Tag Archives: cpuc

Make California broadband subsidy decisions on basis of impact, says CPUC draft

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Given that there’s limited state subsidy money available for broadband infrastructure upgrades in California, it makes sense to spend it in a way that’ll have the greatest impact on the greatest number of people. That was a major concern at the last California Public Utilities Commission meeting, when some commissioners pushed back on proposed infrastructure construction grants from the California Advanced Services Fund, at least partly because it wasn’t clear how the projects that were on the table fit within overall, statewide priorities. Or what those priorities might be.

A possible methodology for making those decisions was floated by CPUC staff, in a whitepaper published last Friday. You can read the details of how the data was crunched in the paper itself. In general terms, the analysis began by comparing the housing density of areas that lack acceptable broadband service – the CPUC’s baseline standard is 6 Mbps download and 1.5 Mbps upload speeds – and coming up with 46 Californian communities with population density greater than 150 households per square mile. That list was narrowed down by filtering out areas with problematic terrain, or that don’t meet the CASF “unserved” legal requirement, or where a fixed wireless operator is present, regardless of the standards (or lack thereof) those operators meet, or that have broadband service that meets the federal government’s lower standard of 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up (boosting upload speeds requires a higher level of technology and greater service provider diligence than improving download speeds).

That left 13 communities that were designated as “high impact areas” and would move to head of the CASF subsidy line if this preliminary methodology is eventually adopted.

The whitepaper’s analytical approach is very similar to the one that the Central Coast Broadband Consortium used in 2014 to identify the areas in our region where broadband construction subsidies would likewise have the greatest impact. In fact, it uses our initial density-based screening criteria, with much appreciated due credit. There’s a fair debate to be had over which metrics to use and how to weave them into an analytical framework, but the basic approach is correct. With dwindling funds and dimming prospects for getting more, CPUC broadband subsidy decisions should be driven by objective data and systematic analysis.

CPUC broadband subsidy skepticism grows, grants on hold

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A proposal to build a 300 mile middle mile fiber network connecting remote communities in northern California to high speed Internet access might or might not be in line for extra cash. The Digital 299 project would go through the mountainous terrain along state route 299 from Redding in the Sacramento Valley, through Trinity County and on to Eureka on the Humboldt County coast.

Yesterday, the California Public Utilities Commission weighed a recommendation from staff for a $41 million subsidy from the California Advanced Services Fund against pleas from local communities along the proposed route for an extra $6 million that they believe is necessary to make the project financially viable. They also asked for a waiver of performance bond requirements and closer coordination of environmental reviews.

No action was taken, but commissioner Carla Peterman promised to draft an alternate version of the decision and bring it back for a vote. It’s an open question, though, whether at least two other commissioners will go along with it. Liane Randolph indicated she was favorably inclined, but as he often does, CPUC president Michael Picker complained about a lack of strategic broadband vision – ironic, since it’s his job to provide that kind of leadership – and said “I’m likely to vote against this under any circumstances”.

It was the first time the two newly appointed CPUC members, Martha Guzman Aceves and Clifford Rechtschaffen, had a chance to consider CASF broadband infrastructure subsidy policy or specific proposals. Rechtschaffen echoed Randolph’s comments, but Guzman Aceves joined Picker in taking a harder line. Like Picker, she also pushed back on a second CASF grant proposal, for the Light Saber project, a small fiber-to-the-home system in a leafy neighborhood in southern Santa Clara County. It’s a much smaller build, but still involves a substantial amount – $1 million – and Guzman Aceves was skeptical about spending state subsidy money on high income communities.

The Light Saber proposal was pulled indefinitely, at least until commissioners have a chance to consider setting broadband deployment priorities. Digital 299 will likely back for a second look sooner, perhaps at the next commission meeting in March.

Cable, mobile companies fight California rural phone standards

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A California Public Utilities Commission decision slamming the practices of telecoms companies in rural areas – like attaching lines to trees instead of poles – and requiring carriers to notify both the commission and the state office of emergency services when significant telephone outages occur has been met with a broadly based challenge from California cable and telephone companies.

In a filing authored by Comcast lawyers and joined by Charter, Cox, small telcos, Verizon’s fiber subsidiary and lobbying fronts for the cable and mobile industries, the CPUC’s rural call completion decision was characterised as illegal on the basis of a long list of alleged procedural mistakes.

AT&T and Frontier – the primary targets of the decision – aren’t a part of this challenge and have yet to be heard from.

The big issue is whether carriers will have to report smaller telephone service outages to the CPUC than previously required, and also quickly notify emergency officials. That’s a three part problem, in the eyes of the challengers. First, they’re not completely clear about whether “carrier” applies to all phone companies, including cable companies that offer phone service, as the plain word would imply, or just to certain ones, such as traditional rural incumbents. Second, they don’t like the idea of having to tell state emergency operations centers when lines go down, because they’re used to keeping that kind of information secret and if they tell public safety officials then someone might find out the phones are out. Hey, no one would notice otherwise.

Finally, the threshold for reporting outages to the CPUC was lowered to a level that’s more consistent with rural circumstances. The previous standard was geared for large, densely populated areas and was high enough that a small rural community could be completely cut off and no report would have to be filed. The whole point of the decision and investigation behind it was to address problems that rural communities have with phone service, which doesn’t set well with companies that provide the service and, at times, cause the problems.

Usually, these kinds of challenges amount to we don’t like the decision so it’s gotta be illegal, and are typically rejected by the commission. This one might be different, though. The challengers are correct in pointing out that the process was out of the ordinary. The decision was written by former commissioner Catherine Sandoval and it was scheduled for a vote at her final meeting. Usually, when commissioners have objections to a draft decision – as some did in this case – the matter is bumped to a later meeting so changes can be made and reviewed. Instead, the document was rewritten on the fly during the meeting, and then a vote was taken, with two commissioners – Carla Peterman and Liane Randolph – dissenting.

If the CPUC rejects the challenge, it’s not likely to end there. The tone and the substance of the arguments make it clear that Comcast, Charter, mobile carriers and the rest think they’ll win if they take it to court.

CPUC decision on rural call completion issues, 15 December 2016
Coalition application for rehearing of decision on rural call completion issues, 3 February 2017

CPUC set to reject cable’s bid for wireless privileges

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Decision on the way.

Update: the CPUC unanimously approved the draft decision at its 9 February 2017 meeting.

It’s a bit softer than the total smack down that was originally floated, but the latest draft of a decision that’ll go in front of the California Public Utilities Commission still says that cable companies can’t hang wireless equipment on utility poles with the same carefree abandon as mobile carriers. The reasoning is that the laws that grant cable companies the special privilege to use utility poles and such without having to meet the same standards of service or conduct as telephone companies specifically mention wires, not wireless, and that “if the legislature had intended to provide CATV corporations with a right to attach wireless facilities to utility poles – either by statute or by commission regulations – the legislature would have done so”.

The lobbying front used by Comcast, Charter and other cable companies in Sacramento – the California Cable and Telecommunications Association (CCTA) – asked the CPUC for the same pole access rights given to mobile carriers and similarly licensed companies last year. After chewing on it for a few months, commission president Michael Picker posted a proposed decision in January definitively rejecting the request and effectively saying don’t bother asking again. It drew a hard line between “‘cable’ television service”, which generally involves television and a cable of some kind (albeit with other offerings, such as broadband, allowed alongside), and pure telecoms services that lack video or a wire or both, such as wireless Internet, mobile phone and fiber back haul services.

In the sort of response you might expect to get from someone who just realised that their legal maneuver boomeranged, leaving them arguably worse off than before, CCTA asked to withdraw its request and cancel the whole proceeding.

The revised decision – posted yesterday – gives CCTA the ability to refile its request “without prejudice” and tightens up some of the language so that the hole it dug for itself isn’t quite as deep. But it leaves the essentials intact. It’s scheduled for a commission vote on Thursday.

More push for more money for northern California middle mile project

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The Digital 299 middle mile fiber project under consideration for a $42 million subsidy from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) will have been under review for a year and half, if the California Public Utilities Commission votes on it as scheduled next week. Yesterday was the deadline for submitting comments – pro or con – and seven organisations did so.

The applicant, Inyo Networks, is asking the commission to increase the grant to $49 million. The original request was for $51 million but it was cut because CPUC staff determined that the area is largely underserved – i.e. substandard service is available – rather than completely unserved following challenges by local wireless providers. The difference is that underserved areas are eligible for subsidies amounting to 60% of construction costs, while unserved areas get 70%. One of those wireless operators is back at it, asking the commission to reject the grant. Velocity Communications claims it’ll be upgrading service in the area real soon now.

The California Center for Rural Policy and the California Emerging Technology Fund filed comments backing the request for more money. So did Frontier Communications, the incumbent telephone company along much of the 300 mile route. But Frontier also backed away from any commitment to upgrade its own customers in the area to the CPUC’s minimum standard of 6 Mbps download and 1.5 Mbps upload speeds.

Other opposition came from the usual suspects. The proposed route links the northern California coast and the rugged and sparsely populated terrain along state route 299 to long haul fiber in the Sacramento Valley. Of necessity, a middle mile project has to begin in a served area and it happens that the connection points are in or near Charter Communication’s service area around Redding. So Charter and the cable industry’s Sacramento lobbyists objected, asking the commission to slow things down. Sounds so reasonable, except that the grant application has already been under review for a more than a year longer than allowed by the CPUC’s rules. Delay a project long enough, and you’ll kill it.

CPUC considers filling Silicon Valley broadband gap

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A $1.1 million subsidy for a trimmed back fiber to the home project in Paradise Valley, a community in the hilly outskirts of Silicon Valley, is up for approval at the California Public Utilities Commission. Proposed in 2015 as a $2.8 million venture reaching 515 homes, the Light Saber project in southern Santa Clara County was challenged by a local wireless Internet service provider, who claimed to already cover the area.

Not completely so, apparently: more than 350 homes in less affluent San Martin were cut from the project area, but a draft resolution approving a grant for the rest from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) is slated for a vote by commissioners at their first meeting in February. According to the draft…

The proposed project will provide the Paradise Valley community with improved access to e-health services, as well as online economic opportunities. It will also provide public safety benefits by enabling the local communications facilities that provide voice services to meet FCC standards for E911 service and battery backup. The proposed project will also supply public safety agencies in the area with an interconnected public safety data communications network.

Home service begins at $109 per month for symmetrical 50 Mbps service with a two year commitment, and dips to $90 per month with a three year lock in. A symmetrical gigabit will run $289 per month on the two year plan, with a $10 per month discount for a three year term.

South Santa Clara County is a patchwork of Frontier (ex-Verizon), AT&T and Charter territories. Broadband service ranges from mediocre to non-existent, with business and consumer subscribers showing a high level of dissatisfaction with incumbents, even in Morgan Hill, the next door neighbor to San Jose, the self-styled capital of Silicon Valley.

If a final decision is made at the CPUC’s 9 February 2017 meeting, it will be just shy of a year late. CASF program rules approved by the commission set a 106-day deadline for processing and voting on infrastructure construction grant applications, a time frame that’s necessary in order to keep private capital in the game. No justification for taking four times as long as allowed to reach a decision was offered in the draft.

Cable’s political privileges have practical limits, says CPUC draft

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Some lobbyists don’t let go of old stereotypes.

Cable companies can’t have wireless privileges because they’re cable and not wireless companies. That’s the gist of a proposed decision that’s in front of the California Public Utilities Commission, and the cable industry’s hired gun lobbyists don’t like it.

Last year, the CPUC changed the rules for attaching telecoms equipment to utility poles and allowed mobile carriers and similarly licensed companies to install wireless gear on utility poles, subject to new cost sharing rules and safety regulations. That decision did not apply to cable or wireline telephone companies that might want to hang radios on poles, but it did invite them to ask for that permission so it could be taken up later.

The California Cable and Telecommunications Association (CCTA) – the organisation that grooms Sacramento lawmakers for cable industry loving – made that request last July. The initial answer that came back from CPUC president Michael Picker was no. His proposed decision noted that cable television corporations “are not public utilities” as defined by California law, and…

[The] statutory definition of “cable television corporation” is narrowly confined to entities that use “cable” facilities to transmit television programs. Conspicuously absent from this definition is any mention of wireless facilities…

[The] statutory definition of [cable television] corporations’ “pole attachments” is limited to a “wire communication system.” Significantly, this definition does not mention a wireless communication system or wireless facilities…

We conclude that the previously cited provisions of the California Public Utilities Code do not provide CATV corporations with a right to attach wireless facilities to utility poles. We believe it is dispositive that the Legislature included the terms “cable” and “wire” in the previously cited statutes, but omitted the term “wireless.” If the Legislature had intended to provide CATV corporations with a right to attach wireless facilities to utility poles – either by statute or by Commission regulations – the Legislature would have done so.

Picker’s draft was published earlier this month, with the expectation that it would be voted on at the commission’s first meeting in February. In the normal course of events, CCTA would have filed a reply and attempted to rebut those arguments. But the cable industry doesn’t like the idea of being treated as a normal public utility rent-seeking business. No telling where that might lead. So instead, CCTA said never mind and asked that the CPUC just sorta forget it, because, among other things…

The Proposed Decision as drafted could be read to suggest that cable television providers’ use of even the wired facilities they install may be limited to providing cable (i.e., video) service and not, for example broadband services and/or that they have no rights to install wireless pole attachment even in furtherance of their provision of cable television services.

Just so. Cable companies, with hired guns and deep pockets full of campaign cash, have carved out a comfortable, unregulated niche in California public policy that allows them to offer broadband services as if they were telephone companies, but without having to meet the same standards of conduct and service. It’s an unearned privilege that was gained through disingenuous grandfathering of ancient and outdated regulations that date back to the days when suburbanites were watching Leave it to Beaver in black and white.

The CPUC should ignore the lobbyists and finalise the decision.

CPUC takes on “last remaining natural monopoly” of pole, conduit ownership

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Energy.

The California Public Utilities Commission will focus on a particular kind of utility in the coming year. President Michael Picker delivered what amounts to a state-of-the-CPUC address at yesterday’s meeting, the first of the year and the first with the two newest commissioners – Martha Guzman Aceves and Clifford Rechtschaffen – on board and voting.

Picker spoke at length about new energy and environmental initiatives and, particularly, about “an emerging role in building the infrastructure to drive greenhouse gas emissions down in the California economy”. That’s clearly his passion, and introductory comments by Rechtschaffen and Guzman Aceves indicate they share it.

Still, Picker is promising something very important for broadband development in the year ahead: taking an inventory of the state’s stock of utility poles and conduit, and looking at expanding the CPUC’s role in regulating this “natural monopoly”…

For both electricity and communications, we may find that the wooden pole or the underground conduit is the last remaining natural monopoly in many parts of the state. And that’s what we do. We regulate monopolies, we insure fair rates, safe infrastructure and universal access to service.

This year we will consider a statewide census of the poles and underground conduits, and what kind of database we need in order to consider how to provide oversight to this natural monopoly…That’s a big challenge. It may be the key to true, universal access to broadband.

Picker also discussed organisational changes and, particularly, safety initiatives, including a new top level staffer in charge of safety and the establishment of a safety advocate’s office – a requirement imposed by last year’s legislation. He said the commission will add 300 new employees in the coming year, with the new safety responsibilities and the legislature’s mandate to establish a greater presence elsewhere in California, outside of its San Francisco headquarters, accounting for most of the increase.

Political, energy talent point to new direction for CPUC

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The California Public Utilities Commission begins 2017 lopsided with energy experts, and bereft of significant prior experience in the telecommunications sector. The governor’s two new appointees to the commission – Martha Guzman Aceves and Cliff Rechtschaffen – have, to one degree or another, spent their careers working on energy and environmental issues, as have two of the three current commissioners, Carla Peterman and president Michael Picker. Aceves and Rechtschaffen have one other thing in common with Picker: all three were top political aides to Brown, with energy portfolios.

The choices might also shed some light on Brown’s thinking regarding the future of the CPUC. He puts a high priority on climate change issues. Picker has mirrored that concern and tends to view the commission’s work through a “decarbonising” lens. Reducing carbon emissions is a top – perhaps the top – item on the CPUC’s strategic agenda.

But the CPUC regulates more than just electric and natural gas utilities. The telecommunications industry – telephone and broadband – falls under its authority, as do private transportation and water companies.

For how long? Brown is working to move transportation oversight to the state transportation agency and has asked for a review of the CPUC’s jurisdiction over telecoms, also with an eye toward shifting or eliminating those responsibilities. If Brown’s objective is to roll back the CPUC’s telecoms and transportation jurisdiction, then it’s logical to pass over prospective (or incumbent) commissioners with direct knowledge of those industries.

Appointing close and politically adept aides is also a way to ensure that the CPUC stays in sync with the governor’s objectives. Although the CPUC is constitutionally independent and commissioners can vote as they choose, the governor’s office has directly exerted its influence on key decisions in the past. On high stakes telecoms issues – for example, the CPUC’s chaotic decision not to endorse common carrier status for broadband – that influence can tip the balance.

The CPUC has to be non-partisan. But that’s not the same thing as being politically tone deaf, which is a liability Brown would want to avoid. It appears he has.

California broadband rodeo kicks off again

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But no room for a working clown.

Strap in for the ride – 2017 is shaping up to be a Bizarro rerun of 2016, at least where broadband policy is concerned. Last year’s most contentious policy broncos are in the chute, ready for another go round with a new cast of cowboys in Washington and Sacramento.

Top draw is common carrier status for broadband service, also known as title II, AKA net neutrality. The republican rump majority on the Federal Communications Commission – Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly – have targeted the Obama administration’s marquee telecoms policy initiative for a preemptive weed whacking. That 2015 decision isn’t settled law yet – court appeals continue – but at one point last year it looked like it was in the bag.

No longer.

Here in Deep Blue California, we don’t use anything as crude as a weed whacker – we legalised weed, dammit – but last year’s battles are shaping up to be refought as well.

The California assembly has hived off telecoms policy into the communications and conveyance committee; transportation and telecoms are the two sectors that are being tugged out from under the California Public Utilities Commission’s purview. A radical jurisdictional realignment is a step too far for this year, but you can expect two key rematches and one overtime attempt at running up the score.

Bet on AT&T to redouble its effort to write its own permission slip to yank out wireline service wherever it fails to meet profit goals in rural and inner city California. Assembly bill 2395 died last year due, in no small part due to union opposition, but expect to see it rise from the grave. Several different attempts at topping up the California Advanced Services Fund – the state’s primary broadband infrastructure subsidy program – also went down in flames last year, but another try is underway.

The legislature and governor signed off on a bill in 2015 that puts a tight shot clock on wireless permit reviews by local governments, but it’s not permissive enough for wireless carriers, or wireless infrastructure companies like Mobilitie. Efforts are underway in both Sacramento and Washington to continue the roll back of local discretion.

My predictions: common carrier status for broadband will survive 2017 but maybe not 2018. The CASF reboot will be fought to a draw again and the legislature will make it easier for mobile carriers to install small cells and other wireless facilities. Son of AB 2395 is a toss up. If AT&T makes sufficient concessions to pull the unions onside, it’ll fly. If not, expect to see it for a third time in 2018.

Happy New Year.