Tag Archives: muni broadband

California legislature says yes to broadband, online privacy bills

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With Friday’s deadline behind us, we know which bills are getting serious consideration in the California legislature. Any bill that didn’t make it through a full floor vote and get sent from one house to the other is now dead (with the caveat that death is never final so long as the California legislature is still in session).

Short answer: all the bills I’m still following and, for the most part, blogging about live on…

Muni broadband

Net neutrality

  • Senate bill 460 – resurrects net neutrality rules as consumer protection law; requires state and local agencies to buy Internet service from companies that follow those rules. Passed by senate, now assigned to the assembly communications and conveyance committee – which also defers to industry lobbyists – and the privacy and consumer protection committee.
  • SB 822 – a stronger net neutrality revival, it was passed by the senate and is in the hopper at the assembly. Expect it to be paired with its weaker cousin, SB 460, in the committee process.
  • Senate resolution 74 – a high sounding but completely meaningless endorsement of net neutrality principles by the California senate. Passed on a party line vote and is probably hanging on someone’s wall, somewhere.

Privacy

  • AB 1906 – aimed at the Internet of things, it requires passwords on Internet-connected devices. Passed by the assembly, sent to the senate.
  • AB 2511 – potentially the legislature’s most fraught Internet bill this session, it would require online merchants to “take reasonable steps to verify the age” of anyone who might purchase or view age restricted products or content. Also restricts commercial use of information posted by minors. Passed by the assembly, sent to the senate.
  • AB 2935 – adds privacy protections to health monitoring programs, online and otherwise. Could have implications for fitness and athletic social media, such as Strava. Passed by the assembly, sent to the senate.
  • SB 327 – another shot at requiring security features on connected devices. Passed by the senate, now with the assembly privacy and consumer protections committee.
  • SB 1001 – requires bots – computer programs that mimic people, used by companies to chat with customers – to identify themselves as such. Passed by the senate, sent to they assembly.
  • SB 1186 – requires local governments to disclose the types and uses of law enforcement surveillance technology. Passed by the senate, sent to the assembly.
  • SB 1424 – formerly a far reaching attempt to police free speech on the Internet, it was neutered by senate committees and now just calls for the California attorney general to study “the problem of the spread of false information through Internet-based social media platforms”. Passed unamimously by the senate, sent to the assembly.

Emergency preparedness

  • AB 2910 – a weak response to the fire storms that ravaged California last year, it would require the California Public Utilities Commission to file a report about restoration efforts in the black hole of Sacramento with the legislature. Passed by the assembly, sent to the senate.
  • SB 1076 – a rare attempt by the legislature to prepare for a disaster before it happens, it would require the California office of emergency services “to update the state emergency plan to include preparedness recommendations to harden the critical infrastructure of electrical utilities against an electromagnetic pulse attack, geomagnetic storm event, or other potential cause of a long-term outage”. Translation: start thinking about how to keep the lights on if a nuclear bomb explodes (possible, but not inevitable) or Earth is hit by another Carrington event (definitely inevitable). Passed by the senate, sent to the assembly.

Teetering Tacoma muni cable system finds five potential partners

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Five companies are bidding to partner up with the City of Tacoma to help run its municipal cable system, which offers Internet and video services. The city issued a request for information and qualifications in March, and received five responses, according to a story by Candice Ruud in the Tacoma News Tribune (h/t to the BSL List for the pointer)…

One of the parties that’s interested in being a part of the future of Click Cable TV is Wave Broadband, the same company whose 2015 offer to lease Click for 40 years sparked a local political movement to keep the municipally-owned network in public hands…

Wave responded to the call and said it seeks long-term use of the Click network in exchange for compensating [the City of Tacoma’s municipal utility operation] with leasing fees, network upgrades and performance guarantees.

Local internet service providers Rainier Connect and Advanced Stream, both of which currently lease space on the Click network, submitted responses. European-based Yomura Fiber and relative newcomer Wyyerd also expressed interest in taking over Click’s operations.

According to the article, the two smaller, local ISPs – Rainier Connect and Advanced Stream – don’t appear to have the financial horsepower to meet the city’s requirements. Wave, which is also based in the Puget Sound area, and the two outside companies seem to have more financial and operational heft behind them.

The Click system needs financial help. It’s a 1990s cable system, mostly limited to 750 MHz of analog bandwidth, with an average node size of 1,200 homes. Click needs a big injection of cash to upgrade its infrastructure to support current, industry standard service levels, and stem its losses.

All of the five companies said they would meet the city’s 12 policy goals, which include adhering to network neutrality principles and running the system on an open access basis, maintaining public ownership and “maintaining financial stability”.

You can download the five responses here.

Muni broadband virtue should be a choice, not a chastity belt

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Well intentioned or not, assembly bill 1999 could work against efforts to preserve network neutrality, and prevent municipal broadband systems in California from competing against big, monopoly-model Internet service providers.

Authored by assemblyman Ed Chau (D – Monterey Park) , AB 1999 was approved by the California assembly and awaits action in the senate. It would: 1. explicitly allow more types of local agencies – e.g. county service areas, community service districts, enhanced infrastructure financing districts – to get into the broadband business, and 2. require all publicly owned, i.e. muni, broadband systems to abide by net neutrality principles.

Muni broadband is about local choice. Creating more options for local voters to choose from is a big step forward. But locking them into a 2017 business model might prove deadly a few years from now.

It’s a bad idea if net neutrality obligations only fall on muni broadband systems. We don’t know what the economics of the Internet will look like five or ten years from now, and handcuffing munis could prevent them from competing in the marketplace. That would benefit big, monopolistic providers like AT&T, Comcast and Charter Communications, at everyone else’s expense.

Consider this scenario: all limits on big ISP business practices disappear (say, on 11 June 2018), paid prioritisation kicks in, with AT&T, Comcast and Charter blending their subscriptions video packages into their broadband packages. For example, AT&T might offer you all their DirecTv channels for $80 per month – delivered via broadband, as they intend to do – and let you use any spare capacity to check email and browse the web. “Free” Internet access, in other words. You’re still paying for it, but you don’t notice it so much.

Muni broadband systems will struggle to match the level of control that AT&T, Comcast and Charter have over the market for video services. Forcing them to run their business within 2017’s norms might make them completely uncompetitive in 2022. Granted, it would be a bad thing if muni providers back pedalled on net neutrality principles, but it would be an absolute disaster if they went out of business completely.

I don’t know what will eventually happen, but I get nervous whenever business decisions are based on political positions. It’s good business right now for small ISPs – public and private sector – to wholeheartedly embrace net neutrality; it might be different tomorrow. The whole point of muni broadband is to keep the power of choice within local communities.

That’s where it should stay.

FCC appoints a pack of dingos to guard the broadband baby

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The Federal Communications Commission named a fifteen member “working group” on Friday, and charged it with the “harmonisation” of local and state broadband policies developed by its Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee (BDAC).

Only five of the fifteen members come from local or state agencies.

Nearly all of the rest are telecoms industry lobbyists, including capos from AT&T and Comcast. The working group’s chair, Elizabeth Bowles, is “primarily responsible for directing the legislative strategy for WISPA, the trade association for the fixed wireless broadband industry”, according to her LinkedIn profile. Translation: lobbyist.

I say nearly all, because former Google Fiber boss Milo Medin has industry cred, even if he’s now out of the firing line and “in some undisclosed role at Google Fiber’s parent company Alphabet”. Industry guy yes, lobbyist no.

Another member, Brent Skorup, is a fledgling academic in the Beltway swamp. I’ll simply refer you to former Harvard president Derek Bok’s quote here, and leave it at that.

The harmonisation group – also called a “reconciliation” committee – is supposed to iron out discrepancies in draft model policies for state and local governments. Both documents have useful suggestions for streamlining permit processes and intelligently managing access to the public right of way. But they also take different views of municipal broadband – the industry-dominated state policy group wants to kill it, while the local policy team simply leaves it alone. The proposed state-level guidelines also go a long way toward preempting any local control over broadband related land use or encroachment decisions.

BDAC has been rightfully slammed for being dominated by telecoms lobbyists, who big footed compromise language negotiated by local representatives and substituted their own wish lists. That’s typical Beltway banditry, and it’s kicking into high gear as the committee’s work nears the end. Don’t expect an even handed or rational result from the harmonisation group: as one lobbyist chuckled during the last BDAC meeting, “reconciliation can be whatever we want it to be”.

Telecom industry’s broadband policy advice takes shape at FCC

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The Federal Communication Commission’s industry-centric broadband deployment advisory committee (BDAC) met again yesterday. I didn’t watch the day-long webcast, but I did read through the transcript. It was here, but will probably be gone from the FCC’s website by the time you read this. The version I downloaded is here.

The group signed off on tweaks to a proposed one touch make ready policy. If adopted by the FCC, it would create a fast track process for new broadband infrastructure to be attached to existing utility poles. BDAC members also reviewed wish lists of policies for state and local governments to follow.

The draft version of model state-level broadband policies and laws has some useful ideas, for example opening up multi-tenant buildings to all broadband providers and setting the minimum acceptable broadband standard at 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds. But it also has a distinct, anti-competitive bias when it comes to municipal broadband. The sub-committee that drafted it, which was dominated by industry with little representation from state or municipal interests, wants to create enough roadblocks to ensure that muni broadband systems are only built as an extreme last resort. If it’s eventually approved, expect to see cable and telco lobbyists waving it like a flag at committee hearings in Sacramento.

There are model polices for local governments on the table too. Some, such as right of way rules, are largely irrelevant to California – cities and counties here have little control over what telecoms companies install in the public right of way, and can’t charge for it. Others are familiar industry-centric boilerplate regarding permits for wireless facilities and access to publicly owned property. As someone who works with cities to develop these sorts of policies, I think it’s useful as source material – not everything wireless companies want is a bad idea – but it shouldn’t be taken as gospel either.

There’s dig once language, but it’s pretty tame. It only applies to new developments, and doesn’t put any obligations on incumbents to cooperate with cities or potential competitors when existing streets are opened up.

At this point, though, it’s all just a draft. The committee voted to send the model state and local policies to a third, “reconciliation” committee that will “harmonise” them. Which means everything is still up for grabs. As one committee member put it, “reconciliation can be whatever we want it to be”.

Muni broadband can defend net neutrality, but winning isn’t guaranteed

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Net neutrality and municipal broadband are two separate issues that overlap in a couple of ways. First, there’s an assumption that muni broadband systems will abide by net neutrality principles, even if not required (but there’s a bill in the California legislature, AB 1999, that would require it). It’s an easy pledge to make now, but it’s not a certainty that muni systems could or would swim against the financial tide if the economics of the business changes significantly.

And the economic structure of the Internet will continue to change, as it has for the past thirty years. Small broadband providers, muni or not, only control traffic up to a certain point. Traffic could be shaped, throttled, blocked or prioritised on the other side of that point, reducing the value of a neutral last mile. Another consideration is the value of privileged access to users, particularly by content providers that rely on advertising. Sharing that revenue could make it possible for big, non-neutral incumbents to drive down the retail price of Internet service, making it impossible for independents to compete on the basis of virtue alone.

Another area where net neutrality and muni broadband overlap is on the political side. The big incumbents – cable and telco – lobby hard against muni broadband in both Sacramento and Washington. Those same lobbyists are working against net neutrality, and paying large amounts of money to legislators who are involved with both issues. There’s a similar, parallel effort to influence state and federal regulators.

There isn’t the same unity – throw weight, I’d call it – on the other side. There’s a core of people who care equally about freedom to use the Internet and freedom to provide the service, but for the most part advocates are involved with one issue or the other. When end-of-the-session horse trading begins, it’ll be much easier for cable’s and telco’s unified, deep pocketed lobbying fronts to cut a deal. Whether their passion is muni broadband or net neutrality, separate, single issue groups will not be happy with the result.

FCC pits one local technical expert against big telecom’s lobbyist horde

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Ajit Pai is trying to stop the bleeding on his Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee (BDAC). The Federal Communications Commission chairman appointed David Young to the committee, as a representative of the National League of Cities. Young is the fiber infrastructure and right of way manager for Lincoln, Nebraska’s public works department. It’s not explicitly stated, but the intent seems to be to fill at least one of the chairs left vacant by recent resignations by high profile municipal representatives. Pai is now dealing with accusations that the committee’s broadband policy work was hijacked by telephone and cable company lobbyists, as well as the recent arrest of a former BDAC chair on fraud charges.

It’s completely appropriate for the League of Cities to take a place on the committee. It’s a national lobbying front for municipalities, allowing cities to push their common interests in Washington, D.C. Since BDAC’s membership – official and unofficial – largely comprises lobbyists representing telecoms companies, it’s course-of-business for the League to take a set at the table, too.

I don’t know Young, but after taking a look at how Lincoln supports fiber build outs in the community, it seems apparent that he knows his stuff. And his stuff is boots on the ground management of city permit processes and utility easement issues. That’s important experience, and the FCC should listen to his advice.

But the resignations of San Jose mayor Sam Licardo and New York City chief technical officer Miguel Gamino – both because of the way the FCC is kowtowing to cable and telco lobbyists – left a bigger hole than Young can fill. He should have been on the committee with Licardo and Gamino from the beginning. The FCC should have given equal weight to the technical and policy expertise offered by municipal representatives, particularly when crafting model policies that state and local governments will be urged – or perhaps required – to follow.

That didn’t happen. So when BDAC meets later this month, it’ll be one new, fresh local face versus a platoon of entrenched beltway bandits working for big cable and telephone companies. That’s something to keep in mind when evaluating whatever comes out of it.

Another muni broadband expert says no to being a stage prop for industry lobbyists

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Citing similar worries as San Jose mayor Sam Licardo over the FCC’s apparent determination to let industry lobbyists write the Federal Communication Commission’s broadband deployment advisory committee (BDAC) manifesto, Miguel Gamino, New York City’s chief technology officer, turned in his letter of resignation last week

I have expressed concerns with other municipal colleagues in multiple meetings and documents that the makeup of the BDAC, with roughly 75 percent of members representing large telecommunications and cable companies or interests aligned with those companies, would result in recommendations unfavorable to localities looking to responsibly manage public rights-of-way to promote public safety, quality of life, and other priorities. This has resulted in the BDAC producing pre-packaged one-size-fits all proposals that industry lobbyists have pushed nationwide rather than working in a cooperative fashion to find creative solutions to dynamic local issues. In our own working group, there have been no efforts to add more voices familiar with city operations or to replace the former working group Vice Chair San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo. This has prevented us from addressing the diversity of concerns and solutions that would be offered by a better representation of the nearly 40,000 local governments nationwide.

The committee is scheduled to meet at the end of the month, in what could be its final session. Drafts prepared by the various working groups – which did, at first, allow for some diversity of opinion – are being combined into a single set of recommended broadband development policies for the FCC, and other public agencies, at all levels, to follow. That draft has not been released publicly, but presumably Gamino has some inkling of what it contains. The clear indication is that it will simply add weight to the sledgehammer that republican commissioners are eagerly anticipating slamming down on state and local governments.

Tacoma seeks private sector help for its city-owned cable system

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The City of Tacoma wants to hang on to its municipal cable system, but it’s looking for someone else to come in and run it. It posted a request for information and qualifications (RFI), asking private sector companies to propose business models.

Examples given include leasing out the system as a whole to an operator, bringing in a company to manage it or running it as an open access system, where competing retail providers would buy wholesale capacity from the system and take responsibility for selling it to customers. Click already runs its Internet service business on an open access basis, but sells video service directly to subscribers.

There are strings attached…

The City seeks a Provider interested in expanding the existing customer base, advancing broadband connectivity services to residents and businesses in the community, upgrading the network as required, providing operational support, and supporting the 12 critical community policy goals defined in Section II. The Partnership Arrangement could be a lease of the HFC network assets described herein, a management contract pursuant to which the Provider operates such assets, a partnership of another form with respect to such assets, or any other contractual arrangement that satisfies the City’s objectives.

Those 12 policy goals include maintaining public ownership, running an open access network and abiding by network neutrality principles, particularly no paid prioritisation. That would seem to rule out a major incumbent, such as Comcast or CenturyLink, since all three of those restrictions run counter to their core business models. Wave, which is much smaller nationally but calls Puget Sound home, might find the flexibility to qualify, though.

The Click system needs an upgrade, but in its current condition the system can’t support it on its own. Most of it is limited to 750 MHz of analog bandwidth – not bad when it was built in the 1990s, but not so impressive nowadays when the standard is 1 GHz or better – and the average node serves 1,200 homes, which is a critical bottleneck when it comes to delivering high speed Internet service.

Responses are due on 27 April 2018.

Request for information and qualifications for partnership arrangements for Tacoma Power’s Click network, 23 March 2018.

Reporters ripped for muni broadband stories. Is Comcast behind it?

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A “visiting scholar” at the American Enterprise Institute (and a member of Donald Trump’s “landing team” at the Federal Communications Commission) has taken to trash talking writers and publications that reported on a recent municipal broadband study (I haven’t yet – it’s on my to do list). The resemblance to a Comcast-sponsored astroturfing campaign is noteworthy.

Roslyn Layton joined Jeffrey Eisenach and Mark Jamison as volunteers assigned to help cobble together telecoms policy and overhaul the Obama-era FCC. All three are affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a consulting group – think tank in Beltway speak – that serves right-of-center and industry interests.

Writing in Forbes, Layton tees off on a study done by Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society that concluded that muni broadband systems “generally charge less for entry-level broadband service than do competing private providers, and don’t use initial low ‘teaser’ rates that sharply rise months later”. She spends little effort critiquing its merits. Layton’s ire is directed at publications that dared to report on the findings and, in her view, failed to properly excoriate it.

For the editor of one of those publications, Daniel Frankel at FierceCable, the attack brought to mind a 2014 campaign by AEI to discredit network neutrality policy, an effort that was linked to Comcast

At the time, Comcast spokesperson Sena Fitzmaurice conceded to the [Washington Post] that the cable operator “has worked with most of the major think tanks in town who are interested in communications issues," including the Aspen Institute, the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute. She didn’t go into further detail.

I reached out to Fitzmaurice to see if she could provide any update on Comcast’s relationship with AEI. Is it now working with them on municipal broadband, an issue Comcast has stridently contested in markets including Seattle and Denver? I’m still waiting to hear back.

Layton told Frankel that “Comcast didn’t influence her column” and claimed to have “little to no knowledge” of where AEI gets the money it pays her. But that doesn’t mean that Comcast isn’t still in AEI’s decision making loop.

By their nature, astroturfing campaigns – where a company uses unidentified front organisations to push its agenda – are difficult to unmask. Absent a smoking gun, companies who engage in it don’t offer straightforward answers.

But Frankel is asking the right questions.

I make my living helping communities improve broadband infrastructure and service, including, at times, developing municipal broadband projects. I’m not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.