AT&T snakes perks into California deregulation bill, while its author ducks for cover

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

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AT&T slipped more special privileges into a bill that would, in effect, deregulate broadband and modern voice service in California. At the same time, the bill was disowned, sorta, by its godmother, assembly member Lorena Gonzalez (D – San Diego).

Assembly bill 1366, which would extend an existing ban on regulation of voice over Internet protocol service (VoIP), was amended ahead of Friday’s soft deadline for changing bill language in the California legislature (Tuesday is the hard, constitutional cutoff for amendments). Many of the changes are tweaks that weaken the few, feeble consumer protections that were added to the bill as it moved through committee and floor votes. AT&T, because of its basic service obligations over a large rural footprint and its plans to replace wireline networks with low capacity fixed broadband technology, will benefit particularly. So will Frontier Communications for the same reasons, albeit over a much smaller subscriber base.

Gonzalez, who introduced the bill and muscled it through the Sacramento sausage machine, took her name off of it and handed it over to a pair of assembly members – Jay Olbernolte (R – San Bernardino) and Tom Daly (D – Orange) – who are less likely to be damaged by blowback from organised labor, which strongly opposes AB 1366.

The prior version of AB 1366 would have allowed current California Public Utilities Commission regulations governing basic telephone service and universal service programs to encompass VoIP service. No longer – those potential loopholes were sewn shut on Friday. A more specific set of rules that sets out requirements for incumbents when they are the “carrier of last resort” – an issue primarily for rural areas – still applies to VoIP, but only to the extent that they must “offer” telephone connections to hard-to-reach customers. The CPUC would no longer be able to oversee “the provision of” those carrier of last resort services. In other words, AT&T and Frontier can use VoIP to meet their most basic service obligations, but the quality and reliability of that service is up to them.

Another gift is the exclusion of “services using radio frequency spectrum licensed by the Federal Communications Commission” from already weak and exception-ridden time frames for restoring VoIP service following an outage. The immediate benefit will be to mobile carriers that use new “voice over LTE” (VoLTE) technology, but over the long term it will also apply to “wireless local loop” (WLL) systems that AT&T plans to use to replace rural telephone lines. WLL runs on licensed spectrum, but not much of it – capacity is a fraction of what wireline networks can carry.

Another change might make AB 1366 easier to swallow for some union allies in the legislature, but also sets up a potentially lucrative payday for lawmakers, particularly those planning to run for statewide office. Instead of lasting five years, the ban on VoIP regulation would only last two years. That would mean a rerun of this session’s backroom dealing, just ahead of the 2022 campaign cycle for California constitutional offices. That’s when big, corporate contributions, such as those AT&T, Comcast and the rest lavish on their friends, are needed to reach voters across the state. Gonzalez plans to run for the California secretary of state’s job then.