CPUC to choose between broadband activism or accommodation

by Steve Blum • , , , , ,

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:

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?