Pacific Gas & Electric co. (PG & E) and Comcast Co. are both facing criticism for shutting down power and internet services during the COVID pandemic. PG&E supplies power to millions of Californians with a coverage of about 70,000 square-miles, Comcast on the other hand has over 22 million subscribers and coverage all over the united states. These two companies have many similarities and differences, but the main controversy that connects the two companies is power/service outages. PG&E has been around for over a hundred years and had a fair share of issues pertaining to outages or shutoffs, more recently they have been getting a lot more criticism and customer frustration with their shutoffs. Comcast has been around for more than fifty years and faces criticism on its service for outages.
This analysis will focus mainly on whether or not the decision made by PG&E to prevent wildfires is ethically correct. Along with it is it ethical for Comcast to blame PG&E and not provide their services to those working and studying from home. This analysis will also apply the cases to the ethical theories. An individualist would agree with both cases that the companies are maximizing profit because the services are still being paid for by consumers. From a utilitarian point of view, neither company maximized happiness for all involved with the company due to the fact people are struggling to work and study from home during the current pandemic. A Kantian would agree with PG&E but not with Comcast, PG&E is worried about community safety which is proof they aren’t treating their consumer as “mere means” compared to Comcast who is not respecting the decision made by PG&E which would be going against what Kant believed in. Lastly, in the lens of a virtue theorist PG&E applies all cardinal virtues to their case compared to Comcast who have not portrayed any cardinal virtues due to their unethical actions. In the end, this analysis will provide a new action plan the companies should explore along with ensuring ethicality is achieved.
Ethical case controversy
PG & E has been the center of attention for this controversy because the outages are questioned as unethical. However, PG&E power lines were the cause of the 2018 campfire that killed 85 people and burned over 153,000 acres of land. (Eavis, P. and Penn, I. 2019). With this burden on their shoulders, PG & E believed the fastest and safest way to prevent a wildfire from happening again is shutting off their power. The public safety advisory the company is taking may have stakeholders feel like it is unfair and unlawful, but as of right now it is the safest way to keep communities from burning down and is within the law. The question consumers are asking today is whether it is ethical for PG&E to require shutoffs to prevent wildfires?
Comcast on the other hand is acting very unethical by placing all the blame on PG&E and their outages. The company does have some effect because some of Comcast’s services do state “require commercial power to operate” and “may stop functioning within hours after the commercial power shut off” (Schmitt. W, Pressdemocrat.com 2020). However, just like PG&E, Comcast is held to high standards and stakeholders are expecting them to prepare and create an answer for when these planned outages come about, and that Comcast has an alternative for it. To add, with the current pandemic going on Comcast is heavily relied on to make sure their internet service and phone service can be used for those working and studying from home.
In 2019, PG&E was compared to San Diego’s Gas & Electric Co. (SDG&E) and how they have been “struggling to catch up with San Diego Gas & Electric Co., which has become California’s recognized leader in forecasting fire danger, tailoring narrow outages for the most endangered neighborhoods and communicating the emergencies with the public.” (Rainey. J, and Serna. J 2019). Now, in PG & E’s first defense they use two completely different systems. SDG & E use what is considered a “networked” system. These are used in smaller coverages of land that allows them to section off the number of customers and possible shutdowns when emergencies are happening. Compared to PG & E who uses a “radial” system which is used to cover “extremely long distances” and cannot allow them to shut off just certain sections of their power. (Rainey. J, Serna J 2019). PG & E’s second defense is SDG&E only has 3.6 million customers compared to PG & E’s 16 million. SDG&E only covers 4,100 square miles compared to PG&E’s 70,000 square mile coverage. (Rainey. J, Serna. J 2019). The size difference between the two companies is what allows SDG&E to imply innovations to their systems like underground power lines and sectional shutoffs. Finally, the most important reason why PG & E can continue their shutoffs is that it is all within the law. Currently, no law states what they are doing is unethical.
PG&E still needs to be aware of laws that can come about because Californians did not just lose out on power they lost out on internet and telecom services. It was stated that “874 cellphone towers were offline during an Oct. 27 power shutoff that affected millions of people.” (Beam A. 2020). With so many towers being down lawmakers came together to push a 72-hour power backup bill that forces telecom companies like Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, etc. to power up their lines after 72 hours maximum. (Beam A. 2020). California lawmakers truly believe that having wireless and landline phone services out creates safety hazards for the public. This is visible because Bill author Senate Mike McGuire stated, “This bill is not about checking your Facebook status...It’s about life and death” (Beam A. 2020). Remarks like this made by those like Senator McGuire shows the severity of telecom outages made by companies like Comcast. Luckily, the bill has not been passed as law just yet. PG & E must consider the bill. If the bill becomes a law, companies like Comcast who rely on PG&E’s power to connect their landlines will then also have to mandate a 72-hour power backup. Even though Comcast is a smaller end telecom provider they still have to deal with this bill directly. The company is acting unethically through negligence. Competitor companies like AT&T are “buying hundreds of portable generators to prepare for the upcoming fire season.” (Beam, A.2020). This proves that Comcast is not providing new safety measures and are not innovating their services to help their consumers.
Earlier this year with PG&E’s outages becoming a reoccurring event in California when bad weather is in the forecast. PG&E gave an announcement on what to prepare for with shutdowns that happen in early September. It explained over “172,000 customers across 22 Counties” (Cabanatuan, M., Morris, J., & Palomino, J. 2020) were going to be shut down to prevent any issues that may cause wildfires. The authors stated that the shutoffs could last up to five days, but most likely will not and customers should be up and running in two days. They continued by stating PG&E “must inspect all lines for damage before restoring power.” (Cabanatuan, M., Morris, J., & Palomino, J. 2020). The article then went on to emphasize the reasoning behind the shutoffs which is because PG&E does not want another tragic event like the Camp fire in 2018 to happen again. PG&E determines the shutdowns when “Humidity levels must generally be below 20% and high winds above 25 mph, with gusts above 45 mph” (Cabanatuan, M., Morris, J., & Palomino, J.). Secondly, they highlighted small innovations the company made like “small, self-sufficient power-generation or battery facilities in some communities” (Cabanatuan, M., Morris, J., & Palomino, J.), ways to prepare like charging electronics, unplugging unused or high-level power equipment, and making or restocking safety kits. Furthermore, they point out that consumers with solar panels may avoid outages if they have “home battery” solar panels, those who are connected to PG&E will still lose power. Finally, they stress that yes, this issue could be handled with underground power lines, but it would be 3 million per mile compared to their 800,000 overhead lines. To add they also stated that underground electrical lines are harder to fix and they do have some power lines underground.
Although PG&E is the center of attention, it should not be because many of the people's complaints do not just involve power being off. It is about power being restored and Comcast services still being unprovided. It was claimed that “Close to 100,000 homes and 6,000 businesses are without Comcast services” (Narayan, S.). Consumers are going to disagree with so many homes and businesses being affected because of the current pandemic going on because of COVID-19. A prime example is Ruby Ballance, an account from California who explained how she had power in her home but no internet or phone service and made it very difficult for her to work from home. (Narayan, S.). A second remark made on Twitter by a California resident Steve Lyons asked, “So this giant cable company does not have power backup systems in place?” (Narayan, S). To this Comcast has only made one response and that is that they cannot restore their power until PG&E does which to consumers seems very unethical. A few more remarks were made by Ian Swell and Kim Corcoran who are both residents of Sonoma County in California. Swell explained how the outages led to him having to take a sick day because he could not work consistently. (Schmitt, W.). Corcoran’s remarks were very similar stating that she and her son were having inconsistencies with their work from home and how these internet companies need to prepare for the shutdowns and provide backup services. (Schmitt, W.). Comcast still holds its ground and tries to fully blame PG&E instead of investing in “backup measures” like its competitor AT&T. They spent over 340 million and installed over 1,000 generators just to ensure that Sonoma County was covered during the shutoffs. In the end, the only true defense Comcast can say is that they are obeying the law. To sum up, PG & E is looked at as the main issue and problem to the controversy because they are shutting down thousands of consumer's power but in reality, they are protecting themselves and the entire community they cover from wildfires. On the other hand, Comcast needs to start investing in innovations to help people keep their Internet and phone services.
Both companies have their fair share of stakeholders. PG&E is worried about their company entirely because they filed for bankruptcy because they are still trying to pay off the damages, they created in the wildfire back in 2018. Some more stakeholders would be companies like Comcast who rely on PG&E’s power to relay their services. Lastly, all of their consumers are stakeholders as well; they are without power and have to prepare and get through the shutdowns and all the communities they cover are at risk because if they did not shut down the damages caused by PG&E may be too much for them to handle. Comcast stakeholders include their thousands of customers like Ruby Ballance, Steve Lyon, Ian Swell, and Kim Corcoran. Their employees will deal with frustrated consumers, investors may start losing out on money. Comcast is in partnership with many other big-name companies like Dreamwork animations and NBCUniversal. Tarnishing other big-name companies may lead to partnerships breaking up and loss of revenue. To wrap up, both PG&E and Comcast involve a huge number of stakeholders they need to be aware of.
Many Californians believe that both PG&E and Comcast were acting unethically. Nonetheless, under Milton Friedman’s individualism theory the companies were acting ethically. Friedman’s theory says that a business's main objective for a company is maximizing profits for both the business and the owners, within the laws. Individualism theorists believe that the only values they focus on are “The business, the owner’s choices, and business profits” (Salazar, 17).
Although, PG&E filed bankruptcy after the 2018 incident to pay for their damages. The company’s stocks were actually on the rise during the 2019-2020 shutoffs. With the assumption that stockholders are making money off the company and PG&E are fixing their problem, they are maximizing their profits. Lastly, Friedman pointed out that profits must be maximized within the law which the company is because State Sen. Mike McGuire’s bill that would require a 72-hour backup power mandate for telecom companies did get senate approval but did not get passed a law. (Schmitt, W. 2020). PG&E followed Friedman’s individualism theory by maximizing profits for themselves and their stockholders without disobeying the law.
Comcast along with PG&E will also be following Friedman's theory because after evaluation of their stocks during the shut-off they also were maximizing their profits. The company did have a drop in their stocks earlier this year, but the shutoffs were not in effect. Comcast stocks like PG&E were on the rise during the shut-off although many people were without services the company was still maximizing their profits. Comcast was maximizing profits enough to even credit their customer Ian Swell a month worth of services. (Schmitt, W. 2020). Nevertheless, Comcast followed Friedman’s theory by maximizing profits for the company, its shareholders, and consumers all within the law.
Both Comcast and PG&E do not pertain to the beliefs of a utilitarian, who believe the decision made by a company should maximize happiness for all affected by the business and the actions they take. The values a utilitarian believes in has to deal with “happiness of all conscious beings,...”(Salazar 19). To start, PG&E is not maximizing happiness for themselves or their consumers. They are making people dissatisfied with the shut-offs. People are upset and are not understanding the meaning behind them, PG&E is providing safety for the communities and trying their best to prevent wildfires from happening due to their power lines or equipment that provides their service to their consumers. PG&E is also not maximizing happiness for those companies that rely on their power to provide their service; a prime example being Comcast.
A utilitarian would not agree with decisions made by Comcast because they are the company causing major difficulties for those working and studying from home. It is proven that this company is dissatisfying their consumers because they are taking to Twitter like Steve Lyons who is so upset, he used the acronym “WTF” (Narayan, S). Using words of that nature to describe his feelings proves that people are upset with Comcast and their decision. Lastly, many people are upset that Comcast is not taking any measures to satisfy their customers, instead of relying on blaming PG&E for their problems instead of creating an answer of their own and it proves that they do not value happiness for all connected to Comcast and their services.
Kantianism was developed by Immanuel Kant who says to always respect, and honor decisions made by another person and to be rational for all people involved. (Salazar, H. 20). Kant emphasized to not treat others as “mere means” which is described as minimizing a person's value. In other words, belittling another person because of their actions. Despite that applying it to controversy only Comcast will be going against Kant and his beliefs on what is ethically correct. Kant would agree with the decision made by PG&E because their main priority is preventing wildfires from spreading into their communities that cause a ton more damages which is completely rational; others may feel like it's unfair but in fact, it is quite sensible. Also, PG&E is not shutting off the power to benefit themselves. The company is not intentionally trying to disrespect, or gain profits off of their customers while to power is out, they are trying to help for the long run.
On the other hand, Kant would not agree with the decisions made by Comcast because they are treating their customers as “mere means” which is not rational in any case. They are not just treating their consumers as “mere means” but PG&E the company as well because they are not respecting the decisions made by them and are making PG&E’s rational decision seem irrational. In review, Kant would agree with PG&E decisions within the controversy and would more than likely disagree with Comcast.
The Virtue theory was created by Aristotle who believed that good personal character traits are important to understand so that others can avoid bad personal character traits. Aristotle valued “Character Traits that Promote Wellness or Flourishing of Individuals within a Society.” (Salazar, H. 22). With this being stated the four main characteristics that make a person virtuous are courage, honesty, temperance, and justice. Being courageous is important because everyone needs to know when to make the right decision especially during difficult times. Honesty provides fairness, it shows that a person is trustworthy and loyal. Honesty is one of the easiest to forget how important it is, but without it, there would be no balance in a person's life. Temperance is another word for self-control, if a person cannot control themselves how can they be virtuous. Lastly, justice which in other words is considered a balance between being selfish and selfless, meaning that a person knows between having more or less of something. Aristotle would agree with PG&E because it takes a lot of courage to shut-down thousands of people’s power. The courageous decisions prove they have temperance and self-control over the case because they are taking the precautions needed to gain control over the problem at hand. The company also showed honesty by telling their consumer the exact reasoning behind why they commit to the shutoffs one being that they have caused fires passed, two being it they cannot just commit shutoff sectional shuts-off, and three being the main reasoning is that it would be too expensive to change their system to underground power lines. Lastly, they are showing a balance between being selfish and selfless because they are not doing it for their benefit, they are doing it for everyone's benefit.
Aristotle would not agree with Comcast because they are not pertaining to any of the virtue theories. Comcast has not made any new decisions to provide service, so they are not being courageous. They are being partially honest by stating PG&E is the reasoning behind their issue, but what about those who have power but no Comcast service? They have no control over the issue and still yet to come up with a justifiable reason why their services cannot be provided to their consumers. In conclusion, Aristotle would agree with PG&E because they made courageous and honest decisions, while he would not agree with Comcast and their selfishness.
In my opinion, PG & E is acting ethically under all circumstances except for satisfaction for their consumers. Nonetheless, I believe consumers are just unsatisfied for the moment being, the fact that many of their consumers are stuck home wither working or studying and heavily relying on power in their homes they are upset. PG & E is trying to prevent one of the most dangerous reoccurring events in California wildfires. They are trying to keep their company safe. PG & E being the cause of a previous fire is what makes them take this decision; they cannot afford to keep causing fires and paying for tons of damages. Consumers need to consider the long-run benefits the company is aiming for also PG &E is looking into investments/innovations that will help their consumers prepare for the shutoffs. Secondly, the domino effect PG & E causes by affecting companies like Comcast to relay their services is another line of reasoning for consumers to be upset which Comcast must attend to.
I believe Comcast did not act ethically. Comcast is taking very selfish actions by not considering the safety measures PG & E is taking. A balance between short-run satisfaction, long-run satisfaction, and customer safety needs to be achieved to be ethically correct and in some cases like this one; safety needs to priority over short-term satisfaction because it is morally right. Comcast has not provided any evidence that they have been investing in ways to help during the case of the shutoffs nor have they attempted any renovations to their services to help with the case. Finally, since this is an on-going event both companies need to improve themselves. PG & E should continue to take the safety precautions they are taking while they come up with a master plan and Comcast needs to set aside their selfish decisions and come up with an alternative to help PG & E which would eliminate the domino effect that is causing the integration of the two cases.
These two companies have the specific missions they should attack to ensure the case is resolved completely, along with focusing on their ethicality behind their decisions. PG&E has the most difficult task of trying to find a balance between maximum safety for customers and maximum satisfaction for customers and stakeholders. While Comcast has to deal with all of its ethical decisions made during this controversy. I believe the new core values both companies should invest in are partnership, creativity, and ensuring customer safety. They should look into connecting to handle the task together. For instance, PG&E’s powerlines have caused fires and damaged the community in the past which is the prime defense for the decision to shut-offs and Comcast consumers believe that they should have their powerline which would add to this situation and put more customers at risk. If the two companies partner up and create a new powerline system, it could solve the entire case. First, the companies would have to come together and completely pair their services together to create a stronger connection for their consumers. Next, they would have to tackle the problem of the above-ground powerlines that have created fires, find a way to create one that can withstand California wind innovations like sturdier equipment. Then, figure out a way to section off the shut-off so that maintenance and regular checks can happen safely and effectively. Lastly, promote the new partnership with marketing strategies alongside a new mission statement. This should be “The mission we are trying to achieve is to create a new partnership to last for years to come, performing at the maximum level, while ensuring safety for the whole community.” The companies are splitting the investment cost which should maximize profits, they are maximizing happiness because fewer shutoffs with better services, Kant would agree neither company is treating their consumers and mere means, and virtue theorists would believe it is selfless and courageous. In conclusion, this plan will provide both companies with profit, productivity, and great ethicality
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