Cable preps to defend its monopoly grip on California’s poor in court

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What fun would it be if they had a choice?

Charter Communications is doubling down on the public tantrum it’s throwing over broadband access in public housing. The California Public Utilities Commission runs a program that pays for broadband facilities – but not the service itself – in publicly subsidised communities. The program was created by the legislature three years ago, and was the result of joint efforts by rural and urban interests – $90 million was added to the California Advanced Services Fund, with a net $25 million going toward public housing broadband and the rest into broadband infrastructure projects.

The language of the bill was very clear. The CPUC had the job of setting most of the requirements for public housing subsidies, with only a couple of legislative mandates: back haul had to be available and the property owner couldn’t have turned away competitive providers who might have been interested in installing their own facilities, at their own cost.

Public housing operators began applying for broadband facilities grants, in some cases for properties where commercial providers – cable companies, mostly – were selling Internet access at market rates that residents couldn’t afford. At least not by the rules that govern eligibility for public housing. The CPUC, using the discretion given it by the legislature, said okay.

There was a storm of opposition from cable companies and their lobbying fronts, including a petulant letter from Charter and ethically dubious last minute phone calls to commissioners. But the commission voted to go ahead with the grants, anyway.

Usually, that would be the end of it. But cable company anger over being denied monopoly rights to extract as much money as humanly possible out of the shallow pockets of public housing residents is anything but usual.

Charter filed a request for the commission to reconsider its decision, claiming, incorrectly, that the decision was illegal. The long and lawyerly document is marginally less peevish than Charter’s earlier letter, but doesn’t plough new ground. Absent political arm twisting, there’s no reason for the commission to change its mind.

Why do it then? If Charter wants to challenge public housing broadband subsidies in court, it has to go through the motions of asking for a rehearing. That seems to be where it’s headed.

Fiber gems stand out on California’s central coast

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The industrial/commercial broadband Star Rating system developed by Tellus Venture Associates for the Broadband Consortium of the Pacific Coast shows a wide variation in high grade broadband infrastructure across San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

In the BCPC region, most commercial and industrial census blocks rated 1 Star or less, however there were ample instances of 2 Star, 3 Star and even some 4 Star Ratings. The highest aggregate rating for a city was found in San Luis Obispo, which rated 2 Stars overall. Otherwise, aggregate ratings in incorporated cities in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties were at a half-Star or less. Ventura County cities rated higher, up to one and a half Stars.

On an aggregate basis, the City of San Luis Obispo’s 2 Star the result of averaging many 3 Star and No-Star areas. The 3 Star areas are served by a gigabit-class FTTP network operated by Digital West. We were able to include it in the assessment because the company provided a sufficiently detailed map of its system.

With two exceptions, aggregate ratings for communities in Santa Barbara County and the rest of SLO County were all No Stars. The Cities of Santa Barbara and Goleta earned Half Star ratings, and probably would have ranked higher if better fiber network map data was available. The information we had about long distance and metropolitan fiber routes in those two cities indicated that if better information about the availability of service on those networks is provided by the companies involved, particularly Crown Castle, then the ratings would go up.

The low average for the remainder of Santa Barbara County disguises several areas of excellence, including 3 Star locations in Carpenteria, Lompoc and Santa Maria, and a significant number of locations in Santa Maria that rated 1 Star or 2 Stars.

In Ventura County, aggregate ratings for cities ranged from No Stars in the City of Ventura to half Stars in Moorpark, Ojai and Simi Valley, to one Star in Oxnard and Port Hueneme, to one and a half Stars in Camarillo and Thousand Oaks. Higher aggregate ratings correlate to the widespread presence of Verizon’s FiOS fiber to the premise infrastructure. Areas served by AT&T did not tend to do as well.

There were several focused areas of excellence, including 3 Star and 4 Star locations in Camarillo, Moorpark, Oxnard, City of Ventura, Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks. The unincorporated Casa Conejo community was rated 2 Star, in aggregate.

Some of the city and county-scale maps showing Star Ratings for the three counties are available in the report and subsequent update we produced for BCPC, and all of them can be downloaded via the links below. An interactive version is in the works, and I’ll have a post here about it as soon as it’s up.

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

Star Ratings show where to find high tech, industrial class broadband

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The best place on California’s south central coast – on the whole – to look for commercial or industrial real estate with access to fast, fiber optic broadband service is San Luis Obispo. But there are plenty of other cities in the SLO – Santa Barbara – Ventura county region with pockets of fiber availability that are as good or, in many cases, better.

In the course of a doing a regional broadband assessment for the Broadband Consortium of the Pacific Coast (BCPC), we developed a method for rating the availability of commercial and industrial-class broadband infrastructure. We’ve been using our broadband report card methodology – [originally developed for the East Bay Broadband Consortium]() – to evaluate the primary broadband infrastructure that’s generally available in a city or county. While it’s proven to be an excellent to gauge the broadband infrastructure that residents and the vast majority of businesses use and the overall condition of incumbent telephone and cable company networks, more detail is needed to assess whether a business district is equipped to attract high tech, bandwidth-intensive companies.

The commercial/industrial Star Rating system looks specifically at areas of a community that are zoned for commercial or industrial purposes, and then uses a point system to rate the broadband infrastructure that’s available, on a census block level.

If an industrial or commercial area has no fiber to the premise available at all and the primary infrastructure fails to get at least an average – “C” – grade, then it’s a No Star location. If the primary infrastructure gets at least a “C” grade or if it meets bare minimum standards – a “D” grade – and some kind of FTTP is available, it’s a 1 Star area. Additional Stars are awarded for faster, gigabit-class service and open access dark fiber, all the way up to 5 Stars.

In the future, we’ll look at including advanced copper technologies in the rating – G.Fast and DOCSIS 3.1 are candidates – but only where the underlying network has been engineered to support it. It’s a given that bolting custom electronics onto available copper lines – even failing, “F” grade facilities – or bonding lines together can produce fast circuits. But the need to resort to such heroic measures is confirmation of poor infrastructure, and not a reason to celebrate.

We did two runs of the analysis, with more city zoning data and a refined methodology the second time around. Results from both runs were consistent and did a good job of highlighting where the kind of broadband infrastructure high tech companies look for is available in the three counties. More on that tomorrow.

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

Mobile data lifeline can’t hold its own weight

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You need a thick line, not a slim thread.

Verizon is kicking heavy bandwidth users off of its unlimited mobile data plans. That begs the question of what exactly unlimited means, but that’s for another time. The justification Verizon offers, though, shows why the Federal Communications Commission’s plan to include grossly inferior mobile service in its broadband lifeline program is nonsense. As reported by Fierce Wireless, Verizon said it can’t handle the load

“Because our network is a shared resource and we need to ensure all customers have a great mobile experience with Verizon, we are notifying a very small group of customers on unlimited plans who use an extraordinary amount of data that they must move to one of the new Verizon Plans by August 31, 2016. These users are using data amounts well in excess of our largest plan size (100 GB),” a Verizon spokeswoman wrote. “While the Verizon Plan at 100 GB is designed to be shared across multiple users, each line receiving notification to move to the new Verizon Plan is using well in excess of that on a single device.”

The FCC’s mobile broadband lifeline cap is 500 megabytes – half a gigabyte – as compared to the 150 GB cap it allows customers taking wireline service. The mobile cap will rise to 2 GB over a couple of years, but that’s still far below any reasonable minimum for a family’s monthly usage. Assuming the entire family actually gets to share the single phone the program allows per household.

What Verizon’s statement tells us is 1. very few customers use mobile bandwidth at the same level most of us consume wireline service, and 2. if mobile lifeline customers did try to use it for everyday purposes – say, homework, the FCC’s marquee example – they would quickly rack up huge excess data charges. Its plans for that kind of shared use have data caps in the same ball park as wireline service, albeit at many times the price.

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.