Tag Archives: fcc

FCC makes flabby broadband victory claims in a thin press release

by Steve Blum • , ,

Sumo suits

In a press release heavy on spin and very light on data, the Federal Communications Commission claimed broadband “is being deployed on a reasonable and timely basis” because the number of people without access to service at a minimum of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds decreased by 25% in 2017. The reason for this stunning achievement? “FCC reforms”.

But a closer look at the cherrypicked data in the release shows that this feat isn’t so amazing after all.

The “more than 25% drop in Americans lacking access to fixed broadband” claim doesn’t mean that the percentage of unserved dropped from, say, 50% to 25%. The way the press release states it kinda makes you think that’s the case, but when you crunch the numbers you realise that the 6.5 million people who gained access represents about 2% of the population – overall, the number of unserved people dropped from 8% of the U.S. population to 6%.

That’s if you take the FCC’s numbers at face value. Which isn’t a smart thing to do. Yet. The full report, with supporting data, hasn’t been released. Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a democrat, has seen it, though. Her tweeted response is “I beg to differ”.

One key question is where did the data come from?

If, as is likely, it comes directly from the availability reports filed by providers, it might represent increased reporting, rather than increased availability. The number of existing providers filing FCC availability reports – particularly fixed wireless operators of dubious performance – has increased over the past few years, and incumbent wireline operators have become more creative in their claims.

Another bit of manifest nonsense is that policies adopted by the republican majority on the FCC have much to do with actual improvements. The FCC’s claims are based on data that is current as of December 2017, less than a year after the Trump administration was sworn in, and the same month that the republican majority approved its first major policy change, the repeal of network neutrality regulations. For nearly all of 2017, the broadband industry played by Obama era rules.

A 2% increase in the number of people with access to moderately fast broadband would be a notable achievement. We won’t know if that number is legitimate until the FCC publishes all the data its claim is based on. According to the press release, that’s expected “in the coming weeks”.

Federal online privacy cop needs direction, says GAO study

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Police academy

The federal government’s primary consumer protection agency – the Federal Trade Commission – doesn’t think too hard about policing online privacy violations, according to a report by the General Accounting Office. Generally, the FTC can act when a company engages in unfair or deceptive business practices. Figuring out what’s fair and what’s not in cyberspace is a complete puzzle, and impenetrable terms of service and other digital fine print typically give companies a get out of jail free card to companies, the report notes…

Some stakeholders said that FTC relies more heavily on its authority to take enforcement action against deceptive trade practices compared with the agency’s unfair trade practices authority. This was confirmed in our analysis of FTC’s Internet privacy enforcement actions discussed previously. However, a representative from a consumer advocacy group said that FTC’s ability to take such action is limited practically to instances where a company violates its own privacy policy—companies generally can collect and use data in any way they want if they include language in their policies asserting their intent to do so. According to a former FCC commissioner, a privacy statute could clarify the situations in which FTC could take enforcement action.

The report notes that both California and the European Union have online consumer privacy laws in place, but there’s no federal equivalent in the U.S. It concludes with a recommendation to congress that it “should consider developing comprehensive legislation on Internet privacy”, including identifying which agency is responsible for what and, somehow, balancing “consumers’ need for Internet privacy with industry’s ability to provide services and innovate”.

There’s also an interesting list of FTC privacy enforcement actions at the end of the report. It summarises 101 cases over ten years, between 2008 and 2018. Most ended with no penalties or other meaningful result at all, although a rumored multibillion dollar smack at Facebook would, if true, change that calculus. A few resulted in million dollar-plus penalties but the remainder ended with relative slaps on the wrist. It’s a clear illustration of why the FTC needs better direction and motivation if it’s to be the “nation’s premier consumer protection cop”.

Pai talks up rural 5G, but puts his money on 4G subsidies

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Salinas windmill cell site

5G technology has a role to fill in rural broadband service, but it won’t be the kind of 5G that mobile carriers are hyping. That’s according to Federal Communications Commission chair (and Charlton Heston Courage Under Fire Award winner) Ajit Pai. He was speaking at rural broadband trade show in New Orleans last week.

There’s no makable business case on the horizon for densified 5G mobile networks in rural communities. AT&T dismisses rural 5G as an “infill” technology, and it and other carriers are not leaning on rural cities and counties for pole access, as they are in richer and more populated parts of California. Pai acknowledges that, but points to fixed 5G service to homes and businesses as a substitute for fiber to the premise systems…

“Contrary to what some people have suggested, I actually think 5G has a very promising future in rural America and part of the reason is, in terms of the possibilities of fixed wireless, given the fiber penetration that some of your members have,” he said. “I think the ability of rural telecom carriers to think broadly about the future of these networks and how to extend this great fiber penetration you’ve got, there’s a huge amount of promise there.”

Pai’s FCC has a mixed record on 5G fixed wireless. On the one hand, the FCC is working on opening up tremendous swaths of spectrum – in the 3.5 GHz, 4 GHz and 6 GHz bands, particularly – to support broadband service. On the other hand, the FCC and other federal agencies are spending billions of dollars to lock rural communities into fixed 4G service for generations to come.

The FCC’s Connect America Fund program is paying for AT&T’s program to replace rural copper networks with limited capacity 4G service, and supporting similar efforts by Frontier Communications. AT&T also won the contest for a national public safety network – FirstNet – that will likewise be 4G based. Pai is not putting his money where his mouth is: the 4G-based systems that the Trump administration is subsidising do not have the potential capacity of the copper networks they’re replacing, let alone substitute for fiber.

Federal appellate judges skeptical of FCC’s net neutrality reasoning

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Network neutrality advocates faced off against the Federal Communications Commission and its telecoms industry partners in a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C. on Friday. For more than four hours, a panel of three federal judges grilled both sides as they considered whether the FCC acted “arbitrarily and capriciously” when it rolled back net neutrality rules in 2017.

The central question is whether broadband service is a simple telecommunications service – like phone service – or a value-added information service. FCC lawyer Tom Johnson insisted that the traffic management and routing technology that enables communication via the Internet – the domain name system and caching – is fundamentally different from the traffic management and routing technology that makes it possible to dial a phone number.

Judge Patricia Millett didn’t seem to buying that argument…

Millett: They both have the capability, the capability of acquiring information, receiving information, through a telephone as much as…

Johnson: Under the broader theory that these are broad statutory provisions in which we are able to make different classification decisions based on the fact that we’re talking about different services here.

Millett: That’s what I’m trying to figure out, are you talking about different capabilities between phones and if someone uses Facetime?

Johnson: Yes, your honor, we just don’t think that phone service in offering a pure transmission pathway for ordinary voice communication offers the same dynamic experience that broadband does in accessing the Internet, but in addition it also offers…

Millett: I hear you saying those words, I’m really trying to make sure I’m understanding what the difference is, because people use telephones to acquire all kinds of information…If I want to get information from my pharmacy – I’d like to have something refilled – I can call over the phone and push a bunch of buttons and eventually I’ll have a prescription refilled. I can also go on the website and type in and tell the doctor’s office I’d like a prescription refilled. But it seems to be the exact same functionality. One is voice and one is typing, but that can’t be difference.

Johnson never directly answered Millett’s question. His defence was that there was sufficient ambiguity in federal law to create an opening for the FCC to exercise its discretion as the federal government’s expert agency in these matters. Typically, federal courts defer to that – they don’t consider whether an expert agency made the best decision, but rather whether the decision reached was one of many possible and reasonable interpretations of the facts and the law.

The plain fact is that broadband is a telecommunications service. People use it to transmit and receive information between two point without changes. The give and take at Friday’s hearing indicates that the three judges understand that point well.

Listen to the hearing here.

FCC colluded with mobile carriers to “game” judicial procedure, congressmen charge

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Charlottesville streetlights

People at the Federal Communications Commission might have leaned on AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and the Puerto Rico Telephone Company to go shopping for sympathetic judges who would be more likely to bless its preemption of local ownership of streetlight poles and similar municipal assets. A letter sent by a pair of democratic congressmen – Frank Pallone (D – New Jersey) and Mike Doyle (D – Pennsylvania) – directs republican FCC chairman Ajit Pai to enlighten them on why the four wireless companies filed largely identical and completely ludicrous appeals of its September order

It has come to our attention that certain individuals at the FCC may have urged companies to challenge the Order the Commission adopted in order to game the judicial lottery procedure and intimated the agency would look unfavorably towards entities that were not helpful. If true, it would be inappropriate for the FCC to leverage its power as a regulator to influence regulated companies to further its agenda in seeking a more friendly court. To date, four FCC licensees have petitioned the federal judiciary for review of the Order in separate filings and in separate circuits.

Whether or not the four mobile carriers colluded with friends at the FCC to find a friendly court, in the end it didn’t matter. The City of San Jose completed a legal Hail Mary pass and got the all the cases sent to the ninth circuit federal appeals court in San Francisco, which tends to take a more skeptical view of FCC authority.

The mobile companies, which claim the FCC committed a grievous error by not giving them the pink slip along with the keys to the city, are still in a position to disrupt the appeals launched and joined by dozens of cities, counties and associations from every corner of the U.S. To head that off, local governments are asking the ninth circuit to hold a “case management conference”…

Because this case involves appeals by representatives of industry (which argue that the agency did not go far enough in adopting remedies sought by industry) and representatives of local governments and organizations (which argue the FCC’s actions significantly exceeded the agency’s authority), there is also likely to be a more complex pattern of briefs filed in support of, and in opposition to the FCC’s Order than is reflected in a typical agency appeal.

Right now, nine cases – three filed by mobile carriers and six by local governments – are in the San Francisco court, with four more – one by AT&T and three by local governments – apparently inbound from the federal appeals court in Washington, D.C.

Not much room for mediation in appeals of FCC local pole preemption order

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Burlingame poles

The challenge to the Federal Communications Commission’s September Order preempting local ownership and control of municipal property grinds on. The local governments and companies appealing the order, which strips cities and counties of ownership rights to streetlight poles and other such assets in the public right of way, filed brief statements –mediation questionnaires – with the San Francisco-based federal appeals court hearing the case yesterday.

Mobile companies are appealing the order because, they say, the FCC didn’t go far enough and give them everything they wanted. It would be overly optimistic to say the likelihood of the courts agreeing with them is slim. But by filing their appeals, they get a seat at the table so they can, presumably, disrupt the cases brought by local governments.

In its questionnaire, Verizon repeated its amazing argument that the FCC isn’t allowed to not automatically allow it to attach wireless equipment to city poles if the review process takes too long – in other words, if the “shot clocks” expire…

In the underlying Order, the FCC considered state and local regulatory barriers to the wireless infrastructure siting review process, particularly the siting of next-generation infrastructure. The FCC’s refusal to implement the “deemed granted” remedy is arbitrary and capricious in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act, and is an abuse of the Commission’s discretion. It also violates other federal laws, including, but not limited to, the Communications Act of 1934.

Huntington Beach, on the other hand, restated the basic argument it and other local governments have made – that the FCC doesn’t have the authority to confiscate local property…

The Order significantly limits the rights of state and local governmental entities such as Petitioner, City of Huntington Beach, to regulate, and lease its own property for the installation of Small Wireless Facilities (“SWF”) in the public rights-of-way (“ROW”) and on city-owned streetlights, and traffic signals. SWFs will be installed primarily for the deployment of 5G Wireless Networks. The Order is an unlawful pre-emption of local and state government authority.

In the “other thoughts” box on the form, the City of Seattle added that this isn’t the kind of question that’s suitable for mediation…

Every major wireless service and infrastructure provider, hundreds of communities, and many individuals and associations participated in the Commission proceedings which resulted in the Declaratory Ruling and Third Report and Order that is the subject of this appealed. We do not believe it possible that this matter can be resolved through mediation owing to the nature and scope of the issues at hand and the numerous participants.

Mediation, or at least considering it, is a standard step in a federal appeals case. Given the scope of the issues involved and the necessary process at the Federal Communications Commission, it’s a pretty safe assumption that the case will be argued, and not mediated away.

Mediation questionnaires:

City and County of San Francisco
City of Huntington Beach
City of Seattle, et al
Montgomery County

Puerto Rico Telephone Company

Links to motions, petitions, court documents and background material, Californian and federal, 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.

Schedule set for appeals of FCC local pole ownership preemption

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Riverside pole mount

The federal appeals court in San Francisco set 5 April 2019 as the filing date for opening briefs in the nine challenges it’s received, so far, to the Federal Communications Commission’s September order preempting municipal ownership of streetlight poles and other potential wireless assets in the public right of way.

The FCC will have a month to respond, then the challengers will have three weeks to file a final rebuttal. So it’ll be the end of May before all the opening arguments are on the table. After that, it could be a year or more before the process is complete and the San Francisco judges issue a decision.

Six of those challenges were filed by cities, counties and their associations that contend that the FCC went beyond the authority it was granted by congress, if not beyond the bounds of the federal constitution. The other three were submitted by mobile carriers who thought they should have been given even more freebies by the FCC.

Those cases were transferred to the San Francisco-based ninth circuit by the tenth circuit court of appeals in Denver, which agreed with arguments made by the City of San Jose and other local agencies that the FCC’s September wireless preemption order and its August wireline preemption order were, for legal purposes, two halves of the same decision.

There’s still a lot of housekeeping work to be done, though, before substantive arguments can begin. Four other challenges – one by AT&T and three by municipal challengers – are lodged in the federal appeals court based in Washington, D.C. Presumably those will be transferred to San Francisco, too, and then consolidated with all the others – September wireless order and August wireline order alike.

In the meantime, the FCC wireless order is in effect. At least to the extent that it has effect, which is not as much as mobile carriers would like cities to believe.

FCC’s streetlight ownership preemption takes little effect today

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

The Federal Communications Commission’s order preempting local ownership of streetlights and other municipal property in the public right of way is now active. What does it mean to cities? Nothing much, according to a court filing by the FCC

The Order does not itself require localities to do anything, nor does it compel approval of any particular siting request; it simply articulates standards for courts to apply if and when they are confronted with any future siting disputes that might eventually arise…nor does it prevent localities from recovering all of their actual and reasonable costs…

The Order’s safe harbor for recurring fees up to $270 per small cell per year is not a “limit o[n] compensation” above that amount, as Movants wrongly assert; rather, the Order makes clear that localities may charge higher fees if a reasonable approximation of their costs exceeds that amount.

When the Order takes effect, the only consequence is that carriers may submit new requests to be processed under these standards. If a locality does not timely grant a request, the carrier must allow at least sixty days to elapse before seeking judicial review. A court must then determine whether the locality has violated the statute under the particular facts presented and whether relief is warranted—determinations that “remain within the courts’ domain.” The Order will thus have no compulsory effect until the affected locality has an opportunity to justify its decision before a “court of competent jurisdiction.”

The FCC made these statements in its successful opposition to a request by a group of local agencies, led by the City of San Jose to put the “September Order” on hold. The federal appeals court based in Denver denied the group’s request last week, saying it “failed to meet their burden of showing irreparable harm if a stay is not granted”.

Both AT&T and Verizon signalled that they intend to take a more aggressive attitude towards cities once the FCC order is, in theory, in effect. But as the FCC itself points out, there’s no urgent need to humor them. Yet.

Links to motions, petitions, court documents and background material, Californian and federal, 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.

FCC local pole preemption order set to take effect Monday, as federal court denies San Jose’s request to delay implementation

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

The Federal Communications Commission’s preemption of local ownership of streetlight poles and other “vertical assets” appears set to take effect on Monday, 14 January 2019. The tenth circuit federal appeals court in Denver denied a request by the City of San Jose and other cities to put the FCC order on hold while court cases move ahead. In a separate action, the tenth circuit also transferred the long list of appeals to the ninth circuit federal appeals court in San Francisco.

FCC pole preemption appeals leave Denver via loophole, land in San Francisco

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

San francisco skyline 625

Update, 11 January 2019: the federal tenth circuit court of appeals denied a request by the City of San Jose and other cities to delay implementation of the FCC’s September preemption order. It is still scheduled to take effect on Monday.

The growing list of challenges to a Federal Communications Commission decision to preempt local ownership of streetlight poles and other municipal property located in the public right of way will be decided by the San Francisco-based ninth circuit federal appeals court.

Originally, the cases were assigned by lottery to the federal tenth circuit court, headquartered in Denver. But a coalition of local governments led by the City of San Jose argued an earlier appeal of a separate but related FCC order – aka the August order, which dealt primarily with wireline issues – should take precedence as the lead case. Yesterday, the Denver appeals court agreed that the FCC’s wireless deployment order, aka the September order, which took away any ownership rights cities might have over streetlight poles is inextricably intertwined with it…

After careful consideration, we conclude that the FCC’s August Order and its September Order are the “same order” for purposes of [federal law]. Accordingly, the motion to transfer is granted and these matters are transferred to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

It’s good news for cities, counties and other local agencies, and bad news for the unholy alliance of republican FCC commissioners and mobile carriers. In the past, the ninth circuit has taken a more narrow view of what qualifies as an effective prohibition on broadband deployment. That question is central to the case against the September wireless order: the FCC claims its authority to preempt local property ownership is based on a federal law that says that state and local governments can’t “prohibit or effectively prohibit” broadband companies from building infrastructure or offering service.

The decision to send the challenges – there are at least nine, encompassing dozens of local governments and organisations – to San Francisco could create a bit of a mess for the next few days. The FCC’s wireless order is due to take effect on Monday. One request to put the order on hold was filed in St. Louis, and similar motions are expected from other challengers. That’s a lot of work on short notice.

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

Order transferring appeals of FCC “September Order” to Ninth Circuit, by Tenth Circuit, U.S. Court of Appeals

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.