Tag Archives: broadband

FCC puts political agenda ahead of regulatory relevance

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Self licking ice cream cone

The Federal Communications Commission is in danger of becoming just another one of Washington, D.C.’s self licking ice cream cones. Some would argue that it has already achieved that exalted status, but until pending court challenges to recent, major decisions – net neutrality and local property rights preemption, particularly – are decided, there’s still hope.

The latest example of hype-over-substance from the FCC’s current republican majority is the annual broadband deployment report that, at times, reads like an update from the old Soviet Union about its latest five year plan for increasing tractor production. Glorious.

Democrats on the commission can be just as political, particularly when they hold the majority, but they aren’t always so (nor, to be fair, are republicans, at least not historically). Jessica Rosenworcel, the FCC’s senior democrat, dissented from the report because it 1. relies on bad data, and 2. its standards are set too low…

This report deserves a failing grade…

The claim in this report that there are only 21 million people in the United States without broadband is fundamentally flawed. Consider that another recent analysis concluded that as many as 162 million people across the country do not use internet service at broadband speeds. Adding insult to injury, the same flawed data we rely on here is used to populate FCC broadband maps. For those keeping track, one cabinet official has described those maps as “fake news” and one Senator has suggested they be shredded and thrown into a lake…

It’s time for the FCC to adopt a 100 Megabits per second standard and set Gigabit speeds in our sight.

The FCC’s 2019 broadband deployment report sets a low standard – 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload speeds – and inflates service providers’ availability reports by assuming that if one person in a census block has access to a given speed level – the FCC’s standard for such reports – then everyone does. Rosenworcel is correct: the 2019 report doesn’t quantify the reality of broadband deployment in the U.S. And it certainly doesn’t justify the FCC’s self congratulatory hype.

FCC’s broadband deployment report is good news, but not as good as it says it is

by Steve Blum • , , ,

“Advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed on a reasonable and timely basis” in the U.S., according to the Federal Communications Commission. In a self congratulatory report, the FCC issued what has become its annual declaration of victory in its congressionally mandated battle to encourage “the deployment on a reasonable and timely basis of advanced telecommunications capability to all Americans”.

The report concludes that “the number of Americans lacking a connection of at least 25 Mbps/3 Mbps (the Commission’s current benchmark) has dropped from 26.1 million Americans at the end of 2016 to 21.3 million Americans at the end of 2017, a decrease of more than 18%”.

Those numbers shouldn’t be taken literally. The FCC accepts the availability reports filed by Internet service providers on face value, and makes the false assumption that if a given level of service is available to one customer in a census block – which is how ISPs are told to report their coverage – then everyone in that census block can get it. The FCC admits in a buried footnote that the report “likely overstates the coverage experienced by some consumers, especially in large or irregularly shaped census blocks”, but that, ironically, is an understatement at best.

Even so, the general conclusion that more people in U.S. have access to service at 25Mbps down/3 Mbps up now than they did last year is correct. The data I’ve seen – and scrubbed – supports the same trend, if not the same glorious triumphalism.

The FCC’s definition of “advanced telecommunications capability” remains at 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds for fixed – wireline and wireless – broadband service. Other research, particularly that conducted by the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership and the Central Coast Broadband Consortium last year, shows that the market has moved on and 100 Mbps down/20 Mbps up is the working minimum for today’s online needs. The FCC pushed back on advice to raise its minimum, citing, in part, lobbying on behalf of wireless Internet service providers who often can’t even come close to the 25/3 standard. To its credit, though, the FCC published a bit of data about broadband availability at higher speeds, albeit on the national or state level, and not with the more granular county-level analysis it applied to the slower 25/3 benchmark.

The report also affirms last year’s conclusion that mobile broadband is not a substitute for fixed service, although it edges a bit closer in that direction with the qualification that they are not “full substitutes in all cases”.

I was a member of the team that produced the MBEP/CCBC study and its conclusions. Take it for what it’s worth.

VoIP regulation, or something, passes California assembly

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

A bill that establishes consumer protections – of a sort – for people whose phone service is delivered via voice over Internet protocol technology, but otherwise leaves Internet-delivered services unregulated, was approved by the California assembly yesterday. Assembly bill 1366 passed with a lopsided, bipartisan majority: 64 votes in favor, versus six noes and ten abstentions, which have the same effect as a no vote. All the noes and all but one abstention came from democrats.

It’s still not clear exactly how AB 1366 would regulate VoIP service. Originally, the bill simply extended a ban on regulation of any kind, by local governments or state agencies, including the California Public Utilities Commission, of “Internet protocol enabled” services. That ban is due to expire at the end of the year, which worries the likes of AT&T, Comcast, Charter Communications and Cox Communications. But there are two sides to every story and in this case opposition from the primary union representing AT&T’s workforce forced inspired the author, Lorena Gonzalez (D – San Diego), to add skeletal VoIP service quality and customer service standards to the bill.

What’s still not clear is who would figure out what the bill’s vague, high level standards mean in detailed, real world terms, or how they would be enforced. No cop on the beat is identified, which means it’ll be up to the courts to ultimately figure it out, a job which is likely to require years of litigation.

AB 1366 doesn’t deal with actual broadband service, it just addresses services like VoIP or email or social media that ride on top of it.

The bill now moves to the senate side of the California capitol, where its first stop is likely to be the energy, utilities and communications committee. That’ll be the next opportunity for Gonzalez to add some clarity to it. Stay tuned.

Strip mall or industrial park, broadband drives commercial property values

by Steve Blum • , ,

Even the smallest businesses want fast, reliable and competitively priced broadband now. My barber has 100 Mbps service in his one-man shop so he can run an online business on the side. Dollar stores couldn’t exist without access to a global market for surplus merchandise. Those are just two neighborhood strip mall examples. Every sector of the economy depends on broadband to maintain fast, real time connections to customers, suppliers, partners and data centers.

Broadband access distinguishes one commercial or industrial area from another. The businesses that you’ll find in any particular industrial park, for example, are mostly businesses that have learned to live within the limits of the available bandwidth. The ones that out grew those limits have, for the most part, moved out. Some are surviving by paying for expensive, custom-built connections from major carriers or by kludging together wireless links, but most don’t have the money, time or knowledge to do that.

Clusters of smaller startups and talented freelancers develop where Internet service is cheap and cheerful. And fast. A good example is downtown Santa Cruz. Eleven years ago, it was a ghost town. Then NextSpace opened the first modern co-working facility and Cruzio started pumping bandwidth anywhere that anyone wanted it. Freelancers and shoe string entrepreneurs showed up, then remote offices for Silicon Valley workers followed. Now you have big high tech companies and venture capital-backed startups crowding in. And rents and congestion are going up. So the next stop, 20 miles south, is Watsonville, where enquiries for high speed, industrial grade broadband facilities – again, dark fiber with redundant paths to Tier 1 exchanges – are at an all time high and growing (and being met, in some cases, by the City of Watsonville’s municipal dark fiber network).

Broadband is the primary limiting factor for economic development in California. It used to be that industrial plants located where power was abundant and inexpensive, and railroad connections were close by. Now, it’s all about broadband.

Consumer rules for Californian VoIP providers, but no particular cop proposed by new draft bill

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Twin peaks donuts

AT&T’s attempt to dodge regulation of voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) service took a turn down an unmarked legal road on Monday. Assembly bill 1366 is championed by assembly member Lorena Gonzalez (D – San Diego). As now reads, it would add rules about repair windows and bill credits for VoIP service outages to California’s business and professions code, but doesn’t specify any particular agency or method to police those requirements.

Generally, consumer laws are enforced by the consumer affairs department, or the California attorney general, or local district attorneys, or private lawsuits. I expect the enforcement mechanism will be made clearer as the bill moves toward an assembly floor vote. The one thing that seems certain – with due regard for my lack of legal credentials – is that the California Public Utilities Commission won’t be the cop on the beat.

As currently written, the bill gives the CPUC a limited role in collecting information about VoIP outages and complaints, but that appears to be mainly for statistical purposes, with the data forwarded to the attorney general and the legislature annually.

The version Gonzalez originally introduced would have extended a moratorium on state level regulation of VoIP or other “Internet protocol-enabled services”, but it ran into a human wall of labor opposition during a committee hearing last month. That union presence overpowered endorsements from a long line of representatives from vaguely connected non-profit organisations and lobbyists from AT&T, Comcast, Charter and other big telecoms companies that 1. don’t want VoIP regulated and 2. often make less-than-charitable payments to such organisations. Gonzalez promised to amend the bill, and make it more to the liking of the Communications Workers of America (CWA), the primary union representing AT&T field employees.

Theoretically, those amendments were made last week, when AB 1366 slid out of the assembly appropriations committee, which Gonzalez chairs. In reality, the changes were posted on Monday. Whether CWA or AT&T will be happy with the new version remains to be seen. The assembly has until the end of next week to act on it.

Californiia bill that might or might not regulate VoIP moves forward in secret

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

An extended ban on regulation of Internet protocol-enabled services escaped legislative limbo last week, and is moving towards a vote by the California assembly. The big question now is: what does it say? Another major broadband bill, which would have funded after school broadband access for kids who lack it, died behind closed doors in Sacramento.

Assembly bill 1366 was originally written to extend a moratorium on any attempt by the California Public Utilities Commission to regulate voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) or any other service that rides on top of a broadband connection. It’s dearly loved by lobbyists for big telcos and cable companies.

In its first hearing, in the usually AT&T-friendly assembly communications and conveyances committee, a solid wall of red t-shirt communications union members stood up to oppose AB 1366, and the bill’s author, Lorena Gonzalez (D – San Diego), and the committee chair, Miguel Santiago (D – Los Angeles), backed down immediately.

Gonzalez promised to amend the bill so that VoIP service would be regulated somehow, but not by the CPUC. So AB 1366 was sent to the powerful assembly appropriations committee, which she chairs.

On Thursday, legislative leaders met privately to decide which bills, of the hundreds that were awaiting judgement in the appropriations committees (assembly and senate), would move forward and which would be killed out of sight of the public. Not surprisingly, Gonzalez’s bill got a green light, with the terse note that it was passed “as amended”.

Those amendments were not made public before the appropriations committee vote, nor have the changes been posted to the legislature’s website since. That’s not unusual. California legislators are not subject to the same public disclosure requirements that they impose on local governments, and they take full advantage of that privilege. So we’ll have to wait until Gonzalez is ready to show her hand. That should happen in the next week or two – the assembly has an end of the month deadline to vote on AB 1366.

AB 1409 wasn’t so lucky. The appropriations committee’s verdict on it was “hold in committee”, which translate as dead on arrival. Authored by Ed Chau (D – Los Angeles), AB 1409 would have created a subsidy program to provide kids access to broadband after school, via “Wi-Fi enabled school buses or school or library Wi-Fi hot spot lending” or similar. Such “homework gap projects” would have been paid for out of rent money collected from wireless companies that lease state property and fines imposed on cable operators.

Zayo, a major fiber optic network owner, sold to private investors

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Zayo bay area

Zayo announced yesterday that it had “a definitive merger agreement to be acquired by affiliates of Digital Colony Partners and the EQT Infrastructure IV fund”. The $8.2 billion deal takes Zayo off the New York Stock Exchange and puts it in the hands of owners who might have the patience to play the long game against the monopoly-model telcos – AT&T, Verizon and CenturyLink, particularly – who control the lion’s share of long haul and metro fiber in the U.S.

Might.

In the statement announcing the deal, the head of Digital Colony, Mark Ganzi, at least spoke encouraging words. He said Zayo “has a unique opportunity to meet the growing demand for data associated with the connectivity and backhaul requirements of a range of customers”. That’s true enough, and if – if – Ganzi is sincere it would indicate that his Plan A is to make Zayo a stronger competitor, rather than flipping it as quickly as possible to one of the big players.

According to a story in Bloomberg by Gillian Tan and Nabila Ahmed, the deal will cool down recent pressure to perform from shareholders…

Zayo, led by Chief Executive Officer Dan Caruso, has been under pressure from activist investors including Starboard Value and Sachem Head Capital Management.

After peaking at $39.35 last July, Zayo shares tumbled as low as $20.46 as the company struggled through organizational changes and concerns that the market for fiber lines was becoming overcrowded. The shares began to rebound late last year on news that a sale was in the works. In March, it announced that it was evaluating strategic alternatives.

Zayo owns or controls a lot of fiber in California. The map above shows its metro fiber network in the Bay Area. It also owns a middle mile route between the Bay Area and Sacramento, among other fiber assets. With the sale of Level 3 to CenturyLink in 2017, Zayo is one of the few big, independent sources of fiber remaining in California.

As the press release noted, Zayo’s new owners need to get regulatory approvals before they can take possession. That includes sign off by the California Public Utilities Commission. Zayo holds a certificate of public convenience and necessity (CPCN), which allows it to take advantage of privileges, such as the ability to install conduit and fiber in public streets and to attach cables to utility poles. It obtained the CPCN in 2008 when it acquired NTI, a smaller telecoms company. The CPUC had to approve the purchase then, and will have to do so again with this latest transaction.

FCC doesn’t swallow broadband map spam, but still does an availability victory dance

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Carmen miranda 625

The Federal Communications Commission re-did its annual analysis of broadband availability in the U.S., after a broadband advocacy group and Microsoft separately called bullshit on the first version. But it’s not backing away from its claim that “significant progress has been made in closing the digital divide in America”.

Free Press is the broadband advocacy group that spotted a truckload of map spam when the FCC pushed out a press release in February, claiming broadband “is being deployed on a reasonable and timely basis”. That claim was based on availability data submitted by Internet service providers, including one – BarrierFree – that smeared gigabit service claims over 100% of the census blocks in eight states.

Those reports were apparently removed – the latest press release only said that “a company submitted drastically overstated deployment data” – and that did change the numbers. But it didn’t change the FCC chair Ajit Pai’s conclusion that “we are closing the digital divide”, based on analysis that apparently shows an increase of nearly five million households with access to the federal agriculture department’s benchmark broadband speed standard of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. That’s also the minimum that the FCC says is needed for access to what it says are “advanced services” and everyone else calls plain, old service.

There is still reason to doubt this new conclusion. The FCC’s data submission specifications inherently result in over reporting: if one customer in a census block can get a broadband connection at, say, 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up, then the entire census block is flagged as having access to that level of service. The reality, though, is often dramatically different, as Microsoft demonstrated with actual usage data it collects.

The FCC hasn’t addressed that problem yet. It’s probably too much to expect anything other than mindless boosterism from this FCC’s publicity machine. But we might get a clearer picture when the full report is finally approved by commissioners and released publicly.

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 Gonzalez (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.