Tag Archives: rural broadband

The $2 trillion covid-19 stimulus bill is not a broadband bill, but it helps. A little

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Salinas windmill cell site

Update, 27 March 2020: president Trump signed the bill, it’s a done deal.

Update, 27 March 2020: the U.S. house of representatives approved the bill, it now goes to president Trump.

A vote on the $2 trillion federal covid–19 stimulus bill is expected in the U.S. house of representatives later today, and president Trump says he’ll sign it immediately. I also found the full text of the bill, as published by the U.S. senate’s appropriations committee. Assuming it’s really the final-final version, it’s not going to do very much at all to fill the broadband gaps that separate many people, particularly in California’s rural counties, from the online business, education, health, information and entertainment services that we now rely on.

But there are a couple of sparks of good broadband news in the text. In the short term, it authorises the federal veterans affairs department to…

Enter into short-term agreements or contracts with telecommunications companies to provide temporary, complimentary or subsidized, fixed and mobile broadband services for the purposes of providing expanded mental health services to isolated veterans through telehealth or VA Video Connect.

It also pumps $50 million into grants to libraries (and museums) for “digital network access”, “internet accessible devices” and “technical support”, and waives matching fund requirements.

The bill doesn’t address the Federal Communications Commission’s E-rate program. There’s no extra money and no prescribed changes in eligibility, or allowed uses of existing funds.

The language that pumps an extra $200 million into the FCC’s telehealth subsidy program is flexible, though. The FCC will have a lot of discretion regarding how it spends the money. There are no significant changes to the Rural Utilities Service’s (RUS) ReConnect broadband infrastructure grant and loan program or its telehealth and distance learning subsidies, except of course for the extra money – $100 million for ReConnect and $25 million for telehealth/distance learning.

Long term, the bill will speed up the migration of health care and other essential services to online platforms. Legacy rules and bureaucratic inertia are a barrier to increased adoption of telehealth technology, so in several places the bill has language that, as one section puts it, is aimed at “encouraging use of telecommunications systems for home health services furnished during emergency period”. It also redefines the mission of some federal telehealth programs as, for example, funding “evidence-based projects that utilise telehealth technologies” instead of “projects to demonstrate how telehealth technologies can be used”.

In other words, stop screwing around with pilots and just go live.

Federal covid-19 stimulus package doesn’t seem to stimulate broadband, much

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Frontier verizon pole santa barbara county 10oct2015

Even by Washington, D.C. standards, $2 trillion is a lot of money. By those same standards, though, $325 million isn’t much and that appears to be the extent of direct broadband assistance in the $2 trillion covid–19 “stimulus” bill approved by the U.S. senate late last night. If there’s indirect broadband help, it’s buried in the bill’s yet-to-be-published text.

According to a summary obtained by Bloomberg Law yesterday, the bill adds $100 million to a broadband infrastructure program run by the federal agriculture department’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS), as well as $200 million to the Federal Communications Commission’s telehealth subsidy kitty and $25 million for a telehealth and distance learning program, also managed by RUS. That’s not the final word, of course. We’ll have to wait for the full text of the bill to surface before we know what’s in it.

There’s no extra money for the FCC’s E-rate program, which pays for broadband service to schools and libraries. That’s a disappointment for many, but I’ll reserve judgement until I see the actual bill. If, as has been urged, it loosens restrictions on how the money that’s already in the program can be spent, then it’ll be an immediate win. Under current rules, infrastructure and bandwidth bought through the E-rate program can’t be opened up to the public. Just taking that restriction off, even temporarily, could help close the gap between broadband haves in California’s urban areas and the have nots in rural communities. If it doesn’t do at least that much then, yeah, it’s a disappointment.

The RUS infrastructure money will go into the ReConnect program, which pays for new broadband infrastructure in rural areas. It probably won’t be much help to California, though. It’s designed for the business models and demographics of the midwest and south, and so far hasn’t funded any systems here. But it’ll help the people it’ll help, and to that extent it’s well timed. The application deadline for the current round of grants is next Tuesday, 31 March 2020, which means there should be plenty of project proposals that can be funded immediately.

The next step for the bill is the U.S. house of representatives.

California’s mountain counties get failing broadband grades, urban areas top the report card

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

California broadband infrastructure report card map 24mar2020 625

The worst broadband infrastructure in California is, not surprisingly, found in mountain counties at the north end of the state. Trinity and Siskiyou counties both get “F” grades for broadband infrastructure, with a numerical score of dead zero. Sierra County likewise gets an “F”, with a numerical score of 0.03 that’s effectively zero. It is also the county with the highest percentage of population – 88% – without any access to wireline broadband service. It’s a serious problem for rural residents as business, education, health care and education move almost exclusively online during the covid–19 lockdown.

As the map above and the tables below show, the best broadband infrastructure in California can be found in San Francisco and Alameda County, and in Los Angeles and Orange counties, and it generally gets worse the farther you get from those two hubs.

The Worst

County            Broadband Report Card GradeGPAPercent of Population at Zero service
TrinityF0.0083%
SiskiyouF0.0017%
HumboldtF0.0115%
MariposaF0.0124%
ModocF0.0150%
LassenF0.0256%
SierraF0.0388%
AlpineF0.0483%
PlumasF0.1335%
InyoF0.1716%

The Best

County            Broadband Report Card GradeGPAPercent of Population at Zero service
AlamedaB-2.773%
San FranciscoB-2.731%
San MateoC+2.631%
Contra CostaC+2.401%
SacramentoC+2.302%
Santa ClaraC+2.273%
Los AngelesC2.091%
OrangeC1.973%
San JoaquinC-1.895%
StanislausC-1.884%

The grades are based on a methodology I first developed in 2013 for the East Bay Broadband Consortium, and have since been updating on a statewide basis for the Central Coast Broadband Consortium and other such regional organisations. It uses the broadband speed and technology claims that Internet service providers submit to the California Public Utilities Commission and Federal Communications Commission every year – the most recent data set is current as of 31 December 2018. The underlying data are not very accurate, but it is precise in the sense that companies tend to be consistent about the way they exaggerate coverage. That makes it useful for comparative purposes, which is what the California Broadband Infrastructure Report Card is all about.

The best broadband infrastructure in California is found in the Bay Area and Sacramento, and the Los Angeles/Orange County core. Those two counties straddle California’s “C” average. The large share of the state’s population those counties represent means what’s available to people there is going to look a lot like what’s available to the average Californian.

San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties also made the top 10 due to upgrades by AT&T, which claims to have built fiber to the premise systems in about 16% of the census blocks (but not necessarily throughout whole census blocks) in those two counties, and Vast Network’s middle mile fiber infrastructure, which runs through a lot of census blocks but isn’t available to homes or most businesses. It’s similar story in Fresno County. The grades reflect infrastructure deployments rather than service availability, so for a lot of Central Valley communities it’s water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink.

California Broadband Infrastructure Report Card, 24 March 2020
Central Coast Broadband Consortium wireline broadband availability analysis (22 March 2020 revision), per 31 December 2018 data
Central Coast Broadband Consortium Broadband Infrastructure Grading Methodology, 20 March 2020
Achieving Ubiquitous Broadband Coverage in the Monterey Bay Region, Monterey Bay Economic Partnership, November 2018

CPUC extends CASF grant deadline, also orders telecoms companies to disclose covid-19 response plans

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Broadband companies will get an extra month to submit applications for broadband infrastructure grants from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF). Originally, the proposals were due next week, on 1 April 2020. That deadline is now 4 May 2020, and the subsequent timeline for challenges and decisions also bumped by five weeks, per a memo from California Public Utilities Commission director Alice Stebbins.

It’s a necessary step (and – full disclosure – one I advocated for). As the corona virus lockdown continues, residential broadband service is the critical link that connects Californians to their jobs, businesses, education and health services, and helps keep them from going stir crazy. CASF infrastructure project proposals have taken a back seat to the frontline tasks of keeping Internet access running and scaling it up to meet ballooning demand.

The divide between California’s digital haves and have nots is starkly illuminated by the emergency. A month to rethink priorities and figure out how best to target those gaps is both necessary and welcome. The memo also reminds us that a second CASF application window is possible. A decision on that will come by 17 June 2020, when we will have a much better idea of the full extent of the current crisis.

In another action, the CPUC ordered executives of major telephone, cable and mobile broadband companies to provide…

Your company’s policies for responding to and continuing operations through the current spread of COVID–19. This should include policies relating to providing safe working environments for your employees and business continuity plans for continuing all business and service delivery operations in the event of further community transmission.

Among the specific items they have to address are credit and collection practices and call center management. As I learned the hard way this weekend, AT&T slashed technical support and other customer service operations (someone needs to explain teleworking to them). It will be interesting to learn if other industry players did the same. The companies are supposed to provide a public version of their filing, but they’ll also be allowed to keep some information confidential. They’re supposed to respond by Friday.

California’s broadband gaps affect millions as corona virus lockdown continues

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

San benito pole route 13apr2019

At least 1.5 million Californians – 4% of the state’s population – cannot get wireline broadband in their homes, as the second week of the corona virus lock down begins. That’s what the most recently published broadband availability reports filed with the California Public Utilities Commission show. Nearly twice that many – 2.8 million people, 8% of the population – don’t have access to primary wireline service that delivers 100 Mbps download/20 Mbps upload speeds, the minimum service level needed for in-home work, education, health care and entertainment. The dead spots are disproportionately found in rural communities.

That’s the top line result from the number crunching I’ve been doing, as part of the Central Coast Broadband Consortium’s (CCBC) efforts over the past few days. Like other regional broadband consortia around California, the CCBC is working to identify broadband access gaps and resources to fill them for the 40 million Californians ordered to stay at home. The raw data are the broadband service claims filed by primary wireline Internet service providers – the companies that own the copper and fiber – as of 31 December 2018, which is the most recent data set available. I ran the data for the 58 counties in California, with breakouts for cities, unincorporated communities (AKA census designated places) and tribal areas – it’s pretty much as easy to do it for all 58 counties as it is to do it for one (or the CCBC’s three – San Benito, Monterey and Santa Cruz counties).

The analysis includes:

  • Infrastructure grade (A, B, C, D, F). The grading methodology is here.
  • Median household income estimates.
  • Population, percentage of population, number of housing units and percentage of housing units, as of 2019 estimates, with zero access to wireline broadband service.
  • Population, percentage of population, number of housing units and percentage of housing units able to access primary wireline broadband service at 6 Mbps download/1 Mbps upload, 10 Mbps/1 Mbps, 25 Mbps/3 Mbps, 100 Mbps/20 Mbps, 1,000 Mbps/500 Mbps.

The data is not particularly accurate, as is widely acknowledged, but it is precise in the sense that the inaccuracies tend to be consistent across a provider’s data set. It is sufficiently precise for the purpose of comparing one place to another, and for generally assessing broadband availability in a given county, city or other area. I’ll be writing more about it in the coming days, and welcome any ideas or critiques.

Central Coast Broadband Consortium wireline broadband availability analysis (22 March 2020 revision), per 31 December 2018 data
Central Coast Broadband Consortium Broadband Infrastructure Grading Methodology, 20 March 2020
Achieving Ubiquitous Broadband Coverage in the Monterey Bay Region, Monterey Bay Economic Partnership, November 2018

Frontier’s slow video streaming platform is too fast for most of its California copper customers

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Outer limits intro

Fewer than half of Frontier Communications’ legacy copper, i.e. DSL-only, homes in California can watch more than one high definition stream at a time on its chosen video streaming platform, Philo. More than a quarter can’t even watch one HD stream, and 14% will get jerky, low quality video, if they can get anything at all. That’s my conclusion after crunching Frontier’s most recent (as of 31 December 2018) broadband availability figures, and comparing them to Philo’s bandwidth requirements and the actual performance estimates used by other streaming services.

The first clue that Frontier is trying to dumb down customer expectations instead of providing modern broadband speeds is that Philo doesn’t offer 4K quality video, which is the 2020 consumer video standard. Philo’s service is limited to 1950s standard definition (SD) and 1990s high definition (HD) video formats. Philo’s website provides a helpful guide to the bandwidth needed to watch those streams…

13 Mbps – Recommended for reliable HD streaming, even with multiple streams or other devices using the same network.

7 Mbps – Stream one HD video. If multiple devices are streaming or using the network at the same time, there may be buffering issues.

3 Mbps – Stream SD quality video.

Under 3 Mbps – Video quality is reduced. Philo may load slowly or rebuffer.

Frontier, like other Internet service providers, advertises its broadband speeds as “up to” a particular level. Netflix discounts advertised speeds when advising its customers. It recommends they subscribe to a service advertised at 25 Mbps download speeds in order to watch 4K video, which streams at 15 Mbps. Applying that Netflix discount to Philo’s recommendations for its lower quality service results in:

  • 22 Mbps – multiple HD streams.
  • 12 Mbps – single HD stream.
  • 5 Mbps – SD stream.
  • Less than 5 Mbps – SD streams will be slow and jerky.

Frontier reports it advertises either 1 Mbps, 6 Mbps, 12 Mbps or 25 Mbps download speeds to the 1.3 million housing units in California it serves with DSL-only broadband service. It also claims to provide fiber to the home (FTTH) service to 1.6 million Californian homes at 100 Mbps download speeds. And there’s a significant number of homes that are in Frontier’s telco monopoly territory that can’t get any kind of broadband service from Frontier. The analysis below just looks at the homes that can get Frontier service via DSL, but not FTTH:

Frontier philo video service by county 31dec2018 data

Siskiyou and Tehama counties lose out completely on family style, high definition video viewing – 12 Mbps is the best it can deliver via DSL there. More than a quarter – 26% – of Frontier’s Tuolumne County DSL homes can’t watch Philo video at all or, if they can, it’s poorer quality than the original mass market television standard that was set more than 60 years ago.

Broadband bill targets California fairgrounds, details yet to come

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Bolado park san benito county 13apr2019

A bill aimed at upgrading broadband service at fairgrounds in California was introduced in the assembly by assembly Robert Rivas (D – San Benito). Assembly bill 2163 would “ensure that all California fairgrounds are equipped with adequate broadband and telecommunications infrastructure to support local, regional, and state emergency and disaster response personnel and operations”.

In its initial form, AB 2163 doesn’t answer the key question: where does the money come from? Earlier conversations about improving broadband facilities at fairgrounds opened up the possibility of raiding the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) for that purpose, but the draft doesn’t mention that. CASF is California’s primary broadband infrastructure subsidy program. The last time legislators took it up, they turned CASF into a piggybank for monopoly-model incumbent service providers, like AT&T, Frontier Communications and cable companies.

The bill does open the door a crack to general broadband infrastructure improvements, but just a crack. It calls for “fostering new economic opportunities in neighboring communities”, which might mean better public-facing broadband infrastructure. Or it could mean better online livestock auctions at county fairs. We’ll see.

At this point, AB 2163 is a statement of intent rather than fully fleshed out legislation. That’s common practice this early in the session. More meat will probably be added to the bill once it makes it to its first committee hearing, probably toward the end of March. That’s when we’ll have a better idea if it’s intended to make meaningful upgrades to the woefully slow broadband infrastructure that’s common in rural California, or if it’s just a way to add money to the internal information technology budgets for the California office of emergency services and/or the department of food and agriculture.

An early clue will be which committee (or committees) are assigned to review it. A proposal to dip into CASF or to do much of anything that’s related to telecoms infrastructure would have to go to the industry-friendly assembly communications and conveyances committee. If it’s just about departmental IT budgets, then it might be run through the public safety and/or agriculture committees. So far, that assignment hasn’t been made, and doesn’t need to be for a few weeks yet.

As you might guess from reading this post, let alone this blog, I have opinions about how to improve broadband infrastructure in rural California, which I’ve shared publicly and privately. I’m not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.

Second round of RUS broadband subsidies opens, as California waits for something – anything – from the first round

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Usda eligibility map 31jan2020

Correction: The yellow blobs on the map above are not pending ReConnect grants, they are pending rural telco applications, which are also administered by RUS. So California is still a great big zero for ReConnect grants and/or loans. Thank you to a Gentle Reader for gently pointing that out. The text below has been updated accordingly.

The federal agriculture department’s Rural Utilities Service began accepting applications on Friday for $600 million in broadband infrastructure subsidies, via its ReConnect program. The money is split three ways – $200 million each for grants, loans and grant/loan combinations. To be eligible, a community (or any geographic area, large or small) has to 1. lack broadband service at a minimum of 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds, and 2. be rural, as the term is defined by the federal government. Subsidised infrastructure has to be capable of delivering at least 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up speeds.

Those speed benchmarks are below the ones adopted on Thursday by the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund program sets 25 down/3 up as the threshold for subsidy eligibility, and offers significant incentives for building infrastructure that supports service above that level, all the way up to gigabit class speeds.

Applications for the first round of ReConnect grants and loans, submitted last year, are still being evaluated. There are a couple of rural telephone companies with pending applications from another RUS program in California – Sierra Telephone, east of Merced and Ponderosa Telephone, north and east of Fresno, both in the Sierra. Ponderosa is also applying for an area in eastern San Bernardino County, along the Nevada border.

But so far, the ReConnect program hasn’t done anything for California. The federal agriculture department has been sending out press releases trumpeting broadband subsidies awarded in other states, but no mention of California. A spokesman for the department said that none are imminent.

Part of the reason is the way the federal government defines “rural”. The definition is largely based on proximity to population centers, of a size – 20,000 to 50,000 people – that would be a major city in, say, Kansas but a smallish town in rural California. That problem is compounded by the crude way the federal agriculture department cuts and maps eligibility data – both broadband availability and population clusters.

CPUC begins process of holding Frontier to account for service outages, but it might be too late

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Nearly four years after the fact, Frontier Communications is being held to answer for the fumbled cutover of Verizon wireline customers it acquired in 2015. Last month, the California Public Utilities Commission formally opened an investigation into the widespread reports of dead lines and customer service meltdowns that went on for weeks after Frontier closed on its purchase of Verizon’s decaying copper telephone systems and somewhat more modern fiber to the home FiOS territories in California. On top of that, according to the CPUC’s order instituting investigation (OII), Frontier disclosed customer information it was supposed to keep confidential…

Starting April 1, 2016, Verizon transferred (a process it refers to as cutover of services) its California voice, internet, and video services to Frontier. The cutover caused two issues: (1) Many Frontier customers experienced service outages or interruptions between April to June 2016 to their voice, internet, and video services; customers also experienced poor customer support from Frontier in resolving such issues; and (2) during the same period, Frontier published customers’ address records that were designated as blocked from publication in online and printed directories.

As a starting ante, the CPUC order proposes a $2.5 million fine for Frontier, for the unlisted information disclosures alone. And that number could go up, and additional fines for the outages could be imposed, as the CPUC investigation proceeds. Those fines aren’t the sort of debt that Frontier can easily wash away in the bankruptcy filing it’s planning to make in March, according to reports.

The OII is the beginning of a process that will run for a year or two. By the time it’s finished, Frontier could have completely new owners and management, or it might even be out of California altogether. The reports say Frontier wants to reorganise under chapter 11 of U.S. bankruptcy law, which allows for the possibility of keeping the company in one piece, but doesn’t guarantee it.

Frontier will walk the same bankruptcy path as PG&E, Bloomberg says

by Steve Blum • , , ,

The end is near for Frontier Communications, as we know it. According to a story in Bloomberg by Allison McNeely, Katherine Doherty and Sridhar Natarajan, California’s second biggest telephone company will file for bankruptcy in March. Frontier is carrying $17.5 billion in debt – its purchase of Verizon’s Californian wireline systems accounts for a significant chunk of that – and continues to lose broadband subscribers.

Despite being initially considered a saviour for rural Californians held hostage by Verizon’s decrepit copper phone lines – many communities lacked even slow 1990s DSL service – Frontier has proven to be unable to improve broadband service, outside of its affluent urban territories. It fumbled its cutover of Verizon customers, and now faces an investigation by the California Public Utilities Commission as a result. It’s enthusiastically tapped the piggybank that California lawmakers created when they gutted the California Advanced Services Fund program, but has mostly used the money to patch up legacy DSL systems at cost levels more commonly associated with full fiber upgrades.

California is not the only place where Frontier is performing poorly, according to a story in Ars Technica by Jon Brodkin…

Frontier Communications failed to properly maintain its telecom network in Minnesota, leading to “frequent and lengthy” phone and Internet outages, an investigation by the state Commerce Department found in January 2019. The investigation led to a settlement. New York state officials are also investigating Frontier over its repeated outages and long repair times.

Many Frontier customers in different states have been hit with giant overcharges and cancellation fees, or draconian policies like one requiring customers to pay for router rentals even when they have purchased their own router. (A new US law scheduled to take effect in June 2020 would ban that practice.)

The Bloomberg article indicated that Frontier would be filing for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, which allows it to continue operating while it sorts out its finances. It’s the same procedure PG&E is using.