October dawns with CenturyLink-Level 3 deal still undecided

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Today is the day that a CenturyLink lawyer described as “almost too awful to contemplate”: October is here and CenturyLink doesn’t have permission yet to buy Level 3 Communications, from either the California Public Utilities Commission or federal regulators that are reviewing the transaction.

It’s not really all that horrible. The 30 September 2017 deadline was a target that the two companies set for wrapping everything up. It’ll cost them more to keep the financing arrangements intact, but the tab isn’t going to hugely different from what it would have been if they had a better grasp of what it takes to get big telecoms mergers okayed and allowed more time from the beginning. Or if they hadn’t wasted almost five months before filing the right paperwork with the CPUC.

At this point, commissioners are still on track to make a decision at their 12 October 2017 meeting. They’ll have a proposed decision drafted by a CPUC administrative law judge (ALJ) that would approve the deal if adopted. The first round of comments came in, and there’s nothing particularly new. Not in the arguments presented by a group of old school consumer advocacy groups, that don’t see the harm that the merger would do to California’s wholesale broadband market and support it. Or in those made by the California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF), which does understand the damage it would do but wrongly thinks that the solution is to tell CenturyLink how and where to spend a few hundred million dollars on infrastructure projects.

The best way to fix a problem is to not create it in the first place.

Interestingly, CETF wants CenturyLink’s money to go to areas that lack acceptable broadband service based on current California standards – 6 Mbps download and 1.5 Mbps upload speeds – and not according to the dumbed down, slower speeds that CETF, AT&T, Frontier Communications and the California cable industry are pushing governor Brown to sign into law.

It’s possible that the ALJ running the proceeding, Regina DeAngelis, could make changes to the proposed decision ahead of a commission vote, or commissioners are free to offer alternative versions. If that happens, or even if a commissioner just wants more time to think about what’s already on the table, a final vote could be delayed. But so far, that hasn’t happened.