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Digital Equity LA
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In the wake of the new rules issued by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to prevent digital discrimination, digital equity advocates from California to Cleveland are leveraging the new federal rules to spur local action.
In Los Angeles, city leaders have passed an ordinance to combat what advocates say are discriminatory investment and business practices that leave historically marginalized communities without access to affordable high-quality Internet. Similar efforts to mobilize communities and local officials are underway in Oakland and Cleveland.
In November 2023, the FCC codified rules to prevent digital discrimination, outlining a complaint process whereby members of the public can offer evidence of digital discrimination being committed by Internet service providers (ISPs). Though the FCC order does not outline local policy solutions, nor does it empower localities to carry out enforcement of the federal rules, it has the potential to open up conversations between local advocates and elected officials about new ordinances, stronger enforcement of existing ones, or public investment to facilitate competition and the building of better broadband networks.
Los Angeles First City in Nation To Officially Define Digital Discrimination At Local Level
The local organizing work behind the proposed ordinance in LA dates back to 2022 when digital equity advocates began to document inequitable broadband access across the county.
California digital equity advocates say that recent cuts to the state’s ambitious broadband deployment plan unfairly harm low-income and minority communities. And despite promises from state leaders that the cuts will be reversed, local equity advocates say the process used to determine which neighborhoods should be prioritized remains rotten to the core.
In 2021, California state leaders announced a $7 billion, multi-armed plan to bring affordable, next-generation fiber to every state resident. A key part of the plan involved building a $4 billion statewide middle-mile open access fiber network designed to drive down the costs of market entry, improve competition, and reduce broadband prices.
At the time, California officials said “the statewide network will incentivize providers to expand service to unserved and underserved areas.” Groups like the EFF lauded the “historic” investment, likening it to bold, early efforts to ensure rural electrification.
But last May, California officials quietly announced they’d be making some notable cuts to the state’s affordable broadband expansion plan. Blaming inflation and rising construction costs, the state’s renewed budget called for a 17 percent reduction in planned broadband investment, on average, across the state.
Chants for “affordable” and “quality Internet” rang through the corridors of Inglewood City Hall this morning.
The source of that sound came from members of the coalition known as Digital Equity LA who assembled to picket in front of State Sen. Steven Bradford’s Office, publicly calling for an “end to digital redlining” and for passage of Assembly Bill 41 (AB 41), also known as The Digital Equity in Video Franchising Act of 2023.
If passed as is, the proposed bill – which we wrote about previously here – would establish an equal access requirement, anti-discrimination provisions, and a process for the public and local governments to provide input on the franchise agreements governing how cable Internet service providers serve their communities.
Noting how nearly 98 percent of all broadband subscribers in the Golden State get Internet service through cable companies operating under DIVCA franchises, reforming the franchise law would help reform broadband access – which the coalition says is essential to address the digital divide across one of the largest metro areas in the nation.
As California aims to boost broadband competition and Los Angeles County pursues what could be the biggest municipal broadband network ever built, local activists say they’ve made some meaningful recent inroads on both improving broadband mapping, and regulatory reform that should aid the equitable deployment of modern, affordable access.
Recently, inroads have been made on fixing long-broken California cable franchise law. In the early aughts, cablecos (and telcos pushing into the TV business) successfully lobbied for state-level “cable franchise reform” laws they promised would dramatically lower prices. In reality, such bills were often little more than legislative wishlists crafted by telecom giants.
Often these state-level replacements for local franchise agreements eroded legal regulatory authority, eliminated long standing requirements for uniform broadband and TV deployment, and in some states–like Wisconsin–even acted to strip away local consumer protections and eminent domain rights. Warnings by academics on this front were widely ignored.
Seventeen years after its passage, California activists say that California’s 2006 Digital Infrastructure and Video Competition Act (DIVCA) was no exception.