FCC proposes new map-based collection method for broadband availability reports

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

The ever increasing volume of complaints about the accuracy of broadband availability data published by the Federal Communications Commission is producing results. In August, the FCC will vote on a proposal to require Internet service providers to submit electronic map data that shows where they offer service, at what speeds it’s offered and which technology it uses.

The current data sets are based on census block reports, with a census block reckoned as served at a given speed level if one home or business within it can get that level. As a result, estimates of how many people have access to acceptable broadband service are overstated and communities that should be eligible for broadband infrastructure and service subsidies are shortchanged. Sometimes the overestimates are substantial. When taken at face value, the result can be highly embarrassing to a public agency, as the FCC learned earlier this year when it blindly accepted inflated reports of fiber to the home service in the northeast U.S.

The FCC’s proposed new method should improve the accuracy of the data, but it’s an open question as to whether it will be more (or less) useful for detailed broadband availability analysis. One advantage of census block-based reporting is that it matches up cleanly with the wealth of data collected by the federal census bureau. New methods will have to be developed to estimate the number of people and households within a reported service area, as well as all the other data the census bureau offers to broadband analysts, such as household income and education levels.

Another question is how long the transition will take. The FCC didn’t set a deadline for development of the internal systems needed to submit and process the data, although it did say that the new data would have to be submitted six months after it’s ready to accept it. That’s just the first step, though. Once the new data is in hand, it has to be evaluated and published by the FCC, and then assessed by other agencies that use it to make broadband infrastructure subsidy decisions, such as the California Public Utilities Commission and the federal agriculture department.

In the meantime, ISPs will have to continue submitting broadband availability data the old way.

FCC’s rural broadband subsidy reboot proposes faster speeds, but performance is still a question

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Paicines pole route

Broadband service at 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds “is not a luxury” reserved for people who live in cities and suburbs, according to a draft FCC notice that kicks off the process of rebooting federal broadband service subsidies for rural communities. In August, the FCC plans to vote on a draft notice of proposed rulemaking that would open the door to comments and proposals – from any interested party – regarding how to spend “at least” $20.4 billion earmarked for the “rural digital opportunity fund”.

It’s a reboot of the FCC’s Connect America Fund (CAF), which mostly gave money to monopoly model telcos, such as AT&T and Frontier Communications, to provide slower service – 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up – in California and in other states where they thought they could get a sufficient return on investment by providing upgraded rural broadband service. Subsidy rights for the remaining communities they skipped, for one reason or another, were auctioned off last year. The winners were the companies that promised the fastest service for the least subsidy dollars.

That’s a process that the FCC proposes to repeat. Broadband service subsidies would go to the lowest bidder in an eligible community, instead of automatically given to the incumbent telco. The definition of “eligible” would change, too…

Consumers’ demand for faster speeds has grown dramatically—and the market has largely been able to deliver. Speeds of 25/3 Mbps are widely available, and 25/3 Mbps is the Commission’s current benchmark for evaluating whether a fixed service is advanced-telecommunications capable. Thus, the item proposes a 25/3 Mbps service availability threshold as the basis for establishing eligible areas.

Providers would be able to bid at three speeds levels: 25/3 with a 150 monthly gigabyte cap, and 100 Mbps down/20 Mbps up and 1 gigabit down/500 Mbps up with a 2 terabyte cap. That’s similar to how last year’s CAF auction was organised, except that this time around 10/1 service would not be acceptable.

There are a couple of problems with the FCC’s proposal as it stands. The 25/3 minimum is inadequate – research done last year by the Central Coast Broadband Consortium and the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership identified 100/20 as the threshold for acceptable rural (and urban) service.

Another concern is performance. AT&T and Frontier claim to be meeting their build out requirements, but there’s a year to go before the final deadline and they’ve been evasive about details, so we won’t really know until then, at the soonest, if they’re telling the whole truth.

Last year’s auction winners in California were wireless Internet service providers (WISPs) that made very aggressive coverage and service level promises. Those, too, will have to be verified over the next few years to see if the FCC’s proposed “technology neutral” funding policy produces the desired results.

California kicks T-Mobile-Sprint deal to September. Or maybe much later

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Tmobile san francisco 18may2019

The California Public Utilities Commission can’t act on T-Mobile’s request for permission to acquire Sprint until the middle of September, at the earliest. Yesterday was the deadline for any proposed decisions – in any proceeding, T-Mobile or not – to be placed on the commission’s 15 August 2019 meeting agenda. The next scheduled meeting after that is on 12 September, which means a draft decision would have to be released for the legally required 30-day public review period by 13 August.

Even that date is optimistic. There are two good reasons to doubt that the CPUC will be in any hurry to move ahead on a final decision for the next few months. First, no one knows what the T-Mobile/Sprint deal looks like yet. All the testimony and legal exchanges to date are predicated on the relatively straightforward purchase agreement the two companies announced a year ago. If a new agreement that satisfies the concerns of the federal justice department emerges, the organisations that have been fighting against the original deal at the CPUC will want a chance to review it. That process can be shortened, but even if it moves at lightning speed it will still require several weeks.

Then there’s California attorney general Xavier Becerra, who is one of several state AGs suing to block the merger. He’s gone to court to kill the deal, so it’s a reasonable guess that he hasn’t yet responded positively – or at all – to the CPUC’s request for an opinion, as required by the California Public Utilities Code. T-Mobile might settle its dispute with the state AGs out of court, but if it doesn’t it’s looking at a trial that could stretch into next year, particularly if the judge hearing the case grants the request for a delay made by the states on Monday.

The CPUC might let Becerra worry about the anti-competitive aspects of the deal, and move ahead with a decision regarding other issues such as the merger’s impact on services for low income Californians and infrastructure in rural areas. But the fluid nature of the deal raises the possibility that an early CPUC decision could get overtaken by substantive changes to the terms, which should have been considered. That would be a risky course to take, with little or no gain to the CPUC even if it turned out well.

Extra meetings can happen. The CPUC held one on an emergency basis earlier this year when PG&E filed for bankruptcy, and another is scheduled – with proper notice – for later this month. There are also provisions for waiving the 30-day review period under California law. Don’t expect T-Mobile to get that kind of accomodation, though. The possibility of the lights going out in northern California rates as an emergency; missing an arbitrary corporate deadline does not.

Charter and the State New York settle on terms for an honest broadband buildout

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Charter Communications won’t be thrown out of the State of New York. The Public Services Commission voted last week to accept a settlement that ends a dispute over whether Charter is meeting the obligations it accepted when its acquisition of Time Warner Cable systems was approved in 2016. It ends the threat that Charter could lose its franchise to operate cable systems in New York because, the commission said, Charter was “just lining its pockets”.

One of the points of contention was whether Charter could count addresses in New York City towards its commitment to build out broadband service to under and unserved communities. The New York PSC said it couldn’t, because there’s no shortage of broadband there. The settlement means that Charter will build out its footprint where it’s needed, according to the order adopted by the New York PSC last Thursday…

The 2019 Settlement Agreement…requires, among other things, that Charter continue to invest in network expansion to bring high speed broadband to 145,000 unserved and underserved addresses entirely in Upstate New York by September 30, 2021; that Charter provide $12 million in additional funds to further expand broadband coverage in Upstate New York beyond these 145,000 addresses; and, that Charter meet enforceable interim milestones and provide monthly reports to track its progress. The 2019 Settlement Agreement, will, in short, ensure that Charter’s network expansion only takes place in areas of Upstate New York where for the most part wireline broadband does not currently exist.

A similar dispute continues in California. Charter was likewise obligated to upgrade service in its Californian territory – old and new – by the California Public Utilities Commission, by the end of this year. The CPUC’s public advocates office (PAO) has been trying to verify that Charter is on track to meet that commitment, but hasn’t been able to get the information it needed to do so. In April, Charter was ordered to hand over the requested data “with substantive, complete, and accurate responses”. No word yet on whether they complied, but the fact that the PAO has scheduled a meeting with outgoing CPUC president Michael Picker’s telecoms advisors to discuss the case might be read as indicating that all is not well.

CPUC is next target for Newsom’s “strike team” leader

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Batjer 2014

The new president of the California Public Utilities Commission is Marybel Batjer. Originally appointed by governor Jerry Brown, she heads the California government operations agency, which oversees “procurement, real estate, information technology, and human resources” for all state agencies. Governor Gavin Newsom announced on Friday that she will replace outgoing president Michael Picker.

Batjer seems to like a challenge. In his brief six months in office, Newsom has already tapped Batjer to clean up two bureaucratic black holes: the Department of Motor Vehicles and state government’s information technology “mess”. She’s leading Newsom’s “DMV Strike Team”, which has the daunting task of creating “a more customer-friendly and user-centered culture” at the agency. She will wrap up that assignment this month before taking on the CPUC.

Her resume is impressive. Batjer worked as cabinet secretary for former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and chief of staff for former Nevada governor Kenny Guinn, and held top level jobs in state and federal government, all the way back to the Reagan white house. No one will have to explain to her how state bureaucracies do and don’t work.

She’s not a career political minion or a former utility executive, and there’s no evidence of particular telecoms, energy or regulatory policy expertise in her background. Add it all up, and you get a bureaucratic turnaround specialist.

If you’re interested in hearing her talk about remaking California government to “meet the needs of our digital society”, and attracting and retaining millennials in the state workforce, click the picture above to see the video.

Newsom made a shrewd choice. As with the DMV, there’s no affection for the CPUC in the California legislature. No one has tried to disestablish it (yet) this year, but antipathy toward the commission is a driving force behind assembly bill 1366, which would deregulate telephone service in California. Perhaps not as a big a driving force as the money that AT&T, Comcast and other monopoly-model incumbents pay to state legislators, but it serves well as a closing argument.

The California senate has to confirm Batjer, but she can begin the job while that’s going on. There’s about a year and a half left on Picker’s term, so she’ll have to be reappointed if she’s planning to stay beyond the end of 2020. There’s no obvious opportunity for Newsom to make further changes – absent resignations, the roster of commissioners is set until then.

FCC republicans chase San Francisco “bogeyman”

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Bay to breakers

San Francisco’s open access law that allows any Internet service provider to use landlord-owned wiring inside a building to reach tenants might not be so preempted by Wednesday’s Federal Communications Commission decision. And the FCC’s republican majority is acting more like hired gun lawyers advocating for monopoly-model incumbents than the disinterested expert regulators they’re supposed to be.

Jon Brodkin breaks down the back and forth in a good article in Ars Technica. The ruling formally adopted by republican commissions says that San Francisco can’t require one ISP to share wires it’s already using with another ISP. San Francisco’s response amounted to we don’t require that, so what are you all worked up about? FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a democrat, voted against the ruling and blasted her colleagues for running scaredf making up rules on the fly…

Our preemption of this municipal ordinance is stunningly weak. We somehow claim we have unfettered authority when it comes to broadband in buildings but disown our general authority over the same in our net neutrality proceeding, where we pronounced broadband beyond the reach of this agency. So this ruling borrows from old cable signal leakage policies to suggest some new theory of preemption is appropriate. This doesn’t add up…

It is not clear this agency even understands the San Francisco law it seeks to preempt. The law prohibits building owners from interfering with the right of tenants to exercise choice when it comes to communications…the FCC contorts this into a non-existent bogeyman, suggesting that the ordinance compels sharing of wiring that is already in use. This is simply not true…Why are we preempting an imaginary possibility in a city ordinance in San Francisco?

The Trump administration’s FCC bases its rollbacks and preemptions on tortured, case by case reasoning that starts with the result desired by the likes of AT&T and Comcast – repealing net neutrality, preempting local ownership of streetlight poles – and proceeds to justify it on the basis of nonsensical, one-off legal theories – Internet address lookup as an information service, use of the public right of way as a quitclaim deed – that a corporate lawyer would only use as a last resort.

Both FCC chair Ajit Pai and commissioner Brendan Carr represented big telecoms companies in their past legal careers, and they act like they still do. Federal appeals courts are reviewing claims that their net neutrality and pole preemption decisions are “arbitrary and capricious”. Their San Francisco ruling belongs on that list.

Telephone deregulation bill amended by California senate committee, but it’s still a hot mess

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Deregulation of telephone service – and with it, telecommunications infrastructure – moved ahead yesterday in the California senate’s energy, utilities and communications committee. Backed by AT&T, Frontier Communications, Comcast and other monopoly model incumbents, assembly bill 1366 was approved on a largely positive, but not quite unanimous vote. It extends a ban on regulation of voice over Internet protocol service (VoIP) by the California Public Utilities Commission and other state agencies. As the shift from old style, regulated telephone service to unregulated VoIP continues, the effect is to allow telcos and cable companies to back out from under the CPUC’s jurisdiction.

That’s a clearly stated goal of the bill’s author, assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez (D – San Diego) who told the committee “we’ve got to figure out a better way than just handing something to the PUC, which would take ten years to get the kind of progress we’re making right now with this bill”.

AB 1366 was amended, but I don’t know exactly what those amendments are yet. Printed copies were given to committee members just before the bill was taken up. It appears that the changes are largely in line with recommendations in an earlier analysis by committee staff and will, to some degree, allow VoIP regulation in regards emergency services and “last resort” rural services.

Judging from the discussion, though, the bill is still confusing and contradictory, with drafting errors, loopholes and a vague and largely useless enforcement mechanism. Gonzalez said that more changes would be made later.

Gonzalez and a couple of representatives from non-profit groups (who demonstrated no particular telecommunications policy involvement or knowledge) spoke in favor of the bill. They were followed by long line of similarly irrelevant endorsers, led by AT&T staff lobbyist Bill Devine, and joined by lobbyists for Frontier, Comcast, Cox Communications, CTIA and Verizon.

Then came the opposition.

A representative from the Communications Workers of America, AT&T’s principal union, repeated arguments made in the assembly. CPUC commissioner Martha Guzman Aceves then made the case for keeping the commission in the game…

We know that millions of Californians do not benefit from any competition in the communications marketplace, that hundreds of thousands have no high speed broadband access, and a third of Californians – 13 million approximately – do not benefit from any competition. This is an oligopoly, it’s not a free market. This bill prohibits the state from guaranteeing essential and reliable communications services to all Californians, simply because the infrastructure has been upgraded. It will eliminate programs to insure infrastructure access to rural Californians, to the deaf, to the disabled and to the poor…

The bill is not about stifling innovation or apps like Skype. This bill is about deregulating the companies that own and manage the poles, wires and radios in California. Companies like Comcast and AT&T, not these apps. Under this bill, these companies will be left to their own sense of social responsibility…

They’ll decide which communities receive the next generation of technologies, like fiber, like 5G…they’ll decide whether or how quickly infrastructure is repaired or upgraded in poor communities and rural communities. They’ll decide whether they address complaints from local governments and your constituents…They will decide whether the service they provide is reliable and redundant so all Californians can reach 911 dispatchers at all times.

The next stop for AB 1366 is the senate appropriations committee, where more amendments might surface. That might not happen until the end of August. If it survives, it’ll go to a vote by the full senate. Labor organisations are strongly opposed to the bill, a fact that made Gonzalez visibly uncomfortable. If that opposition continues, all bets are off on AB 1366’s future.

California senate committee considers AT&T-backed bill to end telephone service regulation

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Darth leia 625

A bill that would extend California’s ban on regulation of “Internet protocol enabled” services, including voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) service, is due for a hearing in the California senate’s energy, utilities and communications committee today. Assembly bill 1366, authored by Lorena Gonzalez (D – San Diego), would allow AT&T, Frontier Communications, Comcast, Charter Communications and other big, monopoly model incumbents to do an end run around California’s laws, according to the California Public Utilities Commission.

Several regional broadband consortia have also gone on the record opposing it. I drafted the Central Coast Broadband Consortium’s opposition letter, which says, in part…

The current text of AB 1366 extends a ban on oversight by the California Public Utilities Commission of telephone service provided via Internet protocol technology. When first enacted, this ban made sense and had little practical effect, because “Voice over Internet protocol” (VoIP) service was in its infancy. The child has grown up, though, and VoIP is a fully mature service that is rapidly supplanting traditional, and traditionally regulated, analog telephone service.

There might be good arguments for ending state oversight of telephone service. We do not support that position, but it is an appropriate subject for debate and deliberation by the California Legislature. Such a drastic change in California policy should not be enacted through a back door maneuver, as AB 1366 would do.

As of this morning, the version of the bill approved by the California assembly is still on the table. It includes token amendments made in the assembly that have vague language about VoIP service quality, but are of little practical use. The senate committee’s staff prepared an analysis that confirms that the token amendments in the bill “are largely unenforceable”. The analysis proposes a few more marginal changes, but leaves the core of the bill – as pushed by AT&T, Frontier, Comcast, Charter and a long list of their financially groomed, um, friends – intact.

The amendment came in response to strong opposition from the Communications Workers of America, the primary union representing AT&T employees. They are still listed as opposing AB 1366. The key test today will be whether or not CWA members turn out to oppose the bill, as they did in the assembly’s communications and conveyances committee.

California-funded fiber keeps (most) quake hit communities connected

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Digital 395 19sep2013

I planned to write about Trona and Searle Valley today, but not with earthquakes in mind. Instead, I was going to look at a recent California Public Utilities Commission ruling that, in effect, disavowed a previous and pusillanimous decision to deny broadband infrastructure grants in those two towns. That’s for later. For now, it’s about the eastern California communities that got state and federal broadband grants and, as a result, maintained modern, gigabit-class broadband connectivity even as two major earthquakes – 7.1 and 6.4 magnitude – and a continuing swarm of fore and aftershocks hit.

After chopping out Trona and Searle Valley, the CPUC approved a 2016 California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) grant for fiber-to-the-home infrastructure in three other small towns in the Ridgecrest area, Randsburg, Johannesburg and Red Mountain. Race Communications built and now runs those systems, which continued to deliver gigabit service despite this weekend’s shaking, according to chief technical officer Carlos Alcantar.

Race’s last mile service was supported by Digital 395, a 500+ mile middle mile fiber network that runs from Reno, down the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, to Barstow, linking communities along U.S. highway 395 to major east-west fiber routes. It was also funded by grants from CASF, and from the 2009 federal stimulus program.

“The network did great, and was a critical lifeline for the hospital”, said James Suver, CEO of the Ridgecrest Regional Hospital and a Digital 395 board member.

According to Michael Ort, CEO of Praxis Associates/Inyo Networks, which built and operates Digital 395, the many public safety agencies, utilities and telecoms companies that rely on it stayed connected throughout the weekend…

We lost commercial power, but went to battery and generator in Ridgecrest. We’ve had other earthquakes, but nothing like this…

We also continued to beef up the reliability of the network as we learned about weaknesses: north-south redundancies, redundant routing up the central valley, multiple service providers feeding in and out of the network…

The fact that there was-real time international news coverage of the event (internet, TV video) is because it travelled on our network. I got a text from a friend in Paris within 10 minutes, asking if we were okay, which is a testament on how fast information travels today.

Reliable communication infrastructure and service is an absolute requirement for effective disaster response and recovery. By all accounts, emergency services in Kern and San Bernardino counties performed flawlessly this weekend. Without these two CASF-subsidised fiber projects, the story might have been different.

Update 10 July 2019: added quote from James Suver.

5G phones must clear economic, technical hurdles before breaking into the mass market

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

The market for new smartphones is slowing. The global market is approaching saturation, where everyone who might use one has one, and annual sales are dropping. The pace of improvements is slowing, too. The marginal attraction of new apps and more powerful and faster hardware is diminishing.

According to a story in Digital Trends by Andy Boxall, the tide turned last year…

In 2018, smartphone sales numbers stopped growing, according to two data analysis companies, Strategy Analytics and Counterpoint Research. Strategy Analytics executive director Neil Mawston wrote in his guide to the latest figures that it’s the “first time ever in history the global smartphone market has declined on a full year basis. It is a landmark event”…

This was a five-percent drop over the 1.51 billion sold in 2017, and when you’re talking about billions of phones, a five-percent drop is relatively substantial.

That’s a problem for smartphone manufacturers, but hope is on the horizon. 5G networks need 5G-capable smartphones, and over the next five years that will be the primary driver of upgrades and new phone sales.

I don’t expect to see anything significant in 2019, and only the bleeding edge, technophile segment will be significant in 2020. What happens after that depends on how mobile carriers address two problems, one economic and one technical.

A mass market stampede toward 5G phones won’t happen until mass market 5G service is available. That build out will happen slower than mobile carriers have led city councils and county boards of supervisors to believe. And it will be far from comprehensive – the true benefits that will justify a kilobuck smartphone purchase will only be available in urban areas with high revenue potential for carriers.

The big technical question that hasn’t been answered is battery life. 5G service requires more intensive processing, which burns up energy, as do faster bit rates generally. The first units on the market won’t be optimised – can’t be until real consumers start using and abusing them in the wild – so it will be at least another year – 2021 – before manufacturers and carriers really understand power budgets. But 5G smartphones will burn through battery life faster than 4G phones, and that’s a problem yet to be solved.