CPUC’s cable franchise renewals remain private and privileged

by Steve Blum • , ,

Cable companies won’t be held publicly accountable for their business practices or service levels by the California Public Utilities Commission. That’s the result of a unanimous vote by commissioners on Thursday.

The CPUC’s semi-independent office of ratepayer advocates (ORA) asked the commission to revisit a 2014 decision that established a perfunctory, closed door review of statewide video franchise renewals. Cable lobbyists sweet talked California lawmakers into ending local franchise authority in 2006, and replacing it with a single, statewide process run by the CPUC. But they gamed the bill – the Digital Infrastructure and Video Competition Act, or DIVCA as it’s known – so that there’s very little they need to do to get a statewide franchise, and even less they need to show the CPUC when it comes up for renewal every ten years.

The way the CPUC interpreted its responsibility in 2014, the only avenue for local governments or citizens to object was to take a cable company to court and win. Only if a cable company doesn’t comply with a court order by the time their ten year franchise rolls around for renewal, will the CPUC listen to a public complaint. ORA can go a little further and review confidential material, but if they find something wrong, all a cable company has to do is resubmit the application.

Otherwise, the CPUC has a chummy conversation with the cable company and rubber stamps the renewal.

Even though he issued the decision that was approved on Thursday, commissioner Clifford Rechtschaffen offered a sliver of hope that maybe there’s a way that the CPUC can listen to someone other than cable company lawyers and lobbyists…

I do recognise that ORA has raised a legitimate question about how it can effectively advocate during this franchise renewal process. So I look forward to learning more about the way that ORA can do this and bring legitimate concerns about issues within our jurisdiction to the Commission’s attention.

It’s only a sliver, though. Rechtschaffen expressed his sympathy in a narrow, legalistic way, which is how the CPUC has viewed its duties under DIVCA. In order to do anything more, it will have to change its thinking and claim greater responsibility.