Tuesday, March 19, 2024

California legislation would adopt definition of digital discrimination

Proposed California legislation would codify in state law a definition of “digital discrimination of access.” AB 2239 would define it as “policies or practices, not justified by genuine issues of technical or economic feasibility, that differentially impact consumers’ access to broadband internet access service based on their income level, race, ethnicity, color, religion, or national origin, or that are intended to have a differential impact.”

That mirrors the Federal Communications Commission’s Preventing Digital Discrimination rulemaking adopted in November as mandated by section 60506 of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 (IIJA). Section 60506 defines equal access as “the equal opportunity to subscribe to an offered service that provides comparable speeds, capacities, latency, and other quality of service metrics in a given area, for comparable terms and conditions.”

The FCC’s Preventing Digital Discrimination rulemaking is predicated on the notion that business decisions on where to deploy infrastructure and offer advanced telecommunications services can disadvantage households based on these demographic factors, even if not intentional. But Section 60506 gives deployers the ability to defend their infrastructure and service offerings based on technical and economic feasibility. That can easily trump any claim of discriminatory impact -- intentional or not -- in the nation’s market-based and predominately investor owned advanced telecommunications infrastructure.

Since IP telecom is currently classified as lightly regulated optional information service under Title I of the Communications Act and not as a common carrier utility, providers are free to deploy delivery infrastructure wherever they wish and at rates of their choosing. Naturally, they are going to prefer denser, higher income neighborhoods that will produce faster return on capital investment (ROI) and where households are less price sensitive and more inclined to subscribe to higher priced services, thereby maximizing average revenue per unit (ARPU).

Notably, California’s Digital Equity Bill of Rights that took effect in January, states public policy that “to the extent technically feasible, broadband internet subscribers benefit from equal access to broadband internet service within the service area of a broadband provider.”(Emphasis added) Notably, that omits the economic feasibility defense of the FCC’s Preventing Digital Discrimination rulemaking and proposed by AB 2239. 

That's an important difference from AB 2239 because technical feasibility is a far broader term comparable to the federal government's definition of a "broadband serviceable location" as “a business or residential location in the United States at which fixed broadband Internet access service is, or can be, installed." That definition is used in the National Telecommunications and Information Administration's Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) subsidy program. A location may be serviceable. But building infrastructure to serve it may not be economically feasible if the business case justifying deployment isn't present.

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