CPUC refuses to reconsider waiving AT&T, Frontier fines for bad rural service

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AT&T, Frontier Communications and other telephone companies can continue to fine themselves and keep the money, if they fail to meet California’s service quality standards. The California Public Utilities Commission rejected an appeal by a group of consumer organisations, which claim that the bizarre 2016 decision allowing telcos to pay their own expenses instead of paying fines was made “without any support whatsoever in the record”.

The decision was rammed through by commission president Michael Picker, who refused to allow a vote on an alternative offered by then-commissioner Catherine Sandoval, contrary to usual procedure.

Four organisations – TURN, the Greenlining Institute the Center for Accessible Technology and the CPUC’s office of ratepayer advocates – asked commissioners to reconsider the decision, pointing out that the let telcos keep the money alternative was never on the table during the years while evidence was gathered. It first appeared in a draft decision, after the record was closed.

The commission’s response, adopted in a closed door meeting last week, was to 1. argue that vague comments and complaints made by telcos early in the proceeding were a sufficient “factual record basis”, and 2. refuse to reconsider the decision.

Next week, commissioners are scheduled to vote on proposals to let Frontier and AT&T off the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of fines they’ve incurred because of poor telephone service in rural California. The 2016 decision says that’s okay if they spend at least twice the amount on “a project” that “improves service quality” in the next two years. That doesn’t necessarily mean building new infrastructure. It could go toward salaries or other operating expenses too. It just has to be an “incremental expenditure”.

There’s no way to know if they would have spent that money anyway. Corporate budgets shift year to year and quarter to quarter. We won’t even know what they’re spending the money on, or what service quality improvements to expect: the CPUC plans to keep that information secret, because of its “sensitive nature”.