Tag Archives: cpuc

CPUC urged to keep broadband promotion subsidies provider neutral

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Broadband promotion grant rules should have air tight guarantees that the money won’t be used to promote any particular Internet service provider. That’s the consensus of several organisations that reacted to a draft decision that would have the California Public Utilities Commission set up a broadband “adoption” program, subsidised by the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF).

As the new rules were being developed, big, incumbent ISPs argued, in effect, that they should be able to leverage the money to supplement their subscriber acquisition – aka sales – efforts. The first draft of the rules is a little ambiguous on that point. Although the money would flow through (presumably) non-profit organisations, partnerships with ISPs are encouraged. No one seems opposed with the idea of working with ISPs. After all, the goal is to convince more Californians to buy Internet access and join the online world. ISPs have to be part of the mix for that to happen.

But exclusive deals are something else again. Big ISPs such as AT&T, Frontier Communications, Comcast and Charter Communications don’t play well with others. As anyone who has watched the parade of sock puppets that the big carriers march into legislative hearings can tell you, when they can rope non-profits into working for them, they will. In its comments to the CPUC, the California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF) said Frontier wants to do exactly that…

Currently, CETF is being pressured by Frontier Communications to have CBO grantees for adoption outreach market only Frontier’s affordable offer. This is contrary to the role of a non-profit organization to educate a potential subscriber to all affordable offers available, and help choose the best one for his or her needs.

Most of CETF’s funding comes from Frontier and Charter these days, to run such subscriber acquisition campaigns in their territories.

The Greenlining Institute, TURN (aka the Utility Reform Network, aka Toward Utility Rate Normalisation) and the CPUC’s office of ratepayer advocates also pushed for clear language banning exclusive deals between grant recipients and ISPs. As TURN and Greenlining put it

The Commission should ensure that those partnerships do not require digital literacy programs to exclusively promote one Internet Service Provider’s services at the expense of competition and informed consumer choice. These program participants are exceptionally vulnerable in that they have been recently introduced to the internet and on-line environment and presumably have little to no knowledge regarding the various options and “players” in the marketplace. These consumers will likely be looking to these programs for guidance and advice on adoption options. These consumers should not be misled or otherwise given the impression that they do not have a choice for internet services through program materials, branding, or other marketing materials solely from the ISP partner that would likely be accessible during the grant- funded program.

Rebuttals, should there be any, are due next week. The CPUC is scheduled to make a final decision on 21 June 2018.

The complete set of CASF reboot documents is here.

SCE proposes doing CPUC reviews the old, costly way to save its fiber business

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Instead of shooting Southern California Edison’s fiber business in the head, the California Public Utilities Commission might have shot itself in the foot. Earlier this year, commissioner Clifford Rechtschaffen drafted a plan to kill the business model that the CPUC approved for SCE’s dark fiber leasing enterprise nearly 20 years ago. It was in response to a request from SCE for approval of a high volume master fiber lease agreement it negotiated with Verizon.

In a recent closed door meeting with Rechtschaffen’s staff (plus an advisor to commissioner Lianne Randolph), SCE proposed scrapping the master lease and using the existing time and labor intensive – for SCE and the CPUC – method of reviewing each new agreement individually.

The original idea was to get the CPUC’s blessing for the overall terms of the deal, to avoid the necessity of submitting each, individual route lease for review. It would have meant less work for everyone involved, and allowed SCE to lease more dark fiber more quickly, first to Verizon and then presumably to any other broadband carrier or customer that, with the CPUC’s approval, negotiated a similar master lease agreement.

Neither efficiency or the broadband needs of Californian consumers seemed to be on Rechtschaffen’s mind. He proposed changing the revenue sharing arrangement from 90% of gross fiber leasing income going to SCE and 10% to its electric customers, to 25% to SCE and 75% to ratepayers. SCE argued – correctly – that taking away the lion’s share of the revenue would remove the financial incentive for it to pursue more fiber business. That would knock a major independent competitor out of the southern California telecoms market.

By submitting fiber leases the old way – which it still has the right to do, so far – SCE maintains an incentive to continue competing…

Like all other dark fiber leases for the last 19 years, the lease route orders under the MLA would receive the revenue sharing mechanism designated for dark fiber leases in [the original 1999 CPUC decision]

It’s not ideal – repetitive item by item review is a waste of taxpayers’ money – but it is a solution that would preserve a competitive fiber market in southern California. Rechtschaffen hasn’t responded yet, and might not do so publicly. SCE’s original application is still pending – what eventually happens with it will tell the story.

California rural electric co-op gets $1.8 million to extend FTTH service

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Another 413 homes in small, desert communities in Riverside County are getting high speed, fiber to the home service, via the Anza Electric Cooperative and a grant from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF). The California Public Utilities Communities approved a $1.8 million subsidy – $4,300 per home, amounting to 70% of the total cost – extending an earlier CASF-funded FTTH project that reached 3,750 customers in the co-op’s core service area in the Anza Valley.

The new build covers the Pinyon community and the Santa Rosa Reservation, but it skips over Mountain Center and Garner Valley, because Frontier Communications upgraded its service in the area. It’s receiving federal money to deliver broadband service at 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds, and was able to demonstrate that its VDSL upgrade was delivering around 20 Mbps down/2 Mbps up, at least to some homes. That’s on the low end of what VDSL technology is capable of delivering, but it’s more than enough to make Mountain Center and Garner Valley ineligible for California subsidies.

In the communities that are eligible, Frontier relies on 1990s style DSL technology which generally runs at about 2 Mbps down and less than 1 Mbps up, where it’s available at all. It told the CPUC it wouldn’t make any more service without CASF subsidies of its own. Which it won’t get because Anza Electric Co-op moved faster.

People in communities to the east and west, though, are – or soon will be – getting access to symmetrical speeds of up to 1 Gbps. The co-op’s flagship consumer package is symmetrical 50 Mbps speeds for $49 per month, with a $25 per month, 10 Mbps down and up offer to low income households. There’s no commitment or bundling required for either package (although an unlimited domestic phone line can be had for another $20 per month).

Northern California fire storm investigation points to PG&E

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Twelve fires began over two days in October last year, killing 18 people, destroying thousands of homes and other buildings, and burning hundreds of thousands of acres of wild land in Mendocino, Humboldt, Butte, Sonoma, Lake and Napa counties. In every instance, electric power lines were at least partly to blame, and those lines were owned by PG&E, according to a Cal Fire press release and investigation reports. There is “evidence of alleged violations of state law” in eight of the twelve fires. Cal Fire handed the cases over to county district attorneys for possible criminal prosecution.

Cal Fire has only published investigation reports for the four fires that weren’t referred to county DAs, but those tell a consistent story of trees and utility lines whipped by high winds. The account of one investigator at the deadliest fire – the Redwood fire in Mendocino County which killed nine people – tells the story…

[The witness] told me he was in his bathroom preparing for bed when he saw a huge arc towards the east. He said he saw a tree illuminate when the conductors arced. He told me he had lost power 15 minutes prior to witnessing the arc. He said he saw the fire start on the neighbor’s property on the south side of the creek under the conductors. He described the initial size of the fire as a 5-yard burn pile. I asked if he would show me the location of where he saw the fire start. I walked with him towards the southeast corner of his property. He showed me where the conductors were and where he saw them arc. On the southeast corner of his property was a transmission tower with six overhead conductors running north and south…

I asked how fast he thought the wind was blowing when he saw the conductors arc. He said it was well over 45 mph from the northeast. He told me there was a wind event two years ago when the wind reached nearly 100 mph. He didn’t think it was that fast, but did say the wind almost knocked him over while he was walking outside.

You can read all of the reports here.

California broadband subsidy law demands equal treatment for all, rich and poor alike

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One of the mysteries surrounding Californian subsidies for broadband infrastructure is the abysmally low standard that the California Public Utilities Commission imposes on the people who live in public housing, and only on them. The thicket of laws that govern the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) initially set aside $20 million to pay for broadband facilities in public housing communities, with the possibility of adding more when it runs out.

The CPUC is in the middle of rebooting the CASF program, after the California legislature added to the mess by turning the general infrastructure subsidy program – with $300 million in new money – into a piggy bank for AT&T and Frontier Communications. In the process, it’s freshening up the rules for improving broadband access in public housing.

The first draft of the new rules keeps the minimum service speed for subsidised public housing broadband facilities at 1.5 Mbps for downloads, with no requirement at all for uploads. That contrasts with the 6 Mbps down/1 Mbps minimum that the CPUC (and the legislature) thinks is good enough for everyone else. It isn’t, but that’s a separate barrel of pork.

The draft rules justify digging a deeper digital divide by declaring subsidised broadband in public housing is “not intended to replicate the robust level of connectivity of a commercial provider”. The problem with that, as pointed out in comments filed yesterday by the Central Coast Broadband Consortium, is that the language of the law – sausage though it may be – sets the same standards for everyone…

Because 1. An unserved residence is one where service at 6 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds is not available, 2. Grants for broadband infrastructure projects in Public Housing may only be made to an unserved residence, and 3. The purpose of all CASF infrastructure projects is to raise the service available to all Californians above the statutorily defined unserved threshold, we must conclude that it would be illegal to fund an infrastructure project, of any kind, that did not provide service at 6 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds or better.

The CPUC is due to vote on the changes at its 21 June 2018 meeting.

The complete set of CASF reboot documents is here.

I drafted and filed the Central Coast Broadband Consortium’s comments. I’m not trying to feign impartiality. Take it for what it’s worth.

Correction: an earlier version of this post contained a typo. The minimum speed that CASF-subsidised broadband projects in public housing communities must “provide residents with” is “1.5 mbps per unit”, not 1 Mbps per unit. The fault is mine and it’s been corrected above.

FCC allows more time to debate the death of independent ISPs

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An attempt by incumbent telephone companies to cut off competitors’ access to leased lines was slowed down a bit by the Federal Communications Commission on Friday. The deadline for reviewing a request by telco lobbyists that has the potential for killing off many, if not most, independent Internet service providers was extended by two months.

USTelecom, a lobbying front for big telcos, such as AT&T and Frontier Communications, as well as small incumbents, asked the FCC to eliminate rules that require telcos to lease copper DSL circuits and other facilities on a wholesale basis to “competitive local exchange carriers” (CLECs). The lobbyists invoked a fast track procedure – a petition for forbearance – that skates around some of the FCC’s usual due process when major decisions are made.

It would be a major decision. Without wholesale access to telco copper, most independent ISPs, which typically register as CLECs, would be left without a wireline pathway to subscribers.

The FCC is still considering a motion made by another lobbying group, Incompas, which represents a variety of content, equipment and independent telecoms companies. It asked the FCC to simply dismiss USTelecom’s petition, because it didn’t include the complete set of back up information that the fast track process requires.

The California Public Utilities Commission seconded that request, at least to the extent that “all of the data USTelecom relies on to support its petition…must be in the record”. Yesterday, Central Coast Broadband Consortium (CCBC) filed a letter with the FCC, also asking it to toss out USTelecom’s maneuver

In its petition, USTelecom proposes a radical overhaul of telephone industry regulation. Extraordinary conclusions require extraordinary evidence. USTelecom’s petition3 is a mundane recitation of self-interested opinion backed by the barest summary of cherry picked data. Full disclosure of all underlying data is essential for proper consideration of its request.

Full disclosure: I drafted and filed the CCBC’s letter.

Additional information and comments are now due on 6 August 2018, with rebuttals due a month after that.

Telcos ask FCC to kill broadband competition

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Wireline telephone companies, big and small, don’t want to be forced to share their lines with competitors. So last month, their lobbying front in Washington, D.C. – USTelecom – asked the Federal Communications Commission to scrap rules that require them to sell wholesale lines and other services to smaller companies that don’t own infrastructure.

These competitive local exchange carriers (CLECs) resell those services to retail customers, usually after adding their own equipment or other resources to the mix. You might not think of them as competing telephone companies, though. These days, they lease copper lines to provide Internet service, most commonly via some flavor of DSL, but also using other, more advanced technologies. Competitive, independent Internet service providers would be a better label.

USTelecom is using a fast track procedure called a petition for forbearance. If the petition is “complete as filed” – in other words, includes all the supporting data behind the request – then the FCC has 15 months to accept or reject it. If the clock runs out, it’s automatically granted. So the FCC tends to set short deadlines for public comments. In this case, the FCC allowed about a month for opponents and supporters to weigh in, and another two weeks for rebuttals.

That’s an awful short time for such a major decision. If the FCC goes along with the incumbent telcos’ request, it will put a lot of CLECs out of business, and dramatically change the competitive landscape, such as it is, for broadband service.

There’s another problem: the rules requiring telcos to lease out DSL and other broadband-ready lines on a wholesale basis are really telephone rules, designed to create a competitive market of sorts for POTS – plain, old telephone service. USTelecom is correctly claiming that fewer and fewer people are using POTS, preferring (or at least accepting) mobile phones and VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) service delivered via unregulated landlines as a substitute. If it so chooses, the FCC can kill an entire sector of the broadband market by simply accepting USTelecom’s argument that legacy POTS doesn’t matter anymore.

Comments on USTelecom’s petition are due next Thursday, and rebuttals two weeks after that. The California Public Utilities Commission will file comments – California law requires it – but it’s requesting a three month extension to gather information from telcos. As a memo adopted by the commission yesterday puts it, “contrary to what USTelecom argues, the effect might be to freeze the smaller…CLECs out of a number of markets”.

Other groups are similarly asking for more time, and challenging the completeness of USTelecom’s filing – it’s long on rhetoric and simple graphs, but lacks the kind of detailed data one might wish the FCC to examine.

Assuming, of course, that the FCC hasn’t already made up its mind.

Net neutrality bill gets a big green light in the California senate

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A California network neutrality revival bill got the blessing of California senate leaders, and now heads to a floor vote. Senate bill 822, authored by Scott Weiner (D – San Francisco), was endorsed by the senate appropriations committee on a pro forma party line vote on Friday. It would add blocking, ,throttling, paid prioritisation and zero rating to the list of unfair practices banned by California consumer protection law. It would also require state and local agencies in California to buy Internet service only from providers who abide by net neutrality principles.

Bills that spend money or add costs have to be reviewed by fiscal committees before going on to a full vote by either the California senate or assembly. Typically – and this year was typical – those committees hold the bills until the last possible day, and then release the ones that have sufficient political muscle behind them. The rest die a quiet death, without anyone having to take heat for a no vote.

The casualty list includes assembly bill 2166, by assemblywoman Anna Caballero (D – Salinas), that would have set up agricultural technology programs and required county agriculture commissioners to track Internet availability in rural communities.

Likewise, AB 2431, by assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D – San Diego), was spiked. Although it was watered down as moved through committee reviews, the basic idea behind it was to allow school districts to file claims for “intervenor compensation” at the California Public Utilities Commission. California law allows outside groups to jump in on cases under review by the CPUC, and forces regulated companies to reimburse them for their costs. It can be a gold mine for lawyers and consultants, whose billable hours often run well into the six figure range. Giving them another way to cash in would add even more costs to utility bills and drag out already long and needlessly complicated proceedings.

Automous vehicles might punch in to work in California

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Self driving cars would go into commercial service in California, if the California Public Utilities Commission approves proposed new rules. The draft decision, by commissioner Liane Randolph, tracks with the California Department of Motor Vehicle’s licensing framework. The DMV allows autonomous vehicles on public roads as part of “testing” programs run by manufacturers, under tight restrictions and reporting requirements.

The CPUC regulates charter carriers – generally, vans and buses for hire – and ride sharing platforms like Uber and Lyft. Companies with autonomous vehicle interests, including Lyft and General Motors, asked the CPUC for permission to carry passengers as part of their research and development process.

The proposal in front of the CPUC would open up a pilot program that allows manufacturers with licenses from the DMV to operate as charter carriers and offer rides to paying passengers. If they comply with an equally long list of CPUC restrictions and reporting requirements.

Like the DMV rules, the CPUC’s plan allows for vehicles with back up drivers, and with no in-person driver at all, so long as a licensed operator is monitoring remotely. One twist is that the DMV allows testers to carry passengers for free, but not for pay. The CPUC’s definition of compensation is flexible enough to allow for non-cash benefits – presumably, the information gathered is worth the ride.

The ride sharing model won’t be allowed for now. That’s not such a problem, though. You can’t buy an autonomous vehicle yet, so you can’t slap a moustache on it and send it out to earn a living on its own. Any self driving cars that are carrying passengers will, of necessity, be company owned for some years to come. So the CPUC will have time to run the pilot program for a while and figure out how to deal with self employed, self driving cars on a permanent basis.

The CPUC is scheduled to vote o the draft on Thursday, but that can change.

PG&E utility poles and power lines blamed for four California wildfires

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PG&E utility poles and power lines blamed for four California wildfires

Four northern California wildfires were “were caused by trees coming into contact with power lines” belonging to Pacific Gas and Electric, according to the California department of forestry and fire protection (Cal Fire). It’s the first batch of reports to pinpoint the causes of what Cal Fire calls the “October Fire Siege” in 2017. In three of those incidents, Cal Fire found evidence that a law requiring electric utility to keep trees trimmed was “allegedly” violated, and in one of those cases directly calls out PG&E as the culprit. Allegedly. Those three cases have been turned over to county district attorneys “for review”.

All four fires – in Butte and Nevada counties – were caused by power lines coming into contact with trees, according to Cal Fire. The largest of the four – the La Porte blaze in Butte County – started despite Cal Fire’s conclusion that “there were no violations of state law related to the cause of this fire”.

PG&E’s responded in a press release, saying “based on the information we have so far, we believe our overall programs met our state’s high standards”. Translation: we’re not so sure about specific poles or fires.

The four fires burned through 9,400 acres of land and destroyed 134 structures. Fortunately, no one was injured. That wasn’t the case in some of the other 170 or so fires that burned a total of 245,000 acres in northern California last October, where dozens of people lost their lives as thousands of homes burned. Those fires, including the deadliest in Mendocino, Napa, and Sonoma counties, are still under investigation. Given that reports at the time claimed that utility lines were implicated, it’s possible that PG&E’s troubles are just beginning.

It’s also possible that PG&E will have company. Cable, telephone and other telecoms companies also use those poles. In at least one past southern California fire, a telecoms company – Cox Communications – shared the blame for starting it.

The California Public Utilities Commission writes and enforces the safety rules that govern utility poles, and will use Cal Fire’s reports to “inform” its own investigation.