Charter’s bid to buy Time Warner faces headwinds but no hurricane in California

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No landfall in Alta California so far.

There’s opposition to Charter Communication’s proposed takeover of Time Warner and Bright House cable systems in California, but it’s nothing like the fierce reaction to last year’s failed deal that would have allowed Comcast to buy Time Warner, effectively do the same with Bright House and swap markets with Charter to gain control of something 80% of California cable homes. Opposition to that plan approached holy war levels, and eventually led to it being scrapped by federal regulators.

Yesterday was the deadline for opposition groups to file objections to a proposed California Public Utilities Commission decision allowing the deal. Most of the comments focused on stronger conditions, although many urged the CPUC to kill it completely if their particular requests weren’t granted.

Opposition groups are not happy with many of the details in the draft decision. The CPUC’s office of ratepayer advocates offered a long list of consumer protections, lifeline discounts, service quality standards and broadband deployment requirements it believes necessary in order to make the deal palatable, but didn’t call for it to be scrubbed altogether. Other groups mostly advocated for their particular interests. Many wanted the CPUC to adopt the same, stringent conditions that the FCC and federal justice department have imposed.

Charter also filed comments and, again in contrast to Comcast, largely accepted the draft that’s currently on the table, albeit with tweaks it wants to make to the language.

The CPUC is scheduled to vote on the deal at its meeting a week from Thursday. The decision could be bumped to a later date, but one indication that it’s on track is that it was put on the consent agenda, which is usually reserved for non-controversial issues. Commissioners typically approve dozens of consent items with a single, unanimous vote at the beginning of each meeting. I wouldn’t bet on it staying there – one commissioner with questions is enough to require a specific discussion and vote – but the fact that it’s starting out on the consent agenda means no one has dug in their heels yet.

Comments filed yesterday:

California Emerging Technology Fund
Center for Accessible Technology
Charter Communications
DISH Network
Entertainment Studios Network
Greenlining Institute
Media Alliance
Office of Ratepayer Advocates
Stop the Cap

I’m assisting the City of Gonzales with its efforts at the CPUC and its negotiations with Charter. I am not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.

Draft decision allowing Charter to buy Time Warner is a good deal for California

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A plan to upgrade ancient, analog cable systems in the Salinas Valley and elsewhere in California to full digital capability could be on the California Public Utilities Commission’s agenda as soon as next week. A CPUC administrative law judge has recommended approval of Charter Communication’s proposed purchase of Time Warner and Bright House cable systems, with a long list of conditions that include digital upgrades for at least 70,000 analog homes and line extensions to 80,000 more that have no service at all.

It could be even more than that. The proposed decision would also require Charter to “convert all households in its [new, combined] California service territory to an all-digital platform with download speeds of not less than 60 Mbps”. It’s hard to know for sure how many homes might be involved, but one estimate I did earlier this year put the number north of 200,000 homes, perhaps considerably north.

Approval of the draft decision would result in tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions, of dollars of capital investment in California’s broadband infrastructure that, so far, hasn’t been made and, on the evidence, would never be made otherwise. The communities that would benefit are those that are the least likely to be targeted for privately financed digital upgrades and build outs, absent this incentive.

The draft decision also has one other essential clause, which would allow separate agreements between Charter and affected communities, such as the City of Gonzales in the Salinas Valley, to be enforced directly by the CPUC. By aligning everyone’s interests, it puts teeth into those agreements and gives the CPUC motivated allies on the ground.

The CPUC should approve the draft decision that’s in front of it, as is.

I’m assisting the City of Gonzales with its efforts at the CPUC and its negotiations with Charter. I am not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.

Ag tech data torrent driving investment in analytics

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Persistent feedback loop.

The collision of the Internet of Things (IoT) with the world of big data in the Monterey Bay region’s agricultural sector is revealing new problems. And local companies are getting the first shot at finding solutions. Opportunities created at the bleeding edge of ag tech deployment were highlighted at the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership’s economic summit in Monterey last week.

Mark Bartolomeo, an IoT vice president at Verizon, talked about how wireless connectivity enables real time data collection from the vineyards at Hahn Family Wines – water usage, soil moisture, chemical application, temperature, humidity, wind – but that’s only the beginning of the problem.

“We’re just collecting more and more data, and we’re not exactly sure what we can do with that”, he said. “So the big investments that we see being made today in the industry today are around data analytics”.

The goals, though, are clear. “What really we hope the data will give us is just the ability to fine tune and improve quality”, said Andy Mitchell, Hahn’s director of viticulture. “The wine industry is very competitive”.

Driscoll’s, a Watsonville-based berry producer, is focused on customer satisfaction. That means tracking strawberries from the farmworkers who pick and pack them, all the way to the people who eat them. Via unique bar codes on every package, the company is getting about half a million item-specific responses a year from consumers.

“We want to link the entire supply chain, and be able to trace all the way back to the farmworker”, said Soren Bjorn, executive vice president for Driscoll. “When we get rewarded for selling our berries in the marketplace, we reward our growers for producing those berries, and what we want to do is make sure we can share some of that with the one person who touched those berries, harvested the berries, so that the farmworker who does a better job of selecting the really good berry and nicely puts it into the clamshell just the way you want it, they share rewards as well”.

Does FCC broadband lifeline program make the grade for homework?

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3G gets an F for homework.

The Federal Communication Commission’s new broadband lifeline program is intended as a means of closing the digital divide between affluent and low income households in the U.S. There’s sufficient consensus around that goal that a bipartisan compromise was nearly worked out between commissioners. But in the end, the vote was 3 to 2 on strict party lines.

There are many points of disagreement between democrat and republican commissioners, but one that sticks out is whether the program standards – 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload for wireline (and fixed wireless) service and a vague “3G” reference for mobile service – will do any good. Jessica Rosenworcel, a democrat, thinks small improvements will matter

Today’s decision includes steps designed to help close the Homework Gap. By incorporating broadband into the Lifeline program, we open the doors of digital opportunity. This simple change can help bring more broadband to low-income households with school-aged children. But significantly, we do not stop here. Our decision also modernizes Lifeline by making sure that the devices used for Lifeline broadband services are able to access Wi-Fi signals and that these devices can be turned into Wi-Fi hotspots. For a student with a computer but no way to connect at home, a hotspot can be the difference between keeping up in class and falling behind. It can be the difference between being a digital consumer and becoming a digital creator. It can help put more students on the pathway to science, technology, engineering, and math—a road that suffers today from an unacceptable lack of diversity. So it may seem small—but giving more students the tools to do digital age homework—can yield big results.

On the other hand, republican Ajit Pai believes the program will create a permanent digital underclass

When it comes to actually delivering for America’s low-income families and students, the Commission majority takes a far different tack. 10 Mbps fixed broadband is deemed sufficient for a poor family’s home. 3G mobile broadband—service so slow the Commission didn’t even bother to measure it in the 2016 Broadband Progress Report—is all the impoverished need get. The Order goes out of its way to give Lifeline subscribers the opportunity to buy hotspot-enabled smartphones (for all the good that will do them over a 3G network). But it doesn’t do a thing to make sure that Lifeline subscribers have the option to purchase the 25 Mbps fixed and 4G LTE mobile broadband that many other Americans take for granted—and that the majority happily lectured us last year was a digital floor…For all the kerfuffle about fast lanes, the FCC has decreed that Lifeline subscribers will be stuck in the slow lane.

Rosenworcel is correct to the extent that properly provisioned 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up wireline service with WiFi capabilities will meet the homework needs of most students. But Pai is right that the standard for mobile service all but guarantees no homework will get done.

Subsidised dark fiber leverages private investment for Salinas Valley last mile upgrades

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Middle mile threads last mile gaps; last mile follows.

A project that will bring fast, fiber optic broadband to the Salinas Valley is nearing the halfway mark and could be done by this coming fall. Sunesys LLC (now owned by Crown Castle) won a $10.6 million grant from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) in 2014 to build a 91-mile open access middle mile fiber line from Santa Cruz to Soledad. It will bring cheap, wholesale bandwidth to towns along the way – Castroville, Chualar and Gonzales, for example – that lack Internet access that meets the California Public Utilities Commission’s minimum standard of 6 Mbps download and 1.5 Mbps upload speeds.

The necessary new last mile systems that would connect homes in this economically depressed region to this new middle mile network are also in sight. If the CPUC approves the purchase of Time Warner and Bright House cable systems by Charter Communications next month, then deals cut with the City of Gonzales and Monterey County will require Charter to upgrade its existing analog systems to full digital capabilities. The availability of this inexpensive dark fiber played a key role in the success of the negotiations between Charter and the City of Gonzales.

It’s no coincidence. Because Charter doesn’t offer broadband in Monterey County and most of AT&T’s service is below the CPUC’s minimum, Charter’s franchise areas are eligible for CASF infrastructure grants, for both middle and last mile projects. So that’s the route the Sunesys fiber is taking.

Charter isn’t likely to be applying for CASF grants to finish the work it’s promised to do. Cable companies shy away from any subsidy program that could bring them under tighter regulatory scrutiny by the CPUC. So Charter will be investing its own capital in order to complete the required digital upgrades. If you assume, for example, that’ll involve more than 20,000 Salinas Valley homes at a cost of $2,500 each – a wild guess, but not too wild – it would mean more than $50 million in new capital for last mile infrastructure along the route. That’s not a bad return on the CPUC’s middle mile investment.

I’m assisting the City of Gonzales with its efforts at the CPUC and its negotiations with Charter. I am not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.

Broadband lifeline program unjustly slow but has room to improve

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You’ll have to wait and see what next year’s model looks like.

There’s good news and bad news in the full text of the Federal Communications Commission’s lifeline subsidy program for broadband service, which was released yesterday. The bad news is that previous summaries were correct about the low performance standards for subsidised broadband:

  • 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds for fixed service (wireline or wireless), except where existing networks can’t support that level. Then the download standard slips to 4 Mbps.
  • Mobile broadband only has to deliver “3G” service levels, without defining what that might be.
  • Monthly caps are set at 150 GB for fixed service and 500 MB for mobile.

The good news is that speed and usage standards for fixed service will be reviewed every year using quantitative and reasonably objective benchmarks. Fixed service speed levels will be calculated using the subscriber data that ISPs are required to submit to the FCC, with the standard “based on the service to which a ‘substantial majority’ of consumers subscribe”. Substantial majority is described as 70% of consumers. There’s more than a few weasel words in the upgrade criteria, including an escape hatch if FCC staff miss deadlines, but there’s at least a defined process and schedule.

Fixed service data caps reviews will follow the process used in the Connect America Fund subsidy program for service providers. That’s benchmarked against a regular assessment of urban data consumption.

Mobile speed and data caps won’t be as rigorously reviewed. FCC staff will only have to “consider updating the mobile broadband speed standard” annually, with the suggestion that the same kind of data be used as with the fixed service review. Mobile data caps will ramp up to 2 GB by the end of 2018, with further increases more or less based on the usage level of 70% of mobile subscribers.

What started out as a 150-page broadband lifeline rulebook has grown to more than 200 pages. It allows ample room for mischief by industry lobbyists, but it also offers possible ways to counter that kind of deep pocketed political influence at the FCC as the years go on.

AT&T offers $10 service to low income homes lucky enough to have wireline service

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Oops. There goes the $10 a month service.

AT&T is rolling out its low cost Internet access program for low income households. It’s one of the conditions attached to the FCC’s approval of AT&T’s purchase of DirecTv last year.

It only applies to homes where Internet access service “is delivered to a fixed location over a physical wire or cable“. In other words, the wireless service AT&T wants to use to replace wireline service in rural and inner city California isn’t eligible. When AT&T pulls out the copper, the low cost broadband service disappears too.

If one person in a household is eligible for food stamps – now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – and no one owes AT&T any money for fixed Internet service (at least, no debts have been incurred in the last six months) then AT&T’s Access program offers service at $5 to $10 per month. AT&T’s online explanation is a little convoluted – not unusual for programs like these that aren’t exactly top of the incentive list for the sales department – but what it seems to be saying is this:

  • If 10 Mbps service or better is available at a qualifying home, then the cost is $10 per month. If not, then 5 Mbps service can be had for the same price.
  • If 5 Mbps isn’t possible, then a 3 Mbps package is available for $5 per month.
  • You don’t get to pick and choose which level you get, whatever the highest (and, consequently, most expensive) speed is available, that’s what you get.
  • If AT&T can’t deliver 3 Mbps to your house via wireline, sorry, you’ll have to pay market rates or do without.

That’s just one of the catches, though. The biggest potential gotcha is in the fine print regarding data caps. There’s a monthly limit of either 150 GB or 250 GB – it doesn’t say which applies where, but I’m guessing the caps correspond to legacy DSL or Uverse-based service, respectively – and a steep hit if you use more data. The cost is an extra $10 for every extra 50 MB or fraction thereof. So, if your limit is 150 MB and you use 151 MB, your low cost service doubled from $10 to $20 for that month.

Where it’s available, AT&T’s low income Access program would be a good deal for eligible households that keep an eye on data usage. It matches Comcast’s Internet Essentials price and is less than similar programs in the works for Frontier ($14 per month) and Charter ($15 per month). The question still to be answered is how enthusiastic AT&T will be about signing up customers at that low rate. If the sales and marketing effort behind it is as grudging and upsell focused as the terms and conditions, the actual benefits could be very limited.

Charter gets tentative federal approval and conditions for Time Warner takeover

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The Federal Communications Commission and the federal justice department gave their conditional blessing yesterday to Charter Communications’ proposed purchase of Time Warner and Bright House cable systems. Links to the documents that have been published so far are below. The justice department’s settlement was based on its belief that the merger would reduce competition in the video distribution market. The FCC’s conditions deal with both broadband and television service.

The known highlights are…

  • No consumer data caps or usage-based pricing allowed for seven years. The restriction applies to existing Charter systems as well as ones acquired from Time Warner and Bright House.
  • No interconnection fees for “companies that meet basic criteria”, again for seven years. Those criteria haven’t been disclosed yet, but the FCC did particularly say that “online video providers” are included.
  • During that time, Charter can’t use its new found market muscle to sign programming contracts that put online video providers at a disadvantage or retaliate against them.

According to the press release issued by FCC chair Tom Wheeler, other conditions will require Charter to extend broadband service to two million new locations, and “at least one million of those connections will be in competition with another high-speed broadband provider in the market served”. No details on what that means, but presumably the two million new locations include the 150,000 in California that Charter has promised to either upgrade from analog to digital or extend new lines, and maybe the additional locations called for in a draft decision by a California Public Utilities Commission administrative law judge.

There are a lot of ways to read the language about competition with another high speed provider, but my guess is it’s referring to places where there’s a certain level of service from the incumbent telephone company. Verizon FiOS systems, including ones in California just acquired by Frontier, come to mind, but it might also include AT&T systems in business districts and neighborhoods that are sufficiently affluent to be deemed high potential and receive advanced VDSL upgrades.

The justice department’s settlement with Charter is signed but there’s a legal process to go through before it’s final. The FCC’s draft approval order is circulating amongst commissioners, and their formal approval is necessary too. The deal also needs a sign off from the CPUC.

FCC chairman (and democrat) Tom Wheeler’s press release

Republican commissioner Michael O’Rielly’s press release

Federal justice department’s press release

Formal complaint filed by DOJ against Charter

Settlement agreed by DOJ and Charter, pending approval by judge

I’m assisting the City of Gonzales with its efforts at the CPUC and its negotiations with Charter. I am not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.

The week AT&T, cable lobbyists ran up the score in Sacramento

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It could have been a winning week (or two) for broadband infrastructure advocates in the California capitol, but instead last week turned into a victory march for AT&T and cable lobbyists as they fought to further entrench the cosy monopoly/duopoly conditions that underpin their business models. I’ve been blogging more or less on a play by play basis, but I think it’d be helpful to try to pull it briefly together.

It comes down to four key assembly bills, all of which landed in the assembly utilities and commerce committee over the past couple of weeks:

AB 1758 – an effort by Santa Cruz democrat Mark Stone to raise California’s broadband standard to 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds, and put $350 million into the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) for infrastructure upgrade subsidies and a variety of other programs.

AB 2130 – a counter to Stone’s bill written by AT&T and carried by assemblyman Bill Quirk (D – Hayward), it would have ended ancillary CASF programs for public housing and regional consortia, added a new, $100 million infrastructure program rigged to highly favor incumbents and all but close the door to independent projects.

AB 2395 – Another AT&T-written bill, this one was fronted by Silicon Valley democrat Evan Low. A classic piece of obfuscation, the rhetoric focused on the geeky details of transitioning voice service from legacy analog systems to digital technology, which is something that most agree is necessary, albeit with different opinions regarding timing and other details. But it also includes language allowing AT&T to replace copper lines in rural and inner city areas with wireless-only service at will, and all but remove it from regulatory oversight.

ACA 11 – an amendment proposed by Mike Gatto (D – Los Angeles) that writes the California Public Utilities Commission out of the state constitution and puts utility regulatory decisions into the hands of the legislature. If it gets two-thirds approval in the assembly and senate, it goes on the November ballot for a vote.

AB 1758 died in committee due to lack of support, particularly from Gatto, who serves as chairman. AB 2130 followed into oblivion – with AB 1758 gone, there was no further need for it. AB 2395 and ACA 11 were both approved by lopsided majorities, and are headed to a second committee review, ahead of a vote by the full assembly.

The California assembly, or at least the utilities and commerce committee, is pointing in a clear direction: a smaller role for state government in telecoms regulation and subsidies. That would be wonderful if the result were likely to be a freer market with more innovation and competition. But that’s not the way to bet.

Incumbents, with AT&T in the lead, are carefully unpicking Californian telecoms policy, scrapping inconvenient restraints on monopoly power while keeping barriers to competition in place. That’s bad news. But there’s good news too: it’s still early in the game.

I’ve advocated for and helped to draft AB 1758 and its predecessors. I’m involved and proud of it. Take it for what it’s worth.

LA legislator is key player for California telecoms policy

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Hardball, fast ball or screw ball?

Four consequential broadband bills approached a key committee in the California assembly over the past couple of weeks, with permissive regulations for incumbents making first base on a walk, and subsidies and rules that favor competitors striking out.

Mike Gatto, a democrat from Los Angeles and the chairman of the utilities and commerce committee, was on the pitching mound for all four bills. He’s the driving force behind a push to put a simple thumbs up or thumbs down vote on the future of the California Public Utilities Commission onto the November ballot, and the gatekeeper who waved through AT&T’s bid to end rural wireline service, while stopping a plan to re-energise broadband infrastructure subsidies by adding money and raising the state’s minimum standard to 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds (and, it should be said, adding money to several non-infrastructure programs as well).

The results for all four bills should put smiles on the faces of AT&T and cable lobbyists, who have been very kind to him over the years: AT&T is Gatto’s top corporate benefactor during his assembly career, giving him more than $20,100 according to FollowTheMoney.org (although, it should be said, unions and trade associations have given him even more). Time Warner Cable gave him $19,900, only $200 less.

On the other hand, he’s pushing a bill that would blast a hole in the subscription-based business models of independents and incumbents alike: AB 2867 would force cable companies, and telephone companies and other Internet service providers to allow customers to cancel service via a website, as easily as they sign up for it. The difference between that bill and the four he curated for incumbents is that it hasn’t come up in front of his committee yet (although it’s scheduled for Wednesday).

Gatto’s Sacramento career is coming to an end – term limits are pushing him out of the assembly and he’s not running for Senate. Is he trying to build a legislative legacy, or looking for a job?

I’ve advocated for and helped to draft AB 1758 – which struck out – and its predecessors. I’m involved and proud of it. Take it for what it’s worth.