Tag Archives: mobile broadband

The hunt is on for a “balanced solution” to preemption of local wireless discretion

Preemption of municipal ownership of street lights and other vertical infrastructure failed in Sacramento this year because of overreach, not because there’s fundamental opposition to the concept. Mobile carriers and other telecoms companies will deploy bus loads of lobbyists armed with bags of cash sincerely worded nonsense arguments to push it through again next year.

The California legislature approved senate bill 649 by a slim, but sufficient, margin. Governor Jerry Brown finally nixed it, but said in his veto message that “there is something of real value in having a process that results in extending this innovative technology rapidly and efficiently”.

It’ll be back. The question is what will it look like?

One clue comes from a senate committee hearing this past May. After flying through the senate energy, utilities and communications committee – chaired by the bill’s author, Ben Hueso (D – San Diego) – SB 649 landed in the governance and finance committee. It’s supposed to look after concerns of local governments, and at least some senators – Mike McGuire (D – Sonoma County) chief among them – took that responsibility seriously.

A somewhat less one-sided version was negotiated with lobbyists for mobile carriers, and then approved by the governance and finance committee. It wasn’t enough to bring city and county associations on board, but it does offer a clue as to what might qualify as the “more balanced solution” Brown wants. One key provision allowed local agencies to charge $850 a year for wireless equipment attachments to street lights, traffic signals and other vertical assets, instead of the $250 annual lease payment that was eventually approved.

In some Californian cities, $850 would still be below market rates, but statewide it wouldn’t be the complete gift to wireless companies that SB 649 eventually became. Combined with more generous allowances for cities and counties to hold particular assets off the market for their own reasons, it might be just enough tip the balance.

Wireless lobbyists will keep swinging in the California legislature

By Fcb981 (Own work) [GFDL (https://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Senate bill 649 is dead, following a late night veto by California governor Jerry Brown. In his veto message, he was sympathetic to the needs of mobile carriers and other wireless providers, but called for a better balance with the interests local governments have in managing the public right of way.

Translation: try again next year, with something that’s not quite so one-sided.

It’s a sure bet that wireless carriers and their lobbying fronts will be back, along with cable companies, wireline telcos and their lobbyists looking for their slice of the bacon. It won’t be hard to find a biddable legislator – several come to mind – who will simply regurgitate whatever nonsense he’s given. Or she, but so far it’s been the guys who have carried the major local preemption bills at the behest of wireless carriers.

This year it was Ben Hueso (D – San Diego), the chair of the senate energy, utilities and communication committee, who “authored” SB 649, and vigorously, if not always coherently, defended it.

Last year it was assemblyman Mike Gatto (D – Los Angeles), likewise chair of a key committee – what was then the assembly utilities and commerce committee. He waited until the middle of the session to gut and amend an unrelated bill – AB 2788 – and turn it into something that looked a lot like what SB 649 became. Gatto didn’t have the mojo to get it passed; AB 2788 withered away in the senate without a vote.

In 2015, assemblyman Bill Quirk carried AB 57, which rolled back local discretion over wireless siting, and put deemed approved teeth into federal “shot clocks”. It was signed into law by Brown, and now cities and counties have three to five months to approve wireless site applications, with some allowance for brief pauses. Otherwise, those applications are automatically granted. Quirk was also a principal co-author of SB 649 and successfully carried AB 1145 this year. That bill gave cable companies access to public money usually reserved for public utilities, but without the corresponding obligations.

Gatto left the legislature last year, but is considered likely to be running for something next year, perhaps a statewide office. Hueso and Quirk will be back, though.

The U.S. mobile broadband market is competitve, says FCC

The Federal Communications Commission has made a case for declaring that the mobile broadband market in the U.S. is broadly competitive, in a qualitative, preponderance of the evidence sort of way. Looking at a number of different metrics, including usage (see chart above), pricing, advertising, investment coverage, the FCC decided that when it was all added up, the result was “there is effective competition in the marketplace for mobile wireless services”.

One key indicator – half statistical, half anecdote – was the way the four major nationwide carriers responded to each other when unlimited data plans were reintroduced…

One significant trend that has developed recently is the return of “unlimited” data plans. In January 2016, AT&T introduced the AT&T Unlimited Plan for DIRECTV (or U-Verse). While that plan was made available only to DIRECTV subscribers, it signaled a shift towards service providers again offering unlimited data plans. In August 2016, T-Mobile launched the T-Mobile ONE Plan offering unlimited voice, text and high-speed 4G LTE smartphone data. The next day, Sprint introduced its Unlimited Freedom plan, which offered two lines of unlimited talk, text and data for $100 a month. In February 2017, Verizon launched its Unlimited Data Plan offering unlimited data on smartphones and tablets for $80 a month. AT&T then introduced the Unlimited Choice plan, which offered unlimited data for $60 per month for a single line ($155 for four lines). In late February 2017, U.S. Cellular introduced its own unlimited data offering.

Three caveats should be kept in mind, though. For the past eight years, the FCC used a wide definition of the mobile marketplace, including sectors such as consumer devices and industry infrastructure. This latest finding focuses much more narrowly on consumer services.

Then there’s the question of rural versus urban. Although 98% of people living in suburban and urban areas have access to at least four mobile service providers, only 71% of those in rural areas do. A competitive mobile marketplace might exist for the U.S. as a whole, but it’s not evenly distributed.

Finally, there’s the question of defining what “effective competition” means. In this report, which was approved by commissioners on a party line vote, the question is largely sidestepped, relying instead, as commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel wrote in her dissent, on an “I know it when I see it” standard.

Measure mobile performance, don’t just assume says CPUC draft

The California Public Utilities Commission might not offer an opinion on how fast broadband service should be in order to support “advanced telecommunications capability”, but it is on track to say whether mobile and wireline service should be lumped together. According to draft comments that’ll be filed with the Federal Communications Commission if CPUC commissioners concur, the answer is a qualified no

The CPUC should share its finding that mobile and residential broadband services are “generally not substitutes”, in order to assist the FCC in its consideration of this issue. The object of the CPUC’s investigation was to take a snapshot of the telecommunications marketplace in California, with an “as of” date of December 31, 2015. The CPUC should make clear that this finding was made within that timeframe, as the CPUC continues to measure wireless performance.

The draft also recommends that mobile broadband performance should be actually measured, and not just evaluated on the basis of what the design specs for 4G and 5G technology say ought to be possible…

Finally, the CPUC should urge the FCC to not use interface technologies as a proxy for speed benchmarks. While LTE (or newer generations of mobile technology about to be deployed) is required for mobile service to support advanced capabilities, the CPUC’s mobile data and analysis show that LTE air interface technology often has quality and reliability problems that cause throughput to be highly variable. The sheer number of failed mobile broadband connections experienced in the California, especially in rural areas of California, shows that air interface technology should not be used as a proxy for speed, quality or reliability.

The FCC is conducting its annual evaluation of broadband availability and performance and is considering, among other things, whether the current 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload standard should be lowered, in order to make it easier to declare victory by claiming access to advanced telecoms services is ubiquitous.

The CPUC is scheduled to decide whether or not to bless the draft comments at its meeting on Thursday.

California legislature to grant redlining absolution to mobile industry

Mobile carriers don’t redline neighborhoods or communities on the basis of income levels. That declaration is the latest present to go under the Senate Bill 649 christmas tree as it nears a final decision in the state legislature. The primary aim of the bill is to give wireless companies open access to street light poles and other “vertical infrastructure” owned by cities and counties in California, at below market rates.

New language tightening up definitions was added to SB 649 in preparation for a floor vote by the California assembly. Some of the bill’s benefits will only be available to licensed mobile carriers, rather than any wireless Internet service provider that comes along, and it further narrows the ability of local governments to restrict cell site construction on aesthetic grounds.

To justify these gifts to the mobile industry, lawmakers included language praising mobile carriers…

The Legislature further finds and declares that wireless service providers deploy small cells to areas based on demand for services regardless of the income characteristics of the areas, that this act will complement efforts to close the digital divide by creating a framework that will incentivize private industry to invest or accelerate investment in the deployment of small cells, and that this act will complement current state and federal government efforts to subsidize the deployment of broadband.

There are a couple of problems with this statement. It’s microeconomic nonsense to say that demand isn’t connected to income levels. So if lower income levels lead to lower demand in a given area, then mobile carriers won’t improve service: less income = less demand = less infrastructure investment.

It also ignores the fact that, in addition to being a mobile carrier, AT&T is also by far the largest traditional telco in California and, according to a U.C. Berkeley study, it does redline wireline customers in poorer communities. AT&T’s solution is to replace ageing wireline networks with low capacity wireless systems, while upgrading to fiber in high potential neighborhoods. That will be a digital divide that the California legislature will never be able to close, even if it wanted to try.

Cable industry snags a side deal in California legislature’s wireless giveaway

Another present was placed under the senate bill 649 Christmas tree this week. Language was added that would make it crystal clear that local governments in California can’t require cable companies to pay any fees or obtain any permits, beyond what’s allowed by state law, including particularly the digital infrastructure and video competition act (DIVCA) and SB 649.

It will probably have a relatively minor impact, assuming it’s not interpreted to ban routine construction approvals – building and encroachment permits, for example – which seems unlikely. The major effect will be to definitively squash a few, ongoing local attempts to get around existing restrictions on cable service fees.

According to the bill’s preamble…

This bill would prohibit a city or county from requiring a provider of video service or cable service to obtain any authorization or permit not described above to provide any communications service that is provided by a holder of a state franchise pursuant to [DIVCA]. The bill would prohibit a city or county from requiring the holder of a state franchise to pay any tax, fee, assessment, or other charge not authorized by [DIVCA], this bill, or other state laws.

This new perk for cable companies doesn’t have much, if anything, to do with the core purpose of SB 649, which is aimed at giving wireless companies on-demand access to light poles and other vertical assets owned by cities and counties at below market rates. But now Charter, Comcast and the rest don’t have to feel left out. Their lobbying front organisation in Sacramento – the California Cable and Telecommunications Association – had been raising vague objections to the bill. On the face of it, this small gift seems to a way to make sure they don’t feel left out of a massive giveaway to their colleagues in the wireless end of the business.

In reality, though, the cable industry will see direct benefits from SB 649’s wireless access provisions. Comcast is already rolling out wireless Internet of Things services and, along with Charter, are sniffing around other corners of the industry.

SB 649 has had an easy ride through the senate and, so far, the assembly. The next stop will be the assembly appropriations committee, which will likely put it on hold, until its ultimate fate is decided by legislative leaders in the final days of the legislature’s current session.

Another green light for preemption of local light poles in California assembly

The language has been tidied up a bit, but a bill snaking its way through the California legislature would still give wireless companies the right to install equipment on light poles, buildings and other vertical infrastructure owned by cities pretty much at will, for a nominal, below market rate fee. Senate bill 649 was blessed by the assembly’s local government committee on a 6 to 2 vote, with one abstention, and sent on to the communications and conveyances committee, where the assumption is that it will find an even warmer welcome.

Wireless companies and a long list of organisations that get money from them have registered support for SB 649. On the other side are local governments who argue that

SB 649 forces local government to rent space for small cells on public property at rates far below fair market value and requires that every jurisdiction, in order to use its own public property, provide ‘substantial evidence’ that the space is needed by that community. Rents from the use of public property, which every other for-profit business pays, help defray the cost of essential public services that are otherwise provided at taxpayer expense. SB 649 sets a dangerous precedent for other private industries to seek similar treatment, further eroding the ability to fund local services.

SB 649 proposes to calculate the maximum rate for these non-consensual leases using a formula designed only for electricity and telephone poles – a limited category of installations, with fairly uniform features and costs. Application of this formula to the vast variety of ‘vertical infrastructure’ covered by SB 649 is both unfair and uncertain. The capital and operational cost components for these facilities vary widely in both complexity and amount, and (this formula is) virtually certain to result in continual disputes and confusion statewide.

The bill would also sharply limit local discretion over wireless facilities installed in the public right of way, or in commercial or industrial areas. It’s spun as a small cell-only bill, but the allowance for antennas and other equipment – mounted both on poles and on the ground – is generous enough to accomodate fairly large installations.

Bill preempting local control of cell permits, light poles amended in California assembly

The language has been tweaked and a new formula added for setting rental rates, but the basic principle remains: California senate bill 649 would give mobile carriers and other wireless broadband providers – licensed or not – on-demand access to city and county owned vertical assets in the public right of way at below-market rates, and take away much of the discretion local governments have over where and how wireless telecoms facilities are built.

Although the bill generally applies to "small cells", the definition it uses – 27 cubic feet of stuff on a pole plus 35 cubic feet of gear on the ground, plus electric meters and switches – is big enough to include most modern wireless installations. There’s also language in it now that applies to any telecoms equipment: “a city or county may not adopt or enforce any regulation on the placement or operation of communications facilities”.

SB 649 is in the California assembly, where it’s due for a hearing in front of the local government committee on Wednesday. One of the more controversial provisions is gone. Language that limited local permits to the administrative variety has been removed. That means that local governments could exercise a bit more control than previous versions would have allowed, but only a bit. Other severe restrictions remain.

The compensation formula for leasing space on municipal infrastructure in the public right of way, such as light poles, has changed again. Instead of a cap of $850 per year, local governments could charge a flat $250 administration fee plus a share of the costs of owning and maintaining a pole. It’s hard to know at this point what that means in dollar terms, but it’s not likely to be a much different result than would have been allowed under the previous version. The legislation would, in effect, give a subsidy to mobile and other wireless companies by charging them less than fair market value for the use of publicly owned assets.

Wednesday’s hearing is probably the last, best chance for Californian cities and counties to kill SB 649, as they tried unsuccessfully to do in the senate. The local government committee is likely to pay more attention to their concerns than the assembly communications and conveyences committee, which so far this year has been more accommodating to telecoms industry interests.

California cities meet wave of mobile carrier land grabs

I’ve been involved in several meetings between mobile infrastructure companies and staff from various California cities over the past couple of months. There’s a new gold rush going on now. And mobile carriers – Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint – are running around trying to do deals with cities ahead of 5G and pre-5G network upgrades. They want to put “small cells” on street lights and other city-owned vertical assets. Deals which might be preempted in their favor by SB 649 anyway.

What they want is to lock up real estate years ahead of actual construction. The networks won’t be fully built for 10 to 20 years, but if they can claim vertical assets, right of way and other prime locations now, they’ll be in a controlling position in any given city for a couple of decades.

5G networks rely on lots of small, short-range cell sites. Short range means you can have a lot more cells in a given area, which means the radio frequency bandwidth (also known as spectrum) can be re-used over and over.

For example, suppose you had one big cell tower that covered an entire city, which used all the spectrum a carrier has, and that amount of spectrum had a total capacity of 300 Mbps (e.g. you might have 300 people each watching their own 1 Mbps video stream at the same time). Then you replace it with 100 small cells, each with a 100 Mbps capacity and arranged so that the particular frequencies each uses doesn’t interfere or overlap with its neighbor.

All of a sudden you’ve gone from 300 Mbps total city capacity to 10,000 Mbps. That’s a too-simple example, but the principle applies.

There is no 5G technology standard currently, although there might be by the end of the year. Even so, it’ll be three to five years before the equipment is developed and proven, and then put into mass production and deployed on a large scale. In the meantime, these companies are trying to lay a claim to lots of sites for later, while using a few now that rely on current 4G technology (although they play egregious word games with that).

It’s a good idea for cities to work with mobile carriers and infrastructure companies, but it’s essential to do it in a way that creates a level playing field for everyone – incumbent mobile carriers and their vendors as well as the new ventures and technologies that are on the way – and doesn’t allow one player to lock up street lights, right of way and other real estate they won’t use for years. Given the level of local preemption activity going on in Sacramento and Washington, it makes sense for local governments to use the leverage they have while they have it.

California assembly considers preemption of local pole ownership, cell site permits

A bill to largely end local government control of municipally-owned light poles and other vertical infrastructure and eliminate discretion over where cell sites can be located has landed in the California assembly. The perks are limited to "small cells", but the way the definition is written, it’ll allow pretty big installations anywhere in the public right of way or in commercial or industrially zoned areas, as well as setting rental rates for publicly-owned poles at below market rates. Senate bill 649 was approved by the senate on a bipartisan 32 to 1 vote last week, with seven abstentions. The no vote came from senator Steven Glazer (D – Contra Costa); all those abstaining were democrats as well.

Its next stop will be in an assembly committee. The big question is which one? SB 649 began in the senate energy, utilities and communications committee – it’s being carried by the chair, senator Ben Hueso (D – San Diego) at the behest of AT&T, Verizon and mobile industry lobbyists – but was then considered and approved by the governance and finance committee, which deals with local government issues. In the assembly, the equivalents would be the communications and conveyance committee and the local government committee.

Assemblyman Miguel Santiago (D – Los Angeles) chairs communications and conveyances. It’s a new committee, split off from the utilities and commerce committee at the beginning of the legislative year. There’s not much of a track record yet, but on at least one issue that involves local government and telecoms interests – a bill to require cities and to reimburse cable companies for relocating lines underground – it accomodated telecoms interests.

The local government committee is led by Cecilia Aguiar-Curry (D – Yolo County), the former mayor of Winters and a community broadband advocate. If nothing else, she should understand the dynamic between the responsibility cities (and counties) have to manage the assets they own and set community standards, and the need to expand broadband availability.

It’s possible – likely, I’d guess – that SB 649 will take the same double review path in the assembly as it did in the senate. Either way, there’s plenty of time to get it done – the deadline for committee action is mid-July.