Tag Archives: broadband

CPUC confronts California’s “monopolised” broadband market, despite “imaginary” and “perverse” federal policy

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Cpuc 10sep2020

With the intent to “effectively deploy quality, affordable, and reliable broadband to all Californians”, the California Public Utilities Commission voted on Thursday to break the grip of telecommunications monopolies and change the way the industry is structured, incentivised and regulated.

It’s the CPUC’s response to governor Gavin Newsom’s executive order directing state agencies to fix California’s broadband deficit.

Commissioner Martha Guzman Aceves, who is leading the effort, explained the reasoning behind it in stark terms…

It’s not really focused on how we are improving our current failed system, but it’s really asking what the different ways and approaches we can take to systemically change our current system around providing the critical service of Internet.

We’ve been forced by our federal government to succumb to rules based on imaginary definitions of what the Internet is, which then block our ability to ensure universal service, and affordable service, through regulation. The justification has been made that competition will solve for it all, that the carriers will compete and bring down the prices and serve everyone. This neoliberalism economic theory has failed many Californians.

In fact, as you all know, 23% of Californian households do not have the Internet at home. That’s leaving 8.4 million Californians digitally disadvantaged and unable to participate in many of the benefits of economic and civic life.

And this has to change.

We all know this so intimately today as we take refuge in our homes, not only from covid but from the clouds of smoke and particulates that spread across our state. The Internet has been able to save many jobs, many people’s health, and our children’s education. And every Californian, every neighborhood needs the Internet to be resilient.

Before the Internet came to be, our strategy for serving all Californians’ telecommunications needs was to incentivise carriers based on a regulatory monopoly utility model. But…what we have left is really only an incentive-based set of strategies which have failed to meet the needs of universal service and affordability.

A major reason why this incentive-based approach through competition is not working is because there is no competition.

Only a very small group of Californians have choices. Less than 7% of Californians are served by three or more providers. About half of us have two choices. But over 40% have one or fewer. They may not have service at all.

Throughout the state, as an example of this 40% that have one or fewer service providers available to them, there’s not any area in the state where a cable company is competing with another cable company. If that cable company chooses not to serve all the residents in the community, there is no cable option. This is due, once again, to the perverse federal construct and the lack of obligation to serve all Californians…

So what does this result in? Everything that you know already. Tribes and rural communities left behind with poorly maintained infrastructure with insufficient speeds. Neighborhoods and urban communities that are redlined. And excessive pricing, due to this monopolised and oligopolised market that we have across the state…

So today I’m very excited…to ask the public to engage in this proceeding and offer their ideas for developing strategies for deploying more fiber in areas that lack it. Which can also provide for actual competition and, ultimately, affordability and universal access. This is a call for innovation, though pilots, through new partnerships and new strategies. We all know the urgency, and I’m very excited to get moving on these transformative solutions.

The other four commissioners stated their enthusiastic support, and then voted unanimously to launch the “Broadband for All” rulemaking.

This sort of proceeding typically drags on for years at the CPUC, but there’s reason to be optimistic that this time will be different. Newsom gave state agencies a December deadline for action. Under president Marybel Batjer – Newsom’s troubleshooter who was appointed last year – the CPUC has moved more quickly, particularly on high priority problems like covid–19, wildfires and utility bankruptcies.

Low income home broadband subsidies proposed by CPUC, but cable and telco cooperation needed

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Tanimura and antle housing 13jul2016

Wireline broadband service for low income Californians will be subsidised by the state’s telephone “lifeline” program, if a draft decision released last week is approved by the California Public Utilities Commission. The plan depends on California’s ability to “exercise its bulk purchasing power to secure volume discounts for participants”, rather than on pure regulatory muscle.

Qualifying households would pay a discounted rate for broadband and phone service. Current voice-only wireline lifeline service typically runs between $7 and $11 per month. Mobile carriers also participate in the lifeline program, but the rules are different – service is generally free to qualifying households and some level of broadband service is usually included.

The draft plan would add California’s monthly lifeline phone subsidy of $14.85 a month to the $9.25 provided by the Federal Communications Commission’s program for bundles of wireline broadband and phone service, which may be delivered via voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) technology. Voice-only service would still be offered, but the monthly subsidy would be $2 less.

The big question is: what will telephone and cable companies do with it?

Comcast, likely the largest Internet service provider in California, doesn’t participate at all in the existing phone-only lifeline program and isn’t required to do so. Neither are Charter Communications and Cox Communications, although they do participate. So do AT&T, Frontier Communications and other incumbent telcos, which are required to offer lifeline service, and competitive telephone companies, which can choose to participate or not.

But.

Big telecoms companies reflexively fight any attempt by the CPUC to lay down requirements on services that move via Internet technology. AT&T was recently fine $3.5 million for blowing off CPUC rules regarding next generation 911 service and mobile carriers are challenging disaster readiness obligations, for example. The success of this broadband lifeline initiative depends on cooperation from ISPs that often prefer scorched earth resistance.

The minimum wireline broadband speed would be 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload, with a monthly data cap of 1 terabyte. Unless the ISP involved doesn’t have the capability of delivering that speed level to a home, in which case best effort would be good enough, down to a hard minimum of 4 Mbps down/1 Mbps up.

That’s the “minimum service standard” set by the Federal Communications Commission, effective 1 December 2020. The FCC began setting lifeline standards for wireline broadband in 2016 at 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up and has increased it every year based on typical usage and subscription levels in the U.S.

The draft decision would also end support for deeply discounted legacy voice packages that limit the number of calls that can be made each month and allow mobile carriers to offer optional “bolt on” upgrades to free plans that would be paid for by the customer. If a customer buys an upgraded plan, then can’t pay for it, they still get basic service. The mobile carrier can remove the bolt ons, but still has to provide the minimum free service, which is unlimited talk and text, plus 4GB to 6 GB of monthly data at the FCC’s current ill defined speed standard of “3G mobile technology”.

The CPUC is accepting comments on the draft decision, with a vote possible in October.

FCC clings to primitive standard for advanced broadband

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Bedtime for bonzo

Five years is a long time in Internet years. Broadband demand and data traffic rates continue to climb, and the number of people who absolutely need fast connections has skyrocketed in the past few months as work, education, health care and other vital services moved online in response to the covid–19 emergency. But the Federal Communications Commission, or at least its republican majority, wants to stick with a broadband speed standard – 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload – that it established more than five years ago.

In preparation for next year’s national broadband deployment report, the FCC floated draft specs that maintain the current definition of “advanced telecommunications capability” as 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up. That’s slower than the minimum needed to function in the 21st century economy and society, even before covid–19. It’s slower than the symmetrical 100 Mbps speeds adopted by house democrats in Washington D.C., and by democrats in the California senate. And it’s slower and more lopsided than the standard pushed by FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, also a democrat, for years…

The FCC has been sticking with a download standard of 25 megabits per second that it adopted more than five years ago. We need to set audacious goals if we want to do big things. With many of our nation’s providers offering gigabit service, it’s time for the FCC to adjust its baseline upward, too. We need to reset it to at least 100 megabits per second. While we’re at it we need to revisit our thinking about upload speeds. At present, our standard is 3 megabits per second. But this asymmetrical approach is dated. We need to recognize that with enormous changes in data processing and cloud storage, upload speeds should be rethought.

The California legislature is looking at exactly the same problem this week. It’s considering two bills, one that would raise the state’s minimum broadband standard to symmetrical 25 Mbps down/25 Mbps up speeds, and another, sponsored and carried by well compensated friends of telco and cable companies, that began by trying to lock in pitifully slow 6 Mbps down/1 Mbps up service levels and only grudgingly moved to 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up.

I’ve advocated for SB 1130, and for other useful changes to CASF. I am involved and proud of it. I am not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.

Upload demand up, download demand down during covid-19 quarantine, report says

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Upstream traffic growth openvault 2q2020

The covid–19 emergency buried the tired argument that consumers want fast download speeds to watch video and don’t need, or care about, fast upload speeds. If the flood of anecdotal reports about online classes freezing and telework grinding to a halt as upstream bandwidth gridlocked wasn’t convincing enough, a report published by a broadband data consultancy might finally do the trick.

OpenVault just published its network analysis for the second quarter of 2020, the first full quarter under covid–19 restrictions. It found that the need for upload speed jumped – largely due to video conferencing – even as downstream demand dipped…

In contrast to quarter-over- quarter declines in downstream usage, upstream consumption was up 5.3% in 2Q20, when compared with 1Q20. It is likely that this reflects increased use of videoconferencing as a business, educational and lifestyle tool…

The trends of higher demand for bandwidth consumption and faster speeds appear to be forming that new broadband normal…As more people work and learn from home, the demand for upstream bandwidth will continue to multiply. Two-way video communication for videoconferencing and remote learning is helping drive this surge in upstream bandwidth demand. This demand spiked in 2Q20, growing by 56% over 2Q19.

The stats confirmed what a handful of California senators told the author of an industry-backed effort to keep California’s broadband standard at a ridiculous level of 6 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds.

“There are people, and the kids, who either totally lack Internet access or have very slow…or just people who have what would be considered normal Internet service and it’s still terrible”, senator Scott Wiener (D – San Francisco) said during a committee hearing to consider assembly bill 570, carried by assemblywoman Cecilia Aguiar-Curry (D – Yolo).

The 6 Mbps down/1 Mbps standard in the bill was subsequently raised a bit, to 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up, but with a catch. Comcast, Charter, AT&T and Frontier want to make sure they’re the only Internet service providers that get taxpayer subsidies that support those still slow speeds, so AB 570 was amended to give them the right to claim for themselves any projects proposed by independents, and the money that goes with it. This right of the first night would effectively lock out competition and lock in their monopoly grip on Californians’ broadband service.

Keeping California’s broadband speed limit low suits business models that rely on extracting monopoly profits from decaying rural telephone systems while directing investment to high income communities. What we need, though, is modern broadband infrastructure in every community. That’s why senate bill 1130, authored by senator Lena Gonzalez (D – Los Angeles) sets 25 Mbps as the minimum acceptable broadband speed for upload and download use.

Both bills are still alive and moving in Sacramento. Key decisions are due the end of next week, just ten days before California’s 2020 legislative session ends.

Newsom says Californians should get 100 Mbps, but doesn’t say how

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

California governor Gavin Newsom finished up work last week with an executive order directing state agencies – at least the ones that report to him – to…

…pursue a minimum broadband speed goal of 100 megabits per second download speed to guide infrastructure investments and program implementation to benefit all Californians.

To achieve that goal…

Within ninety days of the date of this Executive Order, the California Broadband Task Force shall provide a preliminary report to the Office of the Governor that identifies administrative actions that can result in immediate promotion of broadband access and usage within the State.

Oops. I’m sorry. That’s Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2006 broadband executive order. Newsom’s directive says…

The California Broadband Council is requested to create a new State Broadband Action Plan by December 31, 2020, and to review the plan annually thereafter.

Both Newsom and Schwarzenegger offered a laundry list of instructions to state agencies, intended to bring modern broadband infrastructure and service to Californian communities on the wrong side of the digital divide. But neither governor put any money on the table.

The major difference is that Newsom set a minimum, quantitative standard of 100 Mbps download speed that, by far, exceeds the current 6 Mbps written into state law and the 25 Mbps generally used by federal agencies. It matches the level set by congressional democrats and identified as the minimum necessary for everyday needs by research done by the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership and the Central Coast Broadband Consortium (full disclosure: I helped with that).

100 Mbps download speeds are a good start, but Newsom didn’t set an upload standard. That would have upset lobbyists for cable and telephone companies that insist upload speeds don’t matter, even as upstream traffic has ballooned during the covid–19 emergency.

Or rather, upset them even more: Newsom’s order stands as a rebuke to the industry minions who back assembly bill 570, which began as an attempt to lock the 6 Mbps download standard in legal stone, and has turned into a money grab by those companies, albeit with a nominal (and still woefully slow) 25 Mbps download speed level.

The 100 Mbps download speed standard jibes well with senate bill 1130, however. That bill calls for symmetrical 25 Mbps upload and download speeds, and lays the groundwork for universal fiber deployment. The technologies that can reliably deliver 25 Mbps both ways – fiber or the latest cable modem gear – can also support 100 Mbps down. Telco DSL technology can be stretched to deliver 100 Mbps down, if you live within meters of a fiber node, the lines are well maintained and the system has adequate backhaul to the rest of the Internet.

Those happy circumstances are all but impossible to find in rural California. For that matter, so are cable systems.

Gavin vs. Arnie: the broadband executive orders
Executive Order N-73-20 (broadband), California governor Gavin Newsom, 14 August 2020
Twenty-First Century Government: Expanding Broadband Access and Usage in California, Executive Order S-23-06, 28 November 2006
Press release: Newsom Executive Order, 14 August 2020
Summary: Schwarzenegger Executive Order, 28 November 2006
Coming Soon! new State Broadband Action Plan
California Broadband Task Force: Recommended Administrative Actions That Can Immediately Promote Broadband Access and Usage, 25 June 2007

Frontier’s California outage complaint rate triple that of AT&T, electric companies

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Cpuc complaints 15mar 13jun2020

Frontier Communication’s service outage problem is three times bigger than any other major California utility, judging by consumer complaints submitted to the California Public Utilities Commission during the covid–19 emergency. On a per customer basis the bankrupt telco’s wireline outage complaints were triple those of AT&T, and greater than Southern California Edison’s or Pacific Gas and Electric’s on an absolute basis, despite having fewer than half the number of customers as either of the two electric companies.

CPUC commissioners were briefed on utility customer complaints at their meeting last week. The presentation followed two landmark votes that declared broadband to be public utilities – one setting 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds as the “essential service quantity” of broadband and another requiring wireless companies to maintain “basic internet browsing” capability “during a disaster or commercial power outage”.

That’s an obligation that generally applies to Internet service, CPUC president Marybel Batjer said…

These are definitely difficult times and, as we all know, the pandemic has altered our lives in so many ways, as people are trying to adjust to what we’re calling this new normal. And I appreciate that the CPUC is making sure that residents are able to keep the lights on and more easily get access to the Internet, for work and for school. And we are committed to meeting our core responsibility of ensuring the safe delivery of our services that Californians so rely on to conduct their daily lives.

The CPUC received 49 complaints about unplanned service outages from Frontier customers between 15 March 2020 and 13 June 2020, which comes out to 22 complaints per one million customers. AT&T generated more outage complaints – 69 – but it has nearly five times as many wireline customers as Frontier. PG&E and SCE drew fewer unplanned outage complaints – 38 and 20, respectively – and fewer total complaints per one million customers.

Money – disconnections due to non-payment and payment arrangements – was the biggest source of complaints about PG&E. SCE caught the most flack for planned service outages, which would have been for maintenance – there haven’t been any public safety power shutoffs for wildfire prevention purposes so far this year.

Regulated or not, broadband is a utility and 25 down/3 up is the minimum needed. For now, CPUC says

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Caltrans slow 2

Broadband is both a utility service and essential, according to a decision last week by the California Public Utilities Commission. A framework for analysing the affordability of utility services in the aggregate – the total monthly cost of energy, water and telecoms – was approved in a unanimous vote. The methodology sums the cost of the “essential service quantity” of all utilities and compares it a household’s ability to pay it, given all the other expenses – rent, for example – that have to be met, too.

Whether or not broadband is defined as a utility by law – cable companies, particularly, have paid millions of dollars to lawmakers to avoid that – is irrelevant. It’s a monthly expense for a service that meets the dictionary definition of utility.

Commissioner Clifford Rechtschaffen, who authored the decision, explained to his colleagues before the vote…

Essential utility services include gas, electricity, water, and telecommunications. Part of telecommunications must be good quality Internet service. Not just any connection, but high quality Internet service. The covid crisis definitely underscores that as never before.

But what is the “essential service quantity” of broadband? The commission’s decision says it’s 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload speeds, which is just a bit faster than originally recommended by staff, before the covid–19 emergency hit. Commissioner Martha Guzman Aceves said those speeds don’t cut it now…

The proceeding really reflects the pre-covid high speed necessity on communications, on broadband in particular – 25 down and 3 up. In my household, I can tell you, when the kids are in Zoom school and my husband and I are working at home, we have four devices on the Internet. And 25/3 is insufficient. If we are zooming, it’s insufficient. Obviously, we’re going to need to update this, as the decision says, we’re going to be updating this, but with covid I really just want to highlight that the basic need, even 25/3, from my own, anecdotal, household, is a greater need.

Rechtschaffen promised that the methodology and the data being crunched will be kept current. There’s no intention of it being static“, he said. ”We’ll definitely be updating it".

CPUC votes today on setting 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up as California’s “essential service quantity” of broadband

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Forbes ag tech hartnell alisal demo 13jul2107

The California Public Utilities Commission is scheduled to decide today if it will set a minimum level of “essential” broadband service that Californians need to function and, indeed, survive in the 21st century. After extensive public review of the second draft of a ground breaking staff study of minimum utility service needs and people’s ability to pay for it, a decision drafted by commissioner Clifford Rechtschaffen would revise and then formally adopt the report’s conclusions and methodology.

Much of the proposed decision involves electric, gas, water and voice telephone services, which are traditionally subjects of CPUC regulation. Its jurisdiction over broadband companies and the services they provide – raw Internet access as well as things like voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) service – is controversial. AT&T, and Charter Communications and Comcast’s Sacramento lobbying front “each believe that it is not appropriate for the commission to engage this issue at all”, according to Rechtschaffen’s draft.

Nevertheless, Rechtschaffen sets a minimum broadband service level. The “essential service quantity” for household broadband is pegged at 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds, with a 1 terabyte monthly data cap. That’s the minimum needed to support a family in the covid–19 era…

At this critical time, when COVID–19 response measures have required more essential services to be provided online, including distance learning and telemedicine, a much higher basic speed has become a necessity. On April 24th, Commission President Batjer sent a letter to the internet service providers urging them to provide a minimum speed of 25 Mbps…for their affordable plan offerings It is likely that this shift to digital dependency will continue long after COVID–19 recovery efforts end.

A maximum affordable price isn’t set for any utility service, but a sophisticated method for calculating one is. Affordability is defined as “the degree to which a representative household is able to pay for an essential utility service charge, given its socioeconomic status”.

The minimum standards and the method for benchmarking affordable prices will become an integral element in the CPUC’s management of broadband programs, such as the California Advanced Services Fund. One might also hope that the California legislature takes notice as it considers whether to keep the state’s nominal minimum broadband speed standard at 6 Mbps down/1 Mbps up.

Muni broadband, net neutrality get bland nods in Biden’s peace treaty with Sanders

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Sanders biden

Joe Biden’s campaign agreed to a skeletal broadband policy in what amounts to a peace treaty with Bernie Sanders and his supporters. The “unity task force recommendations” published on Wednesday amount to little more than a declaration that broadband is good, but it’s the first time that Biden has explicitly signed on to any conventional democratic party positions on telecommunications policy.

The document has the usual nice words about broadband being essential to life in the 21st century, with the standard nod to education. It makes a constitutionally dubious pledge to remove state bans on municipal broadband projects and to spend money on all types of infrastructure, including, particularly, muni broadband.

Network neutrality gets a mention. The “recommendations” propose to…

Restore the FCC’s clear authority to take strong enforcement action against broadband providers who violate net neutrality principles through blocking, throttling, paid prioritization, or other measures that create artificial scarcity and raise consumer prices for this vital service.

Presumably, what they really mean is that Biden will appoint FCC commissioners who will use the “clear authority” that already exists. Which means policy ping pong will continue. During the Obama administration, the democratic majority on the Federal Communications Commission classified broadband as a regulated common carrier service. The Trump administration’s republican led FCC said it wasn’t.

The recommendations don’t explicitly promise to restore broadband’s common carrier status. There are other ways of imposing net neutrality obligations on Internet service providers, as California discovered. Initially, the Obama era FCC proposed a no lobbyist left behind approach that would have allowed monopoly model incumbents to negotiate permission for decidedly non-neutral network management practices.

Direct intervention by the Obama white house put an end to that pretence. Whether a Biden administration would do the same is an open question. Biden has enjoyed a long and comfortable political career in a system fuelled by, and largely subservient to, cash from corporations and labor unions. The peace treaty with Sanders doesn’t change that reality.

Covid-19 was barely a sniffle for the Internet, study finds

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Fixed broadband weighted median download

Broadband networks in the U.S. and around the world held up well as countries locked down and work, school and play moved online in March. Anna-Maria Kovacs, a visiting scholar at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., took a brief look at worldwide Internet speed test data collected by Ookla and traffic data from Sandvine, and found that the crush of traffic put a temporary downward bend – and only that – on planetary network speeds

It is not unusual, of course, for internet traffic to grow…What is unusual in the Covid–19 environment is the suddenness of the traffic growth. Rather than growing 30% in a year, traffic grew about that much in a month. Sandvine reports a “staggering increase in volume for network operators to cope with and absorb.” During March, according to Sandvine, global traffic grew 28.69% with an additional 9.28% during April, for a total of 38% over the two months. Upstream traffic growth was even more stunning, up 123.18% in March before leveling off…

The U.S. networks’ fixed-broadband speed bottomed out within three weeks, as did the global index, while the speeds of the EU, EU–4, and OECD continued to decline for another three weeks.

Kovacs’ conclusions – the apparent superior performance of U.S. networks is due to the beneficence of telecoms companies and the somnambulance of the Federal Communications Commission – are unsupported. Her top level observations might correlate to Ookla’s network traffic data, but she offers no analytical rigor or evidence of causation. The data sets she relies on aren’t necessarily globally consistent. For example, Ookla’s Speedtest.net is based in Seattle and relies on crowdsourced data. It’s a mistake to assume that the crowd generating the data in the U.S. is largely identical to the crowd in the E.U. It might or might not be.

Comparisons of the same population over a few weeks time are valid, though. The top line conclusion stands: globally, networks withstood the initial covid–19 induced surge, and adapted to higher traffic levels within a few weeks.

The Internet was originally designed to ride out a nuclear war. It works just fine in a pandemic, too.