It’s a necessary step (and – full disclosure – one I advocated for). As the corona virus lockdown continues, residential broadband service is the critical link that connects Californians to their jobs, businesses, education and health services, and helps keep them from going stir crazy. CASF infrastructure project proposals have taken a back seat to the frontline tasks of keeping Internet access running and scaling it up to meet ballooning demand.
The divide between California’s digital haves and have nots is starkly illuminated by the emergency. A month to rethink priorities and figure out how best to target those gaps is both necessary and welcome. The memo also reminds us that a second CASF application window is possible. A decision on that will come by 17 June 2020, when we will have a much better idea of the full extent of the current crisis.
Your company’s policies for responding to and continuing operations through the current spread of COVID–19. This should include policies relating to providing safe working environments for your employees and business continuity plans for continuing all business and service delivery operations in the event of further community transmission.
Among the specific items they have to address are credit and collection practices and call center management. As I learned the hard way this weekend, AT&T slashed technical support and other customer service operations (someone needs to explain teleworking to them). It will be interesting to learn if other industry players did the same. The companies are supposed to provide a public version of their filing, but they’ll also be allowed to keep some information confidential. They’re supposed to respond by Friday.
Thirteen days before the November election, the Federal Communications Commission plans to give away $16 billion of subsidies to broadband service providers who can deliver at least 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds to census blocks that lack it. Commissioners voted last week to publish the proposed 22 October 2020 date to commence a reverse auction to determine who gets those subsidies, and ask for comments on a variety of technical issues that have to be sewn up before the bidding begins.
The vote was partially unanimous, but mostly split along party lines, with the two democratic commissioners, Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks, objecting to various aspects of the plan, including particularly the timeline.
Rosenworcel said “this Rural Digital Opportunity Fund [RDOF] looks more like publicity stunt than policy”, but…
To do this right, we also need to acknowledge that we are not going to do it on our own. We need to work with state and local authorities and not fight their efforts to help bring broadband to their communities. But that’s not what we do here. In fact, last month in a batch of last-minute changes, the FCC decided that the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund would not be available in places where states have their own programs. By some counts, that’s as many as 30 states. That’s crazy and we have no idea how it will play out on the ground. We should be encouraging states to work with us not penalizing them for their efforts to bring broadband to communities that are struggling. We have this exactly backwards.
Starks also called for the FCC to re-do its January decision setting out eligibility and other rules for the RDOF program, this time with input from states, like California, that have their own broadband subsidy programs.
Last week, the California Public Utilities Commission approved the grant and told Charter that it can’t block broadband subsidies for low income residents just because it happens in the neighborhood…
In its application, NVCSS stated that the Woodlands II project is a planned low-income housing development (new construction) and not wired for broadband internet. Since then, the housing development has been under construction and to date, the framing of the development is complete. As such, the building is under construction and not wired for broadband internet and therefore no housing units in the project are being offered broadband internet service. Consequently…the project is an unserved housing development…
Accepting Charter’s interpretation that the statute and guidelines require a physically existing “housing unit” for a development to be eligible for [Broadband Public Housing Account (BPHA)] funding, would contradict the statutory intent and overall goal of the program. Indeed, the purpose of the BPHA is to close the digital gap in public housing communities and to address a critical need to connect residents of publicly subsidized properties to high-speed internet…The funds in the BPHA help further this goal by approving projects which are beneficial to low-income residents who would otherwise be without broadband…
Whether Charter “can or will serve” does not mean that it does, in fact, serve the development…
A property owner has the right to choose the entity it wants to install facilities for the broadband network on its property while the building is under construction. NVCSS is not required to use Charter’s services just because Charter is serving the building on the adjacent property. Here, NVCSS has chosen to install the facilities itself.
The vote to approve the $36,000 grant was unanimous, and passed without any comment from commissioners.
To qualify for a CASF infrastructure subsidy, an applicant has to show that a proposed location lacks broadband service at (achingly slow) 6 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds. Last year, Cruzio applied for a grant to build fiber to the premise infrastructure in several mobile home communities in the Soquel/Capitola area of Santa Cruz County. Frontier Communications proposed a DSL upgrade project for mobile home residents in the Kern County town of Taft.
Charter, who likewise applied for and received CASF grants to extend broadband service to mobile home communities in Ventura and Riverside counties, challenged Cruzio and Frontier, but was only partially successful. When those projects were presented to commissioners for a vote, Charter tried to re-litigate its opposition, but again failed in the attempt.
So it filed appeals – applications for rehearing – against the Cruzio and Frontier projects, along with a similar protest of a $36,000 grant for WiFi in a Redding public housing community that it had also unsuccessfully challenged.
At a minimum, Charter’s appeals will delay all three projects, at least for some weeks. Longer term, its scorched earth tactics at the CPUC will, as I wrote last year, have a baleful effect on the CASF program, which is already hamstrung as a result of cable and telco lobbying in Sacramento. That’s a win for Charter and its fellow monopoly-model broadband players, and a big loss for low income and rural Californians.
The Central Coast Broadband Consortium assisted Cruzio with its Equal Access Santa Cruz grant application, and I was a part of that effort. I’m not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.
A bill aimed at upgrading broadband service at fairgrounds in California was introduced in the assembly by assembly Robert Rivas (D – San Benito). Assembly bill 2163 would “ensure that all California fairgrounds are equipped with adequate broadband and telecommunications infrastructure to support local, regional, and state emergency and disaster response personnel and operations”.
In its initial form, AB 2163 doesn’t answer the key question: where does the money come from? Earlier conversations about improving broadband facilities at fairgrounds opened up the possibility of raiding the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) for that purpose, but the draft doesn’t mention that. CASF is California’s primary broadband infrastructure subsidy program. The last time legislators took it up, they turned CASF into a piggybank for monopoly-model incumbent service providers, like AT&T, Frontier Communications and cable companies.
The bill does open the door a crack to general broadband infrastructure improvements, but just a crack. It calls for “fostering new economic opportunities in neighboring communities”, which might mean better public-facing broadband infrastructure. Or it could mean better online livestock auctions at county fairs. We’ll see.
At this point, AB 2163 is a statement of intent rather than fully fleshed out legislation. That’s common practice this early in the session. More meat will probably be added to the bill once it makes it to its first committee hearing, probably toward the end of March. That’s when we’ll have a better idea if it’s intended to make meaningful upgrades to the woefully slow broadband infrastructure that’s common in rural California, or if it’s just a way to add money to the internal information technology budgets for the California office of emergency services and/or the department of food and agriculture.
An early clue will be which committee (or committees) are assigned to review it. A proposal to dip into CASF or to do much of anything that’s related to telecoms infrastructure would have to go to the industry-friendly assembly communications and conveyances committee. If it’s just about departmental IT budgets, then it might be run through the public safety and/or agriculture committees. So far, that assignment hasn’t been made, and doesn’t need to be for a few weeks yet.
As you might guess from reading this post, let alone this blog, I have opinions about how to improve broadband infrastructure in rural California, which I’ve shared publicly and privately. I’m not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.
The Federal Communications Commission approved a small do-over to the rules for its new broadband subsidy program, the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF). Instead of blocking subsidies to any area where state broadband dollars are being spent, it will only do so where the money is paying for service at a minimum of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds.
That’s good new for California. Our primary broadband subsidy program – the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) – deems communities with broadband at the achingly slow rate of 6 Mbps down/1 Mbps up as adequately served, and only requires grant recipients who build infrastructure with state money to hit the barely better speed of 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up.
I received notice that the Report and Order we had voted had been revised by the Chairman in response to the concerns I raised…the post-adoption revision approved by the majority was changed to read:
In addition, we will exclude those census blocks which have been identified as having been awarded funding through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect Program, or awarded funding through other similar federal or state broadband subsidy programs to provide 25/3 Mbps or better service. This is consistent with our overarching goal of ensuring that finite universal service support is awarded in an efficient and cost- effective manner and does not go toward overbuilding areas that already have service.
The FCC will vote again later this month on the tentative date of 22 October 2020 to begin a reverse auction to distribute the initial $16 billion of RDOF subsidies, even earlier than originally planned. That’s not so wonderful for California. The president of the California Public Utilities Commission, Marybel Batjer, requested a delay to give California time to get its broadband subsidy act together. The FCC doesn’t plan to wait.
In remarks prepared for the meeting, commission Geoffrey Starks flagged new language that would exclude places that are getting broadband subsidies from other sources…
I cannot support provisions of the Order that penalize the many states that have made their own investments in rural broadband deployment. The version of the Order now before us excludes from RDOF any area that the Commission “know[s] to be awarded funding through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect Program or other similar federal or state broadband subsidy programs, or those subject to enforceable broadband deployment obligations.”
The good news, if you want to call it that, is that California doesn’t have any conflicts with the USDA’s ReConnect program so far, because none of that money has been awarded here. But California does have “state broadband subsidies” and “enforceable broadband deployment obligations”.
Assuming those restrictions are in the published version of the decision – FCC procedures allow some changes even after a vote – the precise language will be important. Particularly for rural communities where an Internet service provider received money from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) to build low-speed infrastructure.
For example, the California Public Utilities Commission awarded several CASF grants to Frontier Communications to upgrade a few ageing DSL systems, so it could offer service at a minimum of 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds. That’s painfully slower than the FCC’s new eligibility standard of 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up, and decades behind the subsidised service levels – up to a gigabit – that the FCC is incentivising. Frontier also has some vague and equally atrocious “broadband deployment obligations” that date back to its purchase of Verizon’s wireline telephone systems in California.
We’ll have to wait for the official version of the decision, before we know whether the FCC gave monopoly model incumbents the means to block broadband upgrades in rural California.
The Federal Communications Commission will begin the process of handing out $16 billion in broadband service subsidies in November, with another $4.4 billion coming sometime later. Commissioners approved the new Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) program at their meeting in Washington, D.C. yesterday. They set the minimum standard for acceptable broadband service at 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds: any census block that completely lacks access to service at that speed level will eligible for subsidies in November. Subsidies for partially eligible census blocks will follow in phase 2 of the program, on a schedule yet to be determined.
The final text of that decision hasn’t been released, nor have the written comments of commissioners. The three republican commissioners gave unqualified support to the plan, but the two democrats, Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks, objected to some of the details. According to a post by Joan Engebretson on the Telecompetitor blog, they wanted a higher standard…
Rosenworcel and Starks argued that the commission should have been more ambitious in establishing the speed tiers. Noting that 200 kbps was considered broadband 10 years ago, Rosenworcel argued that the 25/3 Mbps minimum will look equally outdated 10 years from now and said the minimum target should have been 100 Mbps.
There were some other changes made to the draft decision that was released three weeks ago, but we’ll have to wait for the final version to be published before we know what those are. Judging from published reports, there’s no indication that the commission bowed to pressure from AT&T, Frontier and other telcos to dumb down faster speed tiers, that would be eligible for extra points in the reverse auction that’ll be used to distribute the money in November. On the other hand, there’s no firm information that they didn’t.
The FCC is heading toward a vote on Thursday that would raise its eligibility and minimum service standards for broadband subsidies to 25 down/3 Mbps up and award $20 billion in broadband subsidies as quickly as possible, perhaps in a single reverse auction in November. That’s welcome progress and a great thing for states that either have rational broadband policies or have no interest in broadband policy at all.
Higher speed standards and a rapid timeline mean the opportunities for projects that combine money from its new Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) with California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) subsidies are minimal.
Over the past month, CPUC staff have had ex parte meetings with FCC staff and commissioners’ offices to explore the possibility of a federal-state partnership in the planned [RDOF] reverse auction. Based on new information gathered during those meetings, it appears unlikely California would have sufficient time to make necessary changes to existing statutes and program rules to achieve this goal.
Batjer didn’t suggest, let alone commit to, asking the California legislature to raise the abysmally slow CASF speed standards. Instead, she asks for “a set-aside or partnership”, similar to “special privileges afforded to New York and Alaska”. A separate FCC filing made by CPUC staff suggests delaying the RDOF auction until the middle of 2021.
CASF is California’s primary broadband infrastructure subsidy program. It does not match up well with FCC or federal agriculture department programs. The biggest roadblock is the 6 Mbps download/1 Mbps upload speed minimum that California lawmakers set in 2017 when they accepted large payments self-serving arguments from AT&T, Comcast and other monopoly model incumbents, and lowered California’s broadband subsidy eligibility standard (and set the minimum acceptable service level for subsidised infrastructure at 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up).
California is not the only place where Frontier is performing poorly, according to a story in Ars Technica by Jon Brodkin…
Frontier Communications failed to properly maintain its telecom network in Minnesota, leading to “frequent and lengthy” phone and Internet outages, an investigation by the state Commerce Department found in January 2019. The investigation led to a settlement. New York state officials are also investigating Frontier over its repeated outages and long repair times.
Many Frontier customers in different states have been hit with giant overcharges and cancellation fees, or draconian policies like one requiring customers to pay for router rentals even when they have purchased their own router. (A new US law scheduled to take effect in June 2020 would ban that practice.)
The Bloomberg article indicated that Frontier would be filing for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, which allows it to continue operating while it sorts out its finances. It’s the same procedure PG&E is using.