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.