Tag Archives: covid19

AT&T rejects California disaster response obligations

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

AT&T is striking back at covid–19 emergency relief measures adopted by the California Public Utilities Commission. Flanked by Verizon and T-Mobile (via the mobile industry’s lobbying front organisation), AT&T wants the CPUC to repeal rules that require the company to waive things like installation or remote call forwarding fees when people are forced to relocate because of the covid–19 emergency. Those are CPUC mandates that also apply to any other “housing or financial crisis due to a disaster”. AT&T calls that “an act in excess of the Commission’s jurisdiction”.

Those rules also obligate mobile telephone companies to deploy temporary cell sites and other equipment when disaster strikes a particular community, and to provide WiFi access “in areas where impacted wireless customers seek refuge” and mobile phones “for customers seeking shelter from a disaster to use temporarily at a county or city designated shelter”.

AT&T’s landline-oriented arguments against mandatory disaster relief boil down to the CPUC can’t tell us to do that, and if it involves VoIP service, the CPUC can’t tell us to do anything. This is AT&T longstanding position, and as a result it is fighting a multimillion dollar fine and accusations of obstreperous behavior during massive power outages last year. The company is unapologetic and makes the bizarre claim that “VoIP service is not a telephone service”.

The mobile industry’s lobbyists characterise the disaster response measures imposed by the CPUC as “unlawful”, because mobile telecoms are regulated by the federal government and because the Federal Communications Commission is trying, with varying degrees of success, to prevent any state or local control over broadband service.

AT&T and most other big, monopoly model telecoms companies stepped up with voluntary and temporary consumer relief offers during the covid–19 emergency. But unlike other regulated utilities, broadband providers and telcos don’t have to, as Frontier Communications’ refusal to match low income service offers shows. As lockdowns ease and people go back to work, AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile don’t want the CPUC, or anyone else, interfering with whatever plans they have for recovering their covid–19 response costs and collecting from customers temporarily unable to pay their bills.

We’re doing better than Bangladesh, so give us money, telcos tell U.S. senate

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

India utility pole

Telephone companies don’t appear to having the same success cable companies have had with broadband promotions during the covid–19 emergency. The head of telco’s primary Washington, D.C. lobbying front organisation asked a U.S. senate committee on Wednesday to “keep providers on sound financial footing” and urged the use of existing, incumbent-friendly federal programs to distribute subsidies directly to them.

California’s two major telephone companies – AT&T and Frontier Communications – aren’t offering service at the 25 Mbps at $15 or less per month covid–19 benchmark set by California Public Utilities Commission president Marybel Batjer. AT&T has a 10 Mbps or less for $10 offer for low income customers, while bankrupt Frontier tops out at 12 Mbps for $20 for legacy copper customers.

As lobbyists do, USTelecom CEO Jonathan Spalter told of the hardships his clients face and lavished accolades upon them for persevering nonetheless. That list includes AT&T and Frontier, as well as Verizon, Centurylink and lots of small telephone companies. But not major cable companies. When Spalter spoke about their performance during the emergency, though, it was more like damning with faint praise…

Even as traffic has at times soared more than 25 percent higher than pre-crisis levels, the performance of our networks remains seamless for our nation’s citizens. Indeed, according to one recent study, “[o]f the top 10 countries in the world by population, the U.S. is the only [country] that recorded no download speed degradation on average in the month of April.”

So who are AT&T, Frontier and friends beating? China, for one, which is the world’s most populous country. Not far behind is India – both countries have more than a billion residents. It’s a long drop to third place, which belongs to the U.S. with 333 million people. The remaining seven are in the 100 million/200 million range: Indonesia, Pakistan, Nigeria, Brazil, Bangladesh, Russia and Mexico.

Yes. Our broadband networks are holding up better than their’s.

U.S. house democrats propose $50 monthly broadband subsidy for low income homes, AT&T and Comcast will be happy to take it

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

With covid–19 pandemic lockdowns continuing in most states, albeit with gradual loosening underway, democrats in the house of representatives in Washington, D.C. want to pump $5.5 billion into broadband access subsidies to ensure that people and institutions can remain connected to the online resources they will be depending on, likely for months to come. It’s one of the opening shots in the negotiations over what might be a second stimulus bill in the trillion dollar range to keep the U.S. economy afloat.

It’s a big leap from the $375 million for broadband that was included in the first, $2 trillion pandemic stimulus bill approved by congress in March. But it’s also broadband funding of a different sort. In March, the money went to supply-side uses, such as $100 million for broadband infrastructure via the federal agriculture department’s ReConnect program. This time around, house democrats want the money to feed the demand side – $4 billion is earmarked to subsidise monthly Internet bills for low income families, up to $50 per month per household. The remaining $1.5 billion would go to school and libraries to pay for mobile network-enabled WiFi devices and service, and other expenses necessary for keeping kids connected to school lessons.

Ultimately, that money will hit the bottom lines of major, monopoly model incumbent Internet service providers like AT&T, Comcast, Charter and the rest. If the bill sets a de facto base price of $50 per month for Internet service, then that’s what those companies will charge. It’s a lot easier to up sell customers from what are, in effect, low income loss leader promotions such as the $10 per month Comcast Internet Essentials or Access from AT&T packages, and move them into expensive long term contracts when someone else is picking up the tab. But $4 billion only lasts so long. When the subsidies run out, those households will be stuck with higher bills for a long time.

The odds of this latest proposal making it into law as is are pretty slim, though. What house democrats seem to doing is setting up for negotiations with U.S. senate republicans and the white house. The D.C. beltway sausage machine is about to crank into high gear.

Charter, Comcast two months free offers are cash bonanzas, not charity

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Printing money us treasury image

The covid–19 emergency is turning into a windfall for broadband companies, particularly Comcast and Charter Communications. As lockdowns came into effect in mid-March, people turned to broadband to stay connected, and for many that meant subscribing to service for the first time. It also meant running the gauntlet of high pressure sales pitches that steered many away from low cost standalone Internet deals and into expensive video packages that start billing immediately.

In its first quarter financial report, Comcast said it gained 509,000 new broadband subscribers between January and March, including 32,000 who signed up for the $10 per month standalone Internet service that the company offers to low income households, and that currently carries a first two months free promotion. The remaining 477,000 landed in market rate packages with payment due. It was the biggest quarterly broadband subscriber gain that Comcast booked in the past 12 years.

Charter had a more expansive first two months free promotion, applying it to all of its Internet packages for households with students. It did even better than Comcast, picking up 580,000 net new broadband subscribers. Of those, 120,000 came in during the promotion period and opted for the free introductory offer. Charter’s aggressive up selling paid off, according to the Seeking Alpha transcript of CEO Tom Rutledge’s first quarter earnings call with financial analysts…

Interestingly, and uniquely, about 50% of the customers who participated in the offer in March chose to order additional products with immediate billing. The vast majority of these customers are taking our flagship Internet product at 200 megabits per second or 100 megabits per second, and a small minority subscribe to our low-income offer or our ultra and 1 gigabit premium offerings.

Although both companies try to score political points by spinning their covid–19 offers as acts of good corporate citizenship, when they speak to Wall Street, they tell the truth: trolling free and/or discounted broadband service past low income households and then shamelessly up selling them is good business.

California projects line up for federal ReConnect broadband funds, but competition is stiff

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Torres martinez project area

Five broadband projects in California were proposed for federal agriculture department funding in the second round of ReConnect broadband grant and loan applications. That’s five more than the first round in 2019, so that’s progress of a sort. They’ll compete with more than 200 other projects in other states for $300 in grants and $300 million in loans, plus another $100 million included in the $2 trillion federal covid–19 stimulus bill that’ll be available to projects submitted in both rounds.

In the first round, 146 grant, loan and grant/loan combo applications were filed, for a total ask of $1.4 billion, more than twice the available money. This time around, it’s looking like the ask is something like three times more than what’s in the pot.

Three of the applicants are established Californian Internet service providers. Cox Communications, a cable company that serves the Santa Barbara and San Diego areas, wants money to build out its system in the mountains between Santa Barbara and Solvang. Catalina Broadband Solutions is looking to do the same in Two Harbors on Santa Catalina Island. Inyo Networks submitted several applications for various segments of its Digital 299 middle mile project, which runs through Humboldt, Trinity and Shasta counties and is partially funded by the California Advanced Services Fund.

The Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians are proposing a broadband project for their reservation at the intersection of Imperial, Riverside and San Diego counties, and Kandu Global Telecommunications, a Beverly Hills IT company, submitted an application for a project in a neighborhood near Hi Vista, east of Lancaster in the northern reaches of Los Angeles County.

If you click on the project number, it’ll take you to the USDA’s online listing of the project information and any challenges from incumbents who want to block it. You’ll have to create an account and log in to get full access. That’s no big deal, though.

Project          CompanyProject AreaCounties
PNF–000279Catalina Broadband Solutions, LLCTwo Harbors, Catalina IslandLos Angeles
PNF–000386CoxCom, LLCSan Marcos PassSanta Barbara
PNF–000353Inyo Networks, Inc.Digital 299Humboldt, Shasta, Trinity
PNF–000344Kandu Global Telecommunications Inc.Hi VistaLos Angeles
PNF–000385Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla IndiansTorres Martinez ReservationImperial, Riverside, San Diego

CPUC asks ISPs to give Californians a break, but all it can do is ask

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Please sir

Broadband service is too expensive for many families, but it’s a necessity nonetheless, according to a letter sent on Friday to Californian Internet service providers by California Public Utilities Commission president Marybel Batjer. Saying “not every household could or can continue to afford $50 a month for a quality, high-speed Internet connection”, Batjer asked ISPs to…

  • Provide service sufficient for all family members to work and learn from home: Subscription in the range of $0–15 a month, offering a minimum of 25 Mbps, and eliminate or waive data caps and overage charges.
  • Provide expansive program eligibility: Eligibility must be as broad as possible…
  • Make signing up easy: Allow customers to immediately sign-up for the plan online or over the phone before requiring eligibility verification. Eligibility can be verified at a later date.
  • Remove barriers: Eliminate any requirement that customers have no unpaid balances. Supply new customers with a low or no cost modem and Wi-Fi router either to own or lease.

It’s just a request. The CPUC has near zero authority over broadband service providers, even when they want something from the commission. And it can’t offer much in the way of incentives. Batjer pointed to the federal lifeline program that offers a $9.25 a month subsidy for fixed broadband service, with lots of strings attached, and she also held out hope that the CPUC’s lifeline program might also support broadband service. Some day.

Batjer wants ISPs to do two things: offer low income households 25 Mbps service for $15 or less a month with no data caps, and make it easy to sign up. The table below shows how poorly California’s major ISPs stack up against the $15/25 Mbps/no cap ask.

Suddenlink nails all three criteria, but charges $20 for installation. Comcast and Cox get price and speed right, but impose a standard 1TB cap that’s only waived for the moment. Charter meets the no cap and speed marks, but charges $23 per month (yeah, it’s $18 without WiFi but it’s also pretty useless without WiFi for most). AT&T makes it on price, but fails on speed and data caps, although it’s also waiving caps temporarily. Frontier offers unlimited data but its speed is limited by its decaying networks and for that it charges $20 a month.

Signing up is the real problem, though. Even if you can reach a customer service rep who will admit to knowing about a low income discount program – not a good bet – you will be subjected to arcane documentation demands and credit barriers on the one hand, and vicious up sell attempts on the other. Frontier, for example, has a plan with a $20 introductory rate that ties customers into a long term contract with an escalating price and Frontier’s notorious extra fees. Its reps have been known to stonewall affordable rate enquiries while offering the bait and switch rate as salvation. Customers of other ISPs have similar stories to tell.

ISPPlan nameMonthly rate and terms
AT&TAccess from AT&T$10, 10 Mbps max, 150 GB or 1TB cap depending on technology, WiFi included, for qualifying low income households. Until 30 April 2020, first 2 months are free. 855–220–5211.
CharterSpectrum Internet Assist$22.99 ($5 less with no WiFi), 30 Mbps, no cap, for qualifying low income households. During the corona virus emergency, the first 60 days is free for all plans in areas where schools are closed. 844–579–3743.
ComcastInternet Essentials$9.95, 25 Mbps, 1TB cap, WiFi included, for qualifying low income households. Until 13 May 2020 the first 60 days is free. 855–846–8376
.
CoxConnect2Compete$9.95, 25 Mbps, 1TB cap, WiFi included, for qualifying low income households with a K-12 student. If signed up by 15 May 2020, service is free until 15 July 2020. 800–234–3993.
FrontierFundamental Internet$19.99, speed depends on available technology, no cap, for qualifying low income households. No free service is available, $9.99 charge to disconnect, deposit may be required. 877–578–8367.
SuddenlinkAltice Advantage Internet$14.95, 30 Mbps, no cap, WiFi implied but not explicitly included, for qualifying low income households. During the corona virus emergency, service is free until 30 June 2020 but installation is $20. 888–633–0030.

With new money and gear now committed, California might close student connectivity gap. If

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Home schooling

More money and in-kind donations are on the way from companies, foundations and the California Public Utilities Commission to close the divide between school kids who can get online and stay in school, and those who can’t. According to a press release from governor Gavin Newsom’s office, when previous announcements are added in, a total of $42 million has been pledged, along with 100,000 mobile network-enabled hotspots, 24,000 tablets and 13,000 Chromebooks.

Using the same guesstimated back-of-the-envelope and egregiously rounded math I used earlier this week, that will just about take care of the 200,000 or so Californian kids that the state education department says need a laptop or tablet and an Internet connection to do their school work.

If.

If my assumption of two students per household isn’t too high, and my guesstimates for average costs (see below) are in the ballpark.

If the money is used for the dreary purpose of buying equipment and service, and not diverted to backfill schools’ and non-profit organisations’ budgets or to fund the training programs that occupy them in normal times. Training is important, but when the ship is sinking the first priority is making sure everyone has a lifeboat. You can teach the kids celestial navigation and certify their parents as sailing masters once they’re safely aboard.

If similarly priced connectivity solutions can be found for rural school districts where baseline mobile broadband service is thin or non-existent.

If the restrictions on CPUC money don’t scupper the whole plan. Most of the money – $25 million – comes from the California Teleconnect Fund, which will only pick up half the cost of equipment and service, at most. In very round terms it’s in the ballpark, but that money will have to be creatively managed to make sure nothing is left on the table. Same with the $5 million earmarked from the California Advanced Services Fund – AT&T, Comcast, Charter, Frontier and friends did their best in Sacramento to make sure that piggy bank doesn’t benefit anyone other than themselves.

There might even be help coming from the federal government, which could solve any remaining funding problems or gaps. Efforts are underway in congress to loosen restrictions on the E-rate program managed by the Federal Communications Commission and to funnel more dollars into it. Those rules are likewise written and loved by the monopoly model incumbents that deploy battalions of lobbyists with bags of cash for friendly lawmakers.

Item                 Unit costTotal needed (@ 2 students/home)In kind donationsTo be purchasedCash needed
Mobile hotspot$8494,000100,0000$0
Mobile service$26094,000094,000$24,440,000
Laptop/tablet$275101,50037,00064,500$17,737,500
Total$42,177,500

But us two space cadets are doing this by eyeballing it, using Tennessee windage, an aerospace almanac, a Mickey Mouse watch, and an SR–50 Pop discarded years ago. RAH.

In a first, Gonzales, California provides free, city-funded Internet service to every home, with unique two year T-Mobile deal

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Gonzales logo 625

Every household in Gonzales, California can get free Internet access, courtesy of the City of Gonzales. So can families that live outside the city limits that have students attending school there. So far, more than 1,200 households of the approximately 2,000 households in and around Gonzales have taken up the offer. Gonzales students can get online and use school district-provided Chromebooks to keep up with their lessons, despite being locked down during the covid–19 emergency.

As the crisis came to a head in March, the City accelerated distribution of T-Mobile hotspots to residents who needed or wanted broadband connectivity. In 2019, the Gonzales City Council approved an agreement with T-Mobile to buy up to 2,000 hotspots with unlimited Internet access (with the usual caveats about slowing down heavy users).

Posted by City of Gonzales, California on Friday, 20 March 2020

That deal has the City paying $12.50 per month for 24 months, for each activated hotspot. It’s a modification of a standard T-Mobile offer to schools, and includes the Gonzales Unified School District as a partner. It was negotiated after the City issued a request for qualifications in 2017. The goal, which has been largely achieved, is to provide baseline, City-funded Internet service to every home that wants it.

According to the staff report presented to the Gonzales City Council…

The T-Mobile Network in the City of Gonzales is one of the densest (3 cellular towers with 700Mhz, 1900Mhz, 2100Mhz and shortly to be released 600Mhz, covering 8,000 individuals), and underutilized network in Northern California. The Agreement requires that T-Mobile provide its best effort in delivering Wireless Internet Services well above the FCC’s Advanced Wireless Service standard of 25 Mbps Down/ 3Mbps Up.

Residents have other options. AT&T offers variable DSL service in Gonzales. After the City challenged Charter Communications in a California Public Utilities Commission proceeding in 2015, the ancient analog cable system in Gonzales was upgraded to digital capability and now supports broadband service as well.

Initial comments from families that are using the City-subsidised hotspots indicate that T-Mobile’s performance is better than AT&T can deliver, but not as good as Charter’s cable modem service. Residents had no particular problems using the hotspots and connecting to online resources and services. Any questions were handled either on an informal basis by City or school district staff, or via T-Mobile’s bilingual customer support line.

The City of Gonzales is one of my clients and I assist with the City’s broadband initiatives, including the negotiations with T-Mobile. I am not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.

Two-thirds of California families say they need help getting their kids online

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Jet school bus2

Some California students have access to the tools they need to keep up with lessons while locked down at home, but many, particularly those in low income households, don’t. That’s the finding of a survey of California parents conducted by the Education Trust West (h/t to Scott Lay at Around the Capitol for the pointer).

Kids don’t have the computers or tablets to do the word, and those who do can’t connect. Respondents said there are too few devices available in the home, only about third said that schools are providing take-home equipment to their kids. But connectivity is a major roadblock…

Lack of reliable internet access is another top barrier for families who feel less than confident that they will be able to participate in distance learning (29%). This issue is particularly common for families in the North of the state (47%), low-income families (38%), Hispanics in the Los Angeles suburbs (35%) and families located in the Los Angeles suburbs in general (34%). Two-thirds of parents (67%) say providing free internet access to families while schools are closed due to coronavirus would be very helpful for families like theirs, yet only 20% of parents report that their school district has made this available for students.

Some help is already supposed to be on the way, and more is in the pipeline. Google promised to donate 4,000 Chromebooks and 100,000 mobile network-enabled WiFi hotspots to California schools. The California department of education has the job of distributing such resources to the schools that need them the most, and has been surveying school districts and county education office to try to sort that out.

Another $5 million from the California Advanced Services Fund could be on the way next month. The California Public Utilities Commission is scheduled to vote on a proposal to, in effect, transfer the money to CDE to likewise be used to buy hotspots and Chromebook-class laptops, or similar devices.

CPUC antes up $5 million for student hotspots and laptops, but the pot’s not right yet

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

A plan to spend $5 million on mobile hotspots and inexpensive Chromebook-class laptops, for students to use at home while schools are shut down during the covid–19 emergency, is set for a 7 May 2020 vote by the California Public Utilities Commission. Comments on the draft resolution are due 27 April 2020.

The California Department of Education (CDE) would manage the money and target schools that have the greatest need.

The draft resolution and the original request from CDE are a bit vague on the definition of a hotspot. But connecting all the dots in the two documents draws a picture of mobile network-enabled WiFi devices, and not the amenity-grade public WiFi access points touted by the lobbying front organisation that represents Comcast, Charter Communications and other cable companies in Sacramento.

The money would specifically come from money in the California Advanced Services Fund that’s earmarked for digital literacy and subscription sales – AKA “adoption” – programs…

Only the costs of acquiring computing devices and deploying hotspot devices are allowable expenses. The Commission anticipates that the costs per computing device will not be more than $300 per device. The cost per hotspot device has not been determined but the Commission assumes that costs incurred will be reasonable.

The draft resolution leaves a big grey area for commission staff and CDE to navigate. As it points out, “the adoption account does not allow subsidising the costs of providing broadband service to households”. That restriction is baked into California law, courtesy of lobbyists for cable and telephone companies, and their non-profit helpmates, who didn’t want to create a potential revenue source for competitors but did want a $20 million slush fund to supplement their marketing budgets.

Distributing mobile hotspot hardware is one thing. Lighting it up is another. Purchasing a hotspot that comes with, say, a year’s free service might be a way around that restriction, assuming cable and telephone companies don’t use scorched earth tactics to defend their monopoly model lock on low income communities, as Charter has repeatedly done.

T-Mobile, for example, offers schools hotspots with unlimited service (with the usual caveats about slowing down heavy users) for a net $324 for 12 months and $364 for 24 months, assuming a hardware cost of $84.

On an egregiously rounded, back-of-the-envelope basis, $5 million will buy 12 months of connectivity for 15,000 households or 24 months for 14,000 households at those prices. Or $300 laptops for 17,000 homes. Or both for something like 8,000 homes. Bulk buys can bring costs down and $300 is high end for a Chromebook but, even so, it’s all in the same ballpark.

CDE also has an offer from Google to provide 100,000 hotspots and 4,000 Chromebooks. If there’s cash in that deal, and not just merchandise, it could help solve the millions for marketing but not a dime for service problem, as well as increase the number of homes reached.

In its request to the CPUC, CDE said that 188,000 California students lack Internet access at home and 203,000 don’t have a device that will allow them “to participate in a digital distance learning experience”. Assuming two students per household, $5 million will only fill something like 10% of the gap, and combining it with Google’s contribution would extend that to maybe as much as a quarter of the shortfall.

It’s a good start. Now we have to figure out how to get to the finish.