AT&T rejects California disaster response obligations

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

AT&T is striking back at covid–19 emergency relief measures adopted by the California Public Utilities Commission. Flanked by Verizon and T-Mobile (via the mobile industry’s lobbying front organisation), AT&T wants the CPUC to repeal rules that require the company to waive things like installation or remote call forwarding fees when people are forced to relocate because of the covid–19 emergency. Those are CPUC mandates that also apply to any other “housing or financial crisis due to a disaster”. AT&T calls that “an act in excess of the Commission’s jurisdiction”.

Those rules also obligate mobile telephone companies to deploy temporary cell sites and other equipment when disaster strikes a particular community, and to provide WiFi access “in areas where impacted wireless customers seek refuge” and mobile phones “for customers seeking shelter from a disaster to use temporarily at a county or city designated shelter”.

AT&T’s landline-oriented arguments against mandatory disaster relief boil down to the CPUC can’t tell us to do that, and if it involves VoIP service, the CPUC can’t tell us to do anything. This is AT&T longstanding position, and as a result it is fighting a multimillion dollar fine and accusations of obstreperous behavior during massive power outages last year. The company is unapologetic and makes the bizarre claim that “VoIP service is not a telephone service”.

The mobile industry’s lobbyists characterise the disaster response measures imposed by the CPUC as “unlawful”, because mobile telecoms are regulated by the federal government and because the Federal Communications Commission is trying, with varying degrees of success, to prevent any state or local control over broadband service.

AT&T and most other big, monopoly model telecoms companies stepped up with voluntary and temporary consumer relief offers during the covid–19 emergency. But unlike other regulated utilities, broadband providers and telcos don’t have to, as Frontier Communications’ refusal to match low income service offers shows. As lockdowns ease and people go back to work, AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile don’t want the CPUC, or anyone else, interfering with whatever plans they have for recovering their covid–19 response costs and collecting from customers temporarily unable to pay their bills.