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California Governor Signs New Broadband Bill

The bill aims to show where broadband service is currently available and it also allows customers to self-report the speed, price they pay and barriers they face with their Internet connections.

Closeup of a pile of yellow broadband cables with blue caps.
(TNS) — Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill that aims to improve broadband information maps. Advocates of the new law say companies that receive public funds have kept data about internet access under wraps, not informing people of the actual speed and price of internet.

The bill, AB 286 championed by state Assemblymember Jim Wood (D-Healdsburg) aims to show where broadband service is available and allows customers to self-report the speed, price they pay and barriers they face with their internet. Wood said in a release that the map, on the California Public Utilities Commission's website, only showed a capacity to serve as reported by the industry and was not confirmed by people living there.

"We cannot rely on maps that are defined by industry, but unchecked by the people they claim to serve," said Wood in a prepared statement.

A lack of internet providers and information particularly impacts rural, low-income areas. An email from a representative of Wood's office says the bill is fundamental to closing the digital divide on the North Coast as it moves the needle forward on broadband access in California.

Sean McLaughlin, executive director of Access Humboldt, said the bill addresses a historic issue in mapping, and called it a "very practical piece of the puzzle to do better."

"We can't just let industry keep industry information proprietary while taking public funding," he said, pointing to billions in federal funding sources like the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program that funds building infrastructure to expand access to the internet.

A news release noted a piece of legislation that expanded funding, SB 156 (2021) that aimed to increase equitable access to high-speed internet with a $6 billion multi-year investment.

McLaughlin said broadband companies are collecting the data but do not provide it to the CPUC, which regulates utilities.

"What we don't talk about is why we don't have better maps. This is because industry wants to use information to keep competitors out of the market," he added. He said as post-COVID online options expand for doctors appointments and school courses, internet is increasingly understood as an essential utility.

The representative from Wood's office said hopes are that the law will encourage competition in the market and better direct public funds. He also noted previous work from the Assemblymember, AB 41 (2021) and AB 2752 (2022) relating to digital equity. Two North Coast representatives, Sen. Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg) and Wood sit on an advisory committee monitoring the development of internet access called the Middle-Mile Advisory Committee.

© 2023 Times-Standard, Eureka, Calif. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.