By Betsy Hammer.

High-speed internet has become so ubiquitous that many of us don’t even think about it. Is the air quality today safe for an outdoor activity? Let me check. How do I cook chicken without giving my guests food poisoning? I’ll look it up on the FDA’s website. How do I pay my bills, renew a library book, or file my taxes? Log on to that secure website and get it done quickly, easily, and from the comfort of your own home.

Broadband is also an important professional tool. Businesses rely on websites to drive traffic and generate interest in their products. Schools rely on access to provide a variety of educational opportunities beyond what’s available in their immediate location. Telemedicine presents a growing field to provide expert and cost-effective care to patients. Many public agencies offer electronic ways for residents to interact with their government and make routine transactions easier.

Yet access to high speed internet isn’t available to or used by everyone. For some, it’s a personal choice: they’re simply not interested. For others, though, there are significant barriers to access. There are portions of the state where the infrastructure just isn’t there. For others, the issue is financial. Broadband can be quite expensive, though some companies offer programs to help lower-income residents afford high-speed internet.

Against this backdrop of technology, and the usage of it, is a public policy news item: the proposed merger of several large telecommunications corporations. What does the proposed merger of Charter Communications, Time Warner Cable, and Bright House Networks mean for counties and internet users?

The answer to that question remains to be seen. In documents filed with the California Public Utilities Commission, the companies requesting approval to merge list many potential benefits to consumers and the state. However, opponents of the merger cite many potential concerns with it, including a lack of competition, lack of investment in further developing broadband infrastructure, and price considerations.

Different counties will be impacted in different ways: some of California’s 58 counties are in territory served by none of the companies involved in the proposed merger, while other counties are in the service territory of one or more. Some counties currently enjoy robust broadband service with 100% of households able to connect, while other counties have significant portions of their residents unable to access high-speed internet.

The future of the merger and its impact is uncertain. Last year, a different combination of large telecom companies proposed a merger, and ended up withdrawing it before any decisions were issued. This time around, we’re at the very beginning of the process. The companies have filed the application, and we’ve just passed the deadline for initial protests and requests for party status. There are many more steps before anything is finalized, but as we navigate this process it’s important to remember why it matters. While the technology will continue to develop, access to it will only get more important in our lives.

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Originally posted at the California State Association of Counties.