Muni broadband, net neutrality get bland nods in Biden’s peace treaty with Sanders

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Sanders biden

Joe Biden’s campaign agreed to a skeletal broadband policy in what amounts to a peace treaty with Bernie Sanders and his supporters. The “unity task force recommendations” published on Wednesday amount to little more than a declaration that broadband is good, but it’s the first time that Biden has explicitly signed on to any conventional democratic party positions on telecommunications policy.

The document has the usual nice words about broadband being essential to life in the 21st century, with the standard nod to education. It makes a constitutionally dubious pledge to remove state bans on municipal broadband projects and to spend money on all types of infrastructure, including, particularly, muni broadband.

Network neutrality gets a mention. The “recommendations” propose to…

Restore the FCC’s clear authority to take strong enforcement action against broadband providers who violate net neutrality principles through blocking, throttling, paid prioritization, or other measures that create artificial scarcity and raise consumer prices for this vital service.

Presumably, what they really mean is that Biden will appoint FCC commissioners who will use the “clear authority” that already exists. Which means policy ping pong will continue. During the Obama administration, the democratic majority on the Federal Communications Commission classified broadband as a regulated common carrier service. The Trump administration’s republican led FCC said it wasn’t.

The recommendations don’t explicitly promise to restore broadband’s common carrier status. There are other ways of imposing net neutrality obligations on Internet service providers, as California discovered. Initially, the Obama era FCC proposed a no lobbyist left behind approach that would have allowed monopoly model incumbents to negotiate permission for decidedly non-neutral network management practices.

Direct intervention by the Obama white house put an end to that pretence. Whether a Biden administration would do the same is an open question. Biden has enjoyed a long and comfortable political career in a system fuelled by, and largely subservient to, cash from corporations and labor unions. The peace treaty with Sanders doesn’t change that reality.

Democrats in D.C. and Sacramento in sync on fast fiber for broadband. So far

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Sunesys build freedom blvd 625

If you can’t get high quality broadband service with at least 25 Mbps download and upload speeds, then you’re unserved according to a $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill passed on a partisan vote by democrats in the federal house of representatives. $80 billion of that money is set aside for broadband service upgrades, with symmetrical 100 Mbps service considered the minimum acceptable and preference given to subsidised projects that deliver 1 Gbps down and up.

Unlike California, republicans matter in D.C. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R – Kentucky) scoffed at the house infrastructure bill, saying “naturally this nonsense is not going anywhere”. That doesn’t take meaningful broadband subsidies off the table, though. With unemployment at historic levels in an election year, a big, job-creating infrastructure bill will be popular on both sides of the aisle.

The 25 Mbps down/up eligibility standard and the 100 Mbps down/up construction standard track with a bill that’s moving through the California legislature. Senate bill 1130 doesn’t go quite that far – symmetrical 100 Mbps infrastructure is a goal, not a requirement – but even with the weasel words it’s a quantum leap from California’s pitiful 6 Mbps down/1 Mbps up minimum. It’s the difference between 1990s DSL and 2020s fiber.

So far, California democrats have stayed in sync with their Washington, D.C. colleagues. All California senate democrats voted in favor of SB 1130, along with a lone republican. The bill was sent over to the assembly and is on track for a hearing in the communications and conveyances committee.

The big question is whether democrats on the committee – 10 out of 12 members – follow the party line or channel their inner GOP animal spirits, as they have on broadband subsidies and network neutrality in the past. The committee was scheduled to consider SB 1130 next week, but it’s on indefinite hold now, with the legislature shut down until further notice because of a covid–19 outbreak in the capitol.

Consumer service versus taxpayer costs: CPUC considers opening rural telco territory to competition

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Tesoro viejo construction 25aug2019

Small telephone companies that serve rural Californians will face direct competition from cable operators and other wireline telecoms companies if the California Public Utilities Commission approves a draft decision posted for review on Monday. Authored by commissioner Martha Guzman Aceves, the proposed new rules would allow competitive local exchange carriers (CLECs) to provide voice telephone service in territories that are reserved exclusively for heavily subsidised, small local exchange carriers (Small LECs).

Acknowledging that “wireline competition must be allowed in the service territories of the Small LECs as a matter of law”, the draft tries to balance the benefits of competition to consumers with the potential cost to taxpayers if cable companies skim off profitable neighborhoods, leaving Small LECs increasingly dependent on universal service subsidies to serve the rest.

To gain permission to enter protected territories, CLECs would “be required to serve customers requesting wireline voice service within their self-designated service territories on a non-discriminatory basis”, regardless of how difficult that might be. The proposed decision strikes an old rule that limits that obligation to customers within 300 feet of a CLEC’s existing facilities.

“Cream skimming” would be banned. CLECs wouldn’t be able to draw service boundaries to suit profit-maximising business models. The proposed decision directs that…

A CLEC shall avoid designing a discriminatory self-designated service territory by ensuring that the self-designated service territory represents the demographics of the Small LEC territory it is entering by making a good-faith effort to serve a proportional number of residential to commercial customers, and a proportional number of low-income and non-low-income customers…[to] guard against only sub-sets of wealthy customers being served by the CLEC.

Comcast, for example, wouldn’t be able to cut a deal in a new, upscale development, as it did near Fresno, while ignoring less profitable lower income rural customers in the surrounding area.

CLECs would also have to accept all emergency preparedness obligations that the CPUC has in the pipeline, and meet whatever “location-specific” requirements are imposed on a case by case basis. None of it makes cable companies happy – they’ve paid a lot of money to a lot of politicians to avoid traditional, telco-style regulation.

Guzman Aceves’ proposed decision is on track for a commission vote in August.

Covid-19 was barely a sniffle for the Internet, study finds

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Fixed broadband weighted median download

Broadband networks in the U.S. and around the world held up well as countries locked down and work, school and play moved online in March. Anna-Maria Kovacs, a visiting scholar at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., took a brief look at worldwide Internet speed test data collected by Ookla and traffic data from Sandvine, and found that the crush of traffic put a temporary downward bend – and only that – on planetary network speeds

It is not unusual, of course, for internet traffic to grow…What is unusual in the Covid–19 environment is the suddenness of the traffic growth. Rather than growing 30% in a year, traffic grew about that much in a month. Sandvine reports a “staggering increase in volume for network operators to cope with and absorb.” During March, according to Sandvine, global traffic grew 28.69% with an additional 9.28% during April, for a total of 38% over the two months. Upstream traffic growth was even more stunning, up 123.18% in March before leveling off…

The U.S. networks’ fixed-broadband speed bottomed out within three weeks, as did the global index, while the speeds of the EU, EU–4, and OECD continued to decline for another three weeks.

Kovacs’ conclusions – the apparent superior performance of U.S. networks is due to the beneficence of telecoms companies and the somnambulance of the Federal Communications Commission – are unsupported. Her top level observations might correlate to Ookla’s network traffic data, but she offers no analytical rigor or evidence of causation. The data sets she relies on aren’t necessarily globally consistent. For example, Ookla’s Speedtest.net is based in Seattle and relies on crowdsourced data. It’s a mistake to assume that the crowd generating the data in the U.S. is largely identical to the crowd in the E.U. It might or might not be.

Comparisons of the same population over a few weeks time are valid, though. The top line conclusion stands: globally, networks withstood the initial covid–19 induced surge, and adapted to higher traffic levels within a few weeks.

The Internet was originally designed to ride out a nuclear war. It works just fine in a pandemic, too.

Short broadband to-do list for California legislators upon return from summer vacation

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

California lawmakers are taking an abbreviated summer break. They usually leave Sacramento for a month around July, but since they were off for so long earlier this year due to covid-19 and because of the uncertain condition of the state budget, their effective vacation was trimmed back to less than two weeks. They’re scheduled to return to the capitol a week from today. When they return, they’ll have just a handful of broadband-related bills to act on.

The assembly’s incumbent-friendly communications and conveyances committee is scheduled to take up senate bill 1130 next Tuesday, the day after the legislature reconvenes. SB 1130, carried by Lena Gonzalez (D – Los Angeles) would raise California’s minimum broadband standard to symmetrical 25 Mbps download and upload speeds, and make other useful changes to the California Advanced Services Fund. An opposing bill, assembly bill 570, that tracks with talking points pushed by cable and telephone company lobbyists, is headed for the senate’s energy, utilities and communications committee. AB 570 is authored by Cecilia Aguiar-Curry (D – Yolo), would cement in the current, pitiful 6 Mbps down/1 Mbps up standard and make other changes to the California Advanced Services Fund that suit incumbents with monopoly business models and deep pockets full of cash for pliable legislators.

SB 431, authored by Mike McGuire (D – Sonoma) has been stalled in the assembly communications and conveyances committee for more than a year, but is now scheduled for a hearing next Tuesday. Given the monied interests it offends, its prospects are dim. SB 432 would give the California Public Utilities Commission explicit instructions to established reliability standards for telephone, cable and mobile companies, and any other Internet service provider in high fire threat areas. Fortunately, the CPUC isn’t waiting for explicit instructions.

AB 2421, by Bill Quirk (D – Alameda) would require cities and counties to issue permits for back up generators at macro cell sites, following a minimal and expedited review. Those generators would also be exempt from California Environmental Quality Act requirements. AB 2421 was passed unanimously by the assembly in June, and is queued up in the senate.

Other broadband policy bills could appear as the legislature works towards adjournment at the end of August, but for now it’s a short list.

I’ve advocated for SB 1130, and for other useful changes to CASF. I am involved and proud of it. I am not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.

FCC chokes on Digital Path’s map spam, CPUC still chewing on it as broadband subsidy decisions for rural California are made

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Spam

Nearly 426,000 California “locations” – homes, businesses, institutions – are eligible for the Federal Communications Commission’s $16 billion broadband subsidy auction in October. The California Public Utilities Commission has about $145 million for broadband infrastructure grants, primarily in rural communities. Both agencies have to sort out challenges from incumbent Internet service providers that want to block subsidies in order to protect their turf, as well as decide where to spend subsidy dollars.

In theory, the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) could bring faster, cheaper and more reliable broadband to as many as 8 million rural Californians, because the program’s rules require ISPs to serve everyone in a given area, whether eligible for subsidies or not. It won’t be that many in practice, but it will be more than some rural Internet service providers hoped. Half a dozen wireless ISPs (WISPs) and several wireline incumbents tried to maintain their monopoly hold on large swaths of rural California by filing dubious, if not out right bogus, claims that they provide adequate service in tens of thousands of census blocks.

At the top of the list is Digital Path, a WISP that operates in many rural Californian communities with a base in the northeast of the state. It challenged more census blocks than any other ISP in the U.S.

Digital Path gave the FCC a list of 40,000 census blocks where it claims to offer service at a minimum of 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload speeds to nearly a million Californians. That’s fast enough that those census blocks wouldn’t be eligible for RDOF money.

As it turns out, the FCC wasn’t planning to offer subsidies in at least 35,000 of those blocks. Of the remaining 5,000 blocks, the FCC only deemed Digital Path’s map spam valid in 1,300 blocks. Even so, that was enough to eliminate about 22,000 mostly rural Californians from potential federally funded broadband service upgrades.

Digital Path’s federal filing could – should – complicate, and maybe kill, its own requests for California broadband subsidies. In May, it submitted 11 applications asking for a total of $4.8 million from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF). To get CASF money, applicants are required to assert that each census block where they want to build is eligible for the program. Which means it lacks broadband service at a minimum of 6 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds.

Of the 492 census blocks where Digital Path is applying for CASF money, 419 census blocks are included in Digital Path’s federal challenge.

In other words, in April Digital Path told the FCC it offered broadband service at a minimum of 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps in those 419 census blocks, then a month later told the CPUC those same blocks were eligible for CASF subsidies because the available service was slower than 6 Mbps down/1 Mbps up. That assertion may have been based on the CPUC’s online eligibility map, which would not have included the service reports that Digital Path submitted to the FCC four weeks prior. Apparently, the “continuing obligation to make corrections” to service reports that Digital Path cited in its FCC challenge letter doesn’t extend to the CPUC.

In June, Digital Path made another attempt to prevent potential competitors from using subsidies to provide faster, cheaper and/or more reliable service. It filed another batch of broadband speed claims with the CPUC, challenging 12 projects proposed for CASF grants – nearly twice as many as the next most prolific challenger, Frontier Communications (which has its own credibility problems).

With $533 million in CASF grant proposals competing for $145 million in available funds, legitimate challenges will play a role in determining who wins. Character should count, too.

The Central Coast Broadband Consortium (CCBC) supported Charter’s San Benito County proposal and assisted Etheric Networks with its application. The Connected Capital Area Broadband Consortium (CCABC) assisted DigitalPath. I assisted the CCBC and the CCABC, and also kibitzed on other projects. I also have opinions about what the CASF program should be (in case you haven’t noticed). I’m not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.

Bill to beat down broadband subsidy program drops in California assembly

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Liberty valence 625

It was long expected. On Monday, assemblywoman Cecilia Aguiar-Curry (D – Yolo) gutted an affordable housing bill and substituted text that would, if enacted, reaffirm that California’s broadband standard is stuck in the 1990s at 6 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds, and make it even more difficult to use the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) to bring modern service to rural communities.

Assembly bill 570 is the cable and telephone industry’s response to senate bill 1130, which is carried by senator Lena Gonzalez (D – Los Angeles) and would raise California’s minimum broadband speed to a symmetrical 25 Mbps down and up. The AB 570 language tracks with talking points pushed by Comcast’s and Charter Communications’ Sacramento lobbying front, the California Cable and Telecommunications Associations (CCTA), and parroted by the California Emerging Technology Fund, a non-profit that takes its money from cable and phone companies these days.

They’ll be the big winners even if all AB 570 does is kill off SB 1130.

But it might go farther than that. AB 570 would also allow government agencies to tap into CASF and use it to backfill information technology and telecoms budgets. Up until now, CASF’s primary job has been to pay for upgrading rural broadband infrastructure, at least when it wasn’t being gamed by incumbents. The perilous condition of state and local government finances this year will make any new source of operating revenue very attractive to lawmakers.

That’s just in case the millions of dollars they’re paid by the likes of AT&T, Frontier, mobile companies and the cable industry isn’t sufficient motivation to embrace AB 570.

Aguiar-Curry rubbished SB 1130 during a California Forward-sponsored broadband policy webinar in May, even though she said she hadn’t read it yet. She was also a key backer of 2017’s AB 1665, which lowered California’s broadband standard to 6 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up, and turned CASF into a piggy bank for monopoly model incumbents.

This time, she’s taking the lead.

I’ve advocated for SB 1130, and for other useful changes to CASF. I am involved and proud of it. I am not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.

Frontier’s “pervasive lack of credibility” drives FCC’s rejection of its service claims; CPUC urged to ignore its “high level rhetoric and promises”

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

There’s rapidly increasing skepticism in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. of Frontier Communications’ corporate honesty. Frontier was blasted in two separate agency actions in recent days: the California Public Utilities Commission’s review of its post bankruptcy plans and the Federal Communications Commission’s broadband subsidy auction, as it prepares to distribute the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.

Challenges filed by incumbent broadband providers, aimed at blocking federal subsidies in their captive rural markets, were largely dismissed by the Federal Communications Commission last week. After reviewing tens of thousands of challenges in California alone, the FCC issued its verdict and published a new list of census blocks eligible for RDOF subsidies. In unusually blistering terms, the FCC dismissed Frontier’s claims it was providing adequate broadband service in 23,000 U.S. census blocks…

Given the numerous and significant concerns in the record regarding the validity of Frontier’s filing, including its own admission that it had misfiled its June 2019 data and then misfiled (again) the data for its challenge, and inconsistent explanations for its challenge, we conclude that taken together there is a pervasive lack of credibility and accordingly deny Frontier’s challenge regarding its deployment and decline to exclude those blocks from consideration for eligibility.

Frontier’s facile attempt to convince the CPUC to approve whatever settlement comes out of its New York bankruptcy proceeding on the basis of faith in its selfless devotion to the interests of Californians was similarly slammed in protests filed this week by a major telecoms union – the Communications Workers of America (CWA) – and three advocacy organisations, and CPUC staff.

CWA and the three organisations – TURN, the Greenlining Institute and the Center for Accessible Technology – pointed to the major role that Frontier plays in California’s telecoms market, and said the CPUC…

Has a statutory obligation to conduct a full analysis of the impact of this transaction that goes beyond a high level public interest review and to require [Frontier] to provide the Commission with more than high level rhetoric and promises.

They cited, among other things, Frontier’s failure to live up to promises made when it acquired Verizon’s decaying copper telephone systems in California and questioned its willingness to meet obligations attached to state subsidies, including money from the California Advanced Services Fund.

The CPUC’s quasi-independent public advocates office also asked for a full review, citing Frontier’s “unsubstantiated claims” and demanding specific plans for “network infrastructure investments, service quality and reliability improvements, consumer protections, including pricing, and broadband deployment”.

Frontier’s wish for quick and cursory CPUC approval by October is a forlorn hope.

California tops up federal broadband subsidy bids, as FCC trims RDOF eligibility list

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Pouring wine

Californian communities lost potential broadband subsidy money last week, but might have gained some back yesterday. On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission eliminated 48,000 “locations” – homes, businesses, community facilities – in what appears to be 3,100 census blocks from the preliminary eligibility list for the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), following a review of tens of thousands of challenges from incumbent broadband providers who wanted to freeze out potential competitors. I say “appears to be” because the FCC’s numbers don’t line up with census bureau stats – that discrepancy should be resolved eventually.

Yesterday, California governor Gavin Newsom signed assembly bill 82 into law. It waives restrictions on the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) – California’s primary broadband infrastructure subsidy program – and allows the California Public Utilities Commission to add money from it to RDOF-funded projects.

A census block is eligible for RDOF money if it lacks broadband service at 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload speeds. CASF subsidies are usually restricted to census blocks without service at 6 Mbps down/1 Mbps up, which means that far fewer rural homes and communities are eligible. AB 82 allows CASF funds to be spent on projects that also receive RDOF money.

RDOF subsidies are awarded via a reverse auction. Broadband providers bid down the amount of money they’re willing to accept in exchange for offering a particular level of service in a given area. Putting CASF subsidies on the table allows Californian providers to bid lower and, it is hoped, win even more federal money that’ll be spent here.

Thursday’s changes mean about 10% of the locations are gone from the preliminary RDOF eligibility list that the FCC published in March. Because of the formulae used to calculate maximum subsidy amounts, only 6% of the maximum potential money is off the table. But the maximum doesn’t mean much. The ten year total reserve price for eligible census blocks in California dropped from $2.5 billion to $2.3 billion. In theory, all of that money could end up in California. In reality, it won’t – half or a little better is a more realistic expectation.

One California rural broadband subsidy bill goes to the governor, another moves on to the assembly

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Cvin fiber marker sr49

Friday was a good day for broadband at the California capitol, as two bills expanding eligibility for infrastructure subsidies won lopsided votes. Senate bill 1130 was approved by the senate, and now awaits action in the assembly. Following senate approval on Thursday, assembly bill 82 was blessed by the assembly and is now on governor Gavin Newsom’s desk. He’s expected to sign it today.

The big, difficult and high impact bill is SB 1130. It would raise California’s minimum broadband to 25 Mbps download/25 Mbps upload speeds, and encourage – but not require – the California Public Utilities Commission to spend California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) money on infrastructure projects that deliver similarly symmetrical 100 Mbps down and up service. SB 1130 would also impose much needed open access requirements on CASF-subsidised middle mile projects. Monopoly model incumbents are against it, and the front organisation for Comcast, Charter Communications and other cable operators – the California Cable and Telecommunications Association – is, so far, the face of the opposition.

The 30 to 10 vote for SB 1130 (there’s one abstention in there, but that has the same effect as no) was mostly along party lines. One republican – Ling Ling Chang, from Orange County, joined democrats in voting aye. She was also the sole senate republican to vote aye on SB 822, the 2018 California network neutrality bill.

The more immediately useful bill, though, is AB 82. It takes effect as soon as Newsom signs it and allows the CPUC to top up October bids for federal broadband subsidies with CASF money, even when it would be spent in places that wouldn’t be eligible for it under normal circumstances. In 2017, the California legislature bowed to telco and cable lobbyists and lowered California’s broadband standard to 6 Mbps down/1 Mbps up, in order to protect their rural low speed, high price rural business model, and to fence off lucrative, high income neighborhoods from competition. The eligibility standard for federal Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) subsidy program is 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up.

AB 82 passed easily with 57 ayes, with democrats and republicans on both sides of it in the 80 member assembly, and with a strict 29 to 11 party line vote in the senate. It wasn’t particularly a vote on broadband – AB 82 is a catch-all, budget clean up bill that also deals with alcohol, cannabis and privacy issues, among others.

I’ve advocated for SB 1130, and for other useful changes to CASF. I am involved and proud of it. I am not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.