The California legislature unanimously approved a plan to build a statewide, open-access fiber network yesterday. The legislation was supported by Democrats and Republicans in votes of 78-0 in the California Assembly and 39-0 in the state Senate.
The statewide, open-access fiber lines will function as a “middle-mile” network that carries data from Internet backbone networks to connection points in cities and rural areas. A middle-mile network doesn’t extend all the way to residential properties, but “last-mile” ISPs can get access to it and focus on building infrastructure that connects the middle mile to homes.
California’s decision to make the middle-mile network open-access means it will provide “non-discriminatory access to eligible entities on a technology and competitively neutral basis, regardless of whether the entity is privately or publicly owned,” the bill text said. If all goes as planned, the network will make it easier for existing ISPs to expand and for new ISPs to get started, filling in gaps where there’s no modern access and boosting competition and speeds in other areas. Last-mile ISPs could use network technology other than fiber to connect to homes because of the provision allowing technology-neutral access.
“We did it!!! Today, we voted on an historic broadband budget package” that will provide over $6 billion “in middle, last-mile, and local government support with a focus on unserved and underserved [areas],” wrote Sen. Lena Gonzalez (D-Long Beach).
$2B last-mile funding complements open-access fiber
The state is providing $3.25 billion to build the middle-mile network and, as Gonzalez noted, it doesn’t stop at the middle mile. While the package won’t build an open-access last-mile network, it provides $2 billion in funding for last-mile ISPs to serve more homes.
“Every single California legislator. Every Republican and Democrat in Sacramento just voted for a fiber for all future,” Electronic Frontier Foundation Senior Legislative Counsel Ernesto Falcon wrote on Twitter. Falcon previously wrote that big ISPs were lobbying for changes that seemed to focus on “blocking the state government from pushing middle-mile fiber deep into every community.”
Falcon has been urging both the state and federal government to prioritize fiber networks over other technologies like cable that have slower upload speeds and aren’t as future-proof. Congress and President Biden are negotiating a $65 billion broadband deal, but it isn’t yet clear whether they’ll prioritize fiber or whether they’ll give funding priority to public networks or private companies.
Gov. Gavin Newsom is certain to sign the California bill because he agreed on the final details with legislators earlier this week.
“This broadband package is historic,” Newsom’s announcement of the deal said. “It transcends politics, and it will be a legacy project that will benefit generations of rural and urban residents alike. This legislation will yield vital, broadened access for California families by prioritizing the unserved and underserved areas, facilities, households, and businesses that remain disconnected in the digital era.” Newsom’s budget plan released in May had proposed using federal relief funds and the state’s surplus to build broadband and other infrastructure as part of “a once-in-a-lifetime investment in the future of the state.”
Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry (D-Winters), who was part of the team of lawmakers that negotiated with Newsom, said, “I’m so excited; I’ve been working on this for 10 years,” according to the Press Democrat. “With the passage of AB 156 today, California has committed to a generational investment in providing for all Californians the access they need to Internet-based services like education and job training, telehealth, and the digital economy.”
Unserved areas get first priority
As Newsom’s press release noted, the plan involves “hiring a third party to build and maintain the ‘middle-mile network’—high-capacity fiber lines that carry large amounts of data at higher speeds over longer distances between local networks,” with state spending of “$3.25 billion to target that middle mile and build the broadband lines.” The middle-mile network would be available to “last-mile providers, anchor institutions, and tribal entities,” the bill text said.
The $2 billion for last-mile “lines that will connect consumers’ homes and businesses with local networks” includes $1 billion for rural communities and $1 billion for urban communities, Newsom’s announcement said. Applicants for last-mile funding will have until June 30, 2023, to apply. After that date, leftover money “shall be made available to the [Public Utilities] Commission to allocate for the construction of last-mile broadband infrastructure anywhere in the state,” the bill text says.
Building the middle-mile network is apparently expected to take a few years, as the bill says “the design-build procurement authorization… shall remain in effect for purposes of the statewide open-access middle-mile broadband network after January 1, 2024, until the completion of the broadband network.” The bill states that priority locations for the middle-mile network include schools, colleges, government entities, health care institutions, libraries, public safety answering points, and tribal lands.
The middle-mile plan would initially target locations where there’s no residential access to 25Mbps download and 3Mbps upload speeds. The Public Utilities Commission is tasked with identifying locations “in communities where there is no known middle-mile infrastructure that is open access, with sufficient capacity, and at affordable rates.” The commission must also “identify priority statewide open-access middle-mile broadband network locations, including areas that can be built expeditiously, areas with no known middle-mile network access, regions underserved by middle-mile networks, and regions without sufficient capacity to meet future middle-mile needs,” the bill says.