California regulators have taken a key step toward regulating high-speed Internet access over phone lines, a service that has grown fast but left a rash of complaints in its wake from Internet service providers and frustrated consumers.
A California Public Utilities Commission judge ruled late last week that the agency has the authority to weigh in on a range of issues involving the Internet access technology known as digital subscriber line service, or DSL, including the quality of service provided, how it is marketed and a provider's DSL business practices.
"Finally, consumers have a place to go when they are having problems with their DSL service," said Michael Shames, executive director of the Utility Consumers' Action Network, a consumer group based in San Diego.
"The decision is a big deal in the sense that it has a precedential impact nationally ... so I think we'll see a trend of states taking a bigger role in DSL issues."
PUC officials were not available to discuss the implications of the DSL ruling because government offices were closed Monday for a state holiday.
The commission has been gearing up to address DSL matters for almost two years, ever since it was flooded with complaints from customers of SBC Pacific Bell's DSL service. In the spring of 2000, installation and order mix-ups were rampant, with customers exasperated over lost orders, no-show technicians and lengthy service delays. PUC officials complained at the time that they didn't have enforcement measures in place to act aggressively to protect consumers.
Since then, the PUC and sister agencies in other states have steadily increased their oversight of DSL, a service that allows users to access the Internet at high speeds over regular phone lines without disrupting phone calls. It has become an important service for residential and small-business users, and a critical and lucrative market for phone companies, which want to book the extra revenue and beat cable companies selling a rival Internet service.
In the last year, a spate of bankruptcies involving DSL providers has added to the state's concern because some customers have been left stranded with no service and without enough notice to find a replacement carrier.
PUC Commissioner Carl Wood is considering including consumer protections for DSL customers in his proposed telecommunications consumer bill of rights. Earlier this year, the PUC launched an investigation into DSL billing problems and other service quality issues at SBC PacBell, a unit of SBC Communications Inc. and the state's dominant DSL provider and local phone company.
SBC PacBell does not disclose how many DSL customer it has, but experts put the figure at more than 700,000 in California, or more than half of its 1.3 million nationwide subscriber base.
The installation troubles at SBC PacBell eventually subsided, and although complaints continue about billing and other matters, they are generally at a lower rate than in 2000.
The PUC judge's ruling last week came as part of a complaint case brought by the California ISP Assn. against SBC PacBell and its affiliates. The complaint, filed in July, outlined policies and contract terms that the group says gives an unfair advantage to SBC PacBell and the company's own Internet service provider over unaffiliated ISPs.
SBC PacBell sought to have the complaint dismissed, arguing that the state did not have jurisdiction over DSL matters in the complaint.
The PUC judge ultimately agreed that it could not regulate pricing or the terms and conditions of the company's DSL offering, but found that the state has clear jurisdiction over the related quality of service, marketing and business practice matters.
John Britton, a spokesman for SBC PacBell, said the company does not discriminate against unaffiliated ISPs.