Tag Archives: rural broadband

Mobile competition brings big benefits to urban consumers

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Not so bright in rural California

Competition works. Even in the telecoms business. Referencing an article in the Wall Street Journal, FierceWireless is reporting that the cost of mobile data has dropped 13% in the past year, and the reason is increasingly heated competition between the four major carriers, with reintroduction and aggressive marketing of unlimited data plans at the top of the list…

In a detailed article on the topic, the Wall Street Journal reported that the cost of wireless service plans fell 7% in March and an additional 1.7% in April. When comparing April data against the same month last year, the publication reported that wireless service prices have declined by almost 13%. The WSJ cited the Labor Department’s consumer price index for the numbers; the Consumer Price Indexes (CPI) program “produces monthly data on changes in the prices paid by urban consumers for a representative basket of goods and services,” according to the agency.

The effect was so great that the CPI went into negative territory for the first time in seven years. Mobile pricing wasn’t the only reason, but it accounted for about half the drop.

One significant caveat, though, is that the CPI is based on urban costs. The price of mobile data wouldn’t be different in rural areas, but its availability and the way it’s marketed is.

A quick look at the California Public Utilities Commission’s broadband availability map shows that while people living in urband and suburban communities enjoy the full benefit of four aggressively competing mobile broadband providers, those in rural areas do not. And while the same plans might be available everywhere, different needs push people in different areas toward different packages.

For example, plans designed to be used in homes as a wireline substitute of sorts are more popular in rural communities – the article did not look at whether prices for those particular packages are likewise experiencing the same, downward competitive pressure, but from what little I’ve seen it would appear not.

Competition matters.

Broadband service subsidies not popular in rural areas

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“Local governments should be able to build their own high-speed networks if the service in their area is too expensive or not good enough”, say 70% of people in the U.S.. According to a survey done by Pew Research, the concept of municipal broadband gets overwhelming bipartisan support: 74% of people identifying themselves as democrats and 67% as republicans agreed with that statement.

Care should be taken not to read too much into this ringing endorsement, though. People’s opinions changed radically when asked about spending government money on broadband service and whether it, in fact, costs too much or runs too slowly…

Fewer than half of Americans (44%) think the government should provide subsidies to help lower-income Americans pay for high-speed internet at home. A larger share (54%) says high-speed home internet service is affordable enough that nearly every household should be able to buy service on its own…

Americans have different levels of support for broadband subsidies based on political affiliation. Six-in-ten Democrats and independents who lean Democratic say the government should help lower-income Americans purchase high-speed internet service, but that figure falls to just 24% among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. These partisan differences stand in stark contrast to attitudes toward municipal broadband networks.

The divide is almost as stark between rural and urban residents. Half of people in urban areas think subsidising broadband service is okay and more than half think it’s not affordable for everyone. On the other hand, in rural areas, where broadband service tends to be slower and dearer than in cities, only 36% thought it should be subsidised and 63% think it’s fast and affordable enough for everyone.

Philosophically, Americans are comfortable with the idea of adding broadband to the list of services a city might or might not providing. In that respect, they seem to put it into the same bucket as water or electricity, which are delivered by both municipalities and private companies, depending on local circumstances and history. But the Pew study also indicates that it’s likely to be an uphill battle to convince them that their tax money should be spent on cheaper or faster Internet service. Particularly in communities most likely to lack it.

California bill tells telephone, cable companies to take rural 911 seriously

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Press 1 to pay your bill. If you’re having a heart attack, stay on the line and a representative will be with you shortly.

When broadband or phone service goes down in rural California, the last people to know are often the dispatchers at emergency 911 centers. When they do figure it out, there’s not much they can do about it except hope for the best. Such notification requirements that exist have thresholds that are set with urban areas in mind – hundreds of thousands of households, for example – and can leave rural communities in a telecoms black hole for hours or days on end.

A proposed law pending in Sacramento would address part of that problem. As currently drafted, senate bill 566, authored by senator Mike McGuire (D – Healdsburg) would do two important things. It would require companies that provide 911 dial-in access – telcos as well as cable and VoIP companies – to notify the state office emergency services within an hour when rural lines go down, and provide direct contact with real humans while repairs are underway. OES would then be responsible for keeping local public safety agencies and 911 centers informed.

Under current practices, cable and telephone companies can send emergency operators into the same toll free, customer service hell as everyone else. You can guess how well that works, but if you want the gory details, you can take a look at the results of last year’s investigation into rural call completion issues by the California Public Utilities Commission. The end result of that proceeding was new requirements that go some way toward fixing the problem, but only so far. Even that, though, was too much for telecoms companies, who have launched an all out legal challenge to the new standards.

McGuire’s bill simplifies those rules – when service goes down, call 911 and stay on the case, period – and, more importantly, bakes them into law, rather than leave the details up to a CPUC that is, at times, happy to let telcos do as they please. SB 566 has a long way to go until – or if – it’s passed and signed by the governor. It’s currently awaiting its first hearing, in front of the state senate energy, utilities and communications committee.

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

AT&T in no hurry to fix problems ahead of CPUC vote on tougher outage rules

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Carrier of last resort.

Later this morning, the California Public Utilities Commission, in its last regular meeting of the year, is scheduled to considered tightening the rules on what and when telephone companies have to report information about service outages. The proposed decision by commissioner Catherine Sandoval would also clamp down on the occasional practice by telephone and cable companies of attaching lines to trees in rural areas, rather than installing utility poles.

I’ve already written a couple of posts about the proposed decision, the result of an investigation into problems that rural residents have with completing calls and otherwise receiving phone service. You can read the overview here, and if you’re interested in some specifics regarding AT&T, you can find that post here.

Sandoval published a revised version of the decision late yesterday afternoon, and it contains no major surprises or changes. In the no surprise category was an observation that phone companies still don’t get it…

We are concerned that after publication of the Proposed Decision customers in Mendocino County, the Big Sur area, and other parts of California still report difficulty obtaining prompt repair to out‐of‐service or very poor line complaints, and in some cases report resistance by a [carrier of last resort] to providing basic telephone service when requested. We remind carriers of their duty under California law to carry and complete calls, to provide safe, reliable service at just and reasonable rates, to maintain high quality service throughout California, not to maintain unreasonable differences in services or facilities between localities or classes of service, and to provide access to 9‐1‐1 service, among other duties.

In case you’re keeping score, Big Sur is served by AT&T, as are the Mendocino County customers who reported continuing problems.

This morning’s meeting might be the last time the current five commissioners will all meet together. Sandoval’s term and that of fellow commissioner Mike Florio expire at the end of the year, and governor Brown has not announced whether he will reappoint them. If you have an opinion on the subject, a note to the governor would not go amiss.

Revised draft (14 December 2016) of commissioner Sandoval’s proposed decision investigating rural call completion issues.

Redlined version of the revised draft (15 December 2016), if you just want see what’s new.

AT&T blows off rural Californians, because it can

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Attitude is everything.

Telecoms service and infrastructure in rural California is deteriorating, according to a draft of findings and remedies resulting from a California Public Utilities Commission investigation led by commissioner Catherine Sandoval. Wireline service outages and other problems aren’t being repaired and customers are told that the fix will come from future “technological transitions” – a euphemism for we’ll get back to you after we’ve ripped out the copper and replaced it with wireless.

Much of the trouble seems to lead back to AT&T, which is not surprising or even particularly significant in and of itself, since it’s California’s dominant telco. But the data compiled in the investigation shows a pattern of rural neglect on AT&T’s part, and the company showed little interest in addressing problems or even cooperating with the CPUC’s efforts to find out what’s going on.

The contrast in corporate attitudes between AT&T and Frontier Communications, which took over operation of Verizon’s wireline systems in California in April, could not be clearer. Several public hearings were held in the course of the investigation, and I attended the one in Santa Cruz. Frontier’s northern California management team was there in force, while AT&T sent a local staff lobbyist who, as the draft decision describes, seemed, well, confused…

At the Santa Cruz [public participation hearing] AT&T, California’s representative alleged that the 211 call from the Hoopa Tribe’s [Temporary Assistance from Needy Families] office did not go through because she asserted that those calls came from Trinity County which does not currently have 211.” Tressa Bader, Vice President for Frontier, in Northern California clarified that the Hoopa Tribe and their TANF Office are Frontier customers located in Humboldt County.

There’s not a lot the CPUC or anyone else can do about AT&T’s attitude. The draft decision proposes few remedies beyond beefing up data collection from carriers and consumers. It has yet to be adopted by the commission, and there’s reason to wonder if will be: the CPUC rejected tougher reporting and repair standards in August, and instead voted to allow telcos to, in effect, fine themselves for violations and keep the money.

CPUC report highlights telecoms companies’ disdain for rural customers

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Self service.

There’s little interest among major telecommunications companies in maintaining infrastructure or service in rural California. That’s my overall conclusion after reading a draft decision by commissioner Catherine Sandoval summarising the California Public Utilities Commission’s investigation into telephone service problems in rural areas of the state.

The study focused on call completion issues: problems with 911 calls getting through, phone numbers falsely reported as out of service and a simple lack of dial tone, for example. And when something goes wrong, it’s difficult or even impossible, to get it fixed…

We heard in this [investigation] many frustrated customers complain about the difficulties in getting service ranging from the need to make repeated calls for service. Some customers reported that their carrier insisted that the customer had to have a working telephone to report that their landline telephone is out, leading one elderly woman in Sonoma County to climb on her roof to get a poor cell signal to report her landline outage. Others complained that when they asked for repairs the carrier told them they were not repairing landline service or would make technological transitions in the future, while leaving the customer with poor service to intermittent or persistent service outages.

Other customers reported great difficulty in getting their repair needs met, even when they were out of service. TURN reported on comments received in a meeting they attended in Big Sur where the Soberanes fire raged for more than 2 months in 2016. One customer stated, “I have contacted AT&T more times since I can count since the [Soberanes] fire because our line is still not functional no dial tone. Still no action.”

Other problems uncovered during the investigation include the difficulties small, rural telcos have exchanging traffic with and getting long haul connectivity from major carriers, and the unwillingness of telephone and cable companies to share information with public safety agencies, or even provide them with information about outages.

The CPUC is scheduled to consider the findings and proposed course of action in the draft decision at its 15 December 2016 meeting.

Californians asked to help find telco trouble spots

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If you’ve had problems, or not, completing or receiving a telephone, the California Public Utilities Commission wants to know about it. That includes collect calls and, particularly, calls to 911 or any of its sister services such as 211 (social service referrals) or 811 (underground utility locator, i.e. call before you dig). They also want to know if you’ve “seen conditions with telephone facilities that you believe pose a danger to safety or reliability of communications service (e.g., low hanging wires, wires on the ground, leaning or bent poles, overloaded poles, one pole holding up another, frayed or broken cables, lines attached to trees?)”.

The CPUC put up an online survey a couple of weeks ago, and as of the results posted yesterday evening, six people had responded. They’re posting the comments submitted (with identifying information removed). Six responses isn’t statistically significant, but the trend so far is kinda interesting. Most of the answers amount to no, I haven’t had that problem.

No one is reporting problems with their phone being reported out of service when it isn’t, or with accepting or placing collect calls or with reaching 211 or 811 services. One person had a phone line cut accidentally and another is unhappy with getting out-of-service messages, although based on the comment it might be because the numbers dialled actually are out of service.

On the other hand, two people – both apparently in Tuolumne County – have had problems reaching 911 operators, and three people have seen what they believe to be unsafe pole conditions.

The survey is part of an investigation into rural telephone service reliability being led by commissioner Catherine Sandoval, but the questions being asked in the online survey apply to phone service anywhere in California, and the questions about unsafe or precarious poles, cables and other infrastructure are very relevant to broadband service as well. Poorly maintained legacy phone lines cannot generally deliver even minimum levels of acceptable broadband service. Finding those problems is the first step towards fixing them.

Click here to take the survey.

U.K. takes harder line on rural broadband service

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May I offer you something else?

Universal broadband service in Britain will have to follow demand, not lead it. That’s the decision, as it currently stands, from the U.K. government as it works out the details of implementing a previous commitment to deliver broadband service with at least 10 Mbps download speeds to everyone.

It’s a straightforward commitment for about 95% of the country, but the last 5%, in rural areas, won’t be automatically hooked up. It’ll require what amounts to pre-orders, and possibly a financial commitment from property owners. According to a BBC story

Given the high costs of providing broadband access to premises in remote areas it is right that this is done on request, rather than rolling it out and waiting to see if people in those areas want to be connected.

We know from the various interventions that the government has made to date that it is unlikely that everyone will want to be connected, even if that option is made available to them, and so we do not believe that an additional broadband rollout programme at this time is proportionate or would represent value for money.

The experience of BT – the company formerly known as British Telecom – in more densely populated areas points to the problem: of the 24 million homes upgraded to fiber-driven service, only 22% have opted to take it. those upgrades are not necessarily all fiber to the home; the figure also includes fiber to the node or cabinet, similar to upgraded DSL services in the U.S.

No financial details have been worked out, but according to the BBC the likeliest model will be for BT to pay the costs of line extensions up to about $5,000 per household, with the property owner covering anything over that. It could be a while until the final 5% even get the chance to pay for connections – a final decision on the program might not come until 2020.

U.S. house bill says bigger ISPs have lower transparency standards

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Face it, $100 million is chump change here.

Mid-sized Internet service providers as well as small ones would be exempt from Federal Communications Commission rules that require, among other things, full disclosure of monthly price, fees, data caps and other such terms of service, under a bill approved unanimously (411 to zip) by the U.S. house of representatives. HR 4596 says that transparency rules adopted last year by the FCC, as part of its decision to regulate broadband as a common carrier service, “shall not apply to any small business”, which is defined as “any provider of broadband Internet access service that has not more than 250,000 subscribers”.

The exemption also would apply to network performance reporting requirements and disclosure of network management practices, or at least the additional requirements imposed by the FCC last year. An FCC decision from 2010 that established a lower standard of transparency and reporting will remain in effect for mid and small sized ISPs.

ISPs with fewer than 100,000 subscribers were given a temporary exemption by the FCC last year. This bill would make it permanent and raise the bar to 250,000 subscribers. It’s a typical Washington mischaracterisation to call an ISP with that many subs a “small businesses”, since it could easily have annual revenue of more than $100 million a year. Even 100,000 is a very high bar – the largest independent ISPs in California are well south of that number, as are rural telephone companies.

The bill essentially says that it’s only the major incumbents that have to meet the higher standard of consumer disclosures and network management reporting imposed last year. Sorta. Those requirements are being challenged in court, along with the big issue of common carrier status for broadband service, and the bill won’t change that.

Before it takes effect, it has to be approved by the U.S. senate – a similar bill already has bipartisan support there – and signed by the president.