California Opts to Build Statewide Middle-Mile Fiber Network

California passed AB126 to build a statewide, open-access fiber network, with a vote of 78-0 in the California Assembly and 39-0 in the Senate. The fiber network will operate as a “middle mile” network carrying data from Internet backbone networks to urban and rural connection points where local ISPs take it the “last mile” to residences. The network will offer “non-discriminatory access to eligible entities on a technology and competitively neutral basis, regardless of whether the entity is privately or publicly owned.”

Ars Technica reports that Senator Lena Gonzalez (D-Long Beach) wrote that the “historic broadband budget package” will earmark $6+ billion “in middle, last-mile, and local government support with a focus on unserved and underserved [areas].” The bill provides $3.25 billion for the middle-mile network and $2 billion in funding for last-mile ISPs to serve more residences.

At the Electronic Frontier Foundation, senior legislative counsel Ernesto Falcon wrote that, “every Republican and Democrat in Sacramento just voted for a fiber for all future,” which he has been urging because “other technologies like cable … have slower upload speeds and aren’t as future-proof.” Governor Gavin Newsom said “this broadband package is historic … it will be a legacy project that will benefit generations of rural and urban residents alike.”

The middle-mile network will be available to “last-mile providers, anchor institutions, and tribal entities,” according to the bill, and the $2 billion to last-mile networks is divided 50-50 between urban and rural areas, with “applicants for last-mile funding [having] until June 30, 2023, to apply.” Any leftover money will go to the Public Utilities Commission “to allocate for the construction of last-mile broadband infrastructure anywhere in the state.”

The bill adds that, “the design-build procurement authorization … shall remain in effect for purposes of the statewide open-access middle-mile broadband network after January 1, 2024, until the completion of the broadband network.”

Priority for the middle-mile network will be given to “schools, colleges, government entities, health care institutions, libraries, public safety answering points, and tribal lands … [and will] initially target locations where there’s no residential access to 25Mbps download and 3Mbps upload speeds.”

NBC News reports that, “while there [are] such publicly funded networks in other states, the California version would be likely to be a much greater state-level network than has been built anywhere else in the country.” According to broadband experts, “such middle-mile networks can encourage new ISPs to build faster and less expensive access to the Internet to compete with existing providers.”

Greenlining Institute technology equity lawyer Vinhcent Le reported that “large ISPs see the bill as ‘a huge deal’ that spur new competition with incumbent providers, like AT&T, even in major urban areas.”