Telecommunications in general, and broadband in particular, aren’t getting much attention at the California capitol this year. Friday was the deadline for introducing new bills for this year and, aside from privacy issues, nothing regarding telecoms that’s particularly substantive landed in the hopper.
Pacific Gas and Electric company and the California Public Utilities Commission, on the other hand, are in the gunsights of senator Jerry Hill (D- San Mateo). He floated a bill on Friday that would take much of the job of regulating PG&E away from the CPUC, and give it to the California legislature (h/t to Fred Pilot at the Eldo Telecom blog for the pointer). Senate bill 549 simply says…
The commission shall not approve any capital structure change or increase in rates for the Pacific Gas and Electric Company unless the Legislature, by statute, authorizes the capital structure change or increase in rates.
It’s a placeholder bill, introduced to meet the deadline, with details to be worked out later. That’s my read anyway. Micromanaging the rates and capital structure of privately owned utilities, as the CPUC does, is a detailed and time consuming job. Giving it to legislative committees guarantees chaos.
His objective, judging from his press release, is to give the legislature, or at least Hill, a seat at the table as a federal judge disposes with PG&E’s request for bankruptcy protection. The gambit might work. A credible threat to subject PG&E to direct and overt political control could create enough financial uncertainty to kill any reasonable bankruptcy settlement.
Hill introduced two other utility related bills on Friday. SB 548 would increase requirements for private electric companies to inspect high voltage transmission lines – such as those suspected as the cause of the deadly Camp Fire – and SB 550 would require that a merger involving a gas or electric company “improves the safety of the utility service provided”.
The heart of their dispute is that Crown Castle wants to buy attachment space on poles, and PG&E just wants to lease it to them. Incumbent telecoms companies, like AT&T, can buy space, but they have to buy all of the communications zone, which is section of the pole, typically three or four vertical feet, that’s suitable for attaching telecoms cables. Once they buy the whole zone, they’re then responsible for leasing out attachment space by the foot to competitive telecoms companies like Crown Castle.
Crown Castle isn’t interested becoming the telecoms landlord on PG&E poles, and there’s some doubt as to whether CPUC rules allow them to do it in the first place. The ALJ heard both sides’ arguments, as well as comments from other interested parties, and decided that there’s nothing in the CPUC rules that says PG&E has to sell pole attachment space by the foot.
So now Crown Castle is telling the ALJ that 1. commissioners should disregard her ruling and give it what it wants anyway, and 2. if they don’t do that, they should change PG&E’s standard pole space leasing agreement to, among things, create a 45 day shot clock for PG&E to approve or reject a request to attach to a particular pole. If PG&E has “provided no response” within that time, Crown Castle could attach its fiber at will. It also wants to know when other companies ask to lease any remaining space, wants to be able to work on poles without notifying PG&E and doesn’t want PG&E to rearrange any of its cables without its permission. Which add up to many of the privileges that come with pole space ownership, without the responsibility of managing leases with other telecoms companies.
Utility pole associations, which manage joint use of poles by electric utilities – privately and municipally owned – and telecoms companies of all sorts, should be regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission, according to a ruling by an administrative law judge (ALJ). The ruling focuses on a narrow dispute between two companies: big picture, it’s little more than advice to CPUC commissioners. But it’s bad advice.
The ruling concerns a dispute between Pacific Gas and Electric, which owns poles throughout northern California, and Crown Castle, which is an independent, competitive telecoms company that owns and leases fiber routes, and builds and operates cell sites. PG&E offered to lease space to Crown Castle on its poles, as it’s required to do by the CPUC. Crown Castle said it would prefer to buy outright a foot’s worth of space on PG&E’s poles, so it can get about its business of building fiber networks without worrying about keeping a landlord happy. AT&T, and other incumbent telephone companies, buy space on PG&E’s poles, but they buy the whole communications zone, which can be several feet of pole space. They are then responsible for leasing out attachment space by the foot to independent companies like Crown Castle, also as required by the CPUC.
Crown Castle didn’t want to pay for and be responsible for the entire communications zone on PG&E poles, and if they did, it’s not entirely clear that they would have the same obligation as AT&T and other incumbents to lease space to other telecoms companies. So Crown Castle and PG&E ended up in a stalemate. To resolve it, Crown Castle asked the CPUC to step in and arbitrate the dispute. The ruling issued yesterday by ALJ Patricia Miles says that PG&E is meeting its obligations by offering to lease attachment space on poles and Crown Castle has no particular right to buy it by the foot.
But the ruling goes one step further and says that procedures and contracts developed by joint pole associations – the Northern California Joint Pole Association (NCJPA) and the Southern California Joint Pole Committee – need to be approved in advance by the CPUC…
There can be no doubt that disputes such as the present one will arise again. For this reason, if NCJPA is going to continue to facilitate sale and purchase transactions pertaining to public utility poles among its member entities, the Commission should require NCJPA to submit (before implementation) for Commission review and approval…its agreements, forms, procedures and handbooks which concern the transfer, sale, lease, assignment, mortgage, or encumbrance of public utility poles. Such transactions, which are being handled by NCJPA on behalf of its members, are clearly within the Commission’s jurisdiction.
The ALJ’s report amounts to a suggestion for commissioners, who would have to issue a formal decision requiring joint pole associations to get advance approval for pole attachment deal terms. If commissioners go down that road, it will be a lengthy and contentious process. Not all utilities that own and/or attach to poles are under CPUC jurisdiction. An association of municipal electric utilities objected to a draft version of the ALJ’s ruling, pointing out that the CPUC has no authority over them and shouldn’t try to tell them how to manage their own poles.
In the meantime, the ALJ’s ruling will be widely read and could influence similar one-on-one disputes between independent telecoms companies and electric utilities.
Yesterday’s ruling affirmed PG&E’s current practice, and in that regard offered a bit of clarity to the already horribly complex problem of how utility pole routes are shared and managed in California. But by threatening to extend CPUC oversight to joint pole associations, the ruling adds an unneeded and unwelcome layer of uncertainty.
The CPUC has ongoing proceedings that involve a number of issues related to pole access and, because of PG&E’s bankruptcy filing and past criminal conviction, federal judges will have a lot to say about it. The California legislature and civil courts are also involved because of the dozens of deaths and billions of dollars worth of damaged caused by fires started by electric lines. Now is not the time to drag even more players into this mess.
A federal judge lambasted Pacific Gas and Electric’s and the California Public Utilities Commission’s wildfire prevention efforts, and the California supreme court allowed a key wildfire cost sharing decision by the CPUC to stand yesterday. That follows PG&E’s bankruptcy filing on Tuesday.
Judge William Alsup is PG&E’s probation officer. The corporation was convicted of criminal misconduct following a deadly natural gas line explosion in San Bruno in 2010, and it is accountable to Alsup for how well it’s complying with the penalties handed down, which include good behavior requirements. Alsup thinks PG&E is a danger to the public, and he doesn’t have a high opinion of the CPUC’s efforts to rein it in. According to a story in the San Jose Mercury News by Matthias Gafni and John Woolfolk, representatives from both PG&E and the CPUC tried to convince Alsup that his proposal to require PG&E to inspect more than 100,000 miles of electric lines before this summer’s fire season begins is a bad idea. He wasn’t buying any of it…
“Does a judge turn a blind eye and let PG&E continue what you’re doing, let you keep killing people?” U.S. District Judge William Alsup said inside the San Francisco courtroom. “Can’t we have electricity that is delivered safely in this state?”…
The judge also questioned the California Public Utilities Commission, the state agency charged with regulating PG&E and other investor-owned utilities.
“How did it happen so many fires occurred under your regulations?” Alsup asked a representative of the state regulator. “It sounds harsh, but that’s what the people of California deserve to know, how did that happen?”
After three intense hours, Alsup told the parties he would rule later, but the state of California did not have time to waste with another fire season approaching.
Alsup hinted he might require PG&E to use the same, aggressive power cutting tactics that San Diego Gas and Electric uses when wildfire danger is high. SDG&E began proactively de-energising lines after wildfires in 2007 that it and Cox Communications were responsible for starting.
Pacific Gas and Electric filed for bankruptcy protection yesterday, beginning a process that could lead to significant changes in how electricity and natural gas service is delivered in northern California, and how much it costs. It also has the potential for changing the cost sharing calculations that determine how much telecoms companies pay to share poles and conduit with PG&E.
As part of the filings, PG&E also filed various motions with the Court in support of its reorganization, including requesting authorization to continue paying employee wages and providing healthcare and other benefits. In the filings, PG&E also asked for authority to continue existing customer programs, including low income support, energy efficiency and other programs supporting customer adoption of clean energy. PG&E expects the Court to act on these requests in the coming days.
Translation: if you work for us, don’t make assumptions about your paycheck or benefits package for the time being, and if you’re relying on rents extracted by the CPUC or California legislature, make contingency plans.
It’s not time to push the panic button – an experienced bankruptcy judge won’t start slashing and burning – but it isn’t the time to rely on old certainties either. A new U.S. marshal just rode into town, and hasn’t decided whether the local sheriff is the solution or the problem.
Monday, in an emergency meeting held amidst a crowd of raucous protestors, the CPUC gave PG&E permission to borrow more money, which it will have to do to pay for operations during the bankruptcy proceedings – so called debtor in possession financing.
The CPUC also filed a brief with the federal judge overseeing PG&E compliance with criminal sanctions resulting from the deadly San Bruno natural gas explosion in 2010. According to Politico, the CPUC objected to a hugely expensive electric line inspection throughout PG&E’s territory proposed by judge William Alsup, arguing “the proposal interferes with their oversight and would endanger public safety”. It’s arguable whether Alsup’s idea would help or hinder public safety, but there’s no question that it shoves the CPUC aside. Which might be why he’s proposing it: CPUC oversight did not prevent the San Bruno explosion or the Camp Fire or any of the other fires, deadly or otherwise, that PG&E is implicated in.
The future of northern California’s energy supply, and the utility pole routes that support it, will be largely in the hands of federal judges. Pacific Gas and Electric gave notice yesterday that it will, in all likelihood, file for bankruptcy protection in two weeks. The company said that it may have to pay as much as $30 billion in damages stemming from catastrophic wildfires it apparently played a role in starting in 2017 and 2018. That’s about three times more than the company was worth before its stock price nosedived on the news. A federal bankruptcy court will have to decide how to carve up whatever is available, and who gets control of the carcass.
Another federal judge is assuming an oversight role that, in theory, the California Public Utilities Commission is supposed to fill. Last week, judge William Alsup gave PG&E until the end of the month to come up with a plan for inspecting the more than 100,000 miles of electric lines it operates in California before the next fire season begins in June. He’s essentially PG&E’s probation officer, following the corporation’s of criminal conviction related to a natural gas line explosion in San Bruno in 2010.
So far, the CPUC hasn’t made any comment about PG&E bankruptcy plans or Alsup’s encroachment on its turf. Last month, CPUC president Michael Picker launched an investigation that could result in PG&E break up, or a takeover by the state, or any number of other fates. Or could have, before financial markets, trial lawyers and the federal judiciary got tired of waiting. At the time, Picker stated in a press release that “this process will be like repairing a jetliner while it’s in flight. Crashing a plane to make it safer isn’t good for the passengers”.
Yesterday, PG&E said the plane is going down. All we passengers can do is assume the position, and hope for the best.
With liabilities from California wildfires amounting to unknown billions of dollars, Pacific Gas and Electric company announced this morning that it plans to file for bankruptcy as soon as it’s legally able to do so. According to a company press release…
The Company today provided the 15-day advance notice required by recently enacted California law that it and its wholly owned subsidiary Pacific Gas and Electric Company (the “Utility”) currently intend to file petitions to reorganize under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code on or about January 29, 2019.
Governor Gavin Newsom released a statement saying he’s been engaged with the problem over the weekend…
The company should continue to honor promises made to energy suppliers and to our community. Throughout the months ahead, I will be working with the Legislature and all stakeholders on a solution that ensures consumers have access to safe, affordable and reliable service, fire victims are treated fairly, and California can continue to make progress toward our climate goals.
No reaction yet from the California Public Utilities Commission.
Pacific Gas and Electric could be broken up, reorganised or brought under closer control by the California Public Utilities Commission. The decision to launch a broad investigation into PG&E’s future, including the possibility of a public takeover, was made by commission president Michael Picker and released late on Friday, after financial markets had closed and the holiday exodus had begun.
Radical action of this sort, taken against a major utility, is cause for concern by telecoms companies too. Generally, it signals a change to much more aggressive utility regulatory regime in California. Specifically, it increases the threat of future criminal and civil liability, affects management of and access to utility poles and conduit, and puts a major source of independent dark fiber in jeopardy.
All that, just within the past two months. In his decision, Picker said standard remedies aren’t working…
This Commission was, and remains, concerned that the safety problems being experienced by PG&E were not just one-off situations or bad luck, but indicated a deeper and more systemic problem. The fact that imposing penalties on PG&E (the Commission’s standard tool for addressing safety problems) did not seem to change the situation reinforced this concern…
The next phase of this proceeding will consider a broad range of alternatives to current management and operational structures for providing electric and natural gas in Northern California.
Options under consideration include various methods of bringing PG&E’s executives and board of directors under tighter CPUC control, or replacing them altogether, breaking the company up into smaller pieces, on a business line and/or regional basis, and taking over the company and turning it into a publicly owned utility of one kind or another.
Picker’s decision – technically, a “scoping memo and ruling” – comes in an investigation that began in 2015. It’s just another step, albeit in a new direction, in a process that will grind on for many more years.
The cost burden of consumer broadband service will be evaluated by the California Public Utilities Commission, as part of a larger inquiry into the affordability of all types of utility services. A “scoping memo”, released by commissioner Clifford Rechtschaffen on Monday, outlines the issues on the table as the CPUC tries to develop common metrics and methods for evaluating the affordability of all utility services under its jurisdiction.
The idea was floated in July, and utilities had a chance to offer their opinions on what should be considered and how it should be done. Not surprisingly, big telecommunications companies wanted to be left alone completely, because the CPUC does not directly regulate the prices they charge, unlike water, electric and gas rates (for privately owned utilities) and for small, rural telephone companies.
Rechtschaffen rejected their recommendations…
Affordability issues across Commission-jurisdictional utility services, including water, energy, and telecommunications services, will be considered. The stated intent of the [investigation] is to develop affordability metrics across utility industries to reflect the cumulative bill impacts since a customer often pays for electricity, gas, water, and telecommunications services under a single household budget. Although the Commission does not regulate rates for all telecommunications services, the Commission oversees a number of low-income and universal access programs for telecommunications services and also imposes surcharges for these programs…
The affordability considerations for telecommunications services may be different than for energy or water services but it is worth considering whether common definitions and metrics can be developed and it is within the Commission’s jurisdiction to consider these affordability issues.
Broadband isn’t specifically mentioned in the scoping memo, but the initial notice published in July points the investigation directly at telephone, cable and mobile companies “providing voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), wireless, or broadband internet access service in California”. The CPUC doesn’t regulate prices for any of those services, but Rechtschaffen clearly considers them to be within its jurisdiction. The low-income and universal access programs run by the CPUC include several – e.g. the California Advanced Services Fund, the High Cost fund and the California Teleconnect Fund – that subsidise broadband service and infrastructure.
No date was set for finishing the inquiry, except a vague reference to a statutory 18 month limit for such things. It’s a deadline that the commission routinely misses and extends for itself.
Cable companies want the benefits of being a legally recognised public utility, but not the responsibilities. One of those benefits is to be compensated when a public works project requires the relocation of lines, either on poles or underground. The California assembly’s communications and conveyance committee thought that cable companies deserve it too, and unanimously endorsed a bill yesterday that would reimburse them for relocation work when a project is being paid for out of bond money that’s been approved by voters.
Assembly bill 1145 is sponsored by the California Cable and Telecommunications Association, the cable industry’s Sacramento lobbying front. That means CCTA wrote it and then found a legislator to carry it. “Author” it, as the term of art goes. That friendly fellow turned out to be assemblyman Bill Quirk (D – Hayward). He presented the bill, and launched into what sounded like the beginning of a history lecture before being cut off by an affable “move the bill” from a sufficiently educated committee member.
Quirk did have enough time to descend into complete nonsense. He tried to draw a false distinction between “regulated monopoly utility companies” and cable companies. The only good thing that can be said is that it turned into bipartisan nonsense, when the ranking republican on the committee, Jay Obernolte (R – Big Bear) agreed, saying cable companies are not a “natural monopoly”.
Historically, there was a difference between telephone companies, which have been state regulated utilities for more than a century, and cable companies, which were originally franchised by local governments but managed to escape that oversight ten years ago. At least in California. Today, the differences are diminishingly small, particularly in urban and suburban markets where cable and telephone companies sell the same services and enjoy a comfortable, unregulated duopoly.
The distinguishing characteristics of a natural monopoly are high initial capital costs, usually related to infrastructure construction, and powerful economies of scale, both of which give the first mover in the market insurmountable advantages over would be competitors. In the old analog world, telephone and television service were completely different businesses, linked only by a common dependence on wireline networks. Now, both offer voice and video, and face competition in those segments from wireless providers. But they are also almost always the only wireline broadband option and wireless service is not a credible substitute, in either practical or microeconomic terms.
So yes, if phone companies are reimbursed for moving their lines then cable companies should be too. They should be treated the same. In every way. Bringing cable operators and telcos under the same regulatory umbrella is the only rational approach in today’s digital world. The way to do it is not to continually give cable (or telephone) companies special carve outs in state law, as AB 1145 does. The way to do it is to recognise and regulate them for what they are: two formerly natural monopolies who have merged into an interchangeable duopoly.