California's telecoms playing field takes a tiny tilt towards level

5 December 2016 by Steve Blum
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It’s all the same.

The California Public Utilities Commission took a small, but significant, step towards treating all telecoms companies the same on Thursday. Cable and telephone companies, mobile carriers and any other communication service provider will now be subject to the same kind of safety enforcement procedures as other public utilities.

The commission [voted to allow enforcement staff to issue citations to any communications company]() that violates the safety rules that govern how utility poles, wires and cables, antennas, cabinets and other infrastructure in the public right of way is installed and maintained.

Previously, if the CPUC wanted to penalise companies that maintain unsafe infrastructure or force them to repair it, it had to go through a long and complicated legal process. Under the new system, staff can basically write it up and leave it to the company to either pay the fine or appeal it. It’s not that much different from the way traffic tickets work, except that the fines can be up to $8 million per citation. It’s the same system that the CPUC uses to enforce infrastructure safety rules for electric, gas and other utility companies.

The new procedures bring welcome simplicity and consistency to at least a small corner of California’s telecommunications ecosystem. For the most part, different types of companies play by separate sets of rules that were established back in the old analog days when telephone companies delivered dial tone, cable companies just offered television service and mobile carriers and independent Internet service providers didn’t even exist.

Now that the digital services offered by all four kinds of companies are converging to the point where there’s no meaningful distinction between them other than price and performance, that complex thicket of legacy privileges and requirements serves no good public purpose. Quite the contrary, the various sets of rules custom tailored over the years by relentless lobbying offer telecoms companies the opportunity to game the system to no one’s benefit but their own.

Thursday’s decision was a good start in the right direction.