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Fixed Wireless Access (FWA)

California bill would let wireless in on broadband grants

The wireless industry in California is urging Governor Gavin Newsom to sign a bill that would amend the state's public utilities code to allow wireless technologies to get in on the state's broadband grant funding.

The bill was passed with bipartisan support by the state legislature in late August and has been awaiting the governor's signature since.

In a press release last week, the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) expressed support from its 80 California members for the legislation and pushed Newsom to sign it, saying the "tech-neutral approach will yield greater results" for the state.

According to WISPA: "AB 2749 amends CPUC practice, which favored fiber-only builds for the use of limited broadband deployment subsidies. While fiber projects have many important uses, fiber is not always the right tool for the job. Eliminating the technologically myopic bias for fiber for this funding opens up choices, allowing the state and its localities to employ cost-effective, reliable, and agile wireless connectivity where it makes sense."

Tarana Wireless also expressed its support for the legislation, with CEO Basil Alwan saying "AB 2749 will enable companies like ours to enhance Internet availability and experiences throughout California at large scale."

The bill also has support from CTIA, which represents the US wireless communications industry. The group circulated a "floor alert" with bullet points urging legislators to vote for it ahead of its passage in August, saying it will "encourage as many providers as possible to participate" in the state's grant programs and make "broadband grants more accessible."

While wireless advocates are pushing for the tech-neutral amendment, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) – which has advocated for fiber-focused legislation in California and at the federal level – released a statement in May saying the proposed legislation was "forcing the state to treat AT&T's inferior wireless offerings on equal terms as 21st-century-ready fiber infrastructure." The group also said the bill would "undermine" the $6 billion, multi-year broadband legislation Governor Newsom signed last year to bridge the digital divide through a state-run open access network and other measures.

EFF also opposes the bill because it imposes a 180-day review period for grant applications, which EFF's Chao Liu wrote "will short-circuit public provider efforts to deliver fiber."

Added Liu: "If this bill – which is supported by industry providers like AT&T and Frontier Communications – were to pass, areas that currently do not even have basic service, primarily rural and urban poor areas, would suffer most of all."

(EFF had also spoken out against language in the legislation that would have prohibited affordability requirements, but that has since been removed.)

Win for wireless?

The push to pass AB 2749 in California mirrors what's been happening at the federal level, with wireless industry advocates pushing federal agencies for months to roll back the preference for fiber written into various grant program rules. Recently, NTIA chief Alan Davidson reassured the industry that "a lot of non-fiber technology" would be funded through the multi-billion-dollar BEAD program, but he also reiterated that "fiber is definitely our priority."

Similarly, the California Public Utilities Commission announced rules in April for $2 billion in broadband infrastructure funding – including a mix of state and federal American Rescue Plan funds – designating 100/100 Mbit/s wireline projects as eligible for grants. Now the wireless industry wants those rules amended.

With the bill passing the state legislature with wide bipartisan support, wireless advocates are optimistic about their odds.

"We have been pleased with the overwhelmingly bipartisan support the bill has received in the Legislature, so we are hopeful that he [Newsom] signs the bill soon," said Steve Schwerbel, state advocacy manager with WISPA, through a spokesperson.

According to the state's website, Newsom has signed and vetoed several bills in the last week, but AB 2749 was not among them.

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Nicole Ferraro, editor, Light Reading, and host of "​​The Divide" podcast.

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