Unintentionally, an AT&T witness injected an insight of startling clarity into the debate over whether or not broadband is a common carrier service. It happened during a hearing to determine if the company should be held in contempt of California Public Utilities Commission orders. The witness was discussing the difference between legacy digital methods for transmitting telephone calls and contemporary Internet protocol technology.
It’s like the difference between a horse and buggy, and an automobile.
That difference is one that the California legislature reckoned to be irrelevant more than 100 years ago, when it rewrote the regulations for common carrier passenger road transportation.
Today, if you want to offer point to point road transportation service in California, you need to be certified as a “passenger stage corporation” by the CPUC. Passenger stage now includes passenger buses and passenger vans, but stage is a term that goes back to Gold Rush days and beyond, when horsepower meant horses. Originally, it referred to segments of a journey. Over time, it became the name of the horse drawn vehicle being used – stagecoach turned into stage.
Transportation was undergoing the same, radical technological shift in the early decades of the twentieth century that telecommunications is today. What didn’t change was the even older concept of a common carrier service, one that was available to all at published prices and level terms.
The California legislature decided in 1917 that it’s the service that’s important, and not the underlying technology. It passed a law defining a transportation company as any person or corporation that owned or operated “any automobile, jitney bus, auto truck, stage or auto stage used in the transportation of persons or property as a common carrier for compensation over any public highway in this state between fixed termini or over a regular route”, unless it was completely within the borders of a city. The “railroad commission of the State of California” – later to become the CPUC – was “vested with power and authority to regulate every transportation company in this state”.
As we say these days, the law was technology neutral. The details of the statute have changed over the years, but the fundamental principles and terminology haven’t. Regardless of what powers the vehicle, companies carrying people and cargo for hire are providing a legally identical, common carrier service.
It’s the same service.