Ex-FCC Official Behind California’s Scrutiny of AT&T/T-Mobile

TURN welcomes new CPUC Commissioner’s new perspective

SAN FRANCISCO—Catherine Sandoval has upended AT&T’s hopes of smooth sailing in California over its bid for T-Mobile.

Sandoval, a former official with the FCC and now a commissioner with the California Public Utilities Commission, has spearheaded an investigation into the deal’s impact on competition and consumers in the Golden State.

“She is the kind of person who can advance the public interest and succeed,” said Eric Goldman, a law professor at Santa Clara University, where Sandoval is also a law professor. “She’s not an easy mark for the lobbyist. She’s an independent thinker, smart enough to think through the rhetoric.”

The California investigation has provided a microcosm into the larger battle nationwide over the acquisition. At public hearings and workshops around the state, academics, industry officials and communications company executives have been slugging it out over the key issues such as spectrum, competition and access.

AT&T officials had hoped for quick approval among the states so that the debate would focus on the federal reviews. Both the FCC and the Department of Justice are reviewing the deal as are several other states, including California.

That didn’t happen. Some states have indicated they are launching their own review, and some, such as California’s commission, have already begun.

When the AT&T deal came to the commission, Sandoval called on her colleagues to play a bigger role in reviewing the deal and to exercise the power given to them by the state Legislature to regulate intrastate phone service. She ultimately won in a 3-to-2 vote.

Consumer advocates say that among the states, California’s investigation is the broadest and most sweeping. With its results expected to be delivered to the FCC in October, the California commission could tell federal regulators not to approve the deal or recommend conditions. “We’re getting quickly up to speed on what’s happening in the wireless world in this state,” said one person at the commission.

AT&T has tried to push back. In a letter to the California commission, the company sought to curtail the participation of academics at the events out of concerns that they lack technical knowledge of the industry. Sandoval, as a law professor at Santa Clara University, addressed those concerns when she spoke on Friday, saying she intended to bring academia to the commission when she first accepted the role.

“Part of my goal is to be able to bring the resources and perspective of academia into rulemaking,” she told Santa Clara magazine, adding that she wants to practice what she calls an “evidence-based” approach.

Sandoval was not available for an interview.

Sandoval attended Yale University at the age of 17; there she met Sonia Sotomayor, now an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, who mentored her. Sandoval became the first person in her family to receive a bachelor’s degree and was the first Latina to become a Rhodes Scholar before attending Stanford University for law school.

Her career has so far been a mixture of public service, academia and private industry. From 1994 to 1999, she was a senior official at the FCC directing the agency’s Office of Communications Business Opportunities. In California, she was an undersecretary in the state’s business, transportation and housing agency.

She was worked as the vice president and general counsel for Z-Spanish Media Corp., a communications company that provides broadcast and Internet services in several languages.

Prior to the review of the AT&T deal, Sandoval has weighed in on other national issues. In the FCC’s net neutrality order, Sandoval’s comments were cited numerous times, including an article she wrote for Fordham Law Review on “Disclosure, Deception, and Deep-Packet Inspection.”

Along with her Santa Clara University colleague, Allen Hammond, she authored a 2009 study on minority commercial radio ownership finding a relationship between minority station ownership and minority-oriented program content.

Tracy Rosenberg, executive director of Media Alliance, a media resource and advocacy organization, said Sandoval brings a “rigorous demand for data-driven analysis to support the assertions of the market players, both those supporting and those opposing the merger.”

Ana Montes, director of organizing at The Utility Reform Network, a consumer advocacy group, said that Sandoval”is coming in with a more informed voice, not only understanding the issues but also understanding the impact on consumers and business.”

The California commission has long been criticized for being too cozy with industry players and for having a hands-off approach to the wireless industry. Sandoval’s appointment in January at the age of 50 by California Gov. Jerry Brown — she still must be confirmed by the state Senate — represented a swing toward viewing telecommunications as a public infrastructure, say insiders.

At one public meeting unrelated to the AT&T deal, she had 50 questions for a utility executive. “I’ve never seen a commissioner do that,” said one observer.