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Industry: No Evidence

CPUC Asked to Help 'Deeply Frustrated' Voice Customers

Industry opposed extending California service-quality rules to VoIP and wireless -- and to sharpening the current penalty mechanism for plain old telephone service (POTS) -- in comments Thursday at the California Public Utilities Commission. Consumer groups urged the CPUC to expand and sharpen the teeth of its oversight regime. The responses to a staff outages report largely tracked with previous comment rounds in docket R.22-03-016 (see 2212220052 and 2205100048).

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"Customers are deeply frustrated" with communications service quality, including broadband, said the CPUC’s independent Public Advocates Office. One problem with the current system is a grace period that assesses fines only when a violation has lasted three or more months, said PAO. "Some providers are in a state of permanent 'chronic failure status,'" and others "are constantly coming in and out of compliance over a short period of time ... which enables them to avoid triggering the end of the three-month grace period, thus avoiding fines," it said. "In both cases, the violation is not fully corrected; it is either left to continue next year, or the violation is only resolved marginally in the short term to avoid penalties."

The staff report fails to justify revising or extending service-quality metrics, nor does it show changes would lead to better service, said Frontier Communications. The carrier advised keeping the current 2016 enforcement framework under General Order 133-D, which lets it avoid paying fines by promising to invest twice the amount. "Unlike investments made in lieu of penalties, monies paid to the General Fund have no nexus to improving service quality." Consolidated Communications said the “fact of the penalty is the significant driver of influencing behavior, and increasing penalties will have little marginal impact on such behavior." The staff report doesn’t sufficiently show an industrywide problem warranting changes, commented CalTel and other small telcos.

But state and federal data on outages shows “significant problems” over multiple technologies, said two other consumer groups, Center for Accessible Technology and The Utility Reform Network: Applying metrics to all would be technology neutral and follow a trend of customers migrating to VoIP and wireless. The existing penalty mechanism’s failure "is evident from the ongoing and longstanding failure of carriers to meet their obligations,” CforAT and TURN said. "Revise the enforcement structure to include fines sufficient to motivate providers to meet the service quality standards," including by applying penalties to wireless and VoIP and increasing "fines based on the severity of a provider’s failure to meet the standards and the length of serviced outages," they said.

The FCC preempted states from regulating nomadic VoIP, said the Voice on the Net Coalition. Even if the CPUC had authority, proposed metrics don't work for over-the-top VoIP because quality may depend on the customer's choice of broadband provider, network technology and VoIP equipment, the VON Coalition said. The cable industry thinks no change is needed, but if the CPUC must extend rules to VoIP, it should be for only the interconnected flavor, said the California Broadband and Video Association.

"Nothing in the Staff Report justifies extending service quality metrics to wireless services," said Verizon Wireless. AT&T sees no need to regulate any voice technology, including POTS, due to “intense competition,” it said. CTIA said one way the staff report doesn’t properly analyze data is by "failing to quantify outages with zero consumer impact and outages caused by factors outside the reporting provider’s control such that recurrence could not be prevented or reduced through regulation.”

The current penalty mechanism isn't leading to better service, said Small Business Utility Advocates. The group supports applying metrics to VoIP, wireless and broadband, plus "harsher penalties or greater regulatory oversight for failure to perform in unserved or underserved areas." The CPUC staff report showed increasing voice outages for both wireline and wireless since 2018, SBUA said. "When businesses experience VoIP, wireless, and/or broadband service disruptions, they can face irreparable harm in the form of lost productivity, revenue, and even reputational damage."