Tag Archives: public policy

Internet magic means phone calls aren’t phone calls, AT&T tells CPUC

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Alice tall 625

We’re all mad here.

On Thursday in San Francisco, AT&T defended itself against charges that it’s in contempt of California Public Utilities Commission orders and that it broke CPUC rules and state law. AT&T is admitting that California law no longer bars the CPUC from regulating Internet protocol enabled service such as voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), but doesn’t appear to be giving up the fight. Instead, it’s falling back to a second line of defence that was thoughtfully provided by the Federal Communications Commission.

The dispute centers on next generation 911 service, but it’s also the first test of the CPUC’s ability to regulate services that ride on Internet technology since the expiration of a state law that previously blocked such regulation. I sat in on the AT&T contempt hearing for a few minutes – would’ve spent more time, but that wasn’t the way my day went. It was just a brief taste, but the flavor was consistent with AT&T’s written response. Which was mostly dry arguments about who provides each piece of the increasingly complex communications path between the public and 911 answering centers, and how that maps to the equally complex web of California’s regulatory obligations and AT&T’s deliberately byzantine corporate structure. Links to AT&T’s filing and the hundreds of pages of exhibits are below.

Previously, AT&T’s defence rested, in large part, on the California legislature’s 2012 decision to bar the CPUC from regulating VoIP and similar, Internet-delivered services. No longer. Its latest response mentions that now-expired law only in passing, and in the past tense.

But AT&T prepared a fallback position. In an attachment, AT&T tries to define next generation 911 service as an “information service”, as opposed to 911 service based on legacy technology , which it admits is a “telecommunications service”. This nonsense is the result of the Federal Communications Commission’s 2017 decision to repeal network neutrality rules and declare, in Alice in Wonderland fashion, that transporting data from point A to point B via the Internet isn’t telecommunications.

AT&T jumped down that same rabbit hole by claiming, in effect, that phone calls that ride on that one, particular kind of digital transportation aren’t phone calls. Unfortunately, AT&T isn’t trying to make its case to the Queen of Hearts.

Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.

AT&T’s Response to Administrative Law Judge’s Ruling Regarding Order to Show Cause, 6 January 2020
Exhibit 1
Exhibits 2 through 8
Exhibits 9 through 15
Exhibit 16

Pai offers net neutrality rules custom made for AT&T’s, Comcast’s business models

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Pai shapiro 1 ces 7jan2020

Ajit Pai’s three-year delayed debut at CES as Federal Communications Commission chair last week was a friendly, and at times lighthearted, conversation with Gary Shapiro, the CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, which produces the show. Pai used the opportunity to float what he seems to thinks are consensus network neutrality rules. What he’s really proposing is to cement major ISPs and mobile carriers’ monopoly model business plans into federal law.

Shapiro led off by asking Pai about the FCC’s decision to scrap network neutrality rules two years ago. Pai endorsed net neutrality legislation. But of a sort…

Let’s focus on the things that we can actually agree on, those core principles of an open internet that we all agree upon – no blocking, no throttling, no anticompetitive conduct, transparency – I’ve just described in five seconds a bill that should sail through congress, but this has become more of a political issue than a policy one.

He left a couple of items off the list, at least the list that net neutrality advocates keep: paid prioritisation and zero rating. Those are two related practices that big, monopoly model Internet service providers – AT&T and Comcast, for example – and mobile carriers dearly want to hold onto.

When an ISP zero rates particular content, it doesn’t count the bytes consumed against a user’s monthly data cap. Paid prioritisation happens when an ISP creates a fast lane for content it owns – say, AT&T sending you Road Runner cartoons that it owns faster than Disney movies that it doesn’t – or charges the owner a fee for the same treatment.

Both practices create a hierarchy of content, as a result of an ISP’s ability to manipulate data streams to suit its bottom line. There’s not a meaningful difference between deliberately speeding some content up, versus deliberately slowing – throttling – other content down. Limiting legislation to a carefully wordsmithed consensus allows telcos and cable companies to write U.S. telecoms policy, and lock in privileges for decades to come.

Newsom’s broadband budget language doesn’t translate to infrastructure

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

San benito pole route 13apr2019

Broadband references are sprinkled into California governor Gavin Newsom’s state budget proposal but, taken at face value, he’s focused on shifting money from hard capital infrastructure projects to soft programs and annual operating budgets.

Although tagged as an infrastructure investment in Newsom’s budget summary, his “Broadband for All” initiative is about operations, comprising four elements: mapping, education spending, “optimising” existing resources and “prioritising connectivity across executive actions and policies”.

The California Public Utilities Commission already has a fine mapping program, which Newsom wisely intends to expand. It’s the brightest broadband item in his budget. If the CPUC is allowed to combine availability data with comprehensive network maps, inventories of state owned facilities and construction cost data, and make it public, then independent broadband infrastructure projects become more feasible.

Feasible, but not funded.

Consistent with past practice, Newsom proposes to spend $261 million on broadband facilities and information technology acquisitions for schools over the next five years, which is praiseworthy (as are many other items in the $153 billion budget) but has rarely improved broadband infrastructure that’s directly available to consumers and businesses. Keeping broadband top of mind in state government is likewise a good thing, and when agencies look outward and cooperate with private sector telecoms companies – Caltrans’ dig once program is a good example – the general public benefits. More often, though, connectivity improvements are limited to meeting agencies’ internal IT needs. Still, it’s a step in the right direction.

It’s Newsom’s third bullet point – “optimising use of existing resources” – that threatens to divert what little money California spends on general broadband infrastructure development to other purposes. As his budget summary explains…

Informed by GIS-based mapping, the state will review existing fund sources available for broadband adoption and activities. This review will include the California Teleconnect Fund, the California Advanced Services Fund [CASF], and federal funding opportunities to maximize the return on existing investments. In total, these funds provide approximately $900 million over the next five years that can be targeted to critical broadband activities statewide.

The California Teleconnect Fund subsidises broadband service for schools and other organisations. Federal broadband funds are speculative at best – so far, California is shut out of the federal agriculture department’s newest broadband infrastructure subsidy program.

What’s left is CASF. Which holds the only money – somewhere around $300 million – that California earmarks for general broadband infrastructure construction. Which isn’t specifically listed as one of California’s “critical broadband activities”.

Adoption – digital literacy and broadband subscriber acquisition programs – gets a mention. Schools are in for a lot of love. Libraries and state IT departments get a nod too. Broadband for businesses and consumers? Nada.

Schools and community programs are wildly popular; government operations are Sacramento’s core business. Subsides for independent broadband infrastructure are neither, and are opposed by monopoly model incumbents who pay lawmakers millions of dollars to pay attention. Newsom’s budget offers no challenge to that status quo.

California’s consumer privacy law is a call to action for federal regulators

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Flashers

Federal Trade Commission chair Joseph Simons was on the undercard for Consumer Technology Association CEO Gary Shapiro’s “fireside chats” with federal policymakers at CES in Las Vegas on Tuesday. Warming up the audience ahead of Federal Communications Commission chair Ajit Pai’s long awaited CES debut, he urged congress to give his agency the U.S. privacy cop job that California now holds by default. The FTC is already pursuing privacy enforcement actions under existing law “because the big tech platforms are becoming so consequential to our lives and so large”, Simon said.

Simon favors federal privacy legislation over the state by state approach. “Of course, now we’re dealing with California”, he said. There’s a place for state-level consumer privacy legislation, but “it depends on how the states evolve and how the federal law evolves”. So long as a state law tracks with federal requirements he seems to be okay with it, but if it doesn’t he wants congress to step in. In other words, states can tinker with the details so long as they stay in the federal privacy policy sandbox.

There is bipartisan agreement in Washington, D.C. that the sandbox should be built, but democrats and republicans disagree on a couple of key issues. Two FTC commissioners – democrat Rebecca Slaughter and republican Christine Wilson – took part in a separate panel discussion later in the day. They both favor federalising consumer privacy rules. Wilson said that California’s privacy law, along with the European Union’s privacy regulations, makes federal action urgent “because interoperability is needed”.

They disagreed about a couple of key details, which largely define the partisan gap on privacy legislation: whether congress should completely occupy the field and preempt states and whether private individuals – in reality, trial lawyers – should be able to sue companies that don’t follow the rules. Democrats, like Slaughter, tend to say yes to both; republicans, like Wilson, are on the no side.

FCC promises more of the “P-word” – preemption – in 2020

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Line to see pai ces 7jan2020

Due to the nature of the program, you’re going to have to go through metal detectors.
CTA staffer to long queue waiting to see Ajit Pai.

Ajit Pai made his first appearance at CES as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission yesterday, sitting down for a talk about the coming year with Gary Shapiro, the CEO of the show’s organiser, the Consumer Technology Association. Much of the conversation was about 5G infrastructure, and the public policy that surrounds it.

More preemptions of local and state authority over wireless sites, utility poles and the use of the public right of way are on the FCC’s agenda. Pai reiterated his belief that wireless policy should be made at the federal level, including policy that’s traditionally in the hands of states and local governments.

“We want to see a consistent, easy to understand set of regulations that anyone can innovate around”, Pai said. Mobile carriers and infrastructure companies want “a consistent level of regulation” as they build out 5G networks. Which means rules should be set by the FCC and not state legislatures or city councils. Pai intends to “encourage” state and local governments to approve permit applications small cell sites and other wireless facilities. “Multiple layers of government” are “not conducive to infrastructure investment”, he said.

His wingmen in the FCC republican majority echoed his comments. Commissioners Michael O’Rielly and Brendan Carr, along with democratic commissioner Geoffrey Starks, took part in a panel discussion later in the afternoon at the Las Vegas show. O’Rielly put it bluntly…

It’s not just small cells. It’s going to mean more macro towers. That means dealing with difficult issues on placement when states and localities want to either extract too much money or try to dictate what services will be offered. That’s problematic and I’ve been talking about this for a long time. It does come with the P-word, which is – it requires preemption. And that is something the commission is going to have to continue to do.

Cities and counties should expect more “bold actions”, as Carr put it, from the FCC.

AT&T faces contempt hearing as CPUC defines VoIP regulatory role

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Bluto pencils

The first shot in what could be the defining regulatory battle over broadband in California was fired in the closing days of December by the California Public Utilities Commission. An administrative law judge (ALJ) ordered AT&T

To show cause, if any, why [AT&T] should not be:

  1. Found in contempt of [a 2019 CPUC decision regarding disaster preparedness].
  2. Found in violation of the Public Utilities Code and [a CPUC rule requiring telcos to file price/service terms (aka tariffs)].
  3. Fined, penalized, or have other sanctions imposed for failing to comply with a Commission decision, [commission rules], and the Public Utilities Code.

The dispute began last Spring when CPUC demanded that AT&T file a notice – an “advice letter” – detailing its terms for “Next Gen” 911 service, which will run over an Internet protocol connection, like other Internet data, rather than using legacy copper network switching and other 20th century technology.

AT&T first blew off the demand, and then said it’s none of your business

[Mark Berry, AT&T regulatory director] spoke with [CPUC] staff and relayed the following in response to the question of why AT&T had not filed an advice letter:

  1. AT&T does not offer the services referred to in the letter and even if it did offer these services, AT&T does not agree that the CPUC can require a tariff because under [a now expired public utilities code section], the CPUC does not have authority to regulate IP-enabled services.
  2. If AT&T offers Next Gen 911services in the future, it will not file tariffs because the CPUC does not have authority over these services.

The CPUC and AT&T exchanged more such pleasantries, until AT&T finally filed some paperwork, without answering the questions asked. So AT&T executives were ordered to appear at a hearing later this month to explain themselves.

This kind of arm wrestling over filing and disclosure requirements is nothing new. Business as usual would be a good description, although it usually doesn’t get this far. This case is significant because the primary legal basis for AT&T’s refusal expired at the end of 2019. It was a law enacted in 2012 that banned the CPUC from regulating Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) or other “Internet protocol enabled” services. Back then, VoIP was still a developing technology, and telcos and cable companies hadn’t gone all in on it as a replacement for legacy copper service and as a way to get out from under the regulatory oversight that comes with it.

AT&T and other monopoly model telecoms companies tried to get the ban extended last year, but ran into a brick wall in Sacramento, also known as the Communications Workers of America. The betting is that they’ll try again this year – why spend billions on service quality when a few million in the pockets of lawmakers will get you off the hook?

So it’s up to the CPUC to figure out how VoIP fits into California’s regulatory ecosystem. One way the commission can do that (relatively) quickly is to litigate disputes like this one, and bake new case law into the resulting decision.

Privacy is now a Made in California product

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

California’s data privacy law took effect yesterday, although formal regulations and active enforcement by the attorney general’s office don’t kick in until July. Even so, the AG plans to respond to complaints and monitor compliance with the bits of the law that do have teeth now. Until – unless – congress does something, the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) is the national standard.

If you want confirmation, just look in your email inbox. If it’s anything like mine, it’s full of CCPA notifications. A similar flood of messages happened when the European Union’s data privacy regulations took effect last year. The notices were sent regardless of whether a customer lived in the EU or not, because it’s easier and safer to apply a single standard to everyone when it’s practical to do so. In the U.S., the path of least resistance is complying with California’s standard.

Microsoft certainly agrees

We are strong supporters of California’s new law and the expansion of privacy protections in the United States that it represents. Our approach to privacy starts with the belief that privacy is a fundamental human right and includes our commitment to provide robust protection for every individual. This is why, in 2018, we were the first company to voluntarily extend the core data privacy rights included in the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) to customers around the world, not just to those in the EU who are covered by the regulation. Similarly, we will extend CCPA’s core rights for people to control their data to all our customers in the U.S.

Google jumped on California’s bandwagon, too. Its CCPA-compliant tools are available worldwide.

Although there seems to be general agreement in Washington, D.C. that something must be done, there isn’t consensus on what that something will be. The big question is whether or not to preempt state privacy laws and impose a single, national standard. A bipartisan draft produced by a house of representatives committee doesn’t offer an answer, because it’s still a partisan issue. Which means California might set the standard for some time to come.

Internet regulation is at the top of California’s 2020 policy wish (or wish not) list

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

2020 might be the year that the State of California figures out what, if any, role it will play in regulating (or not) broadband service and infrastructure. As of tomorrow, the California Public Utilities Commission is no longer barred from regulating services like VoIP (voice over Internet protocol). A 2012 state law that said the CPUC couldn’t do that expired at the end of 2019.

But that doesn’t mean that anything is decided.

AT&T and its fellow monopoly model Internet service providers tried to get an extension of that ban approved in the California legislature this year. Assembly bill 1366 made it through the gauntlet of committee hearings to pass in the assembly and nearly reach a floor vote in the senate. It was finally stalled by opposition from the Communications Workers of America – organised labor contributes even more money and other kinds of support to California politicians than cable and telephone companies.

Stalled, but not stopped completely. AB 1366 can be resurrected next month, or a new bill can be written that would accomplish the same thing. Or maybe come at it from a different direction.

AB 1366 didn’t address broadband service as such. It’s about “Internet protocol enabled” services – anything that rides on top of broadband service – although regulations for a top level service could have implications for the underlying broadband service too. It would have extended an existing ban on IP-enabled service regulations by any state agency or local government. That could mean anything from Facebook to email to Netflix to Google search, which arguably shouldn’t be regulated at the state level. It also means VoIP, which is voice telephone service that runs on top of unregulated broadband service rather than via the old dial up, regulated phone network, AKA “plain old telephone service” (POTS).

A 2019 federal appeals court ruling allowed state-level regulations, although to what extent is still an open question. California already has Internet regulations on the books – a 2018 bill imposed network neutrality rules on ISPs. Enforcement, which is in the hands of the California attorney general, is stalled until federal court challenges are resolved. But the door is now open. Whether, and how, California lawmakers walk through it is top of the broadband policy watch list for the new year.

California broadband subsidy program pumped $35 million into infrastructure in 2019

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Dig once conduit 1oct2019

The California Advanced Services Fund (CASF), the state’s primary broadband infrastructure subsidy program, closes out 2019 with thirteen projects funded – $35 million in grants total – and no backlog of stale applications. That success is a welcome change from past practice, when project proposals sometimes languished for years. Changes made to the program by the California Public Utilities Commission in 2018 paid off, producing a consistent and predictable process.

Casf 2019 broadband infrastructure grants

Congratulations are due both CPUC staff who implemented the changes and managed the program, and to commissioner Martha Guzman Aceves who led the effort to rewrite the rules and procedures. It was tough job, given that lawmakers paid more attention to the checks they get from AT&T, Comcast and the like than to California’s broadband needs when they rigged the CASF program in favor of big, monopoly model providers.

Incumbents’ cash still mattered, and not in a good way. Frontier Communications came away with the most CASF money and will do the least with it. Three grants totalling $12.0 million were approved for DSL upgrades in Kern, Lassen, Modoc and Placer counties. Frontier only committed to offer slow service at 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds, despite the subsidies. It had four projects on the table this year, and requested $16.1 million. One, in Colusa County, was rejected because Frontier (and Comcast) already provided service in the proposed area. Subsidies for other projects were trimmed, partly for the same reason and partly because Frontier tried to double dip and get state and federal funding for the same homes.

Plumas Sierra Electric Co-op received $9.7 million for five projects in Plumas and Lassen counties, which was $2.2 million less than it originally requested. Nearly all of the 414 funded homes will get full fiber-to-the-premise (FTTP) service. A handful of remote residences will be served from that fiber infrastructure by wireless extensions.

Two companies received CASF grants for mobile home parks. Cruzio, an independent Internet service provider based in Santa Cruz, won $2.4 million to serve seven parks in Santa Cruz County with gigabit class FTTP service. It initially requested $5.3 million to build out to 13 parks, but challenges from Comcast and Charter Communications (and a snarky letter from AT&T), and review by CPUC staff, eliminated six of them.

Charter also received money to extend its hybrid fiber-coax plant to two mobile home parks, in Ventura and Riverside counties, as well as a neighborhood in San Bernardino County. It asked for $1.7 million and got $1.4 million. Most of the difference is due to the rejection of a fourth application in Riverside County, following a challenge from Frontier.

A half-assed $5.1 million request from a Sonoma County wireless operator didn’t make it through the process either.

The CPUC approved an additional $9.1 million for Race Communications’ Gigafy Phelan project. The extra money is necessary because utility pole inspection practices are increasingly rigorous and California labor costs, particularly for fiber optic work, are up. Relative to other CASF-funded builds, Gigafy Phelan is a mega-project. It’ll bring full FTTP facilities with gigabit service at DSL prices to 7,600 homes in San Bernardino County. Because Gigaphy Phelan was originally approved under the old rules, CASF is only paying for 60% of the project’s costs. Race has to contribute $24.5 million in matching funds.

There’s only one CASF request still active. The Karuk Tribe is asking for an increase of $11.3 million for its long-stalled project to bring Internet service to communities in and near its lands in Humboldt County. The initial request was made in May, but middle mile connectivity problems remained to be solved. The (probably) final proposal (see map below) was submitted earlier this month.

Karuk map casf krrbi 10dec2019

Links to 2019 CASF project applications, challenges and approvals are here.

Some people aren’t buying the false data big ISPs sold to the FCC

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Microsoft oregon analysis 5dec2018

The Federal Communications Commission’s broadband testing program evolved from a engineering-driven performance assessment when it was launched in 2012 to a marketing tool for monopoly model Internet service providers. That’s partly the result of the FCC republican majority embracing a role as a cheerleader for big telecoms companies, but it also reflects tensions in the program that date back to when it began under a democrat-majority commission.

Jim Warner, who recently retired from a long career as the network engineer for the University of California, Santa Cruz and still chairs the Central Coast Broadband Consortium’s technical expert group, helped design the FCC’s program, along with several others from the academic side of the house as well as industry representatives. He says there’s a split between the two groups, with industry more concerned with selling service than delivering it…

While the research community has been continuously engaged in measurement activities as part of high performance networking, the commercial side of the business has been plodding along on its own measurement efforts. Our goals are to improve performance (or at least understand its limits). On the commercial side, the goal is more along the line of making money and, if performance got better, that was OK, too.

The ISPs – especially AT&T – were unwilling to accept the results of the program’s measurements and fought hard to get poor results removed from their totals to improve their score.

The lack of hard information about where and what kind of broadband service is available, particularly in rural areas, is sore spot in Washington, D.C. There’s bipartisan support for a couple of bills that would put more money behind broadband measurement and mapping programs, and set higher standards. Maybe, just maybe, enough support to make it into law in the coming weeks.