Faster rural Internet headlines faster Canadian election

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Speed matters in Canada.

Better broadband infrastructure and service seems to be the shortest route to rural voters hearts, at least in Canada. Instead of hyping more generous farm subsidies or big, new water projects, Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper is making faster Internet access for rural areas a top promise, as he campaigns for a fourth term

At a campaign event in the eastern Ontario community of Lancaster, south of Ottawa, Mr. Harper says there is no infrastructure investment more critical to Canada’s economic fortunes than Internet access.

His plan calls for spending an extra C$200 million (about US$150 million) to build out faster broadband service to 350,000 more homes by 2017. That’s about 3% of the Canadian population – proportionately, the U.S. equivalent would be something like 3 million households.

The U.S. federal government is no stranger to such promises. The stimulus program of 2009 aimed to upgrade broadband infrastructure for 7 million homes, but gradually lowered the goal to a tenth of that level – about 700 hundred thousand – before giving up on quantitative targets altogether. At last count, the program had only managed to light up a couple hundred thousand households, and it’s not entirely certain those are all rural.

Harper is hedging his bets, also pledging better roads and bridges, and more doctors and nurses for rural areas, familiar campaign themes on both sides of the border. There is one difference, though, that should be the envy of burnt out U.S. voters: the length of the Canadian election cycle. It began about two and a half months ago, and runs through mid-October. Of this year.

Big telcos claim half a billion dollars for rural California broadband

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The two biggest incumbent telephone companies in California will be taking federal subsidies to upgrade rural broadband service. Yesterday was the deadline for AT&T and Verizon to claim the money, and both more or less said yes.

AT&T’s acceptance was unambiguous. It’s taking the Federal Communication Commission’s offer of $60 million a year in Connect America Fund (CAF) subsidies to boost Internet service speeds to 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up for 106,000 homes and businesses in rural California. Interestingly though, AT&T turned down $3.7 million to upgrade 7,000 customers in Nevada.

Verizon, on the other hand, doesn’t want anything to do with CAF money. It turned down subsidies everywhere it operates except California and Texas, where it put a marker down on behalf of Frontier Communications, which is in the process of buying Verizon’s wireline systems in those states. Verizon said no to the money offered for Florida, where it is also selling out to Frontier – no reason given as yet. Adding Verizon’s $32 million annual CAF allocation to the $6.1 million it claimed for systems it already owns gives Frontier a total of $228 million in subsidies over six years to upgrade 58,000 Californian customers.

Consolidated Telecom – formerly known as SureWest – picked up $15,000 a year to upgrade 17 subscribers in the Roseville area, while CenturyLink turned down $55,000 for 45 homes and/or businesses just this side of the Oregon border in Modoc County.

All together, the subsidies claimed by the big carriers in California are worth $98 million over six years, for a total of $590 million. The companies are required to hit construction benchmarks, which amount to upgrading at least 20% of subsidised locations every year for five years, with full completion by the end of 2020.

California senate votes for quicker wireless permit decisions

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A fast track for wireless facilities permits is one step closer to reality in California. Assembly bill 57 was approved by the state senate and sent back to the assembly, which needs to either agree with senate amendments or work out compromise language in order for it to be sent on to Governor Jerry Brown.

The senate vote was lopsided and bipartisan – 28 yes, 6 no and 6 abstentions. All of the noes and abstention were on the democratic side of the aisle

If approved, the bill would put teeth in the Federal Communications Commission’s shot clock rules, which essentially give local governments 90 days to approve or deny applications for co-location of additional equipment on existing cellular sites and other wireless facilities, and 150 days for new ones. There are provisions for stopping the clock temporarily, for example while an applicant responds to a request for more information, but once it ticks down, wireless permit applications are deemed approved unless a city or county has taken final action. There’s also a 30 day window for local governments to go to court, in order to make a case that an application shouldn’t be automatically granted.

The most recent legislative analysis points out that the bill doesn’t say that the clock stops if an application gets bogged down in environmental reviews, a popular tool of both nimbys and local governments that are intent on stalling or stopping projects. It’s also silent on the effect of open meeting notice periods and appeals processes. The analysis concludes that local governments…

Face the difficult choice of cutting short these important processes, reducing the time that they have to review applications, or denying permits and facing litigation.

One might say, though, that’s the whole point of the bill.

Possible agreement at the CPUC to investigate AT&T, Verizon networks

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A streamlined version of a decision aimed at accelerating an investigation of AT&T’s and Verizon’s wireline networks is on the table at the California Public Utilities Commission.

The debate surrounds a study of wireline network quality that has been in the works at the CPUC since 2011. Commission president Michael Picker wants to cancel the investigation, an idea that Verizon and AT&T greeted with wild enthusiasm.

Two other commissioners – Mike Florio and Catherine Sandoval – weren’t so enamoured and offered an alternate draft that 1. ripped AT&T and Verizon a new conduit for not meeting service standards (in proper legal language, of course), 2. set out other justifications for speeding it up instead of scrapping it altogether, and 3. set a six month deadline for finally getting the study underway.

Commissioner Carla Peterman objected to some of the more pointed comments in Florio’s and Sandoval’s draft during the most recent CPUC meeting a couple weeks ago, basically saying that a lot of the rhetoric was unnecessary and distracting, and all that was really needed was to clearly say get it done. If the language, but not the clear directive, of the draft was toned down, she indicated she’d be amenable to backing it.

The new version seems to meet that request. Peterman’s support is important, because it means there are three votes – the minimum needed – in favor of speeding up the investigation and get independent, neutral information about AT&T’s and Verizon’s rotting copper in California, rather than having to constantly referee arguments between the companies themselves and groups with a vested interest, of whatever kind, in the outcome.

The vote is scheduled for tomorrow.

Billions of dollars at stake this week for rural broadband upgrades

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Ready for an upgrade?

AT&T and Verizon have until Thursday to claim billions of dollars in subsidies to upgrade broadband in rural areas of the U.S., including hundreds of millions to improve service in California.

The Federal Communications Commission gives operating subsidies to telephone companies that provide broadband service in rural and/or remote areas, as a part of its universal service mandate. In the current round – Phase 2 – of the Connect America Fund (CAF) program, the FCC is offering large telephone companies a right of first refusal to accept these funds, on a state by state basis.

Frontier has already accepted $6.1 million a year for six years – $36.6 million total – and, in return, will upgrade all of its subsidised service territory in California. It’s also said that if it gets regulatory approval quickly enough to buy Verizon’s wireline systems in California, Florida and Texas, it will claim those subsidies as well – $31 million in each of six years for a total of $186 million, just in California. Nationwide, including the systems it’s trying to unload, Verizon is eligible for $144 million a year, or $864 million total.

That’s chump change compared to what AT&T could pick up, though. The FCC is offering $494 million a year – call it $3 billion total – nationwide, and $60 million a year – $360 million total – just in California.

That’s a lot of money, and you’d think that AT&T and Verizon would grab it. But there’s a good chance they won’t, because as a practical matter it would mean upgrading all households in a given area to the 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up speed standard that the FCC set for the CAF program, not just the ones eligible for subsidies. AT&T’s and Verizon’s decisions will tell us a lot about what they really intend to do with their decaying copper networks in rural California.

Verizon says screw you California (and Texas and Florida), we’re not gonna upgrade

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Frontier says it’ll try, Verizon says fuhgeddaboudit.

Verizon is finally saying flat out that it’s not going to improve its pitiful wireline infrastructure in California, and in particular it’s not going to upgrade any more copper telephone systems to modern broadband standards or capabilities. That’s probably not the intent of a joint filing made by Verizon and Frontier at the FCC as the two companies try to gain approval for their pending transaction. But it’s the plain meaning of what was said.

Frontier wants to buy Verizon’s wireline systems in California, Texas and Florida, and Verizon wants to sell. The two companies hired a Beltway law firm to speak on their behalf at the FCC. In a response to questions posed by FCC staff, the companies said

Verizon did not have any specific plans to…improve broadband service and speeds in [its service areas in California, Texas or Florida] prior to the Transaction’s announcement, beyond satisfying Verizon’s preexisting obligations.

And if Verizon didn’t have any upgrade plans before it decided to sell its Californian wireline systems, it sure doesn’t have any now that it’s working as hard as it can to unload them.

According to the filing, Verizon only offers broadband service to 73% of its wireline phone customers in the three states, while Frontier delivers it to 92% of its subscribers, despite having territory that’s far more rural in character. On that basis alone, the companies argue, the deal is a win for Californians (okay, and Texans and Floridians, too).

It’s refreshing when big telecoms companies tell the truth, even when it’s a self serving threat.

Two picks for (what’s left of) the summer broadband reading list

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Two good guides to planning and executing municipal broadband projects have been published recently: The Next Generation Network Connectivity Handbook by Blair Levin and Denise Linn, and Connecting 21st Century Communities published by Next Century Cities without authorship credit.

Both offer planning frameworks for both political leaders and city staff interested in either developing local broadband projects – of any sort – or laying the groundwork for others to do so.

[Connecting 21st Century Communities]() is short – 18 pages – and focused on policy alternatives at the local, state and federal level, including dig once ordinances, building codes and streamlined permitting processes.

The Next Generation Network Connectivity Handbook is longer – 70 pages – and goes into detail on different options for municipally-led projects. Not just city owned and operated systems, but public-private partnerships, anchor tenant arrangements and other options.

Connecting 21st Century Communities is more tactical and oriented towards basic – and less fraught – policy. The Handbook dives deeper into making tough strategic decisions and is the more balanced of the two, offering a few examples of bad projects along with a longer list of successes, although it puts too much faith in useful results from the City of Los Angeles’ current wish list request for proposal. Refreshingly, neither engages in mindless build it and they will come cheerleading.

Deciding to pursue a municipal broadband project – whether as a principal or a minor partner – can be daunting. Much of the stress, though, comes from unfamiliarity and a lack of good information sources. Both guides offer plenty of example and links that can ease those worries.

Latest Snowden revelations will push Internet infrastructure and traffic away from U.S.

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If there was ever any doubt that there’s no privacy on the Internet, the latest nuggets from Edward Snowden’s trove of documents detailing U.S. electronic spying efforts should remove it. Stories on the ProPublica.org website and in the New York Times show how telecommunications companies have cooperated with the National Security Agency to trawl emails that pass through their systems, regardless of where the messages originate or where they are destined. According to the ProPublica story, AT&T was singled out in the documents for its “extreme willingness to help” the NSA…

In September 2003, according to the previously undisclosed NSA documents, AT&T was the first partner to turn on a new collection capability that the NSA said amounted to a “‘live’ presence on the global net.” In one of its first months of operation, the [AT&T-run surveillance] program forwarded to the agency 400 billion Internet metadata records — which include who contacted whom and other details, but not what they said — and was “forwarding more than one million emails a day to the keyword selection system” at the agency headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland.

The original documents are posted alongside the ProPublica story, and make for interesting reading. Slide presentations show how an email sent to Brazil from Iran will naturally pass through a commercial server in the U.S., due to “international choke points”, “least cost routing” and other perfectly ordinary technical characteristics of the Internet.

It’s not just compliant telecoms companies that give the NSA this immense trawling capability. It also results from the fundamental architecture of the Internet, which is largely centered in and managed by the U.S.

Expect far greater international pressure to change this status quo as a result of these revelations. Even friendly countries will want alternative data paths that don’t pass through U.S. hands.

Verizon ordered to explain why copper is rotting in California

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What was the question?

Verizon will have to explain, on paper and in person, why its copper telephone networks are rotting on the poles in California. A California Public Utility Commission administrative law judge (ALJ) conducting hearings into Frontier Communications proposed purchase of the company’s wireline systems has ordered Verizon to

Prepare…a comprehensive report on the current condition of [the Verizon land line network] and the cost and extent of repairs required to bring the Network into compliance with Commission-imposed standards of safety and reliability, and to make available for cross-examination at the evidentiary hearings a person or persons most knowledgeable regarding the contents of that report.

Those hearings are scheduled to last for two full days, later in September. Anyone who has information about the state of Verizon’s legacy copper networks can also participate, within the bounds set by the ALJ.

Commissioner Catherine Sandoval, along with commission-assigned ALJs, held hearings in areas throughout California that are served by Verizon, as part of the regulatory evaluation of Frontier’s proposed takeover. At the hearing I attended, in Santa Clara, Verizon sent an engineering manager, who talked about all the improvements the company was making, and a lawyer, whose job seemed to be limited to pointing out that no one had actually proved that their infrastructure is crap. Yet.

It’s important to know the true condition of Verizon’s Californian wireline networks, and if CPUC rules have been broken then retrospective penalties are appropriate. But the real purpose of the hearings is to decide whether we’d be better off with Frontier in charge. At this point, the answer seems obvious.

Apple ready to do to autos what it did to mainframes and flip phones

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The automotive assembly line of the near-future.

Rumors of an Apple-built car appear to be true. The Guardian, in a story written by Mark Harris, tells of enquiries made by Apple engineers to GoMentum Station, a test site for driverless cars located on the old Concord Naval Weapons Station in the East Bay Area. With military-grade security still in place, the site is run by the Contra Costa Transportation Authority and is billed as the largest secure test bed site in the United States.

Apple’s interest in developing an autonomous car follows a similar program launched by Google. Although old school petrol heads tend to deprecate Silicon Valley’s automotive chops, I think both companies have realised that the car business is ready to be as thoroughly disrupted as the computer industry was 40 years ago, and the mobile phone market 10 years ago.

All-electric vehicles will change the game completely. Once designs move away from aping legacy gas guzzlers, the number of moving parts required to make an electric car will become diminishingly small – the drive train can be reduced to four electric motors, one built into each wheel. Nearly everything else is either electronic controls or passenger amenities. When core automotive components become largely generic, mega-factories in China and elsewhere can pump them out as easily as laptops and tablets.

Combine a high tech supply chain with the software and data – on and off board – needed to enable driverless operation, and the auto business becomes 90% software, 9% design and 1% hardware. That’s dead center of Apple’s golden ratio.