Two key broadband decisions are scheduled to go in front of the California Public Utilities Commission tomorrow. Commissioners have to decide what kind of funeral to hold for the not-so-dearly-departed Comcast – Time Warner – Charter mega-merger, and whether they need to actually investigate the condition of California’s ageing copper telephone networks, or just assume the telcos will take care of it.
There are three completely different alternatives on the table for wrapping up the Comcast deal:
- Approve it with a long wish list of conditions, even though it’s a dead issue, to establish precedent for review of future mergers.
- Deny the merger on the grounds that it’s so contrary to the public interest – particularly in regards its effect on the Californian broadband market – that it can’t be allowed, in order to set the same sort of precedent.
- Allow Comcast to withdraw the application and treat it like it never happened, except that advocacy groups can claim compensation for their efforts and the voluminous record developed during the review will be saved for possible future use.
There are two competing versions of a decision on whether to investigate the state of Verizon’s and AT&T’s legacy copper networks. CPUC president Michael Picker wants to scrap a previously approved study and rely on the theoretical threat of future penalties to ensure the telcos will repair and maintain their copper, instead of letting it rot on the poles as they seem to be doing now. Commissioners Catherine Sandoval and Mike Florio are pushing instead to jump start the now stalled investigation.
Together, these two decisions will say a lot about how the CPUC will operate under Picker, six months into his term as president. And particularly about the CPUC’s approach to broadband regulation. Skipping the study of copper network quality would be a signal that the CPUC plans to sit back and get its information primarily from the companies it regulates, rather than gathering it independently.
Either approving or denying the Comcast deal would put a formal stake in the ground that says the commission believes federal law gives it the authority and the responsibility to actively regulate broadband infrastructure and service in California. Sweeping it under the carpet, on the other hand, would mean throwing away a year’s worth of arguments, investigation and deliberations and leaving everyone to guess how future mega-deals – like Frontier’s purchase of Verizon’s wireline systems or Charter’s buyout of Time Warner and Bright House – will be evaluated.
It’s a clear choice: will the CPUC be an activist regulator, or an accommodating one?