Tag Archives: broadband

Video entertainment “should not be considered essential” says AT&T. Amen say Comcast, Charter

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

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For a company that paid $85 billion to become a video entertainment giant, AT&T has an odd idea of what’s essential and what’s not. In objections to a California Public Utilities Commission staff proposal, AT&T argued that “video entertainment” should play no role in determining what level of broadband service is “essential” and whether it’s affordable or not. It specifically targeted Netflix and ESPN+ as examples of non-essential services that are not “appropriate essential functions” and should not be included in calculations of what level of broadband speeds and data caps are necessary for Californians to conduct their every day lives.

In reply comments, the lobbying front organisation that Comcast, Charter Communications and other cable companies use to push their interests in Sacramento and at the CPUC endorsed AT&T’s position, paraphrasing it as “entertainment service such as Netflix is not essential”. It’s easy for the California Cable and Telecommunications Association to trash talk Netflix; the Walt Disney Company – ESPN’s majority owner – not so much.

AT&T and its amen corner got it wrong, for at least a couple of reasons. First, the CPUC staff white paper in question identified fixed broadband service at 20 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds as the minimum necessary for a Californian household to meet its “basic needs” such as education, telehealth and safety, and enjoy “full participation in society” by doing such things as “completing job applications and accessing government assistance programs”. Netflix and ESPN aren’t on the list. Neither is HBO Max, which AT&T is hoping will pull it out of the video subscriber death spiral it’s in, or Spectrum TV Essentials or Xfinity Instant TV. Calling out entertainment services is a red herring.

It’s also arrogant.

I’ve sat in many meetings in Sacramento and listened to telco and cable lobbyists speak with contempt about people who are misguided enough to think they ought to be able to watch video via the Internet, if they don’t provide sufficient profit to be worth it to those companies to deliver modern broadband service. Full participation in society requires more than just getting email or reading a web page. It includes access to the full range of online information and social and political interaction that’s available – and essential – to those of us who are fortunate enough to have it.

Collected documents from the CPUC’s investigation into essential service and affordability metrics for utilities are here.

CPUC commissioner asserts “a significant role” over broadband affordability and essential service

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Rechtschaffen 2 20may2019

In a ruling issued on Friday, CPUC commissioner Clifford Rechtschaffen ended any doubt over whether an inquiry into the affordability of utility services includes the cost and quality of broadband access: it does. The decision puts wind in the sails of an analysis of broadband pricing and service speeds prepared by California Public Utilities Commission staff, and meets strident objections from AT&T, Comcast, Charter Communications and other monopoly model incumbents head on…

This amended scoping memo confirms that communications services, such as broadband internet access, are included within the scope of this proceeding. This amended scoping memo finds that [California Public Utilities] Code Sections 709, 280, 281, 275.6, and the Moore Act all demonstrate that the Legislature contemplated a significant role for the Commission in closing the digital divide in California and bringing advanced communications services, including broadband internet access, to all Californians. This proceeding may assist in that goal.

The California Cable and Telecommunications Association, which is a Sacramento lobbying front organisation for Comcast, Charter and other cable companies, argued that the CPUC shouldn’t look into the affordability of broadband service because it is “an interstate service governed by federal law, and defined as an “information service” and not a “telecommunications service”. In reply comments, AT&T agreed, saying “broadband is not a public utility service”. A joint filing by small rural telephone companies said much the same thing.

Unfortunately for them, the primary legal basis for their objections – the Federal Communications Commission’s blanket preemption of state broadband regulations was overturned by a federal appeals court. So long as the FCC says that broadband is an information service, it can’t wield its telecommunications authority as a magic weed whacker to chop down state regulations.

In his ruling, Rechtschaffen also set next June as the deadline for CPUC action on affordability and service standards for broadband and other utilities, including electricity, water, gas and voice services.

Collected documents from the CPUC’s investigation into essential service and affordability metrics for utilities are here.

Newsom vetoes California broadband development bills

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Governor Gavin Newsom killed the only two bills on his desk that might have improved broadband infrastructure and service in California. The bills would have given broadband development mandates, of a sort, to three key state agencies: Caltrans, the department of water resources (DWR) and the department of food and agriculture (DFA). Newsom vetoed assembly bill 1212 last week, and AB 417 was one of dozens that died as he cleared his desk this weekend, ahead of the 30 day deadline for acting on this year’s legislation.

AB 1212 and AB 417 were the only broadband-related bills of any consequence that made it out of the California legislature’s 2019 session. Bills that would have more directly tackled California’s broadband gaps died in committee, as did AB 1366, an AT&T-backed bill that would have effectively ended telecoms regulation and widened the divide between the states haves and have nots.

AB 1212 included “telecommunications” as one of the types of infrastructure that Caltrans and the department of water resources (DWR) could include on funding priority lists, which would have to be prepared and submitted to public employee pension boards for consideration as investments.

AB 417 added rural economic development to DFA’s responsibilities, and “increasing broadband access” was on its short list of action items. Unlike the federal agriculture department, the California DFA does not play a significant role in improving rural economies beyond promoting farming and ranching.

There was no overt opposition as the bills moved through the legislative process. But what happens behind closed doors usually matters more in Sacramento.

In a dissembling veto message, Newsom said AB 1212 is “unnecessary” because “existing law already encourages public retirement systems to invest in state infrastructure”. True, but no one has to propose anything, of any kind. Without a specific mandate, Caltrans or DWR are highly unlikely to include broadband facilities in their projects, whether or not they ask for public employee retirement boards for funding, unless it’s something intended for their own use.

He was more pointedly bureaucratic in explaining why he didn’t want DFA involved in rural economic development, saying “establishing the new…responsibilities envisioned by this bill is better done in the budget and in the context of the broader mission of the department”.

The simplest explanation for Newsom’s vetoes is that Caltrans, DWR and/or DFA staff asked him to do it, because those are jobs they don’t want to do. That sort of opposition was why a Caltrans dig once policy bill was watered down in 2016.

It’s tempting to point a finger at lobbyists for AT&T, Comcast, Charter Communications, Frontier Communications and other incumbents, who have consistently opposed state support for independent broadband projects while gaming the system to create their own taxpayer funded piggy banks. But there’s no indication – yet – that they were involved. Even so, Newsom’s vetoes bolster AT&T’s and Frontier’s rural monopoly business model, which redlines poorer and less densely populated communities and leaves them with low speed DSL service, if they’re lucky enough to get anything at all.

It’s a long shot bet that any meaningful broadband projects would have resulted from AB 1212 by itself. Likewise, without adding a significant amount of staff and funding – which AB 417 did not do – there’s little chance that DFA would accomplish anything of practical economic development value. But both bills would have created institutional frameworks to build upon. The bills that Newsom vetoed are now opportunities lost.

Long shot broadband infrastructure financing option approved by California legislature

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

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A bill that has the potential to funnel California public employee retirement fund money toward broadband infrastructure investments is heading to governor Gavin Newsom’s desk. AB 1212, carried by Marc Levine (D – Marin) , requires state agencies to send a list of priority infrastructure projects to various public employees retirement boards for their consideration. “Telecommunications” is included in the list of eligible infrastructure types, along with “power, transportation, ports, petrochemical, and utilities”.

The catch is that the lists would come from agencies that are “responsible for infrastructure”. While there’s any number of agencies that might want to build broadband infrastructure for their own use, there isn’t one that pursues public-facing projects. The California Public Utilities Commission funds broadband and telephone projects proposed by others, but doesn’t sponsor them. Still, AB 1212 would crack open the door, and there might be creative ways of walking through it.

AB 417, by Joaquin Arambula (D – Fresno), was also passed on to the governor. It assigns various responsibilities for rural economic development to the California food and agriculture department. How much of it is window dressing is open to debate but one item on the punch list is “making recommendations” for “increasing broadband access” in rural communities. That’s a pretty weak broadband development mandate, but it’s better than none at all. Call it a small step in the right direction. So is AB 488 by Cecilia Aguiar-Curry (D – Yolo). It adds a representatives from the food and agriculture department (as well as the state librarian and the governor’s tribal advisor) to the California Broadband Council.

One promising broadband subsidy bill, albeit for service rather than infrastructure, bit the dust early in the session. AB 1409 by Ed Chau (D – Los Angeles) would have created a fund for “homework gap projects”, which amounted to subsidising take-home wireless hotspots for students and providing WiFi access on school buses. It died behind closed doors in the assembly’s appropriations committee.

Overall, the California legislature ended its 2019 session with a few, relatively minor telecoms policy changes for Newsom to consider. One way of looking at it is that lawmakers did little harm this year, despite AT&T’s best efforts. The relative lack of attention to broadband infrastructure could be a blessing in disguise. The last major broadband infrastructure subsidy bill, 2017’s AB 1665, gutted the California Advanced Services Fund program and turned it into a piggybank for big, monopoly model incumbents.

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.

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

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

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“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 • , , , ,

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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 • , , , ,

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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.

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.

Newsom administration says telecoms deregulation bill offer little protection, particularly in rural California

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Leaning pole

Key opposition to assembly bill 1366 is coming from inside California governor Gavin Newsom’s administration. AB 1366 is the bill that would extend a ban on regulation of “Internet protocol enabled services”, including standard telephone service delivered by voice over Internet protocol technology (VoIP). It’s backed by AT&T, Comcast, Charter Communications, Frontier Communications and other telecoms companies, and a long list of non-profit organisations that they pay, but which otherwise have no particular interest in telecoms policy.

The California department of finance registered its formal opposition to AB 1366, which requires sign-off from the governor’s office. The finance department’s objections mirror those made earlier: that the rapid conversion of California’s telephone networks from regulated legacy technology to unregulated VoIP is a backdoor path to complete deregulation of broadband and phone service and infrastructure, and the sham consumer protections added to the bill as window dressing are worthless.

The bill assigns responsibilities of enforcement to the AG without any authority besides litigation and it establishes certain requirements of VoIP service providers without providing any penalty or enforcement mechanisms if they do not comply…

The Legislature and AG do not have any mechanism for resolving those complaints outside of legislation or litigation. The Department of Justice’s resources will likely be taxed given it has to now enforce VoIP service quality requirements and work through all the issues associated with VoIP.

The damage, according to the finance department, will fall disproportionately on rural Californians…

Recent catastrophic wildfires and disasters have demonstrated broader vulnerabilities in the communications grid, highlighted the lack of resiliency, and underscored the need for standards and rules. This bill would continue to prevent the [California Public Utilities Commission] from undertaking investigations or rulemakings that would result in regulations or standards for a large share of the technology used on the communications grid…
Customers who are most at risk of experiencing service abandonment if the [carrier of last resort] requirement is not enforced will be in rural areas where there is no other provider of reliable, affordable telephone service. This represents a significant public safety concern given the increased amount of catastrophic wildfires and disasters in these areas and need to access the communications grid unfailingly.

AB 1366 is in legislative limbo right now. It’s sitting in the California senate’s appropriations committee, which means that legislative leadership will decide on Friday whether it moves forward to a vote by the full senate. Although the millions of dollars that AT&T and the rest of the telecoms industry pays to California senators and assembly members matters a lot, but maybe not as much as the opposition of organised labor and, now, the governor’s office, if not the governor himself.