Right now, a vast majority of Californians have just one choice—or no choice at all—for high-speed broadband service, thanks to a law that removed any state oversight over California's broadband market. When that law passed in 2012, its supporters, including AT&T and Comcast, promised that removing oversight of any telecommunications service that worked over the Internet would allow high-speed broadband to flourish, and would create a better and more competitive market.
As California's current broadband market clearly shows, it did not. Yet A.B. 1366, authored by Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez, exempts broadband carriers from state regulation. Such a move would leave Californians with little or no option for affordable high-speed broadband internet, and no regulators empowered to change that situation—while others across the country and around the world move ahead of California.
Don't Let the Legislature Extend Broadband Monopolies
EFF has opposed this bill from the beginning, repeatedly telling Gonzalez and other lawmakers that the bill will hurt consumer choice, keep broadband prices high, and allow large broadband firms such as AT&T and Comcast to maintain their monopolies. The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), the state's telecommunications regulator tasked with protecting consumers, has come out strongly against the bill.
Now, both the California state Department of Finance—a state cabinet-level agency—and the Attorney General's Office agree: A.B. 1366 prevents the state from exercising meaningful authority over the telecommunications industry in California.
In comments to Gonzalez, the state's Department of Finance said clearly that the law isn't right for California's present or future, and that extending this law another ten years would leave many of the state's consumers unprotected.
"Finance is opposed to this bill because it prevents the PUC from meetings its constitutional mandate to oversee telecommunications within the state by extending the current prohibition on the regulation of VoIP," the department's analysis said. "When legislation establishing VoIP and IP-based regulatory prohibitions passed the Legislature, most telephone lines were wireline service and the prohibition was intended to protect a new industry. However, data from the FCC shows that the number of VoIP lines has exceeded the number of regulated wireline telephone lines."
A.B. 1366 does create new service quality requirements, and orders the CPUC to forward complaints about service quality to the California Attorney General's Office. But, in his comments to Gonzalez, Deputy Attorney General Anthony Lew made clear that the Attorney General's office has neither the resources nor the specialized expertise to give Californians' the consumer protection they need—and the CPUC does.
"[A.B.] 1366 express prohibits CPUC, the regulator with appropriate jurisdiction over telecommunication services, from exercising any oversight of these new service quality requirements," Lew wrote. "[If] a goal of your legislation is to protect consumers of VoIP and broadband services, then consumers are best served by a statutory scheme that provides meaningful industry oversight and enforcement by the agencies of proper jurisdiction. A.B. 1366 raises serious questions about whether it provides meaningful oversight and enforcement of consumer protections, at the same time that it presents serious operational challenges and burdens for my office."
The importance of having a strong state telecommunications regulator became clear in August 2018, when Verizon throttled the wireless service of the Santa Clara Fire Department in the middle of fighting a massive fire. The state had no option of holding the company accountable. That incident prompted Assemblymember Marc Levine to ensure first responders will not be throttled in emergency situations, by introducing another bill, A.B. 1699.
EFF supports that bill. But network problems spread far beyond that particular scenario, and the state needs to able to hold companies accountable for their actions—particularly when it involves something as vital as the state's communications infrastructure and at a time when the FCC is doing nothing.
Others share that concern. "This bill would continue to prevent the PUC from undertaking investigations or rulemakings that would result in regulations or standards for a large share of the technology used on the communications grid," the Finance comments said.
Regulation and oversight of the broadband market has proven to improve the market for consumers in other countries and states, encouraging smaller competitors to jump into the market, and resulting in lower prices for consumers. In Utah, people have 11 choices for gigabit fiber services through an open access fiber network built by local governments. North Dakota has already reached 60 percent fiber-to-the-home due to aggressive local investments.
"It's increasingly important that the PUC have regulatory authority over VoIP in order to protect customer interests," Lew said.
We agree. California: tell your senator to vote no on A.B. 1366, and allow state regulators to create policies that give us a better broadband future.