FCC wants cable companies to open up networks to competitive set top boxes

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And to more obligatory cat photos.

It’s been a busy couple of weeks in the broadband policy world, and I’m still getting caught up on all the developments. The California Public Utilities Commission voted to give mobile carriers the same kind of access to utility poles that wireline telcos and cable companies have – more on that tomorrow – and the Federal Communications Commission prepared to scale the walled gardens of set top boxes.

You need a set top box to get television service from a cable, telephone or satellite company. Right now, you have to take the box that your service provider offers you, with the functionality and price it determines. You can’t buy your own box and plug it in, because service providers lock down their networks and only allow you to use their equipment. Consequently, set top boxes are expensive, with an average rental price of $7.43 per month according to an FCC press release

Lack of competition has meant few choices and high prices for consumers – on average, $231 in rental fees annually for the average American household. Altogether, U.S. consumers spend $20 billion a year to lease these devices. Since 1994, according to a recent analysis, the cost of cable set-top boxes has risen 185 percent while the cost of computers, televisions and mobile phones has dropped by 90 percent.

If you could buy your own box or a television set or computer or other device with that capability built in, you 1. wouldn’t have to pay a monthly rental charge and 2. you can pick and choose the capabilities – recording multiple programs, say – you want. Up to a point.

Later this month, the FCC will vote on whether to start the process of writing new rules that would force video providers to allow third party devices to decode and record programming streams and other services – within the limits of your subscription – and display program guide information. As is the FCC’s practice, the actual text commissioners will vote on, or at least are considering at this point, is supposedly secret – it’s not officially available – so we’ll have to wait until sometime after the 18 February 2016 vote to find out what it really says.

LA legislator wants to scrap the CPUC and start over again

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When you’re in the broadband business, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the bulk of the work done by state utility regulators, particularly the California Public Utilities Commission, has nothing to do with telecommunications. And from the most basic, life and death perspective, broadband is nowhere near the top of the priority list.

That privileged position belongs to the natural gas industry, because a mistake can literally destroy a town, due to an explosion, as in San Bruno, or due to a major leak, such as the ongoing one in the Porter Ranch area of Los Angeles County.

The CPUC’s handling of those two incidents, and the events leading up to them, has been the target of fulsome criticism, and now, if a southern California assemblyman has his way, could mean the end of the agency. Mike Gatto (D – Glendale) says he’s going to put a constitutional amendment in front of California voters that would abolish the CPUC and allow the legislature to parcel out its various jobs…

“After hearing about how the clear warnings of the impending Aliso Canyon gas leak were lost in the shuffle, I concluded that we need to rethink the way we regulate utilities in this state,” said Gatto. “Our concern is that the CPUC is too big to succeed; it is time to hit the reset button.”

The CPUC’s role is baked into the California constitution, so to eliminate it, Gatto will need the agreement of two-thirds of the legislature (or get a few hundred thousand signatures on initiative petitions) and then agreement from voters.

Big buck proposal for California broadband aims for wide appeal

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More money to build broadband infrastructure in California is back on the table, along with even more money for other broadband-related initiatives. Assembly bill 1758 was introduced at the state capitol by assemblyman Mark Stone (D – Santa Cruz) this week. It’s a new and improved and greatly enlarged version of last year’s effort to put more money in the California Advanced Services Fund, and raise the minimum broadband standards it supports.

AB 1758 would more than double the size of the fund, raising it from its current maximum of $315 million to an eventual $665 million. However, only $150 million of the extra $350 million would go directly towards subsidising new broadband infrastructure. As it current reads, the split would be…

  • $150 million for broadband infrastructure construction grants.
  • $100 million for so-called broadband adoption efforts by “not-for-profit, community-based organizations, schools, and libraries”, which include “public education and outreach programs that are culturally appropriate and in relevant languages on digital literacy training, assistance with selecting a high-speed Internet provider, and subscription to high-speed Internet access”.
  • $75 million for broadband facilities in public housing. The thinking is that the legislature will be approving more housing projects, so more network wiring and equipment will be needed too.
  • $15 million for regional broadband consortia
  • $10 for the California Telehealth Network, which could be spent on services from existing broadband networks.

The previous effort to recharge CASF was focused on infrastructure grants, and failed in the face of vociferous opposition from incumbent telephone and cable companies who saw no benefit in subsidising potential competitors, indirect or otherwise. AB 1758 is designed to mute objections from incumbents and increase the appeal of CASF, which is primarily focused on rural areas, to urban interests.

Technology neutral does not mean price and service oblivious

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It was either pay the rent or the Verizon bill, but at least I’m getting good reception.

The Federal Communications Commission got it right last week, and the California Public Utilities Commission got it wrong. On the one hand, the FCC formally decided that “fixed and mobile broadband services are not functional substitutes for one another“, and reaffirmed that the minimum acceptable speed for wireline service is 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up.

On the other, the CPUC put a big hole in a proposed fiber to the home system, because one of the small towns it will serve apparently has mobile service available that meets its 6 Mbps down/1.5 Mbps up minimum. Arguably it means that the town, Lee Vining, is not eligible for subsidies from the California Advanced Services Fund.

I say arguably because there was no evidence you can get those speeds on a mobile phone inside, say, a home – the speed tests are done outdoors – and, as the CPUC has ruled previously, price matters. Mobile service from AT&T and Verizon in Lee Vining costs a lot more – 10 times more or better, depending on the amount of data consumed – than the $25 for 25 Mbps pricing Race Telecommunications will be offering in nearby towns that aren’t similarly blessed.

But the argument that three of the five commissioners – Michael Picker, Carla Peterman and Liane Randolph – bought is the one that mobile carriers are selling: if you have a smartphone, you have all the broadband you need and no one cares if it drains your bank account or you have to sit outside to use it.

It’s time for the CPUC to drop the pretence of technological neutrality and recognise, as the FCC did, that “although fixed and mobile broadband may utilize different network technologies, the salient differences between the two service types are found not in their technological differences, but in the distinct capabilities that they provide consumers”.

Mobile broadband can’t take the place of wireline, FCC says

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Probably not doing his homework.

Mobile broadband service is not a substitute for in-home wireline service. That’s the headline conclusion from the Federal Communications Commission’s 2016 Broadband Progress Report. The report, approved on a semi-bipartisan 4 to 1 vote last week (republican Michael O’Rielly dissented), draws a hard distinction between wireline and mobile, in terms of speed, cost and functionality…

Consumers have advanced telecommunications capability only to the extent that they have access to both fixed and mobile broadband service. As they currently exist, fixed and mobile broadband services are not functional substitutes for one another, as some commenters suggest. Rather, as many commenters recognize, in today’s society, fixed and mobile broadband are both critically important services that provide different and complementary capabilities, and are tailored to serve different consumer needs…

It is true that, at a high level of generality, both services provide consumers with broadband Internet access service. As we have explained, however, significant differences in service capability and pricing prevent fixed and mobile broadband from being adequate substitutes for one another. Although fixed and mobile broadband sometimes provide overlapping functionality, this does not compel the conclusion that the two services are interchangeable for purposes of our Inquiry. Indeed, Americans with access to only one type of service are often unable to take advantage of the full range of functionality offered by advanced telecommunications capability.

The report reaffirms the FCC’s 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload speed benchmark for wireline service – the only pushback on that standard came from commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who said it should be 100 Mbps. Either way, it’s significantly higher, and significantly more realistic, than the California Public Utilities Commission’s 6 Mbps down/1.5 Mbps minimum.

No minimum was set for mobile service, though. The FCC thinks the question needs more study. But the benchmarks discussed in the report were generally in the 5 Mbps to 10 Mbps download range – further debunking any claims that mobile can do everything wireline can do.

Sorry Lee Vining, mobile is good enough for you

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No future here.

Fiber to the home service is coming to a string of small Mono County communities generally along U.S. highway 395 (and along the Digital 395 fiber backbone), but one – Lee Vining – will be left out.

The California Public Utilities Commission approved a $6.6 million grant to Race Telecommunications from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) to build out FTTH systems in South Chalfant, Benton, Benton Hot Springs, Swall Meadows and Mono City. But commissioners excluded Lee Vining because AT&T and Verizon offer mobile broadband service there.

The mobile service that’s available won’t support the kind of services and applications that wireline systems can – that point was confirmed by CPUC staff. High definition, interactive video streaming is an example, and it’s not just about being able to watch Netflix.

“That type of video is increasingly critical for taking classes and is absolutely critical for medical types of applications”, said commissioner Catherine Sandoval. “Truly, it’s where the future is going”.

Unfortunately, it’s not where the majority of CPUC commissioners are heading. Despite the fact that the project would pass north through Lee Vining anyway in order to reach Mono City, three commissioners – Liane Randolph, Carla Peterman and president Michael Picker – voted to exclude the town from the project. The general rationale was that the $1 million saved could be better spent elsewhere.

It was the second time in as many meetings that the CPUC has pulled particular towns out of CASF-subsidised projects because they deemed slow and expensive wireless service to be good enough, while approving money to upgrade neighboring communities to FTTH. Race will be offering the lucky towns uncapped, symmetrical 25 Mbps service for $25 per month and a gigbit for $100. People in Lee Vining, on the other hand, will have much slower service – 6 Mbps down – from AT&T and Verizon, and will be paying by the byte: to get the 50 gigabytes of data that the median U.S. consumes, Verizon’s mobile customers have to pay $350 per month, and wait a lot longer for it to be delivered.

Resolution approving $6.6 million for the Gigafy Mono project
Alternate resolution – rejected by a 3 to 2 vote – that would have included Lee Vining
CPUC staff presentation comparing the two alternatives

Charter and Comcast could control 70% of U.S. broadband market

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More consolidation.

Ars Technica has crunched the numbers, and reached the conclusion that if Charter Communications is allowed to buy cable systems owned by Time Warner and Bright House, it will end up with monopoly control of 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up broadband service for about a quarter of U.S. households, and that when combined with Comcast’s footprint, service to the majority of homes will be controlled by one of two companies

Charter said in November that it would serve 23 percent of the nation’s 25Mbps-and-up broadband subscribers if it can buy TWC and BHN. Comcast has about 47.6 percent based on our calculations, pushing the two companies’ total over 70 percent. The vast majority of Comcast subscribers have speeds of at least 25Mbps…

Charter’s “less than 30 percent” quote came in May 2015, and the company followed up with its more precise estimate of 23 percent in December.

A Charter spokesperson told Ars that it calculated the 23 percent estimate by comparing the merging companies’ December 2014 subscriber numbers to the December 2014 FCC data, so that means the expanded Charter would have about 9.58 million subscribers with 25Mbps speeds.

That benchmark was set by the Federal Communications Commission as the minimum speed necessary to make use of advanced, 21st century applications, content and other broadband-delivered services.

On the other hand, 70% isn’t as bad as 90%, which is the figure that opponents of the Charter transaction are citing. The Ars Technica article attributes the difference to older data used by the coalition of groups that want the deal killed.

In California though, the figure is likely to be in the 80% range. The estimate made during last year’s review of Comcast’s failed buyout of Charter, Time Warner and Bright House systems in California was 84% control of the high speed market, and newer figures calculated during the review of the current Charter proposal indicate not much has changed here.

Two small – for now – broadband bills advance in Sacramento

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One side makes you bigger, one side makes you small…

A move to force Caltrans to play nice with broadband companies – at least, a little nice in little while – and some minor tinkering with the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) infrastructure subsidy program are moving forward in Sacramento.

The state assembly unanimously passed AB 1549, authored by Healdsburg assemblyman Jim Wood. As currently written, it would require Caltrans to make information available about conduit it installs in its own projects. In the future. Pushback from the agency resulted in the requirement being trimmed back. It would only apply to conduit Caltrans installs from 2017 on. Its existing, and extensive, inventory of conduit is effectively a bureaucratic secret and could remain so even if the bill passes. But the important thing is that Wood beat tomorrow’s deadline for getting it out of the assembly and into the senate, where there will be more time and more opportunities to wrangle over the details.

A second bill made the trip in the opposite direction. Senate bill 745 lengthens the list of organisations that may specifically be part of regional broadband consortiums funded by CASF – probably needlessly because the list is already pretty inclusive and final discretion is still in the hands of the California Public Utilities Commission. It also requires the CPUC to include a county by county breakout of CASF money expended in its annual reports.

Neither provision is a big deal, but the fact that it’s sponsored by San Diego democrat Ben Hueso is significant. He’s the chairman of the senate’s energy, utilities and communications committee, which makes him one of the key broadband policy makers in California. As the bill moves forward, it also could change significantly. It’s worth watching.

Wireless permit shot clock primer for Californian planners

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Sharp limits on local review of proposed cellular sites and other wireless facilities went into effect in California at the beginning of the year. It’s the result of a new law passed last year – assembly bill 57 – that put teeth into Federal Communications Commission shot clock rules that say cities and counties have to make a decision on permit applications within 90 days if it’s adding equipment to an existing site or 150 days if it’s completely new. In California now, if the shot clock runs out, the permit is automatically deemed approved.

That’s on top of another FCC rule that sets a 60-day shot clock with deemed granted provisions for smaller collocations.

Omar Masry, the former wireless permit guru at the City and County of San Francisco (he’s with the mayor’s office now) co-wrote with attorney Robert May an excellent article with some detailed suggestions for local planning and public works officials who have to deal with the new rules. At the top of the list is advice to be very careful about carefully reviewing any new permit applications, and reject as incomplete ones where…

  • Any existing on-site wireless facilities were not built, modified or maintained correctly (request current site photos and prior plans/permits in submittal forms).
  • There are current Municipal (Building, Fire) Code Violations at the Project Site.
  • Commonly expected submittal items are missing. Determine if based on local practice, whether specific exhibits (geo-technical, archaeological surveys, Phase I reports, and environmental evaluations) should be required for freestanding facilities, or facilities with other major ground disturbances (excavations, access roads, fuel tanks, new equipment/building pads). Indicate these requirements up-front on the application forms.

Rejecting incomplete applications is the only way to stop the clock, other than by mutual agreement with the cell tower or wireless company. That rejection can’t be arbitrary, so a detailed checklist of required items is needed to ensure due process and make sure nothing is missed. If you’re involved in either building or reviewing permits for wireless facilities of any kind, Masry’s article is a must read.

FCC drawing clearer distinction between fixed and mobile broadband

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Tarzan say wireline good mobile solution.

“Immediate action” on advanced broadband deployment is apparently on the table at today’s Federal Communication Commission meeting. That’s the gist of a fact sheet released by chairman Tom Wheeler ahead of a vote on the commission’s 2016 broadband progress report.

The fact sheet lays out the problem – “approximately 34 million Americans still lack access to fixed broadband at the FCC’s benchmark speed of 25 Mbps for downloads, 3 Mbps for uploads” – but doesn’t offer any concrete actions or policy changes for fixing it. That’s consistent with the FCC’s practice of avoiding public scrutiny of proposed actions until after the decision is made. When last report was considered, though, one of the results was the adoption of the 25 down/3 up standard, which has proven useful as a policy tool here in California. We’ll have to wait to see what this year’s report brings.

Another useful finding detailed in the fact sheet is a clear distinction between fixed and mobile service: one isn’t a substitute for the other and both are needed…

  • Advanced telecommunications capability requires access to both fixed and mobile broadband o Fixed and mobile service offer distinct functions meeting both complementary and distinct needs
  • Fixed broadband offers high-speed, high-capacity connections capable of supporting bandwidth-intensive uses, such as streaming video, by multiple users in a household.
  • But fixed broadband can’t provide consumers with the mobile Internet access required to support myriad needs outside the home and while working remotely.
  • Mobile devices provide access to the web while on the go, and are especially useful for real-time two-way interactions, mapping applications, and social media
  • But consumers who rely solely on mobile broadband tend to perform a more limited range of tasks and are significantly more likely to incur additional usage fees or forgo use of the Internet.

It could be that today’s decision won’t go any further than this general policy statement, or there could be something more specific. We’ll have to wait for the vote and then for FCC staff to get around to publishing the report. Maybe later today, maybe not.