California Public Utility Commissioners hearing testimony at its October 13 meeting in Long Beach. Photo: Jason Ruiz
The California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) revealed it could take several more months for residents of Long Beach to see potential penalties leveled against Southern California Edison (SCE) or Frontier Communications for their recent issues in providing service to the city.
Updates on the two cases were briefly discussed during the CPUC’s Thursday morning meeting, which it hosted at the Long Beach Harbor Commission chambers. In that very place, CPUC President Michael Picker carefully spoke of the ongoing investigations into SCE and Frontier. Because the CPUC acts as the investigator, prosecutor and judge in these cases, it couldn’t delve very deep into the ongoing investigations.
A decision against SCE in response to the power outages that ravaged the downtown area during the Summer of 2015 is not expected to be announced until April or May of 2017, with an action tentatively scheduled to be handed down in July of next year. However, because it is still an ongoing investigation and the timeline could be impacted by the evidence gathering process, Picker was reluctant to commit to the dates discussed during the presentation.
“I hesitate to predict that it will be then,” Picker said of the July action date.
Other commissioners tried to work around the sensitive nature of the ongoing investigation and the CPUC’s staff inability to answer questions on the outages that affected tens of thousands of Long Beach residents last July, when underground vault explosions left them in darkness for multiple days. When a judgement is handed down, SCE could reportedly face a $50,000 fine.
Although the investigation is still active, Commissioner Catherine J.K. Sandoval asked that the CPUC staff work to ensure that the lack of knowledge in terms of how the grid needed to be repaired, an issue that SCE said complicated restoration efforts, not happen again in the future.
“While the formal investigation is going on we do have ongoing responsibilities to ensure that the system is being maintained in a safe and reliable fashion,” Sandoval said. “If we have information about issues like training gaps, what are we doing to address that in the interim so that we’re not waiting for the proposed decision to address something that is so important to Long Beach?”
Chart from the CPUC report detailing complaints received from Frontier.
The commission’s discussion of Frontier’s acquisition of Verizon and the subsequent loss of service in Long Beach and several other cities in April showed that while complaints have tailed off, it’s still waiting for third quarter numbers to be released in November to commit to a stance that things are “business as usual” as reported by Frontier.
When Frontier service kicked April 1, service interruptions were reported almost immediately, with the CPUC fielding over 1,100 complaints in the first two months of the transition. In a hearing earlier this year, Frontier blamed data errors and software issues for the disruptions, ones that were further complicated by its use of an overseas call center that wasn’t trained on the existing Verizon network.
Although the disruptions were isolated to its Fios network, they included loss of phone service, access to 9-1-1 services, missed service appointments and “just poor customer service” according to the presentation. Frontier has stated it’s shored up those issues and the CPUC confirmed that complaints against the company had dropped to the low 60s in September from the hundreds of complaints it fielded earlier this year. Sandoval honed in on the less technical issues reported by customers and asked that steps be taken to ensure that customer service was improved going forward.
“We appreciate that Frontier did in some cases give customers plain old telephone service to get them back on dial tone while they brought out the computer geeks to fix the software problem, but I think this is something we need to address both in terms of the software issues, and also in terms of the customer service issues,” Sandoval said. “Telling customers you’re booking an appointment and not actually booking an appointment is just unacceptable.”
The outcomes of both cases are unclear at this point, as both are open investigations, and could have their preliminary completion dates pushed back. However,t Picker said the severity of the actions taken against the two companies will be determined by the culpability, if any, found against the two and the impact it had on the affected communities.
“We have to kind of weighΩthose and out of that come up with something that’s both equitable but also that is designed to induce better behavior on the part of the utility,” Picker said. “That ultimately is what I think people intended of us. We’re not a criminal agency, we’re a civil agency and our primary task is to ensure reliable service, universal service, cost effective service and safety.”