Tag Archives: cpuc

Consumer service versus taxpayer costs: CPUC considers opening rural telco territory to competition

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Tesoro viejo construction 25aug2019

Small telephone companies that serve rural Californians will face direct competition from cable operators and other wireline telecoms companies if the California Public Utilities Commission approves a draft decision posted for review on Monday. Authored by commissioner Martha Guzman Aceves, the proposed new rules would allow competitive local exchange carriers (CLECs) to provide voice telephone service in territories that are reserved exclusively for heavily subsidised, small local exchange carriers (Small LECs).

Acknowledging that “wireline competition must be allowed in the service territories of the Small LECs as a matter of law”, the draft tries to balance the benefits of competition to consumers with the potential cost to taxpayers if cable companies skim off profitable neighborhoods, leaving Small LECs increasingly dependent on universal service subsidies to serve the rest.

To gain permission to enter protected territories, CLECs would “be required to serve customers requesting wireline voice service within their self-designated service territories on a non-discriminatory basis”, regardless of how difficult that might be. The proposed decision strikes an old rule that limits that obligation to customers within 300 feet of a CLEC’s existing facilities.

“Cream skimming” would be banned. CLECs wouldn’t be able to draw service boundaries to suit profit-maximising business models. The proposed decision directs that…

A CLEC shall avoid designing a discriminatory self-designated service territory by ensuring that the self-designated service territory represents the demographics of the Small LEC territory it is entering by making a good-faith effort to serve a proportional number of residential to commercial customers, and a proportional number of low-income and non-low-income customers…[to] guard against only sub-sets of wealthy customers being served by the CLEC.

Comcast, for example, wouldn’t be able to cut a deal in a new, upscale development, as it did near Fresno, while ignoring less profitable lower income rural customers in the surrounding area.

CLECs would also have to accept all emergency preparedness obligations that the CPUC has in the pipeline, and meet whatever “location-specific” requirements are imposed on a case by case basis. None of it makes cable companies happy – they’ve paid a lot of money to a lot of politicians to avoid traditional, telco-style regulation.

Guzman Aceves’ proposed decision is on track for a commission vote in August.

FCC chokes on Digital Path’s map spam, CPUC still chewing on it as broadband subsidy decisions for rural California are made

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Spam

Nearly 426,000 California “locations” – homes, businesses, institutions – are eligible for the Federal Communications Commission’s $16 billion broadband subsidy auction in October. The California Public Utilities Commission has about $145 million for broadband infrastructure grants, primarily in rural communities. Both agencies have to sort out challenges from incumbent Internet service providers that want to block subsidies in order to protect their turf, as well as decide where to spend subsidy dollars.

In theory, the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) could bring faster, cheaper and more reliable broadband to as many as 8 million rural Californians, because the program’s rules require ISPs to serve everyone in a given area, whether eligible for subsidies or not. It won’t be that many in practice, but it will be more than some rural Internet service providers hoped. Half a dozen wireless ISPs (WISPs) and several wireline incumbents tried to maintain their monopoly hold on large swaths of rural California by filing dubious, if not out right bogus, claims that they provide adequate service in tens of thousands of census blocks.

At the top of the list is Digital Path, a WISP that operates in many rural Californian communities with a base in the northeast of the state. It challenged more census blocks than any other ISP in the U.S.

Digital Path gave the FCC a list of 40,000 census blocks where it claims to offer service at a minimum of 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload speeds to nearly a million Californians. That’s fast enough that those census blocks wouldn’t be eligible for RDOF money.

As it turns out, the FCC wasn’t planning to offer subsidies in at least 35,000 of those blocks. Of the remaining 5,000 blocks, the FCC only deemed Digital Path’s map spam valid in 1,300 blocks. Even so, that was enough to eliminate about 22,000 mostly rural Californians from potential federally funded broadband service upgrades.

Digital Path’s federal filing could – should – complicate, and maybe kill, its own requests for California broadband subsidies. In May, it submitted 11 applications asking for a total of $4.8 million from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF). To get CASF money, applicants are required to assert that each census block where they want to build is eligible for the program. Which means it lacks broadband service at a minimum of 6 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds.

Of the 492 census blocks where Digital Path is applying for CASF money, 419 census blocks are included in Digital Path’s federal challenge.

In other words, in April Digital Path told the FCC it offered broadband service at a minimum of 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps in those 419 census blocks, then a month later told the CPUC those same blocks were eligible for CASF subsidies because the available service was slower than 6 Mbps down/1 Mbps up. That assertion may have been based on the CPUC’s online eligibility map, which would not have included the service reports that Digital Path submitted to the FCC four weeks prior. Apparently, the “continuing obligation to make corrections” to service reports that Digital Path cited in its FCC challenge letter doesn’t extend to the CPUC.

In June, Digital Path made another attempt to prevent potential competitors from using subsidies to provide faster, cheaper and/or more reliable service. It filed another batch of broadband speed claims with the CPUC, challenging 12 projects proposed for CASF grants – nearly twice as many as the next most prolific challenger, Frontier Communications (which has its own credibility problems).

With $533 million in CASF grant proposals competing for $145 million in available funds, legitimate challenges will play a role in determining who wins. Character should count, too.

The Central Coast Broadband Consortium (CCBC) supported Charter’s San Benito County proposal and assisted Etheric Networks with its application. The Connected Capital Area Broadband Consortium (CCABC) assisted DigitalPath. I assisted the CCBC and the CCABC, and also kibitzed on other projects. I also have opinions about what the CASF program should be (in case you haven’t noticed). I’m not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.

Frontier’s “pervasive lack of credibility” drives FCC’s rejection of its service claims; CPUC urged to ignore its “high level rhetoric and promises”

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

There’s rapidly increasing skepticism in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. of Frontier Communications’ corporate honesty. Frontier was blasted in two separate agency actions in recent days: the California Public Utilities Commission’s review of its post bankruptcy plans and the Federal Communications Commission’s broadband subsidy auction, as it prepares to distribute the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.

Challenges filed by incumbent broadband providers, aimed at blocking federal subsidies in their captive rural markets, were largely dismissed by the Federal Communications Commission last week. After reviewing tens of thousands of challenges in California alone, the FCC issued its verdict and published a new list of census blocks eligible for RDOF subsidies. In unusually blistering terms, the FCC dismissed Frontier’s claims it was providing adequate broadband service in 23,000 U.S. census blocks…

Given the numerous and significant concerns in the record regarding the validity of Frontier’s filing, including its own admission that it had misfiled its June 2019 data and then misfiled (again) the data for its challenge, and inconsistent explanations for its challenge, we conclude that taken together there is a pervasive lack of credibility and accordingly deny Frontier’s challenge regarding its deployment and decline to exclude those blocks from consideration for eligibility.

Frontier’s facile attempt to convince the CPUC to approve whatever settlement comes out of its New York bankruptcy proceeding on the basis of faith in its selfless devotion to the interests of Californians was similarly slammed in protests filed this week by a major telecoms union – the Communications Workers of America (CWA) – and three advocacy organisations, and CPUC staff.

CWA and the three organisations – TURN, the Greenlining Institute and the Center for Accessible Technology – pointed to the major role that Frontier plays in California’s telecoms market, and said the CPUC…

Has a statutory obligation to conduct a full analysis of the impact of this transaction that goes beyond a high level public interest review and to require [Frontier] to provide the Commission with more than high level rhetoric and promises.

They cited, among other things, Frontier’s failure to live up to promises made when it acquired Verizon’s decaying copper telephone systems in California and questioned its willingness to meet obligations attached to state subsidies, including money from the California Advanced Services Fund.

The CPUC’s quasi-independent public advocates office also asked for a full review, citing Frontier’s “unsubstantiated claims” and demanding specific plans for “network infrastructure investments, service quality and reliability improvements, consumer protections, including pricing, and broadband deployment”.

Frontier’s wish for quick and cursory CPUC approval by October is a forlorn hope.

One California rural broadband subsidy bill goes to the governor, another moves on to the assembly

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Cvin fiber marker sr49

Friday was a good day for broadband at the California capitol, as two bills expanding eligibility for infrastructure subsidies won lopsided votes. Senate bill 1130 was approved by the senate, and now awaits action in the assembly. Following senate approval on Thursday, assembly bill 82 was blessed by the assembly and is now on governor Gavin Newsom’s desk. He’s expected to sign it today.

The big, difficult and high impact bill is SB 1130. It would raise California’s minimum broadband to 25 Mbps download/25 Mbps upload speeds, and encourage – but not require – the California Public Utilities Commission to spend California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) money on infrastructure projects that deliver similarly symmetrical 100 Mbps down and up service. SB 1130 would also impose much needed open access requirements on CASF-subsidised middle mile projects. Monopoly model incumbents are against it, and the front organisation for Comcast, Charter Communications and other cable operators – the California Cable and Telecommunications Association – is, so far, the face of the opposition.

The 30 to 10 vote for SB 1130 (there’s one abstention in there, but that has the same effect as no) was mostly along party lines. One republican – Ling Ling Chang, from Orange County, joined democrats in voting aye. She was also the sole senate republican to vote aye on SB 822, the 2018 California network neutrality bill.

The more immediately useful bill, though, is AB 82. It takes effect as soon as Newsom signs it and allows the CPUC to top up October bids for federal broadband subsidies with CASF money, even when it would be spent in places that wouldn’t be eligible for it under normal circumstances. In 2017, the California legislature bowed to telco and cable lobbyists and lowered California’s broadband standard to 6 Mbps down/1 Mbps up, in order to protect their rural low speed, high price rural business model, and to fence off lucrative, high income neighborhoods from competition. The eligibility standard for federal Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) subsidy program is 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up.

AB 82 passed easily with 57 ayes, with democrats and republicans on both sides of it in the 80 member assembly, and with a strict 29 to 11 party line vote in the senate. It wasn’t particularly a vote on broadband – AB 82 is a catch-all, budget clean up bill that also deals with alcohol, cannabis and privacy issues, among others.

I’ve advocated for SB 1130, and for other useful changes to CASF. I am involved and proud of it. I am not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.

T-Mobile asks CPUC for permission to employ fewer people in California

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Sprint store

T-Mobile wants the California Public Utilities Commission to dial back some of the obligations it imposed when it approved the Sprint merger in April. A “petition for modification” of the CPUC’s decision asks for three changes:

  • Strike the order to add 1,000 new jobs in California. As it has consistently argued, T-Mobile says the CPUC doesn’t have that authority. Meanwhile, T-Mobile is offering hundreds of former Sprint employees the, um, opportunity to “consider a career change”.
  • Push back a deadline for “providing average speeds of 300 Mbps to 93% of California” by two years, to 2026. T-Mobile seems to think there was a misunderstanding. It says the clock on its voluntary commitment to reach that service level started running when the merger closed, not when it was first proposed in 2018.
  • Trust the Federal Communications Commission and the California Emerging Technology Fund, which is now on T-Mobile’s payroll to the tune of $7 million a year, to verify 5G coverage and speed promises. As it stands, T-Mobile has to prove its claims using the CPUC’s independent Calspeed testing program.

The modification request won’t have much, if any, of a direct effect on the CPUC’s decision allowing the Sprint merger and the long list of conditions it attached. The request for extra time to meet the 300 Mbps download benchmark might get some consideration, but T-Mobile’s appeal doesn’t say anything new about the requirements to add 1,000 jobs in California and to do speed testing the CPUC’s way.

The deal’s opponents will respond, of course, and the commission will take up T-Mobile’s petition and opponents pending request for a rehearing eventually. Minor tweaks aside, both are likely to be rejected. At that point, the CPUC’s lengthy – two years and counting – process will be complete, which clears the path to court challenges, at the state and federal level. That’s where the real action will happen.

Hundreds of layoffs are following in the wake of the T-Mobile/Sprint deal

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Sprint booth mwc la 2019 22oct2019

T-Mobile is laying off hundreds of former Sprint employees as it consolidates the operations of the two mobile carriers that merged in April. A story by Zack Whittaker and Brian Heater at Tech Crunch broke the news about Sprint employees on Tuesday…

In a conference call on Monday lasting under six minutes, T-Mobile vice president James Kirby told hundreds of Sprint employees that their services were no longer needed. He declined to answer his employees’ questions, citing the “personal” nature of employee feedback, and ended the call.

T-Mobile responded with a press release in which it claimed it would “add 5,000 new positions over the next year”, but for now it wanted to “focus” its resources…

This will result in additional career opportunities for many, as the company positions itself for long-term healthy growth. As part of this process, some employees who hold similar positions are being asked to consider a career change inside the company, and others will be supported in their efforts to find a new position outside the company.

Translation: yeah, we’re firing them.

These involuntary “career changes” should come as no surprise. During the California Public Utilities Commission’s review of the merger, T-Mobile promised on the one hand to keep its combined California workforce at the same level for the next three years, while on the other hand agreeing to open a new call center in Fresno County that would employ 1,000 people. Do the math.

The CPUC did the math, and required T-Mobile to make those 1,000 call center jobs a net addition to the combined T-Mobile/Sprint headcount as of the merger date. Whether or not that order has any teeth is unknown. T-Mobile has consistently maintained that the commission has no authority over its wireless business, and matched those words with deeds.

Even bigger job cuts are coming at AT&T. It’s primary union, the Communications Workers of America, says 3,400 AT&T employees are about to be out of work, and hundreds of wireless stores will close, according to a story in FierceWireless by Bevin Fletcher.

Wireless, DSL tech proposed for subsidised rural broadband will get extra scrutiny from FCC

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Clouseau 625

When the Federal Communications Commission last week approved application requirements and bidding procedures for the reverse auction it’ll use to distribute $16 billion in rural broadband subsidies, it toughened up language regarding performance claims for fixed wireless and DSL-based service. The final version of the rules builds on an earlier draft that was already highly sceptical of any potential claims that wireless or DSL technology could deliver gigabit level service – defined as 1,000 Mbps download and 500 Mbps upload speeds – on a consumer market basis.

The FCC plans to grill bidders making such claims…

We anticipate that Commission staff will benefit from having the opportunity to discuss network plans with each applicant through the Commission’s existing resubmission process. An applicant proposing to deploy fixed wireless and DSL technologies to offer Gigabit speeds and any engineers that assisted with the application must be prepared to engage in follow-up conference calls upon request with Commission staff to elaborate on their…responses with a particular focus on concerns raised in the record.

We retain maximum flexibility to take enforcement action based on the specifics of each circumstance. We do note that the base default [fine] we have already adopted for Auction 904 will be subject to adjustment upward or downward as appropriate…All applicants should conduct due diligence and consider seriously whether they will be able to meet the relevant public interest obligations before selecting performance tier and latency combinations in their applications.

Translation: put up or shut up. Or get whacked with thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of dollars in fines.

Fixed wireless providers, particularly, will have to show how any gigabit service claims they make conform to the laws of physics. Or as the FCC puts it, they’ll have to answer challenging questions about…

Distance limitations, spectrum bands attributes, channel bandwidths requirements, backhaul and medium haul requirements, tower siting requirements, capacity constraints, required upstream speeds, required minimum monthly usage allowances, and other issues raised in the record.

The door also opened a crack to low earth orbit satellite systems, particularly SpaceX’s Starlink constellation. Instead of being barred from claiming low latency capability, they’ll also “face a substantial challenge” convincing FCC staff that they have it.

Rural Digital Opportunity Fund phase 1 auction Procedures public notice, 11 June 2020
Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction technical guide, 10 June 2020

CPUC “wireless resiliency” plan targets mobile carriers, doesn’t exempt WISPs

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Cpuc fire threat map 11jun2020

Click for the interactive fire threat map.

Mobile carriers – AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile – will have to install emergency generators at their cell sites in high fire danger areas, if the California Public Utilities Commission approves a draft decision offered last week by president Marybel Batjer. They’ll also have to meet other requirements intended to insure “wireless resiliency” during emergencies, natural or man-made, including public safety power shut-offs.

The proposed rules would apply to “facilities-based wireless providers” and require them “to maintain a minimum level of service and coverage to provide access to 911, 211, to receive emergency notifications, and access web browsing for emergency notices”.

As it’s commonly used in the industry, and by the CPUC when it refers to “broadband providers”, “facility-based” is a term that includes fixed wireless Internet service providers (WISPs). The hundred-plus page draft doesn’t explicitly limit its definition of facilities-based wireless providers to mobile carriers, although the context clearly does. There’s no mention of WISPs and the legalese leans heavily on the CPUC’s authority over telephone service, even to the point of anachronistically asserting “the public has an expectation that they will hear a dial tone on their wireless device”.

On the other hand, if the intent was to apply the rules specifically to mobile carriers – a jurisdictionally fraught notion – it would have been relatively simple to do so. Instead, the draft cites the CPUC’s role in regulating 911 services (which can be delivered via mobile and VoIP technology) issuing licenses – certificates of public convenience and necessity (CPCNs) – to telecoms companies of all kinds, and its “broad jurisdiction” over “other communications utilities”.

Going forward, it could be argued that a WISP that holds a CPCN or offers VoIP service – or maybe just provides “web browsing for emergency notices” – also must meet wireless resiliency standards. There’s no clear authority for the CPUC to regulate WISPs as such, and it hasn’t done so. The proposed decision pushes further into the grey area, though.

More clarity could be on the way. Senate bill 1058 would extend emergency service obligations to “every Internet service provider” in California. We’ll know later this week whether Californian legislative leaders deem it worthy of consideration by the full senate. And the CPUC is just getting started. The proposed wireless resiliency order says a future commission decision “will consider promulgating resiliency requirements for other telecommunications providers”.

Wireless resiliency, according to the draft, means…

The ability to recover from or adjust to adversity or change through an array of strategies including, but not limited to: backup power, redundancy, network hardening, temporary facilities, communication and coordination with other utilities, emergency responders, the public and finally, preparedness planning.

Specifically, wireless providers would have to install back-up power capable of keeping their networks up for at least 72 hours, but only in the parts of their service areas that are classified as “tier 2 and tier 3 high fire threat districts”. As the CPUC’s interactive map shows, that includes most of the California coast, the Sierra Nevada, the Cascades and large swaths of the southland.

All wireless providers, not just those in high fire threat areas, would have to file resiliency plans “that detail their ability to maintain a minimum level of service and coverage during a disaster or a commercial power grid outage”, as well as “annual emergency operations plans”.

The commission could vote on the proposed rules as soon as mid-July. In the meantime, it’ll be accepting public comments on the draft.

Proposed Decision of Commissioner Batjer Adopting Wireless Provider Resiliency Strategies, 11 June 2020

CPUC knows how to end taxpayer-funded middle mile fiber grabs. As it should

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Connected central coast 625

It can be done right. As it has.

One of the challenges to broadband subsidy proposals submitted to the California Public Utilities Commission this week shows why open access middle mile fiber is a necessity for closing rural broadband gaps, and how the lack of it is a major barrier to improving Internet service in California.

Plumas Sierra Telecommunications, which is the telecoms arm of the Plumas Sierra Electric Cooperative, objects to Frontier’s request for money to pay for a building a middle mile fiber route to reach the towns of Herlong and Janesville in Lassen County. Plumas Sierra doesn’t object to spending California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) subsidies on middle mile fiber. It wants Frontier to make use of the CASF-funded middle mile fiber that it’s built, rather than using more CASF money to overbuild it.

Parsing Plumas Sierra’s objections illustrate a major problem with the way in which CPUC approves middle mile projects. Plumas Sierra claims that it “already provides wholesale services via its existing middle-mile fiber-optic infrastructure with high-quality and reasonable price levels”. Translation: we don’t lease subsidised dark fiber to competitors, but we will sell them higher priced services over it.

Frontier does the same thing. It received $11 million from CASF last year for a project to build 137 miles of middle fiber and upgrade DSL facilities in Lassen and Modoc counties. Dark fiber strands on that network are not available on the open market.

The result is a patchwork of taxpayer-funded middle mile routes scattered across rural California that private companies can use to extract monopoly profits – “rents”, in microeconomic terms. CASF rules allow broadband companies to indulge in this sort of rent seeking behavior at public expense.

There are exceptions, though. The CPUC recently imposed open access obligations on a middle mile project that it funded for the Karuk Tribe in Humboldt County, and six years ago it did the same for a route now owned by Crown Castle in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties. That project has been up and running for three years, and supports a growing ecosystem of independent broadband operations (see the image above).

The CPUC can change its open access middle mile policy on its own. Or perhaps the California legislature can be persuaded to do it. Senate bill 1130 is still alive at the state capitol. As presently written, it would make open access mandatory for any CASF-subsidised middle mile infrastructure. Either way, it needs to be done.

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.