The internet was always intended to be democratic. It’s a dynamic platform that allows everyone and anyone to be seen or heard.
In 2012, California established that the state’s internet oversight would stay in progressive hands. We gave our elected representatives in Sacramento the power to intervene rather than hand that authority to state regulators at the California Public Utilities Commission.
Since then, the nature of the internet has changed. High-speed data service is rapidly becoming the basis for voice telephone service in California. From 2012 to 2017 the state witnessed a 75 percent increase in IP-voice services and a 43 percent decline of the state’s old, inefficient phone lines. It’s an important technology evolution needed to add capacity, supplement our disaster resiliency and offset greenhouse gas emissions.
For the vast majority of Californians, high-speed data service under the current policy provides unprecedented consumer choice. If your telephone provider doesn’t make you happy, you can go to a competitor.
Protecting new internet-based technologies has been a victory for all Californians. The current policy has been instrumental in creating jobs, continuing innovation and allowing the proliferation of ideas. Maintaining job growth is important in California, which was responsible for three-quarters of new American jobs in early 2019. Now AB 1366, which extends this policy, is up for a vote in the state senate.
This policy deserves to be extended. However the California Legislature has done their job overseeing internet service, there isn’t anyone who can credibly say they haven’t been an aggressive consumer watchdog. California has passed consumer privacy and net neutrality laws that lead the nation.
Conversely, CPUC proceedings can take a decade or more to deliver a ruling, which in the internet era is too slow. In the days when you had one choice — either “Ma Bell” or nothing — oversight by the CPUC Commission of the telephone utility made sense. But CPUC president Michael Picker has even said that overseeing internet technology isn’t something his agency can do “effectively.”
President Picker is retiring this year, and his replacement, Marybel Batjer, will take office in the midst of a major fight over PG&E’s role in last year’s devastating wildfires. Given this, it’s unlikely the CPUC has the resources right now to effectively regulate the state’s internet.
It’s worth noting that AB 1366 provides specific consumer protections — including restoration time limitations and refunds for outages and annual reporting of consumer complaints to the legislature and the attorney general.
Under California’s current policy, internet-enabled services have proliferated to a once unimaginable scale. The state’s technology economy, once largely based on development of silicon integrated circuits and defense technologies, has shifted to development of innovative internet services.
It’s not a coincidence that the vast majority of “unicorns” (startup companies valued at or above $1 billion) are based in California. Perhaps most important, these innovative services are often free for consumers, particularly benefiting minorities and recent immigrants.
Free IP-based messaging services such as WhatsApp have grown increasingly popular with U.S. immigrant communities, who use it to communicate with family and friends in their home countries and around the world. Latinos are among the most likely to own a smartphone, to live in a household where only a cellphone is available and to access the internet from a mobile device.
The next revolutionary mobile app or communications technology innovation — the next Zoom, Facetime or Slack — could be ready for market before we realize. Given the current dynamic at the CPUC, internet issues have been, and should remain, in the hands of the governor and the state legislature. Let’s continue to enable California’s innovation economy, pass AB 1366, and protect California consumers by staying the course.
David Witkowski, is a technology industry veteran, founder & CEO of Oku Solutions in San Jose and the author of “Bridging the Gap: 21st Century Wireless Telecommunications.”
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