Comcast seeks CPUC blessing to compete with rural telco, but only for not so rural customers

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Sierra 625

Comcast says it’s striking a blow for telecoms competition, Ponderosa Telephone says no, it’s cherrypicking business customers at the expense of rural residents. At issue is Comcast’s request to expand the area in which it’s authorised to offer telephone service to include the service territory of Ponderosa Telephone Company, a small, incumbent local exchange carrier (ILEC) that serves parts of Fresno, Madera and San Bernardino counties. Presumably, Comcast is eyeing Fresno and/or Madera counties, where both it and Ponderosa operate.

Historically the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates telco operating authority, has protected small, rural phone companies from competition. That’s not because of sentimental attachment. Those small telcos serve communities that aren’t sufficiently lucrative markets to attract big incumbents like AT&T and, consequently, are heavily subsidised. As Ponderosa points out in its protest, the CPUC previously concluded that allowing competitors to pick and chose their customers in rural communities would “result in the small ILECs losing revenue and needing to seek a larger draw from the [telephone subsidy] program”.

With no apparent sense of irony, Comcast claims to be fighting for a competitive telecoms market, reminding the commission that it has “found that the presence of competition in local telecommunications markets leads to efficient pricing, improved service quality, expanded product and service capabilities, greater reliability, and increased consumer choice”. But Comcast’s application also says that it won’t expand its footprint and will only increase service in areas where it presently offers video service – areas that are densely populated enough to support its urban/suburban business model. This isn’t about upgrading service or infrastructure in truly rural communities.

Comcast is correct about the benefits of competition, despite going to great expense to avoid facing it elsewhere. But Ponderosa’s point is also true. The more it relies on revenue from remote and economically deprived communities, the more taxpayer subsidies it will need to continue to serve them.

The dispute is formally about voice telephone service, but it involves broadband policy too. Both Comcast and Ponderosa are retail Internet service providers, who rely on privileges granted by state law – either as telephone or video companies – to build wireline infrastructure in the public right of way and access wholesale services. Changing those privileges and protections will also change the economics, and consequently the availability, of broadband service in Ponderosa’s territory.

Do you limit the choices available to homes and businesses in places where revenue runs thicker in order to reduce the subsidies needed to maintain baseline service in more sparsely populated communities? Or do you maintain the status quo – in service as well as public support – for all?

That’s the choice the CPUC has to make, and it comes as no surprise. The commission is in the process of reexamining its telecoms competition policy in rural areas, as both Comcast and Ponderosa point out. Ponderosa argues, correctly, that this is a major policy decision and shouldn’t be made by default in a narrow, administrative proceeding. Near term, the CPUC should reject Comcast’s application, but long term, it has a difficult problem to solve.

Collected documents regarding Comcast’s expansion into Ponderosa’s territory are here.