CPUC asks ISPs to give Californians a break, but all it can do is ask

27 April 2020 by Steve Blum
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Please sir

Broadband service is too expensive for many families, but it’s a necessity nonetheless, according to a letter sent on Friday to Californian Internet service providers by California Public Utilities Commission president Marybel Batjer. Saying “not every household could or can continue to afford $50 a month for a quality, high-speed Internet connection”, Batjer asked ISPs to…

  • Provide service sufficient for all family members to work and learn from home: Subscription in the range of $0–15 a month, offering a minimum of 25 Mbps, and eliminate or waive data caps and overage charges.
  • Provide expansive program eligibility: Eligibility must be as broad as possible…
  • Make signing up easy: Allow customers to immediately sign-up for the plan online or over the phone before requiring eligibility verification. Eligibility can be verified at a later date.
  • Remove barriers: Eliminate any requirement that customers have no unpaid balances. Supply new customers with a low or no cost modem and Wi-Fi router either to own or lease.

It’s just a request. The CPUC has near zero authority over broadband service providers, even when they want something from the commission. And it can’t offer much in the way of incentives. Batjer pointed to the federal lifeline program that offers a $9.25 a month subsidy for fixed broadband service, with lots of strings attached, and she also held out hope that the CPUC’s lifeline program might also support broadband service. Some day.

Batjer wants ISPs to do two things: offer low income households 25 Mbps service for $15 or less a month with no data caps, and make it easy to sign up. The table below shows how poorly California’s major ISPs stack up against the $15/25 Mbps/no cap ask.

Suddenlink nails all three criteria, but charges $20 for installation. Comcast and Cox get price and speed right, but impose a standard 1TB cap that’s only waived for the moment. Charter meets the no cap and speed marks, but charges $23 per month (yeah, it’s $18 without WiFi but it’s also pretty useless without WiFi for most). AT&T makes it on price, but fails on speed and data caps, although it’s also waiving caps temporarily. Frontier offers unlimited data but its speed is limited by its decaying networks and for that it charges $20 a month.

Signing up is the real problem, though. Even if you can reach a customer service rep who will admit to knowing about a low income discount program – not a good bet – you will be subjected to arcane documentation demands and credit barriers on the one hand, and vicious up sell attempts on the other. Frontier, for example, has a plan with a $20 introductory rate that ties customers into a long term contract with an escalating price and Frontier’s notorious extra fees. Its reps have been known to stonewall affordable rate enquiries while offering the bait and switch rate as salvation. Customers of other ISPs have similar stories to tell.

ISP Plan name Monthly rate and terms
AT&T Access from AT&T $10, 10 Mbps max, 150 GB or 1TB cap depending on technology, WiFi included, for qualifying low income households. Until 30 April 2020, first 2 months are free. 855–220–5211.
Charter Spectrum Internet Assist $22.99 ($5 less with no WiFi), 30 Mbps, no cap, for qualifying low income households. During the corona virus emergency, the first 60 days is free for all plans in areas where schools are closed. 844–579–3743.
Comcast Internet Essentials $9.95, 25 Mbps, 1TB cap, WiFi included, for qualifying low income households. Until 13 May 2020 the first 60 days is free. 855–846–8376
Cox Connect2Compete $9.95, 25 Mbps, 1TB cap, WiFi included, for qualifying low income households with a K-12 student. If signed up by 15 May 2020, service is free until 15 July 2020. 800–234–3993.
Frontier Fundamental Internet $19.99, speed depends on available technology, no cap, for qualifying low income households. No free service is available, $9.99 charge to disconnect, deposit may be required. 877–578–8367.
Suddenlink Altice Advantage Internet $14.95, 30 Mbps, no cap, WiFi implied but not explicitly included, for qualifying low income households. During the corona virus emergency, service is free until 30 June 2020 but installation is $20. 888–633–0030.