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ISPs’ Response to CPUC Broadband Data Request Raises Concerns

The California Public Utilities Commission threatened action against several large phone and cable companies that the agency says didn’t fully comply with a March 15 request for granular deployment data needed for a state map required for California’s $6 billion broadband effort. The CPUC seeks responses by Friday to similar warning letters sent June 10. ISPs said privacy and confidentiality concerns stopped them from sharing all data sought by the state commission.

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The CPUC sent letters to AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Cox, Charter Communications, Altice’s Suddenlink, U.S. Cellular and Volcano Communications. “We are currently working with carriers to get complete data submissions,” a CPUC spokesperson said.

Broadband providers had to submit data by June 1. “You failed to submit all the information necessary” for the CPUC “to fulfill the legislature’s directives for mapping broadband deployment in California,” wrote Communications Division Director Rob Osborn in one follow-up letter, addressed to AT&T. “Failure to submit the requested information may lead to inaccurate representation of your areas of broadband deployment, making these areas eligible for funding from the Commission to deploy broadband facilities,” said Osborn: The commission “may need to take additional actions if you fail to submit the information, including but not limited to actions involving your certificate to operate, or your state video franchise.”

We take these requests from the commission very seriously, and we have already provided our broadband availability at the address level that would allow the CPUC to create its broadband accessibility map,” an AT&T spokesperson emailed Wednesday. “We have not shared the addresses of and broadband services purchased by our customers due to confidentiality and privacy concerns. We plan to formally respond to the commission this week and we intend to work closely with them.”

Verizon responded to much of the CPUC's broadband data request,” a spokesperson said. “However, the CPUC asked for certain subscriber specific data that it has never asked for previously to our knowledge and requires additional legal process under applicable federal privacy laws. We are working with the CPUC to resolve these issues and provide the requested information consistent with applicable legal requirements and respecting the privacy of our customers.”

California Cable and Telecommunications Association members, including Cox, Comcast, Altice and Charter Communications, "have been working to provide the CPUC with broadband deployment data to develop the state broadband map," said CCTA President Janus Norman. "CCTA is seeking collaborative engagement with the CPUC to further understand their concerns and to ensure that California can expeditiously develop its broadband map, identifying unserved areas." U.S. Cellular and Volcano didn’t comment.

A high level of detail is necessary to do a lot of things that the state of California is working on,” including distributing money from its $6 billion broadband law and the CPUC’s digital redlining proceeding, said Electronic Frontier Foundation Senior Legislative Counsel Ernesto Falcon. “The CPUC has a pretty clear mission on what it’s trying to achieve here … and will press the industry hard for this information.”

ISPs questioned the CPUC’s statutory authorization for collecting service location data including subscriber information from all broadband providers, said Osborn in the June 10 letter. The commission’s authorization is based on Public Utilities Code Section 281.6, he wrote. Section 281(b)(4) requires data to be collected “at the granularity of ‘serviceable locations,’” while Section 5895(a) requires the agency “to collect ‘granular data on the actual locations served by the holder of a state franchise,’” said Osborn: Section 281.6(b) requires submission by all broadband providers, “whether or not they are certificated and/or registered with the Commission.” The CPUC seeks “the same level of granularity” the FCC is requesting, he added.

ISPs claim that submitting certain data would infringe customer privacy and amount to handing over trade secrets, the letter said. “Subscriber information will be used to validate the broadband speeds submitted by providers elsewhere in their deployment data,” wrote Osborn. “The broadband map will not display the broadband speeds to which individual customers subscribe or any personally identifiable information submitted by providers.” The state broadband map will include aggregated data from all providers, he said. “Such aggregated data is not a trade secret, especially given that the individual service provider publishes the underlying raw data on their own website.”

Falcon believes the CPUC has authority to compel broadband providers to submit data, with California’s recent win defending its net neutrality law bolstering that argument, he said. “The carriers will have to decide how far they’re going to fight this fight.” The EFF official isn’t surprised ISPs objected to providing more granular data, or making privacy and trade-secret arguments, he said. “They’re interested in overstating where they serve,” but “it’s really in the carrier’s interest to make sure the government has accurate data, because they’re not going to have another means to challenge or stop a project if it’s wrong.” The CPUC could look to third-party data sources if the CPUC can’t get carriers’ data, he said.

Insufficient data makes it harder to determine what areas are eligible for state funding, “which could put roadblocks in the way of broadband expansion,” emailed Greenlining Institute Economic Equity Legal Counsel Vinhcent Le. “The CPUC has formal and informal ways of enforcing its regulations,” including fines, citations, audits and investigations.