The Fresno Bee Opinion
Hugo Morales: CPUC Can Close Digital Divide
By Hugo Morales Published: February 23, 2015
You probably didn’t feel the earth shake Feb. 13, but the news from San Francisco has the potential to impact the San Joaquin Valley in ways never felt before.
California Public Utilities Commission Administrative Law Judge Karl Bemesderfer issued a proposed decision that spells out conditions that Comcast must agree to before gaining CPUC approval of its proposed merger with Time Warner Cable. The CPUC has the final say and is expected to vote on the proposed conditions March 26.
Simply put, if the CPUC commissioners show bold leadership, many parts of the San Joaquin Valley served by Comcast will finally have the tools to join the Digital Age.
We live in a region in which 4 of 10 households still do not have fixed broadband, meaning hundreds of thousands of our family members, friends, and neighbors do not have home access to the educational, economic and health care opportunities necessary to succeed and thrive in the 21st century.
Comcast is the major Internet service provider in many parts of the San Joaquin Valley, and the proposed conditions would put affordable broadband in reach of many of these unconnected residents.
Many of us who work to improve education and the lives of low-income residents — including First 5 Fresno County, California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley, Fresno Barrios Unidos, Great Valley Center, San Joaquin Valley Regional Broadband Consortium and Radio Bilingüe — have been advocating for the kinds of conditions in the proposed decision. It is the role of the judge to look at all of the recommendations, including Comcast’s, and weigh the benefit the company receives from the merger with the benefit the public should receive.
I applaud the fairness and foresight, and the extensive study and work, of CPUC Judge Bemesderfer and commission staff.
The conditions, if approved as proposed, will open up a world of possibilities for many low-income residents in San Joaquin Valley, for rural communities that have limited or no online access, and for schools and libraries in unserved and underserved areas.
Key proposed conditions say Comcast shall:
• Expand eligibility for its low-cost $9.95 a month Internet Essentials service to all low-income households in its service area. Currently, the discount is available only to families with students eligible for free or reduced lunches.
• Enroll at least 45% of eligible households in the $9.95 a month program within two years of the merger date, with some exceptions. Spend a minimum of $275 per eligible household to promote adoption and training, and work with experienced, community-based organizations.
• Build at least 10 broadband facilities that are adjacent to or near areas that Comcast currently serves by broadband.
• Connect and/or bring Internet infrastructure to K-12 schools and public libraries in unserved and underserved areas in the same proportion as it provides high-speed access to households.
Now comes the real test of our region’s resolve to stand up and let the CPUC commissioners know how critical their approval is. Last month in these pages, some Comcast supporters wrote that the company should be rewarded with approval for what it had done in the past, including Internet Essentials. Already, Comcast officials have signaled that they do not like some of the conditions, and they expect to negotiate with the CPUC.
The firsthand experience of my staff at Radio Bilingüe and other non-profits around the Valley is that Comcast has a slow and cumbersome sign-up process that discourages many families from participating in the discount program. It’s no surprise to us that after 31/2 years, by the company’s own accounting, less than 15% of eligible families around the state have signed up, though it is slightly higher in the Fresno area.
Clearly, the CPUC judge thinks Comcast has the capability do a much better job than it has — especially if it expects approval of a merger that will end up giving the newly combined company a service footprint that covers 87% of all children on free- and reduced-lunch in the entire state.
I have spent all my life fighting for equal opportunity for everyone, including access for all children to the highest quality education. An opportunity like this rarely comes along, and it will go a very long way to finally close the digital divide in California and set an important threshold for regulators across the country.
Please join me in urging the CPUC Commissioners to take the brave action of approving — and even strengthening — these conditions. They can be true trailblazers in standing up for the public interest and transforming lives and entire communities.
Hugo Morales is the founder and executive director of Radio Bilingüe, based in Fresno, trustee of the California State University System and commissioner for First 5 Fresno County.