As California burns, AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile fight emergency obligations

25 August 2020 by Steve Blum
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Woolsey fire crew 625

Mobile carriers beat back a legislative attempt to impose disaster readiness obligations on them last week, and challenged “resiliency” rules approved by the California Public Utilities Commission in July.

Senate bill 431, authored by Mike McGuire (D – Sonoma), died in the assembly appropriations committee last week. No reason was given, but the primary opposition came from the lobbying front organisation used by AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon, with cable industry lobbyists close behind. The bill would have directed the CPUC to require 72-hour power backup capability at cell sites, where feasible. It also included relatively trivial back up power obligations for wireline companies, which were the remnants of tougher rules that displeased telco and cable lobbyists.

Although specific statutory authority is always useful to state agencies, the CPUC didn’t wait for it. Under its new resiliency rules, wireless companies – mobile carriers particularly, but perhaps also others – have to maintain 72 hours of backup power and provide customers with “the ability to receive emergency alerts and notification” during disasters and power cuts, including ”basic Internet browsing”.

Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and their lobbyists appealed that decision last week, asking the CPUC to reconsider it. They claim, as they have all along, that mandatory state disaster readiness rules are “preempted by federal law”…

Congress gave the FCC – not this Commission – jurisdiction over decisions about how, where, and for what duration wireless services are provided. The Decision impinges on the FCC’s exclusive domain.

That exclusive domain includes pretty much everything having to do with mobile networks, the carriers argue. They also claim that because broadband is an “information” service, per the FCC’s network neutrality ruling, the CPUC has no authority over it, either. That’s very much in dispute, though – the California legislature took the position that since it’s not a “telecommunications” service, it’s in their domain and not the FCC’s.

That question is now in the hands of a federal judge in Sacramento. The CPUC’s authority to impose emergency preparedness requirements on telecoms companies is also likely to be decided by in a federal court. There’s little chance that the CPUC will grant the mobile industry’s “application for rehearing”, but filing it is the first procedural step on the path to a legal challenge.