CPUC votes today on setting 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up as California’s “essential service quantity” of broadband

16 July 2020 by Steve Blum
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The California Public Utilities Commission is scheduled to decide today if it will set a minimum level of “essential” broadband service that Californians need to function and, indeed, survive in the 21st century. After extensive public review of the second draft of a ground breaking staff study of minimum utility service needs and people’s ability to pay for it, a decision drafted by commissioner Clifford Rechtschaffen would revise and then formally adopt the report’s conclusions and methodology.

Much of the proposed decision involves electric, gas, water and voice telephone services, which are traditionally subjects of CPUC regulation. Its jurisdiction over broadband companies and the services they provide – raw Internet access as well as things like voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) service – is controversial. AT&T, and Charter Communications and Comcast’s Sacramento lobbying front “each believe that it is not appropriate for the commission to engage this issue at all”, according to Rechtschaffen’s draft.

Nevertheless, Rechtschaffen sets a minimum broadband service level. The “essential service quantity” for household broadband is pegged at 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds, with a 1 terabyte monthly data cap. That’s the minimum needed to support a family in the covid–19 era…

At this critical time, when COVID–19 response measures have required more essential services to be provided online, including distance learning and telemedicine, a much higher basic speed has become a necessity. On April 24th, Commission President Batjer sent a letter to the internet service providers urging them to provide a minimum speed of 25 Mbps…for their affordable plan offerings It is likely that this shift to digital dependency will continue long after COVID–19 recovery efforts end.

A maximum affordable price isn’t set for any utility service, but a sophisticated method for calculating one is. Affordability is defined as “the degree to which a representative household is able to pay for an essential utility service charge, given its socioeconomic status”.

The minimum standards and the method for benchmarking affordable prices will become an integral element in the CPUC’s management of broadband programs, such as the California Advanced Services Fund. One might also hope that the California legislature takes notice as it considers whether to keep the state’s nominal minimum broadband speed standard at 6 Mbps down/1 Mbps up.