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Community Broadband Legislation Roundup – March 19, 2021
A California ballot initiative would empower voters to build their own Internet access solutions.
The Oklahoma House sends seven broadband bills to Senate.
New York and North Carolina initiate statewide digital inclusion programs.
Virginia is second state to pass comprehensive privacy legislation.
See the bottom of this post for some broadband-related job openings.
The State Scene
California Legislation Could Lead To Massive Investments in Public Broadband
As lawmakers in the Golden State look to rectify a reputation of having one of the highest student populations without Internet connectivity, bills aiming to expand access to 98 percent of California households by increasing investments in public broadband infrastructure were launched early in California’s legislative session.
Though there are several other bills pertaining to broadband that have been introduced in Sacramento, we focus on these four because, if passed, they would have the biggest impact on municipal networks.
S.B. 4, sponsored by State Sen. Lena Gonzalez, D-33, would create a new state-backed bond program, enabling local governments to finance more than $1 billion in public infrastructure projects through bond issuances. The low-interest debt for the projects could be repaid over multiple decades.
As the Electronic Frontier Foundation recently reported, “California’s current law (known as the California Advanced Services Fund or CASF) has failed to meet the digital divide challenge. It discriminates against local community bidders to build broadband infrastructure, favors spending state money on slow outdated infrastructure, does not cover all rural and low-income Californians, and has been underfunded.”
In an effort to revamp CASF, legislation introduced in the Assembly, A.B. 14 not only moves to invest in community projects, but further requires California’s Public Utilities Commission to annually conduct a financial and performance audit of CASF for the purpose of determining the program’s effectiveness.
A.B. 14 further calls for construction of a middle-mile and backhaul fiber infrastructure “for unserved households, community anchor institutions, small businesses, and employers,” advocating this infrastructure would be “critical to close the digital divide.”
Since being introduced on December 7, the momentum behind S.B. 4 and A.B. 14 has largely stalled. Both have been awaiting hearings in committees since January.
Another bill, A.B. 34, has had better luck getting a hearing than its counterparts. That bill would allow California voters to empower the community in which they reside to create their own Internet access solutions. It would do so by adding a multi-billion dollar bond initiative to the November ballot. The exact details of the bill are still being worked out. It was amended on March 16 and referred back to the Committee on Communications and Conveyance.
Other pending legislation includes S.B. 28, a proposal to alter how the oversight of Internet and cable television infrastructure is conducted in California. That bill would give local communities the power to hold private Internet Service Providers (ISPs) accountable for failing to deliver promised services.
This power was stripped from local governments in 2006, when AT&T and Verizon lobbied for the removal of local franchising authority, which gave municipal governments the power to regulate certain aspects of the cable television industry. S.B. 28 would revert bills passed by California's State Assembly and Senate sixteen years ago, which granted big ISPs statewide franchising authority.
CUDs Could Connect Vermont
H.B. 360, last read before the Vermont House of Representatives on March 11, asserts that “reaching the last-mile will require a grassroots approach founded on the input and support of local communities.”
In an effort to bridge statewide broadband gaps, the bill calls for establishing the Vermont Community Broadband Authority to lend funds to Vermont’s nine Communications Union Districts (CUDs), in exchange for commitments that CUDs will achieve universal access within the state.
CUDs are municipal entities that have joined together to build communications infrastructure across Vermont. Vermont’s CUDs called for federal assistance to meet the state’s broadband goal in November of 2020.
Kentucky Senate Passes Broadband Funding Bill
An amended version of H.B. 320, a proposal to create a $250 million broadband deployment fund in Kentucky, passed the state Senate by a vote of 36-0, on March 16.
The bill supports the expansion of community networks by allowing utility cooperatives to pledge up to 25 percent of their net assets as collateral for loans to expand Internet infrastructure to unserved or underserved households. Such a pledge would likely allow better terms for debt to build broadband networks for Internet access.
The Kentucky House of Representatives will now have to approve changes made to the bill by the Senate, which include a provision that would make Kentucky's Public Service Commission the point of contact for subscribers’ complaints about service outages that occur across the state.
Seven Broadband Bills Clear Oklahoma House
Last week, Oklahoma’s House of Representatives sent seven bipartisan-backed bills aimed at expanding Internet access — House Bills 2040, 2090, 2928, 1124, 1122, 1923 and 2779 — to the Senate for consideration.
The bills aim to maximize incoming federal dollars by offering state incentives and grants to broadband providers. The proposed legislation would also add tribal representation to the council tasked with developing state broadband plans and require ISPs to submit data for broadband mapping.
H.B. 2040, passed in the State House on March 11 and read in the State Senate on March 15, would create a sales tax exemption for certain broadband equipment purchased in order to establish or expand broadband services in underserved or unserved areas, including fiber optic conduit.
H.B. 2090, passed in the State House by a vote of 97-0 on March 9, would expand the number of members on Oklahoma’s Rural Broadband Expansion Council from fourteen to sixteen. The two additional council members would represent Native American tribes and wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs).
H.B. 2928, which passed OK’s House by a unanimous vote of 98-0, requires private providers to submit data for mapping statewide broadband assets.
H.B. 1124, which passed 91-6, establishes a State Broadband Deployment Grant Program at the Commerce Department.
New Jersey and Alabama Move to Structure Statewide Broadband Initiatives
S.B. 3086, a bill which references the infamous failures of the FCC’s Form 477, passed its first committee in the New Jersey Senate on March 11. The legislation proposes creating a Broadband Assistance Office in the New Jersey Economic Development Authority charged with formulating a statewide plan to provide wired broadband service through public and private participation.
S.B. 215, sponsored by State Sen. Del Marsh, R-12, would create a nine-member Alabama Digital Expansion Authority tasked with developing a statewide connectivity plan within a year of the law’s passage. The bill received bipartisan support from the Alabama Senate, passing by a vote of 32-0 on March 3.
New Hampshire Senate Approves Broadband Matching Fund
S.B. 85, aimed at establishing a matching broadband grant initiative, unanimously passed the New Hampshire Senate by a vote of 24-0 on March 11.
Digital Inclusion and Literacy Legislation
New York Assembly budgets $15M for statewide digital inclusion grant program
A new statewide $15 million Digital Inclusion Grant program was included in the New York State Assembly’s one house budget resolution passed on March 15.
If the budget is approved by the State Senate, the program would assist local groups in conducting outreach to communities experiencing barriers to technology. The initiative would fund education campaigns necessary to equip these communities with the key skills, training, and technical support necessary to operate as a digital citizen.
The statewide grant program would be administered by the State Education Department (SED) in consultation with the Office of the Aging and the Department of Labor. SED recently held two statewide digital equity summits focused on the importance of achieving digital equity across the state.
North Carolina Unveils Template for Statewide Digital Inclusion
This week North Carolina’s Broadband Infrastructure Office released a statewide Digital Inclusion Plan Template and Guide to help local governments create individualized plans to connect families across the Tar Heel State to the Internet devices necessary to obtain education, employment, and telehealth resources during the ongoing pandemic.
The guide is a reference for municipalities to design localized plans for managing tech and infrastructural needs. So far, officials said, 14 communities throughout the state have used the template to formulate initiatives. The North Carolina Legislature continues to block municipal broadband projects and partnerships, key priorities for AT&T and Charter Spectrum in the state.
Data Privacy Proposals
On March 2, Virginia became the second state to enact comprehensive state privacy legislation, when State Governor Ralph Northam signed the Virginia Consumer Data Protection Act (VCDPA) into law.
When VCDPA goes into effect on January 1, 2023, companies marketing to Virginians or otherwise conducting business in the state will need to reassess the way they collect and use netizens' personal information.
While the Virginia law draws from California’s CCPA and CPRA and the European Union’s GDPR, it also includes provisions from a number of recently proposed state privacy bills, such as a statute allowing Virginia residents to see what data companies have collected about them, and choose to correct or delete it.
Though many have celebrated the Virginia government for acting on subscriber privacy, others have criticized VCDPA for being more industry friendly than the laws it pulls from. VCDPA departs from the CCPA, CPRA, and GDPR in more ways than one, but most noticeably by failing to provide a private right of action to Virginia residents, which would allow netizens to initiate lawsuits against entities that violate VCDPA.
Learn more about who must comply with VCDPA and other notable requirements.
Upcoming Broadband Hearings
Push for PUDs Continues in Washington
The push to allow Washington’s Public Utility Districts (PUDs) to offer direct telecommunications services continued last week as two bills made rounds through the state’s capitol in Olympia.
While both proposed bills (S.B. 5383 and H.B. 1336) aim to allow PUDs to offer Internet services directly to Washingtonians, S.B. 5383 includes a preemption clause that would give veto power to private, incumbent ISPs, which they would be able to exercise on PUDs attempting to connect the unserved.
On Wednesday, the Washington State Community and Economic Development Committee held a briefing on S.B. 5383 during which State Sen. Lisa Wellman provided personal testimony on the legislation. During the hearing, Wellman claimed that private ISPs would only be able to object to PUD builds in areas where “they have well-developed plans” to construct networks. “They do have to show they have already begun the work to move into that area,” and prove they are “serving it with 120” Mbps upload and download speeds, said Wellman. The bill is scheduled for an executive session in the committee on March 23 at 10 AM PST.
S.B. 1336 is scheduled for an executive session in the Washington Senate Committee on Environment, Energy & Technology on March 24 at 8 AM PST. It last received a public hearing in the committee on March 11.
U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee Announces Hearing on the LIFT America Act
Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr., D-NJ, announced Monday that the committee will hold a remote hearing on pending infrastructure legislation on Monday, March 22, at 11 AM EST. “As the Committee begins its work to advance a transformative infrastructure package, we will hold a hearing next week on the LIFT America Act, which will serve as the blueprint for our action moving forward,” Pallone said.
Federal investments in digital infrastructure and digital literacy initiatives are on the rise, and so are opportunities for job openings:
ValleyNet is looking for an experienced Outside Plant Fiber Technician to join its team.
Firefly Fiber Broadband, a subsidiary of the Central Virginia Electric Cooperative, is looking for an experienced Fiber Construction Manager as Firefly continues to expand its Fiber-to-the-Home broadband Internet service.
Firefly Fiber Broadband is also searching for an experienced Fiber Installer to join a team working out of the Lovingston location.