Tag Archives: fcc

Low income home broadband subsidies proposed by CPUC, but cable and telco cooperation needed

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Tanimura and antle housing 13jul2016

Wireline broadband service for low income Californians will be subsidised by the state’s telephone “lifeline” program, if a draft decision released last week is approved by the California Public Utilities Commission. The plan depends on California’s ability to “exercise its bulk purchasing power to secure volume discounts for participants”, rather than on pure regulatory muscle.

Qualifying households would pay a discounted rate for broadband and phone service. Current voice-only wireline lifeline service typically runs between $7 and $11 per month. Mobile carriers also participate in the lifeline program, but the rules are different – service is generally free to qualifying households and some level of broadband service is usually included.

The draft plan would add California’s monthly lifeline phone subsidy of $14.85 a month to the $9.25 provided by the Federal Communications Commission’s program for bundles of wireline broadband and phone service, which may be delivered via voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) technology. Voice-only service would still be offered, but the monthly subsidy would be $2 less.

The big question is: what will telephone and cable companies do with it?

Comcast, likely the largest Internet service provider in California, doesn’t participate at all in the existing phone-only lifeline program and isn’t required to do so. Neither are Charter Communications and Cox Communications, although they do participate. So do AT&T, Frontier Communications and other incumbent telcos, which are required to offer lifeline service, and competitive telephone companies, which can choose to participate or not.

But.

Big telecoms companies reflexively fight any attempt by the CPUC to lay down requirements on services that move via Internet technology. AT&T was recently fine $3.5 million for blowing off CPUC rules regarding next generation 911 service and mobile carriers are challenging disaster readiness obligations, for example. The success of this broadband lifeline initiative depends on cooperation from ISPs that often prefer scorched earth resistance.

The minimum wireline broadband speed would be 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload, with a monthly data cap of 1 terabyte. Unless the ISP involved doesn’t have the capability of delivering that speed level to a home, in which case best effort would be good enough, down to a hard minimum of 4 Mbps down/1 Mbps up.

That’s the “minimum service standard” set by the Federal Communications Commission, effective 1 December 2020. The FCC began setting lifeline standards for wireline broadband in 2016 at 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up and has increased it every year based on typical usage and subscription levels in the U.S.

The draft decision would also end support for deeply discounted legacy voice packages that limit the number of calls that can be made each month and allow mobile carriers to offer optional “bolt on” upgrades to free plans that would be paid for by the customer. If a customer buys an upgraded plan, then can’t pay for it, they still get basic service. The mobile carrier can remove the bolt ons, but still has to provide the minimum free service, which is unlimited talk and text, plus 4GB to 6 GB of monthly data at the FCC’s current ill defined speed standard of “3G mobile technology”.

The CPUC is accepting comments on the draft decision, with a vote possible in October.

FCC clings to primitive standard for advanced broadband

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Bedtime for bonzo

Five years is a long time in Internet years. Broadband demand and data traffic rates continue to climb, and the number of people who absolutely need fast connections has skyrocketed in the past few months as work, education, health care and other vital services moved online in response to the covid–19 emergency. But the Federal Communications Commission, or at least its republican majority, wants to stick with a broadband speed standard – 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload – that it established more than five years ago.

In preparation for next year’s national broadband deployment report, the FCC floated draft specs that maintain the current definition of “advanced telecommunications capability” as 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up. That’s slower than the minimum needed to function in the 21st century economy and society, even before covid–19. It’s slower than the symmetrical 100 Mbps speeds adopted by house democrats in Washington D.C., and by democrats in the California senate. And it’s slower and more lopsided than the standard pushed by FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, also a democrat, for years…

The FCC has been sticking with a download standard of 25 megabits per second that it adopted more than five years ago. We need to set audacious goals if we want to do big things. With many of our nation’s providers offering gigabit service, it’s time for the FCC to adjust its baseline upward, too. We need to reset it to at least 100 megabits per second. While we’re at it we need to revisit our thinking about upload speeds. At present, our standard is 3 megabits per second. But this asymmetrical approach is dated. We need to recognize that with enormous changes in data processing and cloud storage, upload speeds should be rethought.

The California legislature is looking at exactly the same problem this week. It’s considering two bills, one that would raise the state’s minimum broadband standard to symmetrical 25 Mbps down/25 Mbps up speeds, and another, sponsored and carried by well compensated friends of telco and cable companies, that began by trying to lock in pitifully slow 6 Mbps down/1 Mbps up service levels and only grudgingly moved to 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up.

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.

FCC preemption of local streetlight pole ownership upheld by federal appeals court

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

La small cell

The Federal Communications Commission can preempt local ownership of streetlight poles and other municipal property planted in the public right of way, according to a ruling on Wednesday by a three judge panel of the federal appeals court based in San Francisco. They mostly upheld three decisions made by the FCC in 2018, including one that effectively gave wireless companies freedom to mount equipment on streetlight poles at will, and only reimburse cities or other public agency pole owners for costs incurred. In other words, cities can’t charge rent for the use of property they own in public right of ways they manage, if a wireless company wants to use it.

The opinion isn’t all bad news for local governments, though.

What cities can do is maintain a measure of control over aesthetic standards. The judges said the FCC went too far when it said that aesthetic requirements for wireless facilities can’t be any more “burdensome” than those imposed on other types of pole attachments. In other words, if an electric company can openly mount transformers on poles, then wireless equipment can be equally ugly. Federal law “expressly permits some difference in the treatment of different providers, so long as the treatment is reasonable”, the opinion says.

The judges also trimmed back the FCC’s directive that aesthetic standards be “objective and published in advance”. Advance publication is still required – aesthetic rules can’t be made up on the fly – but some level of aesthetic subjectivity is still allowed. The “objective” requirement is not “adequately defined” or explained, according to the opinion.

Local agencies can set fees that recover the actual cost to of issuing permits and maintaining streetlight poles. The litigation usefully forced the FCC to back down from its industry-centric rhetoric and clarify that the $270 per pole per year fee and $500 maximum permit fee it specified in its decision is a floor, not a ceiling. If actual costs are higher, fees can be higher.

Judges were split on basing fees on actual costs. The majority upheld the restriction, but in a limited dissent judge Daniel Bress said the FCC “has not adequately explained how all above-cost fees amount to an ‘effective prohibition’ on telecommunications or wireless service”.

The judges bought the FCC’s argument that if an agency that controls a public right of way installs a pole or other facilities, then it becomes part of the right of way and isn’t proprietary property. At least when telecommunications companies are involved. Again, the FCC admitted its directive had limits: its ownership preemption only applies if the pole owner also manages the right of way.

The other two 2018 FCC decisions – “one touch make ready” rules and a ban on construction moratoria – were completely upheld, but with important clarifications that trim back wide ranging claims made by telecoms companies. For example, a local or state agency can reasonably manage its right of way, including prohibiting excavation work because of seasonal weather conditions, such as freeze/thaw cycles.

Republican FCC commissioners wasted no time in claiming victory. The judges’ opinion isn’t necessarily the last word. Further appeals are possible.

Links to petitions, court documents and background material are here.

My clients are mostly California cities, including some that are directly involved in this case. I’m not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.

Net neutrality returns to California, in law and in court

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Zero rating destroys internet

Once again, network neutrality is law of the land in California, although there’s not much practical effect yet. Two years ago, the California legislature passed and governor Jerry Brown signed senate bill 822, authored by Scott Wiener (D – San Francisco). It bans blocking, throttling and paid prioritisation of Internet traffic on the basis of content, including specifically zero rating in-house content, as AT&T and other wireless carriers do.

The Trump administration and lobbying fronts for major telecoms companies immediately filed a challenge in a Sacramento federal court. California attorney general Xavier Becerra agreed to put the law on hold until appellate challenges to the Federal Communications Commission’s 2017 repeal of net neutrality rules were resolved.

That’s a done deal now. A federal appeals court ruled last year that the FCC’s action was mostly correct. Among the exceptions was the bit of the net neutrality repeal order that banned states from taking action. The FCC is scrambling to plug that loophole, and other federal laws may end up having the same effect anyway, but the odds of SB 822 surviving are better than they were.

The net neutrality advocates behind the appeal asked the court to reconsider, which it declined to do. They then pondered whether to take it the to federal supreme court, eventually deciding not to do so last month.

The final thirty day waiting period expired last week. As it did, the Trump administration and the lobbyists and lawyers for cable, telcos and wireless carriers went back to Sacramento and renewed their pleas to block California’s law, which Becerra, in theory, should now be enforcing.

Becerra hasn’t revealed any plans he might have. He’s found the time to issue a press release on migratory birds, but so far not a word about net neutrality. It would make sense for him to wait until the judge hearing the challenge to SB 822 decides whether to put it on ice while the case grinds on. It might also make sense – to Becerra, at least – to hold off antagonising the big telecoms companies that have been so generous to him in the past.

Muni broadband, net neutrality get bland nods in Biden’s peace treaty with Sanders

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Sanders biden

Joe Biden’s campaign agreed to a skeletal broadband policy in what amounts to a peace treaty with Bernie Sanders and his supporters. The “unity task force recommendations” published on Wednesday amount to little more than a declaration that broadband is good, but it’s the first time that Biden has explicitly signed on to any conventional democratic party positions on telecommunications policy.

The document has the usual nice words about broadband being essential to life in the 21st century, with the standard nod to education. It makes a constitutionally dubious pledge to remove state bans on municipal broadband projects and to spend money on all types of infrastructure, including, particularly, muni broadband.

Network neutrality gets a mention. The “recommendations” propose to…

Restore the FCC’s clear authority to take strong enforcement action against broadband providers who violate net neutrality principles through blocking, throttling, paid prioritization, or other measures that create artificial scarcity and raise consumer prices for this vital service.

Presumably, what they really mean is that Biden will appoint FCC commissioners who will use the “clear authority” that already exists. Which means policy ping pong will continue. During the Obama administration, the democratic majority on the Federal Communications Commission classified broadband as a regulated common carrier service. The Trump administration’s republican led FCC said it wasn’t.

The recommendations don’t explicitly promise to restore broadband’s common carrier status. There are other ways of imposing net neutrality obligations on Internet service providers, as California discovered. Initially, the Obama era FCC proposed a no lobbyist left behind approach that would have allowed monopoly model incumbents to negotiate permission for decidedly non-neutral network management practices.

Direct intervention by the Obama white house put an end to that pretence. Whether a Biden administration would do the same is an open question. Biden has enjoyed a long and comfortable political career in a system fuelled by, and largely subservient to, cash from corporations and labor unions. The peace treaty with Sanders doesn’t change that reality.

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.

California tops up federal broadband subsidy bids, as FCC trims RDOF eligibility list

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Pouring wine

Californian communities lost potential broadband subsidy money last week, but might have gained some back yesterday. On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission eliminated 48,000 “locations” – homes, businesses, community facilities – in what appears to be 3,100 census blocks from the preliminary eligibility list for the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), following a review of tens of thousands of challenges from incumbent broadband providers who wanted to freeze out potential competitors. I say “appears to be” because the FCC’s numbers don’t line up with census bureau stats – that discrepancy should be resolved eventually.

Yesterday, California governor Gavin Newsom signed assembly bill 82 into law. It waives restrictions on the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) – California’s primary broadband infrastructure subsidy program – and allows the California Public Utilities Commission to add money from it to RDOF-funded projects.

A census block is eligible for RDOF money if it lacks broadband service at 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload speeds. CASF subsidies are usually restricted to census blocks without service at 6 Mbps down/1 Mbps up, which means that far fewer rural homes and communities are eligible. AB 82 allows CASF funds to be spent on projects that also receive RDOF money.

RDOF subsidies are awarded via a reverse auction. Broadband providers bid down the amount of money they’re willing to accept in exchange for offering a particular level of service in a given area. Putting CASF subsidies on the table allows Californian providers to bid lower and, it is hoped, win even more federal money that’ll be spent here.

Thursday’s changes mean about 10% of the locations are gone from the preliminary RDOF eligibility list that the FCC published in March. Because of the formulae used to calculate maximum subsidy amounts, only 6% of the maximum potential money is off the table. But the maximum doesn’t mean much. The ten year total reserve price for eligible census blocks in California dropped from $2.5 billion to $2.3 billion. In theory, all of that money could end up in California. In reality, it won’t – half or a little better is a more realistic expectation.

FCC limits on cell site expansion permits challenged by California cities

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

West sac cell site

California cities are pushing back against the tighter limits on wireless infrastructure permit reviews that the Federal Communications Commission approved in a party line vote earlier this month. Three cities in Los Angeles County – Glendora, Rancho Palos Verde and Torrance – and the California and Oregon leagues of cities filed a challenge to the FCC’s ruling with the San Francisco-based ninth circuit federal appeals court.

The FCC ruling said cities, or other local agencies, can’t delay starting a 60-day federal shot clock and can’t add aesthetic requirements when granting permit for expansions or other additions to cell sites and towers, or other wireless facilities, so long as the changes are within certain limits. In other words, when the work falls under what are usually called the “6409” rules, after the section federal law involved. The FCC said that the 60-day shot clock begins as soon as a wireless company takes the first step in a permit process, whether or not they’ve filed a formal application. If the shot clock expires, the permit is “deemed granted”.

The cities and associations filing the petition for review argued, as might be expected, that the FCC exceeded its authority…

The Commission’s new rules and significant changes to its existing rules unlawfully preempt local and state government authority promulgated without response to the arguments advanced by Petitioners in the record…

Petitioners seek review of the Ruling on the grounds that the Ruling is arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of discretion.

The cities’ filed on Monday. I haven’t seen any other appeals from any other parts of the U.S. Assuming that’s the case, it’ll be handled by the ninth circuit, which is also considering a similar, but much larger, challenge to the FCC’s 2018 preemption of local ownership of city street light poles.

That case was heard in February, by three ninth circuit judges. There’s no particular timeline for a decision, but they’ve been working on it long enough that it could come at any time. Expect a similar journey of a couple of years for this latest appeal.

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