“Essential” broadband is fixed service at 20 Mbps down/3 Mbps up, CPUC white paper says

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

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“Voice and broadband services required for education; telehealth; safety; and participation in society, such as completing job applications and accessing government assistance programs” will be defined as “essential services” in California if recommendations by California Public Utilities Commission staff are eventually adopted by commissioners.

According to a staff white paper on essential utility service affordability, for broadband service that means a minimum of 20 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds, with a monthly data cap of no less than 1 terabyte (1,024 gigabytes). That’s significantly more than the 6 Mbps down/1 Mbps up service level that the California legislature adopted as the state’s minimum broadband speed standard when it bowed to bags full of cash polite requests from AT&T, Comcast, Charter and other incumbent telecoms companies eager to protect their monopoly model businesses.

People need reliable broadband connectivity, according to the paper, and it needs to be fixed service; mobile broadband doesn’t cut it…

Fixed broadband is an essential service for Californians to be able to participate fully in society. For example, telehealth usage had a 1,202% growth between 2012 and 2017. In addition, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) states that “[a]ccess to broadband has become essential for students in all levels of education.” Furthermore, staff finds that mobile broadband services are not a viable substitute for fixed broadband services due to cost, access, and capacity limitations of wireless technology. For example, schoolwork, job applications, and government services are functions that are difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish on mobile. In addition, mobile services provide lower speeds, lower data caps, higher latency and higher prices compared to wireline broadband.

To determine whether all Californians can afford that level of service, the paper looks at three potential metrics: 1. the total cost of essential water, energy and telecoms service divided by household income remaining after housing costs are paid, 2. the number of hours of minimum wage work needed to pay that cost, and 3. a statistically based index that measures ability to pay on the basis of economic vulnerability.

Although the paper looks at some examples (more on that later), it doesn’t try to define what an affordable monthly price for broadband service, or other utilities, would be. Instead, it proposes a methodology for calculating those figures and a framework for applying it.

It’ll ultimately be up to the five CPUC commissioners to decide whether or not to adopt it. They ought to. It’s an excellent piece of work.

A workshop is scheduled for next Monday in San Francisco to discuss the methods and data proposed by the white paper, then public comments will be accepted in September. You can bet that incumbent telephone and cable companies will offer vociferous opposition.

Hancock, Ho, Sieren-Smith, Tome, Enriquez, Lai, Staff Proposal on Essential Service and Affordability Metrics, California Public Utilities Commission, 20 August 2019.