Tag Archives: public housing

Charter’s broadband is not the help poor people need, CPUC says

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

But check out what’s on pay per view.

Charter Communications lost its latest battle to keep free WiFi service out of public housing in California, but the defeat came long after the war ended in victory for cable companies and their lobbying front organisation in Sacramento. It means that 47 publicly subsidised communities, scattered across the state, get to keep grant money they received from the California Advanced Services Fund to install broadband facilities. Most of them had opted for WiFi systems that would offer slow connections at no cost to residents.

In its order denying the appeal, the CPUC pointed out that there’s “evidence that Charter’s service is not affordable”…

In an appeal to Charter’s challenge to Eden Housing’s…grant applications, Eden stated, among other things, that (1) its housing sites are occupied by 100% low income residents, with an average household income of $35,000 and much lower at its senior housing sites. “A large majority of our residents – currently an average 73% — have no access to broadband services because they cannot afford to pay the monthly service fees offered by Comcast and Charter. . . . [T]he monthly fees could cause a severe hardship to a family and, in some cases, a basic need could go unmet to pay the bill…A monthly fee is an obstacle for this group”.

The California Public Utilities Commission denied appeals of two decisions giving the grants – typically less than $50,000 and many much less – to public housing complexes where Charter and its cable brethren offer service at prices beyond what residents are supposed to be able to pay, particularly when bundled with even more costly television packages. It’s a sweet deal for cable companies, which is why Cox Communications chimed in with an amen filing.

It’s also why California Cable and Telecommunications Association prevailed on a simpatico state senator, Ben Hueso (D – San Diego), to slip language into a reauthorisation bill last year that outlawed grants to public housing that’s been blessed with such attention. As a result, the CPUC is scheduled to vote Thursday on new rules that will make its public housing broadband subsidy program equally friendly to California cable companies.

Order denying rehearing of decision T-17515
Order denying rehearing of decision T-17514
Modified resolution T-17515

Cable tightens the screws on California public housing broadband

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

The California cable industry continues to gain ground in its perverse, and oxymoronic, fight to fence off public housing communities from government subsidies. Last year, cable industry lobbyists convinced a biddable senator to slip a big perk into a bill extending the life of a program that pays for broadband facilities – mostly equipment that’s used to provide free (and slow) WiFi access – in public housing. It was language that limited grants to only “unserved” properties, where residents aren’t offered market rate broadband service at all.

The problem with that is cost. People who are eligible to live in public housing have very low incomes and, in theory, can’t afford to pay the going rate for a lot of the basic services most of us take for granted. In practice, however, cable companies have been successful at upselling residents from basic service to pricey bundles of television and, sometimes, Internet service, which can represent a huge chunk of their monthly disposable income. Since they’re not able, often, to put up antennas or satellite dishes, they have little choice. Which is a monopoly trap cable companies ruthlessly exploit and zealously guard – even from the mild threat posed by free WiFi access.

The California Public Utilities Commission, which runs the program, has just published proposed new rules for public housing broadband grants. At the request of the cable industry’s lobbying front organisation – the California Cable and Telecommunications Association – it tightened up earlier draft language that would have left a window of opportunity open to take income levels into account when deciding whether a public housing community was “unserved”.

Originally, the standard would have been that “a housing unit is ‘not offered broadband Internet service’ if the occupant of the unit cannot access a commercially available broadband Internet service…utilizing the facilities at the premises”. Access is a term of art that can take in a number of factors, including service affordability.

Cable lobbyists objected, saying that shifted “consideration to residents”, rather than just assessing the physical ability to connect. CPUC staff agreed and changed it to read that eligibility depends on Internet service simply being available at a housing unit, regardless of whether a resident can access it.

The commission is scheduled to vote on the new rules at its 24 August 2017 meeting, and they’re taking public comments until 14 August 2017.

California public housing broadband subsidies extended

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Governor Jerry Brown signed senate bill 745 yesterday, extending the life of the California Advanced Services Fund’s (CASF) public housing broadband program.

It’s a good news/bad news sort of bill. On the one hand, instead of expiring at the end of this year and being re-absorbed into other CASF accounts, the money that hasn’t been spent yet will remain available through 2020. Originally, $20 million was set aside to subsidise broadband facilities (but not the service itself) in public housing communities, and $5 million was allocated to pay for broadband marketing and digital literacy efforts aimed at convincing residents to get online. So far, only about $5.5 million has been approved to install broadband facilities and $1.6 million for the so-called adoption programs. There’s still a stack of pending grant proposals, and another application window closes shortly, but those take time to work through their way through the approval process. There will still be millions of dollars left to spend next year.

Then there’s the bad news. The cable industry’s lobbying front in Sacramento, the California Cable and Telecommunications Association, managed to slip a last minute change into the bill which will ban subsidies for broadband facilities in public housing communities that already get Internet service from cable or telephone companies. Even if the proposed service is free WiFi and a cable broadband subscription costs more than residents are allowed to spend under public housing eligibility rules.

The new rules don’t take effect until January, but with cable companies – Charter and Cox, particularly – aggressively challenging past decisions to subsidise broadband facilities at properties they serve, we’re unlikely to see many more grants like that awarded, if any at all.

This year was a tough one for broadband advocates at the state capitol. A much bigger effort to top up the whole CASF program failed in March, and senator Ben Hueso (D – San Diego) deserves much credit for stepping into the breach with SB 745. It isn’t perfect, but it salvages as much of the CASF public housing broadband program as was possible and leaves the door open to continue the fight next year.

Battle for broadband in California’s public housing heats up

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Would you like some pay-per-view with that?

The cable industry is continuing its assault on low cost broadband designed for people who live in publicly subsidised housing. Cox Communications is the latest company to ask the California Public Utilities Commission to nullify broadband improvement grants given to public housing operators in their territory. The cable companies object because they also sell broadband service, along with very profitable television packages, to some of these communities.

The problem, though, is that residents aren’t subscribing to those services. The California Emerging Technology Fund also jumped into the dispute, challenging Charter Communications’ and, now, Cox’s false claim that the grants are illegal.

The real problem, according to the CETF brief, is that on average only about a quarter of public housing residents can afford market rate broadband service offered by cable companies and that the discount programs for low income households that they brag about are in fact designed to fail. Cable companies have such a poor track in public housing because, according to CETF

(1) residents cannot afford the market price, typically $30-$65 in the state;
(2) discounted Internet programs have narrow eligibility, such as Comcast Internet Essentials, which is primarily offered only to low-income families with K-12 aged children in the free or reduced national free lunch program;
(3) the application process is difficult for low-income families to navigate to qualify for low–cost broadband offers, establish eligibility, and actually hook up the necessary equipment to provide the service;
(4) low-income households often cannot afford the lack of equipment such as a computing device, printer or wireless router; and
(5) distrust of corporate broadband providers by [public housing] residents, who are concerned about being upsold plans they cannot afford.

The Internet access enabled by the subsidies, which only pay for installation of facilities and not the service itself, is generally slower and more problematic than cable modem service. In other words, residents are being offered a distinctly different choice. Which is what infuriates the California cable industry: it doesn’t want low income people to have any choice at all.

Cable preps to defend its monopoly grip on California’s poor in court

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

What fun would it be if they had a choice?

Charter Communications is doubling down on the public tantrum it’s throwing over broadband access in public housing. The California Public Utilities Commission runs a program that pays for broadband facilities – but not the service itself – in publicly subsidised communities. The program was created by the legislature three years ago, and was the result of joint efforts by rural and urban interests – $90 million was added to the California Advanced Services Fund, with a net $25 million going toward public housing broadband and the rest into broadband infrastructure projects.

The language of the bill was very clear. The CPUC had the job of setting most of the requirements for public housing subsidies, with only a couple of legislative mandates: back haul had to be available and the property owner couldn’t have turned away competitive providers who might have been interested in installing their own facilities, at their own cost.

Public housing operators began applying for broadband facilities grants, in some cases for properties where commercial providers – cable companies, mostly – were selling Internet access at market rates that residents couldn’t afford. At least not by the rules that govern eligibility for public housing. The CPUC, using the discretion given it by the legislature, said okay.

There was a storm of opposition from cable companies and their lobbying fronts, including a petulant letter from Charter and ethically dubious last minute phone calls to commissioners. But the commission voted to go ahead with the grants, anyway.

Usually, that would be the end of it. But cable company anger over being denied monopoly rights to extract as much money as humanly possible out of the shallow pockets of public housing residents is anything but usual.

Charter filed a request for the commission to reconsider its decision, claiming, incorrectly, that the decision was illegal. The long and lawyerly document is marginally less peevish than Charter’s earlier letter, but doesn’t plough new ground. Absent political arm twisting, there’s no reason for the commission to change its mind.

Why do it then? If Charter wants to challenge public housing broadband subsidies in court, it has to go through the motions of asking for a rehearing. That seems to be where it’s headed.

California cable lobby pushes “the bounds of acceptable behavior”

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Not the way it’s done.

A last minute, behind-the-scenes attempt by the California Cable and Telecommunications Association (CCTA) – the lobbying front for the cable industry in Sacramento – to derail affordable broadband service in public housing failed yesterday. The California Public Utilities Commission voted 4 to 1 to approve grants for low cost or free broadband facilities in a dozen public housing communities where cable companies offer far more expensive service. Comcast and Charter Communications had earlier protested the grant applications.

Those protests, though, were dismissed last month in a draft resolution approving the grants. Following the usual – and perfectly legal – public procedure, Charter Communications submitted written objections, which were again rejected in a revised draft which was published on Wednesday. That prompted CCTA’s lobbying effort, which drew sharp criticism from commissioner Mike Florio…

I’m supportive of the resolution and, frankly, a little troubled by the late afternoon phone calls. This item has been out for comment for a month and to get a call the night before the meeting saying please hold it, when comments have already been submitted and addressed, I think is pushing the bounds of appropriate behavior…

[The public housing program] is really an adoption program, in the sense that people may have physical access but be unable to afford it. Through these very modest grants…many more people will be able to access the internet, we can bridge the digital divide, which is state and commission policy to address this. I think this is the right approach.

Florio was joined by commissioners Carla Peterman, Liane Randolph and Catherine Sandoval in voting to approve the twelve grants and, in the process, confirm that it’s CPUC policy to subsidise low cost or free broadband service in public housing communities, even when more costly, market rate alternatives are available. Commission president Michael Picker disagreed, and was the only no vote.

Charter cries for exclusive rights in public housing

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Charter Communications still doesn’t get it. California law does not grant it ownership of public housing residents. But boiled down, that’s what it’s telling the California Public Utilities Commission.

Three years ago, the California legislature passed a bill that set aside $20 million to pay for installing broadband facilities in public housing properties. Governor Brown signed it into law. And once you trim away all the bureaucratese about defining what, exactly, a public housing operator is, it’s a very simple bill. A public housing operator can apply for the money if it…

…has not denied a right of access to any broadband provider that is willing to connect a broadband network to the facility for which the grant or loan is sought.

That’s it.

Charter is screaming from the rafters that it has installed coax in ten public housing properties. It’s protesting because the property owners did give them “right of access” to serve residents there.

Legally, that’s all that matters. The protest letters it sent to the CPUC amount to a not particularly coherent rant about other broadband subsidy programs and Charter’s sincere intention to come up with service plans that public housing residents can afford…

[The property owner] claims that its residents cannot afford Charter’s service. But Charter publicly committed to offering a low cost broadband service with speeds of 30/4 Mbps at a price of $14.99 per month within twelve months of completion of its acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks. This merger closed May 18th, 2016.

Right. A year from now, Charter will offer a lower – but not lowest – cost broadband package to qualifying households. Except living in public housing isn’t one of the qualification criteria. But if residents can qualify, great, Charter will offer a competitive package. Nothing wrong with that. Unless, apparently, you think you’re entitled to a monopoly.

Charter’s agonised protest letters are nothing more than a tantrum. It has no right to a monopoly in public housing and certainly no justification to demand it.

Faster federal broadband specs proposed for public housing

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Honest, the label on the box says it’ll do a gozangabit!

The federal housing and urban development department is floating new rules for publicly subsidised housing – but not homes bought with FHA loans or other federal loan guarantees – that would require installation of broadband infrastructure in new or remodelled multi-dwelling units. It’s a good new/bad news rule: it uses the FCC’s definition of high speed broadband, but leaves plenty of room for implementation mischief…

HUD is proposing to define broadband infrastructure as cables, fiber optics, wiring, or other permanent infrastructure, including wireless infrastructure, as long as the installation results in broadband infrastructure in each dwelling unit meeting the definition created by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which currently is 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download, 3 Mbps upload.

On the one hand, it encourages the installation of proper ethernet or, alternatively, coaxial cable facilities. On the other, it opens the door to the legion of salesmen pushing magic radios to technologically unsophisticated property owners.

There are also a few loopholes in the proposed rules…

If the housing is a building with more than 4 rental units, any substantial rehabilitation…must provide for installation of broadband infrastructure…except where the grantee documents that:
(A) The location of the substantial rehabilitation makes installation of broadband infrastructure infeasible;
(B) The cost of installing broadband infrastructure would result in a fundamental alteration in the nature of its program or activity or in an undue financial burden; or
(C) The structure of the housing to be substantially rehabilitated makes installation of broadband infrastructure infeasible.

Substantial rehabilitation includes substantial electrical work, whether there’s other renovation involved or not. Infrastructure and service are not linked – there’s no requirement to light it up, or offer it on a subsidised basis.

The proposed federal technical specs are way better than the ones adopted by the California Public Utilities Commission for its public housing broadband facilities subsidy program. It set a pathetic 1.5 Mbps download minimum, and no standards at all on the upload side. Experience with that program shows that wireless cowboys will chase the money, and grab it regardless of long term consequences.

There’s a two month or so window to make comments before anything is finalised.

Comcast and Charter try to block low cost broadband in California public housing

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

A dozen grants to fund installation of broadband facilities in public housing projects in California will be in front of the California Public Utilities Commission next month. The twelve proposals have been stalled, some more than a year, because Charter and Comcast tried to kill the grants in order to protect what little business they have in those low income communities. According to the draft CPUC resolution

Charter and Comcast have provided documentation that services are available to 100 percent of residents in these challenged properties. They have submitted the number of customers living on the property that subscribe to their service, billing documents and speed tests to prove that they provide residents broadband Internet services at speeds equal to or greater than what the applicants propose to provide. They submitted documentation to show that an average of 25% of the residents in the project locations listed in Table 1 subscribe to available ISP services.

[The applicants] responded to the challenges. They asserted that although the units may have wiring to support broadband Internet service, residents do not subscribe to that service because they cannot afford the services.

I wrote about two of Charter’s protests last year. Essentially, Charter told the commission all it needed to know about the state of broadband facilities in order to approve grants for those properties. Charter, as well as Comcast, did not understand the way the public housing facilities program works. Unlike major infrastructure projects, also paid for by the California Advanced Services Fund, public money can be spent on facilities in public housing even if service is available, so long as no ISP was denied access.

The whole point of public housing is to provide basic necessities for people who couldn’t otherwise afford them. Broadband is one such necessity, particularly for kids trying to get an education or people looking for work. It’s a great thing if market rate services are available too, but the fact that only a quarter of residents can afford standard cable broadband prices tells you all you need to know. Hopefully, that’s all the CPUC will need to know as well, when the vote comes in June.

Public housing gets broadband love from federal government

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Fresno and Los Angeles made the list of 27 cities and one tribal nation that will be getting federal help in extending broadband service to more public housing residents. The ConnectHome program was announced yesterday by U.S. president Barack Obama. The press release was a hodge podge of details, but it seems to boil down to…

  • Some of the communities – but not LA or Fresno – will get discounted, or even free, Internet access in public housing projects from ISPs, including Suddenlink, Cox, CenturyLink and Google Fiber. Sprint also signed up to provide wireless service.
  • Several companies and non-profits will be contributing consumer equipment and training.
  • The federal housing and urban development department (HUD) will start looking at requirements for broadband connectivity in subsidised residential construction projects. It would also allow cities to use certain grant money for broadband initiatives, although the program seems focused on planning and training rather than infrastructure development.

At the local level…

Mayors…have committed to reallocate local funds, leverage local programming, and use regulatory tools to support this initiative and the expansion of broadband access in low-income communities.

In other words, no new money but broadband does move up the priority list.

ConnectHome isn’t as utilitarian or well-funded as California’s broadband subsidy program for public housing. Paid for by the California Advanced Services Fund and managed by the California Public Utilities Commission, it set aside $20 million for Internet facilities in public housing and another $5 million to encourage residents to use it. So far, the CPUC has received applications that, if all were approved, would account for about half the available money.

For now, the new federal program is relatively small, but if it signals an institutional shift at HUD towards treating broadband as an essential utility, it could have significant benefits over the long term.