By Cristal Mojica 

Broadband internet is as vital to our quality of life as reliable and affordable access to water, electricity, and gas—yet it is treated as a luxury in the marketplace, rather than as a utility that everyone, everywhere can benefit from. As we work to close the digital divide, we must define internet as a public utility.

When we consider the role the internet plays in our lives throughout a single day, it quickly becomes clear that our communities cannot fully participate and thrive in today’s society without it. To lack access to broadband is to be at a severe disadvantage. The technology tools and online services that are meant to make our lives easier and expand our capacity from the moment we wake up instead become active barriers to the well-being of families attempting to access critical services and meet their basic needs. 

Last year, AB 1714 attempted to catapult the state towards digital equity—a long overdue effort that was quickly shot down. This year, the Affordable Connectivity Program is ending and California has a monumental, once-in-a-generation opportunity to lead our communities into a new era of equitable affordable connectivity, not unlike the electrification of the United States in the early-to-mid 1900s. Will we rise to the occasion? 

What Is (and Should Be) a Public Utility?

To recognize the opportunity before us, we must first understand how the law defines a public utility.

The term public utility is generally used to identify an organization or entity that maintains the common infrastructure used to provide essential services to the public. In the California constitution (California Code, Civil Code – CIV § 1882), utility and utility service are currently defined as:

  • “Utility” means any electrical, gas, or water corporation as those terms are defined in the Public Utilities Code and includes any electrical, gas, or water system operated by any public agency.
  • “Utility service” means the provision of electricity, gas, water, or any other service or commodity furnished by the utility for compensation.

How Broadband Fits into the Utility Framework as the Affordable Connectivity Program Ends

Conventional economic theory distinguishes a public utility from a supplier of goods and services in a market by identifying whether the good in question is a monopoly. In many parts of urban and rural California, internet services are indeed a monopoly—or at best a duopoly.

The common policy response to the monopoly is to either place the service provider into public hands or use a regulatory framework to curtail the ability of the provider to exploit a monopoly position. Once in the public hands,  the service provider can be compelled to prioritize social outcomes, such as equity of access, affordability, or similar—exactly from which our California communities stand to benefit since many currently lack equitable access to affordable, reliable broadband internet. 

Internet affordability in California, like much of the country, relies on the goodwill of profit-driven Internet Service Providers and family enrollment in the federal Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), a subsidy program whose funds are set to run out in the coming months, which was never designed to be a long-term affordability solution. 

Despite not having a public utility designation, broadband infrastructure projects in California are overseen by both the California Department of Technology and the California Public Utilities Commission, similar to other utilities but without the protections for communities that a utility classification could provide.  

When ACP enrollment is no longer an option, the state will be faced with a challenge: How will we ensure that communities continue to have access to a resource upon which our basic needs depend?  How do we avoid placing the most vulnerable California households in the position of having to decide between paying their internet bill or their water and gas?

2023 California Broadband Legislation: A Glimmer of Hope that Shattered

In 2023, California legislation AB 1714 was introduced by Assemblymember Jim Wood, providing an opportunity to take the first steps at classifying broadband internet as a public utility. 

The bill noted that the California Constitution currently authorizes the Legislature to prescribe additional classes of private corporations or other persons as public utilities. It also referenced that existing law, the Public Utilities Act, imposes requirements, including a requirement that rates charged by a public utility are to be just and reasonable. Failure to ensure rates are just and reasonable is a crime.

The bill proposed defining “public utility” to include a corporation providing broadband service to the public or a portion of the public. By including this as a public utility, the Public Utilities Act would then apply to broadband service providers, legally requiring them to either charge just and reasonable rates or face criminal charges. 

In addition to rate fairness, the utilities requirements could foster transparency by standardizing service area, speed, and pricing data. Currently, internet service data is self-reported by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) with inadequate oversight over the quality, accuracy, and accessibility of this date. As a result, the state is unable to take action when there is misreporting or misrepresentation. 

This piece of legislation was, unsurprisingly, met with strong opposition from ISPs and did not advance beyond its first committee assignment, the Committee on Communications and Conveyance. At that time, the Committee tasked with hearing the bill was chaired by Assemblymember Tasha Boerner-Horvath.

The bill’s introduction provided a glimmer of hope for advocates and signified an important first step in what will surely be a long educational campaign to create public awareness. Our hope is that broadband internet as a public utility will be seen as both an option and an opportunity for California to once again pave the way for the rest of the country.

The Challenge Ahead

In 2024 and beyond, our communities and digital equity advocates will be looking to the California legislature to lead us into this new era, continuing to build upon the 2023 educational and legislative efforts to classify broadband internet as a public utility. 

We acknowledge the monumental size of the challenge we are facing, and the counterarguments that industry will surely employ regarding regulation, competition, and innovation.

While this will not be a sprint to a solution—in Los Angeles’ own utilities history, public ownership of the city’s electrical grid took two decades of negotiations to be fully complete in 1937—we, as advocates and community members, do not have to wait to take action.

Our state has an opportunity to make history and lead by example. In fact, California has a responsibility to ensure that all Californians can benefit from broadband as a technology, just as we did with the public infrastructure and regulation for electricity just over a century ago. 

Michelson 20MM is a private, nonprofit foundation working toward equity for underserved and historically underrepresented communities by expanding access to educational and employment opportunities, increasing affordability of educational programs, and ensuring the necessary supports are in place for individuals to thrive. To do so, we work in the following verticals: Digital Equity, Intellectual Property, Smart Justice, Student Basic Needs, and Open Educational Resources (OER). Co-chaired and funded by Alya and Gary Michelson, Michelson 20MM is part of the Michelson Philanthropies network of foundations.

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