Tag Archives: att

Internet magic means phone calls aren’t phone calls, AT&T tells CPUC

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Alice tall 625

We’re all mad here.

On Thursday in San Francisco, AT&T defended itself against charges that it’s in contempt of California Public Utilities Commission orders and that it broke CPUC rules and state law. AT&T is admitting that California law no longer bars the CPUC from regulating Internet protocol enabled service such as voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), but doesn’t appear to be giving up the fight. Instead, it’s falling back to a second line of defence that was thoughtfully provided by the Federal Communications Commission.

The dispute centers on next generation 911 service, but it’s also the first test of the CPUC’s ability to regulate services that ride on Internet technology since the expiration of a state law that previously blocked such regulation. I sat in on the AT&T contempt hearing for a few minutes – would’ve spent more time, but that wasn’t the way my day went. It was just a brief taste, but the flavor was consistent with AT&T’s written response. Which was mostly dry arguments about who provides each piece of the increasingly complex communications path between the public and 911 answering centers, and how that maps to the equally complex web of California’s regulatory obligations and AT&T’s deliberately byzantine corporate structure. Links to AT&T’s filing and the hundreds of pages of exhibits are below.

Previously, AT&T’s defence rested, in large part, on the California legislature’s 2012 decision to bar the CPUC from regulating VoIP and similar, Internet-delivered services. No longer. Its latest response mentions that now-expired law only in passing, and in the past tense.

But AT&T prepared a fallback position. In an attachment, AT&T tries to define next generation 911 service as an “information service”, as opposed to 911 service based on legacy technology , which it admits is a “telecommunications service”. This nonsense is the result of the Federal Communications Commission’s 2017 decision to repeal network neutrality rules and declare, in Alice in Wonderland fashion, that transporting data from point A to point B via the Internet isn’t telecommunications.

AT&T jumped down that same rabbit hole by claiming, in effect, that phone calls that ride on that one, particular kind of digital transportation aren’t phone calls. Unfortunately, AT&T isn’t trying to make its case to the Queen of Hearts.

Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.

AT&T’s Response to Administrative Law Judge’s Ruling Regarding Order to Show Cause, 6 January 2020
Exhibit 1
Exhibits 2 through 8
Exhibits 9 through 15
Exhibit 16

Keep broadband slow so we can ditch copper, AT&T, Frontier tell FCC

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

The Federal Communications Commission heading toward a vote later this month on the structure of the new Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), which is the reboot of the Connect America Fund (CAF) broadband subsidy program designed for rural communities (although urban and suburban areas sometimes qualify, too). In their eternal quest for more public money and less public service, AT&T and Frontier Communications, among others, are urging the FCC to lower speed standards for subsidised broadband, so they can rip out ageing copper lines and replace them with limited capacity wireless systems.

The good news is that there doesn’t seem to be much push back on the FCC’s plan to raise the broadband service floor to 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds, from the CAF program’s slow 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up level. What has Frontier, AT&T and their Washington, D.C. lobbying front in an uproar is the preference the FCC proposes to give to higher levels of service. As with their successful legislative pocket stuffing intense lobbying effort in California, which resulted in an even lower standard for rural broadband, they’re particularly upset with higher upload speeds.

According to a letter filed with the FCC by Frontier on behalf of its colleagues (h/t to Jon Brodkin at Ars Technica for the pointer), giving extra weight, and subsequently money, for service at 100 Mbps down/20 Mbps up, is a bad idea because, hey, rural people don’t need that kind of juice…

When considering network build-out using fixed wireless technologies, an upload target of 20 Mbps likely drives significant additional deployment costs – up to two to three times as high – compared to a 10 Mbps upload target. At the same time, a 20 Mbps upload target provides little to no additional benefits to the end user customer as all key upload use cases, including HD streaming, video conferencing, and gaming can similarly be accomplished with 10 Mbps.

AT&T’s own comments push a similar line – who needs all that speed, anyway?

Urban and suburban customers do. At least cable companies are putting their money behind that proposition. But cable companies shy away from rural communities where cash flows aren’t at white water levels. Rural customers think they need that level of service too – research done by the Central Coast Broadband Consortium and the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership (which I helped with) demonstrate that.

The FCC should listen to them, and not to monopoly model telcos intent on fencing off rural Californians.

Penalties, but not prevention, for deceptive ISP billing practices

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Consumer reports cable billing 3oct2019

It’s common practice for big, monopoly model broadband providers to promise low prices to new subscribers, then tack on arbitrary fees after they’re locked into long term contracts. AT&T was recently slammed for adding a property tax surcharge to some customers’ bills – no one has figured out yet why AT&T thinks it can do that in the first place, let alone why it more than doubled the charge – California property tax rate hikes are tightly restricted. Frontier Communications also adds fees on top of the rates customers have agreed to.

Comcast is a frequent target of consumer billing complaints, and state attorneys general are listening. Just about a year ago, the Minnesota attorney general took Comcast to court over billing practices. The case was settled on Wednesday. According to the Minnesota AG

Part of being able to afford your life means knowing the full cost of what you’re getting, getting what you were promised, not being overcharged for things you didn’t ask for, and not being unfairly charged to get rid of things you didn’t ask for. But when people signed up for Comcast, that’s what happened to them…This settlement will help put money back in Comcast’s customers’ pockets where it should have been in the first place. Just as importantly, it provides millions of dollars’ worth of debt relief. And we’ve made sure that going forward, Comcast customers will know exactly how much they’ll pay for service before they sign up for it. That should put an end to unpleasant surprises.

Another deceptive billing case in Washington state last year resulted in Comcast being hit with a $9 million fine, plus orders to make refunds to customers.

It’s not just broadband service – arbitrary fees are added to the full range of products and services that telephone and cable companies provide. A study by Consumer Reports showed that the typical cable TV customer pays an extra $450 a year, just because. The graphic above breaks that down.

So far, little has been done to stop deceptive billing practices in the first place. That could change. The Federal Communications Commission’s declaration that broadband isn’t a telecommunications service passed the buck to the Federal Trade Commission, which might or might not get around to doing something about it. State governments also have a role to play – a federal appeals court opened the door to broadband consumer protection laws and other state-level regulation last year. So far though, no one in Sacramento has shown much interest in walking through it.

AT&T faces contempt hearing as CPUC defines VoIP regulatory role

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Bluto pencils

The first shot in what could be the defining regulatory battle over broadband in California was fired in the closing days of December by the California Public Utilities Commission. An administrative law judge (ALJ) ordered AT&T

To show cause, if any, why [AT&T] should not be:

  1. Found in contempt of [a 2019 CPUC decision regarding disaster preparedness].
  2. Found in violation of the Public Utilities Code and [a CPUC rule requiring telcos to file price/service terms (aka tariffs)].
  3. Fined, penalized, or have other sanctions imposed for failing to comply with a Commission decision, [commission rules], and the Public Utilities Code.

The dispute began last Spring when CPUC demanded that AT&T file a notice – an “advice letter” – detailing its terms for “Next Gen” 911 service, which will run over an Internet protocol connection, like other Internet data, rather than using legacy copper network switching and other 20th century technology.

AT&T first blew off the demand, and then said it’s none of your business

[Mark Berry, AT&T regulatory director] spoke with [CPUC] staff and relayed the following in response to the question of why AT&T had not filed an advice letter:

  1. AT&T does not offer the services referred to in the letter and even if it did offer these services, AT&T does not agree that the CPUC can require a tariff because under [a now expired public utilities code section], the CPUC does not have authority to regulate IP-enabled services.
  2. If AT&T offers Next Gen 911services in the future, it will not file tariffs because the CPUC does not have authority over these services.

The CPUC and AT&T exchanged more such pleasantries, until AT&T finally filed some paperwork, without answering the questions asked. So AT&T executives were ordered to appear at a hearing later this month to explain themselves.

This kind of arm wrestling over filing and disclosure requirements is nothing new. Business as usual would be a good description, although it usually doesn’t get this far. This case is significant because the primary legal basis for AT&T’s refusal expired at the end of 2019. It was a law enacted in 2012 that banned the CPUC from regulating Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) or other “Internet protocol enabled” services. Back then, VoIP was still a developing technology, and telcos and cable companies hadn’t gone all in on it as a replacement for legacy copper service and as a way to get out from under the regulatory oversight that comes with it.

AT&T and other monopoly model telecoms companies tried to get the ban extended last year, but ran into a brick wall in Sacramento, also known as the Communications Workers of America. The betting is that they’ll try again this year – why spend billions on service quality when a few million in the pockets of lawmakers will get you off the hook?

So it’s up to the CPUC to figure out how VoIP fits into California’s regulatory ecosystem. One way the commission can do that (relatively) quickly is to litigate disputes like this one, and bake new case law into the resulting decision.

Some people aren’t buying the false data big ISPs sold to the FCC

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Microsoft oregon analysis 5dec2018

The Federal Communications Commission’s broadband testing program evolved from a engineering-driven performance assessment when it was launched in 2012 to a marketing tool for monopoly model Internet service providers. That’s partly the result of the FCC republican majority embracing a role as a cheerleader for big telecoms companies, but it also reflects tensions in the program that date back to when it began under a democrat-majority commission.

Jim Warner, who recently retired from a long career as the network engineer for the University of California, Santa Cruz and still chairs the Central Coast Broadband Consortium’s technical expert group, helped design the FCC’s program, along with several others from the academic side of the house as well as industry representatives. He says there’s a split between the two groups, with industry more concerned with selling service than delivering it…

While the research community has been continuously engaged in measurement activities as part of high performance networking, the commercial side of the business has been plodding along on its own measurement efforts. Our goals are to improve performance (or at least understand its limits). On the commercial side, the goal is more along the line of making money and, if performance got better, that was OK, too.

The ISPs – especially AT&T – were unwilling to accept the results of the program’s measurements and fought hard to get poor results removed from their totals to improve their score.

The lack of hard information about where and what kind of broadband service is available, particularly in rural areas, is sore spot in Washington, D.C. There’s bipartisan support for a couple of bills that would put more money behind broadband measurement and mapping programs, and set higher standards. Maybe, just maybe, enough support to make it into law in the coming weeks.

FCC allows big ISPs to add performance enhancing juice to speed tests, WSJ says

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Syringe

The fast, reliable broadband service claims endorsed by the Federal Communications Commission are based on test data that’s been doctored by California’s monopoly model Internet service providers, according to a Wall Street Journal article Shalini Ramachandran, Lillian Rizzo and Drew FitzGerald (h/t to Jim Warner for sending me the link).

Annual speed measurements taken to evaluate U.S. broadband service are “juiced” by AT&T, Comcast, Charter Communications and others, who know ahead of time where the tests are run and afterwards lobby the FCC to suppress bad results and hype good ones, the story says…

[AT&T] pushed the Federal Communications Commission to omit unflattering data on its DSL internet service…

In the end, the DSL data was left out of the report released late last year, to the chagrin of some agency officials. AT&T’s remaining speed tiers notched high marks…

Comcast a few years ago upgraded speeds in some regions without notifying the FCC, making test results look stellar, people close to the FCC program said. The FCC discovered the changes after spotting anomalous data and adjusted the numbers.

This September, amid an FCC test, Comcast rolled out speed upgrades for many customers in several states…

Charter-Time Warner Cable oversold its network to the point where 200 Mbps and 300 Mbps households “would achieve speeds that were only a half to a third of their promised speeds,” the New York attorney general alleged [in a 2017 lawsuit]. Yet Time Warner Cable’s FCC speed-test results in the two years prior averaged 100% or more of promised speeds.

Even so, the FCC’s VIP treatment isn’t good enough for AT&T. It pulled out of the testing program and will submit performance data it gathers itself.

The story also reports that measurements of Cox Communications’ broadband service showed a 37% actual-versus-promised consistency mark. It blamed the wholesale provider it chooses to work with, so the FCC relegated the results to a footnote, even though Cox – or any other last mile ISP– is responsible for properly provisioning middle mile connectivity and raw Internet protocol bandwidth.

The FCC broadband measurement program is a mess. Earlier this year, the FCC pulled back claims of widespread gigabit availability after a thorough debunking by a broadband advocacy group and Microsoft. That’s what happens when a regulator turns into a cheerleader for the industry it’s supposed to oversee.

AT&T, Comcast “continue to frustrate” CPUC inquiries “even on safety matters”

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

AT&T and Comcast blew off demands for information about broadband pricing from California Public Utilities Commission staff, so now the public advocates office, which requested the data, is asking the commission to force the companies to comply and to acknowledge their legal responsibility to fully answer questions about service, safety and other issues.

The PAO sent a detailed questionnaire to Internet service providers in California, including telephone companies and cable operators, during an ongoing inquiry into the affordability of broadband and other essential utility services in California. According to the “motion to compel responses to data requests” filed by the PAO, Charter Communications and Cox answered, but Comcast and AT&T lawyered up (the filing doesn’t mention Frontier Communications, the other member of California’s Big Five ISP club).

Although AT&T and Comcast provided some information (see below), the bulk of their responses boiled down to you people don’t have any jurisdiction over broadband, but if you’re really interested, check out our website.

The jurisdiction question was answered, if not completely settled, by a ruling from Clifford Rechtschaffen, the commissioner who is leading the inquiry. He took the uncommon step of issuing a ruling that asserted “a significant role for the commission” in managing California’s broadband ecosystem.

Besides being dismissive, answering a data request with a link to a sales-focused website isn’t enlightening and could be dangerous, according to the filing…

The presentation of pricing on the AT&T website does not provide all relevant combinations of service bundles and speeds. Websites also produce selective company information that are in no way responsive to the data requests or comparable to other communication companies’ information. For instance: What is the lowest price for the user-defined combination of services at the user-defined speed across all communication companies?…

Telecommunication companies continue to frustrate the Public Advocates Office’s efforts to understand their continually evolving operational landscape and how it affects California consumers, even on safety matters.

There’s no particular timeline for when – if – action will be taken on the PAO’s motion.

Comcast
Comcast pricing jan 2019

AT&T
Att broadband pricing 2019
Att legacy dsl pricing 2019

USA Today says the slowest rural broadband is in California. The truth is even worse

by Steve Blum • , , ,

San benito pole route 13apr2019

USA Today fell for a click bait post about rural broadband speeds, but at least it was click bait that made a useful point about the growing gap between rural and urban service levels.

The top line, of the USA Today article and the post on an Internet-oriented aggregator website, is that Newcastle, along Interstate 80 in Placer County, has the slowest rural broadband service in the U.S., with an average download speed of 3.7 Mbps. That figure comes from speed tests conducted on another aggregator site.

That’s bad, but it’s not close to being the bottom of barrel.

A quick look at the data I have handy – the provider service reports collected by California Public Utilities Commission and current as of 31 December 2017 – shows that out of the 1,513 incorporated cities and census designated places in California, 184 have zero broadband service according the telephone and, sometimes, cable companies that serve them. sixs others have reported download speeds – both maximum and average – of less than 3.7 Mbps.

Reported speeds are what AT&T and Frontier Communications sell you. Measured speeds – what you actually get – are less, and the maximum speed in a town is usually only available near the telco central office. Cable coverage, whether it’s big boys like Charter and Comcast, or smaller providers like Wave, is usually restricted to neighborhoods where customers and money are sufficiently dense.

Newcastle provides an excellent illustration of this discrepancy. Wave reports service levels of up to 1 gigabit there, and AT&T claims a maximum download speed of 25 Mbps, with a 19 Mbps average throughout the town. The graphic below shows AT&T’s broadband holes in Newcastle, at least the ones they own up to. There’s no way of assessing the validity of the 3.7 Mbps click bait figure, but it certainly reflects the subjective experience of residents, as the anecdotal evidence in the USA Today article shows.

So Newcastle’s broadband service is bad, but it isn’t the worst in California, let alone the entire U.S. Based on the CPUC’s data, out of 1,513 communities, Newcastle has the 518th fastest average download speed and the 584th fastest maximum download speed. It ranks even higher when only residential service is considered.

Two-thirds of Californian communities have slower download speeds than Newcastle, which USA Today says has the slowest broadband service in the U.S. That’s a problem that needs fixing.

Newcastle cpuc map 27nov2019

I’ll be crunching the next round of CPUC data, current as of 31 December 2018, in the next few weeks. We’ll see if anything has changed.

Telephone and cable companies stonewalled California emergency officials during massive power outages

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Cell site outages 28oct2019

Mobile carriers generally cooperated with California emergency officials during the week long siege of public safety power shutoffs in October, while cable and telephone companies hid behind confidentiality claims. Paul Troxel, who heads the 911 program at the California office of emergency services, testified at a California Public Utilities Commission hearing on Wednesday and told commissioners that neither the state’s emergency operations center or local officials knew where access to 911 service and disaster information, such as evacuation orders, were unavailable…

Outage data was not reported by all providers. Some providers were very responsive and provided outage data as requested by Cal OES, while others were slow to respond due to confidentiality concerns related to outage data. Frankly, information from the wireline and VoIP providers was not provided until the end of the event. Because of the lack of complete reporting, Cal OES had to work with the Federal Communications Commission to activate the disaster information reporting system.

The FCC’s data isn’t intended to support real time operations. It’s typically 12 to 24 hours old and only aggregated data is provided – at the county level for mobile carriers and the state level for telephone and cable companies. But it did provide a useful check on the accuracy of the data provided voluntarily by telecoms companies through their industry association, which is their standard method.

It didn’t work so well. According to Troxel, at one point the industry’s organisation, the California Utilities Emergency Association (CUEA), reported that 57,000 wireline customers were out of service, while the FCC’s disaster information reporting system said the figure was 224,000. CUEA’s mobile outage reports weren’t much better – in one county the FCC said 133 cell sites were down while CUEA claimed only nine were. The problems with the industry association’s data were severe enough that OES requested reports directly from telecoms companies, with varying degrees of success.

During the hearing, Verizon, T-Mobile and, perhaps, AT&T executives promised to provide timely, detailed outage information in future emergencies, and make it public. A senior AT&T operations executive said the company would do so, after a company lawyer deflected the question by extolling the wonderfulness of the current system – that’s an arm wrestling match that needs to be resolved. The other representatives, from Frontier Communications, Comcast, Charter Communications, Cox and Sprint, wouldn’t make any promises at all.

Meaningful answers and we’ll get back to you, as CPUC drills down on phone, broadband outages in emergencies

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Cpuc phc telecoms outages 20nov2019

Telecoms company representatives – telco, cable and mobile – were grilled for three hours yesterday by CPUC commissioners about their ability to maintain communications capabilities during power outages and other emergencies. And their willingness to provide actionable, real time network status information to officials and the public.

The central issue is whether the California Public Utilities Commission should establish regulations for things like backup power, network resiliency and outage reporting, for voice, text and, perhaps, broadband service. Commissioner Cliff Rechtschaffen cut to heart of it, asking the eight representatives “would you support this as a regulatory requirement?”.

Three of the mobile companies – AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile – were represented by senior operational and engineering executives. Although they didn’t express any great enthusiasm for new regulations, they engaged with questions posed by commissioners and generally gave knowledgable answers about their networks, back up capacity and emergency management procedures.

Verizon sent a lobbyist. He reiterated an early statement by Verizon that it would be happy to provide lots more information about future outages in something like real time, and make it public because our network is so damn good.

AT&T’s and T-Mobile’s execs signed onto that pledge. Mobile networks were a particular focus – 80% of 911 calls are made using mobile phones, according to a CPUC staffer. The objective is to identify and publicise communications gaps, where people can’t call 911 or access evacuation maps on the web. Sprint’s rep was more reticent, but it might not matter if T-Mobile is successful in acquiring the company.

It wasn’t clear whether AT&T’s wireline network was included in the promise. At one point, an AT&T lawyer jumped up and seemed to say no. Instead, he lauded AT&T platoons of lobbyists and public relations people, and their “longstanding” efforts to keep state and local officials informed.

Right.

Frontier Communications also sent a corporate lobbyist to the hearing. Not much came of it. She didn’t promise to share detailed or real time outage information, let alone make it public. She did say that only 85% of Frontier’s customers are served by central offices that have back up generators that can keep facilities powered for at least 72 hours. “Facilities further out” in “remote areas” rely on shorter-lived batteries and portable generators.

Translation: the urban systems we got from Verizon are okay, rural communities, not so much.

The three cable companies – Charter Communications, Comcast and Cox – sent regional managers, who typically have a lot of operational responsibility at the local level, but take their marching orders on corporate policy from headquarters. That seemed to be the case yesterday. All three were cordial and, within their field of expertise, knowledgeable enough, but not forthcoming when pressed for information sharing commitments. I’ll get back to you was a frequently heard response. Back up power on cable networks didn’t seem to be as robust as telcos. Comcast’s rep said that all their network devices in the field have back up power, but only 4 to 24 hours worth.