Mobile OS security gains strength as a selling proposition

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They mind their own business.

A reason for Sailfish’s existence, and perhaps even for the $12 million investment it received earlier this year is becoming clearer. It’s an alternative mobile operating system – a competitor to Android and iOS – that arose from the ashes of Nokia’s MeeGo operating system, which was scrapped when Microsoft bought the company.

But it didn’t buy everything and the Finnish engineers who stayed behind started a new company, Jolla, and kept working on it. And now they’ve found a big customer in the Russian government. According to a press release from Jolla

Sami Pienimaki, CEO of Jolla Ltd. comments: “Sailfish OS development in Russia is an important part of Jolla’s wider agenda, aiming to power various countries’ mobile ecosystems. Our solution is based on open source code and contribution models with partners, which makes it possible to ramp up local systems effectively in 6 months. We have now done this in Russia with a local partner and using this experience we are looking forward to ramping up similar projects in other countries.”

In Russia, Sailfish OS is the only mobile operating system, which has been officially accepted to be used in governmental and government controlled corporations’ upcoming mobile device projects.

Customers in China and South Africa – two other countries that don’t put complete trust in the developed world’s good intentions – are also reported to be giving Sailfish a close look.

Sailfish’s selling proposition is security, and it makes good on that promise in a couple different ways. First, it’s open source, which means anyone who installs it can inspect the code for bugs and gain a level of confidence that there are no backdoors or otherwise compromised encryption systems, as with the Blackberry OS or as the U.S. government seeks for iOS and Android.

Second, Finland has strong privacy laws. It’s why Turing Robotics, a tiny mobile phone maker that also aims for the security minded side of the market, moved its mobile phone operations there from California.

Another net neutrality skeptic lands at the FCC

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Telecoms policy solidifies.

A third, like minded crew member beamed down to the Trump transition’s landing team at the Federal Communications Commission this week. Roslyn Layton was named to the volunteer position and, together with previous appointees Jeffrey Eisenach and Mark Jamison, will help manage the transition from an Obama-appointed democratic majority to a Trump-appointed republican one.

Like Jamison and Eisenach, Layton has links to the American Enterprise Institute, a right-of-center consulting shop, and works as a consultant and in academia, albeit with a thin scholarly resume. Unlike them, though, she does not have any major telecoms companies as clientsat least none that are disclosed on her website – and doesn’t have a history as an industry lobbyist.

Layton has gone on record opposing many of the FCC’s recent initiatives, including the recently adopted telecoms privacy rules and the decision to regulate broadband as a common carrier service. At the time, she argued that that the new regulations were unnecessary because “net neutrality is the freedom for an Internet user to connection to any content, applications or service…and Internet service providers already agree to uphold this principle”.

On the other hand, she wrote that “companies such as Netflix hijack the language of net neutrality to lobby for regulatory favors” and giving common carrier status to broadband service…

…would effectively give control of the Internet to the federal government, allowing it to monitor networks and set prices. For starters, expect a price increase due to new federal, state and local fees on your Internet subscription.

There seems to be no room for Trump-style populism in Layton’s philosophy. “That a regulator would grandstand on public comment as justification for its rules impugns the very notion of an expert, independent regulator”, she wrote in blog post earlier this year, adding that “European telecom regulators want to exit the rigorous, evidence-based world of economics and enter the world of human rights adjudication, an area to which they are not necessarily chartered or qualified to enforce”.

When he takes office, Donald Trump will be able to appoint at least one new commissioner, and possibly two if he decides not to reappoint republican Ajit Pai. He’ll also pick which commissioner serves as chairman.

CPUC votes to challenge incumbents’ pole, conduit blockades

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Utility poles and underground conduit could shift from the tight control of a handful of monopoly electric and telecoms companies to a more broadly managed public resource in California. Yesterday, the California Public Utilities Commission unanimously decided to require incumbent telecoms companies to disclose where their middle fiber networks go and how to connect to them, and to begin the process of writing rules to make it easier for competitors to gain access to poles, conduit and other infrastructure that’s installed in the public right of way.

The contrast between California’s highly competitive, high tech economy and the stone age chokepoints that stand in its way are stark, as CPUC president Michael Picker pointed out before the vote…

I am just stunned that after three years here, after many, many, many conversations on new technologies and very glamorous kinds of approaches to decarbonising the state’s economy, we’re facing a fierce battle over access to probably one of the simplest and the least nimble parts of our infrastructure, which is poles and conduits under the ground. Who would have thought we would be spending this much time as people contest for access to the common wooden pole.

By taking on incumbents’ control over scarce telecommunications infrastructure and the way it’s used to block competition, the CPUC is targeting the general lack of telecoms competition in California, and in particular the broadband market failure here. The CPUC’s formal declaration that California’s broadband market is highly concentrated – a term of art that means monopoly or near monopoly control over retail access services – can and apparently will be the basis for taking meaningful action. Yesterday’s decision is the first step.

It won’t be an easy step. Several commissioners noted the fierce legal fight that telephone and cable companies waged in an unsuccessful attempt to thwart the investigation that led to the decision. It’s a safe bet that they’ll continue their scorched earth opposition as the CPUC implements it. But if independent broadband providers can’t get access to poles and conduit, or reasonable middle mile connectivity or wholesale last mile facilities, then they can’t compete. It’s that simple.

Final draft of the CPUC’s decision analysing the California telecommunications market and launching a rewrite of infrastructure access rules.

Suddenlink FTTH push might not reach California

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Most of Suddenlink is somewhere other than California.

Altice, the fourth largest cable operator in the U.S., plans to leapfrog DOCSIS 3.1 coaxial cable upgrades and go straight to fiber. At least in some of the markets it serves. Yesterday, the company announced its intention to build “a next-generation fiber-to-the-home network capable of delivering broadband speeds of up to 10 Gbps across its footprint”. Sorta. It qualified that promise by saying it “expects to reach all of its Optimum footprint and most of its Suddenlink footprint” within five years.

The question is whether that wiggle room could exclude California. There’s reason to think it might.

Altice took over the Optimum brand when it bought Cablevision, a cable operator that’s largely concentrated in the northeast U.S. – it’s not a player in California. Suddenlink is the other cable company it acquired last year, and that footprint includes a scattering of largely rural markets across California, as well as systems in much larger markets such as Dallas and San Antonio. Technically, “most” could mean anything from 51% on up, but even if you assume it means 80% or 90%, that’s still enough room to wiggle out of California, which Suddenlink used to refer to as “elsewhere”.

Another factor to consider is that Altice is investing in FTTH to counter the competition it faces from Verizon’s FiOS systems. Again, those tend to be concentrated in the northeast. There are some FiOS systems in California that were formerly owned by Verizon and now belong to Frontier Communications, but none of those are in Suddenlink’s territory. Competitive pressure is not going to be pushing Altice’s upgrade capital in California’s direction.

That doesn’t mean it won’t happen, though. A key resource for any FTTH upgrade is the availability of affordable and accessible middle mile fiber. Suddenlink has already taken advantage of the Digital 395 project in eastern California and several of its systems sit on or near other major fiber routes. Altice says it’ll start announcing its rollout markets schedule “in the coming months”.

CPUC focuses on California’s monopoly broadband market

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Only one, where it counts.

A sharper take on California’s uncompetitive market for telecoms services goes before the California Public Utilities Commission tomorrow. A revised draft of a decision authored by CPUC administrative law judge Karl Bemesderfer was posted yesterday. It addresses the tall stack of comments on the first draft filed by telecoms companies and advocacy groups alike.

The major change is a promise to address tactics that monopoly telephone and cable companies use to block competitors, particularly regarding “access to poles, conduit, and rights of way”. The new draft decision requires the commission to begin addressing the problem within nine months. Incumbents will still have to hand over information about middle mile fiber and other critical bottlenecks they control, although it’s only a requirement for the next two years. After that, the CPUC is supposed to assess the data and decide whether to keep collecting it.

Another welcome edit is to highlight two key findings in the original draft:

  • The residential high speed broadband market is highly concentrated throughout California.
  • Aggregated and averaged market data understate the barriers to competitive market entry, and thus the market choices available to individuals and businesses, particularly in rural areas.

The draft also highlights the disparity between incumbent telephone and cable companies – although the services offered are increasingly indistinguishable, those two sides of the same coin play by different rules, particularly where access by would-be competitors to monopoly infrastructure is concerned. It’s an important point, because, as the draft points out…

Although there are varying estimates, roughly half (or more) of California households have access to only one (or no) wireline broadband provider at speeds of 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up.

When it’s only one provider offering service at those speeds – which is the the minimum level for advanced services, as declared by the Federal Communications Commission and affirmed by the draft decision – that provider is almost always a cable company. The legacy privileges that cable companies enjoy at the expense of would-be competitors and consumers are beyond the scope of the draft that’s on the table, but the foundation for next steps are firmly established.

The draft is on the agenda for tomorrow’s CPUC meeting.

Revised draft (29 November 2016) of the proposed decision analysing the California telecommunications market and directing staff to continue data gathering, monitoring and reporting on the market.

Redlined version of the revised draft (29 November 2016), if you’re like me and really want to geek out on the details.

First draft (18 October 2016) of the proposed decision analyzing the California telecommunications market and directing staff to continue data gathering, monitoring and reporting on the market.

Broadband hits a speed bump in California

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Internet connection speeds took a dip in California during the second quarter of this year. The Akamai State of the Internet report for April through June of 2016 shows the average connection speed from users in California to its content delivery network dropped to 16.1 Mbps, from 16.4 Mbps in the first quarter of the year. On the other hand, connection speeds are still rising on a year over year basis – the average speed in California was 14.0 Mbps in the second quarter of 2015.

California is not unique in this regard. Average connection speeds in most U.S. states fell slightly during the second quarter (and were also higher on a year over year basis). Akamai offers no explanation for this trend, and taken in isolation there’s no particular cause for concern. It could be, for example, due to some idiosyncrasy in the data collection and/or analysis methodology.

On the other hand, it bears watching. It might point to congestion problems that are the result of Internet traffic increasing faster than network operators are expanding capacity. Measurements taken by the California Public Utilities Commission earlier this year indicate that mobile data networks are becoming increasingly unreliable, in terms of consistency of user experience, even though top speeds continue to rise.

Compared to our neighbors, Californians are middle of the pack. Washington’s average is faster at 17.2 Mbps, but we’re just above Oregon (15.8 Mbps) and Nevada (15.3 Mbps), and well ahead of Arizona (14.1 Mbps). Akamai doesn’t do state by state breakouts for Mexico, but the national average there was 7.4 Mbps. It would be interesting to see how service in Baja California compares to what we get here in Alta California – my guess it’s a smaller gap than Mexico’s overall average would indicate, but I’ll have to wait for Akamai to change its reporting method, or find other data, before I can test that theory.

In the U.S., the average was 15.3 Mbps overall. Top honors went to Rhode Island at 19.6 Mbps and Idaho brought up the rear of the pack at 10.4 Mbps. Two western states – Utah (18.9 Mbps) and Washington – made the U.S. top ten.

Google Fiber says no settlement, CPUC to decide protest of Webpass deal

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Big or small?

Google Fiber won’t agree to a settlement with the only group to lodge a protest in California to its acquisition of Webpass, an independent Internet service provider. The deal requires approval from the California Public Utilities Commission because Webpass is certified as a competitive telecoms company, which makes it a regulated public utility.

This sort of review is usually routine. Exceptions are generally the result of past problems with CPUC rules – not an issue in this case – or occur when the companies involved are major players in California’s telecoms ecosystem. Charter Communications’ successful purchase of Time Warner and Comcast’s failed attempt to do much the same are two recent examples. Webpass and Google Fiber do not play in that league and neither the CPUC’s office of ratepayer advocates or any of the usual outside “intervenors” – organisations that make a living by protesting or otherwise getting directly involved in proceedings – raised any concerns about the transaction.

Except one. The National Diversity Coalition – an umbrella group that includes more than a dozen minority-focused organisations – challenged Google’s purchase of Webpass and called for a deeper investigation into whether the deal serves the public interest, and in particular how it would affect the communities it claims to represent. It is a standard tactic and is often used to extract concessions from the companies involved, sometimes for benefits that flow to the general public – Charter’s obligation to upgrade broadband service in redlined areas is an example – but also sometimes for payments or other perks that go directly to the intervenors themselves.

NDC’s argument boils down to Google is a big company, so it should get the full treatment. As is standard procedure in these cases, the two sides held settlement talks, but judging from the statement Google filed with the CPUC last week, NDC wanted a truckload of data regarding finances, corporate policy and practices and other matters that companies usually consider to be proprietary. All in an effort, Google said, “to extract various conditions and commitments from [Google and Webpass] wholly unrelated to the limited transaction before the CPUC”.

So instead of agreeing to NDC’s demands in exchange for it dropping its protest, Google is kicking the decision back to the CPUC administrative law judge and commissioner who are assigned to the case. A conference is scheduled for Wednesday morning in San Francisco.

I assisted the City of Gonzales in its challenge to Charter at the CPUC and its subsequent and successful negotiations. I am not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.

SigFox plans California ag tech IoT network build out

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Small bursts of data at infrequent intervals are sufficient for many Internet of Things (IoT) applications. That’s as true in the agricultural technology sector as it is for urban uses, such as meter reading or environmental monitoring. AgTech, though, brings its own challenges and advantages to the party. On the one hand, there are fewer obstructions to block or attenuate wireless signals and spectrum tends to be less crowded. On the other, electrical power is often scarce and the realities of farming mean that anything you put in the ground often has to be temporary – fields are constantly being plowed up and replanted.

SigFox, a France-based company, is starting to expand its North American low power, wide area IoT network into rural areas. As with LoRa Alliance, which has a similar business model and technology, Sigfox is using unlicensed frequencies in the 900 MHz industrial (ISM) band to deliver very small data payloads – 12 bytes – to and from low power devices that can run off of batteries, in some cases for years. It claims to be operating in 24 countries – four of those with nationwide coverage – and supporting seven million devices.

Ramzi Alharayeri, SigFox’s San Francisco-based sales and business development director, talked about network build out plans and some of the agricultural applications they’re supporting at the Salinas AgTech meet up earlier this month. Irrigation control, soil monitoring and livestock tracking are among the services that partner companies offer – SigFox is a network operator, not a direct IoT service provider or equipment manufacturer itself.

So far, SigFox has a limited footprint in California. It’s built a network in San Francisco and surrounding areas, and has done some pilot projects in the north bay area. It hasn’t done a full scale rural deployment in the U.S. yet, but it’s looking at options for doing so.

FCC considers such unfinished business as can be finished

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There’s one more open meeting on the Federal Communications Commission’s 2016 schedule, and the agenda will be limited to relatively minor and generally innocuous policy decisions. That’s in keeping with FCC chairman Tom Wheeler’s sudden pullback ahead of the November meeting and his stated hope that decisions on controversial items would be “addressed after the transfer of leadership from this agency“.

Wheeler released a preliminary agenda for the 15 December 2016 meeting just ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday. It included two scheduled items and five possibles. On the for sure, tentatively list are new rules regarding support for real time text information, as a replacement for decades old teletype technology that hearing impaired people rely on when using the phone system, and improvements to the Emergency Alert System.

The maybes include updates to satellite and freedom of information rules, a couple of company-specific proceedings and an assessment of how well prepared (or not) mobile network operators are to cope with natural and other disasters. It was launched as a follow up to the post mortem on telecoms problems resulting from Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Those items are being circulated privately amongst commissioners and could be approved without a public vote.

The same is theoretically true of the two items of unfinished business – new rules for set top boxes and tighter regulation of wholesale broadband services. But those are exactly the sort of issues that republican lawmakers told the democratic majority on the FCC to back away from. Wheeler heeded those instructions and gutted the agenda for November’s meeting, and he’s holding to that course for December. Given the backgrounds of the men on the Trump transition landing team dispatched to the FCC and the longstanding opposition of the two current republican commissioners, it’s a fair bet that it’ll a long while before those two proceedings see the light of day again, if ever.

Broadband monopoly battles may shift to states when FCC retreats

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A key telecoms advisor to Donald Trump seems to be floating the idea of pushing more broadband regulatory responsibility down to states. Mark Jamison, currently a lecturer at the University of Florida and formerly a staff lobbyist for Sprint, is one half of the Trump transition landing team assigned to the Federal Communications Commission. In a blog post published before the election, he argues that there’s no longer a need for the FCC, as it currently exists…

Telecommunications network providers and ISPs are rarely, if ever, monopolies. If there are instances where there are monopolies, it would seem overkill to have an entire federal agency dedicated to ex ante regulation of their services. A well-functioning Federal Trade Commission (FTC), in conjunction with state authorities, can handle consumer protection and anticompetitive conduct issues.

His assertion that monopolies are rare in telecoms world only makes sense if, say, you assume that mobile service at less than 1.5 Mbps download speed – a common user experience according to testing and analysis done by the California Public Utilities Commission – is the functional equivalent of 100 Mbps cable modem service, and that high priced, high latency satellite broadband meets the same consumer needs as DSL at a fraction of the cost.

But let’s put that aside for now. A logical corollary to his argument is that state regulators are better positioned to judge if an Internet service provider has an effective monopoly, as they see it, and decide what steps to take to address it.

That would be a tempting offer for states, like California, which have effective telecoms regulatory regimes of their own, instead of relying solely on the FCC, as many others do. I don’t think it’s really on the table, though. Jamison told the Washington Post that details such as “the possible need for new state-level powers to address broadband monopolies” would have to be addressed. That’s putting it mildly. A complete overhaul of telecoms law would be required and lawmakers with the fire of federal deregulation in their bellies would not turn around and give that same authority to 50 states.

Even so, current federal law creates a balance of sorts between state and federal telecoms regulators. Depending on how it’s done, curtailing the FCC’s role might leave California with more scope of action. I’m not betting the ranch on that – battalions of deep pocked telecoms lobbyists will fight to the last ditch to keep it from happening – but Californians are not helpless spectators either.