AT&T rep says 5G is only for infill in rural California, and she’s probably telling the truth

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Salinas windmill cell site

AT&T doesn’t plan to deploy 5G networks in rural California. According to AT&T staff lobbyist Alice Perez, small cell sites will be used for “infill” purposes in rural communities, to supplement big macro sites.

Those infill small cells might even be limited to 4G capability, and not use 5G technology. Her comments came while she was dampening 5G expectations. Any kind of cell site can be small, and she was quite keen about 4G systems, such as AT&T’s planned public safety network – FirstNet – and “voice over LTE”, which AT&T still hopes will be a replacement for copper-based Plain Old Telephone Service in rural areas.

Perez spoke last Thursday at Valley Vision’s Capital Region Broadband Summit in Rancho Cordova. So did I, presenting an analysis of broadband infrastructure in Sacramento County.

For the record, 5G is not an “infill” technology. It certainly can be used for that purpose, like you can use a semi-truck to drive to the store to pick up a six pack. But 5G is about increasing broadband capacity many times over via densified networks and newer technology. And it’s about creating a platform that can support many different types of applications and system architectures on a single network, aka “network slicing”. Without a critical mass of 5G infrastructure, none of that is possible. All you’ll accomplish is to knock a couple of dead spots out of 4G coverage.

AT&T will deploy genuine 5G networks over time, but only in communities with a sufficient number of high potential customers. Perez underscored that reality when she listed the communities where AT&T is in the process of negotiating agreements to attach small cells, of whatever sort, to streetlight poles and other municipal property: all were comfortably within the Sacramento region’s urban/suburban core.

It should not be a surprise that AT&T has no intention of putting true 5G infrastructure in rural areas. As Perez pointed out, decisions about where to build are based on AT&T’s expected return on investment.

Concentrated 5G cellular networks, and the equally dense fiber deployments needed to support them, will only happen where customers are concentrated and the money to be had is equally dense.

Comcast and Charter fight for right to charge “exorbitant prices” for broadband connectivity

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Comcast’s and Charter Communications’ lobbying front in Sacramento – the California Cable and Telecommunications Association (CCTA) – doesn’t want the California Public Utilities Commission to require companies that receive broadband infrastructure subsidies to make any commitments about the prices consumers will be charged, or to offer an “affordable broadband plan for low income customers”.

In comments they submitted regarding the CPUC’s proposed reboot of the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) broadband infrastructure subsidy program, the cable lobbyists claimed that the requirements – some of which have been in place for many years – are illegal.

The lobbyists also told the CPUC that it can’t limit Charter’s and Comcast’s right to charge “exorbitant prices” for middle mile connectivity and, in the process, block competition by independent broadband providers.

CCTA objected to a new rule that would allow streamlined review of middle mile proposals in “a situation where a provider…only offers service at exorbitant prices”. Their claim is that “affordability” has nothing to do with the “availability” of middle mile service.

Bullshit.

Middle mile service links a local broadband provider – aka the “last mile” – to a major hub, such as a data center in Silicon Valley, where interconnections between networks are thick and the magic of the Internet happens. If an independent Internet service provider wants to build a last mile network in a poorly served community, the middle mile connectivity problem has to be solved in way that makes economic sense. When incumbents, like Charter, Comcast, AT&T or Frontier, kill an independent’s business model by jacking up middle mile prices – as they are allowed to do – they are deliberately making that service unavailable.

CCTA also continued to argue for the right to perpetually and continually challenge proposed projects. Derailing project applications with late challenges, sometimes based on false claims, is a tried and true tactic that incumbents use to protect their monopolies in communities where 1. their service is poor, and 2. so are residents.

The cable companies have never liked the CASF infrastructure subsidy program, and they have handed bags of cash offered cerebral arguments against it to California’s lawmakers in largely successful attempts to cripple it.

CCTA’s comments are worth reading as a reminder of why the CASF program was created in the first place.

Links to CASF reboot documents – decisions on other issues, drafts, comments and more – are here.

I drafted and submitted the comments filed by the Central Coast Broadband Consortium. I am not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.

Telcos, cable companies should face consequences for filing false California broadband data

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

AT&T, Frontier Communications, Charter Communications and Comcast have to file reports with the Federal Communications Commission detailing where they offer broadband service, how fast it is and what technology they use. The California Public Utilities Commission uses that information, along with other sources of data, to determine if particular areas or communities are eligible for broadband infrastructure subsidies, via the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) program.

The CPUC is rewriting the rules for those subsidies, as a result of the generosity of California lawmakers who rigged CASF so that big, monopoly model telecoms companies get a shot at hogging all the cash.

The availability data that those incumbents provide is of dubious quality. It’s largely based on marketing claims, and not on actual speed tests or subscriber information. The CPUC’s proposed new rules highlight comments that I drafted and filed in May on behalf of the Central Coast Broadband Consortium in which we called out, as an example, obviously false data that AT&T submitted about fiber to the home service.

The CPUC draft diplomatically attributes AT&T’s false reports to “miscoding”. We filed comments last week suggesting that this isn’t the time to be speculating on AT&T’s motives or possible excuses for giving the CPUC and the FCC bad information…

We did not attribute this false data to miscoding. AT&T has established “AT&T Fiber” as an “umbrella brand” which includes technology such as “the former AT&T GigaPower network” which does not, in all regards, meet the Form 477 definition of “fiber to the home or business end user”. It is reasonable to posit a connection between AT&T’s brand positioning and its Form 477 submissions.

In its comments, Race Communications, which has received several CASF grants to build FTTH systems in rural communities, urged the CPUC to hold companies accountable for their data…

The [proposed decision] properly notes that these errors have major consequences for the CASF program, because corrections are time-consuming for the Communications Division Staff, and errors cause confusion and frustration for communities and CASF applicants who must rely on the maps for eligibility decisions. Race contends that the Commission should take a more aggressive enforcement stance if data is consistently provided to the Commission that is erroneous and/or overstated by a particular existing provider. Providing erroneous data on coverage is a [CPUC rule] violation and should be treated as such.

The rule in question says that AT&T – and everyone else who does business with the CPUC – must agree “never to mislead the Commission or its staff by an artifice or false statement of fact or law”.

Just so.

Links to CASF reboot documents – decisions on other issues, drafts, comments and more – are here.

AT&T, Frontier tell CPUC to loosen broadband subsidy rules for them, but make it harder for everyone else

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

The arm wrestling over how California should manage its primary broadband infrastructure subsidy program – the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) – is nearly complete. Ten organisations filed comments on a draft of new rules offered by commissioner Martha Guzman Aceves last month. The rewrite is necessary because the California legislature changed the way CASF is structured, giving incumbent telcos – particularly AT&T and Frontier Communications – privileged access to the money and another layer of protection from independent providers that propose to offer modern levels of broadband service to rural communities. Not surprisingly, AT&T and Frontier want the CPUC to make it easier for them to scoop up taxpayer money and harder for everyone else.

AT&T urges the commission to loosen the draft rules so it can get 100% subsidies for infrastructure wherever it wants – the CPUC’s draft would target low income communities and areas with nothing but dial-up service for full funding. The company also claims that it’s illegal for the commission to consider whether there are any existing subscribers in an area before deciding that it’s eligible for subsidies. A provider’s claim that it offers broadband service at particular speeds should be enough, AT&T argues.

Frontier added an amen to those prayers, saying in its comments that it “opposes setting specific criteria linked to funding levels” and that the commission should take its word for what service it offers.

Both companies also object to a requirement that they update the CPUC on the progress they’re making on federally subsidised broadband upgrades. The state law that they paid key lawmakers big bucks for convinced public-spirited legislators to pass gives them an exclusive right to Californian subsidies in those areas for a couple of years, if they actually do the promised work. How dare the CPUC ask them if they’re meeting those obligations?

A coalition of rural telephone companies – small, often locally owned incumbent providers that serve remote communities – echoed some of those comments. They, too, object to the use of actual subscriber data to validate marketing claims and to the requirement for a reduced cost plan for low income households.

The lobbying front organisation that pushes Comcast’s and Charter Communications’ agenda at the CPUC as well as at the state capitol also filed comments – I’ll have more to say about that on Monday.

There’s one more round of reply comments due next week, then commissioners will vote on the final draft. That could happen in a couple of weeks, at their next meeting on 13 December 2018.

Central Coast Broadband Consortium
CPUC Public Advocates Office (formerly known as the office of ratepayer advocates)
TURN and Greenlining Institute joint comments
AT&T
California Cable and Telecommunications Association (lobbyists for Comcast, Charter and other cable companies)
California Emerging Technology Fund
Frontier Communications
Geolinks
Race Telecommunications
Small Local Exchange Carriers (small, rural telcos)

Links to other documents – decisions on other issues, drafts, comments and more – are here.

I drafted and submitted the comments filed by the Central Coast Broadband Consortium. I am not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.

Cities ask to move appeals of FCC muni property preemption to San Francisco court

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

The cities, counties and related associations that are challenging the Federal Communications Commission’s decision to preempt local ownership of streetlight poles and similar municipal property in the public right of way are asking to move the case from Denver to San Francisco. A motion to that effect was filed yesterday in the Denver-based tenth circuit court of appeals by the City of San Jose and the other west coast agencies that appealed the FCC decision in the last week of October.

Mobile carriers also challenged the ruling, because they didn’t get everything they wanted. And – likely – because they didn’t want the case heard in San Francisco’s ninth circuit court of appeals, which is not their home turf, to say the least. Under court rules, when multiple appeals of a federal agency’s action are filed in different appellate districts within 10 days of its publication, a lottery is held to determine where they will be consolidated. Denver won the draw.

But San Jose and its cohorts found a wrinkle in the law. They argue that the 10 day clock starts running when the first appeal in a given agency proceeding is filed. The City of Portland appealed an earlier FCC wireline ruling two weeks before the local agencies and mobile carriers went to court to challenge the wireless ruling. The wireline and wireless rulings were part of the same proceeding: as case law cited by San Jose puts it, both “are associated with the same dockets, arise out of the same administrative proceeding, and govern aspects of a single agency undertaking to implement…provisions in the Telecommunications Act of 1996”.

All the cities and counties involved are in the ninth circuit’s vast western territory. In the past, the San Francisco court has interpreted federal telecoms law more narrowly, and more in line with municipal interests, than the Denver appeals court. It makes sense for them to try to get the case moved.

The mobile carriers and the FCC will have a chance to argue against the transfer, and it’s a fair bet they will. A decision on San Jose’s motion will likely come quickly from the Denver court – there’s not a lot of time left before the FCC’s wireless preemption ruling takes effect on 14 January 2019 and, whether it’s in Denver or San Francisco, there’s a lot of legal work to be done.

City of San Jose, et al, motion to transfer cases to ninth circuit, 29 November 2018.
City of Portland’s petition for review of FCC wireline order, 2 October 2018.
FCC report and order and declaratory ruling, In the Matter of Accelerating Wireline Broadband Deployment by Removing Barriers to Infrastructure Investment and Accelerating Wireless Broadband Deployment by Removing Barriers to Infrastructure Investment, 2 August 2018.

Links to petitions, court documents and background material are here.

Partisan shift in Congress could influence anti-trust reviews of T-Mobile’s takeover of Sprint

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

The flip from a republican majority to a democratic one in the federal house of representatives has opened a window of opportunity for, among others, those opposed to T-Mobile’s planned takeover of Sprint. A coalition of fourteen labor organisations and a wide range of advocacy are urging the presumed incoming chairmen of the house judiciary, and energy and commerce committees to investigate the “likely effects” of the deal.

In a letter sent yesterday (h/t to a story by Harper Neidig in the Hill for the pointer), the groups reminded representatives Jerry Nadler (D – New York) and Frank Pallone (D – New Jersey) that they spoke out against the merger when democrats were the minority party, that they should follow through now that they’re in the majority…

Representative Pallone, on April 30th you and Representative Doyle wrote to Chairman Walden and Chairman Blackburn requesting a hearing on the proposed Sprint/T-Mobile merger. You correctly pointed out that due to its “primary jurisdiction over the wireless industry, [the Energy and Commerce Committee has] a responsibility to understand the potential effect of this merger on consumers, workers, and the communications market.” You added that “the merger would create a new wireless behemoth by shrinking the number of nationwide wireless providers from four to three.” You went on to say that the Committee should explore the merged entity’s foreign ownership; whether 5G deployment is helped by the proposed merger, despite the fact that both T-Mobile and Sprint have invested in 5G already; and the state of wireless competition.

We agree. We hope you will now announce your intent to schedule exactly this kind of hearing.

The groups include the Greenlining Institute and the Communications Workers of America, which are also opposing the merger at the California Public Utilities Commission.

Congress has no direct role when it comes to reviewing mergers. At the federal level, that job falls to the justice department and the Federal Communications Commission. But they do have to answer to congress, at one level or another.

Booming prime time video peaks will slam broadband networks over the next five years

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Three-quarters of all Internet traffic is video and that share will grow to 82% over the next five years, according to the latest update to Cisco’s Visual Networking Index, which is an ongoing broadband tracking study published by the company. Cisco also projects that global Internet traffic will more than triple over that time.

In other words, video is why there’s rapidly rising demand for faster broadband service speeds, and greater capacity. Not just because there’s more of it, but also because people don’t watch it consistently over the course of the day: the ballooning volume of video traffic is crammed into prime viewing hours. Cisco also predicts that the busiest hour of any given Internet service provider’s day will get even busier, with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 37%, versus a 24-hour average CAGR of 30%…

Video is the underlying reason for accelerated busy hour traffic growth. Unlike other forms of traffic, which are spread evenly throughout the day (such as web browsing and file sharing), video tends to have a “prime time.” Because of video consumption patterns, the Internet now has a much busier busy hour. Because video has a higher peak-to-average ratio than data or file sharing, and because video is gaining traffic share, peak Internet traffic will grow faster than average traffic. The growing gap between peak and average traffic is amplified further by the changing composition of Internet video. Real-time video such as live video, ambient video, and video calling has a peak-to-average ratio that is higher than on-demand video.

To keep pace, broadband providers will have to offer faster speeds to meet the heavier bandwidth requirements of live video and higher definition formats such as 4k television, and increase network capacity to maintain those speeds during the nightly viewing spikes.

Fiber-to-the-premise networks can scale like that. Some copper systems can probably keep pace too, if ISPs spend enough on upgrades. Those are investments that can pay off in the high potential areas monopoly-model telecoms companies, such as AT&T and Comcast, focus on. But fixed wireless systems, particularly of the sort that AT&T and Frontier plan to deploy in rural areas using federal subsidies, cannot.

Investor-owned electric utilities won’t be California’s competitive broadband hope

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

The door has officially closed on expansions of Pacific Gas and Electric’s and Southern California Edison’s telecommunications businesses. It’s a small issue compared to the wildfire disasters that both companies are grappling with, but it could have a significant and ongoing effect on California’s uncompetitive broadband services market.

At its last meeting, the California Public Utilities Commission voted to allow PG&E to withdraw its application to become a certified telecommunications company. It applied last year, hoping to make better use of the 2,600 miles of fiber optic routes it owns in northern California. It ran into the same knee-jerk reaction from so called consumer advocates, who don’t seem to realise that electric customers and broadband subscribers are the same people, as SCE did when it unsuccessfully asked for permission to streamline telecoms business requirements placed on it by the CPUC.

The CPUC’s decision rewards the efforts of the consumer groups and industry lobbyists who intervened in its review of PG&E request. The decision specifically allows them to apply for “intervenor compensation”, which has to be paid by PG&E, even though no decision was reached on the merits of the case. The decision calls their efforts a “substantial contribution” that expanded “the scope of this proceeding from the usual scope of applications for [telecom company certification]”.

They certainly did that. By making a grab for any likely profits PG&E (and SCE) might make from putting valuable dark fiber on the market and from offering other telecoms services that would offer competition to monopoly model telephone and cable companies, the intervenors and the commissioners who accepted their arguments killed the business case. It’s a victory for the lawyers and lobbyists who can now send their bills to PG&E, and for companies like AT&T, Comcast, Charter and Frontier, who would prefer to keep California’s telecoms market under their control.

It’s a defeat for everyone else.

FCC embraces 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up standard for faster rural broadband

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

The biggest, by far, broadband service and infrastructure program in the U.S. is the Federal Communications Commission’s Connect America Fund, which is handing out $3 billion$590 million in California – over the next decade. It’s been paying that money to Internet service providers – mostly incumbent telephone companies – who promise to provide a minimum service level of 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds.

That standard is about to be raised to 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds for some telephone companies because, an FCC draft decision says, “we recognise that access to 25/3 Mbps broadband service is not a luxury for urban areas, but a necessity for all”.

Just so.

It’s good news, and the republican majority on the FCC deserves credit for putting it on next month’s meeting agenda: approval is a virtual certainty. It’s a big step in the right direction, but it’s not mission accomplished yet.

In its draft, released just ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday, the FCC proposes to offer additional money to telephone companies that fall under the “rate of return” rules, if they upgrade their broadband infrastructure to support the 25/3 standard. There are different scenarios for how they might qualify for the extra money, and doing so is largely optional – the FCC would still subsidise 10/1 service.

“Rate of return” telcos are those that are still regulated based on costs and a particular return on their investment. The two biggest telcos in California – AT&T and Frontier Communications – do not fall into that category. They operate under the newer and inappropriately named “price cap” rules that let them charge as much as they want for broadband service (there are limits on telephone service charges, but not so strict that it makes a significant difference). A third, mid-sized telco in the Sacramento area, Consolidated Communications, is similarly unregulated, as is CenturyLink, which serves a few dozen homes along the Oregon border in Modoc County.

Small, rural telephone companies are regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission under the “rate of return” rules, though, and the new FCC incentives would apply to them.

The FCC said its decision to begin raising the standard was “informed by our recent auction to award universal service support in eligible areas”. In that auction, ISPs submitted bids to provide a particular level of service in return for a particular subsidy, with higher speeds and better quality getting preferential treatment. According to the FCC, 99.7% of the homes and businesses getting subsidised service as a result will be able to get 25/3 speeds or better.

The FCC’s move matches an earlier decision by the federal agriculture department to raise the minimum standard for its rural broadband subsidy programs to 25/3.

We are not so lucky in California, though. AT&T, Frontier, Comcast, Charter Communications and other big telecom companies paid key lawmakers tens of thousands of dollars each, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in aggregate, this past legislative session. In return, lawmakers approved a $300 million broadband subsidy program, courtesy of Californian taxpayers, that lowered California’s minimum acceptable broadband speed to 6 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up.

FCC’s broadband market share data shows urban/rural technology divide and decline of DSL

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

There’s a lot to chew over in the Federal Communications Commission’s latest report on broadband subscribers in the U.S. Just one of the many charts (pictured above) tells an interesting story about how people in the U.S. get fixed broadband service in their homes. Two conclusions jump out immediately: cable companies are winning the fight for broadband market share, but the availability of cable modem, fiber to the premise or other wireline service depends population density.

In other words, high density urban areas, and medium to high density suburbs are likelier to have high speed service via direct fiber or coaxial cable service, while people in rural areas are likelier to have to depend on fixed wireless or satellite providers.

DSL service, of whatever generation of technology, is fading into irrelevance. It is significantly less popular than cable modem service. Nationally, 62% of all fixed residential broadband service (defined as better than 200 Kbps in at least one direction) is delivered via cable modem, while telco style DSL accounts for 24%, and FTTP for 12%. But when usable service levels are examined, telco DSL craters, accounting for 13% of connections at 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds or better, and only 4% at speeds of at least 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up. The former is the FCC’s minimum for its $3 billion broadband subsidy program – the Connect America Fund – while the latter is the FCC’s and federal agriculture department’s minimum benchmark for what they call “advanced services” and what everyone else considers to be run of the mill Internet use in 2018.

The overall trend in California is the same, according to the study, which is based on reports filed by service providers as of 30 June 2017. It doesn’t break out residential and business connections, but market share figures for total connections tell a similar story: cable accounts for 64% of all broadband connections, telco DSL is at 28%, FTTP is at 8% and fixed wireless has about 1%.