CPUC opens investigation into consumer broadband prices and other utility rates

21 November 2018 by Steve Blum
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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.