Tag Archives: utility regulation

Frontier’s California outage complaint rate triple that of AT&T, electric companies

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Cpuc complaints 15mar 13jun2020

Frontier Communication’s service outage problem is three times bigger than any other major California utility, judging by consumer complaints submitted to the California Public Utilities Commission during the covid–19 emergency. On a per customer basis the bankrupt telco’s wireline outage complaints were triple those of AT&T, and greater than Southern California Edison’s or Pacific Gas and Electric’s on an absolute basis, despite having fewer than half the number of customers as either of the two electric companies.

CPUC commissioners were briefed on utility customer complaints at their meeting last week. The presentation followed two landmark votes that declared broadband to be public utilities – one setting 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds as the “essential service quantity” of broadband and another requiring wireless companies to maintain “basic internet browsing” capability “during a disaster or commercial power outage”.

That’s an obligation that generally applies to Internet service, CPUC president Marybel Batjer said…

These are definitely difficult times and, as we all know, the pandemic has altered our lives in so many ways, as people are trying to adjust to what we’re calling this new normal. And I appreciate that the CPUC is making sure that residents are able to keep the lights on and more easily get access to the Internet, for work and for school. And we are committed to meeting our core responsibility of ensuring the safe delivery of our services that Californians so rely on to conduct their daily lives.

The CPUC received 49 complaints about unplanned service outages from Frontier customers between 15 March 2020 and 13 June 2020, which comes out to 22 complaints per one million customers. AT&T generated more outage complaints – 69 – but it has nearly five times as many wireline customers as Frontier. PG&E and SCE drew fewer unplanned outage complaints – 38 and 20, respectively – and fewer total complaints per one million customers.

Money – disconnections due to non-payment and payment arrangements – was the biggest source of complaints about PG&E. SCE caught the most flack for planned service outages, which would have been for maintenance – there haven’t been any public safety power shutoffs for wildfire prevention purposes so far this year.

Regulated or not, broadband is a utility and 25 down/3 up is the minimum needed. For now, CPUC says

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Caltrans slow 2

Broadband is both a utility service and essential, according to a decision last week by the California Public Utilities Commission. A framework for analysing the affordability of utility services in the aggregate – the total monthly cost of energy, water and telecoms – was approved in a unanimous vote. The methodology sums the cost of the “essential service quantity” of all utilities and compares it a household’s ability to pay it, given all the other expenses – rent, for example – that have to be met, too.

Whether or not broadband is defined as a utility by law – cable companies, particularly, have paid millions of dollars to lawmakers to avoid that – is irrelevant. It’s a monthly expense for a service that meets the dictionary definition of utility.

Commissioner Clifford Rechtschaffen, who authored the decision, explained to his colleagues before the vote…

Essential utility services include gas, electricity, water, and telecommunications. Part of telecommunications must be good quality Internet service. Not just any connection, but high quality Internet service. The covid crisis definitely underscores that as never before.

But what is the “essential service quantity” of broadband? The commission’s decision says it’s 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload speeds, which is just a bit faster than originally recommended by staff, before the covid–19 emergency hit. Commissioner Martha Guzman Aceves said those speeds don’t cut it now…

The proceeding really reflects the pre-covid high speed necessity on communications, on broadband in particular – 25 down and 3 up. In my household, I can tell you, when the kids are in Zoom school and my husband and I are working at home, we have four devices on the Internet. And 25/3 is insufficient. If we are zooming, it’s insufficient. Obviously, we’re going to need to update this, as the decision says, we’re going to be updating this, but with covid I really just want to highlight that the basic need, even 25/3, from my own, anecdotal, household, is a greater need.

Rechtschaffen promised that the methodology and the data being crunched will be kept current. There’s no intention of it being static“, he said. ”We’ll definitely be updating it".

CPUC votes today on setting 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up as California’s “essential service quantity” of broadband

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Forbes ag tech hartnell alisal demo 13jul2107

The California Public Utilities Commission is scheduled to decide today if it will set a minimum level of “essential” broadband service that Californians need to function and, indeed, survive in the 21st century. After extensive public review of the second draft of a ground breaking staff study of minimum utility service needs and people’s ability to pay for it, a decision drafted by commissioner Clifford Rechtschaffen would revise and then formally adopt the report’s conclusions and methodology.

Much of the proposed decision involves electric, gas, water and voice telephone services, which are traditionally subjects of CPUC regulation. Its jurisdiction over broadband companies and the services they provide – raw Internet access as well as things like voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) service – is controversial. AT&T, and Charter Communications and Comcast’s Sacramento lobbying front “each believe that it is not appropriate for the commission to engage this issue at all”, according to Rechtschaffen’s draft.

Nevertheless, Rechtschaffen sets a minimum broadband service level. The “essential service quantity” for household broadband is pegged at 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds, with a 1 terabyte monthly data cap. That’s the minimum needed to support a family in the covid–19 era…

At this critical time, when COVID–19 response measures have required more essential services to be provided online, including distance learning and telemedicine, a much higher basic speed has become a necessity. On April 24th, Commission President Batjer sent a letter to the internet service providers urging them to provide a minimum speed of 25 Mbps…for their affordable plan offerings It is likely that this shift to digital dependency will continue long after COVID–19 recovery efforts end.

A maximum affordable price isn’t set for any utility service, but a sophisticated method for calculating one is. Affordability is defined as “the degree to which a representative household is able to pay for an essential utility service charge, given its socioeconomic status”.

The minimum standards and the method for benchmarking affordable prices will become an integral element in the CPUC’s management of broadband programs, such as the California Advanced Services Fund. One might also hope that the California legislature takes notice as it considers whether to keep the state’s nominal minimum broadband speed standard at 6 Mbps down/1 Mbps up.

AT&T, Comcast “continue to frustrate” CPUC inquiries “even on safety matters”

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

AT&T and Comcast blew off demands for information about broadband pricing from California Public Utilities Commission staff, so now the public advocates office, which requested the data, is asking the commission to force the companies to comply and to acknowledge their legal responsibility to fully answer questions about service, safety and other issues.

The PAO sent a detailed questionnaire to Internet service providers in California, including telephone companies and cable operators, during an ongoing inquiry into the affordability of broadband and other essential utility services in California. According to the “motion to compel responses to data requests” filed by the PAO, Charter Communications and Cox answered, but Comcast and AT&T lawyered up (the filing doesn’t mention Frontier Communications, the other member of California’s Big Five ISP club).

Although AT&T and Comcast provided some information (see below), the bulk of their responses boiled down to you people don’t have any jurisdiction over broadband, but if you’re really interested, check out our website.

The jurisdiction question was answered, if not completely settled, by a ruling from Clifford Rechtschaffen, the commissioner who is leading the inquiry. He took the uncommon step of issuing a ruling that asserted “a significant role for the commission” in managing California’s broadband ecosystem.

Besides being dismissive, answering a data request with a link to a sales-focused website isn’t enlightening and could be dangerous, according to the filing…

The presentation of pricing on the AT&T website does not provide all relevant combinations of service bundles and speeds. Websites also produce selective company information that are in no way responsive to the data requests or comparable to other communication companies’ information. For instance: What is the lowest price for the user-defined combination of services at the user-defined speed across all communication companies?…

Telecommunication companies continue to frustrate the Public Advocates Office’s efforts to understand their continually evolving operational landscape and how it affects California consumers, even on safety matters.

There’s no particular timeline for when – if – action will be taken on the PAO’s motion.

Comcast
Comcast pricing jan 2019

AT&T
Att broadband pricing 2019
Att legacy dsl pricing 2019

Political dreams, not business sense drive plan for public takeover of PG&E

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Glinda the good witch

It’s not a co-op, despite being “customer owned”. It’s not a utility district or a municipal utility, despite operating “as though it were a public agency”. And it’s certainly not a profit making company. Which leaves wide open the question of what kind of organisational beast San Jose mayor Sam Liccardo and 113 other northern California elected officials think will take over Pacific Gas and Electric’s operations and assets.

The group released a set of “operating principles” for a new, quasi-public entity that would replace PG&E. Key details are missing, including where the money is coming from – bankruptcy judges aren’t in the habit of giving something away for free when others are willing to pay for it – and whether they want PG&E’s natural gas business too.

It’s an all things to all people proposition. Somehow, this new utility will have oversight responsibility for community choice aggregators, which are local governmental agencies – joint powers authorities – that buy electricity and manage customers, via PG&E, in some California cities and counties. But it will have “‘private’ entity legal status” as a “customer-owned utility”. Which makes it sound like a traditional electric cooperative, except that “excess revenues will be re-invested into the communities” it serves, and not rebated to the customers who own it, as co-ops do.

The group’s manifesto includes a long wish list of other goodies the new utility will bestow upon people and public agencies in PG&E’s service territory, such as prioritising capital investment to “prevent wildfires, reduce public safety power shutoff events, and improve overall system reliability”, and “maintaining and growing a skilled workforce” that will improve safety and reliability, as well as customer service. They seem think it’s possible to do all that, while improving “affordability” and offering “options to reduce costs for all ratepayers”.

That would be a neat trick. But it’s only possible to make those kinds of promises when the only cost involved is the price of a press release. Public ownership of monopoly utilities is worth considering, but it’ll only work if the owners – tax payers – are willing to back it financially and if the people running it focus on the tough business of delivering service.

Contract for the Web addresses virtues and vices of government intervention

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Contract for the web

The “Contract for the Web” campaign published its manifesto last week, titled, naturally enough, Contract for the Web. It’s a declaration of nine principles, including “make the internet affordable and accessible to everyone”, “respect and protect people’s privacy and personal data to build online trust” and “develop technologies that support the best in humanity and challenge the worst”, which are among the tasks the contract assigns to private companies. Individuals are urged to “be creators and collaborators on the web”, “build strong communities that respect civil discourse and human dignity”, and “fight for the web”.

The Contract was written by a wide range of companies and organisations, ranging from Google to Change.org to the German government, and the effort is led by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web. Even so, it’s been criticised for having no teeth. The likes of Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft have signed on to it, there’s no guarantee that they’ll pay any attention to it.

True enough. There’s more to it, though.

The Contract opens with a clear call for government enforcement, and even intervention. The first three principles state that governments will…

  1. Ensure everyone can connect to the internet.
  2. Keep all of the internet available, all of the time.
  3. Respect and protect people’s fundamental online privacy and data rights.

Simply stating that a government – any government – should do something is of little consequence. But as governments adopt the Contract, in whole or in part, over time, it’ll grow teeth. And governments and subordinate agencies are doing that.

The details of the privacy principle track with the European Union’s general data protection regulation. Tasks to “ensure everyone can connect to the internet” include measures that local governments in California have already adopted, such as “dig once” policies and pole access agreements.

Regulatory agencies are in the game, too. For example, the Contract sets the goal that “1GB of mobile data costs no more than 2% of average monthly income by 2025”. The California Public Utilities Commission is considering affordability standards for broadband and other utilities that are heading in the same direction.

Government is far from being a universally benign force in the world, though, and the Contract recognises that fact too, for example calling for requirements that…

Government demands for access to private communications and data are necessary and proportionate to the aim pursued, lawful and subject to due process, comply with international human rights norms, and do not require service providers or data processors to weaken or undermine the security of their products and services.

That’s a message that the U.S. government needs to hear.

Video entertainment “should not be considered essential” says AT&T. Amen say Comcast, Charter

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Darth leia 625

For a company that paid $85 billion to become a video entertainment giant, AT&T has an odd idea of what’s essential and what’s not. In objections to a California Public Utilities Commission staff proposal, AT&T argued that “video entertainment” should play no role in determining what level of broadband service is “essential” and whether it’s affordable or not. It specifically targeted Netflix and ESPN+ as examples of non-essential services that are not “appropriate essential functions” and should not be included in calculations of what level of broadband speeds and data caps are necessary for Californians to conduct their every day lives.

In reply comments, the lobbying front organisation that Comcast, Charter Communications and other cable companies use to push their interests in Sacramento and at the CPUC endorsed AT&T’s position, paraphrasing it as “entertainment service such as Netflix is not essential”. It’s easy for the California Cable and Telecommunications Association to trash talk Netflix; the Walt Disney Company – ESPN’s majority owner – not so much.

AT&T and its amen corner got it wrong, for at least a couple of reasons. First, the CPUC staff white paper in question identified fixed broadband service at 20 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds as the minimum necessary for a Californian household to meet its “basic needs” such as education, telehealth and safety, and enjoy “full participation in society” by doing such things as “completing job applications and accessing government assistance programs”. Netflix and ESPN aren’t on the list. Neither is HBO Max, which AT&T is hoping will pull it out of the video subscriber death spiral it’s in, or Spectrum TV Essentials or Xfinity Instant TV. Calling out entertainment services is a red herring.

It’s also arrogant.

I’ve sat in many meetings in Sacramento and listened to telco and cable lobbyists speak with contempt about people who are misguided enough to think they ought to be able to watch video via the Internet, if they don’t provide sufficient profit to be worth it to those companies to deliver modern broadband service. Full participation in society requires more than just getting email or reading a web page. It includes access to the full range of online information and social and political interaction that’s available – and essential – to those of us who are fortunate enough to have it.

Collected documents from the CPUC’s investigation into essential service and affordability metrics for utilities are here.

CPUC commissioner asserts “a significant role” over broadband affordability and essential service

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Rechtschaffen 2 20may2019

In a ruling issued on Friday, CPUC commissioner Clifford Rechtschaffen ended any doubt over whether an inquiry into the affordability of utility services includes the cost and quality of broadband access: it does. The decision puts wind in the sails of an analysis of broadband pricing and service speeds prepared by California Public Utilities Commission staff, and meets strident objections from AT&T, Comcast, Charter Communications and other monopoly model incumbents head on…

This amended scoping memo confirms that communications services, such as broadband internet access, are included within the scope of this proceeding. This amended scoping memo finds that [California Public Utilities] Code Sections 709, 280, 281, 275.6, and the Moore Act all demonstrate that the Legislature contemplated a significant role for the Commission in closing the digital divide in California and bringing advanced communications services, including broadband internet access, to all Californians. This proceeding may assist in that goal.

The California Cable and Telecommunications Association, which is a Sacramento lobbying front organisation for Comcast, Charter and other cable companies, argued that the CPUC shouldn’t look into the affordability of broadband service because it is “an interstate service governed by federal law, and defined as an “information service” and not a “telecommunications service”. In reply comments, AT&T agreed, saying “broadband is not a public utility service”. A joint filing by small rural telephone companies said much the same thing.

Unfortunately for them, the primary legal basis for their objections – the Federal Communications Commission’s blanket preemption of state broadband regulations was overturned by a federal appeals court. So long as the FCC says that broadband is an information service, it can’t wield its telecommunications authority as a magic weed whacker to chop down state regulations.

In his ruling, Rechtschaffen also set next June as the deadline for CPUC action on affordability and service standards for broadband and other utilities, including electricity, water, gas and voice services.

Collected documents from the CPUC’s investigation into essential service and affordability metrics for utilities are here.

PG&E pole attachment shot clock ready for another CPUC vote

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Fiber attachments 625

The do-over of a settlement resolving a utility pole attachment dispute between Pacific Gas and Electric and Crown Castle is queued up at the California Public Utilities Commission. The original settlement was drafted by administrative law judge Patricia Miles and approved in March. But commissioners reversed the decision due to procedural mistakes, and told Miles to fix those errors try again. She did, and the new draft is the same as the old one.

If approved, the imposed settlement gives PG&E forty five days to “provide a response” to a pole attachment request from Crown Castle. If there’s no response, Crown Castle can go ahead with its proposed work. “Response” is not defined, but typically it means a yes or no answer, including any specs for work that’s needed to make the pole ready for a new line to be attached. Whether PG&E’s lawyers go with the typical meaning or try to craft one of their own remains to be seen.

The draft also bakes in the rejection of Crown Castle’s original request to be allowed to buy attachment space on PG&E’s poles, rather than just lease it. PG&E’s practice is to either sell ownership of the entire communications zone – the segment of the pole that’s high enough off the ground and sufficiently beneath electric lines – or lease it by the foot. Typically (there’s that word again) AT&T or another incumbent telco buy the entire zone and manage it under private joint pole rules that are, in theory, friendlier to telecoms companies. Crown Castle wanted those privileges for its one-foot of pole space, but didn’t want the responsibility of managing the entire zone.

PG&E opposes the changes proposed by Miles. It doesn’t like the way it was handled – the dispute between the companies was fast tracked as an arbitration, rather than a typical, and lengthy, litigation – and it objects to what it characterises as special treatment given to Crown Castle.

Crown Castle generally endorsed Miles’ decision, albeit after making clear that they think they should have been given the right to buy space by the foot on poles, and after asking for one change – removal of a requirement that they provide two days notice to PG&E before doing work on poles.

The commission is scheduled to vote on the proposed settlement at its meeting next week, but don’t be surprised if it gets bumped. PG&E and Crown Castle have one more round of comments to file, and if any of their arguments gain traction with Miles or commissioners, then new language would have to be drafted.

“Rate neutral framework”, whatever that is, promised as PG&E offers plan to pay wildfire costs and get out of bankruptcy

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

PG&E filed its plan for coming out of bankruptcy with the federal judge handling the case yesterday. The company proposes to give $8.4 billion to those harmed by wildfires over the past four years, both individual and public agencies, another $8.5 billion to insurance companies that have already paid out claims resulting from those fires, as well as a previously agreed $1 billion to a group of northern California public agencies.

In a press release, PG&E’s CEO, Bill Johnson, was quoted as saying the reorganisation plan is a “rate neutral framework”, but didn’t elaborate. Media outlets have interpreted it as meaning that wildfire settlement costs won’t be passed onto electric customers, but there’s potentially a lot of weasel in those few words. The press release also promised “participation in the state wildfire fund established by Assembly Bill 1054” and “satisfaction” of its requirements.

AB 1054 was passed by the legislature in July, and sets up a couple of funds – one paid for by utilities, the other directly by their customers – that will provide a way of financing wildfire liabilities for Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric, and for PG&E if it clears the bankruptcy process by next summer. Since the $2.50 monthly charge for the second fund is already tacked onto customers’ bills, keeping it presumably qualifies as “neutral”. There are other ways to pass on costs to customers, directly and indirectly, so don’t assume that northern California electricity costs won’t go up even further if the judge eventually accepts PG&E’s plan.

The proposal also says that PG&E will honor existing contracts with community choice aggregators, lean energy producers and employees, and pay back its debts to lenders.

Just ahead of the filing, the City and County of San Francisco sent PG&E a letter offering to buy its electric (but not gas) system for $2.5 billion. It’s a follow up to a municipal power plan floated earlier this year by San Francisco mayor London Breed. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, PG&E unsurprisingly responded that the offer wasn’t in “the best interests of our customers and stakeholders”.