Tag Archives: covid19

Phone service is phone service and emergency obligations apply regardless of technology, CPUC decides

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Telephone companies have to follow disaster readiness and response rules laid down by the California Public Utilities Commission, regardless of the technology they use. That’s the CPUC’s opinion anyway. In a sharply written unanimous decision published yesterday, commissioners rejected challenges to telephone (but not broadband) emergency response obligations that they imposed on incumbent telcos, cable companies, mobile carriers and VoIP providers alike last year.

The regulatory logic that underpin those obligations also formed the basis for the CPUC’s initial response to the covid–19 emergency and the disaster resiliency standards for communications services that it recently adopted. The same cast of characters are fighting those edicts using similar arguments, so yesterday’s decision is both a good indication of how the commission will respond and how it will defend itself when the fight moves to federal courts, as it surely must.

AT&T, Charter Communications, Comcast, Frontier Communications and their lobbying front organisations claimed, among other things, that the CPUC’s disaster relief requirements were preempted by federal law because when phone service is delivered via 21st century voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) technology instead of 19th century copper wires and exchanges it magically transmogrifies from a telecommunications service to an information service.

Not true, the commission said. First of all, a federal court has already determined that telephone service is defined by the service provided and not by the technology used…

As the Court’s analysis demonstrates, the phrase “to facilitate communication by telephone” encompasses services beyond traditional landline service if the service facilitates “two-way communication by speaking as well as by listening,” regardless of the “[t]he exact form or shape of the transmitter and the receiver or the medium over which the communication can be effected.” Wireless service and VoIP service both facilitate two-way communication by speaking as well as by listening.

Second, while generally upholding the Federal Communications Commission’s repeal of network neutrality rules, a federal appeals court in the District of Columbia said last year that there’s no blanket preemption of state regulation of information services…

The [D.C. appeals court]…presents a more reasoned analysis, which preserves state authority over consumer protection matters that the FCC has either no authority to preempt or where no actual conflict exists. [It] supports the Commission’s consumer protection efforts in the Decision. Therefore [the telco and cable company] preemption argument fails.

Similarly, the CPUC rejected arguments made by AT&T and the mobile industry’s lobbying mouthpiece that the FCC reigns supreme over any wireless service. The decision said emergency response requirements have nothing to do with market entry or the price of service, which the CPUC cannot regulate per federal law, but are instead “‘other terms and conditions’ of wireless service”, which the same law firmly places under state jurisdiction.

Upload demand up, download demand down during covid-19 quarantine, report says

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Upstream traffic growth openvault 2q2020

The covid–19 emergency buried the tired argument that consumers want fast download speeds to watch video and don’t need, or care about, fast upload speeds. If the flood of anecdotal reports about online classes freezing and telework grinding to a halt as upstream bandwidth gridlocked wasn’t convincing enough, a report published by a broadband data consultancy might finally do the trick.

OpenVault just published its network analysis for the second quarter of 2020, the first full quarter under covid–19 restrictions. It found that the need for upload speed jumped – largely due to video conferencing – even as downstream demand dipped…

In contrast to quarter-over- quarter declines in downstream usage, upstream consumption was up 5.3% in 2Q20, when compared with 1Q20. It is likely that this reflects increased use of videoconferencing as a business, educational and lifestyle tool…

The trends of higher demand for bandwidth consumption and faster speeds appear to be forming that new broadband normal…As more people work and learn from home, the demand for upstream bandwidth will continue to multiply. Two-way video communication for videoconferencing and remote learning is helping drive this surge in upstream bandwidth demand. This demand spiked in 2Q20, growing by 56% over 2Q19.

The stats confirmed what a handful of California senators told the author of an industry-backed effort to keep California’s broadband standard at a ridiculous level of 6 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds.

“There are people, and the kids, who either totally lack Internet access or have very slow…or just people who have what would be considered normal Internet service and it’s still terrible”, senator Scott Wiener (D – San Francisco) said during a committee hearing to consider assembly bill 570, carried by assemblywoman Cecilia Aguiar-Curry (D – Yolo).

The 6 Mbps down/1 Mbps standard in the bill was subsequently raised a bit, to 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up, but with a catch. Comcast, Charter, AT&T and Frontier want to make sure they’re the only Internet service providers that get taxpayer subsidies that support those still slow speeds, so AB 570 was amended to give them the right to claim for themselves any projects proposed by independents, and the money that goes with it. This right of the first night would effectively lock out competition and lock in their monopoly grip on Californians’ broadband service.

Keeping California’s broadband speed limit low suits business models that rely on extracting monopoly profits from decaying rural telephone systems while directing investment to high income communities. What we need, though, is modern broadband infrastructure in every community. That’s why senate bill 1130, authored by senator Lena Gonzalez (D – Los Angeles) sets 25 Mbps as the minimum acceptable broadband speed for upload and download use.

Both bills are still alive and moving in Sacramento. Key decisions are due the end of next week, just ten days before California’s 2020 legislative session ends.

Covid-19 was barely a sniffle for the Internet, study finds

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Fixed broadband weighted median download

Broadband networks in the U.S. and around the world held up well as countries locked down and work, school and play moved online in March. Anna-Maria Kovacs, a visiting scholar at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., took a brief look at worldwide Internet speed test data collected by Ookla and traffic data from Sandvine, and found that the crush of traffic put a temporary downward bend – and only that – on planetary network speeds

It is not unusual, of course, for internet traffic to grow…What is unusual in the Covid–19 environment is the suddenness of the traffic growth. Rather than growing 30% in a year, traffic grew about that much in a month. Sandvine reports a “staggering increase in volume for network operators to cope with and absorb.” During March, according to Sandvine, global traffic grew 28.69% with an additional 9.28% during April, for a total of 38% over the two months. Upstream traffic growth was even more stunning, up 123.18% in March before leveling off…

The U.S. networks’ fixed-broadband speed bottomed out within three weeks, as did the global index, while the speeds of the EU, EU–4, and OECD continued to decline for another three weeks.

Kovacs’ conclusions – the apparent superior performance of U.S. networks is due to the beneficence of telecoms companies and the somnambulance of the Federal Communications Commission – are unsupported. Her top level observations might correlate to Ookla’s network traffic data, but she offers no analytical rigor or evidence of causation. The data sets she relies on aren’t necessarily globally consistent. For example, Ookla’s Speedtest.net is based in Seattle and relies on crowdsourced data. It’s a mistake to assume that the crowd generating the data in the U.S. is largely identical to the crowd in the E.U. It might or might not be.

Comparisons of the same population over a few weeks time are valid, though. The top line conclusion stands: globally, networks withstood the initial covid–19 induced surge, and adapted to higher traffic levels within a few weeks.

The Internet was originally designed to ride out a nuclear war. It works just fine in a pandemic, too.

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.