CPUC reform inches forward as governor calls for faster action

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It’s time to rock and roll.

It’ll be harder for lawyers and lobbyists to have backroom conversations at the California Public Utilities Commission, more information about CPUC proceedings will be made public and the commission will have to open up its processes to greater public participation, not least by holding meetings around the state instead of primarily at its San Francisco headquarters. Those and other changes will be imposed on the CPUC by a pair of bills signed into law yesterday by governor Jerry Brown.

Senate bill 215, by senator Mark Leno (D – San Francisco), tightens up ex parte rules that govern how utilities, advocacy groups and any other involved party can communicate with commissioners and top CPUC staff about matters under consideration. SB 512, by senator Jerry Hill (D – San Bruno), requires the commission to proactively reach out to local governments and others who are directly involved when issues arise that affect them. It also gives cities and counties greater ability to intervene – and be compensated for it – in proceedings that arise from catastrophic events, like the PG&E gas line explosion that devastated a San Bruno neighborhood. And it removes a legal requirement that, in effect, forces the CPUC to hold most of its meetings in San Francisco.

SB 215 and SB 512 were the sole survivors of a package of CPUC reform bills negotiated between Brown and a handful of legislators in June. In the past, the governor has vetoed ad hoc attempts to micromanage CPUC affairs, but this year he agreed to both a list of specific changes, including moving transportation enforcement responsibilities to other state agencies, and a general review of California’s telecommunications regulatory regime. But bickering by deep-pocketed utility lobbyists and push back from the CPUC itself stalled the major elements of the deal until the clock ran out on this year’s legislative session. A trio of peripheral bills also squeaked through and were signed by Brown: AB 2168 which requires CPUC audits to be posted on the the web, SB 62 which establishes a quasi-independent safety advocate at the CPUC and SB 661 which tightens management of underground utility infrastructure, particularly gas lines.

Brown isn’t giving up. In the formal comments he attached to his signing of the bills, the governor called on the CPUC to implement some of the reforms on its own initiative, and to cooperate specifically with an administrative review of telecoms regulations and an effort to move more transportation oversight responsibilities to other state departments. He added his own sense of urgency, saying “these important reforms cannot wait another year”. The trick will be to make the wheels of state bureaucracy – CPUC and otherwise – to move fast enough to make a difference.

FCC delays vote on secret set top box rules

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Just give me a little more, um, time.

A plan to require cable companies (and other pay TV operators) to open up their systems to third party set top boxes hit a wall this morning, as the Federal Communications Commission pulled the item from its monthly meeting agenda, just minutes before it was supposed to begin.

As crafted by FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, the plan would have required cable (and satellite and telephone) companies to build apps that would run on boxes made and purchased and installed by pretty much anyone. The apps would provide access to the all the video programming and services offered by the company. An ill-defined committee – apparently made up of industry representatives and supervised by the FCC – would review and approve apps and iron out disputes over programming rights.

This industry panel provoked fierce criticism, not least because many believed that the FCC doesn’t have the authority to arbitrate copyright licensing disputes. That’s an area of the law that comes under the jurisdiction of other federal departments and courts. Objections came from the usual suspects in the industry – i.e. pretty much everyone – and congress critters on both sides of the aisle. And from one very important person: FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who openly bucked fellow democrat Wheeler, saying she “has problems” with the licensing scheme. With both republicans opposed to Wheeler’s plan, her vote was essential.

Wrangling over the plan continued, but half an hour before the meeting was supposed to begin, Wheeler, Rosenworcel and Mignon Clyburn – the third democrat on the commission – issued a statement saying that new set top box rules would be a wonderful thing, but “we are still working to resolve the remaining technical and legal issues and we are committed to unlocking the set-top box for consumers across this country.” Just not right now.

There’s more to the dispute than the rules themselves. The secrecy that surrounds the plan has also been sharply criticised. The FCC doesn’t publish draft decisions and final versions aren’t made public until sometimes weeks after a vote. But Wheeler is free to negotiate the details with whomever he chooses. So discussions with industry lobbyists – who have deep pockets full of political cash to contribute – continued behind closed doors while only a happy happy, joy joy summary of the plan has been released by Wheeler’s office. That’s business as usual in Washington, and particularly for Wheeler, who has turned the chairman’s role into that of lobbyist-in-chief.

We deserve better.

Brown’s taxi reform veto protects Uber’s competitive advantage

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Disruption.

Cities and other local agencies will retain their current authority to regulate the taxi business. Governor Jerry Brown vetoed assembly bill 650 today. The measure, by assemblyman Evan Low (D – Silicon Valley), would have moved taxi regulation to an undefined state agency. Brown thought that was going too far:

This bill removes significant regulation of taxicabs by cities and counties and declares the intent of the Legislature to transfer the regulation of taxicabs to the state.

This bill fundamentally alters the long-standing regulation of taxicabs by cities and counties and makes the determination that this responsibility should be shifted to the state. I do not believe that such a massive change is justified.

The problem with Brown’s analysis is that a massive change has already happened. Transportation network companies – Uber and Lyft, in other words – are regulated at the state level and have done massive damage to the traditional taxi business model. Which depends to a large extent on high prices and low service expectations that are made possible by the artificial limits on taxis that are 1. imposed by local governments and 2. vigorously supported by operators and unions. But once market-driven competition appeared, that cosy relationship turned into a death embrace, making it impossible for the taxi industry to respond. Low’s bill would have gone a long way toward levelling the playing field.

AB 650 might have had a better shot if a tentative agreement to change the way transportation companies of all kinds are regulated in California hadn’t collapsed in the final hours of the legislative session. It was part of much larger package of reforms aimed at overhauling the way the California Public Utilities Commission regulates utility companies. Two bills that survived the collapse – senate bills 215 and 512 – are still under consideration by Brown. He has until the end of the day on Friday to make up his mind.

California public housing broadband subsidies extended

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Governor Jerry Brown signed senate bill 745 yesterday, extending the life of the California Advanced Services Fund’s (CASF) public housing broadband program.

It’s a good news/bad news sort of bill. On the one hand, instead of expiring at the end of this year and being re-absorbed into other CASF accounts, the money that hasn’t been spent yet will remain available through 2020. Originally, $20 million was set aside to subsidise broadband facilities (but not the service itself) in public housing communities, and $5 million was allocated to pay for broadband marketing and digital literacy efforts aimed at convincing residents to get online. So far, only about $5.5 million has been approved to install broadband facilities and $1.6 million for the so-called adoption programs. There’s still a stack of pending grant proposals, and another application window closes shortly, but those take time to work through their way through the approval process. There will still be millions of dollars left to spend next year.

Then there’s the bad news. The cable industry’s lobbying front in Sacramento, the California Cable and Telecommunications Association, managed to slip a last minute change into the bill which will ban subsidies for broadband facilities in public housing communities that already get Internet service from cable or telephone companies. Even if the proposed service is free WiFi and a cable broadband subscription costs more than residents are allowed to spend under public housing eligibility rules.

The new rules don’t take effect until January, but with cable companies – Charter and Cox, particularly – aggressively challenging past decisions to subsidise broadband facilities at properties they serve, we’re unlikely to see many more grants like that awarded, if any at all.

This year was a tough one for broadband advocates at the state capitol. A much bigger effort to top up the whole CASF program failed in March, and senator Ben Hueso (D – San Diego) deserves much credit for stepping into the breach with SB 745. It isn’t perfect, but it salvages as much of the CASF public housing broadband program as was possible and leaves the door open to continue the fight next year.

Enviro fast track for LA network, slow lane for lifeline okayed by governor

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Two more telecoms-related bills have been signed by governor Jerry Brown, and several more – of greater consequence – are hanging in the balance with four days to go before his veto deadline.

Without comment, Brown approved assembly bill 2570 and senate bill 1008. AB 2570 deals with restrictions on low income lifeline telephone (and broadband) subsidies and was watered down in the final days of the legislative session. As originally written by assemblyman Bill Quirk (D – Hayward), anyone who signs up for a subsidised service plan would be stuck with that carrier for a minimum of two months. As ultimately approved by the legislature and, now, the governor, it only asked the California Public Utilities Commission to consider imposing a two month waiting period, which it is already thinking about doing anyway.

SB 1008 is a very tightly targeted bill that extends a previous waiver Los Angeles County received that allows it to slice through any environmental red tape that might delay a public safety communications network project. It’s interesting mainly for the possible precedent it might set: if building a tower in a particularly set of circumstances for public safety purposes warrants a fast pass through the California Environmental Quality Act minefield, then why shouldn’t commercial facilities in similar circumstances get the same treatment? That’s a question for the next legislature when it begins work next year, though.

We’re still awaiting the governor’s decision on three CPUC reform measures, SB 62, SB 215 and SB 512. Those would, respectively, create a safety advocate, clamp down on back room conversations between interest parties – including regulated utilities – and CPUC decision makers, and generally open up CPUC proceedings to greater public scrutiny. Arguably, AB 650 falls in the same bucket – it would preempt most local regulation of the taxi business.

SB 745 by senator Ben Hueso (D – San Diego) is also on the governor’s desk. It extends the deadline for applying for grants to install broadband facilities in public housing, and market the services to residents. It also bans those subsidies from being spent in public housing communities where incumbent cable and/or telephone companies are already selling service, even when it’s at a much higher price that’s out of reach of most residents.

Caltrans open trench notification bill signed by governor

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California governor Jerry Brown signed assembly bill 1549 on Friday, which means it will be law as of New Year’s Day. Authored by assemblyman Jim Wood (D – Healdsburg), the bill requires Caltrans to let everyone who is interested know when there might be an opportunity to install broadband conduit in a highway construction project…

During the project planning phase of a department-led highway construction project that was initiated on or after January 1, 2017, is parallel to the highway, and involves construction methods that are suitable for installing broadband conduit, the department shall notify companies and organizations working on broadband deployment of the project on its Internet Web site to encourage collaborative broadband installations.

It remains to be seen how Caltrans will interpret this new requirement, as well as language which specifically allows private companies and organisations “working on broadband deployment” to collaborate on state highway projects. But it doesn’t require Caltrans to reciprocate.

I was in a meeting with Caltrans officials and assemblyman Wood’s staff in May to discuss an earlier draft of the bill. The people from Caltrans took the position that they were already doing all the notification that was necessary, although the web link they offered turned out to be broken. With a diligent, district by district search, a lot of information can be found about upcoming projects. But to be of any practical use, you would have to take a weekly, if not daily, trawl through the Caltrans website to see if anything new had appeared, and spend a lot of time reading through project descriptions and specifications to figure out if there was, indeed, a genuine opportunity to install conduit as part of the work.

The purpose of AB 1549 is to make Caltrans a more willing and cooperative partner in infrastructure development of all kinds, something the department fought during its unanimous passage through the legislature.. The bill – now, law – requires Caltrans to meet with stakeholders to try to come to agreement on information availability, as well as a defined process for installing conduit in highway projects, both on its own initiative and in collaboration with broadband developers – incumbents, independents and communities alike.

I’ve advocated for and helped to draft AB 1549. I’m involved and proud of it. Take it for what it’s worth.

Advertising group sides with Verizon, slaps Comcast Internet claims

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When elephants mud wrestle.

Comcast’s advertising claims that it “delivers America’s fastest Internet” and “the fastest, most reliable in-home WiFi” aren’t supported and should be pulled. That’s the finding of the advertising industry’s self-regulation board, called the National Advertising Division (NAD). Responding to a complaint filed by Verizon, which naturally would prefer you think it has the fastest Internet service, NAD said Comcast used dubious data to back up its pitch

As support for its claims that XFINITY delivers America’s “fastest Internet,” Comcast relied on crowdsourced data from Ookla’s “Speedtest” application. Ookla’s “Speedtest” is an application which consumers download on their mobile devices and can run to measure their current upload and download speeds. Ookla’s “fastest Internet in America” award is based on a different methodology than previous NAD cases involving superior speed claims, but is also intended to show the “top-end performance of a given ISP.”

However, NAD noted in its decision, instead of relying on an aggregation of crowdsourced data on download and upload speeds, Ookla based its award on the top 10 percent of each ISP’s Speedtest download results.

NAD determined that Ookla’s methodology wasn’t a good fit for the purposes of substantiating Comcast’s overall superior speed performance claim that “XFINITY delivers the fastest Internet in America.” NAD recommended the claim be discontinued.

The WiFi claim was skating on even thinner ice – it was based on an in-house comparison of Comcast’s and Verizon’s home routers.

NAD also dinged Comcast for saying “Verizon is eliminating its traditional home phone service in certain markets” and that “Verizon is discontinuing its copper wire-based home phone service”. It called the statements “potentially confusing” and recommended Comcast change it to avoid giving the impression that Verizon was eliminating phone service completely.

Comcast’s response was to disagree and say it would appeal the finding.

Military homes proposed for California broadband grant

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High density, low service.

A broadband subsidy plan for Vandenberg Air Force Base could bring fiber to the home (or at least to the building) service to military housing there. Renegade Technologies, a Lompoc-based information technology company, submitted an application for a $460,000 grant and a $154,000 loan from the California Advanced Services Fund, proposing to “provide advanced Internet access services to all dwelling units in residential areas of Vandenberg Air Force Base including apartments & dormitories by installing a new fiber-to-the-building (FTTB) infrastructure”.

Raw U.S. census data from 2010 shows 1,035 housing units on the base, with a total population of 3,338 people. The housing area targeted by the application was flagged as underserved in a three-county study I did for the Broadband Consortium of the Pacific Coast, based on wireline service reports filed with the Federal Communications Commission. Before it sold its wireline systems in California to Frontier Communications, Verizon claimed to provide DSL service there. California Public Utilities Commission field testing indicates that mobile broadband is poor to non-existent.

But as the report also points out, assessing broadband availability in military housing is problematic. Often, service is provided by base contractors and isn’t reported to the FCC. Network tracking information maintained by incumbent carriers might or might not account for the unique characteristics of military communities. Independent providers generally aren’t present – for obvious reasons, a company can’t just drive onto a military base and start installing communications gear wherever it wants. And census data is often murky – definitions designed to fit typical civilian housing types don’t always match up with military practice.

The publicly released application summary is very light on details, so it’s not clear whether Renegade actually has a contract to serve those homes or, indeed, any other kind of relationship with the Air Force, or if it’s just cranking up a bid.

North coast, eastern Sierra and San Joaquin regions up for California broadband consortia grants

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That’s pretty much the speed of broadband too, in these regions.

Three more regional broadband consortia projects trickled onto the California Public Utilities Commission’s agenda for next month. A draft resolution that, if approved, would give a total of $493,000 from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) to broadband consortia on the northern coast, the eastern Sierra and the San Joaquin Valley regions.

The Redwood Coast Connect Broadband Consortium, based at Humboldt State University, and the San Joaquin Valley Regional Broadband Consortium, based at Fresno State, are up for their second round of financing – each received $450,000 grants in the first round, which started in 2011.

The San Joaquin consortium would get $180,000 for a three year program that’ll focus on digital literacy classes and broadband marketing efforts aimed at signing up 300 new Internet subscribers annually. The project will also work on improving connectivity and deployment of new technology in the health care and agricultural industries in the San Joaquin Valley. The region includes San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Merced, Madera, Fresno, Kings and Tulare counties, and the western half of Kern County.

Three counties – Del Norte, Humboldt and Trinity – comprise the Redwood Coast region, and the focus there is on infrastructure deployment. Assuming the $208,000 grant is approved, the consortium will have two years of funding to work on the Digital 299 middle mile project, currently under review for a $51 million CASF infrastructure grant, as well as projects along U.S. 101between Eureka and Crescent City and in the Klamath River area. The consortium also plans to bird dog AT&T’s planned – or at least promised – infrastructure upgrades.

The third group, the Inyo Mono Broadband Consortium, plans to produce maps, databases and other information that can be used by service providers to improve broadband access, and specifically to make greater use of the open access Digital 395 middle mile fiber route that runs the length of the region. They’re up for a $105,000, two year grant. In the last round of CASF consortia grants, Inyo and Mono counties were included in the Eastern Sierra consortium with eastern Kern County; this time around the group split into two consortia.

The consortia grant proposal for eastern Kern County is still in the hopper along with eight other pending applications. A total of 15 consortia grant proposals were submitted in January. Three others were approved last month. Assuming commissioners approve these latest three grants, that’ll mean it’s taken nine months to process six grants, with no firm time table for the remaining nine. By contrast, the CPUC was able to process 14 consortia proposals – asking for twice the money – in less than six months during the 2011 round.

Draft resolution for Redwood Coast, San Joaquin and Inyo Mono consortia grants, posted 21 September 2016

Update: the CPUC has posted a revised version of the draft resolution, you can see it here.

Telcos improve broadband service data reporting in California, cable not so much

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California has a big, new batch of broadband availability data to chew on. The California Public Utilities Commission has updated its broadband availability map with information current as of 31 December 2015. The data is submitted to the CPUC and the Federal Communications Commission by telcos, cable companies, mobile carriers, and some middle mile and fixed wireless operators.

I’m going to be spending a month or two diving into the new data. But after a couple of hours poking around in it, I’m happy to discover that the two biggest telephone companies in California – AT&T and Frontier Communications – have begun providing detailed information on the type of technology that’s deployed in any given census block that they serve – fiber to the premise, VDSL, ADSL or legacy DSL – along with specific upload and download speeds. That greater level of granularity will make for more accurate analysis of primary broadband infrastructure. It’s possible to make a reasonable judgement call as to what kind of technology is present on the basis of speed reports alone, but there’s enough grey area between, say, fast ADSL and slow VDSL to leave room for uncertainty. No longer, though.

Since the data was submitted before Frontier took over Verizon’s wireline business in California this past April, the information about those systems isn’t as good. We’ll have to wait until next year for that.

The cable industry didn’t improve its data reporting practices. Instead of providing census block by census block data about technology deployment and expected service levels, Charter, Comcast and Cox just report the “up to” speeds they advertise pretty much everywhere in the state. Time Warner is a little more granular, but not much. The reports are submitted by census block, but if they’re to be believed, then their service is uniformly excellent everywhere they offer it. That might be okay as a marketing message, but it doesn’t shine the same light on ground conditions or build consumer trust as the telcos’ data does.

The new version of the map also has updated mobile speed test information that’s collected first hand by the CPUC and subjected to rigorous analysis. At first glance, it doesn’t appear that there’s been a huge improvement in availability or performance – for the most part, mobile service fails to meet the CPUC’s minimum standard of 6 Mbps download and 1.5 Mbps upload speeds.

Take a look for yourself here.