Tag Archives: broadband

VoIP regulation promised by California lawmakers after AT&T-backed bill boomerangs

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Feral kid boomerang

Once again, a higher power interrupted the ongoing love affair between AT&T, Comcast and friends, and the California assembly’s primary telecommunications policy committee. As with the last time, the central issue is voice over Internet protocol service, with major labor unions – particularly, the Communications Workers of America (CWA) – opposing an attempt to exempt VoIP and other “IP enabled services” from oversight by the California Public Utilities Commission.

Assembly bill 1366 would extend a 2012 law that bans the CPUC from regulating IP-delivered services. Originally, the extension was indefinite, but an amendment accepted yesterday during an assembly communications and conveyances committee hearing limits it to ten years. The law applies to services, such as VoIP or instant messaging, that ride on top of Internet connections, rather than broadband service itself.

The hearing began with the bill’s author, Lorena Gonzales (D – San Diego), and an odd assortment of non-profit organisations using scare tactics to argue in favor of it. The implication was that if AB 1366 isn’t passed, the CPUC will make VoIP unaffordable or outlaw it altogether. Or kill the Internet. Or puppies. Or do something. Awful.

They were followed by a long line of other non-profit groups that don’t usually concern themselves with telecoms issues, but often have a history of taking money from companies that do. Such as AT&T, Comcast, Charter Communications, Verizon, T-Mobile and others, whose lobbyists also made their presence known.

Consumer and telecoms advocacy groups opposing AB 1366 followed, but it was the speaker from the CWA and the solid wall of red t-shirt clad union members that seemed to grab lawmakers’ attention. Gonzalez quickly pivoted and said she’d work with them to figure out a way to regulate VoIP, because what she’s really afraid of is that the CPUC will do nothing…

We do want to and need to ensure that…the opportunity for service and for complaints and to have this followed up on is equal, and we are going to work with CWA on addressing that situation. I mean, the folks that we’re talking about, who are currently in opposition, I talk to them every day. Obviously, I’m not doing something to oppose labor. These are the people I come from and I represent and they live in my community. We want to provide a framework by which, actually, service will improve, that we can have access to service, that we will have restoration time guaranteed. If we left that up to the PUC, we might get a restoration time 14 years from now.

Translation: if CWA doesn’t cut a deal with AT&T, we’re going to regulate VoIP.

There are two issues in play. One is whether or not to treat Internet-delivered services the same way as largely identical, regulated ones.

The other is the CPUC itself. I watched three utility-related hearings yesterday, and the CPUC’s glacially slow decisions and idiosyncratic operations were bashed by all sides in each one. Legislative attempts to disestablish the commission, or reduce its scope of authority have been increasingly common in recent years. Most failed or were trimmed back, but that was while Jerry Brown was governor. He tended to shield the CPUC and executive departments from legislative micromanagement. Gavin Newsom might not be so protective.

U.S. house passes net neutrality bill but leaves the devil in the details and its fate to the senate

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

El diablo

A network neutrality bill cleared the democrat-controlled U.S. house of representatives yesterday and is on its way to the U.S. senate, where republican leader Mitch McConnell has been widely quoted as saying it’s “dead on arrival”. The vote in the house was “mostly along party lines”, with only republican – Bill Posey (R – Florida) – joining democrats, according to The Hill.

The text of the bill hasn’t been posted yet. The first draft simply reinstated the Obama-era net neutrality rules and blocked the Federal Communications Commission from making any changes. A later amendment gave smaller Internet service providers – those with fewer than 100,000 customers – an extra year to comply with some of the terms.

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which tracked the action yesterday, more changes were made on the house floor, which were mostly benign but…

One amendment does give us pause, though. The last amendment to the bill (McAdams), affirms a bit from the old Open Internet Order, saying that the net neutrality prohibition on blocking doesn’t prevent ISPs from blocking “illegal” content, a distinction that includes copyrighted material…A broad reading of this amendment could easily have greenlit Comcast’s throttling of Bit Torrent, which led to a past FCC sanctioning the cable company for violating net neutrality…

As ISPs and media companies become even more intertwined, it’s easy to imagine this loophole being exploited. However, legislative debate..made clear that this amendment did not give an ISP the right to censor content solely because the ISP thought the content was unlawful.

It’ll take more than one renegade republican in the senate to prove McConnell wrong. But it’s happened before. Shorty before the current FCC rules took effect last year, three republican jumped ship and voted for a resolution of disapproval. It could have reversed the FCC’s decision, but didn’t go anywhere in the then-republican majority house.

Net neutrality bill with financial consequences passes Colorado legislature

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Colorado is about to have a network neutrality law that has teeth and a chance of surviving federal court challenges. Senate bill 78, which was just passed by the Colorado legislature, says that Internet service providers that don’t abide by net neutrality principles can’t get state broadband deployment subsidies, and might even have to return money previously awarded if they’re caught violating those rules in the future.

It’s a partisan issue. All republicans in both the Colorado house and senate voted against it; all democrats voted for it. The bill is on its way to Colorado governor Jared Polis for his signature. He’s a democrat too, so no points for guessing what he’s probably going to do with it.

Colorado ISPs will have to disclose their network management policies, and can’t block or throttle subscriber’s Internet traffic, or engage in paid prioritisation. Unlike Comcast and some other ISPs that say they’re against paid prioritisation, but spin it so narrowly that their pledges become meaningless, Colorado’s SB 78 has a reasonably robust definition of it…

“Paid prioritization” means the management of an Internet service provider’s network to directly or indirectly favor some traffic over other traffic, including through the use of techniques such as traffic shaping, prioritization, resource reservation, or other forms of preferential traffic management, either: (i) in exchange for consideration, monetary or otherwise, from a third party; (ii) to benefit an affiliated entity; or (iii) to disadvantage a competing entity or its affiliates.

Last year, the Colorado legislature set up a broadband deployment subsidy program that’s heavily biased in favor of incumbents, although it also allows for the possibility of municipal project funding in smaller communities. It tracks with old school universal telephone service programs, so the biggest impact of the bill will be on incumbent telcos. CenturyLink is the big one, and there are some smaller rural telcos too.

So far, California has taken a different path. Although lawmakers passed SB 822, a net neutrality bill last year that more or less reinstated rules scrapped by the current republican majority on the Federal Communications Commission, that law is tied up in federal court and is likely to stay there for years. A companion measure, SB 460 that would have barred state and local agencies from spending taxpayer money on non-net neutral broadband service died at the end of last year’s legislative session.

At the state level, it’s bills like Colorado’s SB 78 and California’s SB 460 that have genuine potential to make a difference. Although SB 822 was well meaning, enforcement requires the cooperation of federal judges and diligent effort by California attorney general Xavier Becerra, neither of which are evident so far. Key California lawmakers get big bundles of cash from big telecoms companies, and have so far not disappointed them in any meaningful way. It seems to be a different game in Colorado.

School bus WiFi and take home mobile hotspots for students funding in proposed California bill

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Jet school bus2

A placeholder bill that originally targeted the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) – the state’s primary broadband infrastructure subsidy program – was gutted, amended and turned into a subsidy program for after school Internet access for elementary and high school students. Assembly bill 1409 is carried by assemblyman Ed Chau (D – Los Angeles), who made a tech policy name for himself last year when he authored California’s new online privacy law.

As originally submitted, AB 1409 made what amounted to an inconsequential typographic change to the law that rewrote the CASF program in 2017. The usual purpose of such bills is to get something into the hopper ahead of the legislature’s annual deadline for introducing new legislation, with the intent of maybe doing something with it later.

That something turned into subsidies for “homework gap projects”, which are defined as projects that provide “pupils in kindergarten or any of grades 1 to 12, inclusive, with after school access to broadband, such as Wi-Fi enabled school buses or school or library Wi-Fi hot spot lending”. The money would come from the California Teleconnect Fund (CTF), which pays for broadband service for schools, libraries and some non-profit organisations, usually to help close the gap left by the federal e-rate program, which funds most, but not all, of the cost of such service.

It’s an incremental change. Both CTF and the federal e-rate program are already used to pay for free broadband access, via WiFi at schools and libraries, and some school districts have toyed with the idea of extending some kind of wireless service to students at home. Hotspot lending – allowing students to, say, take home an active 4G wireless router – and WiFi on school buses are already arguably eligible for CTF money, and some districts or libraries might already be doing it.

AB 1409 would clear up any doubt, and potentially create a whole new category of publicly subsidised broadband service. It could also open the door to boondoggles: there’s already an ecosystem of companies and organisations that push projects of dubious value to educators with little knowledge of technology and no experience as service providers. The bill scheduled for its first hearing in the telco-and-cable-friendly assembly communications and conveyances committee ton Wednesday. It’s worthing keeping an eye on.

CPUC proposes low income, no service available requirements for household broadband extension grants

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Remote road

The final piece of the California broadband subsidy puzzle is on the table. The California Public Utilities Commission posted a draft of the new “line extension program”. It’s a pilot project set up by the legislature in 2017 when it rigged the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF), turning it into a piggy bank for AT&T and Frontier Communications.

The line extension program was included at the urging of cable lobbyists, who wanted to tap the piggy bank too, but didn’t want to take on any of the regulatory responsibilities that normally go along with state broadband infrastructure grants. The solution was to launder the money through customers: if they live in a home that has no access to broadband, then they can apply for a grant and give the money to an Internet service provider willing to build a line extension to them. The ISP owns the new facilities, but doesn’t have to meet other CASF obligations such as price guarantees.

The new draft rules put tight restrictions on who can qualify for the money. Instead of being simply “unserved” as the California legislature defines it (i.e. without access to broadband service at speeds of at least 6 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload), a household has to be “non-connected”, which means it “does not have a service connection to any broadband service”, at any speed. Applicants have to live at the location that will be hooked up and have an annual household income that’s low enough to qualify for the CPUC’s other low income programs – about $34,000 for a couple and $60,000 for a family of five, for example.

There’s a per-household grant limit of $5,300 for a wireline connection and $500 for a wireless one, which can pay for up to 95% of the cost of the extension. The remaining 5% has to come from the service provider that will end up owning it. A project can include more than one eligible household, so the total grant could be more, but it could also be less if the new facilities also serve ineligible homes.

For the now, the CPUC is taking comments on the draft plan. Commissioners could vote on it as early as the end of April.

California legislature looks at extending moratorium on Internet services regulation

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Internet services, such as telephone service via voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) technology, are unregulated in California. For now. Federal preemptions, or attempted preemptions, aside, the California legislature approved a seven year moratorium on regulating Internet protocol (IP) enabled services in 2012. Senate bill 1161 said the California Public Utilities Commission and all state and local agencies could not…

Enact, adopt, or enforce any law, rule, regulation, ordinance, standard, order, or other provision having the force or effect of law, that regulates VoIP or other IP enabled service, unless required or expressly delegated by federal law or expressly authorized by statute.

That ban will expire at the end of the year, unless the legislature renews it. In a gut-and-amend move on Monday, assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D – San Diego) turned an obscure bill regarding the San Diego airport into a perpetual extension of SB 1661. Assembly bill 1366 takes out the sunset clause and makes a few meaningless tweaks to the language.

It leaves in place a distinction that wasn’t so obvious in 2012, but has taken on greater significance as the debate over network neutrality and whether broadband is an information or telecommunications service has intensified. The CPUC can’t regulate VoIP or other services that are built on Internet protocol technology, but SB 1161 drew a clear line between those kinds of services and the “broadband connection from the user’s location” that they ride on.

Pausing regulatory action for seven years while technology and service models matured was a good idea at the time. Trying to regulate new online services that evolved rapidly in an open market could have been disastrous for California’s high tech economy. With the benefit of that experience, though, it’s time to consider whether a blanket ban on IP services regulation is still needed. Some of that work began last year, when the California legislature passed a ground breaking data privacy law and its own version of network neutrality rules.

In particular, the carve-out for VoIP needs to closely examined. Seven years ago, VoIP service providers were fringe players. But with AT&T’s embrace of VoIP technology, not least because it’s a path to decommissioning rural copper networks and escaping regulatory oversight, that exception needs another look. Traditional, plain old telephone service – POTS – and VoIP provide virtually identical telecommunications functionality. Keeping one under the CPUC’s umbrella and not the other makes little sense.

AB 1366 will now head to the assembly’s communications and conveyances committee, which does not a have a good track record when it comes to thoughtful consideration of telecoms policy. This one needs watching.

Net neutrality bill moves ahead in U.S. house

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Net neutrality demonstration dc 300

A key sub-committee in the U.S. house of representatives today approved a bill that would restore the 2015 network neutrality rules adopted by what was then a democrat-controlled Federal Communications Commission. It was a party line vote – dems yes, republicans no. The approved text hasn’t been posted yet, but there’s no indication of substantive changes from the version that was introduced earlier this month. The next stop is the house’s full energy and commerce committee.

Microsoft’s usage data shows FCC overstates broadband availability

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Microsoft oregon analysis 5dec2018

Microsoft is the latest organisation to tell the Federal Communications Commission that its broadband availability data is wrong. Earlier this month, an Internet advocacy group uncovered an egregious outbreak of map spam that skewed the FCC’s broadband analysis in several states, leading to a premature declaration of deployment victory (h/t to Wendy Davis at Digital News Daily for digging out the story). Last week, Microsoft presented its own analysis at the FCC, based on Internet usage data it collected itself, and came to the same conclusion…

The Commission’s broadband availability data, which underpins FCC Form 477 and the Commission’s annual Section 706 report, appears to overstate the extent to which broadband is actually available throughout the nation. For example, in some areas the Commission’s broadband availability data suggests that Internet Service Providers (“ISP”) have reported significant broadband availability (25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up) while Microsoft’s usage data indicates that only a small percentage of consumers actually access the Internet at broadband speeds in those areas.

Microsoft originally provided its data to the FCC in December, but it didn’t seem sink in. For example, the FCC claims that 91% of Oregonians can get broadband service a minimum of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds. That’s the standard for usable broadband service adopted by both the FCC and the federal agriculture department. But Microsoft, which can see how fast its customers’ connection are, says the real figure is 60%.

Nationally, the discrepancy is even bigger. The FCC did its victory dance based on data that seemed to show that only 25 million people in the U.S. lacked access to that minimum broadband service level. Microsoft’s analysis indicates that 163 million U.S. residents “do not use the Internet at broadband speeds”. Availability and actual usage are two different metrics, but those differences cannot, by themselves, account for the 138 million person gap. Service providers might claim to offer a particular level of service in a given census block, but that doesn’t mean they’re offering it to everyone who lives there or that everyone can afford it.

FCC’s broadband victory proclamation looks like regurgitated spam

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Spam

A wireless Internet service provider dumped a big load of map spam on the Federal Communications Commission last year, which appears to have fooled it into thinking that its “reforms” have brilliantly resulted in broadband “being deployed on a reasonable and timely basis” in the U.S. It’s a problem we have in California, as well.

In a letter to the FCC, the broadband advocacy group Free Press pointed to widely unbelievable – impossible – coverage claims made by BarrierFree, an east coat wireless Internet service provider…

BarrierFree claimed to offer FTTH service with downstream speeds of 940 Mbps to 100 percent of the geographic area and 100 percent of the population of New York State, and also to 100 percent of those seven other states. BarrierFree’s over-reporting in this manner not only produces wildly overinflated deployment claims for itself and these eight states: it also has a substantial impact on the putative change in deployment at the national level. Indeed, BarrierFree is claiming to be the only ISP offering service in 15 percent of all Census blocks that were listed as unserved in the June 2017 Form 477 data.

The coverage and service data submitted by BarrierFree go beyond the inflated claims routinely made by WISPs. It said it offered near-gigabit fiber to the home service to everyone in those eight states, along with its implausible wireless product.

Although BarrierFree’s false reporting is unusual in its scope, it’s a common and chronic problem with the FCC’s broadband data collection system. And it’s not limited to WISPs. In California, companies that resell capacity on other companies’ lines say they’re providing service in tens of thousands of census blocks, when in reality they, at best, have agreements that might let them offer service if anyone asks for it and the underlying carriers have lines of sufficient quality available – not a sure bet by a long shot.

The FCC should have reviewed BarrierFree’s data before accepting it, let alone doing a victory dance based on it. It’s gullability such as this that’s led to bipartisan calls for better broadband data collection and mapping, even to the extent of getting a call out in the Trump administration’s latest budget proposal.

Trump’s budget plan puts broadband funding, mapping on table

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Broadband gets several call outs in the proposed budget released yesterday by the Trump administration. One initiative is endorsed for another year, two are re-promised and one appears to be a response to widespread criticism. Line item figures haven’t been published yet, but even just the overview runs to 150 pages. Details on plans are scarce, but the broadband snippets that were included tell an encouraging tale.

Agriculture secretary Sonny Perdue has bucked the administration’s love fest with big, incumbent cable and telephone companies and pushed for community-based broadband service, particularly via rural electric coops. His department has also adopted a much friendlier attitude toward independent broadband providers in its ReConnect infrastructure grant program. The administration’s budget summary gives him props for that…

The Budget focuses on core Departmental activities such as agricultural research, rural lending, and protecting the Nation’s forested lands and private agricultural lands, while also supporting the Secretary’s efforts to improve services and expand broadband.

The so-called trillion dollar infrastructure program sets aside $200 billion “for other infrastructure priorities”, with “a portion” of it earmarked to…

Promote visionary projects and technologies that can strengthen our economic competitiveness, including 5G wireless communications, rural broadband, advanced manufacturing, and artificial intelligence.

The plan also promises continued efforts to make better use of wireless spectrum and a fresh look at the much criticised broadband data collection and mapping work carried out by the Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration…

The Budget supports the application of innovative spectrum access techniques, spectrum sharing technologies, and spectrum leasing options to enable smarter and more efficient ways to leverage the Nation’s valuable and finite spectrum resources. As part of the Administration’s commitment to the Heartland, the Budget funds broadband mapping work to support ongoing efforts to increase the availability of affordable, reliable, and modern high-speed internet access in rural and underserved communities.

On the other hand, nothing is said about the federal government’s primary broadband subsidy program, the Connect America Fund. It’s run by the FCC and is directing billions of dollars to incumbents, much of which will be wasted on replacing rural copper networks with low capacity wireless service.

Presidential proposals are little more than openers in congress’ annual budget game. With spending bills constitutionally required to begin in the democrat-controlled house of representatives, it’s a safe assumption that lots of changes will be made as the process proceeds through the summer.