Issue Brief: California’s Digital Divide

Report #253, December 2020


As many as 2.3 million Californians lack access to broadband, a gap in high-speed connectivity outlined in the Little Hoover Commission’s first Issue Brief. The Brief, which outlines current research without making policy recommendations, focuses on California’s digital divide and efforts to address broadband connectivity gaps on the local level through municipal fiber broadband networks.

“At a time when access to affordable, high-speed internet is needed most – many Californians are left without internet access or lack sufficient bandwidth to meet their household’s needs,” noted Commission Chair Pedro Nava.

Inequities in access to broadband are impacting many Californians’ ability to – among other things – access education, contribute to a productive economy, and obtain government services.

In its Issue Brief, the Commission outlines the status of broadband service in both California and the U.S. This research shows that:

  • California’s broadband coverage, speed, and pricing is rated 13th in the nation with strong access to low-cost plans (defined as less than $60/month) but very slow speeds.
  • The U.S. ranked 31st out of 36 OECD countries for their internet access among households. A majority of U.S. cities still pay more for slower internet speeds than their counterparts abroad.
  • Experts attribute higher broadband prices and slower speeds to a lack of competition among internet service providers.

The Commission also provides background on initiatives from municipalities – in California and across the globe – to start fiber broadband networks as a way to increase competition and potentially make access more affordable for consumers. The Commission discovered that:

  • Using public and public-private partnership models respectively, Chattanooga and Stockholm were able to offer fiber broadband connections to businesses and residents.
  • The South Bay Cities Council of Governments has developed a ring of fiber with connections to data centers, municipal buildings, and public agencies in the South Bay and anticipates that 15 South Bay cities and additional agencies will be connected to the network by the end of the year.
  • Santa Monica executed a successful effort to bring fiber broadband connections to the city’s business, anchor institutions, and municipal buildings and also provides residential service to some affordable housing units in the city.
  • Attempts to create public-private partnerships to build fiber broadband networks in California’s more populous cities – San Francisco and Los Angeles – were unsuccessful.

“We hope our research on the digital divide will serve as a tool for state policymakers as they embark on efforts to address the inequities in connectivity facing Californians in communities across our state,” said Commission Vice Chair Sean Varner.

The Commission plans to publish additional Issue Briefs in the future, with a goal to provide data and background information on important and relevant issues that arise through our research process. Unlike our reports, these Briefs will not include Commission recommendations.

“While reports with recommendations to the Governor and Legislature will remain the Commission’s first priority,” said Nava, “we hope these Issue Briefs will serve as a resource for state policymakers and others to enrich the conversations surrounding key challenges and issues facing California.”