Rural broadband needs are low and highly confidential, AT&T says

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AT&T knows what rural broadband customers need. And it’s not nearly as much as what people living in high potential urban and suburban communities need, according to arguments AT&T and DirecTv are making to the FCC, in support of their proposed merger

Within its wireline footprint, AT&T will extend its ultra-fast, fiber-to-the-premises (“FTTP”) GigaPower wireline broadband service with speeds of up to 1 Gbps to at least 2 million locations. At the same time, in rural, often underserved areas, AT&T will deploy fixed wireless local loop (“WLL”) broadband to an additional 13 million locations. Designed to perform as well as wireline broadband services advertised today at speeds of 15-20 Mbps, fixed WLL represents the nation’s best opportunity to begin bridging the growing digital divide between urban areas, which enjoy a rich variety of high-speed broadband options, and rural communities with few, if any, choices.

There’s a wee gap between “up to 1 Gbps” and “advertised today at speeds of 15-20 Mbps”. Or maybe not – neither claim actually promises to deliver anything in particular. But that’s okay, because AT&T has figured it all out, telling the FCC “the fixed WLL service will be offered with a usage allowance high enough to satisfy most customers’ needs”. How does it know? Well, it’s a secret…

AT&T currently expects the product to be offered with a usage allowance high enough to readily satisfy most customers’ needs, [BEGIN AT&T HIGHLY CONFIDENTIAL INFORMATION] [END AT&T HIGHLY CONFIDENTIAL INFORMATION] To determine an appropriate usage allowance that would meet the needs of most customers, [BEGIN AT&T HIGHLY CONFIDENTIAL INFORMATION] [END AT&T HIGHLY CONFIDENTIAL INFORMATION]

WLL delivers broadband service via mobile spectrum and cell sites, using fixed antennae and terminals at subscribers’ homes. Pricing, speeds and data caps are determined by the physics and economics of mobile infrastructure. That’s as good as it’ll get for rural customers, when AT&T cuts the cord.

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California shut out of rural community broadband grants, again

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Can’t see California from here.

For the third year running, the U.S. department of agriculture passed over California while handing out Community Connect grants, a program run by the Rural Utilities Service. The agency released a list of 8 relatively small broadband projects that will be getting a total of $13.7 million. None of which are in California.

It’s possible, of course, that there were no applications submitted from here. I’ve been looking around on the web to see if that info has been published anywhere, but no joy so far. If you know where to find it, please post it in the comments below. I doubt that’s the case, but don’t have any hard facts to back up my opinion. Except that I do know that at least one proposal was submitted last year, because I worked on it.

Kentucky, on the other hand, which has less than 12% of the Golden State’s population received 3 grants this year, 2 last year and 1 in 2012. Since the program began in 2002, RUS has funded 18 Community Connect projects in Kentucky, more than twice the number (7) that have been approved in California over that time. Looking just at non-tribal lands, commercial providers in California received only 2 grants, while all 18 of Kentucky’s are private companies.

Ironically, Kentucky has been used by broadband advocates as an illustration of the extent of unserved territory here. From the California Emerging Technology Fund’s 2009 annual report

Although broadband infrastructure is available to 96% of California households, the 4% (or approximately 500,000 households and 1.4 million people) without access in rural and remote areas are spread out over about 25% of the state’s land area—equal to the size of the 37th largest state in land area, or about the size of Kentucky.

A major problem, shared by other Western states – no grants were given west of the Rockies this year – is that USDA in general and RUS in particular are set up to serve small counties with lots of small family farms, not big counties with big spreads that are often corporately owned. Demographics and population distributions are different. So are the economics and structure of the broadband business. Indian lands fall into a different category, so Californian tribes have done relatively well over the years.

Two ways to solve the problem: get RUS to better adapt its broadband development programs to Western realities and get to work on figuring out how to better fit our square pegs into their round holes. We need to do both. In the meantime, though, we can console ourselves with the thought that the California Advanced Services Fund has more than 10 times the money for broadband infrastructure grants just in this state, than Community Connect has for the entire country. It’s really not so bad here.

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FCC narrows scope for local review of wireless build outs

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The FCC’s decision to tell local governments that if they don’t approve permit applications for relatively minor modifications to wireless infrastructure within 60 days then permission is automatically “deemed granted” is a bit less than absolute. Local governments can still go to court to stop installations, and there’s a narrow set of reasons that permit applications can be rejected.

But make no mistake: the FCC is severely limiting the scope for local review of “collocation, removal, or replacement of transmission equipment on an existing wireless tower or base station,” or other work on on that infrastructure if it doesn’t involve a substantial change to its existing dimensions. “Substantial change” is quantitatively defined at length in the FCC’s order. For example if the height of an existing tower that isn’t in the public right of way is increased by more than 10% (with a couple very specific exceptions), then it’s a substantial change. If not, the new rules apply.

Local governments can delay incomplete permit applications, but have to provide a clear punch list of needed items. Otherwise…

States and localities may continue to enforce and condition approval on compliance with generally applicable building, structural, electrical, and safety codes and with other laws codifying objective standards reasonably related to health and safety.

Health and safety standards, though, do not include – the scientifically unsupported – fears that the radio frequency transmissions might cause harm.

Any list of building code conditions that must be met has to be issued along with the permit within 60 days. If that doesn’t happen, then the applicant can notify the local government in writing that the deadline has passed and get on with the work.

Unless the local government decides to take the matter to court within 30 days. The scope for judicial review is as limited as the local agency’s authority, but not the time frame: everything slows down again to the speed of justice. Commissioner Ajit Pai’s declaration that “an applicant can start building on day 61″ isn’t completely true.

I’m barely scratching the surface of the entire Report and Order, which runs 155 pages and deals with many other issues related to local review, such as environmental and historical preservation rules, temporary towers and the FCC’s general “shot clock” rule. And expect this ruling, too, to be challenged in federal court. Lots more to read and write about.

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Overhead costs for California’s broadband subsidy program steady at almost $4 million

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Administrative costs will take the same amount of money out of the California Advanced Services Fund next year as this year, assuming the California Public Utilities Commission approves the proposed budget that is scheduled to be on the table at its next meeting on 6 November 2014.

The $3.8 million overhead proposed is in line with the ballpark estimates I made back in August. There will still be something like $160 million left to spend on actual construction of broadband infrastructure, although that money will only go something like half as far as it might, given that the governor and the legislature decided that union pay scales and work rules apply to all CASF-subsidised projects.

CPUC staff costs associated with running the CASF program account for something like half of the overhead charge. That includes people who are assigned full time to the CASF program as well as support from other departments and a contractor who reviews loan applications.

The other half, or so, goes to pay for the CPUC’s broadband availability mapping program. Originally, the federal stimulus program picked up the tab, but as of this month the money for that is gone. So the CPUC is dipping into the CASF operating accounts to fill the gap and keep California’s independent broadband measurement and mapping program going. That means the infrastructure grant kitty will be tapped. So will the money set aside for infrastructure loans, regional consortia and broadband facilities and marketing in public housing. But infrastructure grants are the big ticket item, so that’s where most of the overhead – call it $3 million – will fall.

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FCC says wireless permits automatically granted if local goverments don’t act in 60 days

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If local governments don’t approve certain permit applications for wireless broadband facilities within 60 days, then the FCC says permission is automatically “deemed granted”. That’s one of the new rules limiting how local and state agencies can regulate wireless broadband infrastructure issued by the commission on Friday.

The 60-day time limit affects permit applications for “collocation, removal, or replacement of transmission equipment on an existing wireless tower or base station,” so long as it doesn’t involve a substantial change to the existing structure’s dimensions. That much is clear from the FCC’s press release. But the full order hasn’t been posted yet, so the full extent of the changes is still an unknown.

For now, most of the details are coming from prepared statements issued by the commissioners. Chair Tom Wheeler’s spin is that the order is a wonderful benefit to local governments…

The Order also implements federal statutory directives that are intended to make State and local review more efficient for wireless deployments and modifications.

At the same time, the Order preserves our commitment to safeguard the essential roles that State, local, and Tribal governments play in this process.

For instance, the Order preserves local governments’ authority to adopt and apply the zoning, safety, and concealment requirements that are appropriate for their communities.

Commissioner Ajit Pai, though, was more direct about the FCC’s action

“The Order amends our environmental and historic preservation rules to make it easier to deploy small cells and collocate antennas on existing structures. The Order also makes it clear that our shot-clock rules apply to small cells and DAS and that local moratoria cannot be used to make an end run around those rules. And it adopts a bright-line test for determining which equipment modifications qualify for section 6409’s deemed-grant remedy and makes clear that an applicant can start building on day 61 if a municipality doesn’t act on its application…And once we have some experience in the field with a deemed-granted remedy for infrastructure deployment, I hope we consider extending that remedy to our [tower siting] shot clock.

The devil, though, will be in the details and I’ll post an update when those are available.

UPDATE, 21 October 2014: the report and order has been published:

In the Matter of Acceleration of Broadband Deployment by Improving Wireless Facilities Siting Policies…

Stay tuned.

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Wearables need network neutrality, of a sort, to thrive

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Cord cutting is easy if you live in a signal rich environment. Or at least easier – anyone who has experienced the frustration of trying to make a mobile call from an interior room in a central business district hotel knows it isn’t a slam dunk. But once you move out into suburban and rural areas, reliable indoor phone and Internet service usually means keeping the wire. (And yes, I know, fixed wireless is a potential solution, but usually not – at least according to the FCC.

Even where mobile networks provide adequate coverage for outdoor use, reaching people inside homes and businesses becomes problematic has – the company’s founder, Werner Sievers, says – solved that problem for developing world markets. Now, he wants to bring it to the U.S., first for cord cutters but ultimately as fixed infrastructure for wearables.

The basic product consists of two units – one located where it can capture a mobile signal – even as weak as 1 bar or less – and the other positioned for maximum coverage of about 13,000 square feet inside a home or office building. The key hurdle Sievers says they’ve overcome is latency, reducing the delay caused by adding 2 hops and signal processing to the transmission path to 20 microseconds or less.

It’s not cheap. The 3G unit is $575 and the soon-to-be launched LTE version is $700. But it is technology intended for mobile networks, which is an industry that understands trading equipment subsidies for service subscriptions.

Right now, wearables like the Fitbit depend on a smart phone for connectivity and networked processing power – either from the phone itself or via its link to a remote server. For now, it’s a drag on adoption – your choice of wearables depends in the first instance on your choice of smart phone. An alternate, vendor-neutral path, like that provided by Nextivity, will turbocharge adoption and create a new business model for mobile operators and wearable manufacturers to pursue.

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Telephone companies can begin bidding for FCC rural broadband subsidies

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The FCC will accept bids for its rural broadband experiment program, starting next week. With $100 million on the table, to be spent at the rate of $10 million a year for 10 years, the effort is likely to produce something like a dozen or so projects.

Because of legal restrictions on the source of the money – the Connect America Fund – only telephone companies that are certified as eligible telecommunications carriers (ETC), or shortly will be, can apply. Others can participate, but only as partners with an ETC. And any subsidised project has to offer voice service – on a common carrier basis meeting FCC standards – as well as broadband at 100 Mbps down/25 Mbps up or 10/1, depending on the size and location of the proposal.

The FCC has released a list of census blocks where projects can be funded. It’s determined by carrier-reported speeds. An area is eligible if no voice carrier offers broadband service at 3 Mbps down/768 Kbps up, according to the FCC’s FAQ…

Why are areas identified as unserved if they are served by a fixed wireless provider providing broadband services meeting the Commission’s standards but not providing voice services?

The Connect America Fund supports the deployment of both voice and broadband capable networks to high-cost areas. Because these areas are lacking voice service from a competitor, they are eligible for support…

The deadline for applying is 7 November 2014. Californian projects will get an automatic 10% spiff from the California Advanced Services Fund. Since the FCC is essentially running the application process as a reverse auction, the extra money will provide a competitive edge.

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Continued CPUC backpedaling on net neutrality draws activist fire

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*”Okay, I got it.”*

The decision to pull network neutrality and the possibility of regulating broadband infrastructure as a common carrier off the table at the California Public Utilities Commission provoked harsh criticism from advocacy group representatives who showed up at yesterday’s meeting expecting to be in the discussion.

Tracy Rosenberg, the executive director of Oakland-based Media Alliance said that commissioners let down the 3,200 people who sent in comments via her website alone..

They are very disappointed by your action this morning. Not just disappointed because you did not decide to go ahead and provide the authorization [to offer an opinion to the FCC], although it is very important for the California Public Utilities Commission to weigh in on issues that affect public utilities. But I think they are even more disappointed by the fact that you didn’t even bring the item up for a discussion and for a vote. That is disrespectful to all of these people who told you how they felt, what they wanted and what was important to them. There’s been no public explanation for the withdrawal, there’s been no public discourse on the subject from the commission. What’s going on here folks?

Lame duck CPUC president Michael Peevey didn’t offer any explanation for the retreat. The only commissioner who addressed the subject at all was Catherine Sandoval, who announced that she sent the FCC remarks she made to a congressional committee about net neutrality…

My testimony highlights the use of the internet by utilities who have been designated by President Obama as critical infrastructure and thus the importance of openness, low barriers to entry and reliability and my concern that individualised negotiations that the FCC would specifically authorise to discriminate between different users would increase barriers to entry in a fashion that also would be contradictory to the mission of utilities to provide safe, reliable service at just and reasonable rates.

Individualised negotiations is Sandoval’s polite term for FCC chair Tom Wheeler’s no lobbyist left behind plan to work out any pesky traffic management complaints behind closed doors with his buddies.

The CPUC can revisit net neutrality and broadband regulation anytime it wants. So far though, there’s no indication that it will.

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CPUC punts on putting broadband under common carrier rules

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Regulating broadband infrastructure under common carrier rules – also known as Title II of federal telecoms law – is dead, at least as far as the California Public Utilities Commission is concerned. Commissioners won’t be voting on whether or not to advise the FCC to solve the network neutrality debate by applying a traditional, telephone-style regulatory regime to Internet service providers.

The question was scheduled to be discussed at this morning’s CPUC meeting in San Francisco, but yesterday afternoon it was abruptly “withdrawn” from the agenda. That’s more than a simple delay. Its been pushed off several times already, most dramatically a month ago when three commissioners – a majority – initially voted to endorse common carrier-style regulation of broadband infrastructure.

It only lasted an hour. After what seemed to be blatant arm-twisting by CPUC president Michael Peevey, commissioner Carla Peterman pulled back her aye vote. Peevey put the question on hold for two weeks, then Peterman iced it for another two.

Which brings us to today’s meeting. Another commissioner could have asked for another two week delay, but that didn’t happen. So instead of moving to what could have been a final vote, for or against common carrier rules, the entire issue was deep sixed yesterday.

It still might be resurrected. Peevey is a lame duck. If you assume – not unreasonably – that he had a hand in killing it, then come January, when someone else will preside, it could be reintroduced.

Or maybe sooner. As a former commissioner once explained to me in moment of four-martini candor, CPUC policy is whatever three commissioners says it is. Stay tuned.

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Google’s bootprint in Austin won’t be Texas-sized

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Google Fiber plans to start offering gigabit service in a handful of Austin neighborhoods in December. That’s the word from a press conference held by Google earlier today. Details are sketchy so far – all I could find in the way of coverage this afternoon was a brief write-up on a website published by a local newspaper, Community Impact.

The article, bylined by Joe Lanane, identifies Austin’s South Lamar, Zilker, Bouldin and Travis Heights neighborhoods as ground zero, and quotes Mark Strama, Google’s local manager, as saying…

That is where we will start—that is not where we will finish…Not every part of Austin will get fiber, but all areas will have the opportunity, and we will build in the areas with the highest demand.”

Lanane reported that Strama did not say how much Google is going to charge for the promised gigabit-level service, but that at least one element of the Kansas City package will remain on the table: pay a $300 connection fee and get “free” Internet service – 5 Mbps in KC – for a period of time.

It appears that, as in Kansas City, Google will focus on building out in Austin fiberhoods where a sufficient number of residents have ordered service.

Google is not putting universal service on the table. It clearly is cherrypicking affluent neighborhoods. But the impact of Google Fiber on the Austin market is more widespread. It’s no coincidence that AT&T just announced it is offering actual gigabit service there – as opposed to its Gigapower gigaweasel – although, like Google, availability is more limited than you might think. In AT&T’s case, only those homes – primarily recently built ones – with direct fiber connections qualify.

Lots of questions to answer still. But at least we now have a deadline to watch.

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