Tag Archives: fcc

No help for California in FCC’s lifeline plea deal with T-Mobile

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Sprint booth mwc la 2019 22oct2019

T-Mobile will pay a $200 million fine to clear Sprint’s bad conduct off of the Federal Communication Commission’s books, but the deal doesn’t include repayment of state subsidies that the company took for low income “lifeline” customers who weren’t actually using the service. T-Mobile assumed responsibility for Sprint’s lifeline service – Assurance Mobile – when it took over Sprint earlier this year. The violations of the subsidy rules and improper collection of “tens of millions of dollars” from the FCC’s lifeline piggy bank happened before the merger but came to light while the FCC and the California Public Utilities Commission were reviewing it. A “consent decree” squares T-Mobile with the FCC but leaves repayment questions unanswered.

The money from the federal settlement will go directly into the “United States treasury” and no mention is made of reimbursing states, such as California, that supplement the FCC’s program with state funds. In a press release, FCC chair Ajit Pai thanked the Oregon Public Utility Commission, which uncovered Sprint’s malfeasance and said that “states play an important role in helping low-income consumers get access to affordable communications through Lifeline and making sure the program is run efficiently”.

Gratitude and flattery appear to be the extent of the FCC’s concern. Sprint admits no wrongdoing, and both it and the FCC agreed that the settlement “shall not be used as evidence or precedent in any action or proceeding, except an action to enforce this consent decree”. State regulators, as well as federal officials charged with managing lifeline subsidies, will have to proceed with their own collection efforts.

California’s hit from Sprint’s false billing is undetermined, but a back of the envelope estimate that I did last year puts it something on the order of $2 million a month, and Sprint admitted that what it calls an “error” had been its practice for at least three years. Before the merger closed, Sprint’s chief financial officer claimed that the company is “committed to reimbursing federal and state governments for any subsidy payments that were collected incorrectly”. Presumably, T-Mobile is obligated to make good on that promise, but how it intends to do so remains to be seen.

CPUC commissioners to decide if Digital Path’s sharp dealing deserves taxpayers’ money

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Three card monte

Not every project proposed for a broadband infrastructure grant from the California Advanced Services Fund that could have been waved through and approved administratively was. Nine grant requests from Charter Communications received a “ministerial” blessing, but a proposal from Digital Path was bucked to the five CPUC commissioners for a decision.

Digital Path wants $415,000 from CASF for fixed wireless facilities to cover 279 homes, mostly in Sutter County, with a few in Placer County. Cover, not necessarily serve. According to the draft resolution prepared by staff for consideration by commissioners, only 97 households are expected to sign up.

Service level is an issue. The best Digital Path says it can deliver is 50 Mbps download/10 Mbps upload speeds with a 500 GB monthly data cap for $103 a month. Its cheapest market rate offering is $78 a month, for 25 Mbps down/5 Mbps up with a 250 GB cap. Its concession to low income customers is to offer qualifying households 10 Mbps down/2 Mbps up with a 190 GB cap for $39, more than twice the CPUC’s $15 benchmark rate for low income homes.

The draft resolution calls out pricing as a barrier to availability, as well as Digital Path’s disingenuous attempt to wall off vast swaths of California from federal broadband subsidies

DigitalPath’s pricing plans do not provide reasonable accommodation for the rural, typically low-income communities it primarily serves. The Sutter Placer Project would contribute to the CASF program goal to serve 98 percent of households per consortia region; however, the goal is not consequential if affordability is a barrier to adoption.

Additionally, DigitalPath challenged the highest number of [Rural Digital Opportunity Fund] locations in the United States. While the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) disqualified a significant number of those, DigitalPath still had a high number of challenges sustained by the FCC, and those areas were subsequently removed from RDOF eligibility. Although the Sutter Placer Project has no RDOF overlap, DigitalPath submitted ten other CASF Infrastructure applications proposing projects that had RDOF overlapping census blocks, of which six projects no longer have RDOF overlap because of DigitalPath’s challenges. Removing RDOF-eligible blocks from a CASF project means the provider claims it already offers at least 25/3 Mbps service to the census block, which calls into question the need for CASF funding. It also means state CASF funds would be used in lieu of potential federal RDOF funds. For these reasons, Staff recommends Commission consideration by Resolution.

Translation: Digital Path is gaming the system.

And, it appears, misleading the CPUC or, perhaps, the FCC, about the level of service currently available in the census blocks where it’s seeking CASF subsidies. To apply for a CASF infrastructure grant, an Internet service provider has to make the case that broadband service in a given census block is either non-existent or slower than 6 Mbps download/1 Mbps upload speeds. When it first tried to block federal subsidies in its turf, Digital Path claimed that it was offering speeds of at least 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up in 40,000 census blocks, including 419 of the 492 census blocks where it applied for CASF money.

CPUC commissioners should take the hint from staff, and reject Digital Path’s grant application. Taxpayer dollars shouldn’t be used to subsidise expensive, substandard service for the fraction of homes that can afford it or reward playing Three Card Monte with census blocks and service reports.

The Connected Capital Area Broadband Consortium (CCABC) assisted DigitalPath and I assisted CCABC. I also kibitzed on other projects. I have opinions about what the CASF program should be about (in case you haven’t noticed). I’m not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.

FCC hands high tech a victory over low transportation bureaucracy

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Uber hyundai copter ces 8jan2020

On Wednesday, the lame duck Federal Communications Commission reassigned 45 MHz of automotive spectrum in the crowded 5.8/5.9 GHz band for WiFi and other unlicensed uses, including transportation applications. It’s a long overdue decision – I’ve been following the debate since the Obama administration – and a welcome one for two reasons: unlicensed spectrum is the lifeblood of consumer connectivity, and it marks a victory for 21st century technology over 19th century bureaucracy and 20th century political payoffs.

As usual, the federal transportation department is howling over losing a turf battlepeople will die if we’re not in charge – but the reassignment received support from both democrat and republican commissioners and was approved unanimously.

Twenty years ago, automotive industry lobbyists and transportation bureaucrats, with some help from congress, convinced the FCC to set aside 75 MHz of spectrum in the 5.8/5.9 MHz band for a particular “vehicle-to-wayside wireless standard” in preparation for the coming digital age. That technology – Dedicated Short-Range Communications (DSRC) – met corporate and bureaucratic needs but, as is always the case with technological fiats, didn’t do squat for consumers or technologists.

While the DSRC band remained silent, the variety and utility of ubiquitous mobile services and products, including transportation applications, exploded. Likewise, the bandwidth demands of automotive technology – autonomous vehicles, assisted driving applications, electric cars and the list goes on – grew into the gigabit range and beyond.

Under the FCC’s plan, the auto industry gets to keep 30 MHz, but the rest will transition to public use. Indoor applications will be allowed immediately, outdoor uses will phase in over time. The automotive industry will still have its sandbox – 30 MHz is a lot of spectrum by current standards, and can support far more services and applications than 75 MHz could 20 years ago.

If those services and applications are the product of market tested high tech genius, and not the decree of low tech lobbyists and federal bureaucrats.

Biden’s new transition plan offers old broadband policy, so far

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Salinas windmill cell site

The presumptive 46th president likes broadband, at least insofar as it promotes “an equitable, clean energy future”. He thinks everyone should have it, and the people who build and run it should be members of labor unions. That’s about all Joe Biden is saying about broadband policy as he begins to light up his transition team.

There are only a couple of mentions of broadband on Biden’s transition website, and it’s lumped in with infrastructure generally and environmental action specifically. He’s promising to…

…Create millions of good, union jobs rebuilding America’s crumbling infrastructure – from roads and bridges to green spaces and water systems to electricity grids and universal broadband – to lay a new foundation for sustainable growth, compete in the global economy, withstand the impacts of climate change, and improve public health, including access to clean air and clean water.

Biden made similar, but a bit more specific, pledges in a peace treaty signed with primary opponent Bernie Sanders in July. He seemed to be in favor of giving federal money to support municipal broadband back then, but he’s holding his cards closer to the chest now. Although many public employees are union members, particularly here in California, when “union jobs” and “infrastructure” are used in the same sentence, the nod is toward private sector construction workers and unionised utility and transportation companies.

That’s true whether it’s democrats or republicans doing the talking. So far, Biden’s slim “universal broadband” statement differs little from Donald Trump’s policy. He, too, eventually included broadband in his infrastructure spending promises. Less than six months after he was inaugurated, Trump told an Iowa audience that a sizeable chunk of his trillion dollar infrastructure spending plan would “promote and foster enhanced broadband access for rural America”.

What we eventually got was a billion or so for the federal agriculture department’s ReConnect program, which has yet to approve any Californian projects, and $20 billion in Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) subsidies, which are being auctioned off by the Federal Communications Commission now. Both programs were lineal descendants of rural development and universal service programs funded over decades by republican and democrat administrations.

It’s too soon to bet on anything different coming in the next four years.

FCC report on T-Mobile nationwide outage is a case study in network complexity and best practices (or lack thereof)

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Tmobile billboard 2 las vegas 6jan2020

The installation, and incomplete configuration, of a new router and a fiber link failure, both in the southeast U.S., combined with software and hardware bugs to take down T-Mobile’s national phone network in June, according to a report published in October by the Federal Communications Commission. The cascade of problems that began with a fiber route going down led to a “registration storm” in Atlanta as “mobile devices repeatedly attempted and failed to register” on the network, first using 4G, 3G and 2G mobile systems, and finally trying to complete calls via WiFi connections.

The storm spread “out of the Atlanta market and across the country”, disrupting phone service within T-Mobile’s network, and traffic between T-Mobile and other carriers. Millions of calls went nowhere…

Based on confidential call success and 3G and 2G call failure data shared by T-Mobile, together with data on 911 calls and calls originating outside of T-Mobile’s network, [FCC staff] estimates that at least 41% of all calls that attempted to use T-Mobile’s network during the outage did not complete successfully. This estimate does not include any possible call failures arising from T-Mobile subscribers’ VoLTE or Voice over Wi-Fi call attempts, which could not be determined. However, [staff] expects that if this number could be determined, it would result in [staff’s] estimate being much larger.

The impact on 911 calls wasn’t as severe as on general voice traffic, because emergency calls bypass the registration process. The system is designed to let people call 911 whether they have an active account or not. But the impact was still significant. T-Mobile said that 24,000 calls to 911 centers did not go through, and the FCC’s report said that people could not get the help they needed…

Based on the record, the June 15 outage on T-Mobile’s networks prevented some consumers from summoning the help that they needed during emergencies. Not only were some consumers unable to reach PSAPs by dialing 911, but they also were unable to reach roadside-service providers, medical professionals, and family…Fortunately, the Bureau did not receive any comments suggesting that individuals experienced physical harm as a direct result of this outage.

Usefully, the FCC’s report is not an indictment. It is a very readable case study with lessons learned that apply to all mobile carriers and fiber transport providers, and recommendations for preventing a reoccurrence. And a promise of corrective action ahead.

Scheming for a new FCC begins today in the senate

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Nathan Simington is due to interview for the job of republican FCC commissioner today. The federal senate’s commerce committee is scheduled to consider what are now lame duck appointments to federal agencies, including the Federal Communications Commission. Even if the republican majority on the committee blesses Simington, he won’t be approved by the full senate unless republican FCC chair Ajit Pai agrees to step down before the end of the year. And maybe not then.

As a practical matter, the FCC is made up of three commissioners from the party holding the white house, and two from the other major party. Federal law actually says that no more than three commissioners can be members of the same party but, since third parties rank below North Korea on Washington, D.C. invitation lists, only democrats and republicans need apply.

Republican commissioner Michael O’Rielly ends his term this year, creating the only automatic FCC vacancy. It’s the same situation as four years ago, when democrat Jessica Rosenworcel was termed out, and then chairman and Lobbyist-in-Chief Tom Wheeler was reluctant to give up his seat. If Rosenworcel had been confirmed and Wheeler stayed on, the Trump administration would have began with a majority-democrat FCC, albeit with a republican-appointed chair.

Even if Pai resigns and opens up a seat for a democrat, Simington still might not get the senate’s blessing. Trump named him after withdrawing an earlier re-nomination for O’Rielly, who had dared to wonder if maybe the FCC’s job didn’t include regulating free speech. Simington, who works in the federal commerce department, was Trump’s point man for rewriting the rules for social media platforms. On the other hand, O’Rielly is a former senate staffer who specialised in communications policy and remains popular on capitol hill.

Assuming the senate remains in republican hands, its leadership could well be looking for opportunities to chart a new course, away from the stormy Trump years. The few federal appointments in their hands would be a good place to start.

AM radio, born in the 1920 election, dies as 2020’s votes are counted

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Kdka 2nov1920

If 2020 wasn’t 2020, I’d be in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania today, listening to election returns on KDKA and honoring the 100th anniversary of the birth of broadcasting. Then owned by Westinghouse, a radio manufacturer, KDKA signed on and reported the results of the 1920 presidential race between republican (and victor) Warren Harding and democrat James Cox.

Some experimental stations were on (and, mostly, off) the air early in the preceding decade, but were shut down during World War I. With wartime restrictions lifted and technological advancement making radio receivers accessible to a mass market, Westinghouse was the first company to get a broadcasting license from the federal Bureau of Navigation. In a move copied by Steve Jobs when he opened the iTunes store, Westinghouse put KDKA on the air to give consumers a reason to buy radios. Although some stations experimented with advertising, it wasn’t adopted as a business model until 1923, when WAMD went on the air in Minneapolis.

To mark this anniversary, the Federal Communications Commission decided last week to allow broadcasters to abandon AM. Not the band or the stations or the sounds, but the technology – amplitude modulation – that gives the service its name.

It’s a bittersweet decision. Converting from analog amplitude modulation transmissions to all-digital broadcasting means losing the pleasure of coaxing in scratchy signals from distant stations or building a radio set using a lead crystal, an oatmeal box and some wire and tin foil. But those pleasures are already falling victim to an increasingly noisy radio frequency (RF) environment, as the FCC noted in its decision…

AM stations have been affected by the rising RF “noise floor” from various sources such as power lines, phone chargers, fluorescent and LED light bulbs, computer monitors, and flat-screen TVs. Manufacturers of AM receivers have attempted to reduce interference by using a narrower receiving bandwidth—but at the cost of audio fidelity. As the [Consumer Technology Association] explains, very narrow audio bandwidths lead to a “tin can” effect even in the best of signal conditions. As a result, AM stations are largely confined to voice-only formats (e.g., talk radio) and have consistently lost audiences to FM radio, satellite radio, and online streaming services that offer higher sound fidelity and a broader array of programming.

The AM digital transition is voluntary, so analog amplitude modulated signals will be on the air for a while longer. But once the migration picks up speed, it’ll mean a rapid end to signals you can tickle out of the air with a cat whisker and headphones.

Do it while you can.

Free speech “hypocrisy” won’t end with a new FCC or new administration

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Open internet dont tread on me 2

It’s an odd twist of logic that says the Federal Communications Commission can’t regulate Internet service or facilities, but it can be the Internet content cop. But that’s the position that FCC chair Ajit Pai is taking in regards to what is known as Section 230 – a bit of federal communications law that shields Internet platforms, like Facebook, from liability for content posted by their customers. The urge that drives him is near universal among major party politicians in Washington, D.C.

When commissioners voted on party lines on Wednesday to reaffirm the 2017 repeal of network neutrality rules, Pai boasted that “ the Internet has remained free and open”. Which is at odds with his declaration two weeks ago that it’s his job “to move forward with a rulemaking to clarify” social media companies’ “First Amendment right to free speech”.

There’s nothing to clarify.

There’s no loophole in “congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”. If congress can make no law, then the FCC can make no rules. Liability is a different matter. You can say or print whatever you want, but to a limited extent you are responsible for the consequences. But the FCC is not a libel and slander tribunal – that job belongs to the judicial branch of the federal government – and its authority is limited to telecommunications matters.

Jessica Rosenworcel, the senior democrat on the FCC and the likely interim, if not actual, chair if Joe Biden wins the presidency, called out Pai’s hypocrisy…

Following a push from the Administration, the FCC…now insists that [Section 230] compels the agency to regulate certain speech online. In the end, it’s not just the hypocrisy that disappoints, or the intellectual contortions required to make sense of this. It’s the dishonesty. It can’t be that the FCC points to Section 230 to disavow authority over broadband but then uses the same law to insist it can turn around and serve as the President’s speech police.

Don’t take her words as pure democratic party policy, though. Using Section 230 as a club to regulate online speech is a bipartisan goal. The two major parties differ in what kind of speech and editorial control should be regulated, but there’s near unanimous agreement amongst federal politicians that they can and should bully people and companies into speaking as they decree.

Whatever the result of next week’s election, freedom of speech and of the press, as recognised by the First Amendment, will be at risk in the coming year.

Federal appeals court says no do over, FCC muni pole ownership preemption stands

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

If cities and counties want to continue fighting the Federal Communications Commission’s preemption of local ownership of street light poles and other municipal property planted in the public right of way, they will have to take their case to the federal supreme court. In a ruling issued yesterday, the San Francisco-based ninth circuit court of appeals denied a request for a rehearing of a ruling made earlier this year by a three-judge panel that largely upheld the FCC’s authority to dictate the rates and terms for attaching wireless equipment to city-owned poles.

The court also rejected requests from the American Public Power Association (APPA) for a rehearing of the panel’s decision in so far as it affects publicly owned utility poles and reconsideration of similar decision in a related case.

The cities and counties, led by the City of Portland, Oregon, and APPA had asked for the decision by the three judges to be reviewed by all the ninth circuit’s 29 judges, aka an en banc rehearing. No luck…

The full court has been advised of the petitions for rehearing en banc and no judge has requested a vote on whether to rehear the matters en banc. The petition for panel rehearing by American Electric Power Service Corporation and Southern Company is DENIED. The petition for rehearing en banc by American Public Power Association is DENIED. The petition for rehearing en banc by City of Portland, et al. is DENIED.

I take the ninth circuit’s decision as good news. If the court had agreed to rehear the challenges to the FCC’s pole preemption, then the cases might have dragged on for a year or more. And regardless of the outcome, the federal supreme court would be the next step anyway. So assuming the cities and counties involved, and the municipal electric utilities represented by APPA, want to continue the fight, we’ll know sooner whether the FCC’s action will stand.

FCC proposes to pat its own back for a net neutrality repeal well done

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

In a rush to approve as much of the republican majority’s agenda as possible before next month’s election, the Federal Communications Commission published several draft decisions last week, that will presumably be approved at its next meeting, on 27 October 2020. Included in that batch is a draft of a clean-up ruling that addresses problems a federal appeals court found with its 2017 network neutrality repeal. None of the issues were considered serious enough to nullify the repeal, but the court did tell the FCC to fix them.

The appeals court had four specific objections to the FCC’s net neutrality repeal. Three are addressed in the draft order – impact on public safety, pole attachment rules and broadband’s eligibility for lifeline subsidies, such as those adopted last week by the California Public Utilities Commission:

  • Public safetynothing to see here, move along, move along is the FCC’s response. It went through the bureaucratic motions of reviewing its net neutrality rollback and concluded that it “promotes public safety”. Well, then.
  • Pole attachments – this issue doesn’t impact California, or any other state that regulates its own pole attachments. In the draft, the FCC admits that taking common carrier status away from companies that only provide broadband, and not phone or video service, is a problem in states that use the default federal pole attachment rules, but the damage is inconsequential compared to the totally awesome wonderfulness of its net neutrality repeal.
  • Lifeline – the draft concludes that so long as broadband is delivered over a network that supports phone service, there’s nothing in federal law that prevents subsidising it for low income households. The CPUC’s wireline broadband program bundles broadband and voice service, so no problem there.

The fourth issue – the court’s rejection of the FCC’s blanket preemption of state and local broadband regulations – will stand as is, at least for now. It wasn’t included in the FCC’s net neutrality do-over earlier this year, so it’s not a part of the draft order that’s on the table. California’s defence of its net neutrality law leans heavily on that appellate ruling.