CPUC adds broadband to subsidised lifeline phone service in California, if telcos and cable cooperate

9 October 2020 by Steve Blum
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Low income Californians will be able to get free or low broadband service via the state’s lifeline program, following a unanimous vote yesterday by the California Public Utilities Commission. The plan approved by commissioners is pretty much the same as the draft that was proposed last month. The language in the final version was tightened up, but no substantive changes were made.

Subsidised lifeline broadband service has been available for some time from mobile carriers, who typically provide at no cost to the consumer. Wireline broadband service would come in steeply discounted packages that include telephone service, presumably delivered via voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) technology.

The proposal was developed by commissioner Genevieve Shiroma, who said that it follows from the CPUC’s determination in July that broadband is an essential utility service, no different in that respect than electricity…

We adopted an essential level of broadband service and concluded that [state law] demonstrates that the commission has a role in closing the digital divide in California, and bringing advanced communications services, including broadband Internet services, to all Californians. This program must support affordable choices for Californians across the state, including rural and urban Californians, households and individuals who need no cost wireless service and, of course, for the struggling families who need normal family plans or fixed voice or broadband services.

Governor Newsom also highlighted this need for broadband services with executive order 7320 on broadband for all, to bridge the digital divide in our state…

We really approached this effort that there be equivalency in the kinds of options for the low income customers, because, after all, in energy, everyone gets the same energy. There is a discount for that energy, but it is the same quality of energy.

The big question that has to be answered is whether California’s monopoly model telephone and cable companies will embrace the program. Essential or not, the CPUC has no direct role in regulating broadband service. It can offer subsidies as an incentive, but Shiroma acknowledged that it’s “a voluntary broadband option that our service providers, we think, can meet”.

Comcast doesn’t participate at all in the current life subsidy program for wireline phone service. AT&T, Frontier, Cox and Charter Communications do, but they haven’t said yet whether they will bundle in broadband.