Tag: "public utilities commission"

Posted January 31, 2013 by lgonzalez

We want to thank Ann Treacy from the Blandin Foundation for getting out and reporting on many events dealing with telecommunications. We know we can rely on her to faithfully share her findings via the Bladin on Broadband blog.

Last week, Ann attended the Labor, Workplace and Regulated Industries Committee at the Minnesota House of Representatives. It is early in the session in the Land of 10,000 Lakes and legislators are being briefed on the basics. At the January 24th meeting, the Minnesota Public Utilites Commission (PUC) provided an overview and an update on the workings of the agency. Right around nine minutes into the presentation, the discussion shifted to telecommunication. While other areas, including energy, came up in the conversation, a large part of the meeting focused on telecom. You can listen to the entire discussion (a little over an hour) from the Committee Audio and Video Archives page.

Questions regarding telecom ranged from regulatory authority, to policy changes over time, to challenges we need to address. There was a basic message regarding broadband from the PUC - that broadband is a critical element for our schools, libraries, and government. PUC officials acknowledge that "there really is no regulation per se" in the broadband industry and that decisions are driven by private providers. The PUC representatives also expressed their concern on consumer protection due to de-regulation in the areas of telephone service.

Listening to legislative committee meetings on overview is a great way to learn how  mechanisms operate at the agency level. The meetings usually give a hint of legislators' concerns and what proposals you will see. You may hear something surprising or revealing; you will always be better informed.

Posted August 7, 2012 by christopher

We have watched in growing horror as AT&T and other telco lobbyists have gone from state to state gutting telecommunications oversight. In several states, you no longer have an absolute right to a telephone - the companies can refuse to serve you if they so choose.

We tip our hat to Phil Dampier at Stop the Cap, who alerted us to this story. AT&T convinced Mississippi legislators to remove consumer protections for telecommunications.

Northern District Mississippi Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley is unhappy with a new state law that will strip oversight over AT&T. Presley plans to personally file suit in Hinds County Circuit Court against the law, calling it unconstitutional.

“It violates the state constitution,” Presley said of the bill during an interview with the Daily Journal. “There’s no doubt AT&T is the biggest in the state, and this bill will allow them to raise rates without any oversight at all.”

House Bill 825 strips away rate regulation of Mississippi landline service and removes the oversight powers the PSC formerly had to request financial data and statistics dealing with service outages and consumer complaints. The law also permits AT&T to abandon rural Mississippi landline customers at will.

As we've seen elsewhere (as in California), AT&T worked with ALEC to push this through - though Rep Beckett (R-Bruce) doesn't think AT&T will raise its rates or abandon parts of the state. Time will tell - but Beckett won't be the one to suffer when the inevitable occurs. Thanks to AT&T and ALEC, he already got his.

Posted April 24, 2012 by christopher

In most states, telephone companies are required to serve everyone and when there are problems with the service, the state can mandate that the company fix them. But AT&T and ALEC are leading the charge to let these massive companies decide for themselves who should have access to a telephone, taking state regulators out of the loop.

These big companies use several arguments we are well familiar with - that mobile wireless is already available (in many rural areas, it actually is not available) and there is plenty of competition. If only that were the case.

I was thrilled to see David Cay Johnston cover this in a column on Reuters:

AT&T and Verizon, the dominant telephone companies, want to end their 99-year-old universal service obligation known as "provider of last resort." They say universal landline service is a costly and unfair anachronism that is no longer justified because of a competitive market for voice services.

The new rules AT&T and Verizon drafted would enhance profits by letting them serve only the customers they want. Their focus, and that of smaller phone companies that have the same universal service obligation, is on well-populated areas where people can afford profitable packages that combine telephone, Internet and cable television.

What happens when the states hand over authority to these companies? David has an answer:

AT&T and Verizon also want to end state authority to resolve customer complaints, saying the market will punish bad behavior. Tell that to Stefanie Brand.

Brand is New Jersey's ratepayer advocate whose experience trying to get another kind of service - FiOS - demonstrates what happens when market forces are left to punish behavior, she said. Residents of her apartment building wanted to get wired for the fiber optic service (FiOS) in 2008. Residents said, "We want to see your plans before you start drilling holes, and Verizon said, 'We will drill where we want or else, so we're walking,' and they did," Brand told me.

Verizon confirmed that because of the disagreement Brand's building is not wired. And there's nothing Brand can do about it. Verizon reminded me the state Board of Public Utilities no longer has authority to resolve complaints over FiOS.

Better broadband is not just about...

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Posted January 10, 2012 by christopher

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission is hosting an informational meeting on Thursday, January 12, at 1:00. For those who cannot make it in person, it will be webcast here.

The PDF announcement is here.

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission will convene an informational meeting in the format of panel discussion to examine the implications of the FCC Order with respect to (i) universal service funding, (ii) intercarrier compensation and (iii) the substantive and procedural tasks that the Commission can be expected to face in the coming months.

The meeting will commence with opening remarks by Commission Chair Ellen Anderson and
Commissioner Michael Rothman of the Minnesota Department Commerce. The panel
discussion will be moderated by Commissioner Betsy Wergin. The panelists are:

  • Jeff Lindsey; CenturyLink
  • Brent Christensen; Minnesota Telecom Alliance
  • Dan Lipschultz; Moss Barnett PA, competitive carrier perspective
  • Tom Cohen; Kelley, Drye Warren LLP for the American Cable Association
  • Dave Conn; T-Mobile
  • Dennis Ahlers; Minnesota Department of Commerce.

The Commission will welcome questions from attendees as time permits.

I would have specifically liked to hear how the rural telephone coops would be affected by the inter-carrier compensation changes as those charges have helped many rural communities gain access to broadband. Apparently, the MTA rep will represent their viewpoint.

Posted September 15, 2011 by christopher

When last we looked in on the Lake County FTTH project connecting rural areas north of Lake Superior, the County had just ditched its original management team and Mediacom started trying to derail the project.

The County went on to hire "Lake Communications," a two man firm created for this project, while Mediacom presumably returned to quietly scheming against the introduction of any competition on their turf. Lake Communications has received authority by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to provide broadband in their target territory.

Kevin O’Grady, a staffer for the Public Utilities Commission, called Thursday’s 5-0 vote “uneventful.” He said that aside from a protest from the Minnesota Cable Communications Association that was withdrawn just before the vote, the application was “nothing out of the ordinary.”

The cable association, which faces competition from the fiber project, had complained that the county, without a public vote, couldn’t be the legal authority to provide telecommunications services under Minnesota law. The commission, responding to the complaint, said the authority would be granted to Lake Communications, which it deemed had a proper relationship with the county in providing the service.

The county plans to build the network and lease the lines to Lake Communications for revenue. In its original response to the cable association’s complaint, the state commission said Lake Communications’ application “complies with the requirements typically applied by the commission to applications” across the state. It also stated that Lake Communications’ financial statements were “sufficient and consistent with the financial information filed by other applicants for authority.”

Remember that Minnesota law requires a supermajority vote of 65% before cities and counties provide telephone service. In this case, Lake Communications will be offering the services on infrastructure owned by the County. If there is any sliver of a doubt about the legality of this arrangement, we can expect Mediacom or the Minnesota Cable Communications Association to file suit.

But...

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Posted October 11, 2010 by christopher

David Rosen and Bruce Kushnick discuss the ways in which telephone companies have bilked Americans for over $300 billion - increasing their profits while failing to deliver the services they promised.

The scam was simple. Starting in 1991, Verizon, Qwest and what became AT&T offered each state -- in true "Godfather" style -- a deal they couldn't refuse: Deregulate us and we'll give you Al Gore's future. They argued that if state Public Utility Commission (PUCs) awarded them higher rates and stopped examining their books, they would upgrade the then-current telecommunications infrastructure, the analog Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) of aging copper wiring, into high-speed and two-way digital optical fiber networks.

State regulators, like state politicians, are seduced by the sound of empty promises -- especially when sizable campaign contributions and other perks come their way. Hey, what are a few extra bucks charged to the customer every month for pie-in-the-sky promises? And who cares about massive tax breaks, accelerated depreciation allowances and enormous tax write-offs? The promises sound good on election day and nobody, least of all the voter, reads the fine print.

Few have the expertise necessary to decipher the many scams these companies have pulled as ineffective public utilities commissions do little to safeguard the public interest. This is the larger problem with embracing regulation as a solution for ensuring essential infrastructure benefits the many rather than the few. PUCs are inevitably "captured" by the industries they are supposed to regulate (think BP Gulf Oil Spill). Public ownership is a structural solution that offers fewer opportunities for massive companies to game the system to their exclusive advantage.

The article offers some in depth examples of how this regulation system has failed.

New Jersey state law requires that by 2010, 100 percent of the state is to be rewired with 45-mbps, bi-directional service. To meet this goal, Verizon collected approximately $13 billion in approved rate increases, tax break and other incentives related to upgrading the Public Switched Telephone Networks. To cover its tracks, Verizon submitted false statements year after year, claiming that it was close to fulfilling its obligations. For example, in its 2000 Annual Report, it claimed that 52 percent of the state could receive "45-mbps in both...

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