Tag Archives: public policy

Actually, there is broadband money in the big federal budget bill


An extra $600 million was added to federal broadband subsidies for rural areas, in the mammoth, all-in-one spending bill passed by the house of representatives yesterday, and up for a vote in the U.S. senate today. I missed it Wednesday night as I was skimming through its two thousand-plus pages, but the sharp eyed journos at Politico’s Morning Tech newsletter caught it.

The money is tagged for “a new broadband loan and grant pilot program” run by the federal agriculture department’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS). It doesn’t define what exactly the program is supposed to be piloting, though. Aside from language barring overlapping loans or grants, the only direct instructions in the bill set out specs for determining whether or not a rural community is eligible…

At least 90 percent of the households to be served by a project receiving a loan or grant under the pilot program shall be in a rural area without sufficient access to broadband, defined for this pilot program as 10 Mbps downstream, and 1 Mbps upstream, which shall be re-evaluated and redetermined, as necessary, on an annual basis by the Secretary of Agriculture.

RUS already uses a 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up eligibility criterion for its other rural broadband programs, but any infrastructure it subsidises has to be capable of supporting service at the Federal Communications Commission’s advanced services standard of 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up.

That’s significantly better than the slow, 1990s DSL speed levels demanded by telco and cable lobbyists and approved by California’s lawmakers last year. Assembly bill 1665 lowered California’s minimum acceptable broadband speed to 6 Mbps down/1 Mbps up, and allowed California Advanced Services Fund subsidies to be spent on infrastructure as slow as 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up.

Questions still to be answered about the new federal program include what sort of broadband service providers are eligible – RUS rules and traditions favor the small rural cooperatives and telephone companies prevalent in the midwest and south, but not so common in California – and how the money will be split between grants and loans.

Dig once, broadband spectrum added to federal budget bill


Broadband is getting a boost in the mammoth spending bill under consideration today in the U.S. house of representatives. But not cash.

Instead, the deal negotiated by republican and democratic congressional leaders rolls in a telecoms bill unanimously approved earlier this month by the house of representatives. It includes some useful, if mild, dig once requirements for federally funded highway projects – state transportation agencies will have to share construction plans, but not necessarily trenches, with Internet service providers and local agencies – and it frees up 255 MHz of spectrum for broadband use.

The bill – formerly house resolution 4986, now called the Ray Baum act – also consolidates several broadband-related reports that the Federal Communications Commission is supposed to periodically issue into one “communications marketplace report”. That’s not a popular idea among consumer advocacy organisations. In a blog post, Phillip Berenroick with D.C.-based Public Knowledge argues that…

By substituting a one-stop-shop report covering the entire communications ecosystem in place of the current reporting regime that takes a detailed, focused look at competition among individual services, the FCC will ultimately receive less accurate, granular, and relevant data across all of the services included in the Communications Market Report. As a result, both policymakers and the public will have less detailed information to understand each individual market.

That’s not necessarily true. The FCC isn’t required to diminish the quality of its work, although it’s not crazy to think it might. I have some misgivings about that provision too, but I also think it’s long past time to start dismantling the artificial regulatory distinctions between broadband companies, based on their corporate ancestry. AT&T and Comcast, for example, offer the same kinds of services in the same markets. There’s no reason for them to have to play by two different sets of rules. In that regard, consolidated market evaluations are a step in the right direction.

The bill has to be approved by both houses of congress before Saturday, otherwise the federal government grinds to a half. Again.

Text of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2018, 21 March 2018

Frontier, cable lobbyists urge CPUC to cut them in on public housing, broadband adoption decisions


Big telco and cable interests accounted for two of the fourteen organisations that commented on proposed changes to the California Advanced Services Fund’s (CASF) broadband subsidy program for public housing and the new digital literacy and broadband access grants that’ll be available later this year. Frontier Communications and cable lobbyists submitted their remarks on Friday. AT&T was silent.

The California Cable and Telecommunications Association (CCTA), which is the lobbying front for Comcast, Charter Communications and other cable companies in California, wants the CPUC to better protect its members’ monopoly business model in public housing communities. Changes in the law – pushed by CCTA and cable company lobbyists – make it impossible to use CASF grants to install free WiFi in public housing properties where there’s cable service. Cable companies do offer low cost Internet service to people who qualify, as most, if not all, those who live in public housing do. But they also use those programs as opportunities to up sell residents into expensive, market rate TV (and broadband and phone) bundles.

To make sure that Charter and Comcast and the others can defend those walled gardens, CCTA’s comments recommend that the CPUC allow greater opportunities to challenge public housing grant proposals, even to the extent of knocking applications off the current fast track review process simply by raising “legitimate concerns”. Which can mean pretty much anything. Including digging around to see if applicants are using cable connections to feed WiFi hotspots, which is another of CCTA’s peeves.

Frontier’s comments can summed as give me the money. One recommendation is that adoption programs should be tied to, or at least prioritised for, CASF infrastructure projects. Which is convenient because last year’s legislative changes largely limit those grants to Frontier and AT&T. Other recommendations go sideways from there, asking the CPUC to hurry up and approve Frontier’s infrastructure project subsidies.

Reply comments – rebuttals or otherwise – are due 2 April 2018, and the CPUC is expected to decide how to move forward with the public housing and adoption grant programs sometime in June.

People who live in public housing deserve equal treatment from California broadband subsidy program


Public housing property owners can get grants from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) to install broadband facilities and serve residents. Hundreds of communities have taken advantage of it, despite churlish opposition from cable companies, particularly Charter Communications. The California Public Utilities Commission is revising the program, to bring it into line with new rules laid down by assembly bill 1665 last year.

The biggest change is to retroactively enforce restrictions, imposed by an earlier measure, senate bill 745, that require properties receiving grants to be “unserved”, which means that at least one residence lacks service at 6 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds. That was done at the behest of cable lobbyists, who want to protect their turf, and the pricey TV and Internet bundles they sell on it, from the horrors of free WiFi.

It was a bad decision – one of many made by the legislators who voted for AB 1665 and the organisations, particularly the California Emerging Technology Fund, who backed it. But it’s a done deal and the CPUC has no choice but to adapt.

One change the CPUC should make is to raise the standard for subsidised broadband service in public housing communities that do qualify under the new rules. Right now, the CPUC allows subsidised public housing broadband projects to deliver download speeds as slow as 1.5 Mbps, with no requirement for upload performance. As I wrote in the formal comments I drafted for the Central Coast Broadband Consortium and submitted to the CPUC on Friday, that’s not enough…

Californians who live in [publicly supported communities (PSCs)] have the same needs as Californians living elsewhere. Assembly bill 1665 set a minimum of 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds for CASF- funded infrastructure projects. This level of service is below the 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload advanced services standard established by the Federal Communications Commission, adopted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for its broadband funding programs, and contemplated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for its PSC broadband program. The CCBC recommends establishing the minimum speed standard for PSC facilities at the same 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up level that is required for other CASF-funded infrastructure projects, and establishing a priority for projects that meet the 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up standard.

Thirteen other organisations submitted comments on Friday, including public housing organisations and the California cable industry’s lobbying front. You can find them all here. Rebuttal filings are due in two weeks.

Comments on proposed changes to California’s broadband subsidy program posted


Fourteen organisations offered comments on Friday regarding California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) grant requirements and application procedures for public housing broadband facilities and for broadband adoption efforts, which are generally reckoned to be digital literacy classes and “broadband access” programs – i.e. computer centers, hotspots and free computers – programs. Suggestions for how the CASF broadband infrastructure loan program should be wound down were also submitted.

The new adoption grant program, and the revisions to the public housing and infrastructure loan programs were mandated by assembly bill 1665, which was approved by the California legislature and signed into law last year. It also made drastic changes to the way CASF subsidises broadband infrastructure projects, making independent broadband projects all but impossible to pursue and effectively turning the new $300 million account into a piggy bank for AT&T and Frontier Communications. Those new rules will be written later this year.

I’ll have more to say later about Friday’s filings. Full disclosure: I drafted and submitted the comments from the Central Coast Broadband Consortium – I’m as guilty as the rest. For now, you can find links to it all below – fine reading for a rainy weekend afternoon. Enjoy.

Comments on phase 1 (public housing, adoption and infrastructure loans – see appendix B below) of proposed changes to the California Advanced Services Fund program, filed on 16 March 2016:

Regional Broadband Consortia
Central Coast Broadband Consortium
CSU Chico Geographical Information Center (Northeastern and Upstate California Connect Consortia)
Gold Country Broadband Consortium
North Bay North Coast Broadband Consortium

Public Agency
City and County of San Francisco

Internet Service Providers
Bright Fiber Network, Inc.
California Cable and Telecommunications Association
Frontier Communications

Non Profit Organisations
California Emerging Technology Fund
Radio Bilingue, Inc.
Satellite Affordable Housing Associates
Tech Exchange
Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation

CPUC scoping memo and proposals
Scoping memo and ruling of assigned commissioner, Martha Guzman Aceves, CASF program changes, 14 February 2018
Appendix A, AB 1665 changes to CASF program
Appendix B, CPUC staff proposals for broadband adoption, public housing and loan programs
Appendix C, CPUC staff proposed changes for broadband infrastructure grant, line extension and regional broadband consortia programs

California senate considers expanded net neutrality rights and enforcement tools


A second, more detailed network neutrality revival bill is on the table at the California capitol. Senator Scott Wiener (D – San Francisco) introduced senate bill 822 earlier this year, but it was little more than a statement of intent to jump into the Internet regulation void left by the Federal Communications Commission when it repealed network neutrality rules and stripped broadband of its common carrier status. He amended it on Tuesday, adding in a long list of outlawed practices and ways to enforce the ban.

Like senate bill 460, which was approved by the senate and sent on to the assembly in January, Weiner’s bill bakes net neutrality into California’s consumer protection laws and requires state and local governments to buy broadband service from companies that follow those rules.

His definition of net neutrality is more expansive, though, adding zero rating to the list. That’s the practice of giving particular Internet traffic – an Internet service provider’s own video streams, for example – a competitive advantage by not counting it toward a customer’s data caps. ISPs wouldn’t be allowed to put up a toll gate and charge content companies for the privilege of reaching subscribers, or to charge customers different prices for the bandwidth used by different applications, or squeeze other services – think, cable channels – onto a consumer broadband connection. The FCC’s three bright line rules would also be revived: no blocking, throttling or paid prioritisation.

Proposed enforcement mechanisms include:

  • Lawsuits by consumers or the California attorney general.
  • Requiring state and local governments to buy broadband service from ISPs that follow the rules, unless there’s only one service provider available in a given area.
  • Allowing government agencies to claw back past payments if their ISP changes its mind.
  • Limiting state broadband subsidies – for infrastructure or universal service – to companies that follow net neutrality rules.
  • Specifically requiring cable and other video service companies that have a statewide franchise to comply with net neutrality requirements.
  • Taking net neutrality benefits into account when planning the state’s smart energy grid.
  • Give the some of the job of sorting out what’s allowed or not to the California Public Utilities Commission.

Weiner included a couple of big exceptions. Public safety communications could be prioritised or otherwise given a fast lane, and individual subscribers could choose to pay for restricted service, so long as “basic default service” was available and the restrictions were generic. In other words, an ISP could sell a service plan that speeds up all video traffic, but not one that only gives priority to, say, Netflix. The details of those kinds of plans – and any other service terms – would have to be fully disclosed to consumers and reviewed by the CPUC.

Some, if not all, of the bill is on thin legal ice, as a senate judiciary committee staff analysis concluded. The FCC tried to categorically preempt state law of this sort in its net neutrality repeal decision – it’ll be up to the courts to decided if it succeeded. Adding broadband obligations to statewide video franchises crosses another red line – up until now, at least, there’s been a regulatory firewall between the two kinds of services. Adding blanket broadband conditions to universal telephone service programs poses the same issues.

But those become problems only after lawmakers approve the bill and the governor signs it. There’s a long and uncertain legislative road to travel before that happens.

Trump builds a virtual wall to fence high tech companies in


© Yann Forget / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

Broadcom will not buy Qualcomm, and will not become the third largest chipmaker in the world, behind Intel and Samsung. Not because the eye watering price – $117 billion, the largest such high tech transaction ever – is too high. Not because the deal doesn’t make economic sense. It’s because U.S. president Donald Trump says it will harm U.S. national security.

Using his authority to define what national security needs are and squash transactions that threaten them, Trump categorically blocked Broadcom’s Singapore-based corporate parent and its Californian affiliate from buying San Diego-based Qualcomm.

The apparent worry is that technological and market leadership in 5G mobile chipmaking will leave U.S. shores and go overseas, to Broadcom and China-based Huawei, with the result that neither U.S. consumers or the military would be able to trust fundamental technology and products in the coming decades.

Trump didn’t pull this idea out of thin air. In February, six intelligence agency chiefs told the U.S. senate intelligence committee that people in the U.S. shouldn’t use mobile phones made by Huawei or ZTE, the number two Chinese manufacturer. According to CNBC, FBI director Chris Wray spoke for the group and said…

We’re deeply concerned about the risks of allowing any company or entity that is beholden to foreign governments that don’t share our values to gain positions of power inside our telecommunications networks.

The irony is that the FBI’s values include the belief that it should have a back door to the contents of any mobile phone or computer, and its sister agency, the NSA, has spilled malware into the cyber ecosystem.

There are good reasons to wish Qualcomm remains Californian and independent, not least because companies do not become more innovative as they get bigger. Quite the contrary. But technological leadership and prosperity cannot be guaranteed by walls that keep investors and immigrants out and companies in, or by government management of the high tech economy.

FCC will have to defend net neutrality repeal in San Francisco


The luck of the draw means the future of network neutrality and broadband’s status as a common carrier service will be argued in San Francisco. Credit for that is split between the California Public Utilities Commission and Santa Clara County, who filed separate challenges to the Federal Communications Commission’s decision to eliminate net neutrality rules and scrap common carrier obligations for broadband service with the ninth circuit federal appeals court.

Several other organisations filed their appeals in Washington, D.C., and a federal judicial panel randomly gave the job of consolidating and deciding the cases to the San Francisco-based ninth circuit.

Both the CPUC and Santa Clara County call the FCC’s decision “arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of discretion” and claim that it violates both the federal constitution and federal communications law. In other words, they’re challenging the way the decision was made rather than its substance. That’s an easier – which is not to say easy – case to make. Republican commissioners rushed the decision through, and might not have dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s. To put it mildly, democratic commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel certainly thinks so – she called the FCC’s action a “rash decision” resulting from a “corrupt process”…

This decision and the process that brought us to this point is ugly. It’s ugly in the cavalier disregard this agency has demonstrated to the public, the contempt it has shown for citizens who speak up, and the disdain it has for popular opinion. Unlike its predecessors this FCC has not held a single public hearing on net neutrality.

There’s no shortage of Californians involved in the challenges to the FCC’s decision. California attorney general Xavier Becerra joined the appeal filed by his New York counterpart. Mozilla filed its own challenge. The Open Technology Institute and the Coalition for Internet Openness did too. Both list several Silicon Valley companies as major backers. OTI counts Google and Apple among its contributors (as well as Comcast and Charter, although I doubt this is what they signed up for).

CPUC vs. FCC, petition for review of order of agency, board, commission, or officer, 22 February 2018
County of Santa Clara vs. FCC, petition for review, 22 February 2018
Coalition for Internet Openess, petition for review, 5 March 2018
U.S. judicial panel on multidistrict litigation, in the matter of restoring internet freedom, consolidation order, 8 March 2018

Unanimous dig once vote puts broadband conduit in federal highway plans


Broadband infrastructure, and service providers, will have to be included in planning done for federally funded highway projects if, as expected, the U.S. senate goes along with a bill – house resolution 4986, aka the Ray Baum act – passed by the house of representatives last week. State transportation departments wouldn’t be required to include conduit and other telecoms facilities in projects, but they would have to share their construction plans with broadband companies and other state and local agencies, and do a minimal amount of coordination. The goal is “to facilitate the installation of broadband infrastructure” and “minimise repeated excavations” in roadways.

It’s a weak dig once program, but it’s a step in the right direction. It won’t have much impact in California because pretty much all of what’s required in the federal bill is already done here. Caltrans has a broadband notification and coordination program in place, the result of assembly bill 1549, which passed two years ago. At most, the program might need some minor tweaks if the federal bill passes.

HR 4986 covers a wide array of other broadband issues. It funds the Federal Communication Commission’s budget for the next two years and fiddles around with some job descriptions, programs and tasks. It also bundles in some of the Mobile Now act which, besides the dig once requirements, includes a plan to free up 255 megahertz of spectrum for broadband service – on both a licensed and unlicensed basis – and points the FCC toward allocating even more spectrum in the 3 GHz to 4 GHz and millimeter wave ranges for broadband uses.

Odds are HR 4986 will be approved by the senate. Broadband development is one of the few issues that republicans and democrats can agree on. The house vote to approve it was unanimous. It might be bundled into a massive federal budget bill that’s expected – or at least hoped for – later this month.

State lawmakers can do stupid things to the Internet too


State legislatures and governors are stepping into the void left by the Federal Communications Commission when it rolled back network neutrality last year. Laws reinstating net neutrality requirements of one kind or another passed or are pending in California, Washington, Oregon and elsewhere. In Montana, governor Steve Bullock did it by executive order.

That’s a trend that cheers up net neutrality advocates, but there’s another side to it that’s not so pleasant and offers a solid argument for keeping states out of the business of regulating the Internet. In at least two states – California and Rhode Island – legislators introduced bills that regulate Internet services on the basis on content.

Two democratic state senators in Rhode Island want ISPs to block pornography, although users would be able to pay a $20 fee to unblock it.

In California, it’s politics that has assemblyman James Gallagher (R – Chico) all hot and bothered. He thinks “social media Internet web sites” and search engines should be politically neutral. At least as he understands the concept. So he introduced assembly bill 3169, which would make it illegal for a social media platform or search engine to remove or manipulate content “on the basis of the political affiliation or political viewpoint of that content”.

Gallagher defines social media broadly. It includes, but isn’t necessarily limited to, “videos, still photographs, blogs, video blogs, podcasts, instant and text messages, email, online services or accounts, or Internet Web site profiles or locations”.

Both his bill and the Rhode Island measure are on a collision course with the First Amendment, which exists to prevent politicians from using the coercive power of government to control what content is published. Or not.

It doesn’t look like he’s done any deep thinking on the subject. It’s possible – likely, I’d guess – Gallagher knows his bill has zero chance of becoming law and just wants to score some cheap points with his political base. It’s a particularly noxious way to do it, though.