Browse all articles

California's Golden Road to Affordable Internet

The California Public Utilities Commission is creating a model for affordable high-speed internet in the U.S.

Young Black child using a laptop in a home kitchen.

The number one reason Californians don't have high-quality internet service is because they can't afford it. To thrive in modern society, California's families need affordable, high-quality internet service. We have some great news on that front.

Recently, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) took two actions that will bring affordable, high-quality internet to Californians. Together, these actions will mean that any internet service provider (ISP) that uses public funds will have to work in the public's best interest.

Why can't Californians afford high-quality internet? Well, for two reasons:

  1. High-quality internet plans are expensive. The average plan costs between $50–$85. Many families are already struggling to afford rent, food, health care, and transportation, and have little left for such high monthly prices.
  2. Low-cost plans offer low-quality service. Slow internet speeds and data caps don't support essential services like collaborative homework projects, video streaming, remote work, job hunting, and meeting with doctors or therapists. Families shouldn't be denied these essential services simply because they can't afford expensive internet.

The CPUC's first decision, made in April, incentivizes ISPs to make long-term commitments to offering affordable, high-quality internet plans. Specifically, the CPUC's rules will encourage ISPs to offer a $40/month 50/20Mbps service for the next 10 years. ISPs that don't make these commitments will be less competitive in the CPUC's grant process and, as a result, they will receive less public funding.

The second decision, made in May, requires any network that serves public housing to offer free internet service to lower-income households. This key step will address the persistent racial and income gaps in connectivity. Compared to White households, Black households are nearly twice as likely to be disconnected, and Hispanic/Latino households are over three times as likely. Because families of color are disproportionately in public housing, this CPUC decision will bring connectivity to our least connected families.

Now let's examine the implications of these decisions.

  • 50/20Mbps is a big deal. While not fast enough for large families to take full advantage of the internet, this speed will allow them to use many essential services. Moreover, the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) minimum requirement is 25/3Mbps—a number generally considered inadequate for modern uses—so this CPUC decision puts pressure on the FCC to reevaluate their definitions.
  • Recently, 20 large ISPs committed to offering high-quality, affordable internet plans. While this step is important (and, when combined with the ACP, can result in free internet service), it is a voluntary (i.e., nonbinding) commitment. On the other hand, the CPUC's decision is binding, and it will ensure that affordability is ingrained as California builds out an over $6B broadband infrastructure network.
  • Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia is authoring the Affordable Internet and Net Equality Act of 2022, or AB 2751. This bill requires any ISP that contracts with the state (i.e., most ISPs) to offer a $40/month affordable plan and to support the adoption of these low-cost plans by households participating in public assistance programs. AB 2751, combined with the two CPUC decisions, will fill the major gaps in broadband affordability in California. AB 2751 has successfully passed through the Assembly and now moves to the Senate this summer before (hopefully) reaching the governor's desk for signature.

There is no longer any question about whether the internet is essential for modern life. The only question remaining is what we're willing to do to ensure everyone is connected. There is an unprecedented amount of federal and state resources available, so now is the time for state agencies, ISPs, and organizations like Common Sense to work together to ensure that every Californian has access to the affordable, high-quality internet service they need to thrive.

Stay tuned for more updates on our upcoming affordability awareness campaign and our newly launched coalition, the California Alliance for Digital Equity, which is using legislation like AB 2751 to promote these same affordability incentives.

Kami Peer

Kami Peer is the California Advocacy Associate at Common Sense. She advocates for policies and programs that promote universal access to affordable high-speed internet. Her work also encompasses the healthy use of the internet through digital citizenship and social media platform accountability.