grant program for support services for the 211 information line; SB-362 to allow consumers to delete data collected on them by brokers; and SB-387 to let the state lease public land at submarket rates for broadband deployment. CalBroadband, CTIA and USTelecom supported SB-387 in a May 30 letter.

The Assembly Accountability Committee voted 6-0 Wednesday to clear an amended SB-74 to prohibit high-risk social media apps that, like TikTok, are at least partly owned by an entity or “country of concern.” The bill goes next to Appropriations. Legislators amended the bill to align the bill with the Statewide Information Management Manual and have it apply to agencies subject to the manual, said committee analysis. Another change added a rebuttable presumption that state agencies should prohibit using high-risk platforms and explains how the agency can overcome the presumption.