As expected, AT&T appealed a 3.75 million fine levied by a California Public Utilities Commission administrative law judge for “wilful disregard” of its public safety obligations. The penalty followed months of wrangling with CPUC staff over what kind of information AT&T is required to provide about services, such as 911 emergency calls, that ride on voice over Internet protocol technology (VoIP).
AT&T’s appeal dives headfirst into the minutia of how 911 service is provided now, and how it will be provided once it’s completely switched over from legacy plain old telephone service (POTS) to modern digital technology. It also twists and turns through the legal technicalities of when and how it’s supposed to keep the CPUC informed, and whether breaking a particular rule is one time thing or a continuing violation. Maybe that tactic will work. If, say, AT&T can convince commissioners, or maybe a California court down the road, that there’s a loophole that allows them to refuse to give the CPUC information about rates and terms for a particular service, then that might enough to get them off the hook.
But that won’t answer the fundamental policy question of whether the CPUC can and should regulate modern telecommunications platforms that provide similar – if not the exact same – service as old school POTS. In its appeal, AT&T did not repeat its previous Alice in Wonderland argument that telephone calls made with one kind of digital technology are a telecommunications service, while identical calls made with another kind are not. It did, however, cite a California law that expired at the end of last year that generally blocked the CPUC from regulating VoIP or other Internet protocol enabled services. As the CPUC defines its role in regulating VoIP and other de facto digital telecommunications services, AT&T and other monopoly model telco and cable incumbents will be back in Sacramento, trying to resurrect that ban.