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One Small Step for Fiber, One Giant Leap for California

In 2016, California established a broadband goal of delivering 10/1 Mbps Internet access to 98% of its population. Since then, the state has undergone a dramatic rethinking of its policy approach to include municipal open access fiber networks through bond financing, a broadband plan focused on scalable infrastructure and several multimillion dollar proposals focused on fiber at its core.

“If you don’t have robust connectivity to the Internet, you aren’t a full participant in society,” Ernesto Falcon, Senior Legislative Counsel with Electric Frontier Foundation (EFF), said during a recent Fiber for Breakfast episode. “Your freedom of association, your freedom of expression, your ability to be a full-fledged citizen is curtailed.”

Falcon and EFF have focused efforts in recent years to addressing two questions:

  1. How do we get 21st century access to all people, and what does that mean?
  2. How do we lower the bar enough where broadband access is no longer the profits of a handful of very large companies, and can we bring that down to the local level?

“Thirty years ago, when EFF was founded, our founding members were a lot of the people who built the original, early technology of the Internet and believe that as the technology advances, our rights should stay the same,” Falcon explained.

Unfortunately, Falcon noted that is not the case for all Internet users. As a result in 2019, EFF called for change.

“We said the United States, as well as the states, local governments and local policy, need to have a fiber for all plan,” he continued. “They need to focus on delivering high capacity, 21st century access to all people, and we need it desperately.”

EFF has focused a lot of work in Sacramento in recent years and assisted in its passing of net neutrality, according to Falcon. After completing that project, he and his team turned to the broader state of California to explain to state regulators and other entities what is at stake if fiber is not widely adopted.

“California’s broadband plan and broadband infrastructure policy today is terrible,” Falcon warned, explaining that up until recently, the state’s laws noted a 6/1 mbps connection is adequate. “Which I think for many in this audience would hear that number and think, ‘Why does that even matter in today’s world, let alone even five years ago?’ But essentially, the state would not support broadband infrastructure if your community had greater than your 1990’s era DSL.”

The pandemic revealed what a terrible idea that was, Falcon said.

“California was funding slow networks on an incremental basis on the idea that, ‘Something is better than nothing,’ and ‘Slight upgrades are better than nothing.’ When usage and demand rose over the pandemic, suddenly millions of Californians were reliant on connections that simply could not deliver the access they needed,” he explained.

Falcon stressed that there is a digital divide that exists, but that connectivity issues do not stop in rural communities.

“There’s also this reality that if your community has just basic Internet access, but it’s not being upgraded with fiber today, you are also part of the wrong side of the digital divide, even if you have access,” he said. “Because if the usage has grown to where it is now—and it’s probably going to stay at this level—and you’re unable to even participate fully, then you really don’t have useful access. Forget about the 2015 definition anymore because it’s kind of useless as a metric.”

Falcon and EFF set about writing legislation to update the California restructure plan in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic with one goal in mind: every state dollar earmarked for building a new network will be a fiber network.

“No more dollars spent on slow, incrementally upgrading legacy networks,” he stressed.

Falcon said the debate for this legislative change was based on three issues:

  1. Determining what is truly “unserved.” Falcon and his team argued that if you lack a 25/25 mbps connection, you are eligible for a fiber network.
  2. What is “future-proof infrastructure?” EFF determined that a future-proof infrastructure should have sufficient capacity to deliver 100/100 mbps and a latency averaging at or less than 20 milliseconds to allow for real-time interactive applications.
  3. The ability to utilize “open access projects.” Falcon said if the government was to build and take on 100% of the cost of constructing, these networks must be open and sharable.

Near the end of 2020, California Governor Gavin Newsom issued an executive order, putting to rest the debate over download speeds by increasing state standards from 25 mbps to 100 mbps.

“Notably, he said nothing about the upload speed, which kind of gives you an idea of the influence of the legacy industry that really can’t handle a high upload unless they transition to fiber—which they should,” Falcon noted. “I think any rational player in this space isn’t really resting on slow access as a means of a perpetual status. They have to think about how they can transition, at some point, to fiber.”

Following the Governor’s executive order came a call for a new California Broadband Plan, for which Falcon said EFF continues to articulate priorities.

“We want to get fiber to every single person, without exception,” he said. “Often people will talk about this in the sense of, ‘These people are too expensive to serve,’ or ‘These people can’t be connected to.’ I think it’s just a failure of imagination as well as a failure of policy and regulation to really emphasize 21st century access and a transition process for all networks to eventually get to that point.”

As for California, Falcon said his team will keep fighting this fight for the next few weeks.

Listen to Ernesto Falcon’s full presentation on the Fiber for Breakfast Podcast.