Battle for broadband in California’s public housing heats up

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Would you like some pay-per-view with that?

The cable industry is continuing its assault on low cost broadband designed for people who live in publicly subsidised housing. Cox Communications is the latest company to ask the California Public Utilities Commission to nullify broadband improvement grants given to public housing operators in their territory. The cable companies object because they also sell broadband service, along with very profitable television packages, to some of these communities.

The problem, though, is that residents aren’t subscribing to those services. The California Emerging Technology Fund also jumped into the dispute, challenging Charter Communications’ and, now, Cox’s false claim that the grants are illegal.

The real problem, according to the CETF brief, is that on average only about a quarter of public housing residents can afford market rate broadband service offered by cable companies and that the discount programs for low income households that they brag about are in fact designed to fail. Cable companies have such a poor track in public housing because, according to CETF

(1) residents cannot afford the market price, typically $30-$65 in the state;
(2) discounted Internet programs have narrow eligibility, such as Comcast Internet Essentials, which is primarily offered only to low-income families with K-12 aged children in the free or reduced national free lunch program;
(3) the application process is difficult for low-income families to navigate to qualify for low–cost broadband offers, establish eligibility, and actually hook up the necessary equipment to provide the service;
(4) low-income households often cannot afford the lack of equipment such as a computing device, printer or wireless router; and
(5) distrust of corporate broadband providers by [public housing] residents, who are concerned about being upsold plans they cannot afford.

The Internet access enabled by the subsidies, which only pay for installation of facilities and not the service itself, is generally slower and more problematic than cable modem service. In other words, residents are being offered a distinctly different choice. Which is what infuriates the California cable industry: it doesn’t want low income people to have any choice at all.