U.S. broadband speeds climb, but gap between fast and slow persists


Ninety percent of connections made to Akamai’s content delivery network by users in the United States were at the 4 Mbps level or better in the first quarter of this year, a five percent increase from a year ago. That indicates that consumers continue to migrate away from the lowest speed service, when they can.

Take up of faster speed levels, though, is growing relatively quickly but still represents only a fraction of the U.S. market. Akamai’s latest State of the Internet report shows that 61% of U.S. connect with speeds of at least 10 Mbps and only 21% at 25 Mbps or faster, although that proportion is growing. That 21% score is 65% higher than last year – the biggest jump in high speed take rate of any country in the top ten.

And the U.S. did rank in the top ten – in tenth place – on the global 25 Mbps list. That compares to 37th globally in the 4 Mbps rankings.

One caveat: the universe that Akamai is measuring is a subset of the entire Internet, albeit a subset that’s a very large proportion of the whole. It only sees users that are connecting to websites and content that need or can use the fast connections it enables. Those that can’t – people with very low speed access, for example dial up or the kind of sub-megabit legacy DSL service in some Californian communities that AT&T and Frontier Communications never upgraded. So based on Akamai’s numbers, we don’t know the exact percentage of U.S. Internet users who don’t have service even at the 4 Mbps level – it’s at least 10% but likely more.

Overall, the average U.S. broadband speed – from Akamai’s particular perspective – was 18.7 Mbps in the first quarter of 2017, tenth highest in the world and a 22% increase from a year ago.

$900K chopped from San Bernardino FTTH subsidy plan, but it’s moving again


A fiber to the home project in San Bernardino County is back on track, sorta. California Public Utilities Commission staff cut $900,000 from a proposed $29 million grant to Race Telecommunications for the Gigafy Phelan project, and sent it all back into a 30 day comment, reply and commission consideration cycle.

Gigafy Phelan is an ambitious attempt to extend FTTH service to 8,400 homes in California’s high desert region, in and around the town of Phelan. Or maybe it’s 7,600 homes. It depends on how homes is defined, and in this case it’s more than academic. It makes a $900,000 difference.

The federal census bureau tracks housing units and households. A housing unit is a discrete structure where people might live: “a house, an apartment, a mobile home or trailer, a group of rooms, or a single room that is occupied, or, if vacant, is intended for occupancy as separate living quarters", as the census bureau, as quoted by CPUC staff, puts it. A household is an occupied housing unit, regardless of the number of occupants or the relationships between them.

The California Advanced Service Fund – the broadband subsidy program that would pick up the tab – uses households as its primary metric. Housing units is a better measure, since a home that’s unoccupied today is as likely to be occupied tomorrow as any other, and everyone needs broadband service. But it’s just a way of keeping score and, so long as it’s done consistently, one way works pretty much as well as another.

It’s also a poor excuse for whittling down an FTTH project at the 11th hour, particularly one that delivers a gigabit for $60 a month and is the second "highest-scoring pending project application on the CASF’s project evaluation scoring matrix".

The revisions open up a window for another round of protests, and you can expect Frontier Communications will continue to object, claiming that its substandard, 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up, federally subsidised service – at no particular price point – is enough for people who live in Phelan. The A in CASF stands for Advanced services. It’s time to get on with it.

Trump appoints Rosenworcel to FCC


Trump appoints Rosenworcel to FCC

Third time is the charm.

Jessica Rosenworcel is on her way back to the Federal Communications Commission. President Donald Trump has re-nominated her to one of the two seats reserved for democrats. The question he left hanging, though, is which seat?

This will be the third attempt at reappointing Rosenworcel to the commission. She was originally appointed by president Barack Obama in 2011, served her initial five year term with high marks from both sides of the aisle, and stayed until the end of last year, as the law allows when no renomination or replacement has been confirmed by the U.S. senate. Obama put her name forward twice: the first nomination expired in the senate, the second one was withdrawn when Trump took office.

Trump has a reputation for backing people with a track record of intelligent and competence, and Rosenworcel has that. Now her name is back on the table.

What’s not clear is whether Rosenworcel is being appointed to fill the open democratic seat or if she’s going to replace Mignon Clyburn, the only democrat on the commission, whose term expires at the end of the month (although, like Rosenworcel, she can stay on for a time, pending confirmation of a replacement). That detail should be cleaned up when the white house sends the formal paperwork to the senate.

The FCC is currently operating with only three commissioners – Clyburn, and two republicans, chairman Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly. If Rosenworcel is being appointed to the open democratic seat, then we can expect to see a third republican nomination sent to the senate soon – otherwise, the FCC would be in a two-to-two deadlock.

One name that keep popping up is Brendan Carr, currently the FCC’s general counsel and formerly an aide to Pai. But that’s just at the rumor stage right now – other names, including members of the shadowy transition landing team that Trump sent to the FCC before he took office.

Pai drives FCC with eyes on rear view mirror


During a rural broadband road trip through the midwestern U.S., Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai shared time with a republican senator on a Milwaukee talk radio program (h/t to Phillip Dampier at Stop the Cap for tracking the interview down and getting the word out). Although he professed an open mind regarding the repeal of common carrier rules for broadband service – it’s under consideration at the FCC, so he has to say that – he dismissed net neutrality as a "slogan".

According to a story by Jon Brodkin at Ars Technica, Pai dismissed concerns raised by program host Gene Mueller about Internet service providers manipulating traffic for their own benefit…

"I have access to what I need when I need it, but with the removal of this Title II where we start treating the Internet as a commodity as opposed to a utility, that means the provider can then decide what I’m going to see more of," Mueller said. "If Spectrum [Charter] wants me to see Spectrum products first, then I’ll see that and other things will be slowed down."

Mueller described a "fear that this wide open pipe will become monetized for providers’ profit."

Pai said there’s no reason to worry. The scenario described by Mueller "is not the Internet we had prior to 2015 when we didn’t have these rules," he said.

The problem with that logic is that with or without FCC rules, the Internet we have now is not the Internet we had in 2015 or 2005 or 1995, and it never will be again. Pai is right to be concerned about "the government deciding how the internet is run", but he’s ignoring two key points: broadband service is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few companies, and those companies are bulking up on digital content ownership.

As acquisition-driven debt piles up and shareholder value is increasingly dependent on revenue generated from content, the economic imperative to maximise profit from it by using monopoly control over broadband access becomes irresistible. The concept of common carrier obligations has evolved over hundreds of years as a counterweight to exactly this problem. If Pai has a better idea, he needs to stop popping off sound bites and start articulating it now.

Copper network killer rules could be back on the table


Yanking out copper networks and replacing them with wireless service is one of the possible outcomes of the Federal Communication Commission’s reconsideration of the wireline service regulations it adopted last year. The swap can actually be done now, but only if the replacement meets certain service and quality standards.

In California, those standards are set by the California Public Utilities Commission. If the FCC rolls back its rules, it wouldn’t necessarily change that. But it could, and the CPUC might be weighing in on the FCC’s proceeding. According to a staff report prepared for commissioners

Should the FCC eliminate its 2016 standards, service providers could have the freedom to withdraw legacy services, including the attendant California nine basic voice service elements, and substitute a service that would fail to meet California’s standards. Customers might lose free access to 911, or service functionality or coverage, or access to relay service. If the substitute is wireless service, and the customer lives in a rural area, the customer could lose service altogether if the service provider has poor coverage in that area. Plus, wireless service is charged on a per-minute basis for both incoming and outgoing calls. Finally, some services, such as closed captioning and alarm systems, are dependent on copper wire; their continued viability may be threatened if the FCC does not maintain appropriate rules.

Last year, the commission went on record opposing an ultimately failed bill pushed by AT&T in the California legislature that would have done all of that. But it was by a narrow 3 to 2 vote, and only one of the commissioners who voted aye – Carla Peterman – is still on the commission.

The draft comments proposed by CPUC don’t seem likely to be controversial, though. Roughly translated, they amount to California sets its own, higher standards and we’d like to keep it that way. It’s the same position the commission has taken in the past. The harder decisions will come if the FCC tries to preempt state wireline replacement rules. Or if incumbent telcos make another run at rewriting Californian requirements.

FCC’s idea of open access to broadband service might not be so open


It’s hard to tell where the Federal Communications Commission is going with a new enquiry into open (or not) access rules for broadband, television and telephone service providers in apartments, condos, commercial buildings and other multiple tenent environments. Assuming commissioners vote to begin it – a safe bet – all they’d be doing immediately is asking for comments from anyone with an opinion on the subject. It’s not being done out of idle curiosity, though.

The draft of the notice that would open the enquiry says the grand goal is "to facilitate greater consumer choice and to enhance broadband deployment". But choice is in the eye of the chooser. It’s one thing to prohibit a cable company from signing an exclusive deal with a landlord that prevents tenants from installing satellite dishes, but quite another to say that members of a condo association can’t pool their market power and make a bulk buy of television or broadband service.

The current FCC majority is not a populist one. One of its earliest decisions was to kill an initiative begun during the Obama administration to open up the set top box market. Commissioner Michael O’Rielly has gone on rants about the evils of municipal broadband and urged congress to subsidise big incumbents rather than independent competitors. It’s a world view that’s consistent with the Orwellian message pushed by telco and cable lobbyists that anything that threatens their monopolies will doom consumer choice and end broadband deployment.

It’s also clear from the draft that the FCC doesn’t think highly of local efforts, such as in San Francisco, to require open access for Internet service providers to apartments and condos – the first bullet point in the half page "fact sheet" that accompanied the notice refers to the imposition of "overly burdensome infrastructure access requirements onto private companies" by state and local governments.

Take nothing for granted.

Broadband bills among the dead in the California legislature


The road kill this year in the California legislature includes several broadband and telecommunications-related bills that either missed a deadline for approval by either the full assembly or senate, or died a quiet in a committee. Those include…

Senate bill 566 by senator Mike McGuire (D – Healdsburg) would have required companies that provide telephone service – VoIP and cable companies included – to notify the state office of emergency services when rural connections go down and provide it with a real, live human to speak with about it as repairs proceed. Technically, it was 911 access, but as a practical matter pretty much all phone service connects to 911, so it was really about pretty much all phone service. It never made it to a hearing in the senate’s energy, utilities and communication committee.

SB 514 by senator Steven Bradford (D – Inglewood) attempted to set a minimum standard for state-subsidised broadband connections in schools. Effective in 2021, it would have pegged “high-speed broadband services” at 6 Mbps, although it wasn’t clear whether that was upload and download, or just download speed. In the end, it didn’t matter because it didn’t get out of the senate appropriations committee. The argument against it was that some rural schools might lose funding if upgraded service wasn’t available. On the other hand, it would have increased pressure on incumbents to upgrade infrastructure – forget about 2021, 6 Mbps isn’t adequate for schools now.

SB 327 by senator Hannah-Beth Jackson (D – Santa Barbara) took on the Internet of Things. It would have required device manufacturers to include security measures and let consumers know what kind of data they’re collecting. Consumer groups supported it; industry groups opposed it. It made it as far as the senate floor, but no vote was taken and it was finally pulled by Jackson.

Assembly bill 252 by assemblyman Sebastian Ridley-Thomas (D – Los Angeles) would have kept local governments from imposing taxes – sales, franchise or otherwise – on video streaming services, but stalled in committee. Cable companies and other traditional video providers stop paying taxes when consumers start watching video over the top, and cities have been looking for ways to replace that money. Industry supported AB 252 and, naturally, local governments opposed it.

Google Fiber goes boringly conventional in Seattle


At first it tried to disrupt the broadband industry in the U.S. with full scale fiber to the home deployments, but the financial realities of a capital intensive business with a long term return on investment horizon has forced Google Fiber into a traditional small ISP business model. Its latest move – into a high rent Seattle high rise – is a low risk venture. According to a blog post by its Webpass subsidiary

Today, we announced that Webpass is ready to move into the Emerald City, one Ethernet-wired building at a time.

Webpass provides blazing-fast Internet (up to a gigabit per second!) to residential and business customers, starting with Fifteen Twenty-One Second Avenue, a 40-story luxury tower located above Pike Place Market. We expect to add many more buildings throughout the city, and, starting today, residents of other apartment and condo buildings can reach out to express interest in bringing Webpass to their home.

The only news here is that Google is involved – downtown Seattle already has a thriving market multi-dwelling unit (MDU) gigabit service.

Two questions that the brief announcement doesn’t answer are how is it getting enough bandwidth into the building and what is the business arrangement with the landlord?

Media reports about the Seattle initiative assume that, consistent with Webpass’ market positioning (but not its invariable practice), the building will be fed wirelessly. That seems unlikely: reliably delivering a gigabit (for $60 per month) to dozens of units in a dense urban environment via a radio link is difficult, while leasing dark fiber from the City of Seattle or other providers is easy. I don’t know how they’re doing it, but I’m not making any assumptions either.

Typically, MDU deals between Internet service providers and landlords involve some level of exclusivity, often based on access to the Ethernet or other wiring inside. It’s becoming a controversial practice. The Federal Communications Commission is about to look into it, and Webpass was on the other side of it in San Francisco. It would ironic if Google’s broadband business model goes from being the disrupter to being disrupted.

CPUC takes another look at a Santa Clara County FTTH subsidy


A stalled Santa Clara County fiber to the home project might get back on track this week. A proposed $1.1 million grant for the Light Saber Project is scheduled to go in front of the California Public Utilities Commission next Thursday.

It’ll be the second time that commissioners have taken a look at it. LCB Communications/South Valley Internet, an independent Internet service provider in southern Santa Clara County, applied for a $2.8 million grant from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) in 2015 for a plan to build out fiber to more than 500 homes in the San Martin and Paradise Valley communities, south and east of Morgan Hill, respectively. A wireless ISP challenged the application, claiming it provided service at or above the CASF minimum of 6 Mbps download and 1.5 Mbps upload speeds. The result was that San Martin, where most of the homes and lower income households were located, was removed from the project.

That left 150 homes in Paradise Valley. The grant request was trimmed to $1.1 million and sent on to the commission for consideration in February. It ran into headwinds at the meeting: the idea of subsidising FTTH service to a relatively affluent community was not well received. The median household income in Paradise Valley is $102,000 per year, which is quite a bit higher than many other communities in California. On the other hand, it’s in Santa Clara County, where the California housing and community development department sets a low income threshold of $85,000 for a four-person household.

No vote was taken and Light Saber was sent back for more work. Some of the details were adjusted, the budget was trimmed a bit, and now it’s being resubmitted to commissioners. But as the new draft of the grant resolution points out, it "is substantially the same as the prior draft resolution". What might have changed, though, is how the project is viewed in the context of the CASF program rules and project grant standards. The CPUC is considering whether to change those rules, in a process that was initiated, in part, because of the push back on Light Saber as well as the Digital 299 project, which was likewise put on hold at the same meeting. When Digital 299 came back for a vote and was approved in March, there was an acknowledgement that it had been submitted with good faith reliance on the rules as written. That reasoning applies equally well to Light Saber.

FCC begins Act II of apartment, condo broadband access drama


The rules that govern how video, voice and Internet services are delivered to people who live in what the Federal Communications Commission calls multiple tenant environments (MTEs) are complicated. It’s a universe that includes apartments and condominiums (multiple dwelling units/MDUs), and commercial real estate, such as shopping malls or office buildings. Later this month, the FCC will consider, and likely approve, the start of a broad enquiry that could result in an update and overhaul of those regulations.

The FCC tends to prohibit exclusive deals between property owners and service providers. Tenants, including renters and those with a common ownership interest in, say, a condo or homeowners association (HOA), usually have a right to buy service from anyone, but access to a property or the wiring inside it can be restricted, or even blocked altogether. An HOA can enter into a bulk billing agreement and deliver services, at one level or another and of one kind or another, to every home, but residents are still free to buy additional service from other providers. A landlord can cut a deal with an ISP and make it difficult or impossible for a competitor to wire a building, but can’t prevent tenants from accessing wireless service.

It’s further complicated by the fact that broadband, telephone and television service have separate regulatory regimes and, consequently, different MTE access rules. Broadband, in particular, is in a grey area, since its status – common carrier or not? – is far from settled. The City and County of San Francisco stepped in and established its own open access rules for broadband service in apartments and condos, which were promptly challenged at the FCC. The initial challenge was rejected, but only because of its oddly twisted logic. The core issues of open access to services and the role of local governments in enforcing it were not addressed.

That’s about to change.