Tag Archives: att

California legislature tweaks telecoms policy instead of killing it

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Despite AT&T’s quest for de facto deregulation of telecommunications infrastructure and service, no major telecoms policy changes emerged from the California legislature this year. A few small ball telecoms-related bills did emerge by the end of the 2019 session early Saturday morning, though, and were sent on to governor Gavin Newsom.

Assembly bill 1366 is dead, at least for this year. There was no last minute conniving to pull it out of the committee deep freeze it landed in earlier in the week. It could come back in 2020, either as a fast track do-over in January or reintroduced as a new bill.

It’s fair bet that lobbyists from AT&T, Comcast, Charter Communications, Frontier Communications and mobile carriers will want to take another try. The moratorium on regulation of voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) phone service and other “Internet protocol enabled” services ends as the new year begins, but there will be no practical effect for months, if not years. There are no VoIP-specific regulations ready to snap back into place and any effort to create new ones, or even reinterpret old ones will take a long time.

A few telecoms bills dealing with more specific issues were approved and are in the governor’s hands, including…

  • AB 1699, Marc Levine (D – Marin) – prohibits mobile carriers from throttling data traffic on accounts used by public safety agencies during emergencies. It’s largely symbolic. The only question is whether mobile carriers, or their lobbying front organisation, will challenge it federal court immediately, or wait until there’s a serious attempt to enforce it.
  • SB 670, Mike McGuire (D – Sonoma) – requires telecoms companies to notify the state office of emergency services when an outage isolates a community. State OES would then pass the information along to local agencies.
  • SB 208 and AB 1132 would crack down on caller ID fraud in various ways.

Newsom has until 13 October 2019 to decide what to do.

Five years and two FCCs later, FTC settles data throttling case against AT&T

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

The slow motion network neutrality enforcement ping pong match between the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission resulted in a data throttling settlement with AT&T, according to a story by Bevin Fletcher in FierceWireless. The details haven’t been released yet, but if approved by FTC commissioners it would end a dispute over how AT&T manages – throttles – the bandwidth consumed by millions of customers with grandfathered unlimited data plans.

AT&T’s mobile data throttling isn’t limited to legacy all-you-can-eat customers, at least according to research published last year, but the FTC’s enforcement action is limited to legacy data plans that are no longer offered.

The dispute tracks with the history of net neutrality regulation. It began in 2014 with a consumer rights lawsuit filed by the FTC against AT&T, when there were no federal rules in effect regarding net neutrality. When the Obama-era FCC declared broadband to be a common carrier service, AT&T’s response was to claim the FTC no longer had jurisdiction…

The agency said AT&T had been throttling speeds since 2011, and in some cases customers’ data speeds were reduced by nearly 90%. AT&T previously said it has been “completely transparent" with customers since starting its unlimited data throttling practices in 2011.

AT&T’s website currently discloses that for unlimited plans “AT&T may temporarily slow data speeds when the network is busy.”

AT&T had also argued the FTC lacked authority under the then-imposed net neutrality regulations enforced by the FCC, which in 2015 reclassified internet service providers as common carrier telecommunications service providers under Title II of the Telecommunications Act.

Then the Trump administration’s FCC reversed that ruling, saying that broadband isn’t a common carrier service, but instead it’s an information service that’s overseen by the FTC. That reversal led to the pending settlement.

AT&T’s backdoor telecoms deregulation bill runs out of room in the California senate

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Coyote cliff 625

“AB 1366 was pulled by the author, so it will not be considered today”, said senator Ben Hueso (D – San Diego) as he called the senate’s energy, utilities and communications committee to order yesterday. Assembly bill 1366 would extend a ban on regulation of voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) and other “Internet protocol enabled” services in California.

Conventional wisdom says the bill is dead for this year. It wasn’t amended before last night’s constitutional deadline, so there’ll be no more wrangling over the bill’s language. On the other hand, there are still three days left in the legislative session and it’s a high stakes bill for monopoly model telcos and cable companies like AT&T and Comcast. They stuff a lot of cash into lawmaker’s pockets have deep, philosophical points yet to make.

No reason for pulling the bill was offered. A hastily prepared analysis by committee staff shows that the line up of organisations for and against it didn’t change. AT&T, Frontier Communications, and the lobbying front organisation that Comcast and Charter Communications duck behind – the California Cable and Telecommunications Association – still support it; the Communications Workers of America, AT&T’s principal union, and the California Labor Federation still oppose it. In the heat of the end-of-the-session rush, what ends up in print often doesn’t reflect backroom reality, but in this case it’s probably accurate. Organised labor is probably the only force in Sacramento with more political power and money than AT&T, Comcast and Charter.

AB 1366 was disowned on Friday by assembly member Lorena Gonzalez (D – San Diego), who introduced it earlier this year and muscled it to within inches of the goal line. Presumably, she passed it over to two other assembly members – Jay Olbernolte (R – San Bernardino) and Tom Daly (D – Orange) – because the stiff opposition from labor organisations, which are the foundation of her political base, finally made it impossible for her to front for it.

The bill was amended during the handoff, limiting the ban’s extension to two years. But other amendments added even more perks for incumbent telecoms companies, particularly AT&T and, to a lesser extent, Frontier. Not surprisingly, that turned out to be a bad way to win friends in the final days of the legislative session.

The ban on VoIP regulation was imposed by the legislature in 2012, when no one was sure what direction VoIP or other services that ride on the Internet would take. Now we know. Today, VoIP is the telephone service technology preferred by telephone and cable companies because 1. it’s a century or so ahead of legacy copper phone tech, and 2. it’s unregulated. As a California Public Utilities Commission analysis shows, telcos are switching customers to VoIP at a rapid rate, to the point that state regulation of broadband and telephone infrastructure and service, which depends on legacy copper rules, will effectively end.

California telecoms backdoor deregulation bill, AB 1366, stalls

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Front line dispatch 625

Assembly bill 1366 was “pulled by the author” ahead of a committee hearing this afternoon. The California senate’s energy, utilities and communications committee was supposed to review amendments made last Friday, but that didn’t happen. No reason was given. The bill might be dead, or it might be going through a final rewrite, ahead of tonight’s hard, constitutional deadline for amending it. Or something else – anything is possible today. Tomorrow, well, that’ll be a different story. Stay tuned.

AT&T snakes perks into California deregulation bill, while its author ducks for cover

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Copper head snake 625

AT&T slipped more special privileges into a bill that would, in effect, deregulate broadband and modern voice service in California. At the same time, the bill was disowned, sorta, by its godmother, assembly member Lorena Gonzalez (D – San Diego).

Assembly bill 1366, which would extend an existing ban on regulation of voice over Internet protocol service (VoIP), was amended ahead of Friday’s soft deadline for changing bill language in the California legislature (Tuesday is the hard, constitutional cutoff for amendments). Many of the changes are tweaks that weaken the few, feeble consumer protections that were added to the bill as it moved through committee and floor votes. AT&T, because of its basic service obligations over a large rural footprint and its plans to replace wireline networks with low capacity fixed broadband technology, will benefit particularly. So will Frontier Communications for the same reasons, albeit over a much smaller subscriber base.

Gonzalez, who introduced the bill and muscled it through the Sacramento sausage machine, took her name off of it and handed it over to a pair of assembly members – Jay Olbernolte (R – San Bernardino) and Tom Daly (D – Orange) – who are less likely to be damaged by blowback from organised labor, which strongly opposes AB 1366.

The prior version of AB 1366 would have allowed current California Public Utilities Commission regulations governing basic telephone service and universal service programs to encompass VoIP service. No longer – those potential loopholes were sewn shut on Friday. A more specific set of rules that sets out requirements for incumbents when they are the “carrier of last resort” – an issue primarily for rural areas – still applies to VoIP, but only to the extent that they must “offer” telephone connections to hard-to-reach customers. The CPUC would no longer be able to oversee “the provision of” those carrier of last resort services. In other words, AT&T and Frontier can use VoIP to meet their most basic service obligations, but the quality and reliability of that service is up to them.

Another gift is the exclusion of “services using radio frequency spectrum licensed by the Federal Communications Commission” from already weak and exception-ridden time frames for restoring VoIP service following an outage. The immediate benefit will be to mobile carriers that use new “voice over LTE” (VoLTE) technology, but over the long term it will also apply to “wireless local loop” (WLL) systems that AT&T plans to use to replace rural telephone lines. WLL runs on licensed spectrum, but not much of it – capacity is a fraction of what wireline networks can carry.

Another change might make AB 1366 easier to swallow for some union allies in the legislature, but also sets up a potentially lucrative payday for lawmakers, particularly those planning to run for statewide office. Instead of lasting five years, the ban on VoIP regulation would only last two years. That would mean a rerun of this session’s backroom dealing, just ahead of the 2022 campaign cycle for California constitutional offices. That’s when big, corporate contributions, such as those AT&T, Comcast and the rest lavish on their friends, are needed to reach voters across the state. Gonzalez plans to run for the California secretary of state’s job then.

AT&T’s executive shuffle puts WarnerMedia chief in charge of broadband service

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

AT&T made two key executive promotions yesterday, naming erstwhile technology chief Jeff McElfresh to head up its broadband and telephone (landline and mobile) businesses, as well as DirecTv, and promoting WarnerMedia head John Stankey to president and chief operating officer, making him the clear second in command to chairman and CEO Randall Stephenson.

Stankey’s new job, according to an AT&T press release is “bringing together the distinct and complimentary capabilities of AT&T Communications, WarnerMedia and [advertising subsidiary] Xandr to deliver…the benefits of a modern media company”.

He’s a career AT&T insider. For the present, Stankey’s “current WarnerMedia executive team” will report to him, meaning he’ll still be in charge of day to day operations there, while also having executive authority over AT&T’s distribution and advertising assets. It’s an open question whether he’ll try to use those assets, and the control over consumer broadband connections that come with them, to increase the profitability of the content arm. The republican majority on the Federal Communications Commission already cleared the path for him to do that, all he needs to do is start walking down it.

According to an update by The Information’s Jessica Toonkel, the promotion leaves everyone wondering whether Stephenson will stick around, and if he doesn’t, then what happens with WarnerMedia…

AT&T’s mandatory retirement age is 65 for top executives and Stephenson is only 59, which suggests there is no urgency. And as Stankey is 56, if Stephenson doesn’t retire early, Stankey may miss out entirely. If Stephenson waits another six years, AT&T’s board might focus on the next generation. But I hear Stephenson may choose to go earlier, which would give Stankey a shot.

That raises the question of who would succeed Stankey at WarnerMedia, including whether they bring someone in from outside. Cue the speculation. There are a lot of seasoned entertainment executives who are in circulation, thanks to various mergers.

So far, the trend has been for “seasoned entertainment executives” to walk away from AT&T’s management team.

Unanimous approval by key committee sends AT&T’s deregulation bill to a vote of the full California senate

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

When the legislative dust settled on Friday, after a whirlwind morning in which the fate of hundreds of bills were announced after being decided behind closed doors in Sacramento, assembly bill 1366 remained alive. Carried by assembly member Lorena Gonzalez (D – San Diego) would, on the face of it, simply extend an existing ban on regulation of “Internet Protocol enabled communications services”, including voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) telephone service.

Given the increasing number of consumers switching – and being switched without their consent – from legacy copper-based plain old telephone service (POTS) to VoIP since the regulatory ban went into effect six years ago, AB 1366 spells a de facto end to state oversight of broadband and telephone infrastructure and service in California. As presently written, AB 1366 has a few exceptions to the broad prohibition on state or local VoIP regulation, but doesn’t say how those will be enforced. According to the most recent legislative staff analysis of the bill, it “places these provisions in a portion of the Business and Professions Code over which no board at the Department of Consumer Affairs has oversight…As a result, lawsuits brought by the Attorney General may be the only mechanism to enforce these provisions”.

AT&T deployed its cash, lobbyists and astroturf non-profit groups to argue for the bill, with universally similar support from Frontier Communications, Comcast and other cable, telephone and mobile companies. So far, it has prevailed over objections from organised labor, the California Public Utilities Commission and the Newsom administration. The seven members of the California senate’s appropriations committee – five democrats and two republicans – unanimously voted in favor of the bill, and passed it on to the senate floor without new amendments.

There’s less than two weeks left in the California legislature’s 2019 regular session, with a soft deadline of the end of this week to amend bills, and a hard, constitutional deadline of next Tuesday. The question will be whether Gonzalez listens to her (otherwise) allies in organised labor – particularly the Communications Workers of America union – and tries to find new language they will accept, or simply sends the current version on to a vote by the full senate.

Led by AT&T meltdown, big U.S. pay TV companies take a dive in second quarter

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

AT&T’s video businesses bled out in the second quarter of 2019, losing nearly a million net subscribers. Its two old school linear platforms, the DirecTv satellite service and the DSL-based Uverse service, hemorrhaged 778,000 subscribers while its DirecTv Now streaming platform took a 168,000 subscriber hit.

Actually, it’s the DirecTv Then platform – its new name, announced yesterday, is AT&T TV Now.

It’s a similar, if less gruesome, story for the other three major U.S. pay TV companies. DISH, which is positioning itself for a run at the mobile telecoms sector, lost 79,000 satellite subscribers but picked up 48,000 Sling streaming customers, for a net loss of 31,000 monthly accounts. That’s better than expected – analysts had predicted a net loss of 252,000 subs – and better than the two big cable companies.

Comcast lost 224,000 video subs, and Charter Communications had a net loss of 141,000, with residential cancellation offset a bit by a gain in business accounts.

All up, the major legacy pay TV companies lost 1.3 million subscribers between April and June of 2019. The second quarter of the year is traditionally a tough time for the subscription video business, as people take advantage of summer to move from one home to another, or to just take off and shut down utilities for a few weeks.

Even so, this year’s second quarter losses are “freaking ugly”, as one Wall Street analyst put it.

It was especially ugly for AT&T, though. It lost more than twice as many subscribers as the other three combined. It comes during a period when AT&T is trying to enter the video and motion picture business in a big way, with its acquisition of HBO, the Warner Bros. studios and the Turner networks. So far, it’s misplaying its hand. Grafting businesses driven by artistic and marketing creativity onto a monopoly model telco is a losing proposition.

It’s going to take more than an uninspired rebranding to make AT&T pretty again.

Money talks or AT&T broadband walks, CPUC study shows

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Haas att broadband study

How much money you and your neighbors make determines whether or not you have access to modern broadband service and infrastructure. The network practices study released on Monday by the California Public Utilities Commission cites conclusive evidence of aggressive redlining by AT&T. It is a major – and actionable – report that makes the case against the two companies, but its conclusions come as no surprise.

A study done in 2017 by U.C. Berkeley’s Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society found that…

The median household income of California communities with access to AT&T’s fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) network is $94,208. This exceeds by $32,297 the $61,911 median household income for all California households in the AT&T wireline footprint.

On the other hand, the median household income of homes served only by AT&T’s 1990s legacy DSL technology is $53,186, according to the Haas Institute. The CPUC study found the same divide between haves and have nots…

Whether deliberate or not, AT&T’s investment policies have tended to favor higher-income communities, and have thus had a disproportionate impact upon the state’s lowest income areas. For example, the weighted average 2010 median annual household income for wire center serving areas that had been upgraded with fiber optic feeder facilities to support broadband services was $72,024, vs. only $60,795 for wire centers without such upgrades Using 2010 US Census data, we find a clear inverse relationship between household income and all of the principal service quality metrics.

The report leaves it up to the reader to decide if AT&T’s income-based redlining is deliberate, but makes it clear that AT&T’s financial strategy is aimed at extracting the maximum dollars possible from communities trapped in legacy monopoly systems…

Persistent disinvestment, extensive affiliate transactions at self-serving transfer prices, extraordinarily large rate increases, and deteriorating service quality all point to “harvesting” as AT&T California’s overarching strategy for its legacy services and customers…The potential gains that AT&T California can realize by raising prices and curtailing investment and maintenance expenditures far exceed any financial penalties it might suffer from persistently poor service quality.

AT&T is not alone. I found a similar pattern in Charter Communications’ investment choices. Until the CPUC forced it to do otherwise, it held low income communities captive in analog-only systems that offered limited television service at exorbitant prices.

When Californians are trapped in monopoly telecom markets, AT&T and Frontier take the money and run

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Leaning pole

Competition matters. When telephone or cable companies face a competitive threat – either from each other or from an independent Internet service provider, they respond by upgrading infrastructure and service, and by cranking up the volume on promotional discounts. The converse is true: no competition means no infrastructure investment or service upgrades or marketing love.

That’s a lesson I’ve learned time and again with municipal and independent broadband projects. When a city or an independent credibly threatens to enter the market, incumbents respond. Santa Cruz is a good example. When the City of Santa Cruz partnered with Cruzio, a local ISP, to build a muni fiber-to-the-premise system, Comcast upgraded its infrastructure. The deal didn’t come to fruition, but Cruzio’s subsequent solo fiber build out gave AT&T an incentive to upgrade neighborhoods with sufficient revenue potential to FTTP status.

It’s also a major conclusion of a report just released by the California Public Utilities Commission. It shows competition determines to a large degree where AT&T and Frontier Communications invest what money they’re willing or able to spend in California. According to the study, Frontier allows its facilities to decay in communities where it has monopoly control…

Wire centers with the smallest decrease in POTS lines fared far worse in terms of most service quality metrics. The deterioration in service quality in these small wire centers, generally serving communities with the fewest number of competitive providers, suggests that the company has been devoting more of its resources and efforts to those communities most impacted by competition for traditional POTS services.

The study found the same pattern in AT&T’s territory, concluding that it’s pursuing a “harvesting strategy” – a polite way of saying milking the cash cow by relying “upon successive price increases and customer inertia to maintain its declining [legacy telephone] revenue stream”, despite continually worsening service quality.

The study recommends increasing the amount of fines imposed by the CPUC on AT&T and Frontier for substandard service, as a substitute for competition – make the fines match the losses that the two companies would otherwise suffer if competitors were present. That’s difficult because 1. figuring out the proper amount is a fraught exercise, and 2. thanks to cynical maneuvering by outgoing president Michael Picker, the CPUC doesn’t actually fine telcos. It lets them keep the money so long as they claim they’re spending it on “incremental” service improvements.