Tag Archives: california legislature

Telecoms lobbyists tell Calfornia lawmakers which side of the digital divide they’re on

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Lobbyists for AT&T and the California cable industry gave state assembly members clear insight into why rural broadband development is such an intractable challenge. It wasn’t exactly the insight they were planning to deliver – that consisted mostly of platitudes about the wonderful work they’re doing and the evils of subsidising independent companies that would dare to compete against them. The insight came from the way they tried to divert attention away from the rural questions that the assembly’s select committee on the digital divide in California is tasked with answering, and toward the investment they’re indisputably making in more lucrative urban areas.

Bill Devine, a staff lobbyist for AT&T, talked at length about the $7.4 billion investment that his company has made in California. He mentioned wireline in passing, but came back time and again to extoll the wonders of AT&T’s mobile service. Which is where most of that spending is going – even wireline work is tilted heavily toward reaching cell sites with fiber. Some of that construction is in rural areas, but not much in relative terms. Devine characterised the rural share as “hundreds of millions of dollars”. Not chump change, but that’s about a tenth or less of AT&T’s spending. In other words, urban areas – 5% of the state, geographically – get something like 90% or 95% of AT&T’s upgrade investments while rural areas – 95% of California – get the leftovers. Population density is a factor, but geography matters too. You can’t concentrate spending so heavily on 5% of California without ignoring infrastructure needs in the rest.

Carolyn McIntyre, representing the cable industry’s lobbying front in Sacramento, was asked directly if her support for extending broadband service to at least 98% of Californians was based on a statewide aggregate, or if that’s a goal that should apply region by region. “Statewide” was her answer. Which suits her cable company clients just fine. They, too, are happy to concentrate their investments on dense and affluent areas and, like Charter Communications in the Salinas Valley, redline the rest.

The message, albeit unintended, was clear: big cable and phone companies are a big part of California’s rural digital divide problem, and have no interest in being part of the solution.

California broadband follows people, not land

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It’s easy to think that the California you see is the California you have. If you live and work in, say, the Bay Area or Los Angeles, California is a mix of freeways, strip malls and offices packed with creative, tech savvy people. That view, or something not far from it, is what 95% of Californians see. But it’s only 5% of the state.

The other 5% of Californians and 95% of the state is rural. That includes farms and ranches, and forests, mountains and deserts. I drove from Buellton to Sacramento yesterday: six hours of fast driving with not a single sushi bar or Google bus in sight.

That urban/rural split – the rural digital divide that focused attention at the assembly select committee hearing in Sacramento this week – showed up in broadband statistics compiled by the California Public Utilities Commission for that hearing. Commissioner Catherine Sandoval outlined the broadband service issues that arise from that split, and the funding available to address them, for committee members.

Only 2% of the 95% of Californians who live in urban areas are without wireline broadband service that meets the state’s minimum 6 Mbps down/1.5 Mbps, according to stats presented by Rob Osborne, a communications analyst with the CPUC. Even if the standard was raised to the federal 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up level, only 3% would lack sufficient service.

It’s a different story for rural residents, though. More than half – 57% – lack wireline service that meets the CPUC’s minimum, and that figure jumps to nearly two-thirds – 65% – if you use the federal standard. Upgrading broadband infrastructure in urban areas where population – and money – densities are high is a problem with a wealth of workable solutions. The challenge is developing an equally effective broadband development tool kit for rural areas.

Three ways to bridge California’s digital divide

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Not the best way to solve transportation problems either.

I was at the state assembly’s select committee on the digital divide in California on Tuesday, and offered my comments…

Good morning. My name is Stephen Blum, my company is Tellus Venture Associates, in Marina, in Assemblyman Stone’s district. I’m a broadband development consultant and a member of the Central Coast Broadband Consortium. I work for several cities and other regional broadband consortia in California, in both urban and rural areas. I see the divide every day.

I’d like to make three points. First, existing broadband subsidy programs are very much appreciated, but they also are uncoordinated and often work against each other. One example is the money given to schools to upgrade broadband service, both by the federal government and the State of California. The way those programs work now, schools are reimbursed for fiber optic networks to connect campuses. That’s a good thing. But the planning is strictly siloed. The money can only be used to connect schools, and only in the most direct way possible.

It’s as if schools built roads for school buses. What we’d get under the same rules are eight lane freeways leading to schools, while everyone else drives on gravel roads. And only school buses could use those freeways, unless someone else pays to put in extra lanes.

My second point has to do with standards. The federal Connect America Fund will be spending nearly $600 million to upgrade broadband service in rural areas in California. The California Advanced Services Fund, a state program, will also provide hundreds of millions of dollars. Under the federal program, rural service levels are set at 10 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up. The Californian service standard is 6 Mbps down and 1.5 Mbps up. In other words, infrastructure built by one program wouldn’t necessarily meet the standards of the other – failing on either upload or download speeds – and in theory could lead to two overlapping projects, neither meeting the 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up standards that the FCC says is the minimum needed by people in urban areas. If the two programs were coordinated, there would, in many cases, be ample money to build systems that meet that higher standard. It’s a standard that’s minimal for people in cities but reckoned too luxurious for rural residents.

Finally, we have to look at the legacy government granted monopolies that are strangling rural areas. One example: Verizon has a legacy phone system that serves Taft, in Kern County. All you can buy there is plain old phone service. No DSL. Another example: Charter Communications has the cable franchise for the Salinas Valley. Just to the north, in Watsonville, for $70, you can get 200 channels of digital TV, with a DVR thrown in, 60 Mbps broadband service and unlimited long distance calling. A few miles south in Gonzales, where household incomes are ten to twenty thousand dollars a year less than Watsonville, which is not a rich community to begin with, all you can buy is 36 channels of 1980s style analog TV for $94 a month.

This kind of redlining of low income rural communities by incumbent telephone and cable companies has to end.

Thank you very much.

Full disclosure: by the time my turn to speak came, it was three hours into the hearing and well past noon. Like most of those still waiting, I opted to submit my comments in writing. Never be the last guy standing between decision makers and lunch: the decision isn’t likely to go your way.

Do your own thing is a poor way to plan broadband in California

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“The funding seems to be in silos, how do we break these silos down?”, asked assemblyman Jim Wood (D – Healdsburg) at the first meeting of the assembly’s select committee on the digital divide in California this morning. He was responding to presentations from representatives of organisations that specialise in developing broadband infrastructure for education, health care and public safety agencies. Those networks meet important needs, but for the most part have been, or are being, built with little or no consideration for overall broadband infrastructure development priorities in the state.

Wood’s question was rhetorical, but it’ll need to be answered as the committee he chairs does its work. Overall, broadband planning responsibilities at the state government level in California are scattered across dozens of different offices and departments. Caltrans, for example, doesn’t include broadband conduit in the road projects it builds, something that visibly frustrated Wood. “What the hell do we have to do to get that going,” he said.

“We have to shift how we think about our transportation network, it is a network first”, said assemblyman Mark Stone (D – Santa Cruz), who also took part in the hearing. “Yes, moving people but also moving data”.

Next year, Stone will bring back a stalled broadband planning bill he introduced in February. As it’s currently written, assembly bill 238 would set overall goals and specifically raise the minimum acceptable speed for broadband infrastructure projects subsidised by the California Advanced Services Fund to 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up, from the current 6 down/1.5 up standard. It might end up going further though, and address some of the bureaucratic obstacles and narrowly focused priorities discussed today.

I’m involved in the AB 238 effort, so I’m not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.

Local control over wireless permits, CPUC management on the table as California legislature returns

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The California legislature is back from its summer vacation today. Four weeks are left in the floor schedule: both houses are supposed to wrap up debate and voting for the year by 11 September 2015. Several bills with implications for telecommunications policy are still in the mix, including…

  • Assembly bill 57 – requires local agencies to meet federal “shot clock” requirements for processing permit applications for cell sites and other wireless broadband projects.
  • Assembly bill 806 – allows the installation of antennae and wireless nodes on overhead utility lines, more or less without local approval.
  • Assembly bill 1262 – takes $5 million from the California Advanced Services Fund broadband infrastructure loan account and gives it to regional broadband consortia. That would leave about $5 million still available for loans.
  • Senate bill 660 – takes much day to day executive authority over California Public Utilities Commission staff away from the president and gives it to commissioners, either acting all together or via committees of two. It also tightens the rules regarding closed-door meetings with commissioners and CPUC staff, and makes other administrative changes.

AB 57 and AB 806 are with the senate’s governance and finance committee; SB 660 is in the assembly’s utilities and commerce committee. All have been amended, which means all still need approval from both the full senate and full assembly. AB 1262 is nearly through the process and is just awaiting final approval from the full senate, which could come as soon as today.

Odd things can happen as the clock ticks down in Sacramento, so nothing is a sure bet. A bill on the verge of passage can be left to wither away, while another that seems hopelessly stalled can rocket through – with substantial and unexpected changes – at the last minute. After that, it’s up to the governor.

CPUC needs a smart and aggressive cat

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Telling it like it is.

Mark Ferron, a commissioner on the California Public Utilities Commission, recently – and abruptly – announced he was resigning. What had been a very private battle with prostate cancer took a turn for the worse, and he stepped down in order to focus his energy on his health and family. His resignation message is worth reading for his insight on prostate cancer alone. But Ferron also leaves his fellow commissioners with some pointed advice on winning the – also heretofore private – struggle he sees to maintain relevance.

Ferron paints a picture of commissioners pinned by three forces: confrontational utilities, an “inexperienced” legislature and an unaccountable staff. His primary area of responsibility and expertise was energy; he discusses energy policy at length and doesn’t specifically mention telecoms at all. But the problems he highlights are common to all the different privately-owned utilities that commissioners regulate.

I wonder whether some top managers at our utilities have the ability or the will to understand and control the far-flung and complex organizations they oversee…We at the Commission need to watch our utilities’ management and their legal and compliance advisors very, very carefully: it is clear to me that the legalistic, confrontational approach to regulation is alive and well. Their strategy is often: “we will give the Commission only what they explicitly order us to give them”. This is cat and mouse, not partnership, so we have to be one smart and aggressive cat.

The legislature, in Ferron’s view, is similarly antagonistic…

We also have a Legislature that by many measures is very inexperienced, and yet considers itself expert in energy policy matters. Many of the more influential members and veteran staffers seem to display an open, almost knee-jerk hostility toward the CPUC. It’s as if some Legislators (or their staff) think that their reputations will be enhanced by slapping down this Commission’s policy initiatives…The CPUC needs to do a better job of convincing the Legislature that we are not their rivals nor their enemies – but rather their partners.

Finally, Ferron voices frustration with an organisation that he and fellow his fellow commissioners cannot manage…

We Commissioners rightly are held responsible for what happens in this building and yet we do not have any effective means to provide guidance and oversight to the CPUC’s permanent management and staff. My colleagues and I have discussed arranging ourselves similarly to the way that a Board of Directors is organized in Corporate America: we could create sub- committees dedicated to overseeing important internal issues…This arrangement could help give the Commissioners more effective senior-level oversight…and I believe would create a stronger and more effective agency. I do hope that my fellow Commissioners will act on my suggestion after I am gone.

It’s up to governor Brown to name a replacement, who’ll have to be confirmed by the state senate.

H/T to Jim Warner at UCSC for the link – it’s sometimes hard to keep up on California news whilst in New Zealand and I appreciate the help. Not that I’m complaining…