Public housing broadband heading for second class status in California

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Lower broadband performance standards for Californians living in public housing are one step away from adoption by the California Public Utilities Commission. As it stands now, later this morning the CPUC will approve subsidy rules for broadband facility upgrades in publicly supported housing that set 1.5 Mbps download speeds as the minimum acceptable level, and no service level requirements at all for upload speeds. The stuff that’s installed has to be capable of supporting higher speeds, but actual performance is optional.

That compares to a minimum standard of 6 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up for the rest of us.

The first draft of the rules with the lower standards were released a month ago. The California Emerging Technology Fund and the CPUC’s office of ratepayer advocates filed comments urging higher download and upload speeds, as well as cost requirements that were in line with low income broadband programs offered – in theory – by cable companies. Those offers, when you can break through cable’s – particularly’s Comcast’s – customer service hell and actually sign up, deliver 5 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up for $10 per month. The proposal in front of the commission this morning sets $20 as a minimum price, and reaffirms the lower-than-the-rest-of-us performance standards…

At this point, the Commission is not prepared to require applicants who are pursuing the expedited process to provide higher internet speeds because the Commission aims to encourage applicants and to gain broad infrastructure development. Requiring applicants to commit to providing residents with minimum download speeds of 1.5 mbps per unit, during average peak utilization periods, subject to reasonable network management practices is a reasonable floor while also ensuring that applicants are encouraged to apply for the Broadband Public Housing Account grant.

Setting the service fee price cap at $20 a month encourages applicants to provide broadband Internet service at a minimum of 1.5mbps per household during average peak utilization periods while also balancing applicants’ abilities to afford maintaining and operating the networks. Furthermore, the Guidelines have been amended to clarify that residents will be charged no more than $20 per month for Internet service.

The not-so-revised rules – which do, usefully, bump the first application deadline back to 15 January 2015 – are on the CPUC’s consent calendar this morning. Unless one of the commissioners pulls it off – either for discussion today or to hold for a later meeting – it’ll breeze through on a pro-forma vote.

Don’t bet on a delay. Today’s meeting is the last for CPUC president Michael Peevey. There’s a definite air of let’s clear the decks for the next president, whoever governor Jerry Brown appoints to the job.

Update: as expected, the CPUC approved the California Advanced Services Fund public housing broadband program this morning, as proposed. The most up to date version of the decision is here.

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You don’t have to drive to Silicon Valley if you’re already there

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Santa Cruz broadband policy keeps business in town, Silicon Valley leaders say.

Smart application of good broadband development policy helps local economies grow by attracting new businesses and helping existing ones grow. The place to look for it is Santa Cruz County, according to the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. It’s an example that Silicon Valley sorely needs.

The group, which was founded in 1978 by David Packard and represents about 400 of Silicon Valley’s heaviest corporate hitters, announced it was giving its “Turning Red Tape into Red Carpet” award to Santa Cruz County, and supervisor Zach Friend in particular, recognising his effort over the past year and a half to simplify the rules for planting broadband infrastructure in public roads and placing it on county property.

He was supposed to receive it at a ceremony last week, but it was cancelled by heavy rain. On the balance, that was probably a plus – we need water right now as much as broadband. But unlike water, broadband never falls from the sky. It has to be built and local governments can make it easy or hard to do. Silicon Valley’s leaders think Santa Cruz County is making it particularly easy.

“The award recognizes economic development initiatives that focus on retaining and growing existing businesses within the community or region”, according to the SLVG press release announcing that Santa Cruz won its the business retention and expansion award. It’s one of six categories on the annual honors list.

Real estate developments, environmental programs and a new U.S. patent office in Silicon Valley were also recognised, along with another broadband initiative, San Jose’s public WiFi system, also known as the Wickedly Fast Connected Experience.

It’s the second accolade in as many months: the California Broadband Council just posted drafts of Santa Cruz County’s broadband policy as examples for the rest of the state. The initiative isn’t complete, though. The Santa Cruz County board of supervisors approved the policies in concept back in January, but county staff are still chewing on the details. Expect something final and, hopefully, comprehensive early next year.

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Broadband delayed is broadband denied

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FCC commissioner Ajit Pai objected to part of the FCC order approved last week that raised the minimum download speed for subsidised broadband projects to 10 Mbps (the upload standard remains at 1 Mbps). His objection wasn’t to the faster standard, but rather to the slow pace of implementation and what he sees as the commission’s failure to put its money where its mouth is

Three years ago, the FCC told rural Americans they could stop waiting. The Commission’s Universal Service Transformation Order created the Connect America Fund Phase II, which we anticipated would start paying for new broadband connections to unserved areas by January 1, 2013. Almost two years later, we’re finally launching that project. I wish we would have done so sooner—rural families and small businesses have already waited too long—but I’m glad nonetheless that we’re finally getting something done…

[Thursday's order] raises the speed benchmark to 10 Mbps—the right call in my book—but then largely ignores that this change roughly doubles the expected costs of deployment. An appropriate counterweight would have been increasing the term of support from 5 years to 10, but the Order only increases it marginally, to 6. This imbalance needlessly risks tipping the scales against deployment, which may strand millions of Americans in broadband dead zones for years to come.

In the rapidly evolving and growing broadband world, taking 2 years just to start the clock running on a 5 to 10 year process is too long. It’s a problem shared by the California Public Utilities Commission: subsidies authorised by the California legislature in 2010 in most cases won’t produce working broadband systems until 2015 or 2016. Additional money approved in 2013 might be spent a little faster, but likely only by a year or so.

Nearly all that time was and will be consumed with preparing rules, accepting and reviewing applications and complying with environmental red tape. Actual construction time for most projects can be measured in weeks or a handful of months.

Slow implementation ultimately means slow broadband: by the time the infrastructure gets built, the standard it was designed to meet is out of date and insufficient.

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FCC crushes old limits on rural broadband speeds

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The minimum download speed for FCC-subsidised broadband projects and services in rural areas is now 10 Mbps. The commission raised the standard on Thursday. Required upload speeds haven’t change, though…

The FCC will now require companies receiving Connect America funding for fixed broadband to serve consumers with speeds of at least 10 Mbps for downloads and 1 Mbps for uploads. That is an increase reflecting marketplace and technological changes that have occurred since the FCC set its previous requirement of 4 Mbps/1 Mbps speeds in 2011.

According to recent data, 99% of Americans living in urban areas have access to fixed broadband speeds of 10/1, which can accommodate more modern applications and uses. Moreover, the vast majority of urban households are able to subscribe to even faster service.

The vote was split in a bipartisan sort of way, with 2 democrats – Tom Wheeler and Jessica Rosenworcel – joined by republican Michael O’Rielly in fully approving it, and democrat Mignon Clyburn and republican Ajit Pai objecting to parts.

The rural broadband experiments currently under consideration by the FCC provide a firm basis for the decision. Nearly 200 applications came in, all purporting to offer service at least as fast as the new minimum. Of the 40 projects provisionally approved, 19 actually propose speeds of at least 100 Mbps down/25 Mbps up. There’s still quite a bit of due diligence to complete to verify all those claims, but right now 10 down/1 up is looking pretty ordinary.

The California Public Utilities Commission’s standard for subsidised projects is 6 Mbps down/1.5 Mbps up. (Unless perhaps you live in public housing – lower standards there are on the table this week). That benchmark was set in February 2012, when the limit was raised from 3 down/1up. It’s time to re-examine Californian minimums too, as demand and the gap between have and have nots, rural and urban, grows.

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Big questions for a California broadband subsidy proposal, but worth answering

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All over Helendale.

There’s a business case for resurrecting dead copper broadband systems. At least UIA thinks there is, given a sufficient subsidy from the California Advanced Services Fund. The company has submitted two projects for consideration for CASF grants in the current round. One is in Helendale, a small San Bernardino County community in the desert between Victorville and Barstow, where a cable system built by Falcon Cable – acquired by Charter Communications – was left to rot.

UAI proposes to re-plumb the original conduit with fiber…

Ultimate Internet Access…will utilize an abandoned Falcon Cable Company conduit system that currently passes 3150 residential lots within the primary community of Helendale…

[Helendale Community Services District] owns the cable infrastructure and we have a signed long-term lease agreement with this government entity. We will map the infrastructure, remove the cable from the conduit, clean the conduit and install the fiber network.

The $1.6 million grant request comes out to a subsidy of about $500 per nominal home – don’t assume that all of the “lots” are occupied, though. Even so, that’s a low number for a fiber-to-the-home project. On the face of it, the fact that there’s existing conduit makes for a relatively inexpensive build – 100 times cheaper than some other CASF projects.

There are a couple of soft spots in the application. Backhaul is via a licensed microwave link – likely fast, but not as likely to be able to support bona fide “services of 1 Gbps/1 Gbps, no cap, unlimited”. And if the conduit has not been mapped, let alone surveyed, then construction cost estimates contain a considerable element of hope.

Taken as a learning experience, though, it’s a welcome and worthy project. One of the big broadband challenges in California is figuring out what to do about legacy copper cable and phone systems in rural areas, many of which haven’t been upgraded to support broadband service. Charter has redlined other communities and AT&T. If UIA has an alternative, it’s worth pursuing.

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FCC blocks ViaSat’s end run around rural experiment standards

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You’ve got to hand it to the people at ViaSat. They don’t give up. If FCC tests – correctly – show that satellite Internet service has both advantages and disadvantages, then shout the good news loud enough to shake the rafters and browbeat the FCC into suppressing the bad. If the FCC wants to conduct an experiment to see if there are technologies and business models that can deliver urban-quality broadband service to rural customers, try to duck the quality requirements when no one is looking.

That’s basically what ViaSat tried to do when it asked the FCC to forget about latency standards in its rural broadband experiments. The FCC solicited a ton of suggestions about how it should run those experiments in a very public process earlier this year. The rules that resulted set a limit of 100 milliseconds of latency for funded experimental projects. Pretty simple.

Not simple enough, it seems. ViaSat – which can’t operate within those experimental parameters because of the laws of physics – tried a back door approach, asking the FCC to waive that requirement. The FCC’s answer was no

We conclude that waiving one of the core requirements for one bidder in the rural broadband experiments without public input after the close of the filing window would be prejudicial to the integrity of the competitive bidding process…Because ViaSat submitted its waiver request in its [application] submitted into the FCC Auction System, rather than separately in the docket, other bidders and the general public have not had the opportunity to provide input on the request.

Satellite technology’s advantages enable broadband service in desperate locations and under impossible conditions. The disadvantage is that capability comes at a cost, in terms of dollars and particular service metrics. The FCC is trying to find ways to dial down the desperation and expand the possible. It’s not a competition between interested corporations. It’s a quest for knowledge that will benefit customers.

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G.fast means fiber speeds over copper, up to a point

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The point where the infrastructure collapses.

A short range, high speed technology standard for broadband over copper phone lines has been approved by the International Telecommunications Union. The G.fast standard is intended to make fiber-class speeds possible over legacy lines, with a maximum distance of 400 meters between the customer and the nearest fiber node.

Practical distances, though, are much shorter. “Service rate performance targets” – total bandwidth which can be split between up and down loads – are…

500-1000 Mb/s for FTTB deployments at less than 100m, straight loops
500 Mb/s at 100m
200 Mb/s at 200m
150 Mb/s at 250m

Bell Labs has succeeded in pushing a gigabit over 70 meters of pristine plant and 500 Mbps over 100 meters of lousy copper, using its implementation of an earlier version of the G.fast standard.

But it’s not just a transportation protocol. The G.fast standard is intended to fit typical telco provisioning processes, enabling consumer installation with shrink wrapped kit, just like DSL. It makes it easy for telcos to upgrade service levels.

With one big if.

Telcos have to be willing to extend fiber further into neighborhoods and install more nodes. In urban business districts and affluent suburbs – high potential areas, as AT&T puts it – that’s not such a big deal. Either the fiber is already built or the revenue is there for the taking, or both. With the typical AT&T node feeding 600 to 900 meters of copper, doubling fiber distances and quadrupling the number of nodes requires a very sweet business case, if AT&T is to make the investment.

Mass market deployment of G.fast technology is still a few years out. It’ll eventually be a boon to those on the high potential side of the digital divide: places where incumbents have already decided to invest. For people living where telcos let copper rot on the poles, it’s not much help.

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Subsidising second class broadband is a bad deal for all Californians

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Hotel WiFi service is usually good enough to deal with email, Facebook and airline check-ins. It’ll do the work you have to get done before morning – maybe even a Skype call. But it’s rarely robust enough to reliably watch videos or jam a deadline on virtualised enterprise services or relax with an online game. It’s not a workhorse you can depend on. It’s an amenity, no more able to support day to day business than the tiny pool and token workout room can handle Ironman base training – I know, I tried.

So why is that level of service good enough for people who live in publicly subsidised housing, when it isn’t acceptable for the taxpayers who are footing the bill? The California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF) didn’t think so, in its response to a proposed broadband facilities grant program under consideration at the California Public Utilities Commission. The CPUC’s office of ratepayer advocates (ORA) doesn’t think so either, in comments filed earlier this week.

It’s not.

The performance fixes proposed by CETF and ORA are half measures at best. Raising the required upload speed (albeit with slower and cheaper options) to the same 1.5 Mbps standard the CPUC sets as a minimum for everyone else in California is a fine idea. But 6 Mbps – the CPUC’s download minimum – is barely table stakes for people trying to make a living or navigate government bureaucracy or for kids doing doing home work.

The proposal in front of the CPUC now sets 1.5 Mbps down as the minimum subsidised service level (although network capacity minimums are higher), and CETF isn’t contesting it. ORA is pushing for 3 Mbps. Better, but still less than the minimum that’s considered good enough for the rest of us. It’s a dumbed-down standard that’ll allow publicly subsidised, hotel-grade WiFi systems to be installed instead of hard wired facilities.

Californians are paying for it. Californians deserve better.

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California beats the odds in FCC rural broadband experiments

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Sometimes things turn out better than you might expect.

California came out pretty well in the FCC’s provisional rural broadband experiment decisions. Of the 40 bidders that were accepted, 3 proposed a total of 9 projects in California. That’s 11% of the total number of accepted projects. In dollar terms, projects in our state did even better, claiming $16 million of the $99.5 million, 16% of the money tentatively awarded by the FCC.

There wasn’t much information given about the projects or the bidders by the FCC, just names, number of bids selected, total amount of the grant requested and total number of census blocks covered.

Cricelli, Inc. is connected to Red Shift Internet Services in Monterey, which is an ISP that has been expanding its fixed wireless footprint in Monterey County. De Novo is a Google-funded non-profit that has one operating fixed wireless system in Mendocino County and has been looking at other areas, including Soledad in Monterey County. Both Red Shift and De Novo have been involved in testing new wireless technologies, but De Novo in particular has been working on cutting edge, open source systems – ergo the Google funding.

Given the companies’ backgrounds and, in Cricelli’s case, the large number of census blocks covered, it’s a fair assumption that the proposals involve wireless service.

Company Projects Census Blocks Request
Cricelli, Inc. 3 666 $522,300
De Novo Group 2 24 $609,600
Michael D. Donnell
dba San Joaquin Broadband
4 2,585 $14,833,187
California Total 9 3,275 $15,965,087
Percent of U.S. Total 10.5% 12.2% 16.1%

I don’t have any particular information about Michael Donnell’s proposal. The amount requested means he is likely chasing the $75 million bucket that the FCC allocated for projects that deliver 100 Mbps down/25 Mbps up to every location within the census blocks requested. And the vast spread of the proposal – 2,585 census blocks, presumably somewhere in the San Joaquin Valley, where there is no shortage of eligible area – lends itself to the assumption that it’s also a wireless project. Not certain, but I’d bet on it. I did a web search and found a Mike Donnell listed on LinkedIn who was COO of a Denver-based WISP until last May.

Getting 16% of the total money is a welcome – and unusual – win for California. The hope going into the bidding was that the state would get something like 10%, based on its share of the rural population nationwide. The California Public Utilities Commission stepped up with a 10% spiff for projects here, but there’s no way of knowing yet whether the three applicants want to take advantage of that – no pre-application was required.

Going forward, all three need to complete their financial, technical and regulatory due diligence in the next couple of weeks. In order to get the money, each needs to be certified as a telephone company by the CPUC and get a designation as an eligible telecommunications carrier from either the CPUC or FCC. As of yesterday morning, none of the companies showed up on the CPUC’s website as having filed the necessary paperwork. That could be because they haven’t, or because they did so recently and the CPUC’s system hasn’t caught up with it yet. The alternative would be to partner with a company that has the necessary regulatory blessings, but it’s not clear that the FCC would give the money to a company that didn’t actually bid.

The FCC’s press release says that more information about the provisionally approved experiments will be released later.

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Three broadband subsidy projects proposed in eastern California

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Two companies – Race Telecommunications and Ultimate Internet Access – submitted a combined total of 3 broadband project proposals yesterday for consideration in the new round of California Advanced Services Fund grants and loans. All are in or near the desert areas northeast of Los Angeles.

Race’s application is for the Five Mining Communities project, which takes in Randsburg, Johannesburg, Red Mountain, Searles Valley and Trona, in the high desert where Inyo, Kern and San Bernardino counties meet. The proposed project would deliver gigabit class (up and down) fiber-to-the-home service and asks for a CASF grant of $9.3 million.

The two UIA proposals cover the Helendale area, southwest of Barstow in San Bernardino County, and Wrightwood, which is on the border of San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties, in the Angeles National Forest. Both involve FTTH technology and claim to be capable of offering uncapped gigabit-level service (up and down), but both also will rely on microwave backhaul to support the system. Given that there are nearly 3,000 potential subscribers in each area, that’s a pretty ambitious service level for a microwave connection to support – I would love to see the details on it. The Helendale proposal asks for a $1.6 million grant from CASF, the Wrightwood project would involve a $2.1 million grant.

Race has a long track record with CASF projects, going back to a $500,000 grant awarded in 2010 to bring fiber into the Mojave Air and Space Port, and continuing through the last round of applications, with successful proposals for Boron, Tehachapi and four small communities in Mono County. UIA is a newcomer to the process.

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