A path forward for new California telecoms rules

3 October 2016 by Steve Blum
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Telecommunications regulation reform may live on in California, kept alive by executive order. Even though a grand deal to overhaul the way the California Public Utilities Commission does business collapsed in the final hours of the legislative session in August, a key provision – a review of telecoms regulatory responsibilities – seems to have been brought back from the dead.

When governor Jerry Brown signed the surviving remnants of the deal last week, he included a message to lawmakers detailing his intention to keep pushing ahead with reforms, with or without them. Included in his to-do list was the telecoms study…

I am calling up the Commission to use its existing authority to take immediate action to…work with the California Research Bureau to study the governance of telecommunications service.

Any agency or branch of state government can ask the California research bureau to study something – it’s a unit of the quasi-independent state library. So whether it’s the state legislature asking for an analysis of telecoms regulation – as was originally intended – or the governor or the CPUC, it’s all the same.

The governor’s message was vague; presumably deliberately. Brown uses the English language with precision. He leaves open the question of whether the request for the study will come from the CPUC or his office. But he seems determined that it will happen, one way or the other, so it’s safe to assume it will.

There were a couple of versions of the specs for the review in the draft legislature. The first go round was a long list of questions to be answered. The second version pulled back from details, only asking for…

A study of telecommunications service governance to determine what regulatory structure would provide the appropriate regulatory oversight of telecommunications services. The study shall assess the overarching goals of the various programs carried out by federal and state agencies, including the Federal Communications Commission and the Public Utilities Commission, and include a discussion of whether the commission, as a whole, is strategically aligned towards a clearly articulated public goal. The study shall take into account the history of telecommunications service regulation in the state and changes in technology to make recommendations for guiding principles to clearly define California’s goals for the regulation of the telecommunications industry.

The study might cover the full wish list, or just focus on a handful of big questions – whether the current practice of regulating integrated telecoms companies on the basis of the analog services they used to provide should continue into the digital age, for example. Either way it ought to happen, and quickly.