Tag Archives: rural broadband

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.

Don’t expect fiber or 5G in rural communities, FCC commissioners say

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

John deere booth ces 7jan2020

Fiber and mobile 5G are fine for cities and suburbs, but rural communities can look forward to satellites and fixed wireless broadband service, according to the Federal Communication Commission’s republican majority. Speaking at CES in Las Vegas this week, FCC chair Ajit Pai, republican commissioners Michael O’Rielly and Brendan Carr, and their democratic colleague Geoffrey Starks were upbeat about 5G, fiber and, as Carr put it, the “new wave of innovation and services”.

But that wave will only break on urban and suburban beaches, at least via conventional broadband service.

“To say we’re going to have fiber throughout the United States is both not realistic – it’s not technically doable”, said O’Rielly. “There are communities where satellite service is the exact answer”.

Pai said 5G infrastructure that connects a smartphone to fast broadband access – the standard 5G use case – will be built in cities and suburbs. Rural 5G deployments will support other services – fixed wireless broadband, for example – that might or might not be offered by mobile carriers on mobile spectrum. His rural broadband advisor, Preston Wise, who spoke on a rural 5G panel, said the rebooted version of the FCC’s primary broadband subsidy program – now called the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund – will be used “to deploy fixed broadband in parts of rural America”, although he held out the possibility that some of the money would go toward fiber to the premise (FTTP) projects.

Rural FTTP doesn’t fit very well into the business plans of incumbent monopoly model telecoms companies. Rural electric cooperatives, on the other hand, are deploying fiber. Pai hopes to encourage rural utility co-ops to apply for FCC subsidies – he said he doesn’t care which broadband carriers get the money.

I hope that’s true. Although electric co-ops and wireless operators figured prominently in the last round of FCC broadband subsidy auctions, they were only allowed to bid on communities that AT&T, Frontier Communications and other legacy telcos didn’t want to serve.

Legacy telcos were given a right of first refusal and they exercised it. Satellite and fixed wireless fit their rural business plans perfectly. Letting them dictate rural broadband technology choices, as O’Rielly seems happy to do, will lock in a deep divide between rural and urban communities for many decades to come.

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.

Half a gigabuck offered for federal rural broadband subsidies, but California faces challenges

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Rus reconnect eligibility map yolo 12dec2019

Another round of broadband infrastructure subsidies is on the way from the federal agriculture department. A six week application window for the Rural Utilities Service’s (RUS) Reconnect program opens on 31 January 2020, with $512 million on the table.

It appears that the problems with the ReConnect program that shut California out of the first round of grants and loans earlier this year haven’t been fixed. On the face of it, the basic eligibility criteria are pretty simple…

90 percent of the proposed funded service area must not have sufficient access to broadband. Applicants must propose to build a network that is capable of providing service to every premise located in the proposed funded service area at the time the application is submitted at a speed of 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream.

So what is “sufficient”?

Sufficient access to broadband means any rural area in which household have fixed, terrestrial broadband service delivering at least 10 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream. Mobile and satellite services will not be considered in making the determination of sufficient access to broadband.

So far, so good. All you need to do is document a lack of broadband service at 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds and the money is yours, right?

Wrong.

Although it’s not required by the rules – new or old – RUS publishes data showing what’s eligible and what’s not, and that’s that. There’s no established process for making your own eligibility case, or to point out the demographic, geographic and economic differences between California and, say, Kansas or Alabama. In the past, RUS’s mapping has been crude. This time around, they’ve published a new data set. I haven’t crunched it yet, so I can’t say whether or not it’s an improvement, but a quick look at their map – an example is above – shows that big chunks of rural California are still considered off limits.

Even so, the devil will be in the details. Stay tuned.

USA Today says the slowest rural broadband is in California. The truth is even worse

by Steve Blum • , , ,

San benito pole route 13apr2019

USA Today fell for a click bait post about rural broadband speeds, but at least it was click bait that made a useful point about the growing gap between rural and urban service levels.

The top line, of the USA Today article and the post on an Internet-oriented aggregator website, is that Newcastle, along Interstate 80 in Placer County, has the slowest rural broadband service in the U.S., with an average download speed of 3.7 Mbps. That figure comes from speed tests conducted on another aggregator site.

That’s bad, but it’s not close to being the bottom of barrel.

A quick look at the data I have handy – the provider service reports collected by California Public Utilities Commission and current as of 31 December 2017 – shows that out of the 1,513 incorporated cities and census designated places in California, 184 have zero broadband service according the telephone and, sometimes, cable companies that serve them. sixs others have reported download speeds – both maximum and average – of less than 3.7 Mbps.

Reported speeds are what AT&T and Frontier Communications sell you. Measured speeds – what you actually get – are less, and the maximum speed in a town is usually only available near the telco central office. Cable coverage, whether it’s big boys like Charter and Comcast, or smaller providers like Wave, is usually restricted to neighborhoods where customers and money are sufficiently dense.

Newcastle provides an excellent illustration of this discrepancy. Wave reports service levels of up to 1 gigabit there, and AT&T claims a maximum download speed of 25 Mbps, with a 19 Mbps average throughout the town. The graphic below shows AT&T’s broadband holes in Newcastle, at least the ones they own up to. There’s no way of assessing the validity of the 3.7 Mbps click bait figure, but it certainly reflects the subjective experience of residents, as the anecdotal evidence in the USA Today article shows.

So Newcastle’s broadband service is bad, but it isn’t the worst in California, let alone the entire U.S. Based on the CPUC’s data, out of 1,513 communities, Newcastle has the 518th fastest average download speed and the 584th fastest maximum download speed. It ranks even higher when only residential service is considered.

Two-thirds of Californian communities have slower download speeds than Newcastle, which USA Today says has the slowest broadband service in the U.S. That’s a problem that needs fixing.

Newcastle cpuc map 27nov2019

I’ll be crunching the next round of CPUC data, current as of 31 December 2018, in the next few weeks. We’ll see if anything has changed.

“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”.

Frontier digs a deeper digital divide in rural California with taxpayers’ shovel

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Frontier verizon pole santa barbara county 10oct2015

A handful of rural communities in Lassen, Modoc and Kern counties will get their first taste of wireline broadband service from Frontier Communications if the California Public Utilities Commission approves infrastructure construction grants next month.

Unfortunately, it’s just a taste.

Frontier’s (and AT&T’s) strategy, as identified by a CPUC study earlier this year, of “disinvesting in infrastructure overall”, which is “most pronounced in the more rural and low-income service areas”, continues to be business as usual. Both of Frontier’s projects up for California Advanced Services Fund grants propose to deliver low speed service over ageing copper telephone lines. The $11 million would be spend on a desperately needed 137 mile fiber route and essential central office equipment upgrades, but Frontier’s interest in improving rural infrastructure, even when taxpayers are picking up the tab, ends there. As the CPUC’s draft resolution approving the Kern County grant describes the project, “Frontier will upgrade the existing communications facilities to increase broadband capacity but will not replace the copper cable infrastructure”. Likewise, the northeastern California project adds middle fiber and electronic equipment, but leaves “legacy copper infrastructure” in place.

It’s not an accident or anomaly. It’s deliberate.

Frontier continues to bleed customers and revenue, and selective fiber upgrades are the solution, according to CEO Dan McCarthy, who spoke about the company’s third quarter 2019 financial results

We achieved a sequential improvement in fiber net losses with only 1,000 in the third quarter. However, consumer copper losses of 52,000 were worse than the second quarter. In copper, although we experienced a sequential increase in gross additions, this was offset by a sequential increase in churn and we continue to manage this business for a decline. Fiber broadband gross additions increased sequentially in the third quarter and we also had a slight sequential improvement in fiber broadband churn. With the completion of the upgrades of the fiber network to be 10 gigabit capable, we have increased our emphasis on selling at higher speed tiers.

Frontier’s strategy is economically rational, and is probably its best shot at pulling shareholder value out of penny stock territory. What makes it rational, though, is the California legislature’s irrational (but well compensated) decision to subsidise 1990s era broadband service over 1890s era copper wires, and not hold incumbent telcos to the same standards in rural communities as they voluntarily and rationally adopt in densely populated, high income cities and suburbs.

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.

Large scale telco, cable and mobile service outages follow California power cuts

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Cell site outages 28oct2019

Hundreds of thousands of Californians lost their wireline broadband and phone service over the past week, as the state’s major electric utilities cut off power to millions of people in an attempt to prevent wildfires from breaking out. Mobile broadband and telephone subscribers were equally hard hit, with one county – Marin – losing more than half of its cell sites at one point.

The Federal Communications Commission has been tracking wireline and mobile service outages since last Friday, when the power cuts were hitting hard in Pacific Gas and Electric’s northern California territory, and public safety power shutoffs were beginning to bite in the southern California service areas of San Diego Gas and Electric and Southern California Edison. I’ve compiled all of their reports through yesterday into a single document, which you can download here.

From a telecoms point of view, the outages were at their peak on the FCC’s Sunday morning (0830 California time, 28 October 2019) report. At that time 455,000 telco and cable subscribers in 32 counties were without their landline connections and 3.3% of the total number of cell sites were down.

Some counties were hit much harder than others. Marin County lost 57% of its cell sites, while there were no reports of cell site outages in Santa Barbara County. Calaveras, Humboldt, Lake, Napa, Santa Cruz and Sonoma counties lost between 19% and 39% of cell sites.

It’s not clear what the wireline outage figure represents. Participation in the FCC’s disaster reporting system is voluntary. The list of willing companies hasn’t been made public and there’s no way of knowing if all of the telephone and cable companies in those counties are cooperating. The reports from the ones that are cooperating are based on “communications infrastructure status and situational awareness information” and “network outage data”. Which might not include all, or maybe even most, of the households and businesses which are offline because their equipment – cable and DSL modems, for example – don’t have backup power. The network might be fully functional, but if customer premise equipment is down, then service is too.

So that 455,000 customer wireline outage figure might be low.