Tag Archives: comcast

Telephone and cable companies stonewalled California emergency officials during massive power outages

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Cell site outages 28oct2019

Mobile carriers generally cooperated with California emergency officials during the week long siege of public safety power shutoffs in October, while cable and telephone companies hid behind confidentiality claims. Paul Troxel, who heads the 911 program at the California office of emergency services, testified at a California Public Utilities Commission hearing on Wednesday and told commissioners that neither the state’s emergency operations center or local officials knew where access to 911 service and disaster information, such as evacuation orders, were unavailable…

Outage data was not reported by all providers. Some providers were very responsive and provided outage data as requested by Cal OES, while others were slow to respond due to confidentiality concerns related to outage data. Frankly, information from the wireline and VoIP providers was not provided until the end of the event. Because of the lack of complete reporting, Cal OES had to work with the Federal Communications Commission to activate the disaster information reporting system.

The FCC’s data isn’t intended to support real time operations. It’s typically 12 to 24 hours old and only aggregated data is provided – at the county level for mobile carriers and the state level for telephone and cable companies. But it did provide a useful check on the accuracy of the data provided voluntarily by telecoms companies through their industry association, which is their standard method.

It didn’t work so well. According to Troxel, at one point the industry’s organisation, the California Utilities Emergency Association (CUEA), reported that 57,000 wireline customers were out of service, while the FCC’s disaster information reporting system said the figure was 224,000. CUEA’s mobile outage reports weren’t much better – in one county the FCC said 133 cell sites were down while CUEA claimed only nine were. The problems with the industry association’s data were severe enough that OES requested reports directly from telecoms companies, with varying degrees of success.

During the hearing, Verizon, T-Mobile and, perhaps, AT&T executives promised to provide timely, detailed outage information in future emergencies, and make it public. A senior AT&T operations executive said the company would do so, after a company lawyer deflected the question by extolling the wonderfulness of the current system – that’s an arm wrestling match that needs to be resolved. The other representatives, from Frontier Communications, Comcast, Charter Communications, Cox and Sprint, wouldn’t make any promises at all.

Meaningful answers and we’ll get back to you, as CPUC drills down on phone, broadband outages in emergencies

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Cpuc phc telecoms outages 20nov2019

Telecoms company representatives – telco, cable and mobile – were grilled for three hours yesterday by CPUC commissioners about their ability to maintain communications capabilities during power outages and other emergencies. And their willingness to provide actionable, real time network status information to officials and the public.

The central issue is whether the California Public Utilities Commission should establish regulations for things like backup power, network resiliency and outage reporting, for voice, text and, perhaps, broadband service. Commissioner Cliff Rechtschaffen cut to heart of it, asking the eight representatives “would you support this as a regulatory requirement?”.

Three of the mobile companies – AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile – were represented by senior operational and engineering executives. Although they didn’t express any great enthusiasm for new regulations, they engaged with questions posed by commissioners and generally gave knowledgable answers about their networks, back up capacity and emergency management procedures.

Verizon sent a lobbyist. He reiterated an early statement by Verizon that it would be happy to provide lots more information about future outages in something like real time, and make it public because our network is so damn good.

AT&T’s and T-Mobile’s execs signed onto that pledge. Mobile networks were a particular focus – 80% of 911 calls are made using mobile phones, according to a CPUC staffer. The objective is to identify and publicise communications gaps, where people can’t call 911 or access evacuation maps on the web. Sprint’s rep was more reticent, but it might not matter if T-Mobile is successful in acquiring the company.

It wasn’t clear whether AT&T’s wireline network was included in the promise. At one point, an AT&T lawyer jumped up and seemed to say no. Instead, he lauded AT&T platoons of lobbyists and public relations people, and their “longstanding” efforts to keep state and local officials informed.

Right.

Frontier Communications also sent a corporate lobbyist to the hearing. Not much came of it. She didn’t promise to share detailed or real time outage information, let alone make it public. She did say that only 85% of Frontier’s customers are served by central offices that have back up generators that can keep facilities powered for at least 72 hours. “Facilities further out” in “remote areas” rely on shorter-lived batteries and portable generators.

Translation: the urban systems we got from Verizon are okay, rural communities, not so much.

The three cable companies – Charter Communications, Comcast and Cox – sent regional managers, who typically have a lot of operational responsibility at the local level, but take their marching orders on corporate policy from headquarters. That seemed to be the case yesterday. All three were cordial and, within their field of expertise, knowledgeable enough, but not forthcoming when pressed for information sharing commitments. I’ll get back to you was a frequently heard response. Back up power on cable networks didn’t seem to be as robust as telcos. Comcast’s rep said that all their network devices in the field have back up power, but only 4 to 24 hours worth.

Telecoms companies to explain broadband, phone failures during California power cuts

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Green acres utility pole

With another Pacific Gas and Electric company power shut off looming later today, the California Public Utilities Commission is calling in telecommunications companies and demanding that they be prepared to explain their “responsiveness during the latest wildfires and public safety power shut offs to keep telecommunications services on”.

A hearing is scheduled for this morning in San Francisco, with “top officials” from California’s major telecoms companies directed to “publicly appear and publicly address their response during the latest wildfire events [and] public safety power shutoffs”. The list includes California’s two big telephone companies – AT&T and Frontier Communications – as well as Comcast, Charter Communications and Cox on the cable side, and all four mobile carriers – AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon. Electric utility executives are also invited, albeit a bit more politely.

During the last wave of power cuts, intended to prevent wildfires, hundreds of thousands of Californians lost telephone and broadband service. Data collected by the Federal Communications Commission indicated that 455,000 telco and cable subscribers in 32 California counties lost connectivity, and 3.3% of cell sites were down. There might have been more – the FCC didn’t say how many telecoms companies were reporting outages – reporting was voluntary – or whether the total included all customers who couldn’t connect because they lacked back up power in their homes and businesses.

Who shows up will be as significant as what they say. Expect AT&T and Frontier to send people – they’re still regulated to an extent by the CPUC – but whether their representatives are actual decision makers or lobbyists with inflated titles remains to be seen.

Cable companies tend to resist any encroachment on their turf by the CPUC, so their response, if any, will be interesting to watch. Normally, mobile carriers don’t have much to say to state officials, but since AT&T has to be there anyway, and Sprint and T-Mobile are trying to make nice with the CPUC so they can gain approval for their merger, we might get some meaningful information from them.

“Framework” for telecoms competition in rural telco territories considered by CPUC

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Tesoro viejo 2

A rousing and thoroughly disingenuous defence of telecommunications competition doesn’t appear to be enough for Comcast to get permission right now to cherry pick affluent households in Ponderosa Telephone Company’s territory. A pair of California Public Utilities Commission administrative law judges (ALJs) said in a ruling last Friday that even though allowing competitive telecoms companies into the protected service areas of California’s small, rural telcos should be considered on a case by case basis, those decisions should be made within a common framework.

The two ALJs – Mary McKenzie and Hazlyn Fortune – are managing what the CPUC calls a rulemaking proceeding that’s looking at the way California subsidises, and consequently protects, small telephone companies that serve remote and sparse rural communities that aren’t lucrative enough to attract big telecoms service providers. Or at least used to be. As California’s suburbs spread further out from cities, new developments are springing up on farm and ranch land that’s served by rural telcos.

Citing Comcast’s case as an example, they decided that the next step in that process is to establish a general set of rules that will guide future decisions about who should provide telephone service and, in some cases, broadband service in those new communities…

The Commission will first consider adopting general criteria in this Rulemaking as a framework for allowing competition, which will then be evaluated on a case-by-case basis considering local conditions for each individual small [rural telco] service territory where an application is filed by a potential competitive local exchange carrier (CLEC) seeking a certificate of public convenience and necessity (CPCN).

Comcast’s request to be allowed to provide telephone service in the upscale Tesoro Viejo development north of Fresno is being handled by another ALJ, Zhen Zhang, in a separate case. In theory, Zhang doesn’t have to wait for McKenzie and Fortune to finish their work, which could take months. In practice, since ALJ’s produce draft decisions for consideration by CPUC commissioners, it would probably be a waste of time to, as Ponderosa described it, put “the cart before the horse”.

Ponderosa Telephone makes its case for blocking Comcast’s bid to cherrypick “high end” households

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Tesoro viejo construction 25aug2019

Ponderosa Telephone shot back at Comcast’s claims that no harm would come from its proposed cherry picking of affluent households in a new, high end development outside of Fresno. In comments filed with the California Public Utilities Commission last week, Ponderosa made its case for denying Comcast permission to offer telephone service in its territory. The company argued that if the CPUC wants to change its current policy of protecting small rural telcos from competition, it should do so on a top level basis, and not on case by case requests from a major telecoms company.

Particularly if that telecoms company’s request for special treatment is “disingenuously misleading”.

California has 13 rural telephone companies that serve remote communities. Or in some cases, communities that used to be reckoned as remote, before the arrival of suburban and exurban sprawl. Rural telecoms service can be expensive – miles and miles of lines are needed to reach scattered homes and businesses. Low population density means low revenue density, so to keep telephone service affordable both the CPUC and the Federal Communications Commission back fill rural telco’s budgets with subsidies from universal service funds. To keep the tab for taxpayers as low as possible, the CPUC doesn’t allow competitive telephone companies, or big incumbents who want to exert their monopoly model might, to carve off service areas where the revenue potential is the highest and the need for subsidies is the lowest. If there’s a need at all.

That policy is under review, in a CPUC proceeding that could take years to resolve. Meanwhile, Comcast wants permission to add telephone service – it already can offer broadband and TV service – to newcomers able to afford a home in the (relatively) pricey Tesoro Viejo development, just north of Fresno. That would be costly to taxpayers, Ponderosa said…

Comcast seeks to raid the most profitable consumers in Ponderosa’s service territory. This “cherry-picking” concern by [non-carrier of last resort telcos] operating in [rural telco] territories was a factor that led the Commission to conclude that wireline competition would “leave behind residential, small business, and community anchor institution customers in more scattered and harder to serve areas of the rural carrier’s territory”; “adversely affect the bulk of the hard-to-serve and high cost customers”; and “result in the [small rural telcos] losing revenue and needing to seek a larger draw from the [California High Cost Fund rural subsidy] program.”

Abandoning, or at least substantially modifying, decades-old rural telecoms policy might be necessary, as 21st century digital services replace legacy telephone technology and business models that, in some respects, date back to the 19th century. It needs to be done thoughtfully and carefully, and not on the basis of requests for case by case special treatment by telecoms giants.

Comcast games expiring VoIP regulation ban to win CPUC permission to cherry pick suburbs

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Tesoro viejo 25aug2019

Comcast’s sideways pleading for permission to compete against a subsidised rural telephone company demonstrates why it was wise to allow California’s ban on voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) service regulation to expire. And why Comcast, along with Charter Communications, AT&T and Frontier Communications, handed so much cash offered highly intellectual arguments to California legislators in their failed (so far) attempt to extend the ban.

Ponderosa Telephone Company offers service in the foothills and the Sierra generally north and east of Fresno. It’s one of 13 small telephone companies that serve rural California, and that depend on state and federal universal service subsidies to survive. As Fresno grows, suburban development is creeping into Ponderosa’s service territory. Tesoro Viejo is one such subdivision under construction along State Route 41, just beyond Fresno’s current development limit.

Comcast offers cable television and Internet service in Tesoro Viejo – households and disposable income are now dense enough to meet its return-on-investment objectives in an area it previously ignored. To offer phone service, though, it needs to connect its currently unregulated VoIP facilities to the traditional public telephone network. Comcast wants to do that via a legally isolated subsidiary that was specifically created to operate in that regulated environment, without creating any regulatory inconvenience for the rest of the company.

But that legally isolated subsidiary needs permission to set up shop in Ponderosa’s territory. The California Public Utilities Commission generally doesn’t allow competitors to cherry pick rural phone companies’ most lucrative customers, because it’s worried that doing so would result in ever increasing public subsidies to deliver retail service to poorer and more isolated people that don’t interest the likes of Comcast.

Nevertheless, Comcast asked for special permission to enter Ponderosa’s territory, and the CPUC is considering it. In support, Comcast is now citing the still current ban on VoIP regulation by the CPUC (it doesn’t expire until January) and disingenuously arguing that its regulated subsidiary only provides wholesale phone service, which doesn’t compete against Ponderosa’s retail offerings. The fact that its retail VoIP subsidiary would use that wholesale service to wholeheartedly compete against Ponderosa is irrelevant, Comcast’s argument goes, because it’s unregulated. At least for the present.

The CPUC has an inquiry under way that, eventually, could decide how it will protect, or not, California’s small telephone companies: should it allow competition, and the consumer benefits it brings, in affluent exurbs while spending more subsidy dollars to maintain service in communities with fewer people with less money to spend, or continue to try to maintain economic feasibility and baseline service availability, and minimise public subsidies by fencing off rural service territories?

It’s an important and timely question, not least because the telecoms industry is in the middle of a major, analog-to-digital shift. It’s the sort of technological revolution that only comes along every century or so. The answer should not come in bits and pieces, as major incumbents like Comcast (and AT&T, Charter and the rest) try to game the system with political and legal maneuvers based on irrelevant technological distinctions between otherwise identical services, and with falsehoods and evasions regarding their true intentions.

Led by AT&T meltdown, big U.S. pay TV companies take a dive in second quarter

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

AT&T’s video businesses bled out in the second quarter of 2019, losing nearly a million net subscribers. Its two old school linear platforms, the DirecTv satellite service and the DSL-based Uverse service, hemorrhaged 778,000 subscribers while its DirecTv Now streaming platform took a 168,000 subscriber hit.

Actually, it’s the DirecTv Then platform – its new name, announced yesterday, is AT&T TV Now.

It’s a similar, if less gruesome, story for the other three major U.S. pay TV companies. DISH, which is positioning itself for a run at the mobile telecoms sector, lost 79,000 satellite subscribers but picked up 48,000 Sling streaming customers, for a net loss of 31,000 monthly accounts. That’s better than expected – analysts had predicted a net loss of 252,000 subs – and better than the two big cable companies.

Comcast lost 224,000 video subs, and Charter Communications had a net loss of 141,000, with residential cancellation offset a bit by a gain in business accounts.

All up, the major legacy pay TV companies lost 1.3 million subscribers between April and June of 2019. The second quarter of the year is traditionally a tough time for the subscription video business, as people take advantage of summer to move from one home to another, or to just take off and shut down utilities for a few weeks.

Even so, this year’s second quarter losses are “freaking ugly”, as one Wall Street analyst put it.

It was especially ugly for AT&T, though. It lost more than twice as many subscribers as the other three combined. It comes during a period when AT&T is trying to enter the video and motion picture business in a big way, with its acquisition of HBO, the Warner Bros. studios and the Turner networks. So far, it’s misplaying its hand. Grafting businesses driven by artistic and marketing creativity onto a monopoly model telco is a losing proposition.

It’s going to take more than an uninspired rebranding to make AT&T pretty again.

Comcast guilty of slamming, has “technological and monopolistic” power over customers, judge rules

by Steve Blum • ,

A $3.6 billion case against Comcast was whittled down to a $9.1 million fine plus refunds to affected customers (with 12% interest) by a Seattle judge in a lawsuit brought by the Washington attorney general. Initially, the consumer action accused Comcast of deceiving customers when it sold them service plans that covered “inside wiring”, but excluded wiring that’s inside of walls. Additional allegations relating to way Comcast sells service plans were added later.

King County Superior Court Judge Timothy Bradshaw ruled that the “inside of walls” exception wasn’t deceptive or unfair, but Comcast’s sales tactics were both. More than a third of the time, when a technician or call center rep signed a customer up for a free month’s worth of a service plan, the fact that it would automatically continue at a monthly cost of $5 wasn’t mentioned. He called that “slamming”…

Enrolling customers in the [service protection plan (SPP)] without disclosing recurring monthly fees has the capacity to deceive a substantial portion of the population and is an unfair or deceptive act or practice under [Washington’s Consumer Protection Act].

One month “free” offers were automatically rolled to retail rate in month 2. Such would not be a reasonable consumers net impression.

In addition, each time Comcast charged an unsuspecting consumer for the SPP after failing to disclose the fees at the time of subscription it committed an additional unfair/deceptive act. Customers subscribed without fee disclosures would have no reason to scrutinize their bills for SPP charges and the law does not so burden the consumer.

In June 2013 Comcast decided not to send welcome letters or emails to [Washington] subscribers after it was stated in an internal email that “if we welcome SPP Subs via email, we are essentially reminding them they have this plan and then they may want to cancel it”.

Auto-charging after the first month in this circumstance was “just not right”…

Enrolling customers in the SPP — a paid product for which Comcast charged a recurring, monthly fee — without obtaining affirmative consent has the capacity to deceive a substantial portion of the population and is a deceptive act or practice.

Bradshaw said fining Comcast is appropriate because “the power imbalance, technological and monopolistic when dealing with cable/internet needs, potentially rendered the cable/internet customer here more vulnerable”, but scaled back the attorney general’s proposed penalty because of “a nucleus of company good faith”.

AT&T, Comcast blamed for stonewalling burnt out Paradise residents, as CPUC approves broadband grant pilot

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

California wildfire ruins

The California Public Utilities Commission decided to be more generous with broadband construction subsidies for low income home owners and tenants yesterday, but also took aim at AT&T, Comcast and other big telecoms companies that refuse to take advantage of state broadband subsidies or cooperate with communities that need service. Commissioners voted to raise the proposed limit of $5,300 on line extension program grants to $9,300 per household, as they unanimously approved implementation plans for the $5 million pilot project, paid for by the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF).

Commissioner Martha Guzman Aceves, who is in charge of the overall CASF program re-write, criticised the major players for not using it to upgrade infrastructure in communities that lack adequate broadband service. One example, she said, is the town of Paradise, which was largely destroyed by a deadly wildfire last year and which she recently visited…

One of the main areas they wanted to raise with us was the telecommunications needs in the town, and they expressed a lot of the difficulty with the lack of communication during the response and warning time. But also now, in trying to get real, concrete commitments from both AT&T and Comcast in what the rebuild looks like. There was concern that, given that even prior to the fires not all the community was served, that after the fires there’s nothing really requiring them, for all the community to be served, still. And certainly nothing requiring the type of infrastructure and technology upgrades that all Californians need today. So I did want to highlight and invite AT&T and Comcast to utilise the underutilised CASF grant program for these types of infrastructure needs, including the line extension program that we just approved today, and encourage them to take this state subsidy to really build out, not just in the community of Paradise, but in many of the communities that find themselves in a similar situation.

That’s the big question yet to be answered: will those big, incumbent ISPs will participate and build out facilities to unserved, low income homes? The line extension program was originally proposed by Comcast, as a way of laundering state grant money through residents so it wouldn’t have to answer directly to the CPUC, which is anathema to cable companies. The ball is now in their court.

The other substantive change to the first draft, which was published last month, include boosting the percentage of costs covered by the grants from 95% to 100% of construction budgets – the remaining 5% would have been paid by Internet service providers who ultimately received the money. AT&T didn’t like the idea of paying anything, and none of the Internet service providers who commented – which also included Frontier Communications and Comcast’s and Charter Communications’ lobbying front organisation – liked the $5,300 limit. The final, approved version raised it to match the amount allowed for staff-level approval of other broadband infrastructure grants from CASF.

More information and key documents about CASF broadband infrastructure, public housing and other grant programs are here.

Comcast tells CPUC it must say yes to rural cherrypicking because it can’t say no

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Paicines pole route

Comcast took its best shot at explaining why it should be allowed to jump the queue and start competing against Ponderosa Telephone before the California Public Utilities Commission decides what the future will be for small, rural telephone companies. The answer: because the developer wants us and the Federal Communications Commission says we can.

The dispute centers on Tesoro Viejo, an upscale master planned community under construction in the foothills of Madera County. Comcast claims the developers offered Tesoro Viejo as a cherry ripe for picking, and it wants to oblige them. There’s nothing preventing Comcast from providing video and broadband service, but if it wants to bundle in telephone service and offer the full triple play, it needs the CPUC’s permission.

That’s because Ponderosa Telephone serves the foothills of Madera and Fresno counties, as well as more remote communities further up in the Sierra Nevada. It’s one of ten small, highly subsidised telephone companies that serve deeply rural areas of California, the edges of which are now right in the path of exurban development. The CPUC protects those rural telcos from competition in an effort to minimise the amount of taxpayer dollars it takes to keep them afloat.

That policy is under review, but Comcast doesn’t want to wait. Ponderosa, on the other hand, doesn’t want to be nibbled to death. It argues that top level policy has to be decided first “because competition raises public policy questions with a collective impact on stakeholders throughout the state”.

It’s a tough question. Comcast is an unlikely champion. It moves quickly to kill potential competition whenever its territory is threatened. But regardless of how disingenuous it’s being, Comcast is correct in saying that more choice brings greater benefits to consumers. Once its process is complete, the CPUC might trim, or even eliminate, the privileges that rural telcos enjoy.

Might.

That’s a decision that needs to be taken deliberately and with the full consequences for all – rural residents, exurban immigrants, California taxpayers – in mind. Doing it reactively in response to rich targets of opportunity is a disservice to everyone.

Collected documents regarding Comcast’s expansion into Ponderosa’s territory are here.