Broadband deployment will be more rigorous and costly in California, following U.S. supreme court ruling

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Southern California Gas and Electric can’t pass on wildfire costs to ratepayers. The federal supreme court declined to hear SDG&E’s appeal of a California Public Utilities Commission decision that put some of the burden of a 2007 series of wildfires on company shareholders. California’s strict “inverse condemnation” law requires utilities to bear the full cost of any damage when their pole routes, or other equipment in the right of way, is even partially to blame. Monday’s decision lets that principle stand. As a result, electric utilities will spend more on pole route maintenance and be tougher on inspections and standards enforcement.

Some of those additional costs, and all of the added rigour, will land on telephone, cable and other broadband companies that occupy space on utility poles.

According to a Los Angeles Times article by Rob Nikolewski,

Investigations into the causes of the Witch, Guejito and Rice fires — three of the worst wildfires in a devastating firestorm that befell San Diego County in October 2007 — found they were sparked by SDG&E equipment that had not been properly maintained.

The three fires combined to kill two people, injure 40 firefighters and destroy 1,300 homes…

SDG&E spent $2.4 billion to resolve more than 2,000 lawsuits related to the 2007 wildfires, but it insisted the blazes were ignited by factors it could not control — including extreme Santa Ana winds, a lashing wire owned by Cox Communications that hit an SDG&E power line and a tree limb that fell onto an SDG&E line due to high winds.

Properly maintained or not, SDG&E’s equipment was in the chain of events that led to the Guejito fire. So was Cox’s line, but even though it was the trigger, the California Public Utilities Commission tagged SDG&E with responsibility: it should have known that the cable company’s line was too close to its electrical line. According to investigator’s measurements, the two lines were separated by a bit more than three feet, instead of the six feet required by CPUC rules.

Cox ended up reimbursing SDG&E for a relatively small fraction of the $2.4 billion in liability claims that were paid out as a result of the three fires. But that was between the two companies; as applied by the CPUC and courts, California’s law put the liability burden on SDG&E.

The same legal principles apply to Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas and Electric, California’s other two major investor owned electric utilities. They’ve lagged behind SDG&E’s wildfire prevention efforts, and are now playing catch up. The result will be higher levels of maintenance work and more rigorous inspections of pole routes, among other things. The cost of all of that – time, effort and money – will eventually be shared with telecoms companies. Deploying and maintaining broadband infrastructure in California will only become more expensive.