The obligatory net neutrality decision coming soon post

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Perhaps as soon as tomorrow, a federal appeals court in Washington will decide whether or not the Federal Communications Commission 1. has the legal authority to impose common carrier rules on broadband service and 2. whether it followed all the necessary procedures when it did so.

The challenge was filed by a nearly universal coalition of big (and a few small) Internet service providers, who, naturally enough, do not want the FCC telling them how to run their businesses, whether or not it’s with the promised (but not guaranteed) light touch. Arguments were heard last December, and we’ve been waiting for a ruling ever since.

It’s the second time that the FCC has gone to court to defend what are generally referred to as network neutrality rules. It lost the first time around in 2014, but the court’s opinion amounted to a road map showing the FCC a couple of different routes it might take to achieve the same end.

The path the FCC chose was to declare that broadband is a common carrier service – like 19th century trains and 20th century telephone systems – and therefore subject to detailed oversight of business practices, including prices, terms of service and whether or not network traffic can be prioritised according to content.

In its decision, the FCC declined to exercise most of that authority for now, and perhaps forever. Or perhaps not. But either way, it appears to be on firm legal ground. To the big question of whether the FCC has the authority to reclassify broadband as a common carrier service, I expect the appeals court to say yes.

Procedural issues are another matter. It’s easy to look at any complicated, bureaucratic process and find fault with the details. It’s possible the court will just hand wave the whole thing and say close enough for government work. But I think it’s likelier it’ll do some trimming around the edges, without meaningfully changing the outcome.

There’s no particular schedule, but based on typical time frames for these kinds of decisions, we should know soon.

Charter cries for exclusive rights in public housing

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Charter Communications still doesn’t get it. California law does not grant it ownership of public housing residents. But boiled down, that’s what it’s telling the California Public Utilities Commission.

Three years ago, the California legislature passed a bill that set aside $20 million to pay for installing broadband facilities in public housing properties. Governor Brown signed it into law. And once you trim away all the bureaucratese about defining what, exactly, a public housing operator is, it’s a very simple bill. A public housing operator can apply for the money if it…

…has not denied a right of access to any broadband provider that is willing to connect a broadband network to the facility for which the grant or loan is sought.

That’s it.

Charter is screaming from the rafters that it has installed coax in ten public housing properties. It’s protesting because the property owners did give them “right of access” to serve residents there.

Legally, that’s all that matters. The protest letters it sent to the CPUC amount to a not particularly coherent rant about other broadband subsidy programs and Charter’s sincere intention to come up with service plans that public housing residents can afford…

[The property owner] claims that its residents cannot afford Charter’s service. But Charter publicly committed to offering a low cost broadband service with speeds of 30/4 Mbps at a price of $14.99 per month within twelve months of completion of its acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks. This merger closed May 18th, 2016.

Right. A year from now, Charter will offer a lower – but not lowest – cost broadband package to qualifying households. Except living in public housing isn’t one of the qualification criteria. But if residents can qualify, great, Charter will offer a competitive package. Nothing wrong with that. Unless, apparently, you think you’re entitled to a monopoly.

Charter’s agonised protest letters are nothing more than a tantrum. It has no right to a monopoly in public housing and certainly no justification to demand it.

AT&T’s attempt to rewrite California law shredded by a higher power

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Wrong day to be a shark.

By the formal rules of the California assembly, AT&T’s attempt to reboot its monopoly without regulatory constraints is dead. Yesterday, the assembly’s appropriations committee took assembly bill 2395 out of legislative limbo and sat on it. That means the bill didn’t clear the committee by the official deadline – also yesterday – and can’t move forward without extraordinary maneuvers by legislative leadership.

That’s not likely to happen. The decision to stop AB 2395 instead of keeping it alive would have been made by legislative leaders in the first place. It’s a rapid and stunning reversal of a nitro-fueled bulldozer of a bill that was on the fast track to the governor’s desk. Just a couple of weeks ago, one member of the committee told me that AB 2395 was a done deal, and there would be no stopping it in the assembly.

Looking back, the first clue was probably Wednesday’s appropriations committee, when the assemblyman carrying the bill for AT&T – Evan Low (D – Silicon Valley) – didn’t show up and speak for it, and AT&T sent a third string lobbyist to defend it. At the time, I pegged it as big money arrogance. It looks like that call was 180 degrees wrong. It seems likelier now that Low and AT&T were just cutting their losses.

What changed the game? I’d put my bet on the Communications Workers of America, the primary union representing AT&T employees. Union reps were out in force at the first committee hearing in April, but failed to stop it. Rural interests and consumer groups opposed it too, but once CWA mobilised labor allies the hard mathematical reality of California politics prevailed. AT&T is a big money player, but organised labor is even bigger.

San Jose cuts a fiber deal but Google won’t say yes yet

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San Jose is all for it, but Google Fiber remains coy about whether it’s going to build a fiber to the home system there, or elsewhere in the south Bay Area. On Tuesday, the San Jose city council voted unanimously to approve a construction plan and five fiber hut site leases on city land, for a prospective Google Fiber buildout.

Jenna Wandres, the Google representative at the meeting, said that they plan to build out to virtually the city, with the only possible exceptions physically hard to reach locations in the hills. She said they plan to build 2,300 miles of fiber plant – more or less the total street mileage in San Jose – regardless of household income levels in neighborhoods. That’s not a ironclad guarantee, though. It leaves the door open a crack for Google to prioritise builds on the basis of pre-sales or other consumer demand metrics, as it has done in other markets.

Pricing is not set yet, but it’s likely to follow the pattern set in the southeastern U.S., according to Wandres. There, Google charges $130 a month for a gigabit plus TV service, $70 for a gig alone and $50 for 100 Mbps service. Wandres said that there will be a fourth price plan, at least for low income neighborhoods, but it hasn’t been determined yet.

The construction plan calls for 40% of the network to be installed on utility poles, and the remaining 60% will go underground, with both traditional trenching and microtrenching techniques used.

The City of San Jose is getting about $5,000 a year in lease payments for each of the fiber hut sites. That’s more than twice the rate Google is paying in San Antonio, for example.

The City of Mountain View approved similar plans earlier this month. Google has not yet said, though, whether it will actually implement any of the approved plans. Wandres said that if they do decide to move ahead in the south Bay Area, it would be Google’s first “organic build” in California. San Francisco is the first California city with a Google Fiber project, but it’s mostly using existing fiber lines and involves little or no new construction.

No word on when a decision is expected.

California legislators put overconfident AT&T’s wireline exit bill on ice for now

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At least one side came prepared.

AT&T’s campaign to rewrite California law and yank wireline service out of less lucrative rural and inner city communities is in legislative limbo, at least temporarily. The assembly appropriations committee met yesterday to consider assembly bill 2395, which was written by AT&T and carried on its behalf by assemblyman Evan Low (D – Silicon Valley).

I wasn’t in Sacramento for it, but I watched the webcast and it appeared that AT&T and assembly members friendly to its cause were not prepared for the opposition that arose during the meeting, nor the increasingly skeptical responses from committee members that it appeared to generate.

Low did not show up for the hearing to speak on behalf of the bill, nor did anyone step up to fill the two brief speaking slots allotted to supporters. That left the two designated opposing speakers free to make an unchallenged case against the bill. Representatives from the Communications Workers of America, the primary union representing AT&T employees, and TURN, a consumer utility advocacy group, summed up the reasons to spike it, including the impact on jobs, the likelihood that AT&T would leave unprofitable customers either stranded or stuck with expensive and inferior service, and the end of any meaningful oversight of broadband and phone service by California regulators.

Next came a long line of people who, in keeping with standard procedure at the capitol, simply stated their name and organisation and declared their opposition to AB 2395. They were followed by an equally long line of supporters, including an AT&T staff lobbyist – far more junior than the alpha lobbyist sent to the last committee hearing.

Then the questions started coming from committee members. It was a long way from being an inquisition, but there were sharper than usual questions about the California Public Utilities Commission’s ability to oversee AT&T turbocharged exit from traditional telephone company responsibilities and regulations. Since Low wasn’t there, the AT&T lobbyist answered from the back of the room. He be seemed to be working hard to give the impression that this bill was really somebody else’s idea, and he just thought it was a good one. You know, like maybe he was looking for the cafeteria and walked into the hearing by mistake. One of his answers drew audible derision from the audience, forcing committee chair Lorena Gonzalez (D – San Diego) to quiet the room.

She wrapped it up by moving AB 2395 to the suspense file, an apparently pre-planned move. That’s a parliamentary maneuver that effectively puts the bill on ice until after legislators agree on a state budget in June. Assuming nothing unusual happens – not a completely safe bet, but a reasonable one – legislative leaders will then meet behind closed doors and decide whether or not to allow the bill to go to a vote by the full assembly. At this point, the betting is that they’ll greenlight it. Then, if it gets a simple majority vote on the assembly floor, AB 2395 goes over to the senate, likely for consideration in August.

Another pointed, broadband-specific hearing was cancelled at the capitol. Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D – Los Angeles), the chair of the assembly utilities and commerce committee and a key player behind the push for AB 2395, withdrew his request to the joint legislative audit committee for an investigation of the California Advanced Services Fund and the California Emerging Technology Fund.

Faster federal broadband specs proposed for public housing

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Honest, the label on the box says it’ll do a gozangabit!

The federal housing and urban development department is floating new rules for publicly subsidised housing – but not homes bought with FHA loans or other federal loan guarantees – that would require installation of broadband infrastructure in new or remodelled multi-dwelling units. It’s a good new/bad news rule: it uses the FCC’s definition of high speed broadband, but leaves plenty of room for implementation mischief…

HUD is proposing to define broadband infrastructure as cables, fiber optics, wiring, or other permanent infrastructure, including wireless infrastructure, as long as the installation results in broadband infrastructure in each dwelling unit meeting the definition created by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which currently is 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download, 3 Mbps upload.

On the one hand, it encourages the installation of proper ethernet or, alternatively, coaxial cable facilities. On the other, it opens the door to the legion of salesmen pushing magic radios to technologically unsophisticated property owners.

There are also a few loopholes in the proposed rules…

If the housing is a building with more than 4 rental units, any substantial rehabilitation…must provide for installation of broadband infrastructure…except where the grantee documents that:
(A) The location of the substantial rehabilitation makes installation of broadband infrastructure infeasible;
(B) The cost of installing broadband infrastructure would result in a fundamental alteration in the nature of its program or activity or in an undue financial burden; or
(C) The structure of the housing to be substantially rehabilitated makes installation of broadband infrastructure infeasible.

Substantial rehabilitation includes substantial electrical work, whether there’s other renovation involved or not. Infrastructure and service are not linked – there’s no requirement to light it up, or offer it on a subsidised basis.

The proposed federal technical specs are way better than the ones adopted by the California Public Utilities Commission for its public housing broadband facilities subsidy program. It set a pathetic 1.5 Mbps download minimum, and no standards at all on the upload side. Experience with that program shows that wireless cowboys will chase the money, and grab it regardless of long term consequences.

There’s a two month or so window to make comments before anything is finalised.

California dig once bill beefed up

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At least it’s moving again.

Caltrans would have to let broadband companies and other organisations know about opportunities to include conduit in road construction and maintenance projects. If no one bites, then Caltrans would install it. That’s what new dig once amendments to assembly bill 1549 would require, if it becomes law…

  • During the design phase of a department-led highway construction project, the department shall notify verified companies and organizations of the project to encourage collaborative broadband installations.
  • For the purpose of supporting fiber optic communication cables, after receiving notification from the department, a verified company or organization may collaborate with the department to install a broadband conduit as part of the project.
  • If no verified company or organization collaborates with the department and no broadband conduit previously exists in the project area, the department, as part of the project, shall install a broadband conduit capable of supporting fiber optic communication cables.

Carried by north coast assemblyman Jim Wood, AB 1549 started out with similar language, and then was pared back to a simple conduit inventory program for Caltrans. The cut-down version of the bill passed through the assembly on unanimous votes, and then landed in the California senate’s transportation and housing committee, where the changes were made and where the new language will be reviewed for the first time.

When it was a simple conduit inventory program, there wasn’t much to not like about AB 1549, at least as far as it went, so no one opposed it. With the revived dig once provisions, it’s likely to be more controversial and push back – if not outright efforts to derail it – can be expected from 1. budget hawks who object to the real, but relatively minor costs involved, 2. Caltrans, which naturally enough prefers to make these decisions itself, and 3. incumbent telephone and cable companies that see independent conduit and fiber projects as a competitive threat rather than an infrastructure opportunity.

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

Decisions this week on key California broadband bills

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It all comes down to the wire.

With deadlines looming this week and next, broadband-related bills are queued up in Sacramento, awaiting decisions. The committee to watch is the assembly appropriations committee, which has to vote on a constitutional amendment to disband the California Public Utilities Commission and on AT&T’s attempt to get out of the rural wireline broadband and phone business.

AT&T’s copper killer bill – assembly bill 2395 – is scheduled for a vote on Wednesday, while the CPUC measure – assembly constitutional amendment 11 – is sitting in a stack of bills that might or might not come to a vote. AB 2395 and ACA 11 need yes votes from the appropriations committee by Friday, or they’re dead. Not dead beyond all hope of resurrection – there are ample parliamentary maneuvers that could be made – but dead for all practical purposes.

The appropriations committee is where legislative leaders can weigh in on controversial measures. If the leadership likes it enough to give its blessing, it’s a fair bet that AB 2395 will be approved by the full assembly before the following week’s deadline – it only requires a simple majority vote to continue on to the senate. ACA 11 needs a two-thirds majority, so the road ahead is rockier, but if legislative leaders send it to a floor vote, that’s a good indication that it has a fighting chance.

The joint legislative audit committee – made up of members from both the assembly and senate – will be considering a request on Wednesday from assemblyman Mike Gatto (D – Los Angeles) to conduct an audit of the California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF) and the CPUC’s California Advanced Services Fund (CASF). It doesn’t look like a friendly request. Gatto is the author of ACA 11 and was the key player who squashed a proposal to reboot CASF. He’s also been at odds with CETF, after trading barbs in Sacramento Bee op ed pieces.

I’ve advocated for and helped to draft CASF legislation and other broadband bills, and worked alongside CETF and others in the process. I’m involved and proud of it. Take it for what it’s worth.

New FCC disclosure rules for ISPs maintain status quo

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Trust the guy next door.

The Federal Communication Commission released its new transparency requirements for big Internet service providers – small ISPs are exempt for now, and maybe forever. The rules spell out how ISPs must disclose performance metrics, including “expected and actual download and upload speeds, latency, and packet loss”, and make that information available via the web.

It might surprise you to learn that the rules aren’t actually new, although the FCC’s decision to reclassify broadband as a common carrier service last year made some changes to the requirements. The so-called transparency rules were included in the FCC’s first attempt at network neutral regulations in 2010. Most of that decision was tossed out by an appeals court, but the disclosure requirements survived.

The FCC’s latest notice rolls in the adjustments made last year, and clarifies some of the details. For most consumers, it’s the download and upload speeds that really matter – that’s what’s advertised, and that’s the primary way they differentiate between offerings. Unfortunately, the disclosure requirements aren’t particularly specific…

Fixed [ISPs] may meet this requirement by disclosing actual performance metrics for “each broadband service” in each geographic area in which the service has a distinctive set of network performance metrics (operational area). We expect that operational areas will be determined by the technology used and by network management practices, and that many fixed BIAS providers will have a single operational area for each broadband service offered.

For example, if you’re looking at broadband service offered by a cable company, all you’re likely to get is a blanket statement saying you can expect download speeds of 100 Mbps, 150 Mbps or whatever they’re currently advertising, because they take the position that since their networks are uniformly magnificent, everyone’s service is likewise.

The one ray of hope is the suggestion that median speeds (or speeds within a median range) be reported, but that’s just one possible way of doing it. Bottom line, if you’re shopping for service, you’re better off just asking your neighbors how it works for them.

Bell Labs test shows faster speeds on shorter copper

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Next generation cable technology – DOCSIS 3.1 – can support symmetrical 10 Gbps speeds over hybrid fiber coax plant, according to a press release from Bell Labs, now known as Nokia Bell Labs. Nokia completed its purchase of Alcatel Lucent earlier this year and Bell Labs was part of the bargain.

Bell Labs is pitching its XG-Cable technology for integration into CableLabs’ DOCSIS 3.1 standard, which is undergoing field trials in a few U.S. markets. It’s essentially the same pitch that companies with G.fast gear are making to telcos: our stuff will dramatically boost broadband speeds on existing copper wire networks.

From everything I’ve seen, that’s true. At least as far as it goes. And that’s the catch. Both XG-Cable and G.fast are relatively short range technologies. Bell Labs’ says it simultaneously pushed 10 Gbps in both directions over 100 meters of coaxial cable on 1.2 GHz of bandwidth under laboratory conditions. The speed dropped to 7.5 Gbps symmetrical when a point-to-multipoint architecture was used. Ultimately, Bell Labs expects to get that level of performance at up to 200 meters.

G.fast, which is touted as an upgrade path for DSL networks, is limited to something like 250 meters to 500 meters of copper wire, with speeds ranging from 100 Mbps to 1 Gbps, again depending on how far it has to go (and who’s press release you’re reading). To get to the high end of the range, the distance needs to be less than 100 meters.

For either G.fast or XG-Cable to deliver promised speeds, the outside plant needs to be in good condition. Deteriorating lines will mean sharp drops in performance, to the point that older technologies will outperform it. With all due regard to the danger of taking an analogy too far, it’s not unlike trying to drive a Lamborghini on a dirt road.

But if you’re on a short, pristine track, a Lamborghini will fly.

It’s easy jump to the conclusion that technological advances such as these will render fiber unnecessary. That’s not true. The way you get short, final copper runs is to push more and more fiber, deeper and deeper into the network. At some point, it might not be necessary to go all the way to a home or business to get fiber-class broadband speeds, but you’ll have to extend the fiber portion of last mile networks much closer. And you’ll have to add fiber capacity – either more strands or better electronics – to handle the increased demand for bandwidth.

It’s still early days for this technology, but it’s good news that it might not be too far over the horizon.