Tag Archives: sb745

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

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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

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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

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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.

Cable, telco lobby hack more meat out of California telcoms reform

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Lobbyists from telephone companies largely prevailed in their fight to block meaningful release of information about what they do at the California Public Utilities Commission. And the cable lobby has, for the moment, maintained an Internet access chokehold on people who live in public housing.

Senate bill 1017 was pushed by San Bruno senator Jerry Hill, after a PG&E gas pipeline exploded with fatal results for his constituency. As originally conceived, it would have reformed archaic laws that allow utilities – including telephone companies – to stamp pretty much anything confidential and keep it hidden from local governments as well as the public. The bill was rolled into the CPUC reform package negotiated with governor Brown and tweaked a bit, but those changes did not mollify utility lobbyists, particularly and vociferously those from AT&T.

A new version of SB 1017 was published this weekend – the legislature’s session has nine days of life left in it and closed door dealmaking is in overdrive. Hill’s original language has been slashed out of it and, as currently written, it reiterates CPUC secrecy while tossing in a meager bone that allows a city or a private citizen to challenge a decision to withhold information – but only under very limited circumstances.

Senate bill 745, by senator Ben Hueso (D – San Diego), extends a program that pays for broadband equipment – but not service – in public housing. Cable companies think that offering low cost or free Internet access to the 75% or so of public housing residents that can’t afford their services will dent the broadband and TV revenue they squeeze out of the other 25%. The latest version of SB 745, also released over the weekend, bans subsidies for Internet facilities if cable companies or other ISPs have wired a building.

On Friday, there might have been hopes of something like a even battle between community broadband advocates and deep pocketed industry monopolists – there were wins and losses on both side. This morning, after the whirlwind of weekend disclosures, it’s looking sadly lopsided in favor of the side with the most cash.

CPUC reforms bump ahead, but details are still lacking

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The assembly utilities and commerce committee has approved two senate bills – SB 215 and SB 512 – that are key elements of a proposed package of California Public Utilities Commission reforms, although the details are yet to be worked out. One of the standard practices of the California legislature is for amendments to bills to be worked out behind closed doors after committee members vote to approve them. And that was the explicit understanding yesterday, which was agreed on largely party line votes – democrats tending to favor, republicans not.

The committee also approved SB 1017, which would open up more information submitted by regulated utilities to CPUC. That measure was bitterly opposed by telephone companies, who found a sympathetic ear from chairman Mike Gatto (D – Los Angeles), one of the three legislators who joined with governor Brown on Monday to announce the deal. Gatto’s suggested accomodation was to simply exempt information submitted by telecoms companies from disclosure rules. That idea was politely shot down by the measure’s author (and another member of the troika), senator Jerry Hill (D – San Bruno), who said in effect that the intent was to open all of the CPUC’s business to more public scrutiny. No guarantees, though, that the final language will read one way or the other.

A measure that extends broadband facilities subsidies for public housing also moved forward. SB 745 was approved by the committee with largely technical amendments suggested in a previously published analysis.

Yesterday’s votes by Gatto’s committee keep all four bills alive for the purposes of the current legislative session. The real language will likely come to light in August, after lawmakers come back from their summer break. The broad outline of the grand CPUC reform plan was made public on Monday, but the details are still very much in play. Stay tuned.

Two small – for now – broadband bills advance in Sacramento

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One side makes you bigger, one side makes you small…

A move to force Caltrans to play nice with broadband companies – at least, a little nice in little while – and some minor tinkering with the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) infrastructure subsidy program are moving forward in Sacramento.

The state assembly unanimously passed AB 1549, authored by Healdsburg assemblyman Jim Wood. As currently written, it would require Caltrans to make information available about conduit it installs in its own projects. In the future. Pushback from the agency resulted in the requirement being trimmed back. It would only apply to conduit Caltrans installs from 2017 on. Its existing, and extensive, inventory of conduit is effectively a bureaucratic secret and could remain so even if the bill passes. But the important thing is that Wood beat tomorrow’s deadline for getting it out of the assembly and into the senate, where there will be more time and more opportunities to wrangle over the details.

A second bill made the trip in the opposite direction. Senate bill 745 lengthens the list of organisations that may specifically be part of regional broadband consortiums funded by CASF – probably needlessly because the list is already pretty inclusive and final discretion is still in the hands of the California Public Utilities Commission. It also requires the CPUC to include a county by county breakout of CASF money expended in its annual reports.

Neither provision is a big deal, but the fact that it’s sponsored by San Diego democrat Ben Hueso is significant. He’s the chairman of the senate’s energy, utilities and communications committee, which makes him one of the key broadband policy makers in California. As the bill moves forward, it also could change significantly. It’s worth watching.