Tag Archives: covid19

The $2 trillion covid-19 stimulus bill is not a broadband bill, but it helps. A little

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Salinas windmill cell site

Update, 27 March 2020: president Trump signed the bill, it’s a done deal.

Update, 27 March 2020: the U.S. house of representatives approved the bill, it now goes to president Trump.

A vote on the $2 trillion federal covid–19 stimulus bill is expected in the U.S. house of representatives later today, and president Trump says he’ll sign it immediately. I also found the full text of the bill, as published by the U.S. senate’s appropriations committee. Assuming it’s really the final-final version, it’s not going to do very much at all to fill the broadband gaps that separate many people, particularly in California’s rural counties, from the online business, education, health, information and entertainment services that we now rely on.

But there are a couple of sparks of good broadband news in the text. In the short term, it authorises the federal veterans affairs department to…

Enter into short-term agreements or contracts with telecommunications companies to provide temporary, complimentary or subsidized, fixed and mobile broadband services for the purposes of providing expanded mental health services to isolated veterans through telehealth or VA Video Connect.

It also pumps $50 million into grants to libraries (and museums) for “digital network access”, “internet accessible devices” and “technical support”, and waives matching fund requirements.

The bill doesn’t address the Federal Communications Commission’s E-rate program. There’s no extra money and no prescribed changes in eligibility, or allowed uses of existing funds.

The language that pumps an extra $200 million into the FCC’s telehealth subsidy program is flexible, though. The FCC will have a lot of discretion regarding how it spends the money. There are no significant changes to the Rural Utilities Service’s (RUS) ReConnect broadband infrastructure grant and loan program or its telehealth and distance learning subsidies, except of course for the extra money – $100 million for ReConnect and $25 million for telehealth/distance learning.

Long term, the bill will speed up the migration of health care and other essential services to online platforms. Legacy rules and bureaucratic inertia are a barrier to increased adoption of telehealth technology, so in several places the bill has language that, as one section puts it, is aimed at “encouraging use of telecommunications systems for home health services furnished during emergency period”. It also redefines the mission of some federal telehealth programs as, for example, funding “evidence-based projects that utilise telehealth technologies” instead of “projects to demonstrate how telehealth technologies can be used”.

In other words, stop screwing around with pilots and just go live.

Federal covid-19 stimulus package doesn’t seem to stimulate broadband, much

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Frontier verizon pole santa barbara county 10oct2015

Even by Washington, D.C. standards, $2 trillion is a lot of money. By those same standards, though, $325 million isn’t much and that appears to be the extent of direct broadband assistance in the $2 trillion covid–19 “stimulus” bill approved by the U.S. senate late last night. If there’s indirect broadband help, it’s buried in the bill’s yet-to-be-published text.

According to a summary obtained by Bloomberg Law yesterday, the bill adds $100 million to a broadband infrastructure program run by the federal agriculture department’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS), as well as $200 million to the Federal Communications Commission’s telehealth subsidy kitty and $25 million for a telehealth and distance learning program, also managed by RUS. That’s not the final word, of course. We’ll have to wait for the full text of the bill to surface before we know what’s in it.

There’s no extra money for the FCC’s E-rate program, which pays for broadband service to schools and libraries. That’s a disappointment for many, but I’ll reserve judgement until I see the actual bill. If, as has been urged, it loosens restrictions on how the money that’s already in the program can be spent, then it’ll be an immediate win. Under current rules, infrastructure and bandwidth bought through the E-rate program can’t be opened up to the public. Just taking that restriction off, even temporarily, could help close the gap between broadband haves in California’s urban areas and the have nots in rural communities. If it doesn’t do at least that much then, yeah, it’s a disappointment.

The RUS infrastructure money will go into the ReConnect program, which pays for new broadband infrastructure in rural areas. It probably won’t be much help to California, though. It’s designed for the business models and demographics of the midwest and south, and so far hasn’t funded any systems here. But it’ll help the people it’ll help, and to that extent it’s well timed. The application deadline for the current round of grants is next Tuesday, 31 March 2020, which means there should be plenty of project proposals that can be funded immediately.

The next step for the bill is the U.S. house of representatives.

California’s mountain counties get failing broadband grades, urban areas top the report card

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

California broadband infrastructure report card map 24mar2020 625

The worst broadband infrastructure in California is, not surprisingly, found in mountain counties at the north end of the state. Trinity and Siskiyou counties both get “F” grades for broadband infrastructure, with a numerical score of dead zero. Sierra County likewise gets an “F”, with a numerical score of 0.03 that’s effectively zero. It is also the county with the highest percentage of population – 88% – without any access to wireline broadband service. It’s a serious problem for rural residents as business, education, health care and education move almost exclusively online during the covid–19 lockdown.

As the map above and the tables below show, the best broadband infrastructure in California can be found in San Francisco and Alameda County, and in Los Angeles and Orange counties, and it generally gets worse the farther you get from those two hubs.

The Worst

County            Broadband Report Card GradeGPAPercent of Population at Zero service
TrinityF0.0083%
SiskiyouF0.0017%
HumboldtF0.0115%
MariposaF0.0124%
ModocF0.0150%
LassenF0.0256%
SierraF0.0388%
AlpineF0.0483%
PlumasF0.1335%
InyoF0.1716%

The Best

County            Broadband Report Card GradeGPAPercent of Population at Zero service
AlamedaB-2.773%
San FranciscoB-2.731%
San MateoC+2.631%
Contra CostaC+2.401%
SacramentoC+2.302%
Santa ClaraC+2.273%
Los AngelesC2.091%
OrangeC1.973%
San JoaquinC-1.895%
StanislausC-1.884%

The grades are based on a methodology I first developed in 2013 for the East Bay Broadband Consortium, and have since been updating on a statewide basis for the Central Coast Broadband Consortium and other such regional organisations. It uses the broadband speed and technology claims that Internet service providers submit to the California Public Utilities Commission and Federal Communications Commission every year – the most recent data set is current as of 31 December 2018. The underlying data are not very accurate, but it is precise in the sense that companies tend to be consistent about the way they exaggerate coverage. That makes it useful for comparative purposes, which is what the California Broadband Infrastructure Report Card is all about.

The best broadband infrastructure in California is found in the Bay Area and Sacramento, and the Los Angeles/Orange County core. Those two counties straddle California’s “C” average. The large share of the state’s population those counties represent means what’s available to people there is going to look a lot like what’s available to the average Californian.

San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties also made the top 10 due to upgrades by AT&T, which claims to have built fiber to the premise systems in about 16% of the census blocks (but not necessarily throughout whole census blocks) in those two counties, and Vast Network’s middle mile fiber infrastructure, which runs through a lot of census blocks but isn’t available to homes or most businesses. It’s similar story in Fresno County. The grades reflect infrastructure deployments rather than service availability, so for a lot of Central Valley communities it’s water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink.

California Broadband Infrastructure Report Card, 24 March 2020
Central Coast Broadband Consortium wireline broadband availability analysis (22 March 2020 revision), per 31 December 2018 data
Central Coast Broadband Consortium Broadband Infrastructure Grading Methodology, 20 March 2020
Achieving Ubiquitous Broadband Coverage in the Monterey Bay Region, Monterey Bay Economic Partnership, November 2018

CPUC extends CASF grant deadline, also orders telecoms companies to disclose covid-19 response plans

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Broadband companies will get an extra month to submit applications for broadband infrastructure grants from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF). Originally, the proposals were due next week, on 1 April 2020. That deadline is now 4 May 2020, and the subsequent timeline for challenges and decisions also bumped by five weeks, per a memo from California Public Utilities Commission director Alice Stebbins.

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.

In another action, the CPUC ordered executives of major telephone, cable and mobile broadband companies to provide…

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.

California’s broadband gaps affect millions as corona virus lockdown continues

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

San benito pole route 13apr2019

At least 1.5 million Californians – 4% of the state’s population – cannot get wireline broadband in their homes, as the second week of the corona virus lock down begins. That’s what the most recently published broadband availability reports filed with the California Public Utilities Commission show. Nearly twice that many – 2.8 million people, 8% of the population – don’t have access to primary wireline service that delivers 100 Mbps download/20 Mbps upload speeds, the minimum service level needed for in-home work, education, health care and entertainment. The dead spots are disproportionately found in rural communities.

That’s the top line result from the number crunching I’ve been doing, as part of the Central Coast Broadband Consortium’s (CCBC) efforts over the past few days. Like other regional broadband consortia around California, the CCBC is working to identify broadband access gaps and resources to fill them for the 40 million Californians ordered to stay at home. The raw data are the broadband service claims filed by primary wireline Internet service providers – the companies that own the copper and fiber – as of 31 December 2018, which is the most recent data set available. I ran the data for the 58 counties in California, with breakouts for cities, unincorporated communities (AKA census designated places) and tribal areas – it’s pretty much as easy to do it for all 58 counties as it is to do it for one (or the CCBC’s three – San Benito, Monterey and Santa Cruz counties).

The analysis includes:

  • Infrastructure grade (A, B, C, D, F). The grading methodology is here.
  • Median household income estimates.
  • Population, percentage of population, number of housing units and percentage of housing units, as of 2019 estimates, with zero access to wireline broadband service.
  • Population, percentage of population, number of housing units and percentage of housing units able to access primary wireline broadband service at 6 Mbps download/1 Mbps upload, 10 Mbps/1 Mbps, 25 Mbps/3 Mbps, 100 Mbps/20 Mbps, 1,000 Mbps/500 Mbps.

The data is not particularly accurate, as is widely acknowledged, but it is precise in the sense that the inaccuracies tend to be consistent across a provider’s data set. It is sufficiently precise for the purpose of comparing one place to another, and for generally assessing broadband availability in a given county, city or other area. I’ll be writing more about it in the coming days, and welcome any ideas or critiques.

Central Coast Broadband Consortium wireline broadband availability analysis (22 March 2020 revision), per 31 December 2018 data
Central Coast Broadband Consortium Broadband Infrastructure Grading Methodology, 20 March 2020
Achieving Ubiquitous Broadband Coverage in the Monterey Bay Region, Monterey Bay Economic Partnership, November 2018

Cable companies promote free Internet access for locked down Californians, telcos not so much

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Home alone

Update, 19 March 2020: AT&T announced today that the first two months of its Internet package for low income homes – Access from AT&T – is free to new subscribers.

The four major cable companies in California are offering free Internet access for a limited amount of time to low income households during the corona virus emergency, but not the two big telcos.

Charter, Comcast, Cox and Suddenlink seem to have figured out that what amounts to a one or two month promotional offer is a good way to attract new subscribers. Charter’s offer applies to any of their Internet access packages, while the others are limited to their low income-only plans. Unless a customer jumps through the hoops to disconnect, they’ll be billed for ongoing service after the free period ends.

AT&T and Frontier have discounted packages for qualifying low income households, but no free offer. A summary of the offers and contact information is below.

All six companies have also signed on to the Federal Communications Commission’s “Keep Americans Connected” pledge, which calls for them to open up their WiFi hotspots to everyone, not disconnect customers who don’t pay and waive late frees.

Local independent Internet service providers are stepping up too. In Santa Cruz County, Cruzio is offering free service for three months to customers who qualify for its low income service, which otherwise costs $14.95 per month.

A major difference between cable and telephone companies is the availability of video service. Cable companies can – and typically do – try to up sell people who enquire about discounted Internet service into pricey video bundles. That’ll be a particularly attractive pitch to people who are stuck in their homes for the duration. Frontier and AT&T have some video service available, but only in limited parts of their service territory.

ISPPlan nameDetails
AT&TAccess from AT&T$10 per month for qualifying low income households.
CharterSpectrum Internet Assist$17.99 per month ($22.99 with WiFi capability) 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.
ComcastInternet Essentials$9.95 per month for qualifying low income households. Until April 30,2020 the first 60 days is free.
CoxConnect2Compete$9.95 per month, During the corona virus emergency, the first 30 days is free.
FrontierFundamental Internet$19.99 per month for qualifying low income households. No free service is available
SuddenlinkAltice Advantage Internet$14.95 per month for qualifying low income households. During the corona virus emergency, the first 60 days is free.
WebsitePhone
AT&T855–220–5211
Charter844–579–3743
Comcast855–846–8376
Cox800–234–3993
Frontier877–578–8367
Suddenlink888–633–0030

CPUC says telcos, cable companies, mobile carriers shouldn’t cut off customers during corona virus crisis

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Corona virus

Edit: The title of this post originally contained a (serious) typo. It’s fixed now. I can blame jet lag but, really, sometimes my fingers don’t do what I think they’re doing. Sorry about that.

Communications companies should declare “moratoriums on disconnections” in California, according to a letter sent yesterday by the California Public Utilities Commission to executives of landline telcos, mobile carriers and cable companies. It warns telecoms companies that the “CPUC plans to take action to provide emergency customer protection measures for customers in California to prevent disconnections for unpaid bills” during the corona virus emergency.

The warning letter leave a big question unanswered: what sort of communications service is affected?

The language is largely identical to letters sent to electric and water company executives, and is directed at “utility companies (electric, gas, water, sewer) and communications providers”. It refers to an executive order from California governor Gavin Newsom which asks the CPUC to “implement customer service protections for critical utilities, including but not limited to electric, gas, water, Internet, landline telephone, and cell phone service”. But it doesn’t define “communications provider” or mention specific services.

Two CPUC decisions from last year are cited in the letter. The first requires electric and gas companies to “suspend disconnection for nonpayment” during emergencies, and water and sewer companies to minimise disconnections. The second decision is aimed at telecoms companies that provide subsidised Lifeline service or access to 911 centers – telephone service in other words – but it doesn’t specifically require suspending customer disconnections for nonpayment. It applies to legacy wireline companies like AT&T and Frontier, as well as cable companies and mobile carriers.

Presumably whatever emergency decision is eventually approved by the commission will be more tightly written. Although there’s little doubt that the CPUC has jurisdiction over access to 911 service, its power to tell cable, telephone and wireless companies how to otherwise manage customer accounts is debatable. It has vestigial authority over legacy wireline telco service, but even that might not be enough to keep the diminishing number of plain old telephone service customers connected if they don’t pay their bills. Cable companies and mobile carriers usually take the position that the CPUC can’t regulate their consumer services, as do telcos when voice over Internet service or broadband service is involved.

Even so, the letter and the eventual decision might have the desired effect. Telecoms companies are voluntarily signing up to consumer-friendly suggestions made by the Federal Communications Commission, and they might do the same with the CPUC’s measures, while making it clear they don’t have to if they don’t want to.