Soapbox

Another View: ‘Digital divide’ bill will rip off California ratepayers

Wyatt Blevins 10, left, and Mason Meza, 9, use iPads connected to the Internet at Sheridan Elementary School in February 2015. Students celebrated getting reliable high-speed Internet for the first time.
Wyatt Blevins 10, left, and Mason Meza, 9, use iPads connected to the Internet at Sheridan Elementary School in February 2015. Students celebrated getting reliable high-speed Internet for the first time. Sacramento Bee file

Should the Legislature levy a tax on your phone bill to raise $500 million to bring high-speed broadband to “unserved” and “low-income” households? The way Barbara O’Connor describes it, this program is as appealing as apple pie (“To prosper, state must close the digital divide,” Viewpoints, April 28).

The facts, however, might make you choke on your slice. Just under 97 percent of the state already has access to high-speed broadband, so the law of diminishing returns dictates that reaching the remaining households will require much effort and yield very little. Indeed, some proposals involve bringing connectivity to mountain cabins, where vacationers probably prefer to unplug.

Then there’s the cost. The California Public Utilities Commission approved a number of expensive projects under the pre-existing program, including many costing $20,000 per household, and another at $89,000 per household. As one observer wryly noted, the state could have bought these households a James Bond-esque satellite connection for $200.

And how does the pre-existing process work? Well, the state taxes you and then a well-connected nonprofit (such as O’Connor’s California Emerging Technology Fund) steps in and “assists” communities with applying for funding. Then the state pays a special interest to build the infrastructure. The well-connected dine at the trough, while the ratepayer picks up the tab.

Even your cable bill is affected. Tucked away in the Charter merger is a provision to give $32 million to O’Connor’s nonprofit and require Charter to lobby for more funds.

It gets worse. O’Connor’s group is pushing for another $500 million, even though there’s still $100 million left in the existing fund. Moreover, one group has applied to the CPUC to spend more than $400,000 per household to build infrastructure in one community. Oh, and then there’s the little detail that one of the projects the CPUC initially approved was for Sea Ranch, which is neither “unserved” nor “low-income.”

Tax ratepayers to continue this boondoggle? I am proud that the Assembly Utilities & Commerce Committee, which I lead, learned the facts and recognized that this pie is half-baked.

Mike Gatto, a Los Angeles Democrat, represents the 43rd state Assembly District. He can be contacted at Assemblymember.Gatto@asm.ca.gov.

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