Tag Archives: SB1161

VoIP regulation, or something, passes California assembly

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

A bill that establishes consumer protections – of a sort – for people whose phone service is delivered via voice over Internet protocol technology, but otherwise leaves Internet-delivered services unregulated, was approved by the California assembly yesterday. Assembly bill 1366 passed with a lopsided, bipartisan majority: 64 votes in favor, versus six noes and ten abstentions, which have the same effect as a no vote. All the noes and all but one abstention came from democrats.

It’s still not clear exactly how AB 1366 would regulate VoIP service. Originally, the bill simply extended a ban on regulation of any kind, by local governments or state agencies, including the California Public Utilities Commission, of “Internet protocol enabled” services. That ban is due to expire at the end of the year, which worries the likes of AT&T, Comcast, Charter Communications and Cox Communications. But there are two sides to every story and in this case opposition from the primary union representing AT&T’s workforce forced inspired the author, Lorena Gonzalez (D – San Diego), to add skeletal VoIP service quality and customer service standards to the bill.

What’s still not clear is who would figure out what the bill’s vague, high level standards mean in detailed, real world terms, or how they would be enforced. No cop on the beat is identified, which means it’ll be up to the courts to ultimately figure it out, a job which is likely to require years of litigation.

AB 1366 doesn’t deal with actual broadband service, it just addresses services like VoIP or email or social media that ride on top of it.

The bill now moves to the senate side of the California capitol, where its first stop is likely to be the energy, utilities and communications committee. That’ll be the next opportunity for Gonzalez to add some clarity to it. Stay tuned.

Consumer rules for Californian VoIP providers, but no particular cop proposed by new draft bill

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Twin peaks donuts

AT&T’s attempt to dodge regulation of voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) service took a turn down an unmarked legal road on Monday. Assembly bill 1366 is championed by assembly member Lorena Gonzalez (D – San Diego). As now reads, it would add rules about repair windows and bill credits for VoIP service outages to California’s business and professions code, but doesn’t specify any particular agency or method to police those requirements.

Generally, consumer laws are enforced by the consumer affairs department, or the California attorney general, or local district attorneys, or private lawsuits. I expect the enforcement mechanism will be made clearer as the bill moves toward an assembly floor vote. The one thing that seems certain – with due regard for my lack of legal credentials – is that the California Public Utilities Commission won’t be the cop on the beat.

As currently written, the bill gives the CPUC a limited role in collecting information about VoIP outages and complaints, but that appears to be mainly for statistical purposes, with the data forwarded to the attorney general and the legislature annually.

The version Gonzalez originally introduced would have extended a moratorium on state level regulation of VoIP or other “Internet protocol-enabled services”, but it ran into a human wall of labor opposition during a committee hearing last month. That union presence overpowered endorsements from a long line of representatives from vaguely connected non-profit organisations and lobbyists from AT&T, Comcast, Charter and other big telecoms companies that 1. don’t want VoIP regulated and 2. often make less-than-charitable payments to such organisations. Gonzalez promised to amend the bill, and make it more to the liking of the Communications Workers of America (CWA), the primary union representing AT&T field employees.

Theoretically, those amendments were made last week, when AB 1366 slid out of the assembly appropriations committee, which Gonzalez chairs. In reality, the changes were posted on Monday. Whether CWA or AT&T will be happy with the new version remains to be seen. The assembly has until the end of next week to act on it.

Californiia bill that might or might not regulate VoIP moves forward in secret

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

An extended ban on regulation of Internet protocol-enabled services escaped legislative limbo last week, and is moving towards a vote by the California assembly. The big question now is: what does it say? Another major broadband bill, which would have funded after school broadband access for kids who lack it, died behind closed doors in Sacramento.

Assembly bill 1366 was originally written to extend a moratorium on any attempt by the California Public Utilities Commission to regulate voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) or any other service that rides on top of a broadband connection. It’s dearly loved by lobbyists for big telcos and cable companies.

In its first hearing, in the usually AT&T-friendly assembly communications and conveyances committee, a solid wall of red t-shirt communications union members stood up to oppose AB 1366, and the bill’s author, Lorena Gonzalez (D – San Diego), and the committee chair, Miguel Santiago (D – Los Angeles), backed down immediately.

Gonzalez promised to amend the bill so that VoIP service would be regulated somehow, but not by the CPUC. So AB 1366 was sent to the powerful assembly appropriations committee, which she chairs.

On Thursday, legislative leaders met privately to decide which bills, of the hundreds that were awaiting judgement in the appropriations committees (assembly and senate), would move forward and which would be killed out of sight of the public. Not surprisingly, Gonzalez’s bill got a green light, with the terse note that it was passed “as amended”.

Those amendments were not made public before the appropriations committee vote, nor have the changes been posted to the legislature’s website since. That’s not unusual. California legislators are not subject to the same public disclosure requirements that they impose on local governments, and they take full advantage of that privilege. So we’ll have to wait until Gonzalez is ready to show her hand. That should happen in the next week or two – the assembly has an end of the month deadline to vote on AB 1366.

AB 1409 wasn’t so lucky. The appropriations committee’s verdict on it was “hold in committee”, which translate as dead on arrival. Authored by Ed Chau (D – Los Angeles), AB 1409 would have created a subsidy program to provide kids access to broadband after school, via “Wi-Fi enabled school buses or school or library Wi-Fi hot spot lending” or similar. Such “homework gap projects” would have been paid for out of rent money collected from wireless companies that lease state property and fines imposed on cable operators.

VoIP regulation promised by California lawmakers after AT&T-backed bill boomerangs

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Feral kid boomerang

Once again, a higher power interrupted the ongoing love affair between AT&T, Comcast and friends, and the California assembly’s primary telecommunications policy committee. As with the last time, the central issue is voice over Internet protocol service, with major labor unions – particularly, the Communications Workers of America (CWA) – opposing an attempt to exempt VoIP and other “IP enabled services” from oversight by the California Public Utilities Commission.

Assembly bill 1366 would extend a 2012 law that bans the CPUC from regulating IP-delivered services. Originally, the extension was indefinite, but an amendment accepted yesterday during an assembly communications and conveyances committee hearing limits it to ten years. The law applies to services, such as VoIP or instant messaging, that ride on top of Internet connections, rather than broadband service itself.

The hearing began with the bill’s author, Lorena Gonzalez (D – San Diego), and an odd assortment of non-profit organisations using scare tactics to argue in favor of it. The implication was that if AB 1366 isn’t passed, the CPUC will make VoIP unaffordable or outlaw it altogether. Or kill the Internet. Or puppies. Or do something. Awful.

They were followed by a long line of other non-profit groups that don’t usually concern themselves with telecoms issues, but often have a history of taking money from companies that do. Such as AT&T, Comcast, Charter Communications, Verizon, T-Mobile and others, whose lobbyists also made their presence known.

Consumer and telecoms advocacy groups opposing AB 1366 followed, but it was the speaker from the CWA and the solid wall of red t-shirt clad union members that seemed to grab lawmakers’ attention. Gonzalez quickly pivoted and said she’d work with them to figure out a way to regulate VoIP, because what she’s really afraid of is that the CPUC will do nothing…

We do want to and need to ensure that…the opportunity for service and for complaints and to have this followed up on is equal, and we are going to work with CWA on addressing that situation. I mean, the folks that we’re talking about, who are currently in opposition, I talk to them every day. Obviously, I’m not doing something to oppose labor. These are the people I come from and I represent and they live in my community. We want to provide a framework by which, actually, service will improve, that we can have access to service, that we will have restoration time guaranteed. If we left that up to the PUC, we might get a restoration time 14 years from now.

Translation: if CWA doesn’t cut a deal with AT&T, we’re going to regulate VoIP.

There are two issues in play. One is whether or not to treat Internet-delivered services the same way as largely identical, regulated ones.

The other is the CPUC itself. I watched three utility-related hearings yesterday, and the CPUC’s glacially slow decisions and idiosyncratic operations were bashed by all sides in each one. Legislative attempts to disestablish the commission, or reduce its scope of authority have been increasingly common in recent years. Most failed or were trimmed back, but that was while Jerry Brown was governor. He tended to shield the CPUC and executive departments from legislative micromanagement. Gavin Newsom might not be so protective.

California legislature looks at extending moratorium on Internet services regulation

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Internet services, such as telephone service via voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) technology, are unregulated in California. For now. Federal preemptions, or attempted preemptions, aside, the California legislature approved a seven year moratorium on regulating Internet protocol (IP) enabled services in 2012. Senate bill 1161 said the California Public Utilities Commission and all state and local agencies could not…

Enact, adopt, or enforce any law, rule, regulation, ordinance, standard, order, or other provision having the force or effect of law, that regulates VoIP or other IP enabled service, unless required or expressly delegated by federal law or expressly authorized by statute.

That ban will expire at the end of the year, unless the legislature renews it. In a gut-and-amend move on Monday, assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D – San Diego) turned an obscure bill regarding the San Diego airport into a perpetual extension of SB 1661. Assembly bill 1366 takes out the sunset clause and makes a few meaningless tweaks to the language.

It leaves in place a distinction that wasn’t so obvious in 2012, but has taken on greater significance as the debate over network neutrality and whether broadband is an information or telecommunications service has intensified. The CPUC can’t regulate VoIP or other services that are built on Internet protocol technology, but SB 1161 drew a clear line between those kinds of services and the “broadband connection from the user’s location” that they ride on.

Pausing regulatory action for seven years while technology and service models matured was a good idea at the time. Trying to regulate new online services that evolved rapidly in an open market could have been disastrous for California’s high tech economy. With the benefit of that experience, though, it’s time to consider whether a blanket ban on IP services regulation is still needed. Some of that work began last year, when the California legislature passed a ground breaking data privacy law and its own version of network neutrality rules.

In particular, the carve-out for VoIP needs to closely examined. Seven years ago, VoIP service providers were fringe players. But with AT&T’s embrace of VoIP technology, not least because it’s a path to decommissioning rural copper networks and escaping regulatory oversight, that exception needs another look. Traditional, plain old telephone service – POTS – and VoIP provide virtually identical telecommunications functionality. Keeping one under the CPUC’s umbrella and not the other makes little sense.

AB 1366 will now head to the assembly’s communications and conveyances committee, which does not a have a good track record when it comes to thoughtful consideration of telecoms policy. This one needs watching.

Update: Brown signs SB1161, no new Californian regulations for Internet services

by Steve Blum • , , , , , , ,
California governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 1161, which prevents state agencies, particularly the California Public Utilities Commission, from extending regulations and oversight to “Internet Protocol enabled service”, including specifically VoIP, until at least 2020.

In his signing message, the governor said “this bill encourages the continued growth of these and other innovative services that have become a hallmark of our state.”

The language of the bill is broad, covering any service that “enables an end user to send or receive a communication in existing Internet Protocol format, or any successor Internet Protocol format through a broadband connection, regardless of whether the communication is voice, data, or video.”

The fear or hope, depending on your point of view, is that incumbent telecoms companies will use this loophole to largely escape regulation altogether.

When she’s good, she’s very good; when she’s bad, she’s better

by Steve Blum • , , , , , , ,

Governor Jerry Brown has until this Sunday, 30 September 2012, to approve or veto Senate Bill 1161, which would prohibit the California Public Utilities Commission or any other California state agency from regulating “Voice over Internet Protocol and Internet Protocol enabled services” until at least 2020.

The bill is controversial and the debate has been emotional. Advocates say it would clear the decks for continued high tech innovation in California, opponents say it would deregulate big cable and telephone companies and allow them to bully consumers and bury smaller competitors.

CNET has a good article telling the case for the bill, Wired has a good one on the case against. The actual bill is here.

From my perspective, any time you keep regulators out of a business, particularly one as fast moving and dependent on innovation as IP services, it’s a good thing. I am very much a free market advocate.

In the near term and the long, long term, keeping regulators out of Internet-enabled or other 21st Century sectors is a good thing. Limiting regulatory authority to legacy services and providers will prevent a lot of future political mischief. At all levels of government, there are good regulators and there are some that you would not want poking their noses into the business of an independent ISP or a new media start-up.

The downside comes if the big carriers move out of a regulated environment too soon – and like many who have written on this topic I believe that’s what they intend to do – it could create serious, maybe fatal, competitive issues for smaller companies that have to buy service from incumbents and compete against them.

Another possible effect – good or bad depending on your perspective – is that PG&E could get into the lit service business. They sell dark fiber now, when they have it to sell, but that’s all. They don’t put much in themselves because there’s not a lot of profit in dark fiber. When they do, it’s either because they need it to run their electric business or a telecoms utility has installed it for other purposes. But take away regulatory limitations, and the equation changes. PG&E and other private electric utilities might want to move up the value chain as far as full Internet connectivity.

Which do you trust more: the good intentions, judgement and restraint of regulators, or the ability of the market to keep legacy natural monopolies under control? If you see regulatory agencies as a benefit to your business, or at least don’t see them as a potential danger, then SB1161 looks like a bad idea. On the other hand, if you see government as a greater threat than AT&T, Comcast and friends, it’s a good idea.

AT&T wants to get out of the POTS business, particularly in rural areas. Anything that accelerates that trend – as SB1161 likely will – might be a good thing for an independent ISP in some areas. Or it could throw things into such a turmoil that everyone drowns.

For good or ill, SB1161 opens the door to unexplored territory. Personally, I agree with Mae West: when it comes to a choice between the lesser of two evils, pick the one you haven’t tried before.