California conduit battle continues as AT&T dances around the question

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Webpass’ fight with AT&T over access to conduit continues. That’s the word from a Kind Reader of this humble blog who seems to be in a position to know. Yesterday’s post about the complaint Webpass has filed with the California Public Utilities Commission about AT&T’s conduit access practices was behind events on a couple of points. I didn’t know the outcome of last week’s hearing or the fact that Google Fiber bought Webpass on Wednesday. Thank you to everyone who helped bring me up to speed.

The issue is whether AT&T can impose whatever rules it concocts on a given day to deny – or sufficiently restrict so as to deny for practical purposes – competitive telecoms companies access to conduit and pole routes it owns. California (and federal) law says incumbent utilities – telephone, electric or, to some extent, cable – have to share pole and conduit space, but without defining the details. Like whether that means extra space in a conduit – a common condition – or just the second or third (not so likely) spare, discrete duct that happened to be installed. Which is what AT&T told Webpass, according to the request for arbitration Webpass filed.

Instead of buying AT&T’s lawyerly argument that Webpass’ complaint was technically deficient, the administrative law judge assigned to the case encouraged the two companies to work out a mutually acceptable compromise and scheduled a second hearing for next month, according to our Kind Reader. AT&T’s fallback position seems to be that particular responses about particular matters by lower level staff isn’t company policy, so nothing to see here, move along. Again, according to our Kind Reader.

This is a very important public policy question for Californian telecoms companies and regulators. It boils down to who is the gatekeeper for competition? If the answer is AT&T, Comcast, PG&E and every other monopoly provider, then don’t expect lower prices, better service or civil customer service anytime soon.