California’s broadband speeds get average marks from Akamai

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Internet connection speeds in California are better than the national average, but not by much and not by enough to be amongst the leaders. According to Akamai’s State of the Internet Report for the first quarter of 2016, the average speed at which Californians connected to its content distribution network was 16.4 Mbps. That compares favorably to the U.S. average of 15.3 Mbps, but it is well behind the leader, Delaware, which averaged 21.2 Mbps.

In the west, California was beaten by both Washington – 17.4 Mbps – and Utah – 19.7 Mbps. Both states ranked in the top ten nationwide.

Or, rather, top nine: Akamai reckons Washington D.C. to be a state, and it was at the top of the chart with a 24.0 average. That’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, though, and Akamai shouldn’t be making it. Regardless of its unique constitutional status, Washington D.C. is a city and should be compared to other cities. There was no such data in Akamai’s report, but I would guess that if you rolled other major metropolises into the rankings, most, if not all, would score higher than the states. Urban areas have better broadband infrastructure and service than rural areas, and that brings the state averages down.

The percentage of Californians who connect to Akamai’s network at speed more or less tracks with the U.S. average. In California, 88% of connections to Akamai were from broadband service plans rated at 4 Mbps or better. That number slips to 59% at 10 Mbps and 37% at 15 Mbps. Those scores were well behind the leaders – 98% of Delaware connections come from 4 Mbps or better accounts and 57% are at 15 Mbps – but hover within a percentage point or two of the U.S. average.

Video tape era comes to an end

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Play it while you can.

The last known manufacturer of video cassette recorders is throwing in the towel. According to Nikkei, Funai Electronics will stop making VCRs next month at the one plant, in China, where it still makes them. The units are sold in the U.S. under the Sanyo brand.

In 2015, Funai sold 750,000 VCRs, mostly as VCR/DVD combos. There was actually some growth in that particular product line – it was cited as one of Funai’s strong points in its annual report – but the overall trend is down, as are Funai’s sales overall. It experienced a 23% drop in revenue last year.

One of the problems cited was a lack of parts – the level of demand is below the point where component manufacturers can make them economically and existing stocks are running out.

VCR tapes are still being made, and likely will be for some time. But if you treasure anything that’s still on tape, you better digitise it soon – it won’t be too many years before the means to play it is gone.

Don’t expect a retro-VCR revival. While there’s an aesthetic and sound quality argument to made on behalf of vinyl records, it’s a lost cause for even advanced versions of the VHS format. Even for Betamax – Sony stopped making tapes last year, long after it shut down its hardware line.

The VCR had a 40 year run. It was the original fair use battleground in the video age. The supreme court’s Betamax decision made it legal for consumers to record material for personal use; without it, the digital world would be a very different place.

More delays for Google Fiber hopefuls

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Google is putting the brakes on its fiber builds. That seems to be the word out of Portland. According to a story in the Oregonian, contractors involved in the project – or at least who think they’re involved – say that construction won’t begin for several months, if ever. Google Fiber hasn’t actually said that Portland is one of its chosen few markets, but the general expectation was that an announcement to that effect would come in the fall.

The explanation a Google spokesman gave to the Oregonian indicates that the company is reevaluating its technology options…

“We’re continuing to explore the possibility of bringing Google Fiber to Portland and other potential cities,” Google wrote. “This means deploying the latest technologies in alignment with our product roadmap, while understanding local requirements and challenges, which takes time.”

In the context of Google’s recent purchase of Webpass, which does most of its business wirelessly, the term “latest technologies” doesn’t point to, say, slimmer fiber cables. More likely, it indicates a cost-benefit analysis is underway. The capital cost of installing fiber in major metro areas is huge, even by Google standards – the Oregonian puts a $300 million price tag on a Portland build.

Here in California, the tab would run even higher. The estimate for San Jose alone was in the gigabuck range and you can multiply that a few times to cover the rest of the Silicon Valley cities Google has been trawling. San Francisco is now listed as an upcoming Google Fiber city – in contrast to San Jose’s and Portland’s potential status – but that also points to a shifting business model. Google plans to lease other people’s fiber to reach multiple dwelling units there, and the Webpass acquisition complements that strategy.

California broadband consortia inch forward

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Urgency means different things to different people.

Three regional broadband consortia have a tentative okay for operating money from the California Advanced Services Fund. The California Public Utilities Commission is scheduled to vote on grants for the Central Coast Broadband Consortium, the East Bay Broadband Consortium and the Tahoe Basin Project at its 18 August 2016 meeting (assuming an email error on Tuesday by the CPUC doesn’t delay it). Commissioners will be considering a draft resolution released on Tuesday that, if adopted, will approve the awards.

CCBC has been working on broadband development in San Benito, Monterey and Santa Cruz counties for more than 20 years. It received its first CASF consortia grant in 2011. That money paid for development of an online broadband development tool and policy initiatives, which in turn supported 20 infrastructure project proposals, about half of which were approved and are either completed or in progress. The new grant – $264,500 – would continue that work.

The proposal submitted by EBBC – for $272,160 – focuses on low cost and free computers, digital literacy programs and other efforts to increase broadband use, particularly in low income communities. The Tahoe consortium is also being recommended for its full grant request of $200,000 to continue working on last mile broadband projects – it has two in the hopper so far – and to clear the way for more mobile infrastructure and middle mile fiber construction.

The draft resolution is certainly welcome, not least by the consortia involved, but it still leaves a dozen grant proposals from consortia up and down California on hold. Assuming the commission makes a decision in August, it’ll be more than six months since the applications were filed, and a year and a day since a bill authorising the money – carried by assemblyman Jim Wood (D – Healdsburg) – was unanimously approved by lawmakers.

With special status as urgency legislation. It’s time to take the California legislature at its word.

I’m the project lead for CCBC, and EBBC and the Tahoe project are my clients. I’m not a disinterested commentator. Quite the contrary. Take it for what it’s worth.

Cable and telco mix on California’s central coast offers broadband highs and lows

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The low water mark for broadband on California’s central coast is the Monterey-San Luis Obispo county line. As you move north or south from there along the route of the historic El Camino Real, broadband infrastructure gradually gets better, before hitting high water marks in Silicon Valley and Ventura County.

That’s the top line finding from a study I recently completed for the Broadband Consortium of the Pacific Coast. Northern SLO County has an uneven mix of legacy Verizon – now, Frontier – and AT&T systems, some lacking even 1990s grade DSL service, plus some below average Charter cable systems along a narrow corridor either side of U.S. 101. Charter’s claimed download speed – 100 Mbps – is typical for cable systems in California, but its 5 Mbps upload speed misses the mark.

As you come south into the City of San Luis Obispo, AT&T predominates and service improves somewhat, with more ADSL2-based Uverse systems present.

Moving into Santa Barbara County, it’s all ex-Verizon on the telco side. Except for a few pockets of fiber-to-the-home FiOS service in new developments, the picture is pretty bleak. Not a single former Verizon copper system in California – central coast or elsewhere – meets the CPUC’s minimum standard of 6 Mbps download and 1.5 Mbps upload speeds. Some manage to meet or exceed the download benchmark, but the fastest upload speed that Verizon supported on copper was 1 Mbps. The northern half of the county is Comcast territory, the southern portion, including the City of Santa Barbara, is served by Cox. Both deliver average upload and download speeds for Californian cable systems.

Ventura County has an interesting mix of service providers and technology. Aside from a small pocket of Cox service in the north, the county is, or rather was, served by both Time Warner, which more or less meets the California average, and Charter. Charter owns it all now, having completed its purchase of Time Warner in May. Telephone systems are split three ways – AT&T copper, ex-Verizon copper and FiOS. As you get closer to Los Angeles County, the mix is excellent – predominantly Time Warner cable and FiOS. Where it’s only Charter and ex-Verizon copper, it’s not so good. Areas with AT&T infrastructure – more ADSL2 and VDSL systems are present – fall in between.

Overall, SLO and Santa Barbara counties get a “D-” on the A to F grading scale we originally developed for the East Bay Broadband Consortium. Cities and unincorporated communities in those two counties more or less hover around that mark. Ventura County, on the other hand, earned a strong “C” overall, with several cities and unincorporated communities ranking in the “A” and “B” range.

Full report card details are in the report, along with an assessment of wireline and wireless broadband infrastructure in the three counties. The report also contains the first run of a new analytical tool – Star Ratings – that zooms in on commercial and industrial broadband infrastructure. More on that later.

Broadband Analysis and Planning, Broadband Consortium of the Pacific Coast, Final Report, 11 April 2016
Broadband Analysis and Planning Broadband Consortium of the Pacific Coast Update, 30 June 2016
Star Rating maps – San Luis Obispo County
Star Rating maps – Santa Barbara County
Star Rating maps – Ventura County

Hard deadline for money beats soft promise of broadband investment

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No. You show yours first.

By a four to one vote, the California Public Utilities Commission approved a $1.5 million grant to build a fiber to the home project in Nicasio, a wealthy community in western Marin County. As has become common, commission president Michael Picker cast the only no vote. The grant from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) covers 60% of construction costs; the remaining 40% will be raised locally

The required matching funds plus costs of offering will be obtained by a notes offering, which will be registered with the California Department of Business Oversight under the Securities & Exchange Commission’s standardized process, the Small Company Offering Registration (SCOR) process. The homeowners in the project area will be offered an opportunity to purchase the notes. The interest rate will be based on market conditions. Currently, the applicant is proposing an interest rate of 3% per year…

Originally, the applicant had planned to offer the Broadband Utility Note securities under the Intra- state offering exemption of the Securities Act of 1933; however, after consultation, the applicant’s legal advisor advised them that for the Nicasio project, a SCOR offering would be a better alternative.

Inyo Networks and Praxis – the same companies that are behind the Digital 395 project – have a year to sell enough bonds to build the project. From the commission’s point of view, this leeway is a departure from previous procedures, which, in theory, required CASF grant applicants to have their matching funds in place.

In reality, it’s laying the financial cards face up on the table. In the past, applicants have put together financing and other deals in advance only to see them evaporate due to processing delays at the commission – rules call for decisions to be made in 106 days, while actual wait times can stretch to well over a year. And then there are the cases where the money is said to be available, but the details are, um, murky. Sorting that out can tie up CASF money for years as well.

It would be best if the commission met its own deadlines and made decisions quickly enough to hold business models together and keep investors from walking away in frustration. But having the 60% in hand and a hard deadline of a year will make it easier for Inyo to raise the rest and will give the commission the transparency and accountability it needs to run the program more efficiently. It’s an improvement and should be standard practice.

Free access to public streets is a gift with strings, not AT&T’s monopoly right

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The streets of San Francisco already take a beating.

AT&T wants to decide where and how competitors install fiber in conduit, manholes and handholes that it owns. That’s the gist of its response to a complaint filed by Webpass with the California Public Utilities Commission.

California law requires any utility – telecoms or electric – that installs poles and conduit in the public right of way to share those facilities with any qualified competitor. Utilities can use this public property for free, but that gift comes with strings attached.

The rules laid down by the CPUC include standard methods for sharing costs and managing access, but many of the details are left to the companies involved to work out. Webpass – which is in the process of being acquired by Google – asked AT&T for permission to use its conduit in San Francisco. AT&T said yes, but. The but blew a hole in Webpass’ business plan.

At issue is whether Webpass can splice fiber inside AT&T manholes and install fiber in either empty inner ducts – physical subdivisions inside bigger conduit made via several smaller conduits or using other material – or in conduit or inner duct with an existing cable that doesn’t take up all the available space.

In effect, AT&T’s response admits that it routinely denies competitors access to its manholes and otherwise empty conduit space, but that it will magnanimously consider granting exceptions. At its discretion and according to undisclosed criteria.

Which is the problem. Conduit and pole access laws exist to minimise the damage and obstructions caused by digging in public streets and to try to create a more competitive market for services. AT&T response shows that it could care less about the former and doesn’t want the latter…

Webpass claims it has been unfairly discriminated against because it cannot place its splice cases inside AT&T’s manholes. Based on the license applications submitted by Webpass, Webpass intends to place a splice case in manholes owned by AT&T California that are located in the streets outside of each of Webpass’ customers’ locations. Webpass has informed AT&T California that this would include hundreds of manholes.

Just so. Webpass wants to compete against AT&T in San Francisco and it stands to reason that means hooking up a lot of customers that AT&T would prefer had no other choice.

Rather than allowing Webpass to put its splices inside AT&T manholes where there’s room, AT&T wants Webpass to dig its own holes in San Francisco streets where ever possible. That shifts the cost onto San Franciscans, who have to maintain the streets and who’ll pay a higher price for Internet access, either because Webpass’ costs go up or because it can’t do the project, leaving them in the grip of AT&T’s monopoly.

AT&T’s response offers the usual we only want to ensure reliability for everyone justification for its policies. That’s certainly a legitimate concern and it should be factored into public right of way access decisions, but those decisions should not be left solely in the hands of AT&T, which also has less altruistic motives at heart.

Google Fiber finds a balancing point between home and business FTTP

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Google Fiber is rolling out service plans for small businesses, with prices ranging from $70 a month for symmetrical 100 Mbps service to $250 a month for a symmetrical gigabit, all with no data caps. The price for a gig is considerably more than Google’s standard $70 a month residential rate, but it also allows for more bandwidth-intensive uses. Up to a point.

For example, the acceptable use policy for Google’s residential service clearly prohibits running an online business via the connection…

You agree not to use or allow third parties to use the Services provided to you for any of the following purposes…

To operate servers for commercial purposes. However, personal, non-commercial use of servers that comply with this AUP is acceptable, including using virtual private networks (VPN) to access services in your home and using hardware or applications that include server capabilities for uses like multi-player gaming, video-conferencing, and home security.

On the other hand, the small business acceptable use policy says nothing about operating a server for commercial purposes, except you’re not allowed…

To create substitute or related services through the use of or access to the Services (for example, to use the Services to provide web hosting services to third parties).

Nor can you resell Internet service, including offering it to tenants or hotel guests, except in common areas of your business. Google clearly intends to stay on the retail side of the business and maintain a direct relationship – include a direct, monthly bill – with end users.

A business that supports a couple dozen employees will consume more bandwidth than a typical household that can occasionally burst at higher speeds. Running a public facing server will cost a little more – the benchmark price for the necessary static IP address is $20 a month for one, $30 for five. But assuming Google has enough backhaul bandwidth to reliably deliver symmetrical 100 Mbps speeds to a business, the trade off between the low end small business package and gigabit residential service – both priced at $70 – is a fair one.

AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, Comcast, DISH in, Sprint, Charter out of spectrum auction

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Sixty-two companies made down payments and qualified for participation in the first buy round of bidding for up to 100 MHz of UHF spectrum currently held by television stations. The Federal Communications Commission released the list yesterday, along with instructions and a schedule for practice rounds of bidding and the auction itself, which will begin on 16 August 2016. The goal is to clear a total of 126 MHz of spectrum, with 100 MHz going to mobile broadband assignments and the remainder used for unlicensed service and guard bands.

Three out of the four major U.S. mobile telephone are taking part. AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon all qualified. Sprint previously said it would pass on the opportunity.

Pay television companies are getting into the act, too. Comcast – via its CC Wireless Investment, LLC arm – is a qualified bidder. In the past week, Comcast has raised its wireless business profile by creating a mobile division, according to a story in Multichannel News. DISH Networks is on the list, via ParkerB.com Wireless. The direct broadcast satellite company might or might not have mobile broadband ambitions, though – its founder and chairman Charlie Ergen has a decades-long habit of investing in spectrum as a standalone asset. Charter is out of the picture though, as is its corporate Svengali, John Malone and, in this case, Liberty Spectrum.

Most of the rest appear to be regional and/or rural operations, and likely a few pure speculators. One interesting name on the list is DoCoMo Pacific, a subsidiary of Japan’s largest mobile company, NTT DoCoMo.

Sprint relying on word games to reengineer its cellular network

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Mobilitie, a mobile telecoms infrastructure company, was hired by Sprint to install 70,000 new wireless sites as it tries to revamp its network and business. Fair enough. But then Mobilitie got cute when it started filing the necessary permit applications.

First, it adopted legal aliases – California Utility Pole Authority and California Transmission Network, LLC, for example – that have a vaguely official ring to them, and seem confusingly similar to the names of legitimate joint utility pole authority groups and electricity transmission organisations.

Then, it tried labelling its planned 120-foot towers as “utility poles” and began applying for permits to install them, for free, in public right of ways rather than renting space on private or public property, as cell tower companies are supposed to do. That didn’t go over well in Yolo County (h/t to @OmarMasry for the pointer)…

Yolo County recently denied an encroachment permit application from a telecommunications group that proposed to install eight, 120-foot tall, communications towers within County road rights-of-way…Though their application stated that the group wanted to install 120-foot tall “utility poles,” these types of installations are considered communications towers, and would be subject to a use permit(s) in Yolo County. Four and one half foot diameter towers (at their base) were proposed by this group to be squeezed within narrow County road rights-of-way. These locations apparently would provide optimal service to potential customers, and of additional benefit to the group, would not require property or right-of-way acquisition.

Mobilitie got similar push back in Indiana and Florida. As well it should. Mobile broadband service might be a public utility, but that doesn’t mean any stick it plants in the ground is a “utility pole”. Calling a monopole tower by a different name changes nothing, unless the people reviewing the permit applications aren’t paying attention to the details.