Tag Archives: emergencyservices

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.

As California burns, AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile fight emergency obligations

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Woolsey fire crew 625

Mobile carriers beat back a legislative attempt to impose disaster readiness obligations on them last week, and challenged “resiliency” rules approved by the California Public Utilities Commission in July.

Senate bill 431, authored by Mike McGuire (D – Sonoma), died in the assembly appropriations committee last week. No reason was given, but the primary opposition came from the lobbying front organisation used by AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon, with cable industry lobbyists close behind. The bill would have directed the CPUC to require 72-hour power backup capability at cell sites, where feasible. It also included relatively trivial back up power obligations for wireline companies, which were the remnants of tougher rules that displeased telco and cable lobbyists.

Although specific statutory authority is always useful to state agencies, the CPUC didn’t wait for it. Under its new resiliency rules, wireless companies – mobile carriers particularly, but perhaps also others – have to maintain 72 hours of backup power and provide customers with “the ability to receive emergency alerts and notification” during disasters and power cuts, including ”basic Internet browsing".

Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and their lobbyists appealed that decision last week, asking the CPUC to reconsider it. They claim, as they have all along, that mandatory state disaster readiness rules are “preempted by federal law”…

Congress gave the FCC – not this Commission – jurisdiction over decisions about how, where, and for what duration wireless services are provided. The Decision impinges on the FCC’s exclusive domain.

That exclusive domain includes pretty much everything having to do with mobile networks, the carriers argue. They also claim that because broadband is an “information” service, per the FCC’s network neutrality ruling, the CPUC has no authority over it, either. That’s very much in dispute, though – the California legislature took the position that since it’s not a “telecommunications” service, it’s in their domain and not the FCC’s.

That question is now in the hands of a federal judge in Sacramento. The CPUC’s authority to impose emergency preparedness requirements on telecoms companies is also likely to be decided by in a federal court. There’s little chance that the CPUC will grant the mobile industry’s “application for rehearing”, but filing it is the first procedural step on the path to a legal challenge.

Fast, reliable broadband considered by California lawmakers. AT&T, Comcast, Charter pay millions to say no

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Money case 625

When members of the California assembly’s communications and conveyances committee take their seats tomorrow, they’ll be looking out at – actually or virtually – big telecoms lobbyists that 1. pay millions of dollars for laws they love and 2. hate the two broadband bills that are on the covid-shortened agenda. Senate bill 1130 raises California minimum broadband standard to symmetrical 25 Mbps download/25 Mbps upload speeds, and SB 431 imposes back up power and web browsing requirements on mobile carriers (but not on cable company VoIP or telcos’ ersatz wireless broadband, thanks to those same lobbyists).

The twelve members of the C&C committee pocketed a total of $1.7 million from the communications and electronics sector over the course of their legislative careers, according to data from the Follow the Money website. That doesn’t yet include money paid during this election year. Much of it comes from AT&T – the top contributor in the sector – and cable companies, such as Comcast and Charter Communications, which together take second place. Members of the California senate’s energy, utilities and communications committee have raked in even more cash.

Miguel Santiago (D – Los Angeles) chairs C&C, and has used the authority that goes with the job to keep his patrons happy. When a network neutrality bill – SB 822 – was under consideration two years ago, he strong armed killer amendments into it, pleasing telcos and cable companies, but enraging online opinion. The ensuing meme storm forced him to back down. That was unusual, though. Typically, he follows the monopoly model telecom playbook, except when organised labor – an even bigger benefactor – objects.

Through the end of last year, AT&T paid Santiago $43,000, including $10,000 via a side organisation – sometimes referred to as a ballot measure committee – that Santiago operates. It allows him to get around legal limits on direct payments. Comcast, Charter and other cable companies have matched that, with $43,000 paid between them (all totals are rounded and include payments from affiliates now owned or controlled by cable and telco parents). Mobile companies (other than AT&T) gave Santiago $25,000 and Frontier kicked in $9,000. All up, Santiago has raked in $262,000 from companies and individuals in the communications and electronics sector.

Evan Low (D – Santa Clara), who also does a good day’s work for AT&T, does even better than Santiago. Industry payments to Low total $351,000 – more than anyone else on the C&C committee. He represents a slice of Silicon Valley, and collects a lot of that money from tech companies. But big telecom pays him handsomely, too. He’s taken $58,000 from AT&T, including $18,000 to his slush fund ballot measure committee. Comcast, Charter and other cable companies put $47,000 in Low’s pocket, other mobile interests gave him $22,000 and Frontier paid him $4,000.

Eduardo Garcia (D – Imperial), Santiago’s other reliable wingman on the committee, has been paid $107,000 by communications and electronics industry interests, but most of it – $79,000 – came from big telecom. He doesn’t have a side hustle – yet – so those are all direct payments. Garcia took $29,000 from AT&T, $4,000 from Frontier, $34,000 from Charter, Comcast and other cable companies, and $13,000 from the mobile industry (ex AT&T). On the other hand, Garcia has signed on as a co-author of SB 1130 – we’ll soon find other whether it’s for good or ill.

The covid-19 restrictions in force at the state capitol mean that remote public participation is allowed. The call-in number is supposed to be posted on the committee’s website tomorrow morning, ahead of the 10:00 a.m. scheduled starting time.

Legislative career payments from communications and electronics industry sector, as of 31 December 2019

California assembly communications and conveyance committee members
Miguel Santiago (chair)D – Los Angeles$252,258
Jay Obernolte (vice chair)R – San Bernardino$127,941
Tasha Boerner HorvathD – San Diego$40,850
Rob BontaD – Alameda$201,249
Sabrina CervantesD – Riverside$62,100
Eduardo GarciaD – Imperial$107,125
Chris HoldenD – Los Angeles$249,318
Sydney Kamlager-DoveD – Los Angeles$69,455
Evan LowD – Santa Clara$333,184
Jim PattersonR – Fresno$135,725
Sharon Quirk-SilvaD – Orange$84,248
Freddie RodriguezD – Los Angeles$79,567
$1,743,020
California senate energy, utilities and communications committee members
Ben Hueso (chair)D – San Diego$185,663
John Moorlach (vice chair)R – San Diego$68,000
Steven BradfordD – Los Angeles$372,632
Ling Ling ChangR – Orange$117,208
Brian DahleR – Lassen$187,548
Bill DoddD – Napa$149,584
Bob HertzbergD – Los Angeles$347,212
Jerry HillD – San Mateo$290,366
Mike McGuireD – Sonoma$78,169
Susan RubioD – Los Angeles$24,449
Nancy SkinnerD – Alameda$264,803
Henry SternD – Los Angeles$185,385
Scott WienerD – San Francisco$294,031
$2,565,050
Grand Total$4,308,070
Source: FollowTheMoney.org, California secretary of state’s office

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.

Power out? No 911? California bill allows cable, telcos to say stick it

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Woolsey fire victim

Companies that provide voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and fixed wireless Internet service (WISPs) won’t, for the most part, have to keep their networks running during disasters, under a bill that was just amended in the California assembly. As now written, senate bill 431 generally confirms resiliency requirements – e.g. 72 hours of backup power and maintain access to “basic internet browsing for emergency notices” in high fire threat areas – imposed on mobile carriers by the California Public Utilities Commission this week, but draws the line there.

That’s a big win for Comcast, Charter Communications, Cox Communications and other cable companies that offer telephone service via VoIP technology. All they would have to do is mail a warning label to customers once year and tell them to stick it on their phone. The warning would advise customers that losing power means losing 911 service, although it might not come across that way since weasel words like “may be impacted” are allowed.

It’s a double win for AT&T and Frontier Communications. They get the same VoIP break as cable companies, plus they’ll be able to offer service via fixed wireless facilities that have no backup power or disaster preparedness requirements at all, instead of upgrading or maintaining wireline networks, which must be kept running during emergencies and electric outages.

An earlier draft of SB 431 would have extended back up power and other network resiliency requirements to pretty much any Internet service provider in California, but that text disappeared. Presumably, that’s the work of the platoons of lobbyists that AT&T, Comcast, Charter and the rest deploy in Sacramento to stuff millions of dollars into lawmakers pockets. It’s no coincidence that the bill is scheduled to be heard in the assembly communications and conveyances committee next week, which is stuffed with lawmakers who have particularly benefited from big telecom’s generosity and have graciously repaid those favors, at least until netizens take notice.

Caltech turns eastern California fiber network into earthquake detector

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Caltech readout

Fiber optic networks do more than just ride out major earthquakes without dropping a bit. They can also detect and collect data on the quakes themselves. Two major quakes – magnitude 6.4 and 7.1 – hit eastern California on 4 and 5 July 2019 respectively, in the high desert of Kern and San Bernardino counties, where seismometers aren’t thick on the ground. To understand what happened, and what continues to happen, Caltech scientists needed to quickly get more sensors into the field.

Fortunately, the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada – Mono, Inyo, Kern and San Bernardino counties in California, and Washoe and Douglas counties and Carson City in Nevada – has fast, earthquake ready fiber connectivity.

The Digital 395 open access fiber optic network, which links Reno to Barstow along the eastern Sierra, runs right through the area that was hardest hit. By connecting “surveillance technology initially developed for military and general security applications that can detect ground movement” to a single fiber strand, an underground fiber route – or sections of it, at least – can be used for “pre-shock detection of P and S waves across the fibers”, according to Michael Ort, CEO of Praxis Associates/Inyo Networks, which built and operates Digital 395. In other words, fiber optic networks can be used detect the big incoming shockwaves a few critical seconds before they hit, as well as provide valuable scientific data about the event.

Preliminary discussions about installing distributed acoustic sensing equipment had been held with Caltech, but everything went into high gear when the quakes began hitting Ridgecrest. Zhongwen Zhan, a Caltech scientist, asked about using one of Digital 395’s strands, and got a quick yes from Ort.

He hooked up his instruments on 9 July 2019, four days after the 7.1 quake and while the ground was still shaking with aftershocks. The results were immediate, with multiple (mostly small) quakes detected every minute, beginning as soon as the equipment was turned on.

“The fiber gave them about 5,000 sample points over 10km of fiber. Before they had only a handful of sample points in the area. So you got only “discrete points” of these, not the overall picture”, Ort said.

“This first time ever use of fiber has given us many data points, making our observations more complete and natural”, said Mark Simons, JPL chief scientist and CalTech professor of geophysics. “It’s a true breakthrough that will revolutionise our perspective and help with early warning”.

Digital 395 was built with money from the 2009 federal stimulus program and from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF). It was the first and the longest of the open access middle mile fiber routes funded by CASF, before the California legislature bowed to pressure (and money) from incumbent telephone and cable companies and banned those types of projects.

California-funded fiber keeps (most) quake hit communities connected

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Digital 395 19sep2013

I planned to write about Trona and Searle Valley today, but not with earthquakes in mind. Instead, I was going to look at a recent California Public Utilities Commission ruling that, in effect, disavowed a previous and pusillanimous decision to deny broadband infrastructure grants in those two towns. That’s for later. For now, it’s about the eastern California communities that got state and federal broadband grants and, as a result, maintained modern, gigabit-class broadband connectivity even as two major earthquakes – 7.1 and 6.4 magnitude – and a continuing swarm of fore and aftershocks hit.

After chopping out Trona and Searle Valley, the CPUC approved a 2016 California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) grant for fiber-to-the-home infrastructure in three other small towns in the Ridgecrest area, Randsburg, Johannesburg and Red Mountain. Race Communications built and now runs those systems, which continued to deliver gigabit service despite this weekend’s shaking, according to chief technical officer Carlos Alcantar.

Race’s last mile service was supported by Digital 395, a 500+ mile middle mile fiber network that runs from Reno, down the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, to Barstow, linking communities along U.S. highway 395 to major east-west fiber routes. It was also funded by grants from CASF, and from the 2009 federal stimulus program.

“The network did great, and was a critical lifeline for the hospital”, said James Suver, CEO of the Ridgecrest Regional Hospital and a Digital 395 board member.

According to Michael Ort, CEO of Praxis Associates/Inyo Networks, which built and operates Digital 395, the many public safety agencies, utilities and telecoms companies that rely on it stayed connected throughout the weekend…

We lost commercial power, but went to battery and generator in Ridgecrest. We’ve had other earthquakes, but nothing like this…

We also continued to beef up the reliability of the network as we learned about weaknesses: north-south redundancies, redundant routing up the central valley, multiple service providers feeding in and out of the network…

The fact that there was-real time international news coverage of the event (internet, TV video) is because it travelled on our network. I got a text from a friend in Paris within 10 minutes, asking if we were okay, which is a testament on how fast information travels today.

Reliable communication infrastructure and service is an absolute requirement for effective disaster response and recovery. By all accounts, emergency services in Kern and San Bernardino counties performed flawlessly this weekend. Without these two CASF-subsidised fiber projects, the story might have been different.

Update 10 July 2019: added quote from James Suver.

Rural broadband gaps are life and death issues, California wildfire study says

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Paicines pole route

Ageing, inadequate infrastructure contributed to the destruction during last year’s Camp Fire in Butte County that killed 86 people and did billions of dollars worth of damage. Congested roads were a big part of the problem, but so was a lack of telecommunications service, either because it was knocked out by the fires or, in many cases, not there in the first place, according to a report by a “strike force” commissioned by California governor Gavin Newsom…

In a matter of hours, 52,000 people from rural Paradise and surrounding communities evacuated onto roads built for a fraction of that capacity and converged on Chico, overwhelming the recovery system. The scale and speed of catastrophic, wind-driven wildfires, like the Camp Fire, incapacitate existing emergency response systems, local infrastructure and planned recovery efforts. Many California communities designed their fire emergency response and recovery systems decades ago, using old technology and outdated fire modelling. A clear overhaul of the California emergency response systems and the underlying infrastructure is needed.

The lack of broadband in rural communities and access to cell service make it difficult to communicate clear emergency evacuation orders to residents or locate residents who are in trouble.

Broadband did not play a significant role in warning residents of massive fires sweeping through California’s wine country in 2017. The North Bay/North Coast Broadband Consortium surveyed nearly 1,600 residents of the fire stricken areas. Only 11 said they received warnings from online sources: five on Facebook, four from Nextdoor.com and two via notices on public agency websites.

Phone calls – including those from from family, friends, public agencies – played a bigger role. About a third of the respondents were alerted via either mobile or landline calls.

The big problem during the wine country fires was the damage done to telecommunications infrastructure. Nearly four-fifths of the people surveyed lost mobile connectivity, either partially or completely, and two-thirds lost landline connections. Overall, 69% were cut off from the Internet for at least some of the time during the disaster.

Broadband service failed in 2017 California firestorm, mobile hit worst

by Steve Blum • , , ,

One of the big questions to answer about the mega fire still tearing through Shasta County this morning is how do you warn people? Broadband and other high tech tools failed in last year’s fires. Instead, people were saved the old fashioned way: a knock on the door or the smell of smoke.

Mobile service went down more often than any other kind of broadband service during 2017’s northern California firestorm, but cable, telco and fixed wireless systems also took a severe beating. Satellite Internet service had the highest survivability rate. That’s one conclusion drawn from a wide survey of people in and around Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma counties during an horrific wildfire in October 2017.

Mobile broadband carriers had an 88% failure rate – i.e. people “lost some to all service”. Broadband service from Comcast was down for 73% of customers, while 69% of AT&T and Frontier broadband subscribers experienced outages.

One caveat: the survey did not break AT&T subscribers out by type of service. Comparing total numbers, and also the voice telephone service data collected, it’s a fair conclusion that most of the 700 people who ticked the AT&T Internet service box are landline customers. So that’s how I categorised them, but I’m sure that some mobile customers are mixed in.

DSL resellers – companies that lease copper lines from AT&T or Frontier, add some equipment and provide semi-independent Internet access – only had a 43% failure rate. But that doesn’t mean they did better than the big guys – resellers concentrate their service in cities and towns, and most of the fire damage was in exurban and rural areas. If rural residents can’t buy the service, then they can’t lose it either.

One common problem that all the terrestrial companies in the counties have is that AT&T is pretty much the only middle mile game in town, according to the report. So if an AT&T inter-city line is damaged, all the ISPs using it suffer.

Satellite Internet service, which had a 26% failure rate, isn’t affected by AT&T’s backhaul outages. But it does share one weak link with all the others: electricity. If your power (or your provider’s) goes out and there’s no back up, you don’t have Internet service either. Smoke shouldn’t have been a problem for satellite or other wireless services – any smoke that’s thick enough to block signals is too thick to breath. No one should have been sitting at home trying to get on the Internet at that point.

The data was collected by the North Bay/North Coast Broadband Consortium. More than 3,700 people filled out an online survey. It wasn’t a scientifically selected sample, but just taken for what it is, it’s a significant number of responses.

North Bay/North Coast Broadband Consortium Telecommunications Outage Report: Northern California Firestorm 2017, released 10 May 2018.
Report Appendices, released 10 May 2018.
More information from the North Bay/North Coast Broadband Consortium.

Life and death alerts are low tech/no tech, California firestorm study shows

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Social media and other online services were not the way people received lifesaving warnings when a firestorm tore through three northern California counties last year. Nearly all were alerted to evacuate via phone or personal contact, or by their own eyes, ears and noses.

That’s a top line read of the data from a study just published by the North Bay/North Coast Broadband Consortium. They ran an online survey and 3,700 people responded, nearly all of them from the hardest hit counties of Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma. The number is significant as it stands, even if it wasn’t a scientifically selected sample.

Given that some people had “literally seconds” to leave their homes in the face of a wall of fire that moved at speeds up to 50 miles per hour, the most important question is “how did you receive warning/notice to evacuate?” About a quarter got no warning at all – they figured it out themselves – and about a third were alerted by phone calls of various kinds. Nearly a quarter got a boots-on-the-ground warning – someone banged on their door or shouted out to them. Most of the rest checked other, and closer inspection shows nearly all of those responses are also variations on phone, physical or smell-the-smoke alerts.

The Internet accounted for very few of the time-critical messages. Of the more than 1,600 evacuees who responded, only 11 credited online sources for the warning: five people mentioned Facebook, four said Nextdoor and two saw notices on public agency websites. Even in those cases, most already knew something was going on. Radio and TV – ancient compared to the Internet, but newer tech than phones or feet – were almost as insignificant.

Across those three counties, 78% of respondents said they lost “some to all” of their cellular voice and data service, while 66% reported the same for wireline phones. Just looking at Internet connectivity, of whatever sort, 69% said they lost “some to all” of it.

There’s no mystery about the cause. The fires burned countless utility poles (some argue blazes were started by electric lines mounted on those poles) and more than “340 cell sites were completely destroyed or damaged”. When infrastructure goes up in smoke, service disappears too.

The report is largely quantitative and doesn’t point any particular fingers of blame, noting “the severity of the 2017 wildfires was unpredictable”.

North Bay/North Coast Broadband Consortium Telecommunications Outage Report: Northern California Firestorm 2017, released 10 May 2018.
Report Appendices, released 10 May 2018.
More information from the North Bay/North Coast Broadband Consortium.