Don’t confuse copper wireline infrastructure with the services it supports. That’s the message from the California Public Utilities Commission to the Federal Communications Commission. In comments regarding possible changes to federal wireless and wireline telecoms regulations, the CPUC said that the "FCC’s assumption that copper has outlived its usefulness is overstated"…
Copper technology is not inherently obsolete. Copper was originally used for telecommunications because it could serve as the backbone of a universal voice network: it was cheap to install, easy to use, and readily available. When the voice network expanded to provide broadband capability, new copper technologies were invented to provide data services and the internet to homes and businesses, using the existing architecture and infrastructure. Meanwhile, telecommunications carriers have gradually pushed fiber technologies further out from the core (where its capacity was well-suited to the big traffic requirements of interoffice communications), but fiber-to-the-home is not yet ubiquitous. Many carriers—especially those without a wireless affiliate—provide high-speed service to the home using either fiber or copper. For example, advances in the G.fast protocol have led to carrier strategies for serving multi-dwelling units using the existing copper loops. And some services—certain credit card readers, alarm systems, closed captioning, and emergency services, for example—still rely on copper technology. In a transitional technical environment like this one, all of these technologies—copper, fiber, wireless—should be used to their fullest. The FCC’s conflation of “fiber facilities” with “next-generation services” masks the difficulties that may arise if copper retirement is approached hastily.
That’s a position that four of the five CPUC commissioners agree with – they voted to approve these comments at their meeting on 15 June 2017, with commission president Michael Picker abstaining.
The comments also pushed back against federal preemption of California’s utility pole and right of way regulations, pointing out that the CPUC "currently has three ‘pole and conduit’ proceedings open". Under federal law, individual states can opt to regulate pole access and other telecoms policy themselves. California is one of twenty states that has done so.
Broadband is now explicitly included in president Donald Trump’s planned trillion dollar infrastructure program. Up until now, his focus has been on big civil engineering projects, like roads, bridges and dams. But Trump made it clear in a speech in Iowa earlier this week that telecoms infrastructure will be included…
If we continue to train our workers in these new technologies, then we will usher in a new era of prosperity for American agriculture and for the American farming family.
We must also ensure that these students have the broadband Internet access they need in order to succeed and thrive in this new and very modern and very changed economy and world. That is why I will be including a provision in our infrastructure proposal — $1 trillion proposal — you’ll be seeing it very shortly — to promote and foster enhanced broadband access for rural America also. We know that Wall Street wants it very badly, but you know what else? The farmers also want it. And you’re going to have it.
The big questions, though, are what kind of broadband infrastructure and who is going to build and operate it?
Trump is not a details guy, particularly when the issue involves something that doesn’t interest him personally. He’s shown no particular passion for broadband development or the nitty gritty of telecoms policy. Which means that he’ll be relying on his advisors to come up with a plan to improve broadband availability in rural America.
Federal Communications Commission chair Ajit Pai is one of those key advisors and a policy maker in his own right. He’s been very specific about how he thinks any rural broadband development subsidies should be spent: channel it to incumbents via existing programs, like the Connect America Fund, that set low speed standards – 10 Mbps download/1 Mpbs upload – which can be achieved by tweaking decades old technology. Instead of replacing it.
It would be a tragedy if that mindset prevails, but so far AT&T, Frontier Communications and other incumbents have successfully pushed that message both in Washington, D.C. and in Sacramento, where lawmakers are lining up to reduce California’s minimum broadband speed standards. It’s good that Trump is talking about broadband, but not if it means stranding rural (and inner city) communities with 1990s service levels.
But is it fast enough?
If you want to steer telco and cable company capital investment toward your community, apply competitive pressure, preferably with a full scale fiber to the home project. Once again, that lesson has been learned as the simple and reliable mechanics of microeconomic theory have pushed a major cable company to accelerate spending in an area it has long ignored.
Charter Communications is required to upgrade the antique analog cable systems it has long maintained in redlined communities. That’s one of the conditions attached to the California Public Utilities Commission’s approval of its purchase of Time Warner and Bright House cable systems in the state. Charter’s deadlines for doing so range from two to three years, with most of its territory in California due for digital service within two and half years of the merger’s approval. That happened nearly a year ago, so the time remaining is more like one to two years.
So who goes to the top of Charter’s priority list? According to claims it has filed with the CPUC regarding where broadband subsidy dollars should be spent, the community on Charter’s fast track is one in San Bernardino County that’s been targeted by a competitor…
Charter agreed to rebuild its broadband footprint in both Phelan and Prunedale/Aromas/Salinas—two of the priority areas identified in the White Paper. In Phelan, Charter completed its rebuild in December 2016, revitalizing its plant and improving broadband services available in 250 census blocks identified in the White Paper as high impact. Similarly, Charter is scheduled to complete the rebuild of its plant in Prunedale/Aromas/Salinas no later than May 2019.
Phelan, where Race Communications is in the hunt for a California Advanced Services Fund subsidy for an FTTH system, was upgraded within months of the CPUC’s order taking effect. In the northern Monterey County neighborhoods around Prunedale and Aromas, Charter is happy to wait the full three years.
It’s uncertain whether Charter’s plans are enough to knock Monterey County off of the CPUC’s bang for the buck list. But it is crystal clear that the faster build happened in the community where Charter faces the bigger competitor.
Where high income households are thick on the ground, AT&T builds out fiber to the home systems, but does minimal upgrades for middle income areas and leaves low income communities with 1990s-style legacy DSL or nothing at all. That’s the top line conclusion from a study done by U.C. Berkeley’s Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society…
- The median household income of California communities with access to AT&T’s fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) network is $94,208. This exceeds by $32,297 the $61,911 median household income for all California households in the AT&T wireline footprint.
- In contrast, the median household income of California communities for whom the most advanced broadband technology available from AT&T is its slower U-verse fiber-to-the-neighborhood (FTTN) network is $67,021, which is $27,187 (28.9 percent) lower than the median household income of fiber-to-the-home households.
- Approximately one-quarter (27.6 percent) of households — about 2.7 million households —in AT&T’s California footprint are stuck with slow DSL. The median household income for California households for whom DSL is the most advanced broadband technology available from AT&T is $53,186, which is $41,022 (43.5 percent) lower than the median household income of fiber-to-the-home households.
There’s also a distinct urban/rural divide in AT&T’s broadband infrastructure deployment strategy. While metropolitan areas get fiber and VDSL upgrades, rural areas are ignored. According to the study, almost no homes in 14 rural counties have access to AT&T broadband at the FCC’s minimum standards of 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload speeds and one-third lack access at the CPUC’s minimum of 6 Mbps down/1.5 Mbps up. In its overall service territory in California, 252,000 homes do not have access to AT&T broadband service at all.
In many respects, the report’s findings are no surprise. AT&T has been very clear that fiber infrastructure would only be going into high potential areas and that it plans to rip out copper networks in rural California and replace them with wireless service.
The study recommends that policymakers, and the California legislature in particular, should demand greater accountability from AT&T and promote more equitable high speed broadband deployment. Unfortunately, the California assembly has not taken the study’s findings or recommendations to heart. It just voted to lower California’s minimum broadband speeds, specifically to accommodate the substandard technology that AT&T maintains in rural and lower income communities.
California’s primary broadband subsidy program will stay on its present course, at least until the legislature changes it or the California Public Utilities Commission resets priorities and rules going forward. That’s the takeaway from a CPUC vote to approve a $1.1 million grant from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) for a fiber to the home project in southern Santa Clara County.
It’s an important message to independent Internet service providers who might be considering CASF-funded projects in the future: it’s expensive to prepare and submit applications – more than $100,000 in some cases – and the prospect of having one rejected a year or two later because the rules changed increases the risk beyond the point most are willing to go.
By a 3-to-2 vote, the commission approved the Light Saber Project grant, which will pay about 60% of the cost of building out an FTTH system to 150 homes in the Paradise Valley community, in the hills east of Morgan Hill. It was the second time commissioners considered the grant. The first time, they kicked it back for more work.
This time around, the debate wasn’t really about the project itself. Rather, the debate centered on whether CASF grants should be put on hold until the commission sets new priorities for the program and/or the California legislature rewrites the rules completely.
Broadband subsidy priorities shouldn’t be set retroactively, commissioner Liane Randolph told her colleagues…
The applicant put together a project under our current system, proposed it to us and as we’ve discussed there are changes and kind of systemic modification we can make to the program, or we’re happy to take further legislative direction on how to prioritise projects, but I’m hesitant to not let a particular project move forward when they’ve presented it with the program we currently have in the effect and are administering it right now.
Commissioner Martha Guzman Aceves didn’t agree, saying that as it stands, the CASF program lacks focus…
The bigger driver for me is the lack of prioritisation of the program and that’s really the context. I think the legislation will inform that. Now, the bigger issue for me is that we do have a structure that I don’t currently agree with, but I appreciate that these are the rules that are in place today.
Randolph was joined by commissioners Carla Peterman and Clifford Rechtschaffen in voting to approve the project. Along with Guzman Aceves, commission president Michael Picker also voted no.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.