California rural electric co-op gets $1.8 million to extend FTTH service

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Another 413 homes in small, desert communities in Riverside County are getting high speed, fiber to the home service, via the Anza Electric Cooperative and a grant from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF). The California Public Utilities Communities approved a $1.8 million subsidy – $4,300 per home, amounting to 70% of the total cost – extending an earlier CASF-funded FTTH project that reached 3,750 customers in the co-op’s core service area in the Anza Valley.

The new build covers the Pinyon community and the Santa Rosa Reservation, but it skips over Mountain Center and Garner Valley, because Frontier Communications upgraded its service in the area. It’s receiving federal money to deliver broadband service at 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds, and was able to demonstrate that its VDSL upgrade was delivering around 20 Mbps down/2 Mbps up, at least to some homes. That’s on the low end of what VDSL technology is capable of delivering, but it’s more than enough to make Mountain Center and Garner Valley ineligible for California subsidies.

In the communities that are eligible, Frontier relies on 1990s style DSL technology which generally runs at about 2 Mbps down and less than 1 Mbps up, where it’s available at all. It told the CPUC it wouldn’t make any more service without CASF subsidies of its own. Which it won’t get because Anza Electric Co-op moved faster.

People in communities to the east and west, though, are – or soon will be – getting access to symmetrical speeds of up to 1 Gbps. The co-op’s flagship consumer package is symmetrical 50 Mbps speeds for $49 per month, with a $25 per month, 10 Mbps down and up offer to low income households. There’s no commitment or bundling required for either package (although an unlimited domestic phone line can be had for another $20 per month).

Where’s the kaboom? There was supposed to be an earth-shattering kaboom

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If you’re reading this post, the Internet did not explode when network neutrality control rods were yanked this morning. The Federal Communications Commission made today the day that its repeal of bright line net neutrality no-nos – no blocking, throttling or paid prioritisation – takes effect.

The federal appeals court challenge to the FCC’s action hasn’t gone anywhere yet, except to bounce from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco, and back again. As of Friday afternoon, no one had even asked the D.C. circuit court to put the FCC’s rollback on hold. The case is still active, but so far it’s just chugging along at the speed of justice – slow. It could be years before legal challenges to the FCC decision are complete.

The effort to overturn the decision in the U.S. congress isn’t moving even that fast. Although it was narrowly approved by the U.S. senate, the resolution of disapproval is stalled in the house of representatives. The Verge hopefully reports that it’s “less than 50 votes from passing”, which is another way of saying that not even all democrats are on board with it. You can check the list here.

The smart money says that the big players, including Comcast, Charter Communications, AT&T and Frontier Communications, won’t rush to subdivide the Internet into walled gardens. If you take them at their word, they will begin channeling traffic into paid-for fast lanes and free slow lanes. But even that’s not likely to happen quickly. They will be careful not to needlessly antagonise federal lawmakers ahead of the November elections, when net neutrality will be a campaign issue, or while the resolution of disapproval is still on the table.

They’ll also want to keep the heat down while they try to beat back efforts in the California legislature to reinstate net neutrality obligations at the state level. Senate bill 460, the weaker of the two net neutrality revival attempts, is scheduled for a hearing in the assembly communications and conveyances committee on Wednesday. It’s possible that SB 822, the beefier bill, will join it.

Northern California fire storm investigation points to PG&E

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Twelve fires began over two days in October last year, killing 18 people, destroying thousands of homes and other buildings, and burning hundreds of thousands of acres of wild land in Mendocino, Humboldt, Butte, Sonoma, Lake and Napa counties. In every instance, electric power lines were at least partly to blame, and those lines were owned by PG&E, according to a Cal Fire press release and investigation reports. There is “evidence of alleged violations of state law” in eight of the twelve fires. Cal Fire handed the cases over to county district attorneys for possible criminal prosecution.

Cal Fire has only published investigation reports for the four fires that weren’t referred to county DAs, but those tell a consistent story of trees and utility lines whipped by high winds. The account of one investigator at the deadliest fire – the Redwood fire in Mendocino County which killed nine people – tells the story…

[The witness] told me he was in his bathroom preparing for bed when he saw a huge arc towards the east. He said he saw a tree illuminate when the conductors arced. He told me he had lost power 15 minutes prior to witnessing the arc. He said he saw the fire start on the neighbor’s property on the south side of the creek under the conductors. He described the initial size of the fire as a 5-yard burn pile. I asked if he would show me the location of where he saw the fire start. I walked with him towards the southeast corner of his property. He showed me where the conductors were and where he saw them arc. On the southeast corner of his property was a transmission tower with six overhead conductors running north and south…

I asked how fast he thought the wind was blowing when he saw the conductors arc. He said it was well over 45 mph from the northeast. He told me there was a wind event two years ago when the wind reached nearly 100 mph. He didn’t think it was that fast, but did say the wind almost knocked him over while he was walking outside.

You can read all of the reports here.

Get ready to vote on breaking California up into three states

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An initiative that calls for California to be split into three new states appears to have enough signatures to qualify for the November general election. County clerks are reviewing the petitions collected for Tim Draper’s Division of California into Three States initiative and, one by one, reporting back to the secretary of state’s office.

So far, random signature checks are complete in 48 of California’s 58 counties, with a validation rate of 76% – of the 472,000 signatures reviewed, 358,000 passed the random test. In theory, Draper only needs 366,000 valid signatures, but if this initial screening shows that at least 402,000 signatures (110% of the minimum) are good, then the measure automatically qualifies for the ballot. No further checking is necessary.

To reach the 110% threshold, of the remaining 133,000 signatures, only 44,000 need to prove out. That’s a 33% validation rate, less than half the average so far. It appears that Draper has solved the quality control problem that scuttled his initial attempt to break up California into six new states.

This new effort creates three new states – California, Northern California and Southern California – with roughly equal population, but varying income levels. Median household incomes drop from $63,000 a year in Northern California to $53,000 in the L.A.-anchored coastal strip nominally called California, to $45,000 in the new Southern California.

Even if voters approve, though, the U.S. congress has to agree and that’s a very long shot. Particularly if California’s political ruling class digs in to fight it, as they certainly will. Disruption might be a wonderful thing in Silicon Valley, where Draper calls home, but in Sacramento it means losing power, perks and privileges, which no one there wants.

The ten remaining counties have until Wednesday to complete the job, so we should know soon whether we’ll be voting to break up California, or not, in November.

California broadband subsidy law demands equal treatment for all, rich and poor alike

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One of the mysteries surrounding Californian subsidies for broadband infrastructure is the abysmally low standard that the California Public Utilities Commission imposes on the people who live in public housing, and only on them. The thicket of laws that govern the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) initially set aside $20 million to pay for broadband facilities in public housing communities, with the possibility of adding more when it runs out.

The CPUC is in the middle of rebooting the CASF program, after the California legislature added to the mess by turning the general infrastructure subsidy program – with $300 million in new money – into a piggy bank for AT&T and Frontier Communications. In the process, it’s freshening up the rules for improving broadband access in public housing.

The first draft of the new rules keeps the minimum service speed for subsidised public housing broadband facilities at 1.5 Mbps for downloads, with no requirement at all for uploads. That contrasts with the 6 Mbps down/1 Mbps minimum that the CPUC (and the legislature) thinks is good enough for everyone else. It isn’t, but that’s a separate barrel of pork.

The draft rules justify digging a deeper digital divide by declaring subsidised broadband in public housing is “not intended to replicate the robust level of connectivity of a commercial provider”. The problem with that, as pointed out in comments filed yesterday by the Central Coast Broadband Consortium, is that the language of the law – sausage though it may be – sets the same standards for everyone…

Because 1. An unserved residence is one where service at 6 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds is not available, 2. Grants for broadband infrastructure projects in Public Housing may only be made to an unserved residence, and 3. The purpose of all CASF infrastructure projects is to raise the service available to all Californians above the statutorily defined unserved threshold, we must conclude that it would be illegal to fund an infrastructure project, of any kind, that did not provide service at 6 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds or better.

The CPUC is due to vote on the changes at its 21 June 2018 meeting.

The complete set of CASF reboot documents is here.

I drafted and filed the Central Coast Broadband Consortium’s comments. I’m not trying to feign impartiality. Take it for what it’s worth.

Correction: an earlier version of this post contained a typo. The minimum speed that CASF-subsidised broadband projects in public housing communities must “provide residents with” is “1.5 mbps per unit”, not 1 Mbps per unit. The fault is mine and it’s been corrected above.

FCC caught in lies about flood of net neutrality comments

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The Federal Communications Commission lied when it claimed its online public comment system was blocked by a deliberate and malicious cyber attack, after HBO’s John Oliver issued a call to arms over plans to repeal network neutrality rules. Then it lied again to protect the first lie. That’s the conclusion of an investigation into the incident by Gizmodo.

As I blogged about at the time, the FCC’s online system came to a grinding halt, apparently after being flooded with automated comments of dubious origin that supported the repeal. In a press release, the FCC blamed it on “multiple distributed denial-of-service attacks (DDos)”. Later, according to Gizmodo, the FCC tried to back up that statement by saying a similar attack knocked out its comment system in 2014.

According to documents pieced together by Gizmodo, both claims were false…

Internal emails reviewed by Gizmodo lay bare the agency’s [2017] efforts to counter rife speculation that senior officials manufactured a cyberattack, allegedly to explain away technical problems plaguing the FCC’s comment system amid its high-profile collection of public comments on a controversial and since-passed proposal to overturn federal net neutrality rules…

David Bray, who served as the FCC’s chief information officer from 2013 until June 2017, assured reporters in a series of off-the-record exchanges that a DDoS attack had occurred three years earlier. More shocking, however, is that Bray claimed Wheeler, the former FCC chairman, had covered it up.

Bray responded in a blog post of his own, saying picky, picky, picky

Whether the correct phrase is denial of service or “bot swarm” or “something hammering the Application Programming Interface” (API) of the commenting system — the fact is something odd was happening in May 2017.

That’s kind of like calling the police and saying you can’t leave your house because you’re under siege by a North Korean special forces battalion, but when they show up, they find you drove home drunk and parked your car too close to the garage door.

Well, okay officer. But I swear, something odd was happening.

Starks to replace Clyburn on FCC

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There will be a new face on the Federal Communications Commission next month, assuming that the U.S. senate confirms the nomination of Geoffrey Starks. With the blessing of congressional democrats, president Donald Trump named Stark to replace Mignon Clyburn, who times out of her seat on the commission at the end of this month. Clyburn earlier announced she was retiring from the FCC and wouldn’t seek reappointment.

Besides being a democrat – which is required to fill Clyburn’s seat – Starks is a former federal prosecutor and is currently an assistant chief in the FCC’s enforcement bureau. According to Politico.com Starks “was first brought to the FCC from the Justice Department in 2015 to tackle one of the agency’s ‘thorniest political issues’… waste, fraud, and abuse in universal service fund programs”.

In other words, Starks is a relative newcomer to telecommunications policy. He’s worked as a lawyer and as a legislative aide, including what Politico.com describes as “staff to the Illinois state Democrats — including a then-little-known state senator by the name of Barack Obama”.

Judging by the muted reaction of his presumed new colleagues, Starks is also a relative unknown within the FCC. Jessica Rosenworcel, the other democratic commissioner, said simply “he will be a welcome addition”. Republicans were similarly polite and discreet in their comments, with Michael O’Rielly ’fessing up and saying “I haven’t had a great deal of interactions with Mr. Starks…I look forward to getting to know him”.

Starks will be joining the FCC at a critical time. The repeal of network neutrality rules takes effect on Monday, assuming courts or congress don’t intervene, and an industry wish list of additional anti-competitive regulatory weed whacking is queued up for review in the coming year. His nomination is likely to sail through confirmation – senators traditionally defer to each other when partisan nominations are involved. The FCC is structured so that it has three members from the party occupying the white house and two from the other. Starks can’t take his seat until the formal vote happens, though.

FCC allows more time to debate the death of independent ISPs

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An attempt by incumbent telephone companies to cut off competitors’ access to leased lines was slowed down a bit by the Federal Communications Commission on Friday. The deadline for reviewing a request by telco lobbyists that has the potential for killing off many, if not most, independent Internet service providers was extended by two months.

USTelecom, a lobbying front for big telcos, such as AT&T and Frontier Communications, as well as small incumbents, asked the FCC to eliminate rules that require telcos to lease copper DSL circuits and other facilities on a wholesale basis to “competitive local exchange carriers” (CLECs). The lobbyists invoked a fast track procedure – a petition for forbearance – that skates around some of the FCC’s usual due process when major decisions are made.

It would be a major decision. Without wholesale access to telco copper, most independent ISPs, which typically register as CLECs, would be left without a wireline pathway to subscribers.

The FCC is still considering a motion made by another lobbying group, Incompas, which represents a variety of content, equipment and independent telecoms companies. It asked the FCC to simply dismiss USTelecom’s petition, because it didn’t include the complete set of back up information that the fast track process requires.

The California Public Utilities Commission seconded that request, at least to the extent that “all of the data USTelecom relies on to support its petition…must be in the record”. Yesterday, Central Coast Broadband Consortium (CCBC) filed a letter with the FCC, also asking it to toss out USTelecom’s maneuver

In its petition, USTelecom proposes a radical overhaul of telephone industry regulation. Extraordinary conclusions require extraordinary evidence. USTelecom’s petition3 is a mundane recitation of self-interested opinion backed by the barest summary of cherry picked data. Full disclosure of all underlying data is essential for proper consideration of its request.

Full disclosure: I drafted and filed the CCBC’s letter.

Additional information and comments are now due on 6 August 2018, with rebuttals due a month after that.

California legislature says yes to broadband, online privacy bills

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With Friday’s deadline behind us, we know which bills are getting serious consideration in the California legislature. Any bill that didn’t make it through a full floor vote and get sent from one house to the other is now dead (with the caveat that death is never final so long as the California legislature is still in session).

Short answer: all the bills I’m still following and, for the most part, blogging about live on…

Muni broadband

Net neutrality

  • Senate bill 460 – resurrects net neutrality rules as consumer protection law; requires state and local agencies to buy Internet service from companies that follow those rules. Passed by senate, now assigned to the assembly communications and conveyance committee – which also defers to industry lobbyists – and the privacy and consumer protection committee.
  • SB 822 – a stronger net neutrality revival, it was passed by the senate and is in the hopper at the assembly. Expect it to be paired with its weaker cousin, SB 460, in the committee process.
  • Senate resolution 74 – a high sounding but completely meaningless endorsement of net neutrality principles by the California senate. Passed on a party line vote and is probably hanging on someone’s wall, somewhere.

Privacy

  • AB 1906 – aimed at the Internet of things, it requires passwords on Internet-connected devices. Passed by the assembly, sent to the senate.
  • AB 2511 – potentially the legislature’s most fraught Internet bill this session, it would require online merchants to “take reasonable steps to verify the age” of anyone who might purchase or view age restricted products or content. Also restricts commercial use of information posted by minors. Passed by the assembly, sent to the senate.
  • AB 2935 – adds privacy protections to health monitoring programs, online and otherwise. Could have implications for fitness and athletic social media, such as Strava. Passed by the assembly, sent to the senate.
  • SB 327 – another shot at requiring security features on connected devices. Passed by the senate, now with the assembly privacy and consumer protections committee.
  • SB 1001 – requires bots – computer programs that mimic people, used by companies to chat with customers – to identify themselves as such. Passed by the senate, sent to they assembly.
  • SB 1186 – requires local governments to disclose the types and uses of law enforcement surveillance technology. Passed by the senate, sent to the assembly.
  • SB 1424 – formerly a far reaching attempt to police free speech on the Internet, it was neutered by senate committees and now just calls for the California attorney general to study “the problem of the spread of false information through Internet-based social media platforms”. Passed unamimously by the senate, sent to the assembly.

Emergency preparedness

  • AB 2910 – a weak response to the fire storms that ravaged California last year, it would require the California Public Utilities Commission to file a report about restoration efforts in the black hole of Sacramento with the legislature. Passed by the assembly, sent to the senate.
  • SB 1076 – a rare attempt by the legislature to prepare for a disaster before it happens, it would require the California office of emergency services “to update the state emergency plan to include preparedness recommendations to harden the critical infrastructure of electrical utilities against an electromagnetic pulse attack, geomagnetic storm event, or other potential cause of a long-term outage”. Translation: start thinking about how to keep the lights on if a nuclear bomb explodes (possible, but not inevitable) or Earth is hit by another Carrington event (definitely inevitable). Passed by the senate, sent to the assembly.

Priority lanes the top priority for big ISPs, when net neutrality ends

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When the FCC’s repeal of network neutrality rules takes effect, as is likely, a week from tomorrow on 11 June 2018, you can expect the big Internet service providers to move slowly toward paid prioritisation. The moment they think they can get away with it, they’ll begin selling fast lanes to online content and service companies (edge providers, as they’re called) and giving their in-house content the same boost.

Paid prioritisation, throttling and blocking are three “bright line” practices that the 2015 FCC order banned, and they’re all interrelated. The technical details are different, but the result is the same: some traffic goes first, some traffic goes last.

Throttling and blocking – slowing down or completely stopping less profitable traffic – probably won’t happen. It’s unnecessary. If, say, Netflix pays AT&T to clear a path for its video traffic, then, say, YouTube ends up in the slow lane by default. Unless YouTube also writes AT&T a big, fat check. It’s a heads I win, tails you lose business proposition for big ISPs.

That’s why lobbyists speaking on behalf of AT&T, Comcast, Charter Communications and Frontier Communications are waving sacks of cash arguing so eloquently in Sacramento, hoping to stop the California legislature from banning paid prioritisation.

The winners will be the ISPs with the most market share – Comcast, Charter, AT&T and Verizon. Big, established web platforms like Netflix, Google and Facebook will also benefit. They can bear the cost of paid prioritisation. New, innovative and competitive companies will be at a distinct disadvantage. The Internet will no longer be an even playing field where small companies can successfully challenge the big ones simply by offering a superior service to consumers.

Back in the day, that’s how two small start ups – Google and Facebook – took on the market leaders – Yahoo and My Space – and won. Paid prioritisation puts market controlling power back in the hands of a relative few companies. It’ll be a return to the managed content business of the 1980s and 1990s.