Cable's political privileges have practical limits, says CPUC draft

26 January 2017 by Steve Blum
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Some lobbyists don’t let go of old stereotypes.

Cable companies can’t have wireless privileges because they’re cable and not wireless companies. That’s the gist of a proposed decision that’s in front of the California Public Utilities Commission, and the cable industry’s hired gun lobbyists don’t like it.

Last year, the CPUC changed the rules for attaching telecoms equipment to utility poles and allowed mobile carriers and similarly licensed companies to install wireless gear on utility poles, subject to new cost sharing rules and safety regulations. That decision did not apply to cable or wireline telephone companies that might want to hang radios on poles, but it did invite them to ask for that permission so it could be taken up later.

The California Cable and Telecommunications Association (CCTA) – the organisation that grooms Sacramento lawmakers for cable industry loving – made that request last July. The initial answer that came back from CPUC president Michael Picker was no. His proposed decision noted that cable television corporations “are not public utilities” as defined by California law, and…

[The] statutory definition of “cable television corporation” is narrowly confined to entities that use “cable” facilities to transmit television programs. Conspicuously absent from this definition is any mention of wireless facilities…

[The] statutory definition of [cable television] corporations’ “pole attachments” is limited to a “wire communication system.” Significantly, this definition does not mention a wireless communication system or wireless facilities…

We conclude that the previously cited provisions of the California Public Utilities Code do not provide CATV corporations with a right to attach wireless facilities to utility poles. We believe it is dispositive that the Legislature included the terms “cable” and “wire” in the previously cited statutes, but omitted the term “wireless.” If the Legislature had intended to provide CATV corporations with a right to attach wireless facilities to utility poles – either by statute or by Commission regulations – the Legislature would have done so.

Picker’s draft was published earlier this month, with the expectation that it would be voted on at the commission’s first meeting in February. In the normal course of events, CCTA would have filed a reply and attempted to rebut those arguments. But the cable industry doesn’t like the idea of being treated as a normal public utility rent-seeking business. No telling where that might lead. So instead, CCTA said never mind and asked that the CPUC just sorta forget it, because, among other things…

The Proposed Decision as drafted could be read to suggest that cable television providers’ use of even the wired facilities they install may be limited to providing cable (i.e., video) service and not, for example broadband services and/or that they have no rights to install wireless pole attachment even in furtherance of their provision of cable television services.

Just so. Cable companies, with hired guns and deep pockets full of campaign cash, have carved out a comfortable, unregulated niche in California public policy that allows them to offer broadband services as if they were telephone companies, but without having to meet the same standards of conduct and service. It’s an unearned privilege that was gained through disingenuous grandfathering of ancient and outdated regulations that date back to the days when suburbanites were watching Leave it to Beaver in black and white.

The CPUC should ignore the lobbyists and finalise the decision.