Tag Archives: ccta

California cable lobby wants neutral regulation and it should have it

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Equally attached to unequal laws.

When the California Public Utilities Commission allowed mobile phone carriers the same freedom to install wireless equipment on utility poles that wireline companies enjoy, it encouraged cable and telcos to ask for the same deal. It inferred that the path to approval would be open if they didn’t get stroppy about fine print that was written when copper was all there was. Like pole attachment rates that assume a thin cable and not a fat box full of radio gear.

The lobbying front for the California cable industry – the California Cable and Telecommunications Association – jumped at the offer. In a petition filed with the CPUC, CCTA said of course there’ll be no quibbling over the meaning of ancient texts: the same rules that apply to mobile carriers should apply to cable companies, because doing it any other way would…

Contravene state statutes and Commission precedent…which require regulation in a competitively and technologically neutral manner.

Just so. That is, or should be, the guiding principle for all telecoms regulation in the 21st century. Having one set of rules for companies that push bits through wires wrapped in foam and mesh, and another for those using twisted pairs of copper is anticompetitive and technologically biased.

Cable and telephone companies rely on a hundred-year legacy of regulations that originally granted them monopoly rights to provide specific services using particular technologies in the analog age, when telecommunications was defined by the physical medium used and not the information it contained.

I’m sure CCTA didn’t intend to make that point. It is a fierce defender of a system that allows cable companies to divide up territories amongst themselves and then operate within as unregulated monopolies. Telephone companies are no different. They also rely on a bespoke regulatory regime that produces a similarly satisfying result.

CCTA’s conclusion is correct. It should be applied across the full spectrum of Californian telecoms law and regulation, in a competitively and technologically neutral manner.

California cable lobby pushes “the bounds of acceptable behavior”

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Not the way it’s done.

A last minute, behind-the-scenes attempt by the California Cable and Telecommunications Association (CCTA) – the lobbying front for the cable industry in Sacramento – to derail affordable broadband service in public housing failed yesterday. The California Public Utilities Commission voted 4 to 1 to approve grants for low cost or free broadband facilities in a dozen public housing communities where cable companies offer far more expensive service. Comcast and Charter Communications had earlier protested the grant applications.

Those protests, though, were dismissed last month in a draft resolution approving the grants. Following the usual – and perfectly legal – public procedure, Charter Communications submitted written objections, which were again rejected in a revised draft which was published on Wednesday. That prompted CCTA’s lobbying effort, which drew sharp criticism from commissioner Mike Florio…

I’m supportive of the resolution and, frankly, a little troubled by the late afternoon phone calls. This item has been out for comment for a month and to get a call the night before the meeting saying please hold it, when comments have already been submitted and addressed, I think is pushing the bounds of appropriate behavior…

[The public housing program] is really an adoption program, in the sense that people may have physical access but be unable to afford it. Through these very modest grants…many more people will be able to access the internet, we can bridge the digital divide, which is state and commission policy to address this. I think this is the right approach.

Florio was joined by commissioners Carla Peterman, Liane Randolph and Catherine Sandoval in voting to approve the twelve grants and, in the process, confirm that it’s CPUC policy to subsidise low cost or free broadband service in public housing communities, even when more costly, market rate alternatives are available. Commission president Michael Picker disagreed, and was the only no vote.

AT&T, cable lobbyists gut California broadband subsidies

by Steve Blum • , , , ,


Broadband infrastructure subsidies are off the table in Sacramento, thanks to a coordinated campaign by AT&T staff lobbyists and the cable industry’s political front organisation, the California Cable and Telecommunications Association (CCTA). Assembly bill 1758 was pulled by its author, assemblyman Mark Stone (D – Santa Cruz) after it became clear that the California assembly’s utilities and commerce committee was going to spike it at its meeting this afternoon.

Originally, AB 1758 would have put $150 million into the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) broadband construction subsidy account, and another $200 million in a range of broadband-related programs, including service for hospitals, facilities in public housing, digital literacy and marketing efforts and regional consortia.

A competing measure, AB 2130, written by AT&T and carried by an accomodating assemblyman, Bill Quirk (D – Hayward), was also pulled once the competitive threat posed by the open infrastructure grant program in Stone’s proposal was gone.

AB 2130 would have set up a $100 million infrastructure subsidy game and rigged it so that only incumbent phone companies could effectively play, putting the lion’s share into AT&T’s pocket with no meaningful strings attached. CCTA floated its own alternative, similarly designed to divert money directly to cable companies, but otherwise effectively the same as AT&T’s.

Stone’s offer of good faith negotiations and repeated attempts by Sunne Wright McPeak, CEO of the California Emerging Technology Fund, to find a middle ground were rebuffed. The chairman of the committee, assemblyman Mike Gatto (D – Los Angeles), gave no indication that he’s any less interested in advancing AT&T’s agenda than he was last week when he gushed over another of its measures – AB 2395 – designed to allow it to yank copper lines out of unprofitable rural and inner city markets.

So Stone’s bill is dead.

Although resurrection is always a theoretical possibility in the California legislature, if you have a broadband project to build, you’d have a better chance buying lottery tickets for it. There might be attempts to fund one or more of the ancillary programs in Stone’s bill, perhaps by cannibalising what infrastructure money remains in CASF, but don’t expect to see more broadband construction money added to California’s kitty this year.

I’ve advocated for and helped to draft AB 1758 and its predecessors. I’m involved and proud of it. Take it for what it’s worth.

Comcast captures control in California with Time-Warner deal

by Steve Blum • , , , , ,

Comcast’s tentative deal to buy Time-Warner’s cable systems will have a big impact on the politics of broadband in California, to the benefit of incumbents and the detriment of independent competitors.

Time-Warner is the dominant cable operator in the huge Los Angeles market, while Comcast controls the San Francisco Bay Area, along with Sacramento and Fresno. A buyout would give Comcast control of four of the five major media markets in the state – Cox has most of San Diego, and is a distant number two in the LA area.

According to public records collected by the Follow The Money website, Comcast and its employees pumped $1.2 million into Californian political pockets between 2003 and 2012. That includes $285,000 to the democratic party, $95,000 to the republican party and $62,000 to Governor Brown. A total of 183 Californian politicians and 7 ballot measures receive Comcast’s cash. And that doesn’t include contributions from Comcast sponsored astroturfing and lobbying outfits, like the California Cable and Telecommunications Association, the industry’s mouthpiece at the state capitol.

Last year, Comcast was the most aggressive cable company in the fight that ultimately severely watered down legislation to add money to the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) and make more companies and organisations eligible for broadband construction subsidies. Although money was added to the fund, tight restrictions were put on grant and loan applications from independent Internet service providers. Municipal broadband projects were all but locked out of CASF grants and loans.

All cable and telephone companies woo politicians. But Comcast stands out for its relentless hardball tactics at both the local and state level. If it adds Los Angeles to its arsenal, expect nastier battles over broadband policy in California, particularly when Comcast sees an opportunity to limit market competition.

CPUC approves broadband testing, mapping money

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Good for another year.

The California Public Utilities Commission waved through next year’s budget for the California Advanced Services Fund, voting unanimous approval at last week’s meeting.

The plan includes a steep jump in administrative costs, without giving much detail on the reason for the increase. The CPUC’s division of ratepayer advocates asked for more transparency after the first draft of the budget resolution was released. There wasn’t much more detail about overhead costs in the approved version, though.

One item in the budget was $1.5 million to support the CPUC’s broadband mapping program after federal money runs out next September. That comes to about $2 million a year on an annualised basis. DRA didn’t object to the mapping project, but, again, wanted more detail on how the money is being spent. The final budget resolution made a better case…

[T]he California Interactive Broadband Map is a tool that the CASF uses to find and investigate broadband service in areas where project proposals are submitted. Without the continued work and efforts in the analysis of broadband availability data and updating of the map, it would be difficult for the Commission to determine what areas of the State are eligible for funding.

The California cable industry’s lobbying front, the California Cable and Telecommunications Association, griped about the mapping and testing program too, saying the state should just rely on federal data. That would also make it harder for independent ISPs and cities to get CASF subsidies to build infrastructure. Which would suit CCTA just fine. The CPUC brushed off those complaints.

Assuming overhead and mapping/testing costs continue on the new course, there will be about $135 million left in the infrastructure grant kitty, unless Governor Brown signs senate bill 740, which would add another $70 million. That’s against something over $200 million in pending project requests, and more waiting in the wings for the next round of grant applications, whenever that might be.

Sunday morning coming down in Sacramento

by Steve Blum • , , , , , ,

Jesse knew a lot about the cleanest dirty shirt.

Money is the mother’s milk of politics.
Jesse Unruh, most powerful assembly speaker in California history

Money, the kind that pays for increasingly expensive California legislative campaigns, is what gives Sacramento lobbyists power when ideas and ideals run out of steam. Voters remember the big and simple issues – say, whether to raise taxes or give hybrid cars a free pass in diamond lanes – but it’s lobbyists who meticulously track every vote on the small and complex bills that comprise the daily toil at the state capitol.

Subsidies for improving broadband service in places ignored by big cable and telephone companies are irrelevant to most Californian voters. The immediate benefit mostly goes to sparsely populated areas with few votes and even less cash. But it matters a lot to cable and telephone companies that want to extract the greatest profit possible out of ageing copper networks. In rural and inner city areas, no broadband construction subsidies equals no competition.

I mean that as an observation of natural economic consequences and not as criticism. Within ethical limits, corporations have an iron clad obligation to provide the greatest possible return on investment to their shareholders. They aren’t paid to pursue effective or equitable public policy. That job belongs to our elected representatives.

The California cable lobby has stopped opposing senate bill 740, which would add money to the California Advanced Services Fund, but it has pointedly said it is “neutral”. Which means it won’t try to punish committee members who vote in favor of it, but it won’t look particularly kindly on them either, come fundraising time.

Five members of the assembly utilities and commerce committee voted aye on SB 740 last month and three voted no. One way or the other, they took a stand. Seven members sat silent, allowing the bill to fail without upsetting either potential industry campaign contributors or constituents who might care about the outcome. SB 740 comes up for reconsideration in the assembly utilities and commerce committee on Monday. Those seven have a chance to show whether they live up to Jesse Unruh’s standard for Sacramento lawmakers:

If you can’t eat their food, drink their booze, screw their women and then vote against them, you have no business being up here.

Latest proposed changes to California broadband subsidies a net gain, but not as much as hoped

by Steve Blum • , , , , , , , ,

Take the money and run.

There’s good news, good news and bad news in the latest version of senate bill 740, which renews and rewrites the rules for the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF). Under a deal cut yesterday, Comcast and a lobbying organisation for the cable industry in California said they would drop their opposition to the bill in exchange for tougher restrictions on how broadband subsidy funds can be spent.

It’s good news that an extra $90 million is going into CASF. If a parallel measure, assembly bill 1299 also passes, the net result will be an extra $70 million for broadband infrastructure grants, $5 million less for loans and $25 million for a new public housing broadband program. Not surprisingly, grants are more popular, so the haircut to the loan account isn’t likely to matter in the next couple of years.

It’s more good news that there’s little loss to the CASF broadband infrastructure program as it stands now. With one exception, the new restrictions don’t apply to regulated telephone companies, which are currently eligible for subsidies. The exception is that the new law limits the California Public Utilities Commission’s ability to make future changes by carving into legal stone its existing policy regarding challenges to coverage claims and priority for last mile projects and unserved areas.

The bad news is that there’s little realistic hope that independent ISPs or local governments will be able to qualify for funding. The price for getting cable lobbyists to back off was an impenetrable web of restrictive rules that offer few opportunities for non-traditional applicants to apply, and high hurdles when they do. It’s more than they have now, but not much.

The new language has to be approved by the assembly utilities and commerce committee, which confirmed today that it’ll vote on it come Monday. No word on whether holdouts on the committee have changed their mind but Carolyn McIntyre, the cable industry lobbyist, did keep her promise to send them a letter withdrawing her opposition. No confirmation yet that Comcast has done likewise, or that Verizon has joined the love fest.

Cable lobby edits California broadband subsidy bill, but at least it’s moving forward again

by Steve Blum • , , , , , , ,

You can’t have my precious.

A last minute deal was struck with the California Cable Television Association and Comcast to get their support for a bill that would add $90 million to the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) and allow independent ISPs and cities to apply for infrastructure subsidies under very tight restrictions.

Senate bill 740 stalled in an assembly committee last month after cable lobbyists carpet bombed members with phony fears about overbuilding and false claims about how many Californians lack broadband service, and how much of it they need.

The draft version of the latest amendments would limit where and how an unregulated ISP could apply for CASF grants and loans. Funded projects would have to include unserved households, and incumbent broadband providers, such as Comcast or AT&T, would have a chance to grab the money if they want to upgrade their existing service. In other words, if an independent ISP spends time and money developing a project for underserved homes, any incumbent cable or telephone company would have the right to snatch it away.

A city or other local agency would be able to get funding only for building out to unserved homes or businesses, and only if no one else is interested.

As defined by the CPUC, an unserved home has no broadband service available at all, other than maybe satellite service, while an underserved home has something, but it doesn’t deliver at least 6 Mbps download and 1.5 Mbps upload speeds. Currently, only telephone companies that are certified and regulated by the CPUC can apply. Today’s changes would not affect them; they would still be able to apply for either under or unserved areas without particular restrictions.

Assuming there are no glitches, the assembly utilities and commerce committee will consider the amended bill on Monday. The agreement also clears the way for a bill to fund broadband facilities and marketing programs in public housing.

Update, 8 August 2013 – the fully updated, current version of SB 740 is now available.

Comcast loves publicly subsidised overbuilds, when it’s doing the building

by Steve Blum • , , , , , ,

You dare to overbuild me?

“Overbuilding” has been overused in Sacramento in recent weeks, with lobbyists from Comcast and the cable industry using the term to batter California assembly members into silence during a vote to extend a key broadband subsidy fund.

Casting themselves as victims of unfair, taxpayer-subsidised competition, the lobbyists claimed California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) money was paying to build new broadband systems on top of existing ones.

Not true.

Comcast cannot be overbuilt by any publicly funded project unless it chooses to be. It has the will, the resources and the experience to rapidly pre-empt any competitive project in its franchise areas, particularly when those projects are implemented with full public disclosure and at the speed of government.

In the Santa Cruz mountains, Surfnet Communications – a client of mine – applied for a CASF grant in neighborhoods where Comcast had refused to build.

Previously, Comcast told residents they would have to pay $334,000 if they wanted service. Once it learned of the application by Surfnet, Comcast said the $150,000 or so that residents had already collected would be sufficient, added in a $100,000 subsidy from county ratepayers and absorbed the rest. Except now it’s telling residents that they’ll have to pay, in some cases, thousands of dollars more for connections from roads back to mountain homes.

Effectively, Comcast has pre-empted Surfnet, which has placed its CASF application on hold. I have seen this behavior from Comcast before: once a publicly-funded project becomes known, they move quickly to kill it by immediately re-directing their available capital towards the area in question. They did it to projects I worked on in San Leandro and Lompoc too.

The wrestling match over whether to fund CASF continues at the state capitol. A $90 million extension was defeated last month, and the assembly utilities and commerce has until midday tomorrow to schedule a vote to reconsider. You can argue either way, but the decision should be based on truth, not lies. Let committee members know what you think.

California lawmakers have a chance to reconsider cable lobby’s big lie

by Steve Blum • , , , , , , ,

Even Comcast doesn’t believe 1.5 Mbps is enough.

The effort to resurrect a proposal to add $90 million to the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) and allow independent ISPs and cities to apply for grants is gathering steam. The California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF) has published a white paper that’s aimed at debunking one of the more outrageous bits of misinformation spread by cable lobbyists as they derailed the bill in an assembly committee last month.

The whopper told by cable industry lobbyist Carolyn McIntyre was that only 12,000 homes in our state are unserved by broadband providers. That figure was pulled from incomplete data. The true number, as documented by CETF, is something like 225,000. Plus, there are millions more that are underserved by California Public Utilities Commission standards. McIntyre, with Comcast’s hired gun John Moffat singing back up, heaped scorn on those Californians by trying to convince committee members that no one needs more than 1.5 Mbps.

The false accusation that CASF pays for “overbuilds” is also refuted in the CETF white paper. Cable companies consider a project to be duplicating existing service – overbuilding – if substandard broadband service is available somewhere nearby, or if a cable company can claim an area to be within its franchise, even if it never strung wires or otherwise offered service. If you’re going to lie, make it big.

The pressure that McIntyre and Moffat put on assembly utilities and commerce committee members worked. Legislators who had previously supported senate bill 740 sat on their hands, leaving the measure three yes votes short of approval. Its author, senator Alex Padilla (D – Los Angeles), said afterwards he would be asking the committee to reconsider. That should happen on 12 August 2013. The committee hearing hasn’t been formally scheduled yet, though.

Anyone who is interested in offering an opinion can email or write to any or all of the committee members.