Brown okays new rules for subscription services, CPUC reform, law enforcement

As we’re waiting for governor Jerry Brown to decide the fate of the two big broadband bills of the 2017 California legislative session – assembly bill 1665 and senate bill 649 – it’s a good time to take a quick look at some other relevant legislation he’s approved.

Brown signed SB 19 and SB 385 into law. Together, those two bills reorganise some of the California Public Utilities Commission’s responsibilities, although telecommunications oversight was left untouched.

He also okayed AB 1034, which would restrict the ability of government agencies to cut off telecommunications services. It’s an issue that’s arisen during protests, when agencies – BART is the example – shut down cell service as a means of crowd control. Now, that can only be done with a judge’s order or in an “extreme emergency situation that involves immediate danger of death or great bodily injury”.

Although its applicability to broadband service is certain to be challenged, Brown approved SB 313. Among other things, it makes it illegal for a business to…

Charge the consumer’s credit or debit card, or the consumer’s account with a third party, for an automatic renewal or continuous service without first obtaining the consumer’s affirmative consent to the agreement containing the automatic renewal offer terms or continuous service offer terms, including the terms of an automatic renewal offer or continuous service offer that is made at a promotional or discounted price for a limited period of time…

A consumer who accepts an automatic renewal or continuous service offer online shall be allowed to terminate the automatic renewal or continuous service exclusively online, which may include a termination email formatted and provided by the business that a consumer can send to the business without additional information.

Anyone who has tried to figure out how much broadband service really costs, after promotional packages expire, or tried to cancel it, will appreciate this bill.

Frontier preps to pull a wireless bait and switch on Californians

Frontier Communications is backtracking on pledges made to the California Public Utilities Commission as it successfully sought permission to take over Verizon’s copper and fiber systems in California. During that process, it claimed to be a “dedicated wireline service provider” as it was trying to convince the CPUC that it could do a better job than Verizon…

Frontier is strategically focused solely on wireline telecommunications and has a long and successful history providing those services. Unlike Verizon and other large telecommunications carriers that have multiple business divisions—such as wireless and international—that compete for capital resources and management attention, all of Frontier’s capital and human resources are concentrated on wireline communications services.

Not any more. In a recent filing with the Federal Communications Commission, Frontier (along with Windstream and Consolidated) said it’s moving ahead with plans to spend federal subsidies on wireless service, rather than wireline upgrades (h/t to Trish Steel at the Broadband Alliance of Mendocino County for the heads up)…

Frontier, for example, has already begun testing fixed wireless in very rural [Connect America Fund-subsidised] areas. As Frontier’s Chief Financial Officer has explained, Frontier believes that this could be a “good solution” to the deployment challenge “in very rural America[,] and if it works the way [Frontier is] expecting it to work…[Frontier] will deploy more of that next year.”

On the face of it, Frontier’s plans for fixed wireless broadband service are similar to AT&T’s. Both companies are required to offer service at a minimum of 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds in federally subsidised areas, and putting up an access point with wide coverage is one way to claim they’re meeting that obligation, even though the service is unlikely to be accessible to all, or even most, of the people under that umbrella.

There’s one key difference between Frontier and AT&T, though. Because it’s also a mobile carrier, AT&T already has wireless sites, licensed spectrum and a deep reservoir of wireless engineering talent. Frontier has none of it.

Feds clear a dark path for CenturyLink-Level 3 deal in California

CenturyLink’s purchase of Level 3 Communications is on track to be approved by the California Public Utilities Commission on Thursday. It’s always possible that a decision could be bumped to a later meeting, but there’s no indication at this point that there will be any delays.

A settlement CenturyLink reached with anti-trust lawyers at the federal justice department last week takes the edge off the damage the deal will do to California’s broadband market, although it doesn’t eliminate it. Level 3 is the largest independent source – often the only source – of dark fiber, which competitive broadband providers need to compete with the likes of AT&T and Comcast.

That agreement has CenturyLink giving up dark fiber strands on 30 key routes, including five in California. Unlike the CPUC’s review, the federal investigation into the effects of the merger identified the real danger it poses

Dark fiber is a crucial input for large, sophisticated customers that need to move substantial amounts of data between specific cities. These customers have specialized data transport needs, including capacity, scalability, flexibility, and security, that can be fulfilled only by Intercity Dark Fiber. CenturyLink and Level 3 compete to sell Intercity Dark Fiber to these customers, and this competition has led to lower prices for and increased availability of Intercity Dark Fiber. The consolidation of these two competitors would likely substantially lessen competition for the sale of Intercity Dark Fiber for thirty city pairs in the United States in violation of [anti-trust law].

The justice department is, at least, going after the root of the problem by trying to reduce CenturyLink’s ability to extract monopoly rents from the detail. That’s unlike the largely meaningless but relatively harmless measures under consideration by the California Public Utilities Commission, and the equally meaningless but less benign alternatives pushed by the California Emerging Technology Fund, which just aim to spread the rents around.

Federal agencies ignore cyber security while breaches continue

Cyber security at federal agencies continues to be so bad that the Government Accountability Office is throwing up its hands and saying we’ve already told you what needs to be done, so just do it

While federal agencies are working to carry out their [Federal Information Security Modernization Act]-assigned responsibilities, they continue to experience information security program deficiencies and security control weaknesses in all areas including access, configuration management, and segregation of duties. In addition, the inspectors general evaluations of the information security program and practices at their agencies determined that most agencies did not have effective information security program functions. We are not making new recommendations to address these weaknesses because we and the inspectors general have previously made hundreds of recommendations. Until agencies correct longstanding control deficiencies and address our and agency inspectors general’s recommendations, federal IT systems will remain at increased and unnecessary risk of attack or compromise.

The report is a good primer on cyber security threats and best practices. It includes some telling examples. The Internet Revenue Service’s website allowed access to private data, using personally identifiable information about taxpayers that’s available elsewhere. In another breach, thousands of treasury department documents walked out the door with a former employee…

Concurrent with a new policy that restricted employees’ use of removable media devices to prevent users from downloading information onto the devices without approval and review, the agency began reviewing employee downloads to removable media devices. During the review, it identified a significant change in download patterns for a former employee in the weeks before the employee’s separation from the agency. The former employee had downloaded approximately 28,000 files that may have contained controlled unclassified information onto two encrypted external thumb-drive devices. As of October 2016, the agency had been unable to recover the devices storing the files.

The next time a federal agency demands a back door into private sector platforms or encryption systems, this report accompanied by a simple no should be all the answer that’s required.

Google Fiber gives up on video, and maybe fiber too

Google Fiber is throwing in towel on video service. In a blog post, the company announced that it won’t be offering a cable-like lineup of television channels along with gigabit Internet service in Louisville and San Antonio…

We’re trying something new in our next two Fiber cities. When we begin serving customers in Louisville and San Antonio, we’ll focus on providing superfast Internet – and the endless content possibilities that creates – without the traditional TV add on.

If you’ve been reading the business news lately, you know that more and more people are moving away from traditional methods of viewing television content. Customers today want to control what, where, when, and how they get content. They want to do it their way, and we want to help them.

Two years ago, a top Google Fiber executive, Milo Medin, said “if you don’t offer a good TV service your ability to compete with incumbents that bundle Internet and TV together is significantly impaired”.

So, what changed? A couple of things.

It’s certainly true that the availability of unbundled video content available directly via the Internet has grown considerably in the past two years, and there’s no sign of it slowing down. Declaring linear video subscriptions to be a legacy business and letting cable and satellite companies wrestle over its (slowly) dwindling remains simplifies Google Fiber’s operations and business model, and eliminates a lot of headaches. That alone could be a good trade for the potential subscribers they might lose as a result.

But something else changed, too. In the past two years, Google Fiber has become, in effect, Google Fiber and Wireless. Technically, it’s easy to add a hundred or two TV channels to a fiber-based service, but impossible on a terrestrial wireless system that has orders of magnitude less total bandwidth available. Google’s announcement should also be treated as another indicator that in the future the company is going to be even more selective about where it builds fiber to the home infrastructure. If it even installs any more fiber at all.

Short on dark fiber inventory, PG&E moves toward selling lit service

PG&E has revealed more details about its telecommunications business plan. In testimony filed with the California Public Utilities Commission, as it seeks permission to expand its telecoms service offerings, PG&E reiterated that it has no intention of offering residential fiber to the home service, or otherwise competing in the retail space. But its motivation for providing “lit” fiber service to wholesale customers appears to be greater than previously assumed. And so is its interest.

Right now, PG&E is leasing dark fiber – bare strands of glass – to a few customers, either fiber it installed on its own poles, towers and conduit for its own use, or installed at a telecoms company’s request (and expense). There’s not much more of that inventory available, though. Of the 2,600 miles of cable it owns, only 1,000 miles has spare capacity that might be leased out. On average, that spare capacity amounts to only about 4 fiber strands, enough to offer two customers a pair of dark strands each.

Although it doesn’t make a direct connection to this very restricted dark fiber supply, PG&E clearly states that it intends to move up the value chain and offer lit fiber service. Which would allow it to serve many customers on a single pair of fiber strands…

PG&E proposes to offer “lit fiber” and other services (as market demand and availability of PG&E facilities allows) to third-party communication services providers, communication companies, and large institutional (wholesale) customers that need point-to-point services along routes where PG&E can make lit fiber available. Lit fiber is fiber optic cable that has electronic equipment (such as transmitters and regenerators) connected to it to “light” the fiber, enabling the transmission of data. In providing lit fiber, PG&E would be the service provider, owning and maintaining the equipment to light the fiber. The customers would be free of the maintenance and operation of the equipment. This contrasts to the dark fiber services that PG&E currently provides where the customers are responsible for providing and maintaining the equipment that lights the fiber.

Mobile carriers and infrastructure companies are called out as particularly good prospects. PG&E sees a sweet spot in providing long haul connectivity, via lit fiber, to mobile and other telecoms companies that need to tie a lot of far flung locations into their core networks.

CenturyLink trades long haul fiber routes for permission to buy Level 3

Allowing two of the major – sometimes only – sources of inter-city dark fiber to merge would be anti-competitive and illegal, according to the federal justice department. So in order to gain approval to buy Level 3 Communications, CenturyLink agreed to a settlement that requires it to give up control of 24 strands of dark fiber between 30 pairs of cities, including five key California routes.

The settlement also requires CenturyLink to divest overlapping metro fiber systems in Albuquerque, Boise and Tucson.

The fiber will be leased for up to 35 years to a single company that “has the intent and capability (including the necessary managerial, operational, technical, and financial capability) of competing effectively in the sale of Dark Fiber [leases] to end users”. The transaction, and compliance with detailed instructions on how it’ll be carried out (links below), will be overseen by an independent trustee.

The lines in (and out of) California to be sold are:

  • Los Angeles to Las Vegas
  • Sacramento to Salt Lake City
  • Sacramento to San Francisco
  • San Diego to Phoenix
  • San Francisco to Los Angeles

The routes between San Francisco and LA, and from San Francisco to Sacramento and on to Salt Lake City generally follow railroad right of ways. Just a quick glance at the track confirms that the fiber buried there belongs to AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink and Level 3. It’s a critical bottleneck for anyone trying to enter the retail broadband market along those corridors.

Taking Level 3 out of the mix would leave it all in the hands of companies with a legacy, Bell-centric telephone business model that maximises profit by restricting wholesale supply and selling what’s left at retail rates. Which pretty much kills any hope of broadband competition at modern service levels.

The best solution would have been to nix the deal, and keep Level 3 as the only heavyweight independent operator in the dark fiber business. The agreement that federal anti-trust lawyers reached with CenturyLink is a reasoned, if less satisfactory, alternative.

The California Public Utilities Commission and the Federal Communications Commission still have to bless the deal. The settlement reached by the federal justice department will go a long way toward greasing the skids at both agencies.

Proposed Final Judgment
Explanation Of Consent Decree Procedures
Asset Preservation Stipulation And Order
Complaint against CenturyLink and Level 3

The U.S. mobile broadband market is competitve, says FCC

The Federal Communications Commission has made a case for declaring that the mobile broadband market in the U.S. is broadly competitive, in a qualitative, preponderance of the evidence sort of way. Looking at a number of different metrics, including usage (see chart above), pricing, advertising, investment coverage, the FCC decided that when it was all added up, the result was “there is effective competition in the marketplace for mobile wireless services”.

One key indicator – half statistical, half anecdote – was the way the four major nationwide carriers responded to each other when unlimited data plans were reintroduced…

One significant trend that has developed recently is the return of “unlimited” data plans. In January 2016, AT&T introduced the AT&T Unlimited Plan for DIRECTV (or U-Verse). While that plan was made available only to DIRECTV subscribers, it signaled a shift towards service providers again offering unlimited data plans. In August 2016, T-Mobile launched the T-Mobile ONE Plan offering unlimited voice, text and high-speed 4G LTE smartphone data. The next day, Sprint introduced its Unlimited Freedom plan, which offered two lines of unlimited talk, text and data for $100 a month. In February 2017, Verizon launched its Unlimited Data Plan offering unlimited data on smartphones and tablets for $80 a month. AT&T then introduced the Unlimited Choice plan, which offered unlimited data for $60 per month for a single line ($155 for four lines). In late February 2017, U.S. Cellular introduced its own unlimited data offering.

Three caveats should be kept in mind, though. For the past eight years, the FCC used a wide definition of the mobile marketplace, including sectors such as consumer devices and industry infrastructure. This latest finding focuses much more narrowly on consumer services.

Then there’s the question of rural versus urban. Although 98% of people living in suburban and urban areas have access to at least four mobile service providers, only 71% of those in rural areas do. A competitive mobile marketplace might exist for the U.S. as a whole, but it’s not evenly distributed.

Finally, there’s the question of defining what “effective competition” means. In this report, which was approved by commissioners on a party line vote, the question is largely sidestepped, relying instead, as commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel wrote in her dissent, on an “I know it when I see it” standard.

Governor Brown urged not to lower California’s broadband speed standard

Governor Jerry Brown has two weeks to decide if California’s broadband speed standard should be slower than it is now, and if the California Advanced Services Fund should be turned into a piggy bank for AT&T, Frontier Communications and the cable industry. That’s what assembly bill 1665 would do, if Brown allows it to become law.

He’s getting plenty of encouragement to sign it, from the California Emerging Technology Fund and, one might safely assume, the platoon of lobbyists that telephone and cable companies maintain in Sacramento and back with generous cash contributions to politicians of both parties. Of course, the payments these companies make – which the chief counsel for the state’s ethics agency once described as “kind of legalised bribery” – would be dwarfed by the $300 million that AB 1665 sets aside for them.

There are groups asking the governor to veto the bill, too. The Central Coast Broadband Consortium sent an opposition letter (full disclosure: I drafted it). The North Bay North Coast Consortium sent one too, signed by Mendocino County supervisor Dan Hamburg…

AB 1665 was to re-authorize this vital and popular state broadband program, and we worked hard this year to find a sponsor and bring this bill forward after 2 failed prior attempts. A large coalition of groups came to support the “Internet For All Now” act and momentum was gained. Unfortunately, when the incumbents saw that they could not stop this bill, they were able to insert one damaging amendment after another, each worse than the last, so that eventually the original intent of the bill was lost and now our state broadband program is a give-away to the large incumbent carriers and makes it virtually impossible for the independent providers to get funded. The loss of competition that will result from this bill will be extremely damaging to California’s future.

The California Public Utilities Commission hasn’t taken a public stance on AB 1665, but a strong indicator of where commissioners might lean on it can be found in a Federal Communications Commission filing they unanimously approved on Thursday. They recommended that the FCC keep its current 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload speed standard in place.

That’s quite different from lowering California’s minimum speed standard to 6 Mbps down/1 Mbps up standard, as AB 1665 would do.

October dawns with CenturyLink-Level 3 deal still undecided

Today is the day that a CenturyLink lawyer described as “almost too awful to contemplate”: October is here and CenturyLink doesn’t have permission yet to buy Level 3 Communications, from either the California Public Utilities Commission or federal regulators that are reviewing the transaction.

It’s not really all that horrible. The 30 September 2017 deadline was a target that the two companies set for wrapping everything up. It’ll cost them more to keep the financing arrangements intact, but the tab isn’t going to hugely different from what it would have been if they had a better grasp of what it takes to get big telecoms mergers okayed and allowed more time from the beginning. Or if they hadn’t wasted almost five months before filing the right paperwork with the CPUC.

At this point, commissioners are still on track to make a decision at their 12 October 2017 meeting. They’ll have a proposed decision drafted by a CPUC administrative law judge (ALJ) that would approve the deal if adopted. The first round of comments came in, and there’s nothing particularly new. Not in the arguments presented by a group of old school consumer advocacy groups, that don’t see the harm that the merger would do to California’s wholesale broadband market and support it. Or in those made by the California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF), which does understand the damage it would do but wrongly thinks that the solution is to tell CenturyLink how and where to spend a few hundred million dollars on infrastructure projects.

The best way to fix a problem is to not create it in the first place.

Interestingly, CETF wants CenturyLink’s money to go to areas that lack acceptable broadband service based on current California standards – 6 Mbps download and 1.5 Mbps upload speeds – and not according to the dumbed down, slower speeds that CETF, AT&T, Frontier Communications and the California cable industry are pushing governor Brown to sign into law.

It’s possible that the ALJ running the proceeding, Regina DeAngelis, could make changes to the proposed decision ahead of a commission vote, or commissioners are free to offer alternative versions. If that happens, or even if a commissioner just wants more time to think about what’s already on the table, a final vote could be delayed. But so far, that hasn’t happened.