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Christmas in August: Calif. Allows AT&T to Fine Itself and Keep the Money

Phillip Dampier August 24, 2016 AT&T, Consumer News, Editorial & Site News, Public Policy & Gov't, Rural Broadband 1 Comment

att400California’s Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) couldn’t get cozier with AT&T if they moved regulators into the phone company’s plush executive suites.

In a 3-2 decision, the CPUC has given California phone companies that cannot manage to keep their wireline networks in good order an early Christmas, allowing the companies to effectively fine themselves for bad performance and keep the money.

Although the CPUC adopted a series of “automatic fines” for companies with chronic service problems (AT&T is by far the largest offender), it completely negated any sting by allowing companies to skip the fine by demonstrating they’ve invested at least twice the amount of the penalty in their networks. That is an expense AT&T’s bookkeepers can manage to document in minutes just by highlighting AT&T’s investments in other parts of the state. AT&T can argue investments in gigabit fiber in southern California or wiring fiber to business parks and cell sites improves service reliability for at least some customers.

CPUC president Michael Picker isn’t in any hurry either, helpfully offering AT&T and other phone companies two years to complete the investments that will cancel their fines:

In support of a request to suspend the fine, carriers may propose, in their annual fine filing, to invest no less than twice the amount of their annual fine in a project (s) which improves service quality in a measurable way within 2 years. The proposal must demonstrate that 1) twice the amount of the fine is being spent, 2) the project (s) is an incremental expenditure with supporting financials (e.g. expenditure is in excess of the existing construction budget and/or staffing base), 3) the project (s) is designed to address a service quality deficiency and, 4) upon the project (s) completion, the carrier shall demonstrate the results for the purpose proposed. Carriers are encouraged to review their service quality results to find appropriate target projects to invest funds.

Consumer advocates have accused AT&T of underinvesting in their wireline facilities for years. Because the CPUC does not require the investment be specifically targeted to correcting problems that prompted the fine, phone companies can continue to allow high cost/low profit rural infrastructure to deteriorate while targeting service-improving investments in more profitable or competitive service areas.

Steve Blum from Tellus Venture Associates, who has closely tracked telecom public policy matters in California for years, called it the most cynical decision he’s ever seen from the CPUC:

Fines, it seems, are just another cost of doing business for telecoms companies and don’t matter anyway. So why not let them keep the money?

Boiled down, that’s CPUC president Michael Picker’s rationale for establishing new telephone voice service level requirements backed up by a swinging schedule of penalties and then saying but we’ll let you keep the money if you invest it in infrastructure or pay staff. Or something. Anything.

Picker

Picker

Commissioner Mike Florio called the Picker’s proposal “unenforceable.”

The CPUC’s own staff has documented the troubling condition of landline service in the state. A staff report published in September 2014 showed the largest phone companies in the state — AT&T and Verizon (later sold to Frontier Communications) — that control 88% of landlines in California never met the CPUC’s minimum standard of repairing 90% of “out of service” trouble tickets within 24 hours during 2010-2013.

In 2010 and 2011, AT&T and Verizon needed an average of 110 hours to repair 90% of outages. That is 4.5 days. In 2012 and 2013, repair time marginally improved to an average of 72 hours (3 days). That is three days without any phone service or the ability to call 911, something the CPUC staff said compromised public safety.

AT&T and Verizon have papered the CPUC’s walls with “corrective action reports” over the years explaining why they failed to meet CPUC standards and what actions they planned to take to improve compliance. The staff report found those reports never resulted in improved compliance.

Commissioner Catherine Sandoval submitted an alternative plan of simple fines and a reporting system that gives equal weight to outages occurring in areas served by independent phone companies like Citizens Telecommunications Company of California (d/b/a Frontier) and SureWest Telephone (d/b/a Consolidated Telephone). Picker didn’t bother to hold a vote on Sandoval’s proposal, instead bringing his own proposal to the commission that approved it on a 3-2 voice vote. Florio and Sandoval voted no.

Despite the easy out, the state’s phone companies are still complaining the fine system was unnecessary because the free market was best equipped to manage service outages. If customers don’t like their provider, they can switch, assuming there is another provider available in the large rural and mountainous parts of the state.







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  • Josh: Not the dumbest use of our money possible, but why the frak don't we just own the service we're paying for?...
  • Joe V: and the fleecing of the U.S. continues....
  • Josh: LOL! That's $0.75 a month less than a TiVo that's not on lifetime service! And of course it's far MORE/month if you have more than one outlet. Yowz...
  • Joe V: I almost pity those that think that this “5G” will good enough once cord cutting internet streaming TV becomes the norm. AT&T’s Direct TV Now chok...
  • Friz: well, at least in my area speeds are relatively staying in line with what I would expect over the years at midco the cost jumped from 30 a month for ...
  • Ralph: Frontier seems to be only interested in acquiring other phone companies' properties for the monthly income from subscribers of the phone and internet ...
  • Lee: They will not be the only company that will have problems paying for debt as rates rise and they have to refinance debt....
  • Daniel: My experience with Verizon was CONSISTENTLY HORRIFIC. The sheer incompetence broke my brain. They would screw up everything they possibly could, and s...
  • Josh: Good grief. If they still have money, they HAVE to spend...I mean it's probably too late, but...what on Earth is wrong with these executives? I mean...
  • Paul Houle: The scary thing is that Frontier has a huge cash flow. There are still enough customers that use Frontier because they don't have a choice. "Cable" ...
  • Robert: Cox sucks...
  • Dan: The high dividends aren't a problem anymore, but there's probably not enough money to do more than pay off the interest. If they were smart, they'd st...

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