Prediction: Brown will sign California net neutrality bill into law

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With a week left to go before a decision is due, California governor Jerry Brown hasn’t said which side he’s going to land on in the network neutrality debate. Senate bill 822, which would restore net neutrality rules in California, is still sitting on his desk.

Brown does not give away much, if anything, when he’s considering bills. He gives bills serious thought. Some more than others, but he makes his own decisions. He’s good at balancing political, fiscal, operational and philosophical considerations. Which ones he gives more weight to depends on the issue.

So with full awareness that no one knows what he will do with a bill until he does it, I’m going to make a prediction: Brown will sign SB 822 into law.

With the death of SB 460, which would have required state and location agencies to only buy Internet service from net-neutral providers, SB 822 is less of a threat to telecoms companies. SB 460 was about how state and local taxpayer money is spent and the Federal Communications Commission doesn’t have the authority to preempt it. There is a significant possibility of federal preemption of SB 822, though, which would solve any problems that AT&T, Comcast or Charter Communications have with the bill.

So the political downside of SB 822 – reduced campaign cashflow from big telecom – is less than it would have been. On the other hand, it’s a flagship political issue for democrats, particularly in Washington, D.C. It would be hard for Brown to defer to the Trump administration on a high profile issue like net neutrality, even if he wanted to.

Politically, SB 822 is a plus for democrats, and it has minor financial and administrative consequences for state government operations. The only wild card is whether Brown has fundamental, philosophical objections to the state jumping into telecoms policy territory.

I don’t think he does. Quite the contrary.

Governor Brown vetoes a social media distraction

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No, not that one.

Governor Jerry Brown refused to bite on a bit of legislative sausage yesterday. He vetoed senate bill 1424, which would have set up a social media research group in the California attorney general’s office, dedicated to the study of false information.

As originally envisioned by senator Richard Pan (D – Sacramento), SB 1424 would have required social media platforms to flag any false news posted by users. Exactly how that was supposed to happen was, to say the least, unclear. But since its life expectancy following the inevitable, instant First Amendment challenge was shorter than a Donald Trump tweet, we never would have found out.

Pan apparently got the news flash, but didn’t read it too closely. His next try was to cut SB 1424 down to just requiring social media sites to post editorial policies and “to state what policies and practices the factcheckers use to determine whether news stories are accurate and what the site does with the content that the factcheckers determine is not accurate”. Better – it might have last long enough to make half of Silicon Valley spit its morning Soylent – but it still went too far.

So the next step was to form a committee. But that costs money. So SB 1424 was amended to require the attorney general to bang a tin cup long enough to get private money to pay for it. Since it didn’t do anything and didn’t cost anything, it was the perfect piece of Californian legislation.

It was approved by a comfortable margin in the final week of the legislative session and sent to the governor. Who chucked it in the capitol compost pile…

This bill directs the Attorney General to establish an advisory group to study the problem of the spread of false information through Internet-based social media platforms.

As evidenced by the numerous studies by academic and policy groups on the spread of false information, the creation of a statutory advisory group to examine this issue is not necessary.

Brown still has a stack of bills to approve or veto in the next week, including net neutrality legislation. The deadline is a week from Sunday.

AT&T and Comcast know Internet content censorship is real and it works

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I’ve seen what a world without network neutrality looks like, and it isn’t pretty. I spent a couple of weeks in China this summer with a Linux laptop and an Android phone. There was 4G mobile broadband available everywhere I went, and WiFi availability is common. But that only gets you so far.

My gmail account was blocked, along with all the other Google services I use. To get around that, I set up an Office 365 account with an alternate domain name. Microsoft appeased Beijing by doing business its way, and seems to operate without any particular restrictions. Just the restrictions that are imposed on any online company doing business on the mainland.

That meant that when I used the Bing search engine, my results were filtered to ensure I didn’t see anything that upset my Chinese hosts. I did have a VPN that occasionally let me climb over the Great Firewall, but it appeared to be playing a game of whack-a-mole with the government: an IP address that worked yesterday won’t necessarily be accessible tomorrow. I was cut off from social media. Maybe it’s healthy to take a break every so often, but government enforced abstinence is oppressive.

News was restricted. I couldn’t reach my go-to sites. The creepiest moment came in Beijing where my hotel had the BBC on its in-house TV system. While I was watching a newscast, the presenter began reading a story about unrest in western China. Halfway into her first sentence, the screen went black and stayed that way for several minutes. When it came back on, a harmless story about trade was running.

Someone was watching the live BBC feed with a quick finger on the kill switch, waiting for content that doesn’t walk the official line. Content filtering is real. It’s not a boogyman dreamed up by net neutrality advocates.

It can be done, it is being done and it’s not just about money. Without net neutrality rules, there’s nothing to prevent AT&T or Comcast or any other ISP from filtering out unflattering news or blocking websites that contradict corporate messages. That’s a power that the U.S. constitution properly denies to the U.S. government. There’s equally good reason to deny it to telecoms monopolies that have as little accountability and nearly the same degree of technical control over Internet content as the Chinese government has.

California senate bill 822 would reinstate net neutrality rules that can be the first line of defence against censorship empowered by monopoly control of the lines of communication, whether it’s in the service of politics or profit. It’s now up to governor Jerry Brown to decide if it becomes law.

AT&T, Comcast, Charter paying big bucks to California’s anti-net neutrality legislators

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California’s biggest telecoms companies – AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Charter Communications and their lobbying fronts – are being very generous to the members of the assembly’s communications and conveyances committee who ripped the guts out of senate bill 822 back in June. That’s the bill, authored by senator Scott Wiener (D – San Francisco) that would restore network neutrality rules in California. If governor Jerry Brown signs it.

The damage done was reversed, after netizens went feral on the committee’s chair, assemblyman Miguel Santiago (D – Los Angeles) and democratic party leaders leaned on him. But both the result and the process Santiago used to ram the amendments through were a low point in legislative integrity in Sacramento this year.

According to research done by MapLight, a non-profit that tracks political money, big telecom’s friends got big telecoms bucks (h/t to Fred Pilot at the Eldo Telecom blog for the heads up)…

The 11 California lawmakers who let amendments that would have gutted a landmark net neutrality measure pass through a key committee received almost $1 of every $6 contributed by internet service providers during the current election cycle, according to a MapLight analysis.

Since the beginning of 2017, the Assembly members who either abstained or voted for the June amendments that weakened the net neutrality bill received more than $220,000 in contributions from Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, Charter Communications, and the California Cable & Telecom Association. During the current election cycle, the industry has made about $1.3 million in campaign donations to Assembly members and candidates.

According to a Sacramento Bee article by Bryan Anderson, Santiago raked in almost $40,000 from the telecoms companies, the most of any of his colleagues. Second place went to one of his allies, Evan Low (D – Santa Clara), who accepted $35,000 in payments from the same companies. Low provided key support for Santiago at the hearing, and carried a bill for AT&T in 2016 that would have allowed the telco to rip out copper networks and replace them with low capacity wireless systems.

Santiago’s other wingman in the debacle, Eduardo Garcia (D – Imperial), who authored last year’s subsidy giveaway to AT&T and other incumbent Internet service providers, has also done well. Big telecoms interests have, so far, paid him $24,600 in this election cycle, according to FollowThe Money.org.

“Crony” capitalist FCC chair rips California’s “nanny state legislators”

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Ajit Pai verbally grasped at straws to slam a California bill that would reinstate network neutrality rules. In a speech in Maine, the chair of the Federal Communications Commission snarked “I can understand how they succumbed to the temptation to regulate. After all, I suppose a broadband pipe might look to some like a plastic straw”. He was referring to Californian attempts to send plastic straws the way of the disposable bag.

Pai repeated a common argument used by industry lobbyists – that senate bill 822 would end popular free data plans – and called it “a radical, anti-consumer Internet regulation bill”. He predicted it wouldn’t stand up to legal challenges…

The broader problem is that California’s micromanagement poses a risk to the rest of the country. After all, broadband is an interstate service; Internet traffic doesn’t recognize state lines. It follows that only the federal government can set regulatory policy in this area. For if individual states like California regulate the Internet, this will directly impact citizens in other states.

Among other reasons, this is why efforts like California’s are illegal.

The author of SB 822, state senator Scott Wiener (D – San Francisco), wasted no time in shooting back at Pai

Unlike Pai’s FCC, California isn’t run by the big telecom and cable companies. Pai can take whatever potshots at California he wants. The reality is that California is the world’s innovation capital, and unlike the crony capitalism promoted by the Trump Administration, California understands exactly what it takes to foster an open innovation economy with a level playing field…

Since the FCC says it no longer has any authority to protect an open internet, it’s also the case that the FCC lacks the legal power to preempt states from protecting their residents and economy.

Wiener’s optimism has yet to be proven out. The crony capitalism he derides is alive and well in Sacramento – he had to overcome it to get SB 822 as far as he has. But it’s not a done deal yet. Governor Jerry Brown hasn’t said what he plans to do with it, and those same deep-pocketed telco and cable lobbyists are working his office, too.

The deadline for a decision is 30 September 2018.

CPUC leaves SCE’s fiber business intact, but the beatings will continue

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With barely a mention at its meeting, the California Public Utilities Commission closed the first chapter of a saga that should never have been written. By a unanimous vote, commissioners allowed Southern California Edison to withdraw its request for blanket approval of a dark fiber lease deal with Verizon.

SCE asked to pull the application because the deal was dead, the victim of a mauling by so called consumer advocates and a purblind proposed decision by CPUC commissioner Clifford Rechtschaffen. Opponents objected, preferring instead that the commission press on and dismantle a revenue sharing deal, dating back two decades, that gave 10% of SCE’s fiber revenue to electric customers.

The fiber network was originally built to support its electric operations, but consistent with industry practice and common sense, SCE installed more fiber strands than it immediately needed – the cost of a cable with extra strands is diminishingly small. Construction accounts for almost all the expense.

Independent dark fiber is a valuable resource, particularly for competitive telecoms companies, and large corporate and institutional users, but also for incumbents like Verizon. It’s particularly precious in California, where most of the long haul fiber routes are controlled by old school, monopoly model telephone companies.

So SCE found a ready market for its 5,000 miles of fiber, threaded throughout the greater Los Angeles region. But success draws attention, in this case from groups that claim to speak for Californian consumers, but don’t seem to understand that those consumers need fast and, particularly, affordable broadband service, too. They convinced Rechtschaffen to propose taking half of SCE’s fiber revenue away, which would effectively kill the business. After paying operating costs – a fiber business does not run for free – SCE would have been either in the red or close enough to it that there would be little point to continuing.

After the case dragged on for more than a year, Verizon threw up its hands and cancelled the contract. SCE told the CPUC it was all moot, and on Thursday commissioners rejected opposing arguments and agreed. But the decision also contained a warning: the commission has electric company fiber in its crosshairs

The scope of the proceeding has raised broad policy issues that include identifying what policy frameworks promote the most effective utilization of ratepayer- funded dark fiber throughout California’s regulated electric utility infrastructure and assure safety, universal access to utility services, and non-discriminatory access to this infrastructure, especially amidst policy changes at the federal level. The Commission may consider opening a rulemaking to consider these and other broad policy issues and, in that broader context, reconsider the appropriate revenue sharing allocation for dark fiber route leases.

It’s not just about SCE. Apparently seeing the writing on the wall, PG&E also backed off a plan to become a fully certified telecoms company. Dark fiber sales is a minor sideline for both companies. Adding hugely disproportionate regulatory overhead will do nothing for electric rates and only serve to reduce competition and increase broadband prices for all consumers.

5G reality still lags 5G hype in U.S.

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Lots of 5G talk, not so much 5G action at the Mobile World Congress Americas conference in Los Angeles this week. No phones, no 5G-specific services, no schedules for 5G mobile deployments, Verizon’s fixed wireless plans and AT&T’s equally limited real soon now announcements notwithstanding.

Although it has a hemispheric mission, this year’s show was nearly all about U.S. carriers, content and services. The question on the minds of equipment and technology vendors – mostly from asian and european companies – was what will U.S. carriers do?

“5G is not about doing the same things faster. It’s about doing entirely new things”, said Rajeev Suri, CEO of Nokia during a keynote talk. “Blazing speed is important, but it’s not the only thing”. What those new things will be in the U.S. is still largely a mystery. He was one of many speakers who urged U.S. companies and policy makers to make decisions and act fast to maintain leadership.

If anything, AT&T took a step backward. The keynote speech by David Christopher, who heads up AT&T’s consumer wireless business, focused on video. AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner’s content businesses has to move forward right now and its existing 4G network is well suited to video distribution, so Christopher’s 5G brush off makes sense – Wall Street is a lot more interested in today’s revenue than tomorrow’s capital spending plans.

Cameron Coursey, an AT&T product development vice president, pointed to the 2022 to 2025 time frame as a target for meaningful availability of 5G service. Meaningful in the sense that enough 5G infrastructure will be deployed to support new products and services that absolutely depend on it. An AT&T assistant VP, Suzanne Hellwig Navarro, also focused on 4G, saying that the carrier will continue to upgrade its 4G core, a process – and a positioning statement – that AT&T misleadingly calls “5G evolution”.

Self driving cars, and the increasing role of cars as a consumer electronics platform, are an entirely new thing. The automotive industry follows 5G deployment plans closely, and is timing its product development cycle to begin producing data-heavy cars in the 2022 to 2025 time frame, according to Kenichi Murata, a Toyota executive who also spoke at the conference. He was speaking on a global basis, though. There didn’t seem to be any assumption – certainly no expectation stated – that the U.S. would be ready then.

Mobile industry moves ahead, but mobile trade show backslides

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Ten years ago this week, I went to what was then the CTIA MobileCon show in San Francisco for the first time, and began this blog. My first post was about an app that turned a smart phone into a mobile hotspot – an unremarkable standard feature now, but back then it was controversial.

Carriers – particularly AT&T, which had an early lock on the iPhone market – were dead set against it. Networks were a mix of 2G and 3G technology, and capacity was severely constrained, compared to today’s 4G infrastructure. It was also a business model issue. Carriers wanted to capture as much of the revenue that came from content, services and apps that flowed through their networks. They were as motivated to fight tethering apps then, as they are to fight network neutrality now.

The show has changed, too. In 2008, CTIA ran two shows a year: the big spring equipment show, usually in Las Vegas, and a fall event, called MobileCon, that focused on apps, content and technology. As the industry changed, though, the center of gravity shifted to the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, and the two CTIA shows collapsed into a much diminished, single conference in the fall. The final CTIA show, in Las Vegas in 2016, was a shadow of its former self.

Then CTIA partnered with MWC, to create MWC Americas. Its maiden voyage in San Francisco last year seemed to be a hit. The exhibits and conference sessions reflected a hemispheric audience: there was much to learn about mobile telecoms in Latin America, and the U.S.-style smarmy keynotes and meaningless powerpoint presentations were largely replaced by execs with something interesting to say.

This year’s show in Los Angeles was a step backwards. The show’s focus was almost completely on U.S. carriers and regulators (and the universal message was get the lead out). None of the panels or keynotes I attended had a single speaker from Latin America. Policy discussions were Beltway echo chambers. Even the so-called “International Perspectives on Spectrum and 5G” panel consisted of an FCC bureaucrat and two corporate lobbyists from Washington, D.C.

Next year’s show will also take place in L.A., but it’ll happen in late October. The hope is that it’ll be better timed for a lively event. I hope so too.

FCC commissioner frames preemption of local streetlight ownership as digital divide issue

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Big cities are blocking 5G deployments in rural communities with high permit fees and expensive aesthetic requirements for new wireless facilities. That’s the argument FCC commissioner Brendan Carr made at the Mobile World Congress Americas show in Los Angeles yesterday. He’s the principal author of new, draft rules that would set federal benchmarks that, he hopes, cities and counties will follow when processing permit applications.

If mobile carriers have to spend more money than they want to when they build out 5G networks in high value, high priority cities, then there won’t be anything left over for rural areas, his reasoning goes…

Despite all of that progress, there still are many communities, especially in rural America, that feel that they may be left behind. They want to see their residents get a fair shot at the new wave of economic opportunity that will come with 5G.

But they worry that the billions of dollars of investment needed to deploy next-gen networks will be consumed by high fees and long delays in big, “must serve” cities…

When I think about success—when I think about winning the race to 5G—the finish line is not the moment we see next-gen deployments in New York or San Francisco. Success can only be achieved when all Americans, no matter where they live, have a fair shot at fast, affordable broadband.

The draft rules would, in effect, extend the free and open access that mobile carriers have to the public right of way to government-owned assets, such as streetlights or traffic signals. Cities wouldn’t necessarily have to follow the FCC’s rulebook, but Carr assumes it would guide decisions made by federal judges when disputes end up in court.

Two other FCC commissioners – Michael O’Rielly and Jessica Rosenworcel – also spoke at the show. Both focused primarily on spectrum policy – how to make more frequencies available for mobile broadband service – and neither dwelled on wireless deployment issues.

But Rosenworcel did talk about the far future of wireless networks and what she apparently sees as the permanent trend of network densification – the need to build more and more cell sites to support ever faster and more reliable service. As the sole democrat on the Federal Communications Commission for the present, she might have taken the opportunity to put a little daylight between her and her colleagues on wireless deployment policy in general or local preemption in particular. She didn’t.

The FCC vote is scheduled for 26 September 2018.

5g, of a sort, coming to “parts of” two Californian cities in October

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Verizon grabbed what media spotlight was shining yesterday at the opening of the second Mobile World Congress Americas show in Los Angeles. Its announcement that it would be first to market with 5G fixed wireless service wasn’t a surprise – it’s been talking about it for months – but putting a price tag and a launch date on it makes it much more real. Whether it’s really a big deal or not is a matter of how you look at it.

Mobile customers can add the fixed Verizon service to their accounts for $50 a month, standalone subscriptions are $70 a month. Verizon says users “should expect typical network speeds around 300 Mbps” with no data caps (although a mobile carrier’s definition of a data cap and yours is probably different – as the Santa Clara County Fire Department found out). The new service will be available “in parts of” Los Angeles, Sacramento, Indianapolis and Houston, beginning next month.

A very limited, fixed service-only roll out of 5G service gains two things for Verizon: a day or two of media buzz, and a test platform for 5G service, of a sort. The fixed wireless gear they’ll be installing (a service call is required) isn’t fully compliant with the official 5G spec, and will have to be replaced when the real stuff is available sometime next year. But it’s a legitimate beta test with actual customers, and that could give Verizon an operational and marketing edge down the road.

The announcement also helps to let some of the hot air out of the 5G balloon. Earlier this year, Verizon hyped 1 Gbps throughput, which it still claims is the “peak” speed for its 5G fixed service. There’s no reason to doubt that 5G networks can support gigabit throughputs, but that’s a long way from consistently delivering it to customers. Dialling expectations back to 300 Mbps is a good move.