Opinion: Legislature Must Fix a Major Disconnect in California’s $6 Billion Broadband Plan

Telephone poles in a rural area. Courtesy Pixabay

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s $6 billion broadband plan approved by the Legislature in July is a massive investment providing California’s best chance yet to close the digital divide and finally connect the state’s remaining unserved households that still have no Internet service or very slow service. 

But now, just a month later, the plan is already going off the rails, with the California Public Utilities Commission instead unilaterally deciding to spend these funds in areas that already have Internet service. The Legislature needs to act before the session adjourns this month to explicitly require that the first priority for the $6 billion is connecting the unserved.

State Sen. Mike McGuire, a Democrat from Healdsburg, calls this the “worst first” strategy — use public funds first to connect households with no service or slow service before funding upgrades where service is already available. He should know; his district in Northern California has many areas that still lack Internet service.

Previous broadband programs without an explicit “worst first” strategy in law failed to bring funds to the remote rural parts of his district because other locations eligible for funding were easier to serve. McGuire and many other legislators voted for the $6 billion broadband plan pledging that this will not happen again. Let’s hope they meant it.

In broadband jargon, the “worst first” strategy depends on how you define the “unserved.” The governor’s plan defines “unserved” as any area with no existing Internet provider offering service at speeds of at least 25 megabits per second download and 3 megabits upload — so-called 25/3 service — that is generally sufficient for distance learning, remote work and telehealth. 

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