Tag Archives: cpuc

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.

T-Mobile tells CPUC it does not “intend to address DISH’s fitness” in Sprint merger review

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

The Federal Communications Commission formally approved T-Mobile’s takeover of Sprint on Wednesday, but California’s blessing (or not) will almost certainly wait until sometime next year. How far into next year the California Public Utilities Commission’s review of the merger goes will depend on whether T-Mobile’s plan to transfer people, spectrum, stores and cell sites to DISH, to create a new U.S. mobile carrier to replace Sprint as a fourth competitor in the market, is deemed relevant.

T-Mobile’s lawyers think it’s irrelevant, and don’t want to cooperate if the CPUC’s inquiry heads in that direction. In a very small print footnote, in an email sent yesterday to the administrative law judge (ALJ) managing the CPUC’s inquiry, T-Mobile’s lead California attorney Suzanne Toller said…

Joint Applicants [T-Mobile and Sprint] do not intend to address DISH’s fitness as a wireless provider or its viability as a fourth competitor, as those matters are not properly within the scope of these proceedings.

The “scope of these proceedings” is still to be determined. ALJ Karl Bemesderfer must decide if he will allow opponents of the merger to challenge T-Mobile’s claim that its arrangement with DISH and other aspects of its settlement with the federal justice department’s anti-trust unit have no meaningful effect on the California wonderfulness of the Sprint merger. He framed it, in part, as a due process question during a hearing last week, and indicated he was considering a request made by opponents, with specific attention to DISH’s capabilities and intentions, for several months of additional testimony, rebuttal and arguments.

Lawyerly bluster aside, the “properly” bit seems to be at the base of the vague threat to ignore Californian proceedings that T-Mobile’s legal team floated at the hearing. If the effect of the merger on competition in California’s broadband market is “properly” within the CPUC’s jurisdiction, then DISH is fair game and T-Mobile will have to wait for a decision. If the question is completely in the hands of federal agencies, then we already have the answer.

Links to the stack of arguments and exhibits everyone has filed are here.

My clients include California cities who do business with T-Mobile. I like to think that has no bearing on my commentary, but I like to think I’m good looking too. Take it for what it’s worth.

With or without California’s approval, T-Mobile looks for quick consummation of Sprint merger

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Tmobile san francisco 18may2019

Does DISH matter? That’s the question that’ll determine whether the California Public Utilities Commission makes a (relatively) fast decision to allow T-Mobile to acquire Sprint. If it doesn’t, lawyers for T-Mobile and its allies hinted that the deal might move ahead without Californian conditions or, indeed, permission.

Yesterday, CPUC administrative law judge Karl Bemesderfer listened to arguments from lawyers on T-Mobile’s side who pressed for a quick end to the case, and from opponents of the deal who pushed for lengthy, formal litigation. At issue is T-Mobile’s (and Sprint’s, but T-Mobile is running the show) proposal to shift people, spectrum and real estate to DISH, and create a new, fourth competitor in California’s mobile broadband marketplace.

That agreement was reached with anti-trust lawyers working for the federal justice department, after the CPUC’s nearly year-long inquiry was closed. T-Mobile’s ace legal team asked Bemesderfer to “take notice” of the settement, which led him to formally re-open the record and, perhaps, restart a process that could run until sometime next spring.

At the end of the 80 minute “pre-hearing conference” – CPUC-speak for a hearing to decide if there’s going to be a hearing – Bemesderfer cut to the chase…

Both sides have raised, I think, quite compelling points. Joint applicants have made the case that the California-only commitments have not been altered by the post closing-of-the record events in Washington. And I also think joint intervenors have made a case that they have a due process right to test that proposition…

I thank you all for coming and supplying me with your thoughts, and I will go think about this for a while and then I’ll supply you with mine.

Then there’s the vague threat T-Mobile’s lawyer floated about what might happen if the CPUC is the last regulatory agency in the U.S. that doesn’t approve the deal. Suzanne Toller said that it would raise “a number of some very interesting questions about the scope of the commission’s jurisdiction” over T-Mobile, Sprint or any other mobile carrier.

Translation: jam us up and we’ll jam you up in federal court.

Rachelle Chong, a lawyer representing the California Emerging Technology Fund, which flipped from opposing the deal to enthusiastically supporting it after accepting a $35 million payoff honorarium from T-Mobile that it can only cash in if the deal goes through, put it more bluntly. She expressed “very serious concern” about what would happen “if T-Mobile were to pack up its bags and leave California because it can’t get its approvals for this deal”.

Translation: T-Mobile won’t give us the money. Its other California-specific commitments are toast too.

There’s no chance T-Mobile will turn off its network in California, but there’s a real possibility that it can get a federal (or even Californian) judge to say the CPUC is out of bounds. At that point, all promises are off the table.

There’s no particular timeline for Bemesderfer to issue a decision, but a week or two wouldn’t be a crazy guess.

Links to the stack of arguments and exhibits everyone has filed are here.

My clients include California cities who do business with T-Mobile. I like to think that has no bearing on my commentary. I like to think I’m good looking too. Take it for what it’s worth.

T-Mobile/Sprint merger review might go longer and harder in California, as DISH’s act is questioned

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

The California Public Utilities Commission should get the dish on DISH, before deciding whether T-Mobile’s proposed takeover of Sprint “would serve the public interest”, according to a protest filed yesterday by a coalition of opponents to the deal. The group includes the CPUC’s public advocates office, two consumer advocacy groups and the Communications Workers of America, the primary telecoms union in California. To do that, they propose a schedule of testimony and arguments that would bump any decision on the merger until sometime next spring.

T-Mobile refiled its application for CPUC approval last month, after its deal with Sprint was extended to include spinning off assets to DISH in order to maintain sufficient competition in the mobile services marketplace. Or so the federal justice department believes. DISH owns a considerable amount of mobile spectrum, but hasn’t put it to use yet – it’s primarily a satellite TV outfit, not a telecommunications network operator or service provider.

Under the new agreement, DISH gets spectrum, cell sites and retail outlets from T-Mobile and Sprint, so it can eventually build its own network. In the meantime, it would lease capacity from T-Mobile, and resell it under its own brand name – become what’s known as a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO). In their protest, the opponents questioned whether DISH is capable of fulfilling those promises…

This Proposed Transaction dissolves the fourth main wireless carrier and proposes the creation of a possibly inferior substitute to become a new fourth carrier. This could have profound impacts on competition, jobs, and quality of service, among other things. Especially, the Commission should examine whether approving the [deal with DISH] and creating a new wireless carrier is more beneficial to California than simply keeping Sprint as a strong and viable fourth carrier.

  • Is DISH, as [an MVNO] operating on New T-Mobile’s network for the first several years of the settlement, an adequate replacement for Sprint to serve customers in the prepaid market?
  • Can a client MVNO, new to the mobile wireless market, realistically be expected to provide the same level of competitive check that Sprint, a competitive Mobile Network Operator (MNO), currently exerts on T- Mobile?

There are more questions in the full document, but one they didn’t ask and should have was is DISH any more serious about this promise than it was about past pledges to build a mobile network?

T-Mobile, along with everyone else, is scheduled to meet later today with the CPUC administrative law judge managing the case. They’ll talk about next steps.

Links to the stack of arguments and exhibits everyone has filed are here.

My clients include California cities who do business with T-Mobile. I like to think that has no bearing on my commentary, but I like to think I’m good looking too. Take it for what it’s worth.

PG&E pole attachment shot clock ready for another CPUC vote

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Fiber attachments 625

The do-over of a settlement resolving a utility pole attachment dispute between Pacific Gas and Electric and Crown Castle is queued up at the California Public Utilities Commission. The original settlement was drafted by administrative law judge Patricia Miles and approved in March. But commissioners reversed the decision due to procedural mistakes, and told Miles to fix those errors try again. She did, and the new draft is the same as the old one.

If approved, the imposed settlement gives PG&E forty five days to “provide a response” to a pole attachment request from Crown Castle. If there’s no response, Crown Castle can go ahead with its proposed work. “Response” is not defined, but typically it means a yes or no answer, including any specs for work that’s needed to make the pole ready for a new line to be attached. Whether PG&E’s lawyers go with the typical meaning or try to craft one of their own remains to be seen.

The draft also bakes in the rejection of Crown Castle’s original request to be allowed to buy attachment space on PG&E’s poles, rather than just lease it. PG&E’s practice is to either sell ownership of the entire communications zone – the segment of the pole that’s high enough off the ground and sufficiently beneath electric lines – or lease it by the foot. Typically (there’s that word again) AT&T or another incumbent telco buy the entire zone and manage it under private joint pole rules that are, in theory, friendlier to telecoms companies. Crown Castle wanted those privileges for its one-foot of pole space, but didn’t want the responsibility of managing the entire zone.

PG&E opposes the changes proposed by Miles. It doesn’t like the way it was handled – the dispute between the companies was fast tracked as an arbitration, rather than a typical, and lengthy, litigation – and it objects to what it characterises as special treatment given to Crown Castle.

Crown Castle generally endorsed Miles’ decision, albeit after making clear that they think they should have been given the right to buy space by the foot on poles, and after asking for one change – removal of a requirement that they provide two days notice to PG&E before doing work on poles.

The commission is scheduled to vote on the proposed settlement at its meeting next week, but don’t be surprised if it gets bumped. PG&E and Crown Castle have one more round of comments to file, and if any of their arguments gain traction with Miles or commissioners, then new language would have to be drafted.

Sprint took megabuck subsidies for inactive lifeline customers, federally and in California

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Sprint mwca 2018

Sprint could be collecting payments from California’s broadband and telephone lifeline subsidy program for hundreds of thousands of inactive accounts. A Federal Communications Commission press release accuses Sprint of taking “tens of millions of dollars” for 885,000 federally subsidised customers who weren’t using the service anymore. That represents 30% of Sprint’s national lifeline customer base, says the FCC.

Sprint is the 500 pound gorilla of the California Public Utilities Commission’s lifeline program, which supplements the $9.25 monthly federal subsidy with up to $15 per month. According to a brief submitted by the CPUC’s public advocates office during the ongoing review of Sprint’s proposed merger with T-Mobile…

Sprint, through its Virgin Mobile brand, is the only [facilities-based mobile network operator] that participates in the California LifeLine program. Under the trade name of “Assurance Wireless brought to you by Virgin Mobile,” Virgin Mobile serves roughly 482,000 LifeLine wireless customers in California, over 200,000 more customers than the next largest LifeLine wireless carrier, and more than all other LifeLine wireline carriers combined.

If the FCC’s 30% “inactive” rate applies equally to Sprint’s California lifeline base, then the CPUC gave the company subsidies for 145,000 non-existent customers. There isn’t enough information available yet to figure out how much money that represents, but on a back of the envelope basis, 145,000 inactive accounts subsidised at $15 each comes out to about $2.2 million per month. Even given that every payment wasn’t the $15 max, it doesn’t take too many months for California’s outlay to land in the FCC’s “tens of millions of dollars” ballpark too.

The Communications Workers of America union is one of the leading opponents of the T-Mobile/Sprint merger, in California and federally, and has already asked the FCC to put everything on hold “until [Sprint’s corporate] character issue is investigated and resolved”. It’s a fair bet that T-Mobile and Sprint will have to answer for the false billing – Sprint is calling it an “error” dating back to 2016 – as they try to gain CPUC approval for their merger. A hearing to decide next steps in the case is scheduled at the CPUC on 10 October 2019.

CPUC approves DSL upgrade subsidy for Frontier at $4,700 per home

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Weimar casf project

The California Public Utilities Commission approved a $693,000 grant to Frontier Communications from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) for a DSL equipment upgrade in the Placer County community of Weimar earlier this month. It was a considerably smaller grant than Frontier requested.

The project originally included the somewhat larger town of Colfax and called for a CASF subsidy of $2.3 million to reach 1,400 homes that, Frontier said, lacked access to broadband service at California’s pathetic minimum of 6 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds. Other Internet service providers in the area begged to differ, however. Two wireless ISPs, Colfax.net and SmarterBroadband, which have made a habit of blocking wireline upgrades, challenged Frontier’s request, as did the local cable operator, Wave. As a result more than two-thirds of the budget and nearly 90% of the households were chopped, and the cost jumped to $4,700 per premise…

Staff notes that this is a DSL project, and the cost would be higher compared to other DSL projects approved by the Commission. The total number of households for this project is 148, which is significantly less compared to other Frontier DSL projects that range from 234 to 1,017 total households. The higher cost per household is due to the low density of eligible households in the project area. Further, in addition to the equipment upgrades to the Weimar Central Office, Frontier must also upgrade equipment facilities at its Colfax Central Office in order to serve the Weimar project area. Due to the additional equipment upgrades required in Colfax, the cost per household increased by $1,000 overall.

Frontier gave up federal money for the area, in order to maximise its Californian subsidy, which covers 90% of the construction cost for the DSL central office upgrade and 1,000 feet of new fiber, apparently for a lateral connection to a middle mile route. Frontier is only promising the minimum performance level for CASF funded projects of 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up, but CPUC staff “estimates 50 percent of CASF-eligible households are within roughly 5,000 feet of Frontier’s terminals and should expect very fast service (25 Mbps to a maximum of 115 Mbps)”.

Frontier’s financial woes rated a mention, but didn’t raise any concerns. The CPUC resolution concluded that Frontier “has managed to stabilise its revenue and made significant efforts to reduce debt and improve its financial leverage profile”.

T-Mobile waters down California job pledge as it refiles for Sprint merger permission

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Tmobile san francisco 18may2019

T-Mobile (and Sprint, but it’s T-Mobile running the show) refiled and amended its application for merger approval with the California Public Utilities Commission on Thursday, as directed by the administrative law judge managing the case. Generally, the changes add a bit more detail about how the settlement T-Mobile reached with the federal justice department’s antitrust enforcers changes the promises it made to the CPUC earlier in the proceeding.

The core of the settlement involves transferring most of Sprint’s prepaid customers, along with retail outlets, cell sites and spectrum, to DISH, in order to create a new competitor in the mobile broadband market. The new commitments in the amended application boil down to we’re not making any promises about what DISH will do with the stuff.

Or with the people. Since some of Sprint’s employees –“prepaid asset personnel” – will be offered as a sacrifice to DISH, T-Mobile is removing them from its “voluntary commitment” to “extend job offers with comparable pay and benefits to all California Sprint and T-Mobile retail employees”.

If you read between the lines, though, it’s also possible – probable, if you assume T-Mobile’s lawyers use weasel words for a reason – many Sprint and/or T-Mobile employees will end up out of work, whether or not they’re being shopped to DISH.

On the one hand, T-Mobile originally promised “the total number of New T-Mobile employees in California three years after the close of the transaction will be equal to, or greater than, the current total number of Sprint and T-Mobile employees in California”. The amended application removes the “prepaid asset personnel” from that commitment and restates it as “no net job loss”, which indicates that the “or greater than” is weaselly worded indeed.

On the other hand, T-Mobile says it will create “approximately one thousand new jobs at a new customer experience center located in California’s Central Valley”.

Do the math. If T-Mobile adds a thousand people in Kingsburg, in Fresno County, and its Californian head count will be the same in three years as it is now, a thousand employees will have to make a career change. That might be a sound business decision, but it’s not the storyline T-Mobile is hoping the CPUC will buy into.

The next milestone in the CPUC’s lengthening review of the T-Mobile/Sprint merger is a hearing to consider what additional issues need to be addressed, and what the schedule for doing that will be. Given typical procedural timelines at the CPUC, a final decision isn’t likely until next year, perhaps some time in the first three months or so.

Links to the stack of arguments and exhibits T-Mobile and Sprint filed on Thursday are here.

California legislature tweaks telecoms policy instead of killing it

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Despite AT&T’s quest for de facto deregulation of telecommunications infrastructure and service, no major telecoms policy changes emerged from the California legislature this year. A few small ball telecoms-related bills did emerge by the end of the 2019 session early Saturday morning, though, and were sent on to governor Gavin Newsom.

Assembly bill 1366 is dead, at least for this year. There was no last minute conniving to pull it out of the committee deep freeze it landed in earlier in the week. It could come back in 2020, either as a fast track do-over in January or reintroduced as a new bill.

It’s fair bet that lobbyists from AT&T, Comcast, Charter Communications, Frontier Communications and mobile carriers will want to take another try. The moratorium on regulation of voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) phone service and other “Internet protocol enabled” services ends as the new year begins, but there will be no practical effect for months, if not years. There are no VoIP-specific regulations ready to snap back into place and any effort to create new ones, or even reinterpret old ones will take a long time.

A few telecoms bills dealing with more specific issues were approved and are in the governor’s hands, including…

  • AB 1699, Marc Levine (D – Marin) – prohibits mobile carriers from throttling data traffic on accounts used by public safety agencies during emergencies. It’s largely symbolic. The only question is whether mobile carriers, or their lobbying front organisation, will challenge it federal court immediately, or wait until there’s a serious attempt to enforce it.
  • SB 670, Mike McGuire (D – Sonoma) – requires telecoms companies to notify the state office of emergency services when an outage isolates a community. State OES would then pass the information along to local agencies.
  • SB 208 and AB 1132 would crack down on caller ID fraud in various ways.

Newsom has until 13 October 2019 to decide what to do.

AT&T’s backdoor telecoms deregulation bill runs out of room in the California senate

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Coyote cliff 625

“AB 1366 was pulled by the author, so it will not be considered today”, said senator Ben Hueso (D – San Diego) as he called the senate’s energy, utilities and communications committee to order yesterday. Assembly bill 1366 would extend a ban on regulation of voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) and other “Internet protocol enabled” services in California.

Conventional wisdom says the bill is dead for this year. It wasn’t amended before last night’s constitutional deadline, so there’ll be no more wrangling over the bill’s language. On the other hand, there are still three days left in the legislative session and it’s a high stakes bill for monopoly model telcos and cable companies like AT&T and Comcast. They stuff a lot of cash into lawmaker’s pockets have deep, philosophical points yet to make.

No reason for pulling the bill was offered. A hastily prepared analysis by committee staff shows that the line up of organisations for and against it didn’t change. AT&T, Frontier Communications, and the lobbying front organisation that Comcast and Charter Communications duck behind – the California Cable and Telecommunications Association – still support it; the Communications Workers of America, AT&T’s principal union, and the California Labor Federation still oppose it. In the heat of the end-of-the-session rush, what ends up in print often doesn’t reflect backroom reality, but in this case it’s probably accurate. Organised labor is probably the only force in Sacramento with more political power and money than AT&T, Comcast and Charter.

AB 1366 was disowned on Friday by assembly member Lorena Gonzalez (D – San Diego), who introduced it earlier this year and muscled it to within inches of the goal line. Presumably, she passed it over to two other assembly members – Jay Olbernolte (R – San Bernardino) and Tom Daly (D – Orange) – because the stiff opposition from labor organisations, which are the foundation of her political base, finally made it impossible for her to front for it.

The bill was amended during the handoff, limiting the ban’s extension to two years. But other amendments added even more perks for incumbent telecoms companies, particularly AT&T and, to a lesser extent, Frontier. Not surprisingly, that turned out to be a bad way to win friends in the final days of the legislative session.

The ban on VoIP regulation was imposed by the legislature in 2012, when no one was sure what direction VoIP or other services that ride on the Internet would take. Now we know. Today, VoIP is the telephone service technology preferred by telephone and cable companies because 1. it’s a century or so ahead of legacy copper phone tech, and 2. it’s unregulated. As a California Public Utilities Commission analysis shows, telcos are switching customers to VoIP at a rapid rate, to the point that state regulation of broadband and telephone infrastructure and service, which depends on legacy copper rules, will effectively end.