California Public Utilities Commission Reform Proposed

By Lynn Whitcher, General Counsel

If you are working on small cells or DAS deployments within the public streets (a.k.a. rights-of-way), you have likely dealt with the state’s public utilities commission, which often controls attachment guidelines, fees, safety, and other aspects of siting. In California, that may soon change. On March 9, 2016, an Assembly Bill was proposed that would revamp the role the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) plays in regulating utilities.

Created in 1911, the CPUC is a state agency that regulates privately owned electric, natural gas, telecommunications, water, railroad, rail transit, and passenger transportation companies.[1] Citing the changes in technology brought about in the 21st Century, the fact that the CPUC is the product of a different era and ethical lapses that have plagued the Commission, Assembly Constitutional Amendment 11, known as the Public Utility Reform Act of 2016, will allow the reallocation of all, or a portion, of the functions of the CPUC to other state agencies, departments, and boards.[2]

“The CPUC is spread too thin, and has too many issues within its jurisdiction. It is time to think about how we can make it more focused, specialized, and accountable,” said Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles), who introduced the Bill along with Assemblyman Scott Wilk (R-Santa Clarita) and Assemblyman Marc Levine (D-Marin County) in the hopes that this would provide greater protection to the public.[3]

“Recent disasters, like the Aliso Canyon natural gas leak, highlight the fact that the CPUC is unable to adequately balance the regulation of its diverse entities. The same agency that regulates moving companies cannot be expected to also effectively regulate electrical power and natural gas safety standards. It is far past time for the modernization that the Public Utility Reform Act will provide.”[4]

Surprisingly, during an oversight hearing before the California State Assembly, CPUC President Michael Picker echoed these statements when he indicated that he has come to the personal conclusion that the CPUC shouldn’t be doing telecom anymore and that things that are largely ministerial, like cable registration, should perhaps be done by the Department of Consumer Affairs. These are competitive markets that cannot be effectively regulated by the CPUC given the limited authority of the Commission. A video of Mr. Picker’s comments is available here.

The Bill proposes an amendment to the state constitution to give voters an initiative to modify the CPUC’s role. In order to be placed on the November ballot, the Act would need 2/3rds approval in both the Assembly and Senate, followed by the approval of a simple majority of the voters.[5] If passed, the Act would go into effect on January 1, 2009.

Details on which state department or board may take over telecom siting is not yet known at this time.






March 16, 2016
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