Forcing mobile carriers to share light poles isn’t a practical possibility

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Mwc la site 21oct2019

One question I often get is can local or state governments require mobile carriers to share cell sites, particularly small ones that can be attached to something like a street light pole?

No.

There are technical issues with carriers sharing big, macro site towers, but those are generally solvable if the tower is big enough, and cities can sometimes pressure or cajole carriers to work together. A major consideration is whether the location of a given tower meets the engineering requirements of a mobile carrier. Carriers have different strategies for designing coverage patterns, based on a number of factors, including their perception of where their customers are, what their customers want and, particularly, the frequency bands they’re using. Different bands have different capacities for carrying data, different effective distances and differing abilities to penetrate through obstacles like building walls, dense foliage or, in the case of new, millimeter wave frequencies, even moisture in the air.

Small cell facilities are another ball game, though. The basic idea behind small cells, whether it’s for 4G or 5G, is to put a low-power facility closer to users (i.e. at street light/utility pole height), so that spectrum (including finicky millimeter wave bands) can be reused over a large area, and so mobile carriers can target particular groups of customers and/or fill gaps. That leads to tighter design parameters, which mean less flexibility for shifting things around.

Then there’s the question of how to share a pole. Even if it’s physically possible, adding a second set of antennas and electronic equipment to a pole will only add to the visual clutter that local governments try to avoid. Theoretically, sharing antennas or electronics might be possible in some cases, but even then it’s almost always impractical.

Policy is also a huge hurdle. The Federal Communications Commission and the Communications Act make it difficult for states to get involved in mobile carriers’ engineering and coverage design decisions. Probably not as difficult as the current FCC would like to make it, but a key question is whether a state’s rules "prohibit or effectively prohibit” deployment of telecommunications services.

The (for now) republican majority on the FCC seems to think that any state or local attempt to meddle in the affairs of mobile carriers like AT&T or Verizon rises to the level of an effective prohibition. Federal judges are in the process of deciding whether the FCC’s power in that regard is absolute, but there’s no realistic prospect of them opening the door wide enough to allow states or cities the degree of technical design regulatory authority that would be needed to require mobile carriers to share facilities.

No help for California in FCC’s lifeline plea deal with T-Mobile

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Sprint booth mwc la 2019 22oct2019

T-Mobile will pay a $200 million fine to clear Sprint’s bad conduct off of the Federal Communication Commission’s books, but the deal doesn’t include repayment of state subsidies that the company took for low income “lifeline” customers who weren’t actually using the service. T-Mobile assumed responsibility for Sprint’s lifeline service – Assurance Mobile – when it took over Sprint earlier this year. The violations of the subsidy rules and improper collection of “tens of millions of dollars” from the FCC’s lifeline piggy bank happened before the merger but came to light while the FCC and the California Public Utilities Commission were reviewing it. A “consent decree” squares T-Mobile with the FCC but leaves repayment questions unanswered.

The money from the federal settlement will go directly into the “United States treasury” and no mention is made of reimbursing states, such as California, that supplement the FCC’s program with state funds. In a press release, FCC chair Ajit Pai thanked the Oregon Public Utility Commission, which uncovered Sprint’s malfeasance and said that “states play an important role in helping low-income consumers get access to affordable communications through Lifeline and making sure the program is run efficiently”.

Gratitude and flattery appear to be the extent of the FCC’s concern. Sprint admits no wrongdoing, and both it and the FCC agreed that the settlement “shall not be used as evidence or precedent in any action or proceeding, except an action to enforce this consent decree”. State regulators, as well as federal officials charged with managing lifeline subsidies, will have to proceed with their own collection efforts.

California’s hit from Sprint’s false billing is undetermined, but a back of the envelope estimate that I did last year puts it something on the order of $2 million a month, and Sprint admitted that what it calls an “error” had been its practice for at least three years. Before the merger closed, Sprint’s chief financial officer claimed that the company is “committed to reimbursing federal and state governments for any subsidy payments that were collected incorrectly”. Presumably, T-Mobile is obligated to make good on that promise, but how it intends to do so remains to be seen.

CPUC commissioners to decide if Digital Path’s sharp dealing deserves taxpayers’ money

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Three card monte

Not every project proposed for a broadband infrastructure grant from the California Advanced Services Fund that could have been waved through and approved administratively was. Nine grant requests from Charter Communications received a “ministerial” blessing, but a proposal from Digital Path was bucked to the five CPUC commissioners for a decision.

Digital Path wants $415,000 from CASF for fixed wireless facilities to cover 279 homes, mostly in Sutter County, with a few in Placer County. Cover, not necessarily serve. According to the draft resolution prepared by staff for consideration by commissioners, only 97 households are expected to sign up.

Service level is an issue. The best Digital Path says it can deliver is 50 Mbps download/10 Mbps upload speeds with a 500 GB monthly data cap for $103 a month. Its cheapest market rate offering is $78 a month, for 25 Mbps down/5 Mbps up with a 250 GB cap. Its concession to low income customers is to offer qualifying households 10 Mbps down/2 Mbps up with a 190 GB cap for $39, more than twice the CPUC’s $15 benchmark rate for low income homes.

The draft resolution calls out pricing as a barrier to availability, as well as Digital Path’s disingenuous attempt to wall off vast swaths of California from federal broadband subsidies

DigitalPath’s pricing plans do not provide reasonable accommodation for the rural, typically low-income communities it primarily serves. The Sutter Placer Project would contribute to the CASF program goal to serve 98 percent of households per consortia region; however, the goal is not consequential if affordability is a barrier to adoption.

Additionally, DigitalPath challenged the highest number of [Rural Digital Opportunity Fund] locations in the United States. While the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) disqualified a significant number of those, DigitalPath still had a high number of challenges sustained by the FCC, and those areas were subsequently removed from RDOF eligibility. Although the Sutter Placer Project has no RDOF overlap, DigitalPath submitted ten other CASF Infrastructure applications proposing projects that had RDOF overlapping census blocks, of which six projects no longer have RDOF overlap because of DigitalPath’s challenges. Removing RDOF-eligible blocks from a CASF project means the provider claims it already offers at least 25/3 Mbps service to the census block, which calls into question the need for CASF funding. It also means state CASF funds would be used in lieu of potential federal RDOF funds. For these reasons, Staff recommends Commission consideration by Resolution.

Translation: Digital Path is gaming the system.

And, it appears, misleading the CPUC or, perhaps, the FCC, about the level of service currently available in the census blocks where it’s seeking CASF subsidies. To apply for a CASF infrastructure grant, an Internet service provider has to make the case that broadband service in a given census block is either non-existent or slower than 6 Mbps download/1 Mbps upload speeds. When it first tried to block federal subsidies in its turf, Digital Path claimed that it was offering speeds of at least 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up in 40,000 census blocks, including 419 of the 492 census blocks where it applied for CASF money.

CPUC commissioners should take the hint from staff, and reject Digital Path’s grant application. Taxpayer dollars shouldn’t be used to subsidise expensive, substandard service for the fraction of homes that can afford it or reward playing Three Card Monte with census blocks and service reports.

The Connected Capital Area Broadband Consortium (CCABC) assisted DigitalPath and I assisted CCABC. I also kibitzed on other projects. I have opinions about what the CASF program should be about (in case you haven’t noticed). I’m not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.

Breaking: CPUC ups proposed RDOF kicker to as much as 30%, for all federally eligible areas in California

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Front line dispatch 625

Updated 10:01 a.m.

New rules for the California Public Utilities Commission’s proposed contribution – aka “kicker” – to the federal Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) were published this morning.

Click here to see the letter.

Changes include an offer of “up to 30%” of the Federal Communications Commission’s ten year “reserve price” for “all RDOF census block groups”, with a guarantee that 10% of the FCC reserve price will be available to Internet service providers that win subsidies for census block groups that are on the previously published list of particularly disadvantaged communities.

There are also more specifics on the strings the CPUC will attach to the kicker money, including last mile open access requirements, requirements for lifeline and low income rate plans and “gigabit capable infrastructure”.

To get the full 30% kicker, an ISP will have to be an “eligible publicly entity, including a joint powers authority or affiliated non-profit” and have outside, non-CASF, non RDOF financing “equal to at least twice the requested kicker amount”.

As before, first priority for kicker money will go to projects that were proposed last May for California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) subsidies, if the applicants win RDOF funding. Second priority is other RDOF winners, and the left overs go to CASF applicants that don’t receive RDOF subsidies.

As with all CPUC statements regarding the proposed RDOF kicker, this one comes with the caveat that the commission hasn’t formally approved the plan. “We are planning to release [a formal draft of kicker program rules] in early December for a Commission vote not sooner than January 14, 2021”, the letter says.

Round 14 of the RDOF auction is in progress and will end at 11:00 a.m. California time. The pace of the auction will pick up next week, with two rounds scheduled for Monday and for Tuesday. The length of each round will be cut from four hours to two and a half hours. In the past, the FCC has accelerated the pace as auctions approach the end. Which could mean RDOF bidding might be over sometime next week.

Might.

FCC hands high tech a victory over low transportation bureaucracy

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Uber hyundai copter ces 8jan2020

On Wednesday, the lame duck Federal Communications Commission reassigned 45 MHz of automotive spectrum in the crowded 5.8/5.9 GHz band for WiFi and other unlicensed uses, including transportation applications. It’s a long overdue decision – I’ve been following the debate since the Obama administration – and a welcome one for two reasons: unlicensed spectrum is the lifeblood of consumer connectivity, and it marks a victory for 21st century technology over 19th century bureaucracy and 20th century political payoffs.

As usual, the federal transportation department is howling over losing a turf battlepeople will die if we’re not in charge – but the reassignment received support from both democrat and republican commissioners and was approved unanimously.

Twenty years ago, automotive industry lobbyists and transportation bureaucrats, with some help from congress, convinced the FCC to set aside 75 MHz of spectrum in the 5.8/5.9 MHz band for a particular “vehicle-to-wayside wireless standard” in preparation for the coming digital age. That technology – Dedicated Short-Range Communications (DSRC) – met corporate and bureaucratic needs but, as is always the case with technological fiats, didn’t do squat for consumers or technologists.

While the DSRC band remained silent, the variety and utility of ubiquitous mobile services and products, including transportation applications, exploded. Likewise, the bandwidth demands of automotive technology – autonomous vehicles, assisted driving applications, electric cars and the list goes on – grew into the gigabit range and beyond.

Under the FCC’s plan, the auto industry gets to keep 30 MHz, but the rest will transition to public use. Indoor applications will be allowed immediately, outdoor uses will phase in over time. The automotive industry will still have its sandbox – 30 MHz is a lot of spectrum by current standards, and can support far more services and applications than 75 MHz could 20 years ago.

If those services and applications are the product of market tested high tech genius, and not the decree of low tech lobbyists and federal bureaucrats.

Waymo logs 800,000 miles in California autonomous ride sharing pilot, as CPUC preps to allow fare-paying service

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) transported passengers more than 900,000 miles in California during the past two years, as part of a pilot program approved by the California Public Utilities Commission in 2018. Most of those miles were logged by Waymo, Google’s AV subsidiary. All of those trips were free and all were with a human driver onboard – no AV company opted to test truly driverless service, with monitoring by a remote operator.

That’s about to change. In a proposed decision due for a vote later today, the CPUC would allow AV companies to pick up fare-paying passengers…

While testing has provided passengers with opportunities to provide feedback on their riding experience in a free program, the program is at an inflection point where fared service is an appropriate next step to support AVs in passenger service and to expand the public’s understanding of the service.

Accordingly, building on the frameworks for the Drivered Autonomous Vehicle Pilot Program and the Driverless Autonomous Vehicle Pilot Program, the Commission concludes it is appropriate to authorize fare collection for both drivered and driverless passenger service.

Shared rides would also be allowed.

In the past two years, only two companies have logged a significant amount of miles while carrying passengers. According to reports submitted to the CPUC, Waymo is the big kahuna with 810,000 miles reported. Pony.ai, a Chinese company with ties to Toyota, put in 97,000 miles. Cruise, General Motor’s entry in the AV sweepstakes, is one of the five other companies registered with the CPUC, but it did not report any passenger transportation miles. Uber isn’t on the list – it gave up on California’s bureaucracy and moved its self-driving car operations to Arizona.

The decision adopts several goals, including protecting passenger safety, improving options “for disadvantaged and low-income communities” and for accessibility, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. However, it doesn’t set out hard requirements regarding what companies must do to achieve those goals. Instead, it either defers to other agencies, particularly the department of motor vehicles, or requires companies to submit voluminous reports, including data on where every trip begins and ends.

CPUC fast tracks nine broadband infrastructure grants in southern California

by Steve Blum • , , , ,
Mobile home park

Broadband infrastructure subsidies from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) were approved on a fast track basis earlier this month for nine projects submitted by Charter Communications. The letter informing Charter of its good fortune is dated on 3 November 2020, but wasn’t released by the California Public Utilities Commission until yesterday.

Combined with the tentative approval of six projects announced on Friday, that means that $32 million has been earmarked for 15 CASF grant applications submitted this year, leaving 39 projects totalling $364 million to chase the $163 million that I roughly estimate is remaining in the fund.

Charter’s approved grants total $8.7 million for 1,833 homes in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties. All will be hybrid fiber-coax systems – no full fiber to the home builds are proposed. The company submitted 16 CASF grant applications in May, so seven are still pending. Assuming no further surprises, Charter’s seven remaining grant applications and the 32 others won’t be acted on until well into next year.

The approval of Charter’s nine projects is a welcome a milestone in the CASF program. It’s the first time that the “ministerial” approval process for CASF broadband infrastructure grant was used. It’s a fast track for projects that meet particular specs

The Commission delegates to Communications Division Staff the authority to approve applications, including the determination of funding, that meet the following criteria:

  • Applicant meets the program eligibility requirements.
  • The application is not challenged, or Staff has determined the project area is unserved.
  • The grant does not exceed $10,000,000.
  • The project is California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) exempt.
  • There must be no competing applications for the same project area.
  • Cost per household for projects building wireline connections are $9,300 per household or less.

Charter’s special rate for low income households doesn’t meet the CPUC’s standard of $15 per month. According to the approval letter, Charter offers low income customers 30 Mbps download/4 Mbps upload speeds for $18 a month. That’s true as far as it goes, but there’s a gotcha that isn’t mentioned: WiFi capability costs another $5 a month. Which means that Charter’s low income plan costs $23 a month if it’s going to be useful for the vast majority of users. Most people don’t have ethernet routers or WiFi bridges of their own.

$23 million in California subsidies for six broadband infrastructure projects ready for CPUC vote

by Steve Blum • , , ,
Fiber patch panel sab photo 625

Six broadband infrastructure projects asking for $23 million in grants from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) are queued up and ready to go at the California Public Utilities Commission. Assuming all six are blessed by commissioners, that’ll leave $172 million, by my estimate, in the CASF broadband infrastructure grant account. The 48 remaining grant requests total $374 million.

A breakdown of the remaining CASF infrastructure budget and pending projects is here. I’ll update those tables as things change.

A proposed California supplement – “kicker”, as it’s called – to the federal Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) subsidy program could, in theory, take as much as $146 million from CASF, but the actual outlay is likely to be a tiny fraction of that. The RDOF kicker program isn’t approved yet, and if it is the draft rules might radically change. But the working assumption is that the 48 pending projects seeking CASF broadband infrastructure grants will have first dibs on whatever money is available.

On the other hand, decisions on those grant applications might wait until 31 March 2021. The CPUC won’t make a final decision on whether and how to offer the RDOF kicker until January, perhaps around the same time that the Federal Communications Commission announces the winners of its reverse auction for its subsidies.

Five of the lucky CASF projects that move ahead now do not include any areas that are eligible for RDOF money.

A sixth project, located on tribal land in Humboldt County, includes RDOF territory. The draft resolution for Hunter Communications’ Hoopa Valley Broadband Initiative project cites “the historical lack of federal broadband money going to tribal areas” as the reason for making an exception to the notional wait until the dust clears rule.

The six projects and grant requests are:

CPUC’s RDOF kicker goes from incentive to afterthought with yet another delay

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Road closed 2

In an email sent late on Friday, the acting executive director of the California Public Utilities Commission, Rachel Peterson, said most broadband subsidy decisions will be delayed to as late as 31 March 2021, including a proposal to top up bids for federal broadband dollars with money from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF).

If it happens at all. She said the “kicker” intended to incentivise bidders for Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) will “possibly combine state and federal funding” to “secure broadband deployment for more California residents”.

Possibly. Not certainly.

But certainly not before the Federal Communication Commission’s RDOF auction closes, and $16 billion goes to states and territories where ISPs bid the most aggressively.

The supplemental CASF money was intended to give a shot of financial testosterone to Californian Internet service providers and motivate them to go hard after federal subsidies to serve Californians stuck in the deepest digital divides. Instead, the kicker program is stuck in a bottomless bureaucratic hole.

RDOF contenders must either risk the FCC’s swingeing default penalties if the money doesn’t materialise as hoped, or bid within the limits of their own resources. The prudent ones will play it safe, which means disadvantaged Californians – disadvantaged not only by personal circumstance but by the high cost of doing business in this state – are out of luck.

It didn’t have to be this way. The kicker was authorised by the California legislature in June and CPUC commissioners delegated the job of implementing the program to staff in August. Which should have left plenty of time to get it done before the RDOF reverse auction began on 29 October 2020, let alone before it closes, either later this month or in December.

That would have been enough time, except the initiative descended into the CPUC’s pseudo-judicial mire instead of being implemented administratively, as other state agencies would do. Peterson’s email came a day after the CPUC administrative law judge managing the excruciatingly bureaucratic and unnecessarily litigious “proceeding” delayed publishing a draft plan until December, which means a final plan won’t be approved until mid-January. Or “possibly” not at all.

There are some rays of sunshine, though. Most CASF infrastructure grant decisions will be pushed deep into the new year, but six projects are heading to a vote by commissioners in December. Draft resolutions which would approve a total of $23 million in grants were also published on Friday. More about those tomorrow, but here’s the list with links to the draft resolutions:

Digital Path, Sutter and Placer counties
Frontier Communications, Crescent City
Frontier Communications, Smith River
Hunter Communications, Hoopa Valley
Plumas Sierra Telecommunications, Scott Road
Race Communications, Williams

CPUC kicks RDOF kicker decision into January and out of the hunt

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Zonk

Hope is dead that bidders for federal broadband money in the ongoing Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction would have certainty or, perhaps, even a clue regarding the California Public Utilities Commission’s supplemental subsidy plan before the auction ends. That means that the incentive value of California’s money is zero for most, if not all, Internet service providers in the reverse auction that’ll determine which communities and states divvy up $16 billion earmarked by the Federal Communications Commission for rural broadband service upgrades.

Joanna Gubman, the CPUC administrative law judge managing the lengthy – and unnecessary – bureaucratic process leading up to a decision, sent out an email yesterday saying there would be month delay in publishing a draft decision laying out how California’s RDOF “kicker” will be offered, if it’s offered at all…

The Scoping Memo in this proceeding stated that the Phase I-A Proposed Decision would be issued by November 13, 2020, subject to modification by the Administrative Law Judge if required to promote the efficient and fair resolution of the Rulemaking. Accordingly, the Phase I-A Proposed Decision will now be issued by December 11, 2020. The schedules for future phases of this proceeding remain unchanged.

A preliminary plan, a list of eligible census block groups – areas in California where the digital divide is widest – and nominal “kicker” amounts are posted. But before Internet service providers can take that to the bank, a formal proposed decision has to be published, and at least 30 days has to elapse before CPUC commissioners vote on it.

Until and unless they approve it, nothing is certain. The $16 billion is being distributed via a reverse auction that began on 29 October 2020 and has gone through nine rounds so far. Round 10 is today. The idea was that if the CPUC offered bidders a bonus from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF), then they would add it to their own project budgets and bid more aggressively for the targeted census block groups.

But to do that despite the FCC’s stringent default penalties, ISPs will have to take the preliminary plan and the conditions that go with it, such as offering open access to subsidised infrastructure, on faith.

Some bidders might risk it. Most, though, will conclude that faith is a bad basis for capital investment.