LA County Selects Pilot Communities for Major Broadband Expansion

LA County is accelerating its plan to deliver affordable broadband access to the city’s unserved and underserved, with an eye toward building one of the biggest municipal broadband networks in the nation. But the county is first taking baby steps, recently announcing target communities prioritized in a pilot program aimed at bridging the digital divide.

In late 2021, the LA County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a major new broadband expansion plan. The plan’s first order of business: deliver free broadband to the 365,000 low-income households in Los Angeles County that currently do not subscribe to service, starting with a 12,500-home pilot project.

Last September, the LA County Board of Supervisors approved using a total of $56 million in American Rescue Plan funding to help connect these families to fast, free, and reliable Internet service.

To help coordinate the effort, LA county designated the Internal Services Department (ISD) as the lead agency responsible for managing this and any future projects. The ISD is now working in conjunction with the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to determine which areas of the county should see funding and logistical priority. 

The ISD and LA County Supervisor Holly Mitchell recently released a map of priority locations where the County will build low-cost internet for households in the Second District. 

“I joined the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in the height of the pandemic,” Mitchell said in an announcement. “And it became very clear that access to reliable Internet was critical to our success of emerging out of the pandemic. In the Second District, as much as 30 percent of households lack home internet [access]. This is unacceptable, and Los Angeles County is working aggressively to upend this. We are leading the nation on a plan to crush the digital divide.” 

The map indicates that LA County will prioritize low income residents and marginalized communities in the county’s Second District, including neighborhoods along the 110 corridor south of the 10 freeway such as West Athens, Florence Firestone, Willowbrook, Westmont, and South Los Angeles.

In the areas selected as pilot neighborhoods, more than 20 percent of households lack home Internet service. Mitchell says construction for this pilot project will begin in early 2023. It remains too early to determine pilot pricing, but including discounts provided by the Affordable Care Program (AGP), costs for participants should prove negligible.

A Modest Beginning

LA County data indicates that 416,000 households across LA County do not have home Internet subscriptions, with 311,000 households only having access through a cellular connection. And, roughly 265,000 city residents don’t have a home computer. These metrics are broadly based on inaccurate FCC data, meaning the problem is likely worse. 

For many Americans, affordability remains the biggest obstacle to access. The Open Technology Institute recently studied the price of Internet service in 28 cities across Europe, Asia, and North America and found that U.S. broadband prices are routinely some of the highest in the developed world thanks to regional monopoly power and limited competition. 

The study also found that U.S. broadband providers excessively nickel and dime captive customers with a bevy of additional fees. Such fees in the U.S. “can add an additional 75 percent to a monthly bill, compared to just 30 percent abroad.” For many low income and marginalized Americans, such onerous additional costs can be a steep barrier to broadband adoption. 

“The Community Broadband Network (CBN) pilot will deliver free broadband services to low-income County residents,” county officials say of their plan to address this problem in LA County. “ISD will work with a pool of pre-qualified service providers to deploy and operate broadband networks in communities impacted by the digital divide.”

LA County’s proposal is piggybacking on California’s massive $7 billion broadband expansion plan, $3.25 billion of which will go toward constructing a statewide middle-mile, open access fiber network aimed at driving down competitor access costs. Eighteen different projects have had their deployment plans already approved.

California’s state government has also dedicated a $500 million Loan Loss Reserve Account to fund tribal and community network builds, and another $2 billion for an California Advanced Services Fund to incentivize network expansion.

Collectively, state and city leaders hope to leverage these funds and new infrastructure to boost competition, improve service, and drive down prices across the state without resorting to price regulation—given such efforts generally struggle to survive telecom industry lawsuits.

This Isn’t California’s First Flirtation With Municipal Broadband

LA County’s proposal doesn’t stop with shoring up affordable access to marginalized communities. The county also announced in late 2021 that it would be conducting a new feasibility study into the possibility of a county-wide municipal broadband network. 

“The study should assess capital costs and consumer pricing models that will enable reliable high-speed Internet access for households in digital divide target areas,” the 2021 motion argued. “The study should also consider existing County assets and licensing agreements as well as the utilization of public and private fiber optic and wireless network infrastructures that can be included in the County administered strategy.”

The feasibility study hasn’t been completed yet and such an effort would be a steep uphill climb. But should the county follow through, the end result would be one of the largest municipal broadband builds in U.S. history, and a potential roadmap for bigger municipalities eager to get out from under the thumb of politically-powerful regional monopolies. 

Los Angeles’ history is decidedly mixed on this front, and past efforts haven’t amounted to much. The city considered a citywide wireless broadband network in 2007, but by 2009 declared that the project would be too cost prohibitive to succeed

In 2013 city leaders also unveiled a widely-criticized RFP looking for telecoms willing to not only wire the entire city with fiber optic and wireless broadband, but foot the entirety of the estimated $3 to $5 billion bill. The proposal was scrapped after providers showed little interest.

The difference this time is both financial and motivational. With more than $50 billion in broadband subsidies looming courtesy of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), many municipalities are revisiting projects previously deemed too cost prohibitive.

The pandemic also painfully highlighted the essential need for reliable and affordable broadband in a way decades of policy missives couldn’t. As a result, city and county leaders say they’re seeing a groundswell of support previously unheard of. 

“I’ve been doing this work off and on around the country for seventeen years now, and this is the first time I’ve really seen some actual political- and community-will show up in those rooms,” Shayna Englin, Director of California Community Foundation Digital Equity Initiative, told ILSR. “It really does make a difference.”

For now, LA County is keeping its focus initially on shoring up access to the marginalized communities most in need. At the recent press event, city leaders handed out 700 laptops and a year of free IT support to low-income county residents, a small but important down payment in addressing a problem decades in the making.