CPUC decision will help make broadband more affordable and available to Californians

Fast Internet, image by alphaspirit.it

OPINION – State governments are key broadband policy actors, and none is more critical than the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), which oversees broadband for some 40 million people, including some 7 million low-income Californians. The CPUC recently approved measures to marry state and federal broadband subsidies. Its decision allows eligible Californians dual enrollment to the state`s Lifeline program and the federal Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). Pilot participants may access up to $57.15 (and up to $127.15 on Tribal lands) of combined federal and state support for standalone broadband service or bundled wireless broadband and voice service plans that provide unlimited talk, text and data, 30 GBs hotspot, along with a free handset.  This pilot is a massive value that comes at no cost to the consumer.

With this decision, eligible Californians can take advantage of discounts that will give them more equitable access to affordable broadband. This is a tremendous step forward for the state in meeting its goal of bringing broadband to disadvantaged communities that are often overlooked and underserved. Further, the decision addresses cost, a significant barrier to broadband adoption and accessibility statewide, according to Pew Research.

“These two pilot programs will provide synergies between the California LifeLine and the federal Affordable Connectivity Programs for low-income households to receive long-awaited high-quality broadband, hot spots, and voice options. The programs will support getting homework done, applying for jobs and resources, access to telemedicine, and much more,” said Commissioner Genevieve Shiroma, who is assigned to the proceeding. “This decision allows California LifeLine subscribers to leverage the Federal Communications Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Program for improved wireless and wireline service. The wireless pilot programs will offer improvements relative to current LifeLine offerings, which we hope will improve participation in both the LifeLine program and the Affordable Connectivity Program,” said Commissioner Darcie L. Houck. “The pilot programs will provide more high-speed broadband and communications options to California’s income-qualified subscribers, while collecting data to ensure LifeLine funds are used effectively,” said Commissioner Karen Douglas.

The CPUC decision includes important design features and benefits. For one, Californians will not be penalized for accessing state benefits. Instead, they can maximize both the available state and federal funds to get a sufficient broadband subsidy. Consumers can use the subsidy for the technology, provider, and plan of their choice. The California Department of Technology (CDT) reported that 2,108,983 California households enrolled in the ACP as of May 1, 2023. This is more than 10 percent of the national enrollment. Moreover, most Californians apply their subsidies to wireless subscriptions.

Through September 2022, 56% of the 13.5 million ACP enrollees are wireless users, with 43% having enrolled in wireline service.

Notably the CPUC made this decision based on the feedback of low-income users and their communities, and it recognizes the importance and primacy of mobile wireless technologies. Low-income people use their mobile devices largely for work and to get employed. Mobile cellular service is important because it provides a connection wherever they are and while they transit.

The CPUC pivoted from a prior proposed decision that prohibited combining state and federal subsidies.  Fortunately, it changed its mind. The CPUC should be commended for listening to the needs of low-income Californians and adopting this value-rich pilot.

Roslyn Layton, PhD is a broadband policy researcher and a visiting instructor at Aalborg University, Copenhagen, Denmark

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