Jumped or pushed, Wheeler falls down the memory hole

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It seems the finger was loaded.

Friday was a holiday for federal employees in the Washington, DC area, but even so, someone was busy updating the Federal Communications Commission’s website. Tom Wheeler, the former chairman of the FCC, is now an unperson, “vaporised” and “effectively erased from existence”, as the Ministry of Truth would describe it. If the Ministry of Truth was actually in the business of describing anything.

As of today, the commission’s leadership page lists only three commissioners – Mignon Clyburn, Michael O’Rielly and caudillo-in-waiting Ajit Pai – and makes no mention of a chair, past, present or future. An org chart dated yesterday but actually posted on Friday shows the same, rump line-up.

Presumably, Wheeler formally submitted his resignation as a commissioner when The Donald was sworn in. At least that’s what he promised to do. If the website was updated by FCC employees, it’s a very safe bet he’s actually done it – career civil servants are not in the habit of deleting political appointees without a clear paper trail.

On the other hand, if the Trump transition’s landing team put on their ninja suits and scurried about changing the locks and hanging new presidential portraits at FCC headquarters, they might also have hacked the website as a preemptive strike to ensure Wheeler’s departure. But, yeah, I doubt that happened.

So the working assumption is that there are two empty slots on the commission, and the chair’s job is vacant as well.

By law, there can be no more than three republicans (or democrats) on the commission at any one time, so the way is clear to pair up a nominee from each party and submit their names to the senate for confirmation. Obama renominated Jessica Rosenworcel, after Wheeler’s refusal to step down sooner blew her chances for confirmation last year, but Trump can name another democrat if he chooses.

Trump broadband policy boots up slowly

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The first day of Donald Trump’s presidency wasn’t the blockbuster Day One he promised during the campaign. D-Day is Monday in his reckoning. That’s when he says he’ll start pounding the beach with the heavy guns of executive orders, although the door is open for weekend maneuvers and he took a few ranging shots immediately after taking the oath of office.

Following a custom established by Ronald Reagan, Trump sat down in the President’s Room in the U.S. capitol and took his first actions as president. He signed a stack of mostly cabinet level nominations, along with one proclamation that declares a “national day of patriotism”. Ajit Pai, or whomever Trump plans to anoint as chair of the Federal Communications Commission – permanent or interim – didn’t make the cut. Presumably, that decision will wait until Monday.

Other actions included an executive order regarding ObamaCare and memos that were sent to executive departments ordering regulatory and hiring freezes. Few details were available, but under normal circumstances such orders would not be sent to the FCC, since it’s nominally an independent agency. For now though, I make no assumptions.

If nothing else, Trump offered a clue about where telecommunications ranks on his infrastructure priority list, or rather, where it doesn’t. In his inaugural speech, which he apparently wrote himself, Trump said “we will build new roads and highways and bridges and airports and tunnels and railways all across our wonderful nation”.

No mention of fiber or conduit or Pony Express stations.

A complete makeover of the white house website appeared within seconds of Trump’s swearing in. The new site briefly appeared as a redirect, and then quickly settled down into its proper whitehouse.gov location. Initial content was sparse, and looked familiar to anyone who has browsed the transition team’s website. The official presidential Twitter account – @POTUS – was also handed over.

The new administration posted policy briefings on half a dozen issues, none of which mention an infrastructure spending plan, let alone broadband. But the online world is clearly on the Trump administration’s military radar, with one position paper calling out cyberwarfare as “an emerging battlefield” and making the development of “defensive and offensive cyber capabilities” a priority.

CPUC takes on “last remaining natural monopoly” of pole, conduit ownership

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Energy.

The California Public Utilities Commission will focus on a particular kind of utility in the coming year. President Michael Picker delivered what amounts to a state-of-the-CPUC address at yesterday’s meeting, the first of the year and the first with the two newest commissioners – Martha Guzman Aceves and Clifford Rechtschaffen – on board and voting.

Picker spoke at length about new energy and environmental initiatives and, particularly, about “an emerging role in building the infrastructure to drive greenhouse gas emissions down in the California economy”. That’s clearly his passion, and introductory comments by Rechtschaffen and Guzman Aceves indicate they share it.

Still, Picker is promising something very important for broadband development in the year ahead: taking an inventory of the state’s stock of utility poles and conduit, and looking at expanding the CPUC’s role in regulating this “natural monopoly”…

For both electricity and communications, we may find that the wooden pole or the underground conduit is the last remaining natural monopoly in many parts of the state. And that’s what we do. We regulate monopolies, we insure fair rates, safe infrastructure and universal access to service.

This year we will consider a statewide census of the poles and underground conduits, and what kind of database we need in order to consider how to provide oversight to this natural monopoly…That’s a big challenge. It may be the key to true, universal access to broadband.

Picker also discussed organisational changes and, particularly, safety initiatives, including a new top level staffer in charge of safety and the establishment of a safety advocate’s office – a requirement imposed by last year’s legislation. He said the commission will add 300 new employees in the coming year, with the new safety responsibilities and the legislature’s mandate to establish a greater presence elsewhere in California, outside of its San Francisco headquarters, accounting for most of the increase.

Yuge telecoms companies expect to get yuger

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Big money is leaning in the direction of a permissive, rather than populist, Trump presidency, at least when it comes to big telecoms mergers. AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson met with Trump last week. Although both AT&T and Trump’s team insist that the pending acquisition of Time Warner wasn’t discussed, Stephenson continues to project optimism that federal regulators – the justice department’s anti-trust unit and, possibly, the Federal Communications Commission – will allow it to go forward. That’s despite Trump’s initial – and probably knee jerk – public opposition to it.

Now comes word that Verizon wants to buy Comcast or Charter. That’s a much different beast. According to a story in the New York Post, Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam is on the prowl for a big cable company

The CEO told friends at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month that he wants to buy into cable, one source said.

“They need it for 5G,” said a second source, confirming McAdam’s interest.

The most likely targets would be “Charter or Comcast,” the source noted.

“Altice is too small,” the source speculated.

To be sure, Verizon is not in talks with any cable company and may not ever make such a move.

A vertical integration play, like AT&T and Time Warner, is one thing. The Obama administration allowed Comcast to vertically integrate with its acquisition of NBC-Universal. But up until now, there’s been a limit on large scale horizontal combinations – Comcast wasn’t allowed to buy Time Warner Cable (although Charter, a smaller company, was) and neither Sprint nor AT&T gained permission to hook up with T-Mobile.

In addition to the Verizon rumor, there’s renewed speculation about another try at a T-Mobile and Sprint combo, or maybe even a three-way Comcast-Charter-Cox takeover of T-Mobile. The mere fact that the possibility is taken seriously says that Wall Street analysts and big company CEOs – arguably the people who know Trump best – see him as the deal maker he’s always been rather than the anti-establishment candidate he became.

Update: Trump is backing off from his stated opposition to the AT&T-Time Warner transaction. According to the Axios blog, Trump said in an interview

“I have been on the record in the past of saying it’s too big and we have to keep competition. So, but other than that, I haven’t, you know, I haven’t seen any of the facts, yet. I’m sure that will be presented to me and to the people within government.”

Brown, Newsom clash over merits of obstruction

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Zorro drew his sword. Paladin went for his gun. TJ Hooker whipped out his stick. When in peril, Californian heroes find salvation in a sure and deadly weapon. In our finest tradition, lieutenant governor Gavin Newsom faced the looming threat of Donald Trump’s wall, shouted not in my backyard and brandished the ultimate equaliser: the California Environmental Quality Act. According to the Los Angeles Times

“There’s something called CEQA in California — NEPA at the federal level,” Newsom said. “There’s indigenous lands and autonomies relating to governance on those lands. There are all kinds of obstructions as it relates to just getting zoning approval and getting building permits. All those things could be made very, very challenging for the administration.”

I’m not saying the wall is a good idea. Nor am I suggesting opposition to it is a bad thing. If you’re against it, you should oppose it by any legitimate means possible.

The point I’m making has nothing to do with the wall and everything to do with the seductive power of laws and processes that were intended to promote thoughtful stewardship of land and resources, but have instead become tools that allow anyone with a grievance – real or imagined – to block infrastructure development.

Around the same time that Newsom was making his stand, governor Jerry Brown called out for regulatory reform, to solve California’s housing shortage…

What we can do is cut the red tape, cut the delays, cut whatever expenses we can afford to do without to make housing more affordable and therefore increase the stock and therefore hopefully bring down the costs.

You want affordable housing, efficient transportation and fast broadband? Then someone has to grab a shovel and dig. But if the cost of a project is doubled or tripled, or if it is hopelessly tangled in endless challenges, then ground will never be broken.

Newsom’s defiance is no threat to Trump’s wall. Federal preemption is a simple fix that can be baked into any authorising bill. But Newsom’s example legitimises self centered nimbys and rent seekers, and impedes reform of well meaning laws that they have warped into weapons of woe.

Local agencies get more time to ponder FCC’s wireless weed whacker

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There’s more time to chime in on whether the Federal Communications Commission should consider further preemption of local authority over cell sites and other wireless facilities. Last month, the FCC moved forward on a request to do so made by Mobilitie, a wireless infrastructure company that has pushed the boundaries of ethics, if not legality, and the English language in its aggressive pursuit of permission to, among other things, plant towers in public right of ways.

A group that includes the National League of Cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors asked for a couple of extra months to respond, and the FCC split the difference and granted a one month extension, to 7 March 2017 for the first round of comments.

So far, there hasn’t been a rush to submit comments. Only about 20 filings have been posted, and one of those is from a local government. Pokomoke City, a small community in Maryland, told a story that’ll be familiar to pretty much any agency that’s dealt with Mobilitie’s campaign to install 70,000 new U.S. cell sites for Sprint

Their initial requests were to locate new pole structures in the middle of our narrow public sidewalks – something we no longer allow. Their next proposal was to apply for a pole location on what appeared to be private property, expecting our small town, 4200, to provide title verification. The third was, after reporting to us that a specific location and height was vital, to then report they had selected a different location and changed height again. Their specs are a constantly moving target, and they wish to bank their infrastructure on the back of the town, rather than pay their way as all of the others do.

Lobbying groups for mobile carriers and wireless Internet service providers submitted preliminary amen comments; the rest appear to come from interested individuals.

A smartphone is a poor, and the poor’s, choice for broadband

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If a smartphone was the killer Internet access solution that AT&T claims it is – usually when trying to divert attention from substandard or even non-existent wireline service in rural and inner city communities – then you’d expect to see something like an even spread of usage cases across demographic groups.

The Pew Foundation’s latest research shows that is clearly not the case.

Overall, 12% of U.S. adults own a smartphone, but do not otherwise use the Internet at home. A deeper dive into those numbers indicates, though, it’s not a matter of style or choice. Only 5% of high earners rely solely on a smartphone, while 21% of those in the lowest income bracket – less than $30,000 a year – do.

The gap is even bigger when education is factored in. Again, 5% of highly educated adults are smartphone-only, versus 27% of those without a high school diploma.

There is also stratification by age and race. Blacks (15%) are more likely than whites (9%) to be smartphone reliant, and latinos even more so (23%). Pew didn’t provide cross tabs, but I’ll speculate that if the numbers were broken out by income and education levels, those would be the significant factors.

The age spread is less, but still significant. Adults under 30 years old come in at 17%, while 7% of those 65 and up are in the smartphone-only category. Again, income and education levels are likely more determinative, but the basic gating question – does a person use the Internet or not? – is probably the main explanation for the gap. There’s a big age divide between those two age groups when it comes to Internet adoption – at home or on a smartphone – 99% versus 64%.

There’s no gender difference in smartphone-only rates – men and women are both at the overall average of 12%. There’s also no significant difference between urban and suburban (both 12%) and rural (14%) areas, although differences in availability were not factored into Pew’s numbers.

Some U.S. adults probably do rely solely on smartphones as a matter of choice, but the income and education gaps indicate that necessity – a simple lack of economic choice – is the real driver.

Santa Cruz tech rolls out at CES

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Plantronic’s Esther Yoon demos the Backbeat Fit at CES.

Two Santa Cruz companies were among the thousands of exhibitors at the Consumer Electronics Show, which wrapped up in Las Vegas last weekend – one industry veteran, Plantronics, and one start up, Future Motion, which is just hitting its stride. Both were on hand at Pepcom’s media showcase.

Future Motion introduced the Onewheel+, the latest version of a motorised balance beam skateboard with, naturally, just one wheel. It has two horsepower electric motor and can hit speeds of 19 miles per hour. It’s designed to be easier to ride than version 1.0, and comes with a smart phone app that’ll let you set it up the way you like it – gentle or go for broke.

“It feels like you’re snowboarding on powder”, said CEO Kyle Doerksen. The product has found its audience, he said. Initially, it was uphill work explaining what the Onewheel is all about. Now that it’s out there, people have a point of reference and can understand the features.


CES spotlight on Onewheel+.

Everything except manufacturing – design, sales and marketing, customer – happens at Future Motion’s headquarters in the Wrigley building in Santa Cruz. The product is made in San Jose.

Plantronics showcased two new wireless headsets, the Backbeat Fit and the Backbeat Pro 2. The Pro 2 is a wireless over-the-ears headset – high quality audio with noise cancelling technology, plus mics for phone functionality.

The Fit was designed with Santa Cruz in mind. It’s a flexible, rubbery headset that’s waterproof and designed to stay in your ears even if you a do backflip. Or a flip in some other direction – handy for surfing. The earpieces don’t completely your ear, so if you want wear it while you’re out running, you can still cars and whatever else is around you.

A third local company, Scotts Valley-based Pearl Automation, was also represented. CEO and co-founder Bryson Gardener appeared on a panel, speaking about life hacks for tech-centric families. Pearl makes an aftermarket back up camera for cars.

U.S. Internet use up, but age, income, education matter

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More people in the U.S. have broadband service at home than ever before, according to the latest numbers released by the Pew Foundation. After a couple of years where residential adoption dipped, it’s on the way back up, albeit unevenly…

Between 2013 and 2015, the share of Americans with home broadband service decreased slightly – from 70% to 67%. But in the past year, broadband adoption rates have returned to an upward trajectory. As of November 2016, nearly three-quarters (73%) of Americans indicate that they have broadband service at home. But although broadband adoption has increased to its highest level since the Center began tracking this topic in early 2000, not all Americans have shared in these gains. For instance, those who have not graduated from high school are nearly three times less likely than college graduates to have home broadband service (34% vs. 91%). Broadband adoption also varies by factors such as age, household income, geographic location and racial and ethnic background.

Overall, a record 88% of U.S. adults make use of the Internet, either at home or elsewhere. Again, that use is not evenly distributed throughout the population. Pretty much all adults younger than 30 years old – 99% – are connected, but less than two-thirds as many – 64% – of people 65 and older go online.

Income and education matter – there’s a clear drop from the 98% usage level among the highest earning and best educated adults to the 79% adoption rate among those in the lowest income category and 68% among the least educated. Where people live matters, too – urban and suburban residents are right around 90% mark, but rural Internet use is significantly lower at 81%.

On the other hand, race and gender don’t seem to be a factor according to the Pew study, at least from a top level analysis perspective. Men and women, and whites, blacks and latinos are within 3% of each other – all in the mid to high 80% range.

Zero chance of FCC zero rating opinion mattering

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Just leave it in the in-box.

AT&T’s and Verizon’s practices of offering video programming and then giving subscribers free – zero rated – bandwidth to watch it “present significant risks to consumers and competition” according to a report prepared by Federal Communications Commission staff and destined for a quick trip to the recycling bin. Zero rating wasn’t explicitly banned by the commission’s 2015 decision to classify broadband as a common carrier service, but it wasn’t given a clean bill of health either. Instead, it was left in the case-by-case review category.

FCC staff looked also looked at T-Mobile’s zero rating program, and concluded it’s probably okay.

AT&T lets certain DirecTv subscribers watch programming without it counting against their data caps. The report dismissed AT&T’s contention that DirecTv is actually paying for the bandwidth used, saying, in effect, that it was an accounting ploy and “would result in no net expenditure at the holding company level”. It’s a different story, though, for competing video service providers…

AT&T imposes hefty per-gigabyte charges on unaffiliated third parties for use of Sponsored Data. All indications are that AT&T’s charges far exceed the costs AT&T incurs in providing the sponsored data service. Thus, it would appear that AT&T’s practices inflict significant unreasonable disadvantages on edge providers and unreasonably interfere with their ability to compete against AT&T’s affiliate, in violation of the General Conduct Rule [of the 2015 common carrier/net neutrality decision].

And that handwringing is pretty much all that’s going to come of the report. FCC chairman-in-waiting Ajit Pai was quick to shred the findings…

This report, which I only saw after the FCC released the document, does not reflect the views of the majority of Commissioners. Fortunately, I am confident that this latest regulatory spasm will not have any impact on the Commission’s policymaking or enforcement activities following next week’s inauguration.

Pai’s dismissal echoed the comments AT&T made when it blew off FCC staff during the review process that led to the report.