Tag Archives: broadband

Telcos’ California cash grab gets a nod at the CPUC

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Three parallel efforts are underway to rewrite the rules for California broadband infrastructure subsidies and use the money to support substandard service and technology deployed by AT&T and Frontier Communications. The legislature is considering assembly bill 1665, which would, among other things, add $300 million to the California Advanced Services Fund for broadband construction and operating costs, and effectively give it to AT&T and Frontier. The lower service standards and eligibility restrictions in the bill would keep independent Internet service providers out of most of rural California.

While that’s being decided, the California Public Utilities Commission is 1. tinkering with the program to bring it into compliance with a law passed last year and 2. considering what might end up being a complete overhaul of the way infrastructure grant requests are processed and prioritised.

As they’ve done so far with AB 1665, Frontier and AT&T are trying to game the system and rewrite the rules so they can lock out competitors and use CASF money as a private piggy bank to back fill their budgets and claim reimbursement for work they’d be doing anyway. They made the same self serving claims in their objections to an initial CASF priority exercise and Frontier is trying to use what should be a minor rewrite of the rules as an opportunity to grab control of the cash.

They seem to have found a willing ear at the commission. A first draft of what could become a reboot of the CASF program includes at least three gifts on big incumbents’ wish lists:

  • A lower performance standard, in particular slower upload speeds that better match the outdated first and second generation DSL systems that Frontier and AT&T maintain in rural areas.
  • Eliminating or greatly scaling back requirements that grant recipients put some of their own money into projects.
  • More opportunities to challenge applications and drag out what is already a never ending review process, including allowing annual carve outs based on promises rather than performance.

For the most part, the only regulation broadband providers face in California comes from the market, at least where it might be found. It would be a perverse outcome indeed if the CPUC – California’s utility regulator – works against the market by using taxpayer money to strengthen existing monopolies and protect them from the threat of competition.

FCC votes to kill net neutrality, after a fair trial of course

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Common carrier rules for broadband service are on the way out. As expected, the Federal Communications Commission voted along party lines to begin a rulemaking process that, in theory, is a neutral, technocratic assessment of current regulations that might lead to any outcome. But there’s never been any pretence that the result will be anything but a repeal of the FCC’s 2015 decision to bring broadband – wired and wireless – under the common carrier umbrella.

The agency’s official press release laid out the goals for the proceeding that was launched by yesterday’s approval of a notice of proposed rulemaking

First, the Notice proposes to reverse the FCC’s 2015 decision to impose heavy-handed Title II utility-style government regulation on Internet service providers (ISPs) and return to the longstanding, successful light- touch framework under Title I of the Communications Act.

Second, the Notice proposes to return to the Commission’s original classification of mobile broadband Internet access service as a private mobile service…

Third, the Notice proposes to eliminate the catch-all Internet conduct standard created by the Title II Order.

The Notice also seeks comment on whether the Commission should keep, modify, or eliminate the bright-line rules established by the Title II Order.

Title II is the section of telecommunications law that governs what companies that are classified as common carriers can do.

You’re likely to be disappointed if you’re hoping that the common carrier regime, and particularly the net neutrality rule, will be saved by another wave of public protest, as it was in 2014 when the democratic FCC chairman initially floated a plan that wasn’t all that much different from what’s on the table now. Republican commissioner Michael O’Rielly blew off the flood of comments that have already come in, saying “thankfully, our rulemaking process is not decided like a Dancing with the Stars contest, since counts of comments submitted have only so much value”.

Broadband subsidy grab by telcos, cable faces budget scrutiny in Sacramento

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The attempt to turn the California Advanced Services Fund – the state’s primary broadband infrastructure subsidy program – into a piggy bank for AT&T, Frontier and cable companies gets another hearing at the capitol today. Assembly bill 1665 will go before the assembly appropriations committee, which has responsibility for seeing that bills that raise money – in this case, reinstate a tax – and spend it are based on sound fiscal policy, both in isolation and in the context of California’s overall budget.

The legislative analysis prepared for the committee ignores several of the bill’s fatal flaws. It doesn’t mention the fact that AB 1665 would lower California’s minimum broadband speed standard to 6 Mbps down/1 Mbps up, or that it would give AT&T and Frontier Communications a protected monopoly in most of rural California, where they would not be required to upgrade service to even that level in many places.

Nor does it address the elimination of the public housing broadband facilities fund. That program is mostly used to provide free or very low cost WiFi service to people who live in public housing communities. Which seems like an innocuous enough enterprise, but it sends cable companies ballistic because it might – just might – put a dent in the revenue streams they generate from the expensive, video-heavy packages they like to sell to lower income customers.

Today’s hearing will, in all likelihood, be for show and not for go. Typically, when this kind of bill hits an appropriations committee – in either the assembly or senate – it’s shuffled into a legislative limbo known as the suspense file. It’ll sit there until the full state budget is finalised, and then legislative leaders will decide whether it will be one of lucky bills that gets sent on to a full floor vote.

It’s a bill crafted to meet the objections of cable and telephone companies that are determined to protect their monopolies at any cost. California’s lawmakers should reject it.

Did John Oliver take down the FCC, again?

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After another classic net neutrality rant, John Oliver is getting credit in some quarters for inspiring a flood of online comments that brought the Federal Communications Commission’s website to a grinding halt. 150,000 comments were filed in the first 36 hours after the broadcast, three times the number over the same period three years ago when Oliver issued his first net neutrality call-to-arms.

It didn’t long for the FCC’s comment system to crash, or for the agency to claim it was someone else’s fault

Beginning on Sunday night at midnight, our analysis reveals that the FCC was subject to multiple distributed denial-of-service attacks (DDos). These were deliberate attempts by external actors to bombard the FCC’s comment system with a high amount of traffic to our commercial cloud host. These actors were not attempting to file comments themselves; rather they made it difficult for legitimate commenters to access and file with the FCC.

Both random netizens and Washington, DC politicians questioned the FCC’s claim, and asked for some kind of proof.

The truth might lie somewhere in between. It now appears that a botnet was used to file tens of thousands of anti-net neutrality comments – the exact opposite of what Oliver was advocating. According to Gizmodo

Thousands of identical anti-net neutrality comments came flooding in. First noticed on Reddit and later reported by ZDNet and the Verge, more than 58,000 identical comments supporting Pai’s effort to repeal the net neutrality rules have been filed since the proceeding was opened…

Even more concerning, however, is that the names and addresses attached to those comments may not belong to whoever filed them. Both the Verge and ZDNet managed to reach a few of the supposed commenters, and found that they had no knowledge of their alleged comments.

Oliver’s campaign is on temporary hold now. Citing its procedures and rules, the FCC says it won’t formally accept comments until after it meets next week and, presumably, votes to begin the process of undoing its net neutrality decision, which defined broadband as a common carrier service

California broadband subsidy bill fertile ground for monopoly mushrooms

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The attempt to redirect California’s broadband infrastructure subsidy program toward incumbent telephone and cable companies and away from independent, gigabit class projects and public housing communities is descending into Alice-in-Wonderland territory. The amended text of assembly bill 1665 is posted, and it begins with a stirring call to action for the greater good of California…

The availability of high-speed Internet access, referred to generically as “broadband” and including both wired and wireless technologies, is essential 21st century infrastructure for economic competitiveness and quality of life. Economic studies confirm that the use of broadband technologies increases economic productivity as a foundation for increased efficiency in organizational operations and enhanced profitability in business…

It is the intent of the Legislature that California be a national leader and globally competitive in the deployment and adoption of broadband technology and to implement quality universal access for all residents.

What the bill doesn’t explain is how lowering California’s broadband speed standard will prepare us to better compete with our peers around the world. AB 1665 would bake a 6 Mbps download/1 Mbps upload standard into law, a rollback from the current 6 Mbps down/1.5 Mbps up minimum, and significantly below the U.S. average, let alone countries like Japan or Germany.

That’s because the bill’s intent is to reinstate a tax on telephone bills and funnel the money to the bill’s backers. The lions share – $300 million – is effectively reserved for AT&T and Frontier Communications in most of rural California, with a loophole that allows cable companies to get a taste in the suburban and exurban communities they prefer to serve.

As expected, the bill’s new text gives AT&T and Frontier de facto exclusivity in vast areas of the state in or near where they’re receiving federal subsidies, even when they spend the money on legacy infrastructure, and allows them to be reimbursed for the full cost of projects, including operating costs. Again, even when the service delivered is on a par with what you’d expect today from 1990s DSL technology.

Cable companies get their perks, too. They’d be able to bypass regulatory oversight by laundering the money through homeowners, and public housing funds, that are mostly used to install WiFi in the state’s poorest communities, would be chopped completely.

AB 1665’s attempt to conflate “quality universal access for all” with this transfer of tax money away from meaningful projects and purposes, and into the pockets of big incumbents is perversity, not credible public policy.

FCC denies challenge to San Francisco open ISP access law

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San Francisco’s open access rule for Internet services providers in apartment and condo buildings is legal according to the Federal Communications Commission. Or at least, a federal law originally written for satellite television viewers doesn’t make it illegal.

The FCC summarily denied a challenge to the San Francisco law from a lobbying front organisation that represents companies, mostly small ones, that make a living signing exclusive broadband service deals with landlords and homeowners associations, who then force their tenants and members to use it and, usually, get a cut of the action. The San Francisco ordinance is aimed squarely at that practice. It requires landlords and HOAs to 1. allow any qualified ISP to offer service in the building and 2. allow them to use any wiring belonging to the building.

The group, which calls itself the Multifamily Broadband Council, asked the FCC to block the law, claiming it prevents them from exercising their right to exclusive building access under a 1990s law that says that landlords and HOAs can’t prevent tenants from using satellite dishes and similar receiving antennas.

Huh?

Right. The FCC thought that line of reasoning was bizarre too…

Ultimately, the [Over the Air Receiving Device] Rule exists to enable consumers to use the services of their choosing free from undue restrictions imposed by property owners or governmental authorities, and not to protect the ability of any particular service provider to secure financing by excluding others. [The San Francisco ordinance] requires building owners to allow additional communications service providers to provide services requested by occupants and thus appears to support these objectives by promoting choice in the provision of communications services to consumers.

That doesn’t mean that San Francisco’s ordinance has a clear road ahead of it. It relies on the general authority that cities have under the California constitution, rather than on any broadband-specific power granted by it or state law. In fact, it might, and probably will, be argued that such matters are in the hands of state, and not local, regulators.

This abortive challenge at the FCC was just a warm up act, and not the main show. That’s still to come.

Don’t force us to subsidize wireless companies, cities ask FCC

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The Federal Communication Commission’s move toward preempting local and state review of wireless infrastructure building plans and locations, and, potentially, their ability to control public right-of-ways and real estate they own, has produced a useful primer on the issues involved, as cities and counties see it. A coalition of more than 1,800 communities filed a joint response to a request from Mobilitie, a mobile infrastructure company, that asked the FCC to give it free rein to install tens of thousands of towers, which it tries to pass off as 120-foot steel utility poles, along public roads (h/t to Omar Masry at the City and County of San Francisco for the pointer).

The comments do an admirable job documenting Mobilitie’s deceptive dealings with local government, and focus in on the key issue at stake: whether a select group of private companies should get an automatic right to use public property at little or no cost…

The FCC should reject Mobilitie’s request that it regulate either the regulatory fees associated with applications to place wireless facilities, or the rents it must pay to use public property. A federal policy that allows Mobilitie or other wireless service or facilities providers to obtain permits without paying the full costs of those permit, or to use public property without paying fair market value will encourage inefficient, intrusive deployments, deter innovation and could impose billions of dollars in costs on local communities and their citizens. Any such policy will have marginal benefits, at best. It is unlikely to lead to deployment in areas that are not served today…

As a basic principle, the Commission should be reluctant to adopt any rules that have the effect of requiring states or local governments to subsidize the business plans of these service and facilities providers, or to assume risks that flow from their business plans.

It’s a conclusion that Californian legislators should take to heart as they consider senate bill 649, which would have pretty much the same effect.

The only Californian community that signed on to the filing was the City of Los Angeles which, as the comments note, was the first to trial a particular sort of next generation cell deployments on streetlights – hardly an anti-wireless zealot.

Comments of smart communities siting coalition, on petition by Mobilitie LLC petition for streamlining deployment of small cell infrastructure, 8 March 2017

Fresno broadband subsidy proposal scores two major, welcome firsts

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Update: the CPUC unanimously approved the grant for the CalNeva project in Coalinga and Huron at its 11 May 2017 meeting.

For the first time, a cable company is in line for a broadband construction subsidy from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF). The California Public Utilities Commission is expected to decide whether or not to give CalNeva Broadband a $511,000 grant to upgrade former Comcast cable systems in Coalinga and Huron in Fresno County and provide broadband and television service to 5,500 homes.

The technology will be hybrid fiber coax (HFC), using mostly existing plant, with about seven miles of fiber and 50 miles of coax in Coalinga and Huron. Huron will be tied to the network operations center and middle mile fiber in Coalinga via a licensed, gigabit class microwave link.

CalNeva operates small cable systems in several remote, rural communities in California and Nevada. Unlike the major cable companies, they don’t seem to mind getting involved with the CPUC. That’s a refreshing change. I’ve worked on several projects where we’ve tried to interest cable companies in participating in CASF-funded projects, and received the same answer every time: no. The problem, as they see it, is that they don’t want to come under CPUC’s oversight, even in a small way. CASF is technically a telephone industry program, and companies that get grants have to agree to live by the CPUC’s telephone industry rules. At least where the details of grant administration and obligations are concerned. Cable companies, on the other hand, have lobbied themselves clear of nearly all regulatory oversight in California and they don’t want to do anything that might endanger that status.

Another refreshing difference is the speed with which this application was processed: it’s the first time the CPUC has held to its promised timeframe. The proposal was submitted in mid-January and the draft resolution approving the grant was published last month. Assuming it’s taken up by the CPUC on 11 May 2017 as expected, it’ll be a few days past the 105 day decision deadline, but well within any reasonable expectations or practical interpretation of the rules.

When evaluating whether or not to pursue CASF grants, companies have to weigh the opportunity cost of putting investment capital – usually 30% to 40% of the total project cost cost – on ice while a decision is made. A reliably quick decision, even if it’s a fast no, is less risky and costly to broadband companies, particularly independent ones, than the endless and arbitrary process many have endured. Five other active CASF project proposals have been under review for an average of 512 days – more than a year past the deadline. And that’s not counting the ones that died of old age.

If timely decisions become the norm – and the CalNeva project shows that it’s possible – the CASF program will be a much more credible and effective way of closing California’s digital divide.

FCC has bad information about what telecoms is

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The Federal Communications Commission started down the road to roll back its previous decision to regulate broadband as a common carrier service last week. A draft decision to open up a process to reverse its 2015 decision to reclassify Internet access (yes, it’s incredibly bureaucratic) from being an information service to a telecommunications service will be taken up by commissioners next month.

Information services are value added services. Facebook adds value to the your bits by processing that data and connecting it every which way with what your friends send them. With your consent, of course. Telecommunications services, on the other hand, are pure pipelines: you push the send button on an email and it lands in your friend’s in box just the way you sent it.

So, let’s say you buy Internet access from Comcast. You plug your computer into a spigot on your cable box, compose an email and fire it off. The content – what you intended to say – ends up at its destination with zero alterations. Comcast doesn’t shuffle it around to all of your other friends to see if they like it or not, as Facebook might. Nor does it push it out for all to see, as Twitter does. All Comcast does is take the bytes – the information you have digitally crafted – and transmit it unchanged to the destination you’ve designated.

That’s a telecommunications service. A transportation service. In other words, a common carrier service.

The FCC’s proposed re-definition runs completely counter to that simple truth. The draft claims that “Internet service providers do not appear to offer ‘telecommunications,’ i.e., ‘the transmission, between or among points specified by the user, of information of the user’s choosing, without change in the form or content of the information as sent and received,’ to their users”.

That’s nonsense. And the draft decision’s arguments used to support it – for example, that “routing decisions are based on the architecture of the network, not on consumers’ instructions” – are equally irrelevant.

Federal broadband development swamp heads south

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The south rises again.

If you were hoping that Donald Trump’s campaign promise to drain the Beltway swamp was going to shake up the agriculture subsidy machine that funnels broadband development money to the south and midwest at California’s expense, then it looks like you’re going to be disappointed.

The U.S. senate confirmed former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue as agriculture secretary this week. He has spent his life in the southern farming industry, as a boy growing up on a farm, as a veterinarian, as governor and as a commodities trader. Even his fan boys, like those at National Hog Farmer, concede that he is “known for not pushing big agendas”.

What he is known for is dodgy dealings that benefit himself and his fellow good old boys (and, in fairness, girls) at taxpayer’s expense, according to Politico.com

Perdue, tapped by Trump to run USDA in January, has a long history of ethics controversies, notably when he signed a law giving himself a tax break, and when he was found to have violated Georgia law by funding his campaign accounts with contributions from his private enterprises…

“That good-old boy system is definitely embedded and definitely entrenched here,” said Sara Henderson, the public policy director for Common Cause Georgia, a nonpartisan government watchdog group. “And I think former Gov. Perdue is going to bring that to the federal government…"

Perdue faced 13 complaints to the state ethics commission during his years as governor, two of which resulted in findings that he broke state ethics laws. In 2002, Perdue was caught funneling illegal amounts of money from his private businesses into his campaign account and, in 2005, Perdue was forced to pay a $1,900 fine for improper campaign contributions and failing to correctly report the use of his private plane for a campaign event, records show.

The federal agriculture department’s broadband infrastructure subsidy program is rigged to favor the kind of rural communities that predominate in the midwest and south, and reliably passes over Californian projects. Former California congressman Sam Farr called it “midwest derangement syndrome”. The only difference this time is that it’s heading south.