Cable tightens the screws on California public housing broadband

The California cable industry continues to gain ground in its perverse, and oxymoronic, fight to fence off public housing communities from government subsidies. Last year, cable industry lobbyists convinced a biddable senator to slip a big perk into a bill extending the life of a program that pays for broadband facilities – mostly equipment that’s used to provide free (and slow) WiFi access – in public housing. It was language that limited grants to only “unserved” properties, where residents aren’t offered market rate broadband service at all.

The problem with that is cost. People who are eligible to live in public housing have very low incomes and, in theory, can’t afford to pay the going rate for a lot of the basic services most of us take for granted. In practice, however, cable companies have been successful at upselling residents from basic service to pricey bundles of television and, sometimes, Internet service, which can represent a huge chunk of their monthly disposable income. Since they’re not able, often, to put up antennas or satellite dishes, they have little choice. Which is a monopoly trap cable companies ruthlessly exploit and zealously guard – even from the mild threat posed by free WiFi access.

The California Public Utilities Commission, which runs the program, has just published proposed new rules for public housing broadband grants. At the request of the cable industry’s lobbying front organisation – the California Cable and Telecommunications Association – it tightened up earlier draft language that would have left a window of opportunity open to take income levels into account when deciding whether a public housing community was “unserved”.

Originally, the standard would have been that “a housing unit is ‘not offered broadband Internet service’ if the occupant of the unit cannot access a commercially available broadband Internet service…utilizing the facilities at the premises”. Access is a term of art that can take in a number of factors, including service affordability.

Cable lobbyists objected, saying that shifted “consideration to residents”, rather than just assessing the physical ability to connect. CPUC staff agreed and changed it to read that eligibility depends on Internet service simply being available at a housing unit, regardless of whether a resident can access it.

The commission is scheduled to vote on the new rules at its 24 August 2017 meeting, and they’re taking public comments until 14 August 2017.