Hard broadband choices for new CPUC president

30 December 2014 by Steve Blum
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Utility policy and the way it’s implemented, including the possibility of a more activist form of broadband regulation, will be significantly different at the California Public Utilities Commission in 2015. The two most powerful jobs – president and executive director – will be held by new people in the coming year.

In 11 months, Michael Picker moved from a job as an energy advisor to Governor Jerry Brown to a seat on the commission to the top job as president, assuming the California senate agrees. His career has been spent in and around politics, including work as a campaign and public relations consultant, and a two-year stint on the Sacramento Municipal Utilities District’s elected board.

Picker has typically been quiet in the past year, in marked contrast to the big man on campus persona of former president Michael Peevey. That might change – in recent weeks he’s been more vocal and, particularly, willing to criticise advocacy groups – for lack of effort – and unwilling to reward the tin foil hat brigade’s irrational campaign against wireless meters.

On the other other hand, he’s held his cards close when it comes to greater regulation of broadband infrastructure. Picker sided with Peevey in opposing a recommendation that the FCC adopt common carrier regulations. His stated reason at the time was that he was still studying the issue. Initially, he and Peevey were outvoted, but after a hasty recess and back room arm twisting, commissioner Carla Peterman reversed her vote and put Picker back on the winning side. Whether his opposition was tactical and/or temporary remains to be seen – conventional wisdom in Sacramento then was that it was unwise to upset big campaign contributors like Comcast and AT&T in the run up to the November election, but afterwards all bets were off.

Regardless, if the FCC brings broadband under common carrier regulation – and the decision sticks – the CPUC will almost certainly play a major role in implementing the new rules. Even a compromise could leave state regulators with a job to do – how Picker goes about it will have a major impact on telecoms in California for years to come.

Executive director Paul Clanon is also gone, retiring after 30 years at the CPUC. Another CPUC staff veteran – Timothy Sullivan – is taking over temporarily. It’s a good bet that whoever gets the job permanently will be someone who suits Picker. Whether it’s a promotion from the current staff or an outsider with management muscle will say a lot about how Picker intends to run the shop.