Yesterday was Michael Picker’s last meeting as president of the California Public Utilities Commission. He stepped down at the request of California governor Gavin Newsom, who named Marybel Batjer, his strike team leader, to head the commission. She’ll be able to assume the job while the state senate decides whether to confirm her appointment.
Picker leaves behind positive accomplishments. He took over from Michael Peevey, who was under criminal investigation for backroom dealings. The switch from Peevey’s big man on campus persona to Picker’s soporific style was effective in dampening much of the heated criticism of the CPUC at the time. He brought order to the CPUC’s management and executive decision making processes, and pushed hard for a safety-first culture, both at the commission and at the companies it regulates.
Telecommunications policy in general, and broadband in particular, were not Picker’s forte. His focus was energy, particularly climate change and decarbonisation issues. When it came to telecoms, he typically took the side of monopoly model incumbents, although he tried to spin it differently.
In 2016, when the CPUC ultimately opposed AT&T’s attempt in the California legislature to kill its wireline obligations, Picker dissembled before voting in favor of giving AT&T what it wanted: he worried about preventing fiber upgrades – nonsense, AB 2395 had many faults but that wasn’t one – and talked about creating a technological road map first, something that would have required years to complete while the legislature would be voting in a matter of days.
It was common for Picker to take positions that aligned with the interests of AT&T and other major telecoms companies. He maneuvered a vote to allow telcos to pay fines to themselves when they fail to meet quality standards, he tried to kill an investigation of telco infrastructure and service quality, and he routinely said no to subsidies for independent broadband projects while finding no fault with similar grants to incumbents.
Picker’s most recent recital of AT&T talking points came during a workshop in Sacramento in May, when he questioned whether unserved Californians need wireline “broadband to the home”, because people can use mobile phones instead.
There’s no question that energy issues – near and long term – are the CPUC’s most pressing problems. Devastating wildfires and Pacific Gas and Electric’s bankruptcy can be directly linked to climate change. Picker was correct in putting energy at the top of his agenda. Being the odd man out on telecoms policy wasn’t helpful, but wasn’t a disaster either.