Is California really serious about broadband for all?

California authorities measure the success of broadband funding not by the number of households served, but by the number of kilometers of lines installed.

During the pandemic, we all saw kids sitting outside Taco Bell waiting for free Wi-Fi access to do their homework because their families didn't have broadband. The COVID lockdown shone a harsh light on the persistent inequalities in broadband access across California.

Recent state data collected by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) shows that at least 362,000 households do not have an internet service provider. To bridge the digital divide, the Legislature and the Newsom administration in 2021 approved $6 billion for a “Broadband for All” funding package to encourage the development of new broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved communities. These funds were largely provided by the federal government and were to be used before December 2026. A significant portion of these funds were placed under the control of the CPUC, which had already been administering a broadband infrastructure grant program for several years with some success.

Fast forward to 2024. What does California have to show for this investment? Not much. There are still two years to go until the deadline and the CPUC has not yet awarded a single penny to any project. Not a single new budget has been associated with this funding.

Why is that? There are several reasons for this. For one thing, the CPUC and the California Department of Technology, the state departments responsible for implementing broadband infrastructure, do not measure the success of the funding by the number of underserved or unserved households connected. Instead, they focus on the miles of underground wires. And not only that: These two state departments are at best talking past each other and at worst uncoordinated in their coordination.

The CPUC is the state agency entrusted with too much responsibility for just six commissioners. CPUC commissioners are in charge of issues such as rising electricity prices, energy security and climate change, while the less pressing but equally important task of administering broadband infrastructure grants seems to have fallen by the wayside.

As Chair of the Committee on Communications and Transportation, I believe we are actively failing to connect our unserved and underserved communities. It is obvious that the CPUC has not made progress and will not make progress a priority. The agency has become so reckless that it even refused to make a commissioner available for a legislative oversight hearing.

Anna Harden

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