Tag Archives: broadband

Common carrier death watch begins in Washington, D.C.

As the Federal Communications Commission wrapped up its November weed whacking on Thursday, attention turned to the expected release of a draft decision that will overturn the Obama-era decision that classified broadband as a common carrier service. According to a Reuters story, it’s coming soon…

The head of the Federal Communications Commission is set to unveil plans next week for a final vote to reverse a landmark 2015 net neutrality order barring the blocking or slowing of web content, two people briefed on the plans said.

In May, the FCC voted 2–1 to advance Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s plan to withdraw the former Obama administration’s order reclassifying internet service providers as if they were utilities. Pai now plans to hold a final vote on the proposal at the FCC’s Dec. 14 meeting, the people said, and roll out details of the plans next week.

There are two separate issues: whether broadband is, and should be regulated as, a common carrier service, and should the FCC set out rules that require Internet service providers to treat all traffic the same. The two issues are linked, but not necessarily inseparable.

In 2010, the FCC made its first try at imposing network neutrality regulations, but it was nixed by a federal appeals court. The rationale was that net neutrality is a common carrier kind of rule, so that needed to come first. The decision left open the faint possibility that there might be a way to avoid common carrier status and still do net neutrality, but the FCC took the safe route the second time around.

It seems certain that FCC chair Ajit Pai will put a draft decision on the table that says broadband access is an information service, and not a telecoms service. That’ll take it out from under the common carrier – and common sense – umbrella. Whether he tries to keep some of the related network management and consumer protection rules in place anyway is an open question.

Expect an answer in the next few days.

MBEP conference follows local path to ubiquitious regional broadband

Bringing ubiquitous high speed broadband to the Monterey Bay region requires goals set and pursued at the grass roots level, but benchmarked against a regional plan and standards. That was the top line consensus from a roundtable brainstorming session at the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership’s third annual State of the Region conference, held last week in Monterey.

The region takes in San Benito, Santa Cruz and Monterey counties. It quickly became apparent that one size would never fit all in an area that bundles high tech Santa Cruz and uber-rich Pebble Beach with Salinas Valley farming towns, the Paicines cattle country and the isolated peaks of the Santa Lucia and Gabilan mountains. The solution was a five step process that creates a range of commonly defined standards and objectives that would be applied locally, as deemed appropriate by individual communities:

  • Get upfront, region wide buy-in to a regional broadband development master plan with a small contribution to its cost from a sufficient number of local governments, businesses and other organisations. If they’ll pay a little to create the plan, then it’s likelier they’ll pay more to implement it. If not, it’s best to know now.
  • Prepare the master plan and in the process establish a broadband development baseline and a ladder of well defined service tiers above it.
  • Outline the steps necessary to reach each successive tier, with options for a local government to go it alone or collaborate with similar situated communities across the region.
  • Create a neutral certification program that documents and validates each community’s climb up the commonly agreed service tier ladder.
  • As each step up the ladder is certified, automatically move to the next one, at a pace determined by local needs, aspirations and resources.

The group also made it clear that broadband service standards aren’t only about speeds. Affordability and direct access to basic building blocks, such as dark fiber, are just as important. So is differentiating between residential needs and the more complex and tightly defined broadband service requirements of businesses.

The next step is to form a regional leadership team that will, as the roundtable session’s title put it, move “from ideas to action”.

Incumbents get first grab at California broadband subsidies and subs in January

Yesterday, California’s broadband infrastructure subsidy fund began its transition from a bottom-up program focused on independent, locally developed projects, to a top down one that’s gamed for the benefit of incumbents. The first post-assembly bill 1665 rules for the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) were put on the table by the California Public Utilities Commission.

The draft lays out the process for facilities-based incumbents – broadband service providers that own and operate their own equipment, wired or wireless – to exercise their right of first refusal for unserved areas. If they claim an unserved area by 15 January 2018, they’ll effectively have at least year to build out. No one else will be eligible for CASF subsidies.

No one else.

What the draft rules imply but don’t explicitly say, and AB 1665 clearly states anyway, is that an incumbent who takes a right of first refusal on an area will be eligible to apply for CASF grants to pay for at least a part of the work needed to upgrade it. In other words, they go straight to the head of the line.

The process will be more or less run the same way that a much more restrictive right of first refusal offer was three years ago. At the time, only Frontier Communications, in its pre-Verizon acquisition days, held back a handful of small territories. At the time, incumbents couldn’t tap into CASF money and had to pay for the promised upgrades themselves.

This time around, with Frontier hemorrhaging subscribers and shareholder equity and AT&T bent on fencing off its decaying rural copper systems so it can replace them with low performing wireless systems, it might be different. Frontier lobbied hard for AB 1665, in the apparent hope it could turn CASF into its private piggy back. AT&T will be less interested in the money than in protecting its rural monopolies. But both will have an incentive to jump in on the right of first refusal.

What they won’t have a particular incentive to do, though, is to fulfil any of the promises they make. There is no particular penalty for claiming an area for a year, stalling beyond that however they long they can, and then doing nothing at all. There’s a general rule that could be used to penalise false statements, but AT&T and Frontier employ plenty of lawyers and lobbyists who know how to bend and break the truth legally.

The CPUC is scheduled to vote on the right of first refusal scheme next month. Public comments can be submitted for the next two weeks.

Draft resolution – California Advanced Services Fund interim “right of first refusal” processes and timelines, 14 November 2017
Final resolution – implementation of new timelines for California Advanced Services Fund applicants, 26 June 2014
Chaptered version, assembly bill 1665, 15 October 2017

FCC broadband committee offers letter to Santa deployment advice

There was a mix of good and awful policy on the table last Thursday as the Federal Communication Commission’s broadband deployment advisory committee (BDAC) heard from its five working groups. The BDAC was created by Ajit Pai shortly after he got the nod to be Donald Trump’s FCC chairman. Its job is to offer advice on how to speed up broadband deployment by breaking down legal, regulatory and bureaucratic barriers. Although there are nuggets of sound policy to be found, what it came up with mostly reads like wish lists written by telecoms lobbyists.

The committee and working groups membership is top heavy with big (and mid sized) telecoms companies and their lobbyists, but there are some bright lights as well. Cities are represented, but by policy-level people, not by people with muni broadband or other industry expertise.

And it shows.

The five working groups dealt with competitive access to broadband infrastructure, model code for municipalities, model code for states, removing state and local regulatory barriers and streamlining federal siting. The results are, to put it kindly, uneven.

The worst showing was from the model code for states group. It pretty much wants to ban municipal broadband ventures, although instead of coming out and saying so, it recommends first running projects through a gauntlet of preferred options, including subsidising incumbents. Few muni broadband proposals would survive it. The state model code group also recommends preempting local ownership of broadband-relevant assets, including dark fiber. If a city owns dark fiber or light poles, private companies could commandeer them at will for a price far below market value.

The muni code group, on the other hand, had some worthy ideas about streamlining permit processes and, contrary to the state group, recommended local governments should maintain control of municipal property.

The working group looking at state and local regulatory barriers produced a lengthy indictment of the sins committed against broadband and wireless companies, and took an analytical, but sympathetic, look at federal preemption of pretty much anything that might upset a telecoms lobbyist.

There are many recommendations for streamlining federal processes, but the P word – preemption – didn’t come up. That would be unneighborly, I suppose. The group looking at competitive access focused primarily on pole attachment issues, with one touch make ready rules at the top of the list.

A few recommendations, mostly preliminary, were adopted by the full committee, with the meat of the proposals expected to get a full review in January. What happens after that – or even, before – is unclear, although if the the effusive reaction of commissioner Michael O’Rielly is any indication, the FCC majority will cherry pick the policy bits that support the positions they’ve espoused all along, and run with them.

We’re not selling lit service to Verizon, says SCE

In an apparent attempt to dial down the heat on regulatory review of its dark fiber leasing deal with Verizon, Southern California Edison wants to remove any reference to electronics from the paperwork it filed with the California Public Utilities Commission.

SCE has been in the dark fiber business for a couple of decades, and is certified by the CPUC as a competitive telephone company – it holds a certificate of public convenience and necessity (CPCN) that allows it to lease dark fiber and sell other telecommunications services, including lit data transport, on its 5,000 mile fiber network. Because it’s first and foremost a regulated, privately owned electric utility, there are conditions attached, such as sharing revenue with ratepayers and closer, ongoing scrutiny of its telecoms business by the CPUC than would otherwise be the case.

Earlier this year, SCE asked the CPUC to give its blessing to a master fiber lease agreement with Verizon. The idea was to have the CPUC approve top level terms for what would be an open-ended business arrangement between SCE and Verizon. Within the constraints of that master agreement, the two companies would be able to negotiate leases for particular fiber strands on particular routes as the need arose over time. It’s a common practice in the fiber business and would eliminate the need to file the necessary, but nearly identical, paperwork with the CPUC every time SCE leases a new strand to Verizon.

At first, it seemed uncontroversial. The commissioner responsible for the review, Cliff Rechtschaffen, outlined a perfunctory decision making process. Then two things happened. The commission began an overall look at the way utility poles are managed in California, and Pacific Gas & Electric asked for essentially the same CPCN authority SCE has, under terms that were largely similar, but used a different formula for determining how money should be split between ratepayers and shareholders. Rechtshaffen widened the scope of his enquiry, citing, among other things, SCE’s apparent intention to sell lit services to Verizon. In other words, instead of leasing bare strands of dark fiber and letting Verizon worry about the rest, it would presumably be attaching electronics to each end and transporting data back and forth. Which is something PG&E also wants to do.

Since then, TURN, an old school consumer advocacy group, and the cable industry’s lobbying front organisation have jumped in on the proceeding, even as California’s recent wildfire catastrophes have made relations between the CPUC and privately owned electric utilities increasingly fraught.

SCE’s latest move is to tell the CPUC that it wants to take out the word “electronics” from its original application “because it suggests that the subject of the Application involves lit fiber, when it does not”.

Since it’s the first time around, PG&E will get a hard look at its request for telephone company status, and there’s no doubt a decision will take many months, if not years. SCE, on the other hand, has been in the fiber business for nearly 20 years, operating under rules approved by the CPUC that have provided significant benefits to electric ratepayers and telecoms subscribers, who are pretty much the same people anyway. Neither the company, its customers or the public that depend on both should have to suffer through an interminable review of a simple contract that plays by those rules.

Comcast asks FCC for privilege without responsibility

Comcast has joined Verizon in pushing the Federal Communications Commission to override state and local laws that might affect their business. In a required notice filed after a private meeting with FCC chair Ajit Pai’s top staffers, a lawyer for Comcast said they urged the FCC to overturn its 2015 decision to regulate broadband as a common carrier service, and to make sure that state and local governments didn’t try to pick up the slack…

At the meeting, we reiterated Comcast’s support for restoring its prior classification of broadband Internet access service (“BIAS”) as an interstate information service and reversing the 2015 decision to classify BIAS as a [common carrier] telecommunications service…

We also emphasized that the Commission’s order in this proceeding should include a clear, affirmative ruling that expressly confirms the primacy of federal law with respect to BIAS as an interstate information service, and that preempts state and local efforts to regulate BIAS either directly or indirectly.

Comcast and Verizon are worried about state initiatives like California’s assembly bill 375, which would have restored consumer privacy rules scrapped at the national level. It was eventually brought down by an all out attack by telecoms lobbyists who control millions of dollars of payments made to legislators in Sacramento. But the effort will, in all likelihood, be made again next year, and Comcast wants to head it off.

But it’s about more than just a few bills. If – when – the current FCC follows through on its promise to scrap broadband’s common carrier status, Internet service providers, like Comcast, will lose their existing exemption from consumer protection laws at both the state and federal level. Although it’s under challenge in a federal appeals court, that exemption basically puts the FCC in charge of regulating most aspects of common carrier telecoms services. Even the Federal Trade Commission can’t set business rules for common carriers.

Comcast likes the advantages, such as immunity from state and federal consumer laws, that come with a common carrier label. But it doesn’t want the common carrier obligations, such as net neutrality rules or FCC oversight, that follow. It would be reckless if the FCC accommodates them.

California broadband subsidies will be top down, incumbent focused

The California Public Utilities Commission plans to take a more active role in deciding where and how broadband infrastructure will be subsidised, and to work more closely with incumbents in the process. Yesterday, commissioners discussed how they will run the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) program under new rules adopted by the California legislature. Assembly bill 1665 was signed into law by governor Jerry Brown last month. It requires the commission to periodically designate which communities in California can receive CASF money, based on a slower minimum broadband speed standard – 6 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload – that will slash the number of eligible households from 300,000 to just 20,000, according to one CPUC estimate.

Commissioner Martha Guzman Aceves, who is taking the lead on redesigning the CASF program, said she wants to set specific goals for broadband deployment and work with incumbent providers to achieve them…

The key one I really want to focus on is…the overarching program goals. It can really help us work on how we have this regional focus that is goal driven and certainly one of the things I’ll be mentioning that I want us to consider as one of those goals is to be driven in the areas of highest economic need…

With the federal CAF program and other dynamics there is going to be provider engagement. Again, as I mentioned, the example of Oroville, where you could actually work with Comcast and AT&T to expand to the unserved areas. So this is a new area, it’s one where I think we have a responsibility to really be engaged to ensure that that engagement is balanced.

Up until now, infrastructure projects were created at the local level, usually by independent broadband providers, and then proposed to the CPUC for CASF funding. Incumbents are equally eligible, but a couple of small Frontier Communications grants aside, preferred to either ignore the program, or complain bitterly with varying degrees of truth whenever an independent project was proposed.

AB 1665 flipped that process completely around, giving the CPUC responsibility for making the first-cut decisions on where projects should be built and putting incumbents at the head of the line for getting the money to do it.

That’s really not a reversal for the CPUC itself, though. As president Michael Picker noted, commissioners have wanted, to varying degrees, to proactively manage the CASF program rather than simply responding to proposals as they came in.

Guzman Aceves and communications division director Cynthia Walker outlined a timetable for completing the overhaul by next September. Until then, the plan is to continue funding projects from the $30 million that’s leftover from the old program. No details were given about that process would work though. In the past, the CPUC has tended to take the position that grant proposals are assessed on the basis of the rules in effect as of the application date, but there’s been no indication whether that’s the case now.

CPUC presentation, California Advanced Services Fund, 8 November 2017

FCC misses night and day difference between lit and dark fiber

The Federal Communications Commission’s decision to allow CenturyLink to buy Level 3 Communications might have broken with merger review practices, but it is solidly in line with its past nonsense regarding wholesale broadband services. Earlier this year, the FCC justified backing away from common carrier regulation of business-to-business service with the circular argument that if ISPs – Comcast and Charter Communications, in particular – don’t follow common carrier rules, then common carrier rules don’t apply.

In its latest departure from logic, the FCC majority claimed that allowing a managed services-centric legacy telco to buy the nation’s largest independent fiber company wouldn’t harm the market for “long-haul transport service” because lit service and dark fiber are the same thing…

In conducting our review, we evaluate the competitive availability of long-haul transport considering both lit transport services and dark fiber, as we recognize dark fiber as a substitute for lit fiber transport services for purposes of our public interest analysis and there is no basis in our record to distinguish between lit and dark fiber transport.

There is, in fact, a huge difference between buying lit (or managed) service, where bandwidth quality, reliability, capacity and routing are determined by the provider, and leasing particular strands of dark fiber between two points and lighting it up with your own equipment.

The latest example of why that’s an important distinction came three weeks ago when the County of Santa Cruz lost internal connectivity and its primary link to the Internet during a major wildfire, due to an otherwise unrelated cut in an AT&T fiber line. County staff didn’t know that the direct connections between major sites they thought they were buying from AT&T were actually being routed through San Jose. A single misplaced chop by a road construction crew was enough to take it all down.

Dark fiber is also an essential building block for competitive service providers. When independent ISPs are forced to buy managed service on terms dictated by the monopolies they’re competing against, anything resembling a free market disappears. By ignoring this distinction and approving the CenturyLink-Level 3 deal with no thought given to the damage it will do, the FCC is whacking market competition, not regulatory weeds.

Rural Californians still fleeing Frontier broadband by the thousands

Frontier is still losing broadband subscribers in California, more so in rural areas than in urban areas, but either way the counts are dropping. That’s according to Frontier’s third quarter 2017 financial report and presentation. The good news? Frontier says it’s not bleeding as fast as it was.

Frontier first separates its results out into what it calls “CTF”, short for California, Texas and Florida, and “legacy”, which is what it had before it bought out Verizon’s wireline systems in those three states. California accounts for about four-fifths of the subscribers Frontier acquired in that transaction and apparently about the same proportion of its losses. At least going by the very vague characterisation company executives gave during a conference call with investment analysts, as quoted by the website Seeking Alpha: “California is somewhere in between” Texas and Florida.

Then within the CTF group, Frontier breaks its subscriber trend numbers into DSL and FiOS categories. The FiOS households are primarily in urban and suburban communities, particularly in the affluent coastal counties of southern California, where Verizon invested in fiber. DSL subscribers, on the other hand, are in a dog’s breakfast of often decaying copper systems that trace their legacy back to a variety of rural telcos that were strung together over the years into a collection that Verizon couldn’t be bothered to upgrade and couldn’t wait to dump.

And that Frontier can’t hang onto. It ended the third quarter with 19,000 net fewer DSL subscribers in the three state group, again with California likely accounting for four-fifths, or roughly 15,000 households. That’s a little better than the previous trend since it closed its purchase of Verizon’s systems, when quarterly DSL losses swung between something like 18,000 and 24,000 in California, using the four-fifths ratio as a rough guide.

On the positive side, Frontier is doing better at keeping its FiOS subscribers, losing a net of only 11,000 across the three states in the third quarter, down from 44,000 in the second quarter. And way down from a high of 76,000 net sub losses in the second quarter of 2016, when Frontier fumbled its California hand off.

Sneak peek at FCC’s pending preemption of local wireless reviews?


Some poles are history.

The Federal Communications Commission might have given us a preview of what its intended preemption of state and local discretion over wireless sites will look like. Later this month, commissioners will vote on whether or not to exempt replacement utility poles, that are used to support new wireless facilities, from historical preservation reviews. At the top level, it’s about extending an existing historical review exemption for towers to utility poles that aren’t presently supporting wireless equipment. (As a practical matter, pretty much any pole that’s being used for wireless purposes already qualifies as a tower).

But it isn’t much of a leap to read the narrow language regarding historical reviews, and imagine it being turned into the basis for a general preemption of state and local laws…

Small cell antennas are much smaller and less obtrusive than traditional antennas mounted on macro cell towers, but a far larger number of them will be needed to accomplish the network densification that providers need, both in order to satisfy the exploding consumer demand for wireless data for existing services and in order to implement advanced technologies such as 5G. We find that excluding the pole replacements at issue here from review under [historical preservation regulations] will allow providers to complete these deployments more efficiently. In addition, creating an exclusion for replacement of utility poles will promote consistency between the process that carriers and pole constructors must follow to comply with our historic preservation review requirements and those they must follow when building replacement poles that are subject to the requirements of other agencies applying [rules regarding federal lands].

Under the terms of the draft FCC order, if replacement poles aren’t of historical interest themselves and are “situated in the same hole as the original pole, are no more than 10 percent taller than the original pole, and are consistent with the quality and appearance of the original pole”, they will be exempt from historical preservation requirements. For now, the FCC isn’t extending another exemption criteria – “20 feet plus the height of an antenna array” – to replacement poles, but only because of the potential impact on historical sites.

This effort at the FCC is separate from a push in the U.S. senate to effectively wipe out local government property rights and strictly limit permit authority regarding poles and other vertical assets targeted by wireless companies.

Any bets on how the FCC’s general preemption of wireless site reviews will eventually read?