CPUC says telcos, cable companies, mobile carriers shouldn’t cut off customers during corona virus crisis

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Corona virus

Edit: The title of this post originally contained a (serious) typo. It’s fixed now. I can blame jet lag but, really, sometimes my fingers don’t do what I think they’re doing. Sorry about that.

Communications companies should declare “moratoriums on disconnections” in California, according to a letter sent yesterday by the California Public Utilities Commission to executives of landline telcos, mobile carriers and cable companies. It warns telecoms companies that the “CPUC plans to take action to provide emergency customer protection measures for customers in California to prevent disconnections for unpaid bills” during the corona virus emergency.

The warning letter leave a big question unanswered: what sort of communications service is affected?

The language is largely identical to letters sent to electric and water company executives, and is directed at “utility companies (electric, gas, water, sewer) and communications providers”. It refers to an executive order from California governor Gavin Newsom which asks the CPUC to “implement customer service protections for critical utilities, including but not limited to electric, gas, water, Internet, landline telephone, and cell phone service”. But it doesn’t define “communications provider” or mention specific services.

Two CPUC decisions from last year are cited in the letter. The first requires electric and gas companies to “suspend disconnection for nonpayment” during emergencies, and water and sewer companies to minimise disconnections. The second decision is aimed at telecoms companies that provide subsidised Lifeline service or access to 911 centers – telephone service in other words – but it doesn’t specifically require suspending customer disconnections for nonpayment. It applies to legacy wireline companies like AT&T and Frontier, as well as cable companies and mobile carriers.

Presumably whatever emergency decision is eventually approved by the commission will be more tightly written. Although there’s little doubt that the CPUC has jurisdiction over access to 911 service, its power to tell cable, telephone and wireless companies how to otherwise manage customer accounts is debatable. It has vestigial authority over legacy wireline telco service, but even that might not be enough to keep the diminishing number of plain old telephone service customers connected if they don’t pay their bills. Cable companies and mobile carriers usually take the position that the CPUC can’t regulate their consumer services, as do telcos when voice over Internet service or broadband service is involved.

Even so, the letter and the eventual decision might have the desired effect. Telecoms companies are voluntarily signing up to consumer-friendly suggestions made by the Federal Communications Commission, and they might do the same with the CPUC’s measures, while making it clear they don’t have to if they don’t want to.