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AT&T’s FirstNet deal means more but slower broadband in rural California

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Governor Brown’s decision to join the federal FirstNet public safety radio system has pluses and minuses for rural broadband development in California. The system is intended to provide data connectivity and interoperable communications for police, fire and other first responder agencies across the U.S. The federal government awarded a $6.5 billion contract to AT&T to build and operate it.

As a part of the deal, AT&T is getting 20 MHz of spectrum in the 700 MHz band. It’s allowed to use it for consumer broadband service so long as public safety communications have priority. The company plans to combine the FirstNet build out with deployment of its rural fixed wireless broadband service, which runs on a similar slice of spectrum in the 2.3 GHz band and promises 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds.

Both FirstNet and AT&T’s wireless local loop service are based on 4G LTE technology, and not the next generation 5G standard that’ll be the basis for urban mobile broadband service upgrades.

On the plus side, it means that AT&T has to extend its wireless broadband reach to pretty much every remote corner of California. AT&T will likely lease existing facilities or contract out operations in some cases, but it will be doing a lot of construction work too. Since the core technology it’s deploying supports both public safety and consumer users, any place it plants a FirstNet tower should also get at least a minimum level of wireless broadband service. Should.

On the minus side, the deal will turbocharge AT&T’s campaign to rip out rural copper networks and replace them with low speed wireless broadband systems. The federal government is already subsidising that effort with its Connect America Fund program. The combination of FirstNet’s extra dollars and spectrum, and the regulatory grease that comes with public safety projects makes it even cheaper and easier for AT&T to fence off rural communities from competition while offering substandard service at monopoly prices.

AT&T still fails at FTTH, but slowly figures out how to make it work

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AT&T hasn’t fully embraced fiber to the home service yet. At least not judging by my experience setting it up in a newly built, fully fibered apartment complex. But they are making progress.

Originally, AT&T only offered homes in FTTH islands the same service packages that they offered to surrounding copper customers. That still might be going on in single family home developments or in redlined neighborhoods, but they’ve developed genuine fiber packages of up to a symmetrical gigabit for multi-dwelling units. Unfortunately, their customer service reps and installers aren’t all onboard.

Since this wasn’t for my primary residence, I wanted AT&T’s cheapest, bare bones Internet service, in this case, 50 Mbps download and 10 Mbps upload with no contract, at $50 per month and a $99 installation fee, as their website led me to believe. No surprise, AT&T made it hard for me to buy it. As it turned out, they didn’t even sell it.

No contract service isn’t available online, even when you try to order it via an online chat. The call center reps are nearly as clueless. After the obligatory up sell attempt, The first rep I spoke with took my order and told me it would cost $40 per month. That set off alarm bells, since that’s the 12-month contract price. I asked her if that’s the no-contract price and got an uh-hum in return.

Anytime a call center rep answers with uh-hum, it means I don’t know but I’d like you to assume I’m saying yes.

I asked to speak to a supervisor and, after some argument, finally got one. He confirmed what I thought: the $40 rate came with a contract and no-contract service was $50 for 50 Mbps, symmetrical as it turned out. Done deal. A installation appointment was set.

I could expend a couple thousand words describing what came next. The highlight was a surprise early morning service call from an installer who tried to tell me the optical network terminal he had was the WiFi equipped modem I’d ordered. When I pointed out he was installing it in a metal cabinet without an ethernet connection, he just said “it’s pretty powerful”. Right.

Six truck rolls later, I had Internet.

A week after that, I had a bill for $70. It took several phone calls, each more unpleasant for all involved than the last, to establish that 50 Mbps symmetrical service is $70 on a no contract basis, and all $50 gets you is 5 Mbps symmetrical.

Which is what I now have. And it works, although how it will perform when the complex finally fills up is an open question. AT&T’s FTTH service is a good product. They just need to learn how to sell and install it.

California joins federal FirstNet public safety radio system, run by AT&T

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Governor Brown announced that the state is opting in to the nationwide FirstNet public safety radio system that’ll be run by AT&T, under a contract from the federal government. Yesterday was the deadline, and California was the last state to decide. All 50 states have now opted in.

In his opt-in letter, Brown said he still has reservations about the 25 year project…

This letter serves as notice…that California has decided to participate in the deployment of the nationwide, interoperable broadband network as proposed in the FirstNet State Plan. While California remains concerned that the proposed plan does not address all our State’s needs, California is opting into the plan with the expectation that our concerns will be addressed throughout our partnership

A side letter from the head of California’s office of emergency services, Mark Ghilarducci, outlined those concerns. They include interoperability, particularly while FirstNet is under development and some agencies have it while others don’t, the extra charges AT&T intends to impose for secure communications and the robustness of AT&T’s wireless sites.

Ghilarducci said that the federal government wasn’t offering a genuine choice, “because FirstNet’s regulatory and procedural process makes the opt-out option in California untenable”.

New Hampshire had similar concerns, and originally decided to build its own first responder radio system, but reversed course and announced it is going with FirstNet as the clocked ticked down yesterday. In the end, New Hampshire governor Chris Sununu didn’t believe there was a real choice either. “The additional risk associated with being the only state to opt-out creates too high a barrier for New Hampshire to continue down the opt-out path alone”, he said.

AT&T’s FirstNet system will use 20 MHz of spectrum in the 700 MHz band, and be based on 4G LTE technology.

Wet string delivers faster broadband than AT&T or Frontier for 1 million Californians

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The best broadband that AT&T and Frontier Communications offers to more than one million Californians is advertised at a download speed of 3 Mbps or less, if it’s available at all. That’s slower than the 3.5 Mbps that a British techie achieved using a couple of pieces of wet string and some ADSL gear.

He was sitting around the office one day and decided to give it a go. That earned him serious geek cred with his boss, Adrian Kennard, who runs Andrews and Arnold, an ISP in the U.K. As Kennard describes in his blog

It turns out he needed salty water to get anywhere. A 2m length…

And the result – it works!!! Not even that slow (3½Mb/s down) though slow uplink. Don’t dare touch the string though…

So, there you go, ADSL over 2m of literal “wet string”. Well done all for testing this. It shows the importance of handling faults that seem to just be “low speed”.

As a bonus, fit tin cans to both ends and you get voice as well as broadband on the same wet string!

According to the most recent California Public Utilities Commission data available, 709,000 Californians live in census blocks where the fastest download speed advertised (but not necessarily delivered) by AT&T and Frontier Communications ranges from 768 Kbps to 3 Mbps. Another 367,000 are in census blocks where Frontier and AT&T claimed federal broadband subsidies and offer no service, at any speed.

Although “it was a bit of fun”, the hack highlighted the capabilities of the core technology that delivers broadband over copper-based telco infrastructure. The CPUC should take note as it listens to Frontier and AT&T tell half-truths about wireline problems and magic radio solutions. The potential of rural copper-based networks is higher than AT&T’s and Frontier’s current service levels, and higher than their intended wireless replacements.

It’s even higher than wet string.

AT&T, Frontier talk to CPUC about future networks, without putting all cards on the table

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The California Public Utilities Commission looked at telephone company plans to replace copper networks and plain old telephone service (POTS) with new technology at a workshop in San Francisco yesterday. Representatives from AT&T and Frontier Communications talked about some, but not all, of those plans, as I pointed out in the remarks I prepared, and mostly delivered, at the workshop…

The copper-to-IP transition involves three discrete but inter-related issues. Only two of those issues were addressed today.

The speakers from AT&T and Frontier talked about the benefits of replacing copper networks with fiber, and legacy POTS systems with Internet protocol technology. They did a good job of explaining the technology, the economics and the benefits that fiber and IP-based service brings.

Fair enough.

But they ignored the third issue, despite the fact that it is at the heart of their business strategy. It is at the heart of their plan to use federal and state subsidies to lock rural communities into substandard service at monopoly prices for decades to come.

That unspoken, third issue is the replacement of copper networks, largely paid for with public subsidies, with fixed wireless service, also paid for with taxpayer and ratepayer money.

Although AT&T’s representative ignored it today, the company has made no secret of its plans. It intends to replace copper networks with wireless local loop technology in rural areas, claim it delivers the minimum 10 megabits down and 1 megabit up speeds required by the California Advanced Services Fund and the FCC’s Connect America Fund subsidy programs, and pocket the cash.

Frontier has been less straightforward. Despite promising the CPUC that it was a “dedicated wireline service provider”, during the regulatory review of its purchase of Verizon’s California systems, it is now testing its own version of wireless local loop technology, and its executives are speaking of it of as a means of meeting their Connect America Fund obligations.

At best, the fixed wireless systems that AT&T and Frontier are developing can support broadband service that’s on a par with legacy DSL upgrades; service that’s priced, though, on a par with faster and more reliable copper and fiber-based service. And they want to use regulatory blessings obtained with promises of a fiber future to do it.

Today’s focus on IP technology and fiber networks was driven, in part, by the CPUC’s regulatory authority over voice service. But the CPUC also has a legislative mandate to bridge the digital divide in California and bring fast, reliable and affordable broadband service to all Californians. It also has a new responsibility to monitor AT&T’s and Frontier’s compliance with Connect America Fund commitments.

The CPUC should hold AT&T and Frontier to account for everything they do, not just those things they choose to talk about.

Mobile industry group calls for less 5G hype while standards are established

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A European trade group wants more 5G coordination and less marketing misdirection, while at the same time AT&T is running as fast as it can in the opposite direction. On the one hand, it’s an interesting contrast between the technocratic central planning that European telecoms companies often take comfort in (and often ignore, when it suits them), and the Wild West, grab-it-while-you-can ethic of the U.S. mobile industry.

On the other, it’s a useful reminder that the overheated press releases and aggressive lobbying by U.S. mobile companies, and AT&T in particular, does more than just confuse consumers and policy makers. It also creates needless distractions and delays for technology and infrastructure that relies on international standards and a global supply chain.

The 5G Infrastructure Association is a creature of the European Commission, one of the main governing branches of the European Union. It’s job is to coordinate development, trials and, eventually, full roll out of 5G mobile technology and networks across Europe. It released its latest road map earlier this week, showing true commercialisation of 5G technology coming sometime after 2020, and warning carriers that “it is very important to avoid premature ‘5G’ launch announcements and the subsequent potential fragmentation among the different countries, which would hurt both industry and consumers”.

It’s no shock that an E.U.-sponsored group is calling for more coordination and consumer protection – it’s what they do. Nor is it a surprise that AT&T is completely ignoring them – it’s what they do. The tension between the two helps maintain a balance between innovation and cooperation, both of which are indispensable to the telecommunications industry.

What’s not necessary, though, is misleading hype. More industry groups should follow the 5G Infrastructure Association’s lead and insist on clarity and truth in labelling. Facts are important.

AT&T turns good 4G tech into bad 5G hype and worse public policy

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Minneapolis is AT&T’s latest case study in deceptive, but well-lawyered, public statements. According to a company press release, AT&T is rolling out something that a casual reader might think is 5G…

Minneapolis is one of 20 markets where we plan to bring AT&T 5G Evolution by the end of the year, with this technology already available in parts of Austin and Indianapolis today. 5G Evolution offers customers a taste of the future of entertainment and connectivity on their devices.

In 5G Evolution markets, we upgrade cell towers with network upgrades that include ultra-fast LTE Advanced features like 256 QAM, 4×4 MIMO, and 3-way carrier aggregation.

If you didn’t know that LTE Advanced is 4G technology, you might think that 5G Evolution gets you 5G service on a 5G network. It doesn’t. As AT&T is careful to note, “5G standards are still being finalized”.

It’s a bit of misdirection that’s in line with AT&T’s marketing and lobbying style, similar to its fiber umbrella branding and mislabeling copper-based DSL as fiber-to-the-home service.

The research and development work, including field trials like the one in Minneapolis, that AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint are doing is critical to the eventual deployment of 5G networks. They need room to expand their 4G networks right now. But they also need to be called out when they deliberately try to confuse the two in order to stampede policy makers into giving away publicly-owned property, abandoning responsible management of public right of ways and ignoring valid community standards.

AT&T and the other mobile carriers have a legitimate claim to use public assets to expand and upgrade their networks as market demand continues to increase. They also have a responsibility to be honest about it. Conflating 5G R&D with 4G upgrades is deliberately misleading and should not be rewarded by policy makers.

Justice department picks up free market ball as FCC drops it

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Cable and phone companies may soon be free of any obligation to meet common carrier standards of behavior, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they can exert their monopoly muscle on the broadband market without fear of consequences.

Last week’s other big broadband story offers hope of an even more effective counterweight to broadband monopolies: anti-trust law. When the federal justice department sued to block AT&T’s takeover of Time Warner, it made a clean break from recent practice and went after the root cause of the problem – pursued a structural remedy – instead of nibbling around the edges with temporary and often tangential behavioral restrictions on the companies. It’s a strategy – and philosophy – outlined in a recent speech to the American Bar Association by Makan Delrahim, the new assistant attorney general in charge of anti-trust enforcement…

Like any regulatory scheme, behavioral remedies require centralized decisions instead of a free market process. They also set static rules devoid of the dynamic realities of the market. With limited information, how can antitrust lawyers hope to write rules that distort competitive incentives just enough to undo the damage done by a merger, for years to come? I don’t think I’m smart enough to do that.

Behavioral remedies often require companies to make daily decisions contrary to their profit-maximizing incentives, and they demand ongoing monitoring and enforcement to do that effectively. It is the wolf of regulation dressed in the sheep’s clothing of a behavioral decree. And like most regulation, it can be overly intrusive and unduly burdensome for both businesses and government.

The justice department’s complaint called out the problem. When Comcast bought NBC-Universal – a similar deal – the justice department and the Federal Communications Commission extracted promises of good behavior. Some targeted direct, anti-competitive problems, while others went after unrelated side benefits, like discounted broadband rates for low income households. But it won’t matter much longer whether those promises did any good: they all expire next year. Comcast will be free to be, well, Comcast.

The justice department is taking a better approach with AT&T and Time Warner. It’s trying to avoid damage, rather than ineptly mopping up around the edges. The same thing happened with CenturyLink’s takeover of Level 3 Communications. The combined company is giving up dark fiber strands on 30 key long haul routes. It’s arguable whether that’s sufficient, but it is a structural cure aimed at preventing a monopoly from forming. The contrast with the weak and irrelevant behavioral conditions imposed by the California Public Utilities Commission is stark.

The broadband market in the U.S. is mostly a mix of outright monopolies and cozy duopolies, which are themselves collapsing into monopolies as cable companies outstrip telcos’ ability to deliver broadband at the federal advanced services standard of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds. The Federal Communications Commission is determined to let that happen. With its new found zeal for trust busting, the justice department is the unexpected last line of defence.

Feds flex anti-trust muscle and sue to block AT&T-Time Warner deal

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The federal justice department challenged the proposed merger of AT&T and Time Warner in court yesterday, on anti-trust grounds. The problem, according to the justice department’s complaint (h/t to Brian Fung at the Washington Post for the pointer) is that if it owns the entire content creation-ownership-distribution chain, AT&T will use that market power to muscle out its competitors, – traditional linear distribution companies and emerging over-the-top players alike…

If allowed to proceed, this merger will harm consumers by substantially lessening competition among traditional video distributors and slowing emerging online competition. After the merger, the merged company would have the power to make its video distributor rivals less competitive by raising their costs, resulting in even higher monthly bills for American families. The merger also would enable the merged firm to hinder the growth of online distributors that it views as a threat to the traditional pay-TV model…

AT&T/DirecTV perceives online video distribution as an attack on its business that could, in its own words, “deteriorate the value of the bundle.” Accordingly, AT&T/DirecTV intends to “work to make [online video services] less attractive.” AT&T/DirecTV executives have concluded that the “runway” for the decline of traditional pay-TV “may be longer than some think given the economics of the space,” and that it is “upon us to utilize our assets to extend that runway.” This merger would give the merged firm key, valuable assets, empowering it to do just that.

The core problem, according to yesterday’s filing is the proposed combination of DirecTv, which, when combined with AT&T’s Uverse service, is the nation’s largest television distributor, and Time Warner’s Turner networks. That lends credence to reports over the past couple of weeks that federal anti-trust lawyers wanted AT&T to give up one or the other in order to avoid going to court.

AT&T isn’t backing down. It’s immediate response was to call the lawsuit “a radical and inexplicable departure from decades of antitrust precedent”.

Broadband redlining in rural California, a tale of two mayors

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Internet access in rural California is fantastic, and it’s awful. Those two messages were delivered to the California Public Utilities Commission last week by, respectively, the mayors of Mammoth Lakes and Oroville.

The reason for the difference? A big, fat open access middle mile fiber route, paid for by state and federal subsidies. The same type of project that the California legislature and governor Brown banned from future funding by the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF).

Mammoth Lakes mayor John Wentworth invited CPUC commissioners to “come over the eastern Sierra and visit the great telecommunications and broadband capacity we have over there”. He called out the Digital 395 project, an open access fiber network that runs from Reno to Barstow, going through Mammoth Lakes and most other communities on the eastern slope of the Sierra. It was built with grants from CASF and the federal government and, according to Wentworth, is providing the raw material for a high tech economy.

He was followed by Oroville mayor Linda Dahlmeier, who told commissioners about her struggle to convince AT&T and Comcast to upgrade their infrastructure to meet minimal performance standards…

One of the first thing that happens anytime it rains in my community is our services go out, because the infrastructure from AT&T…is so inefficient that it can’t supply the needs just on a regular basis. Especially if there’s any moisture in the air…

I’ve worked in the banking industry for many years…this is what banking used to call redlining. When I asked Comcast to do development on the other side, because the infrastructure is so poor on AT&T’s [side] and they will not improve it…for them to come and even cross my Oro Dam Boulevard is $2.5 million. And that’s $2.5 million that our community doesn’t have. Nor do we have access to last or middle mile because AT&T and Comcast have defined that they serve our area adequately, which is not a true statement…

You can actually drive down [highway] 162 and see on one side of the street where Comcast is a provider, which does a significantly better job, and you can see the development. On the other side where you have AT&T…it looks like a slum. It’s that big of a difference. And it’s that side of my community that is where my industrial development would happen.

Oroville, like many other rural California communities, has triple trouble. The telco – AT&T – won’t upgrade its decaying copper plant, preferring instead to milk its existing investment as long as it can and then back fill with less reliable and more expensive wireless service. The cable company – Comcast – only builds where the revenue stream from a given neighborhood meets its revenue requirements.

Finally, there’s no incentive for incumbents to change and no hope of competition.

Unlike Mammoth Lakes and the rest of the eastern Sierra, where publicly subsidised fiber is improving incumbents’ service, supporting competitive providers and driving economic development.