FCC’s broadband deployment report is good news, but not as good as it says it is

by Steve Blum • , , ,

“Advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed on a reasonable and timely basis” in the U.S., according to the Federal Communications Commission. In a self congratulatory report, the FCC issued what has become its annual declaration of victory in its congressionally mandated battle to encourage “the deployment on a reasonable and timely basis of advanced telecommunications capability to all Americans”.

The report concludes that “the number of Americans lacking a connection of at least 25 Mbps/3 Mbps (the Commission’s current benchmark) has dropped from 26.1 million Americans at the end of 2016 to 21.3 million Americans at the end of 2017, a decrease of more than 18%”.

Those numbers shouldn’t be taken literally. The FCC accepts the availability reports filed by Internet service providers on face value, and makes the false assumption that if a given level of service is available to one customer in a census block – which is how ISPs are told to report their coverage – then everyone in that census block can get it. The FCC admits in a buried footnote that the report “likely overstates the coverage experienced by some consumers, especially in large or irregularly shaped census blocks”, but that, ironically, is an understatement at best.

Even so, the general conclusion that more people in U.S. have access to service at 25Mbps down/3 Mbps up now than they did last year is correct. The data I’ve seen – and scrubbed – supports the same trend, if not the same glorious triumphalism.

The FCC’s definition of “advanced telecommunications capability” remains at 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds for fixed – wireline and wireless – broadband service. Other research, particularly that conducted by the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership and the Central Coast Broadband Consortium last year, shows that the market has moved on and 100 Mbps down/20 Mbps up is the working minimum for today’s online needs. The FCC pushed back on advice to raise its minimum, citing, in part, lobbying on behalf of wireless Internet service providers who often can’t even come close to the 25/3 standard. To its credit, though, the FCC published a bit of data about broadband availability at higher speeds, albeit on the national or state level, and not with the more granular county-level analysis it applied to the slower 25/3 benchmark.

The report also affirms last year’s conclusion that mobile broadband is not a substitute for fixed service, although it edges a bit closer in that direction with the qualification that they are not “full substitutes in all cases”.

I was a member of the team that produced the MBEP/CCBC study and its conclusions. Take it for what it’s worth.

VoIP regulation, or something, passes California assembly

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

A bill that establishes consumer protections – of a sort – for people whose phone service is delivered via voice over Internet protocol technology, but otherwise leaves Internet-delivered services unregulated, was approved by the California assembly yesterday. Assembly bill 1366 passed with a lopsided, bipartisan majority: 64 votes in favor, versus six noes and ten abstentions, which have the same effect as a no vote. All the noes and all but one abstention came from democrats.

It’s still not clear exactly how AB 1366 would regulate VoIP service. Originally, the bill simply extended a ban on regulation of any kind, by local governments or state agencies, including the California Public Utilities Commission, of “Internet protocol enabled” services. That ban is due to expire at the end of the year, which worries the likes of AT&T, Comcast, Charter Communications and Cox Communications. But there are two sides to every story and in this case opposition from the primary union representing AT&T’s workforce forced inspired the author, Lorena Gonzalez (D – San Diego), to add skeletal VoIP service quality and customer service standards to the bill.

What’s still not clear is who would figure out what the bill’s vague, high level standards mean in detailed, real world terms, or how they would be enforced. No cop on the beat is identified, which means it’ll be up to the courts to ultimately figure it out, a job which is likely to require years of litigation.

AB 1366 doesn’t deal with actual broadband service, it just addresses services like VoIP or email or social media that ride on top of it.

The bill now moves to the senate side of the California capitol, where its first stop is likely to be the energy, utilities and communications committee. That’ll be the next opportunity for Gonzalez to add some clarity to it. Stay tuned.

Wireline broadband service “is essential”, CPUC told. Again

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Cpuc enbanc 20may2019

The question of whether mobile broadband will replace wireline service reared its ignorant head again at a California Public Utilities Commission broadband discussion in Sacramento last week. Citing his wife’s preference for a mobile phone, CPUC president Michael Picker questioned the idea that “broadband to the home” is a good way of getting service to under and unserved communities, via the state’s primary broadband infrastructure subsidy program, the California Advanced Services Fund.

The panel’s best response came from Ana Maria Johnson, a program manager with the CPUC’s public advocates office. Echoing findings already made by the CPUC as well as the Federal Communications Commission, she said you need both…

A wireline broadband connection is essential. It’s not a substitute for your mobile broadband. When you have a wireline connection coming to your home you set up a wireless router where you can use your different devices – your laptop, you have your your desktop, you connect all the devices that you need. Students, in doing homework, need that wireline connection. They’re using a Chromebook, or they’re using a tablet, but they’re connecting through their wireless router on the wireline connection, because of the speed and capacity that they need to be able to do that work. Your mobile phone is essential as well, but it’s a complement to your wireline connection. So I don’t think it’s one or the other, but we know that the wireline connection is critical.

The idea that wireless networks can, via the magic of 5G and elsewise, provide all the capacity residential users need is a favorite talking point of mobile carriers, and particularly AT&T, which wants to rip out its rural copper networks. Depending on which stats you look at, in-home wireline data use is one or two orders of magnitude greater than mobile data consumption, and both continue to grow. Mobile carriers are pushing, and investing, as fast as they can just to keep pace with the demands of smartphones and other devices that can’t be reached any other way.

You need both.

California lawmakers bury bills to bury electric lines

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

In the wake of last year’s deadly wildfires, California lawmakers proposed legislation to reduce future risk by reducing electric line exposure. Those ambitions didn’t amount to much, though. Two bills to encourage utilities to move lines off of poles and place them underground, particularly in high fire risk areas were scrapped. A third one was neutered, but is still moving forward.

Senate bill 70 was passed unanimously by the senate and is awaiting its fate in the assembly. Authored by Jim Nielsen (R – Tehama), it’s less ambitious than first drafted. It establishes a “working group” to “promote the undergrounding of electrical infrastructure and the implementation of a statewide joint trenching policy”. Any money to pay for it, though, would have be found later. Originally, it included stronger language that would have required utilities to put lines underground when rebuilding or cleaning up after a wildfire.

That said, it could be useful. Anything that encourages cooperation between electric and telecoms companies, and local and state agencies, when trenching projects are planned, is a good thing.

SB 584, authored by John Moorlach (R – Orange) was killed behind closed doors by the senate appropriations committee. It began the most ambitious undergrounding bill, earmarking $400 million a year to pay for utility line relocation. It was subsequently watered down to “an unspecified amount”, and finally left behind when legislative leaders cleared the appropriation committee’s suspense file.

Assembly bill 281, by Jim Frazier (D – Contra Costa) didn’t go anywhere either. It died without a hearing in the assembly utilities and energy committee. New rules this year allow committee chairs to simply ignore legislation they, or the lobbyists that stuff cash in their pockets provide them with sage advice, don’t like. In its various forms it would have loosened environmental reviews of undergrounding projects and/or given the California Public Utilities Commission the job of requiring utilities to move lines underground in high fire risk areas.

Strip mall or industrial park, broadband drives commercial property values

by Steve Blum • , ,

Even the smallest businesses want fast, reliable and competitively priced broadband now. My barber has 100 Mbps service in his one-man shop so he can run an online business on the side. Dollar stores couldn’t exist without access to a global market for surplus merchandise. Those are just two neighborhood strip mall examples. Every sector of the economy depends on broadband to maintain fast, real time connections to customers, suppliers, partners and data centers.

Broadband access distinguishes one commercial or industrial area from another. The businesses that you’ll find in any particular industrial park, for example, are mostly businesses that have learned to live within the limits of the available bandwidth. The ones that out grew those limits have, for the most part, moved out. Some are surviving by paying for expensive, custom-built connections from major carriers or by kludging together wireless links, but most don’t have the money, time or knowledge to do that.

Clusters of smaller startups and talented freelancers develop where Internet service is cheap and cheerful. And fast. A good example is downtown Santa Cruz. Eleven years ago, it was a ghost town. Then NextSpace opened the first modern co-working facility and Cruzio started pumping bandwidth anywhere that anyone wanted it. Freelancers and shoe string entrepreneurs showed up, then remote offices for Silicon Valley workers followed. Now you have big high tech companies and venture capital-backed startups crowding in. And rents and congestion are going up. So the next stop, 20 miles south, is Watsonville, where enquiries for high speed, industrial grade broadband facilities – again, dark fiber with redundant paths to Tier 1 exchanges – are at an all time high and growing (and being met, in some cases, by the City of Watsonville’s municipal dark fiber network).

Broadband is the primary limiting factor for economic development in California. It used to be that industrial plants located where power was abundant and inexpensive, and railroad connections were close by. Now, it’s all about broadband.

Cutting off Huawei could kill it, or kill tech monopolies

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Huawei press conference ces 6jan2014

Conventional wisdom is that Huawei can’t survive without access to U.S. technology. It was cut off from access to U.S. customers and vendors last week, although the toughest sanctions were delayed for three months earlier this week. If and when those sanctions take full effect, two companies – ARM and Google – say they’ll stop selling Huawei licenses to use two essential building blocks of the mobile industry – ARM’s chip designs and Google’s Android ecosystem. Huawei could be cutoff from similarly essential technology in other industry segments, for example the Windows operating system.

It’s dangerous to assume, however, that any company, let alone one as big and ambitious and well supported as Huawei will just roll over die. The company has said it’s kept a Plan B on the back burner for several years, which require it to launch its own operating system, to replace Android and Windows, and develop advanced chip technology in house.

There’s a lot of skepticism about a Huawei OS. The assumption is that it would be based on the open source bits of Android, but wouldn’t be able to gain any more uptake than past alternate mobile OS attempts, such as Tizen, Firefox or Sailfish. The counter argument is that the Chinese market is already semi-isolated from the global app and service ecosystem. If Huawei gets developer support and user adoption on its home turf – not a far out possibility – it could become the mythical third mobile OS that so many competitors – Microsoft, Nokia, Samsung, Canonical, Mozilla, [Blackberry] –(https://www.tellusventure.com/blog/blackberry-shares-the-big-one-with-the-cops/) have failed to capture.

Chipsets are a tougher problem, but there could be hardware workarounds, according to a TechRepublic article by James Sanders

In terms of hardware, Huawei is far from self-sufficient. Their HiSilicon division licenses the Arm ISA for use in Kirin smartphone SoCs and Kunpeng server CPUs. HiSilicon already possesses the requisite information to manufacture chips based on the technology, and they can continue to design ARMv8-powered chips without the involvement of Arm Holdings, which has cut ties with Huawei. The actual production of these is handled by TSMC, which is one of the few organizations continuing work with Huawei…

There are still options for Huawei…Samsung, LG, and BOE are potential vendors for displays, and Sony and Leica can provide lenses and sensors for cameras. Flash storage and RAM may be an issue, as Toshiba and Micron are used, though SK Hynix provides RAM on some devices, and Samsung can likewise supply both.

It’s too soon to know with any degree of certainty how this battle in the U.S.-China trade war will play out. It could just be another round of brinkmanship, and president Donald Trump has all but admitted that’s what this is all about. But if it isn’t, the result could be a global scale competitor to some cherished de facto technology monopolies, which are either based in the U.S. or dependent on intellectual property that’s rooted here. That would be good for the market, but it’s not exactly what the Trump administration has in mind.

Federal anti-trust staff want to block T-Mobile-Sprint merger, report says

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Despite Monday’s raucous cheerleading from republican members of the Federal Communications Commission, the federal justice department is moving toward blocking T-Mobile’s proposed takeover of Sprint. According to a Reuters report, a staff review has concluded that allowing the two companies to combine, thereby reducing the competitive landscape from four nationwide mobile carriers to three, would do too much damage to the telecoms marketplace…

The U.S. Justice Department’s antitrust division staff has recommended the agency block T-Mobile US Inc’s $26 billion acquisition of smaller rival Sprint Corp, according to two sources familiar with the matter…

The final decision on whether to allow two of the four nationwide wireless carriers to merge now lies with political appointees at the department, headed by antitrust division chief Makan Delrahim…

One critic of the deal, Gene Kimmelman, president of Public Knowledge, the nonprofit public interest group, said top brass in the Justice Department’s antitrust division do not generally overrule the staff but they occasionally do.

“I’d be extremely surprised if the front office overruled this,” added Kimmelman, a veteran of the Obama Justice Department.

The federal justice department’s opinion will matter in California, too. The substantive objection to the deal made during the ongoing California Public Utilities Commission review is, likewise, that it’s anti-competitive. The economic analysis done by the CPUC’s public advocates office reaches that conclusion using the DOJ’s methodology. T-Mobile’s rebuttal relies on novel techniques developed by the “world renowned” economists it hired to make its case. Assuming the Reuters report is correct, they did not impress federal anti-trust enforcers.

A final decision by the DOJ is expected to come within a month or so. The CPUC’s review will probably run longer, for a lot of reasons, including that it might not be a bad idea to wait until a decision is made at the federal level. That could mean a CPUC vote won’t come until August, at the earliest.

Consumer rules for Californian VoIP providers, but no particular cop proposed by new draft bill

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Twin peaks donuts

AT&T’s attempt to dodge regulation of voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) service took a turn down an unmarked legal road on Monday. Assembly bill 1366 is championed by assembly member Lorena Gonzalez (D – San Diego). As now reads, it would add rules about repair windows and bill credits for VoIP service outages to California’s business and professions code, but doesn’t specify any particular agency or method to police those requirements.

Generally, consumer laws are enforced by the consumer affairs department, or the California attorney general, or local district attorneys, or private lawsuits. I expect the enforcement mechanism will be made clearer as the bill moves toward an assembly floor vote. The one thing that seems certain – with due regard for my lack of legal credentials – is that the California Public Utilities Commission won’t be the cop on the beat.

As currently written, the bill gives the CPUC a limited role in collecting information about VoIP outages and complaints, but that appears to be mainly for statistical purposes, with the data forwarded to the attorney general and the legislature annually.

The version Gonzalez originally introduced would have extended a moratorium on state level regulation of VoIP or other “Internet protocol-enabled services”, but it ran into a human wall of labor opposition during a committee hearing last month. That union presence overpowered endorsements from a long line of representatives from vaguely connected non-profit organisations and lobbyists from AT&T, Comcast, Charter and other big telecoms companies that 1. don’t want VoIP regulated and 2. often make less-than-charitable payments to such organisations. Gonzalez promised to amend the bill, and make it more to the liking of the Communications Workers of America (CWA), the primary union representing AT&T field employees.

Theoretically, those amendments were made last week, when AB 1366 slid out of the assembly appropriations committee, which Gonzalez chairs. In reality, the changes were posted on Monday. Whether CWA or AT&T will be happy with the new version remains to be seen. The assembly has until the end of next week to act on it.

Pai jumps in on T-Mobile’s side, CPUC and federal justice department not cheering Sprint deal yet

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Tmobile san francisco 18may2019

T-Mobile threw a hail mary pass to Federal Communications Commission chair Ajit Pai yesterday, hoping to move its proposed merger with Sprint over the regulatory approval line. Pai caught it and started running, but could be tackled short of the end zone by the justice department. And the California Public Utilities Commission’s review is still a whole ’nother ball game.

Yesterday morning began with Pai announcing that new promises from T-Mobile about divesting a down market subsidiary – Boost Mobile – and expanding rural wireless coverage led him to “believe that this transaction is in the public interest and intend to recommend to my colleagues that the FCC approve it”. One colleague, commissioner Brendan Carr, who sometimes seems to thinks he’s still a private attorney representing mobile companies, joined in, saying the deal will let the U.S. “notch another win in the global race to 5G”.

Awesome stuff.

Unfortunately for T-Mobile and its republican-appointed cheering section at the FCC, not everyone agrees. Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a democrat appointee, tweeted her skepticism: “we’ve seen this kind of consolidation in airlines and with drug companies. It hasn’t worked out well for consumers…I have serious doubts”.

So does the federal justice department, at least according to a story by David McLaughlin in Bloomberg

The Justice Department is leaning against approving T-Mobile US Inc.’s proposed takeover of Sprint Corp., according to a person familiar with the review, even after the companies won the backing of the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.

The remedies proposed by the wireless carriers earlier Monday don’t go far enough to resolve the department’s concerns that the deal risks harming competition, said the person, who asked not to be named because the investigation is confidential.

The California Public Utilities Commission is also reviewing the merger. T-Mobile wasted no time yesterday telling the administrative law judge (ALJ) managing the case about the FCC’s epiphany. The immediate effect is to add another layer of complexity and, perhaps, more time to an already complicated and lengthy case. Californian opponents of the merger get time to make an argument against accepting the FCC’s T-Mobile’s manifesto or to ask for a procedural detour to delve into it. Enough time to all but guarantee that a draft decision won’t be published in time to make it onto the agenda for commission’s last meeting in June.

Collected documents from the CPUC’s review of the proposed merger of Sprint and T-Mobile are here.

Californiia bill that might or might not regulate VoIP moves forward in secret

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

An extended ban on regulation of Internet protocol-enabled services escaped legislative limbo last week, and is moving towards a vote by the California assembly. The big question now is: what does it say? Another major broadband bill, which would have funded after school broadband access for kids who lack it, died behind closed doors in Sacramento.

Assembly bill 1366 was originally written to extend a moratorium on any attempt by the California Public Utilities Commission to regulate voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) or any other service that rides on top of a broadband connection. It’s dearly loved by lobbyists for big telcos and cable companies.

In its first hearing, in the usually AT&T-friendly assembly communications and conveyances committee, a solid wall of red t-shirt communications union members stood up to oppose AB 1366, and the bill’s author, Lorena Gonzalez (D – San Diego), and the committee chair, Miguel Santiago (D – Los Angeles), backed down immediately.

Gonzalez promised to amend the bill so that VoIP service would be regulated somehow, but not by the CPUC. So AB 1366 was sent to the powerful assembly appropriations committee, which she chairs.

On Thursday, legislative leaders met privately to decide which bills, of the hundreds that were awaiting judgement in the appropriations committees (assembly and senate), would move forward and which would be killed out of sight of the public. Not surprisingly, Gonzalez’s bill got a green light, with the terse note that it was passed “as amended”.

Those amendments were not made public before the appropriations committee vote, nor have the changes been posted to the legislature’s website since. That’s not unusual. California legislators are not subject to the same public disclosure requirements that they impose on local governments, and they take full advantage of that privilege. So we’ll have to wait until Gonzalez is ready to show her hand. That should happen in the next week or two – the assembly has an end of the month deadline to vote on AB 1366.

AB 1409 wasn’t so lucky. The appropriations committee’s verdict on it was “hold in committee”, which translate as dead on arrival. Authored by Ed Chau (D – Los Angeles), AB 1409 would have created a subsidy program to provide kids access to broadband after school, via “Wi-Fi enabled school buses or school or library Wi-Fi hot spot lending” or similar. Such “homework gap projects” would have been paid for out of rent money collected from wireless companies that lease state property and fines imposed on cable operators.