Greetings From Hotel California

By John Howell, Esq., Vice President

cell towersThe National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) Winter Committee Meetings presented an interesting blend of discussion concerning both long-standing issues such as broadband deployment and E9-1-1 location accuracy and more recent “hot topics” such as Net Neutrality, Hydraulic Fracturing and the future of the Electric Grid. Depending on the room you were in it either felt like you were at the Renaissance Washington Hotel…or “Hotel California.”

Those of us who have worked in the telecommunications industry and, more specifically, emergency communications understand that E9-1-1 is like living at Hotel California, a fictional place made famous by The Eagles. “You can check out any time you like but you can never leave.” Having spent the better part of a decade at a national wireless carrier and then at a firm dedicated to building a nationwide wireless broadband network for public safety communications, I had “checked out” of the industry and the debate for the past 5 years. Apparently, I never left because there I was at NARUC, in Hotel California, listening to a panel discussion about the need for better accuracy of wireless 9-1-1 calls outdoors and for new accuracy standards for wireless calls indoors to include elevation/altitude.

Such discussions are immensely worthwhile and the presentation at NARUC was no exception. Anything industry or regulators can do to foster greater location accuracy of 9-1-1 calls is potentially life-saving and, therefore, of the highest importance. However, the discussions at NARUC were the same exact discussions I participated in almost 10 years ago within industry groups as well as while I served as steering committee chair of the Federal Communications Commission’s Network Reliability and Interoperability Council (VII).

While I am encouraged that emergency communications held such a prominent position at the NARUC meetings, 10 years is more-than-enough time for discussion. It is time for action and NARUC should be applauded for passing a resolution in support of enhanced location accuracy.

Perhaps the most lively discussion, if not debate, centered around the recent net neutrality decision handed down by the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. The decision held that the FCC overstepped its authority when it prohibited broadband providers from blocking or discriminating against certain types of traffic. The NARUC panel, spiritedly represented by advocates for both sides, disagreed on what the decision meant and even disagreed on who won and lost. What the panel agreed on, though, is that the net neutrality debate is not close to being decided. All panelists agreed that the FCC would respond quickly, perhaps promulgating new rules. On Wednesday the FCC did just that as Chairman Wheeler announced the Commission will be proposing new net neutrality rules that conform to communications laws.

No discussion at the NARUC meetings was better-attended than those centered on the future of energy generation and distribution. Topics included “Beyond Net-Metering Wars: Real Solutions for Real Challenges” and “Developing Distributed Energy and Smart Grid Value through Collaborative Stakeholder Engagement and Policymaking.” During a panel discussion on “The Value of the Integrated Grid”, Mike Howard, President and CEO of the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) announced EPRI’s publication of the “The Integrated Grid – Realizing the Full Value of Central and Distributed Energy Resources.” Mr. Howard stated that the grid is expected to change to incorporate new stakeholders and that careful analysis is required to consider the associated costs as well as the impact new technologies will have on existing technologies.

Mr. Howard encouraged NARUC to base their regulation on informed policy and fact-based information while working to incorporate all sources of energy in the transformation to an integrated grid. In a separate presentation during the NARUC meetings, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) warned regulators to learn from issues Germany has experienced regarding price, reliability and quality in order to incorporate additional sources into their grid. The Senator called Germany an “energy mess” that if emulated in the U.S. would cause 25% of the nation’s nuclear power plants to shut down.

The NARUC winter meetings are, perhaps, best summarized by two distinct presentations to the General Assembly. Gregg Kantor from the American Gas Association provided an impassioned call for hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) and the benefits of natural gas. He likened fracking to the computer revolution when describing what he believes to be a “shale gas revolution” that the country is about to embark upon. From the benefits of shale gas to fuel natural gas vehicles with significantly lower carbon emissions to the potential for significantly reduced reliance on foreign fuel sources – at lower costs – Mr. Kantor made a compelling case for fracking and natural gas exploration.

At the same time, Senator Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) in a refreshingly apolitical presentation cautioned that regulators and industry alike should learn from the recent chemical contamination of the water supply in his state. The takeaway from Senator Manchin’s presentation was that progress is good and working to develop sources of energy is encouraged, but we cannot allow something as critical as drinking water to be contaminated; that there is a role for regulators and regulation in managing the use of chemicals (for such things as fracking) – but it might have to be accomplished at the state level. On a somber note, the Senator stated that while he hoped that progress could be made in Congress on all the issues being discussed at NARUC, that the reality is Congress is divided to the point that there are no guarantees progress will be made on the Federal level anytime soon.

It would appear that progress is stalled. I hope that in 10 years that none of us will find ourselves in a wing of Hotel California where energy issues, intelligence, advocacy and unrealized solutions reside.

***

John Howell is Vice President of Regulatory Services at Stateside Associates. With substantial policy and legal experience, Mr. Howell guides Stateside Associates’ regulatory counsel and provides clients with hands on Regulatory Issue Management support from strategic planning, regulatory advocacy, and working with groups of state and local officials.

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