Decisions this week on key California broadband bills


It all comes down to the wire.

With deadlines looming this week and next, broadband-related bills are queued up in Sacramento, awaiting decisions. The committee to watch is the assembly appropriations committee, which has to vote on a constitutional amendment to disband the California Public Utilities Commission and on AT&T’s attempt to get out of the rural wireline broadband and phone business.

AT&T’s copper killer bill – assembly bill 2395 – is scheduled for a vote on Wednesday, while the CPUC measure – assembly constitutional amendment 11 – is sitting in a stack of bills that might or might not come to a vote. AB 2395 and ACA 11 need yes votes from the appropriations committee by Friday, or they’re dead. Not dead beyond all hope of resurrection – there are ample parliamentary maneuvers that could be made – but dead for all practical purposes.

The appropriations committee is where legislative leaders can weigh in on controversial measures. If the leadership likes it enough to give its blessing, it’s a fair bet that AB 2395 will be approved by the full assembly before the following week’s deadline – it only requires a simple majority vote to continue on to the senate. ACA 11 needs a two-thirds majority, so the road ahead is rockier, but if legislative leaders send it to a floor vote, that’s a good indication that it has a fighting chance.

The joint legislative audit committee – made up of members from both the assembly and senate – will be considering a request on Wednesday from assemblyman Mike Gatto (D – Los Angeles) to conduct an audit of the California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF) and the CPUC’s California Advanced Services Fund (CASF). It doesn’t look like a friendly request. Gatto is the author of ACA 11 and was the key player who squashed a proposal to reboot CASF. He’s also been at odds with CETF, after trading barbs in Sacramento Bee op ed pieces.

I’ve advocated for and helped to draft CASF legislation and other broadband bills, and worked alongside CETF and others in the process. I’m involved and proud of it. Take it for what it’s worth.

New FCC disclosure rules for ISPs maintain status quo


Trust the guy next door.

The Federal Communication Commission released its new transparency requirements for big Internet service providers – small ISPs are exempt for now, and maybe forever. The rules spell out how ISPs must disclose performance metrics, including “expected and actual download and upload speeds, latency, and packet loss”, and make that information available via the web.

It might surprise you to learn that the rules aren’t actually new, although the FCC’s decision to reclassify broadband as a common carrier service last year made some changes to the requirements. The so-called transparency rules were included in the FCC’s first attempt at network neutral regulations in 2010. Most of that decision was tossed out by an appeals court, but the disclosure requirements survived.

The FCC’s latest notice rolls in the adjustments made last year, and clarifies some of the details. For most consumers, it’s the download and upload speeds that really matter – that’s what’s advertised, and that’s the primary way they differentiate between offerings. Unfortunately, the disclosure requirements aren’t particularly specific…

Fixed [ISPs] may meet this requirement by disclosing actual performance metrics for “each broadband service” in each geographic area in which the service has a distinctive set of network performance metrics (operational area). We expect that operational areas will be determined by the technology used and by network management practices, and that many fixed BIAS providers will have a single operational area for each broadband service offered.

For example, if you’re looking at broadband service offered by a cable company, all you’re likely to get is a blanket statement saying you can expect download speeds of 100 Mbps, 150 Mbps or whatever they’re currently advertising, because they take the position that since their networks are uniformly magnificent, everyone’s service is likewise.

The one ray of hope is the suggestion that median speeds (or speeds within a median range) be reported, but that’s just one possible way of doing it. Bottom line, if you’re shopping for service, you’re better off just asking your neighbors how it works for them.

Bell Labs test shows faster speeds on shorter copper


Next generation cable technology – DOCSIS 3.1 – can support symmetrical 10 Gbps speeds over hybrid fiber coax plant, according to a press release from Bell Labs, now known as Nokia Bell Labs. Nokia completed its purchase of Alcatel Lucent earlier this year and Bell Labs was part of the bargain.

Bell Labs is pitching its XG-Cable technology for integration into CableLabs’ DOCSIS 3.1 standard, which is undergoing field trials in a few U.S. markets. It’s essentially the same pitch that companies with gear are making to telcos: our stuff will dramatically boost broadband speeds on existing copper wire networks.

From everything I’ve seen, that’s true. At least as far as it goes. And that’s the catch. Both XG-Cable and are relatively short range technologies. Bell Labs’ says it simultaneously pushed 10 Gbps in both directions over 100 meters of coaxial cable on 1.2 GHz of bandwidth under laboratory conditions. The speed dropped to 7.5 Gbps symmetrical when a point-to-multipoint architecture was used. Ultimately, Bell Labs expects to get that level of performance at up to 200 meters., which is touted as an upgrade path for DSL networks, is limited to something like 250 meters to 500 meters of copper wire, with speeds ranging from 100 Mbps to 1 Gbps, again depending on how far it has to go (and who’s press release you’re reading). To get to the high end of the range, the distance needs to be less than 100 meters.

For either or XG-Cable to deliver promised speeds, the outside plant needs to be in good condition. Deteriorating lines will mean sharp drops in performance, to the point that older technologies will outperform it. With all due regard to the danger of taking an analogy too far, it’s not unlike trying to drive a Lamborghini on a dirt road.

But if you’re on a short, pristine track, a Lamborghini will fly.

It’s easy jump to the conclusion that technological advances such as these will render fiber unnecessary. That’s not true. The way you get short, final copper runs is to push more and more fiber, deeper and deeper into the network. At some point, it might not be necessary to go all the way to a home or business to get fiber-class broadband speeds, but you’ll have to extend the fiber portion of last mile networks much closer. And you’ll have to add fiber capacity – either more strands or better electronics – to handle the increased demand for bandwidth.

It’s still early days for this technology, but it’s good news that it might not be too far over the horizon.

U.K. takes harder line on rural broadband service


May I offer you something else?

Universal broadband service in Britain will have to follow demand, not lead it. That’s the decision, as it currently stands, from the U.K. government as it works out the details of implementing a previous commitment to deliver broadband service with at least 10 Mbps download speeds to everyone.

It’s a straightforward commitment for about 95% of the country, but the last 5%, in rural areas, won’t be automatically hooked up. It’ll require what amounts to pre-orders, and possibly a financial commitment from property owners. According to a BBC story

Given the high costs of providing broadband access to premises in remote areas it is right that this is done on request, rather than rolling it out and waiting to see if people in those areas want to be connected.

We know from the various interventions that the government has made to date that it is unlikely that everyone will want to be connected, even if that option is made available to them, and so we do not believe that an additional broadband rollout programme at this time is proportionate or would represent value for money.

The experience of BT – the company formerly known as British Telecom – in more densely populated areas points to the problem: of the 24 million homes upgraded to fiber-driven service, only 22% have opted to take it. those upgrades are not necessarily all fiber to the home; the figure also includes fiber to the node or cabinet, similar to upgraded DSL services in the U.S.

No financial details have been worked out, but according to the BBC the likeliest model will be for BT to pay the costs of line extensions up to about $5,000 per household, with the property owner covering anything over that. It could be a while until the final 5% even get the chance to pay for connections – a final decision on the program might not come until 2020.

Bad Verizon data led to Frontier’s customer call tsunami, legislators told



The problems Frontier Communications had as it took over ownership and operating control of wireline phone systems belonging to Verizon were chewed over in a California assembly committee hearing yesterday. Melinda White, president of Frontier’s west region, told committee members that the service outages experienced by some customers were primarily due to three causes:

  • Corrupt data in the customer records imported from Verizon’s system.
  • Records that said some customers’ equipment had one serial number when in fact it had another.
  • The need to train ex-Verizon employees on Frontier’s systems.

The mismatched equipment serial numbers seemed to be the trigger for most of the ensuing cascade of problems. Serial numbers are important because that’s how a central operating system – like Frontier’s – talks to individual pieces of equipment at customers’ homes and authorises them to receive particular services.

When Frontier cut over from Verizon’s platform, its central operating system connected with each customer box on the network and, in the vast majority of cases, smoothly took over control. But in few thousand cases – out of a total of 2 million new customer accounts – that message never got through. A similar problem occurred when the relatively small amount of corrupt data was fed into the system.

The result was several thousand customers were left without one kind of service or another – phone, Internet and/or TV – all at once. Which generated an unexpected flood of calls to Frontier’s customer service line.

White said that Frontier had planned for a large call volume, but not on the scale and with the degree of problems that they actually received. The plan was to bring in extra Frontier employees and use Verizon’s existing call center in the Philippines to handle calls while the ex-Verizon employees were being trained on the new system. There weren’t enough experienced Frontier employees to answer the phone, and the problems were beyond what the offshore call center could handle. White said they would have had the same problem if the ex-Verizon employees were on the phones, because they didn’t have the necessary system-specific training either.

At this point, White said, there are about 200 customers without phone service as well as others with Internet and TV problems, but “in ten days we’ll have all of the backlog cleaned up and we’ll move into business as usual mode”.

The rest of the hearing pretty much followed the standard script for such things. Members of the audience got up one by one and either excoriated or praised Frontier’s corporate citizenship, a representative from the California Public Utilities Commission explained the bureaucratic intricacies involved, and the committee members – including a couple of guest assembly members with particular axes to grind – exhibited their customary 20-20 hindsight.

The committee chairman, Mike Gatto (D – Los Angeles), also used the hearing as a platform to promote his plan to abolish the CPUC and turn its job over to other state agencies. I can’t say much was accomplished, although there was good information to be had.

No compromise as AT&T snakes more perks into California copper killer bill


No mistaking when a copper head responds.

AT&T isn’t interested in third party improvements to the copper retirement bill it wrote and assemblyman Evan Low (D – Silicon Valley) is guiding through the California legislature. In fact, AT&T and Low want to make sure there’s no misunderstanding about assembly bill 2395’s real intentions.

An amended version was posted Monday night. It includes meaningless cosmetic changes – requiring 60 days notice to consumers before turning off service instead of 30, for example – to give the impression that AT&T is responding to growing protests about the bill.

But then AT&T added this little gem, so there’s no confusion about what it expects to get from the California legislature…

The [California Public Utilities Commission’s] duty to conduct a confirmation process [to verify alternative service is available] is pursuant to its jurisdiction over legacy service and does not grant the commission jurisdiction or control over an alternative service.

Translation: if the cell phone we give a customer can dial 911, then it’s adios CPUC and all those tiresome anti-monopoly rules. AT&T can charge whatever it wants for cell service and it doesn’t have to offer broadband at all.

AB 2395 gives AT&T a blank check to run its business as it pleases in the rural and inner city markets where it’s the only viable telecoms option. It should be able to transition from legacy analog technology to a digital Internet protocol platform in an orderly way, but that’s only one of the three presents under the AB 2395 tree.

Removing all regulatory checks on AT&T’s monopoly behavior while at the same time allowing it to strengthen that grip by replacing copper lines, which it must share, with wireless facilities, which it doesn’t, will hurt all Californians.

Five ideas to allow AT&T a workable wireline exit


The Central Coast Broadband Consortium offered five suggestions for turning assembly bill 2395 into legitimate public policy, in a letter sent to the bill’s author, assemblyman Evan Low (D – Silicon Valley) yesterday. AB 2395 was actually written by AT&T and would allow it to pull out copper wireline networks in rural areas of California and replace them with wireless service.

Full disclosure: I drafted the letter, but it was reviewed by consortia members, who represent local governments, private companies and other interested organisations in Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Benito counties. Several made suggestions, which were incorporated into the final version.

The five things that would make AB 2395 more of a benefit than a danger to rural and inner city wireline networks are…

  1. If an incumbent local exchange carriers (ILEC) replaces current systems with either IP-based technology or wireless infrastructure, then regulatory obligations should not change so long as the market conditions that triggered those obligations exist. These obligations include maintenance of infrastructure, access to facilities by competitive carriers or provision of basic voice and broadband service.
  2. Similarly, ILECs must not be allowed to engage in monopoly-driven profit maximization behavior, regardless of the technology employed or services provided. Appropriate regulation must continue where ever monopoly conditions exist in the market for voice, broadband, video or other telecommunications services.
  3. ILECs must continue to maintain their wireline systems – copper or fiber – in an operational condition that meets service and infrastructure standards set by the California Public Utilities Commission, for as long as they own them.
  4. If an ILEC wishes to transition to wireless technology, it may do so only after divesting itself of its wireline assets and the customers that choose to keep such service.
  5. Wireline divestiture may be accomplished by selling the assets and customer accounts to a qualified successor company, or by an orderly transfer to a public trust. If the latter, the transfer of ownership must be at no capital cost to the trustee and the ILEC will be responsible for operations and maintenance costs for a reasonable transition period. No restrictions are to be placed on the trustee’s operation, management or ultimate disposition of the assets by the transferring ILEC.

The bill is in the hands of the assembly appropriations committee. The deadline for it to act is the end of the month.

California lawmakers need sharper thinking, reality check on telecoms policy


Not everyone is 99 and 44/100% pure.

No one expected zero problems when Frontier took over Verizon’s telephone systems in California last month. At least no one who understands that big telecommunications companies are complicated and not particularly predictable. It’s a lesson that California lawmakers should take to heart, as they consider allowing AT&T to replace wireline service with cell phones at will.

Frontier added about two million customers to its existing 200,000 subscriber base in California, scattered across 150 telephone exchanges that range from the best infrastructure in the state – FiOS-brand fiber to the home – to the worst. Really, the worst. Many of Verizon’s rural systems were never even upgraded to 1990s style DSL.

When the cutover happened, the complaints started rolling in. At the time, it was hard to tell whether it was due to significant problems, or just social media blowback from people who thought their particular troubles were the most important thing in world. It turns out it was a little bit of both.

The Los Angeles Times ran a good story on the transition. Some problems were due to glitches that happens all the time but you don’t notice until it happens at the same time something else changes, and then the two events are forever welded together in your mind. A squirrel chewing through cable or a car hitting a pole doesn’t make the news unless it happens on the day a new company takes over.

Some were clearly Verizon’s fault, and there was little Frontier could do about it ahead of time. Poor record keeping resulted in Verizon turning over mismatched lists of equipment lists and customer accounts, which prevented Frontier from reauthorising some services immediately, such as pay per view movies.

Frontier fumbled too, according the Times. An auxiliary call center was activated in the Philippines, but it wasn’t able to handle the flood of customer service calls that came in.

Best guess, according the Times, is that about 10,000 customers experience one glitch or another during the cutover, some more serious than others. Out of two million, that’s not horrible on a percentage basis but it can look like a crisis when you’re on the receiving end of the complaints, as state and local officials have been for the past few weeks.

So it’s no surprise that politicians are jumping into the game. Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D – Los Angeles), the chair of the assembly utilities and commerce committee, is holding a special hearing next week to look into it. I don’t know if he’ll learn much that’ll be of any use for Frontier customers – most of their troubles are behind them. But if it makes him less naive about accepting AT&T’s bland assurances about plans to get out of the copper wire business, it would be a good thing for everyone.

Dig once dropped from federal broadband bill


But closed conversation.

The latest version of a U.S. senate bill aimed at boosting broadband availability cuts out language from a previous version that would have encouraged, but not required, federal agencies to include conduit in highway projects. Senate bill 2555, also known as the Mobile Now act, would clear more wireless spectrum for broadband purposes and streamline access to federal property in order to install both wireline and wireless facilities.

The bill was approved, with bipartisan support, by the senate commerce, science and transportation committee and is now on track for a full senate vote. But it lacks the dig once policy in the original version.

I don’t know why that’s so, but I’ll speculate a bit. Dig once requirements are often opposed by deep pocketed incumbent telephone and cable companies, who build their own infrastructure and would prefer that smaller competitors not have access to cheap and freely available conduit. Transportation agencies and public works people will also tend to oppose dig once rules on occasion, because it adds costs and extra hassles to road projects that are already expensive and complicated.

Three other federal dig once bills are pending in the U.S. congress, so it’s not a completely lost cause, although those are all currently stalled in committee.

That’s not to say the Mobile Now act is a bad bill. More spectrum is always needed, and master leases and a central data base for federal broadband-relevant assets will be very welcome. It’s just not as good as it was in its original form.

In Sacramento, assembly bill 1549, authored by Jim Wood (D – Healdsburg) targets Caltrans projects, requiring the agency to maintain a public database of conduit it installs. It’s also awaiting committee approval in the state senate.

Security and simplicity keep Sailfish, Tizen hopes alive


Just enough to start the day.

Two alternative, Linux-based smart phone operating systems are still in the game, but might be headed towards greener markets. Version 3.0 of the Tizen OS is due out in September and the Sailfish OS has a new, $12 million lifeline.

Tizen is an open source project that’s largely driven by Samsung. It started out as an alternative to Android and a replacement for Bada, Samsung’s previous in-house OS. So far, it hasn’t found much traction in the mobile phone market, despite Samsung’s dominance of that sector. A couple of Samsung smart phones with Tizen installed shipped to India, but so far haven’t done very well.

On the other hand, Samsung is installing Tizen on its Gear smart watch, as well as smart TVs and other consumer electronics products that are less dependent on the good will of independent app developers. The 3.0 upgrade is pitched as “IoT ready”, according to an article in PC World with support for “refrigerators, light bulbs, washing machines, and even vacuum cleaners”. It could evolve into the OS of choice for connected devices, which are more or less self-contained and don’t need third party apps or services.

So long as it has a sugar daddy with deep pockets and a clear business case, the Tizen project will push ahead and its adoption rate will continue to grow, even if it’s just within the Samsung universe.

It’s harder to see where Sailfish is heading, or even why anyone would want to invest in its parent company, Jolla. A plan to make and sell a tablet fizzled out, and its only ray of hope is Turing Robotics’ decision to move from California to Finland and switch to Sailfish, seeking to leverage tougher privacy laws into a high security selling proposition. But given the increasingly heated battle between tech companies and the U.S. government, and Blackberry’s willingness to hand over encryption keys to Canadian authorities, there might be a market opening for Turing and Jolla.