Bill to Improve Rural Broadband Gains Momentum

Assemblyman Jim Wood's Broadband Map Act recently cleared the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee. Connie Stewart, left, executive director of the California Center for Rural Policy, spoke in favor of the bill. (Image courtesy of Assemblyman Jim Wood's office)

Assemblyman Jim Wood's Broadband Map Act recently cleared the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee. Connie Stewart, left, executive director of the California Center for Rural Policy, spoke in favor of the bill. (Image courtesy of Assemblyman Jim Wood's office)

It would be overstating things to say that Assemblymember Jim Wood’s Broadband Map Act is sailing through the State Legislature.

But six months after AB 1549 was introduced, it is clearly building some serious momentum.

The latest sign came early last week when the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee gave it the thumbs-up in a 10-0 vote. The Senate Appropriations Committee will consider the bill next. It has already passed out of Wood’s side of the State Legislature, the Assembly.

The bill, aimed at improving internet service in rural areas, requires Caltrans to create a centralized database showing where conduits and the fiber optic cables that run inside them have been laid. Such information is currently scattered among different companies and agencies.

A recent amendment requires Caltrans to do a few other things. Such as notify local broadband providers when the highway agency plans to open a trench that could house conduit. And install conduit even if providers show no interest so that it can be utilized in the future.

 “We need better connectivity in our rural communities, bottom line,” Wood, a Democrat from Healdsburg, said in a press release. “In past decades the public sector invested heavily to deliver copper telephone lines and electricity across the country.  This is a drop in the bucket compared to those investments, but it will make a world of difference for our communities in this 21st Century economy.”

Voleck Taing, a Wood spokesperson, said Friday that the severing of a fiber optic line by a Caltrans contractor in December — a mishap that shut down phone, internet and other communications services in Humboldt County — played a role in Wood’s decision to introduce the broadband mapping act the following month.

Even before that, she said that “the lack of redundancy [in the region’s fiber optic network] had been on his mind.”

While “rural health care is his biggest thing,” she said building up the basic broadband infrastructure on the North Coast is also a high priority for Wood, a former dentist.

“Broadband and [rural] health go hand-in-hand because of telemedicine,” explained Taing, referring to the provision of clinical health care at a distance through the use of telecommunication technologies. “So it’s a health care and a public safety issue.”

Of course, laying conduit amounts to an additional workload for Caltrans. But as a recent press release out of Wood’s office noted: “Laying conduit in an already open trench dramatically decreases the cost of expanding the fiber-optic network.”

Eli Rohl, a public information officer with Caltrans, said Monday that as a matter of policy his agency has no position on this particular bill or, for that matter, any other.

“We don’t comment on pending legislation,” he explained.