Tag Archives: ponderosa telephone

“Framework” for telecoms competition in rural telco territories considered by CPUC

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Tesoro viejo 2

A rousing and thoroughly disingenuous defence of telecommunications competition doesn’t appear to be enough for Comcast to get permission right now to cherry pick affluent households in Ponderosa Telephone Company’s territory. A pair of California Public Utilities Commission administrative law judges (ALJs) said in a ruling last Friday that even though allowing competitive telecoms companies into the protected service areas of California’s small, rural telcos should be considered on a case by case basis, those decisions should be made within a common framework.

The two ALJs – Mary McKenzie and Hazlyn Fortune – are managing what the CPUC calls a rulemaking proceeding that’s looking at the way California subsidises, and consequently protects, small telephone companies that serve remote and sparse rural communities that aren’t lucrative enough to attract big telecoms service providers. Or at least used to be. As California’s suburbs spread further out from cities, new developments are springing up on farm and ranch land that’s served by rural telcos.

Citing Comcast’s case as an example, they decided that the next step in that process is to establish a general set of rules that will guide future decisions about who should provide telephone service and, in some cases, broadband service in those new communities…

The Commission will first consider adopting general criteria in this Rulemaking as a framework for allowing competition, which will then be evaluated on a case-by-case basis considering local conditions for each individual small [rural telco] service territory where an application is filed by a potential competitive local exchange carrier (CLEC) seeking a certificate of public convenience and necessity (CPCN).

Comcast’s request to be allowed to provide telephone service in the upscale Tesoro Viejo development north of Fresno is being handled by another ALJ, Zhen Zhang, in a separate case. In theory, Zhang doesn’t have to wait for McKenzie and Fortune to finish their work, which could take months. In practice, since ALJ’s produce draft decisions for consideration by CPUC commissioners, it would probably be a waste of time to, as Ponderosa described it, put “the cart before the horse”.

Ponderosa Telephone makes its case for blocking Comcast’s bid to cherrypick “high end” households

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Tesoro viejo construction 25aug2019

Ponderosa Telephone shot back at Comcast’s claims that no harm would come from its proposed cherry picking of affluent households in a new, high end development outside of Fresno. In comments filed with the California Public Utilities Commission last week, Ponderosa made its case for denying Comcast permission to offer telephone service in its territory. The company argued that if the CPUC wants to change its current policy of protecting small rural telcos from competition, it should do so on a top level basis, and not on case by case requests from a major telecoms company.

Particularly if that telecoms company’s request for special treatment is “disingenuously misleading”.

California has 13 rural telephone companies that serve remote communities. Or in some cases, communities that used to be reckoned as remote, before the arrival of suburban and exurban sprawl. Rural telecoms service can be expensive – miles and miles of lines are needed to reach scattered homes and businesses. Low population density means low revenue density, so to keep telephone service affordable both the CPUC and the Federal Communications Commission back fill rural telco’s budgets with subsidies from universal service funds. To keep the tab for taxpayers as low as possible, the CPUC doesn’t allow competitive telephone companies, or big incumbents who want to exert their monopoly model might, to carve off service areas where the revenue potential is the highest and the need for subsidies is the lowest. If there’s a need at all.

That policy is under review, in a CPUC proceeding that could take years to resolve. Meanwhile, Comcast wants permission to add telephone service – it already can offer broadband and TV service – to newcomers able to afford a home in the (relatively) pricey Tesoro Viejo development, just north of Fresno. That would be costly to taxpayers, Ponderosa said…

Comcast seeks to raid the most profitable consumers in Ponderosa’s service territory. This “cherry-picking” concern by [non-carrier of last resort telcos] operating in [rural telco] territories was a factor that led the Commission to conclude that wireline competition would “leave behind residential, small business, and community anchor institution customers in more scattered and harder to serve areas of the rural carrier’s territory”; “adversely affect the bulk of the hard-to-serve and high cost customers”; and “result in the [small rural telcos] losing revenue and needing to seek a larger draw from the [California High Cost Fund rural subsidy] program.”

Abandoning, or at least substantially modifying, decades-old rural telecoms policy might be necessary, as 21st century digital services replace legacy telephone technology and business models that, in some respects, date back to the 19th century. It needs to be done thoughtfully and carefully, and not on the basis of requests for case by case special treatment by telecoms giants.

Comcast games expiring VoIP regulation ban to win CPUC permission to cherry pick suburbs

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Tesoro viejo 25aug2019

Comcast’s sideways pleading for permission to compete against a subsidised rural telephone company demonstrates why it was wise to allow California’s ban on voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) service regulation to expire. And why Comcast, along with Charter Communications, AT&T and Frontier Communications, handed so much cash offered highly intellectual arguments to California legislators in their failed (so far) attempt to extend the ban.

Ponderosa Telephone Company offers service in the foothills and the Sierra generally north and east of Fresno. It’s one of 13 small telephone companies that serve rural California, and that depend on state and federal universal service subsidies to survive. As Fresno grows, suburban development is creeping into Ponderosa’s service territory. Tesoro Viejo is one such subdivision under construction along State Route 41, just beyond Fresno’s current development limit.

Comcast offers cable television and Internet service in Tesoro Viejo – households and disposable income are now dense enough to meet its return-on-investment objectives in an area it previously ignored. To offer phone service, though, it needs to connect its currently unregulated VoIP facilities to the traditional public telephone network. Comcast wants to do that via a legally isolated subsidiary that was specifically created to operate in that regulated environment, without creating any regulatory inconvenience for the rest of the company.

But that legally isolated subsidiary needs permission to set up shop in Ponderosa’s territory. The California Public Utilities Commission generally doesn’t allow competitors to cherry pick rural phone companies’ most lucrative customers, because it’s worried that doing so would result in ever increasing public subsidies to deliver retail service to poorer and more isolated people that don’t interest the likes of Comcast.

Nevertheless, Comcast asked for special permission to enter Ponderosa’s territory, and the CPUC is considering it. In support, Comcast is now citing the still current ban on VoIP regulation by the CPUC (it doesn’t expire until January) and disingenuously arguing that its regulated subsidiary only provides wholesale phone service, which doesn’t compete against Ponderosa’s retail offerings. The fact that its retail VoIP subsidiary would use that wholesale service to wholeheartedly compete against Ponderosa is irrelevant, Comcast’s argument goes, because it’s unregulated. At least for the present.

The CPUC has an inquiry under way that, eventually, could decide how it will protect, or not, California’s small telephone companies: should it allow competition, and the consumer benefits it brings, in affluent exurbs while spending more subsidy dollars to maintain service in communities with fewer people with less money to spend, or continue to try to maintain economic feasibility and baseline service availability, and minimise public subsidies by fencing off rural service territories?

It’s an important and timely question, not least because the telecoms industry is in the middle of a major, analog-to-digital shift. It’s the sort of technological revolution that only comes along every century or so. The answer should not come in bits and pieces, as major incumbents like Comcast (and AT&T, Charter and the rest) try to game the system with political and legal maneuvers based on irrelevant technological distinctions between otherwise identical services, and with falsehoods and evasions regarding their true intentions.

Comcast tells CPUC it must say yes to rural cherrypicking because it can’t say no

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Paicines pole route

Comcast took its best shot at explaining why it should be allowed to jump the queue and start competing against Ponderosa Telephone before the California Public Utilities Commission decides what the future will be for small, rural telephone companies. The answer: because the developer wants us and the Federal Communications Commission says we can.

The dispute centers on Tesoro Viejo, an upscale master planned community under construction in the foothills of Madera County. Comcast claims the developers offered Tesoro Viejo as a cherry ripe for picking, and it wants to oblige them. There’s nothing preventing Comcast from providing video and broadband service, but if it wants to bundle in telephone service and offer the full triple play, it needs the CPUC’s permission.

That’s because Ponderosa Telephone serves the foothills of Madera and Fresno counties, as well as more remote communities further up in the Sierra Nevada. It’s one of ten small, highly subsidised telephone companies that serve deeply rural areas of California, the edges of which are now right in the path of exurban development. The CPUC protects those rural telcos from competition in an effort to minimise the amount of taxpayer dollars it takes to keep them afloat.

That policy is under review, but Comcast doesn’t want to wait. Ponderosa, on the other hand, doesn’t want to be nibbled to death. It argues that top level policy has to be decided first “because competition raises public policy questions with a collective impact on stakeholders throughout the state”.

It’s a tough question. Comcast is an unlikely champion. It moves quickly to kill potential competition whenever its territory is threatened. But regardless of how disingenuous it’s being, Comcast is correct in saying that more choice brings greater benefits to consumers. Once its process is complete, the CPUC might trim, or even eliminate, the privileges that rural telcos enjoy.

Might.

That’s a decision that needs to be taken deliberately and with the full consequences for all – rural residents, exurban immigrants, California taxpayers – in mind. Doing it reactively in response to rich targets of opportunity is a disservice to everyone.

Collected documents regarding Comcast’s expansion into Ponderosa’s territory are here.

Comcast has to explain why it’s okay to start cherry picking rich, rural customers right now

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Tesoro viejo youtube

The California Public Utilities Commission won’t jump the gun and give Comcast permission to compete directly with the Ponderosa Telephone Company. At least not yet. Comcast has to first explain why past CPUC decisions don’t apply to its request for permission to offer telephone service in Tesoro Viejo, an upscale master planned community of 5,200 homes in Madera County. Among other things, those rules protect highly subsidised rural telephone companies from competitors that want to cherry pick affluent customers in densely populated exurban developments, and ignore people in poorer and more sparsely populated communities.

The CPUC has been thinking about changing those rules for the past twelve years, with no decision yet on the horizon. It’s the normal course of business for the commission, which considers these kinds of issues in excruciating detail via an adversarial process that includes anyone with an interest in the outcome. It doesn’t happen quickly.

In a ruling last week, commissioner Liane Randolph rejected Comcast’s request for an immediate exception to current policy, saying that questions about why those rules do or don’t apply have to be answered first. That means considering a study of rural broadband and telephone competition completed last year, and a 2014 CPUC decision that concluded that companies like Comcast…

…may tend to serve only small portions of any of the [rural telco] service areas with high quality, high reliable voice service and…may be likely to “cherry pick” business customers rather than serve significant portions of rural service territories, particularly customers whose cost to serve is high.

That’s exactly what Comcast proposes to do in Madera County. It’s been clear that its ambitions are limited to the newly built homes, and that it does not plan to offer service to homes and businesses in the surrounding area. Ponderosa’s service territory includes traditional foothill ranch lands and remote Sierra Nevada towns, as well as new and wealthier exurbs.

Comcast and Ponderosa have two weeks to answer Randolph’s questions.

Collected documents regarding Comcast’s expansion into Ponderosa’s territory are here.

Comcast protests we’re not cherrypicking, it’s our cherry that’s been picked

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Comcast tried to paint itself as a champion consumer choice, as its lawyers clashed with those representing Ponderosa Telephone at the California Public Utilities Commission last week. The question is whether Comcast should be allowed to compete as a telephone company against Ponderosa, which is a small, heavily subsidised rural telco. But the core issue is whether allowing wireline telephone competitors to target high revenue potential customers in rural telco service areas will lead to even greater taxpayer subsidies for less affluent and less densely populated communities that companies like Ponderosa are required to serve.

In this case, the wrangling is mostly about Tesoro Viejo, a new, upscale master planned community of 5,200 homes in Madera County, although Comcast also hinted that other areas that are lucrative enough to meet its return on investment model will likewise be targeted. Ponderosa wants Comcast’s application for permission to enter its market to be iced until the CPUC makes a cosmic decision as to whether the dozen or so rural telcos remaining in California will face such competition. The commission’s concern is that competitors will cherrypick customers on the high side of the digital divide and leave the rest even worse off than before.

In a completely disingenuous argument – and that’s the kindest way to characterise it – Zeb Zankel, a lawyer representing Comcast, tried to make the administrative law judge hearing the case to believe that corporate strategy has nothing to do with it

We didn’t reach out. We didn’t pick. Comcast did not pick. We were picked. And we were picked presumably because Comcast has service offerings that presumably Tesoro Viejo just sought its service offerings in addition to Ponderosa, as it should. Consumers should have choice. So I think this repeated allegation of cherry picking is simply untrue.

What Zankel, um, neglected to mention was that redlined communities routinely reach out to Comcast and other cable companies for service, and are just as routinely turned down. Unless the potential customers can afford a sufficiently hefty monthly bill and they are densely packed enough to keep the cost of delivering service low.

If what Zankel said is true, then Comcast would be jumping on the chance to extend service throughout southern Madera County. But it’s not. It wants to serve Tesoro Viejo, with the income levels and household density of a suburb, and ignore the surrounding rural residents.

That’s cherrypicking.

Collected documents regarding Comcast’s expansion into Ponderosa’s territory are here.

Comcast reveals plan to pick a juicy cherry in Madera County

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Tesoro viejo

Comcast wants permission to offer phone service to a new Madera County development in Ponderosa Telephone’s territory. In a required public disclosure of a private meeting between a California Public Utilities Commission staffer and a lobbyist and a lawyer for Comcast, the company revealed that it is targeting Tesoro Viejo, a master planned community of 5,200 upscale homes on two and a half square miles of rural land in southern Madera County.

According to the filing, Comcast says that if it offers phone service in the development, it would create “additional consumer choice” but “would have limited effect on Ponderosa and its draw on [a rural telco subsidy] fund”. As a matter of general policy, the CPUC doesn’t authorise competitive phone service in areas where small, heavily subsidised rural telcos, like Ponderosa, operate. That policy is under review, but Comcast doesn’t want to wait, presumably because it’s already put out a press release saying it will provide…

A wide range of innovative and advanced technology solutions, including high speed broadband, WiFi, video entertainment and “smart home/smart business” security/automation offerings, to homes, businesses and public spaces throughout the new Tesoro Viejo master-planned community.

Telephone service isn’t specifically mentioned – it would make for an awkward conversation at the CPUC – but the press release’s boilerplate includes phone service in the list of Comcast’s otherwise unregulated offerings.

Ponderosa wants to block Comcast, arguing that the CPUC already has concerns about competing telephone service leading to higher subsidy costs in rural areas, and if Comcast is allowed to pursue its plan, “the cherry-picking problem will be exacerbated”.

Comcast’s claim of a “limited effect” on CPUC subsidy requirements is disingenuous. The effect will be limited to the relatively affluent and densely packed customers in the development, who would otherwise be paying Ponderosa for phone and, perhaps, broadband, service. The CPUC will still have to help keep Ponderosa afloat so that its less well off and more scattered rural customers can continue to be served. Less revenue from the most profitable customers means more subsidies than would otherwise be required.

On the other hand, Comcast is correct when it says that allowing it to compete with Ponderosa will lead to greater consumer choice. At least for consumers who 1. have sufficient income to meet its revenue targets, and 2. are close enough together to minimise its cost and maximise its profit.

The CPUC has a hard decision to make: limit consumer choice and the need for taxpayer subsidies for all, or pick up the increased tab for rural residents while their new, more affluent neighbors reap the benefits of an open market. It’s a question that should be deliberatively answered at a top policy level, and not ad hoc in response to a company’s target of opportunity.

Collected documents regarding Comcast’s expansion into Ponderosa’s territory are here.

Comcast seeks CPUC blessing to compete with rural telco, but only for not so rural customers

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Sierra 625

Comcast says it’s striking a blow for telecoms competition, Ponderosa Telephone says no, it’s cherrypicking business customers at the expense of rural residents. At issue is Comcast’s request to expand the area in which it’s authorised to offer telephone service to include the service territory of Ponderosa Telephone Company, a small, incumbent local exchange carrier (ILEC) that serves parts of Fresno, Madera and San Bernardino counties. Presumably, Comcast is eyeing Fresno and/or Madera counties, where both it and Ponderosa operate.

Historically the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates telco operating authority, has protected small, rural phone companies from competition. That’s not because of sentimental attachment. Those small telcos serve communities that aren’t sufficiently lucrative markets to attract big incumbents like AT&T and, consequently, are heavily subsidised. As Ponderosa points out in its protest, the CPUC previously concluded that allowing competitors to pick and chose their customers in rural communities would “result in the small ILECs losing revenue and needing to seek a larger draw from the [telephone subsidy] program”.

With no apparent sense of irony, Comcast claims to be fighting for a competitive telecoms market, reminding the commission that it has “found that the presence of competition in local telecommunications markets leads to efficient pricing, improved service quality, expanded product and service capabilities, greater reliability, and increased consumer choice”. But Comcast’s application also says that it won’t expand its footprint and will only increase service in areas where it presently offers video service – areas that are densely populated enough to support its urban/suburban business model. This isn’t about upgrading service or infrastructure in truly rural communities.

Comcast is correct about the benefits of competition, despite going to great expense to avoid facing it elsewhere. But Ponderosa’s point is also true. The more it relies on revenue from remote and economically deprived communities, the more taxpayer subsidies it will need to continue to serve them.

The dispute is formally about voice telephone service, but it involves broadband policy too. Both Comcast and Ponderosa are retail Internet service providers, who rely on privileges granted by state law – either as telephone or video companies – to build wireline infrastructure in the public right of way and access wholesale services. Changing those privileges and protections will also change the economics, and consequently the availability, of broadband service in Ponderosa’s territory.

Do you limit the choices available to homes and businesses in places where revenue runs thicker in order to reduce the subsidies needed to maintain baseline service in more sparsely populated communities? Or do you maintain the status quo – in service as well as public support – for all?

That’s the choice the CPUC has to make, and it comes as no surprise. The commission is in the process of reexamining its telecoms competition policy in rural areas, as both Comcast and Ponderosa point out. Ponderosa argues, correctly, that this is a major policy decision and shouldn’t be made by default in a narrow, administrative proceeding. Near term, the CPUC should reject Comcast’s application, but long term, it has a difficult problem to solve.

Collected documents regarding Comcast’s expansion into Ponderosa’s territory are here.

CPUC says a kiss for Cressman beats the alternative

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

“Just so we understand, it screws five families”, said an animated Michael Peevey, president of the California Public Utilities Commission as he lambasted a move to slice $373,000 from a proposed Fresno County broadband project.

Ponderosa Telephone Company asked for a $1 million grant from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) to build a fiber optic middle mile line to the mountain community of Cressman, use it to upgrade DSL service for 65 homes there, and then extend it two and a half miles to five more homes in Rush Creek. But adding those five homes costs $74,000 each, more than twenty times the CASF average.

The justification offered was that Ponderosa could later come back and build out to a U.S. Forest Service station in Blue Canyon and then continue on to complete a fiber loop for the area. That seemed like a fine idea to commissioner Michel Florio, who thought that the five homes should be trimmed from the proposal on the table, and added later when Ponderosa was ready to complete the whole project.

“Over a third of the cost of the project is for Rush Creek which only serves five households”, Florio said, pointing out that average household income in the area ran as high as $80,000 per year. “It seems unjustified to me”.

But Peevey insisted that the money would be spent one way or the other. “The only point is do you exclude these five homes or not. You’re going to have to complete it eventually”, he said.

It came down to the vote. Commissioner Carla Peterman sided with Florio, but Catherine Sandoval and Michael Picker went with Peevey. Once Florio’s proposed changes were rejected, the original proposal was put on the table and all five commissioners agreed to fund it as written.

Tellus Venture Associates assisted with several CASF proposals in the current round, so I’m not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.

CPUC connects Salinas Valley to Silicon Valley with fast, cheap fiber

A 91-mile fiber optic middle network for the Salinas Valley, stretching from Santa Cruz in the north, to Watsonville, Moss Landing, Castroville, Salinas, Gonzales and Soledad in the south, is on the way. On a unanimous vote this morning, the California Public Utilities Commission approved a $10.6 million grant to Sunesys, LLC from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF).

“The key point for me was that typically that these projects only make a price commitment for two years”, said Commissioner Michel Florio. “In this case the provider has made a commitment for at least five years, maybe as long as fourteen years”.

Pointing out that there are “still more jobs in agriculture” in the Salinas Valley than in an other sector, Commissioner Catherine Sandoval highlighted the acute need for better broadband access in the area, as expressed at public meetings the CPUC held in Salinas last year. “This could be a game changer”, she said. “This is a middle mile project, a back bone that is critical”.

The project will bring low cost wholesale fiber access to Salinas Valley Internet service providers and major commercial and institutional customers all along its route, at a maximum cost of $1,550 per month for any contracts, of any length signed in the first five years. By comparison, unsubsidised dark fiber can cost up to ten times as much. The network will interconnect with major north-south fiber lines in Salinas and Soledad, and terminate in Santa Cruz where Sunesys earlier built a dark fiber connection to Santa Clara, which provides access to several Tier 1 exchanges in Silicon Valley.

Since the Santa Clara connection was built 4 years ago, the price of wholesale Internet bandwidth in Santa Cruz has dropped by a factor of one hundred, to less than a dollar a megabit per month. Cruzio, a local ISP, leveraged this access to light up last mile fiber optic connections for downtown Santa Cruz businesses and improve speed and reliability for thousands of consumers. This new line is expected to do the same for Salinas Valley communities.

On the retail side, the commission also approved CASF funding for two last mile projects in the Paradise Road and Monterey Dunes areas of northern Monterey County, proposed by Surfnet Communications, a local ISP (and a Ponderosa Telephone project in Fresno County), albeit without the haircut proposed by Florio.. These two systems are the first of what are expected to be many consumer and small business-oriented projects that connect directly to the Sunesys middle mile network.

Gonzales councilman Robert Bonincontri and city manager Rene Mendez told commissioners of the tremendous need for connectivity in the Salinas Valley, where unemployment rates are high and household income levels are low, even when work is available. The social and economic impact of the project, coupled with its financial viability – demonstrated by the Surfnet proposals, as noted in the approved resolution – was the reason commissioners opted to fund 80% of its construction cost. Normally, CASF grants are limited to between 60% and 70% of the tab.

The next step is to finalise construction plans and route details, with completion expected within two years.

Tellus Venture Associates assisted with several CASF proposals in the current round, including the Sunesys and Surfnet projects, so I’m not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.