Tag Archives: voip

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.

Comcast games expiring VoIP regulation ban to win CPUC permission to cherry pick suburbs

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Tesoro viejo 25aug2019

Comcast’s sideways pleading for permission to compete against a subsidised rural telephone company demonstrates why it was wise to allow California’s ban on voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) service regulation to expire. And why Comcast, along with Charter Communications, AT&T and Frontier Communications, handed so much cash offered highly intellectual arguments to California legislators in their failed (so far) attempt to extend the ban.

Ponderosa Telephone Company offers service in the foothills and the Sierra generally north and east of Fresno. It’s one of 13 small telephone companies that serve rural California, and that depend on state and federal universal service subsidies to survive. As Fresno grows, suburban development is creeping into Ponderosa’s service territory. Tesoro Viejo is one such subdivision under construction along State Route 41, just beyond Fresno’s current development limit.

Comcast offers cable television and Internet service in Tesoro Viejo – households and disposable income are now dense enough to meet its return-on-investment objectives in an area it previously ignored. To offer phone service, though, it needs to connect its currently unregulated VoIP facilities to the traditional public telephone network. Comcast wants to do that via a legally isolated subsidiary that was specifically created to operate in that regulated environment, without creating any regulatory inconvenience for the rest of the company.

But that legally isolated subsidiary needs permission to set up shop in Ponderosa’s territory. The California Public Utilities Commission generally doesn’t allow competitors to cherry pick rural phone companies’ most lucrative customers, because it’s worried that doing so would result in ever increasing public subsidies to deliver retail service to poorer and more isolated people that don’t interest the likes of Comcast.

Nevertheless, Comcast asked for special permission to enter Ponderosa’s territory, and the CPUC is considering it. In support, Comcast is now citing the still current ban on VoIP regulation by the CPUC (it doesn’t expire until January) and disingenuously arguing that its regulated subsidiary only provides wholesale phone service, which doesn’t compete against Ponderosa’s retail offerings. The fact that its retail VoIP subsidiary would use that wholesale service to wholeheartedly compete against Ponderosa is irrelevant, Comcast’s argument goes, because it’s unregulated. At least for the present.

The CPUC has an inquiry under way that, eventually, could decide how it will protect, or not, California’s small telephone companies: should it allow competition, and the consumer benefits it brings, in affluent exurbs while spending more subsidy dollars to maintain service in communities with fewer people with less money to spend, or continue to try to maintain economic feasibility and baseline service availability, and minimise public subsidies by fencing off rural service territories?

It’s an important and timely question, not least because the telecoms industry is in the middle of a major, analog-to-digital shift. It’s the sort of technological revolution that only comes along every century or so. The answer should not come in bits and pieces, as major incumbents like Comcast (and AT&T, Charter and the rest) try to game the system with political and legal maneuvers based on irrelevant technological distinctions between otherwise identical services, and with falsehoods and evasions regarding their true intentions.

California legislature tweaks telecoms policy instead of killing it

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Despite AT&T’s quest for de facto deregulation of telecommunications infrastructure and service, no major telecoms policy changes emerged from the California legislature this year. A few small ball telecoms-related bills did emerge by the end of the 2019 session early Saturday morning, though, and were sent on to governor Gavin Newsom.

Assembly bill 1366 is dead, at least for this year. There was no last minute conniving to pull it out of the committee deep freeze it landed in earlier in the week. It could come back in 2020, either as a fast track do-over in January or reintroduced as a new bill.

It’s fair bet that lobbyists from AT&T, Comcast, Charter Communications, Frontier Communications and mobile carriers will want to take another try. The moratorium on regulation of voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) phone service and other “Internet protocol enabled” services ends as the new year begins, but there will be no practical effect for months, if not years. There are no VoIP-specific regulations ready to snap back into place and any effort to create new ones, or even reinterpret old ones will take a long time.

A few telecoms bills dealing with more specific issues were approved and are in the governor’s hands, including…

  • AB 1699, Marc Levine (D – Marin) – prohibits mobile carriers from throttling data traffic on accounts used by public safety agencies during emergencies. It’s largely symbolic. The only question is whether mobile carriers, or their lobbying front organisation, will challenge it federal court immediately, or wait until there’s a serious attempt to enforce it.
  • SB 670, Mike McGuire (D – Sonoma) – requires telecoms companies to notify the state office of emergency services when an outage isolates a community. State OES would then pass the information along to local agencies.
  • SB 208 and AB 1132 would crack down on caller ID fraud in various ways.

Newsom has until 13 October 2019 to decide what to do.

AT&T’s backdoor telecoms deregulation bill runs out of room in the California senate

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Coyote cliff 625

“AB 1366 was pulled by the author, so it will not be considered today”, said senator Ben Hueso (D – San Diego) as he called the senate’s energy, utilities and communications committee to order yesterday. Assembly bill 1366 would extend a ban on regulation of voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) and other “Internet protocol enabled” services in California.

Conventional wisdom says the bill is dead for this year. It wasn’t amended before last night’s constitutional deadline, so there’ll be no more wrangling over the bill’s language. On the other hand, there are still three days left in the legislative session and it’s a high stakes bill for monopoly model telcos and cable companies like AT&T and Comcast. They stuff a lot of cash into lawmaker’s pockets have deep, philosophical points yet to make.

No reason for pulling the bill was offered. A hastily prepared analysis by committee staff shows that the line up of organisations for and against it didn’t change. AT&T, Frontier Communications, and the lobbying front organisation that Comcast and Charter Communications duck behind – the California Cable and Telecommunications Association – still support it; the Communications Workers of America, AT&T’s principal union, and the California Labor Federation still oppose it. In the heat of the end-of-the-session rush, what ends up in print often doesn’t reflect backroom reality, but in this case it’s probably accurate. Organised labor is probably the only force in Sacramento with more political power and money than AT&T, Comcast and Charter.

AB 1366 was disowned on Friday by assembly member Lorena Gonzalez (D – San Diego), who introduced it earlier this year and muscled it to within inches of the goal line. Presumably, she passed it over to two other assembly members – Jay Olbernolte (R – San Bernardino) and Tom Daly (D – Orange) – because the stiff opposition from labor organisations, which are the foundation of her political base, finally made it impossible for her to front for it.

The bill was amended during the handoff, limiting the ban’s extension to two years. But other amendments added even more perks for incumbent telecoms companies, particularly AT&T and, to a lesser extent, Frontier. Not surprisingly, that turned out to be a bad way to win friends in the final days of the legislative session.

The ban on VoIP regulation was imposed by the legislature in 2012, when no one was sure what direction VoIP or other services that ride on the Internet would take. Now we know. Today, VoIP is the telephone service technology preferred by telephone and cable companies because 1. it’s a century or so ahead of legacy copper phone tech, and 2. it’s unregulated. As a California Public Utilities Commission analysis shows, telcos are switching customers to VoIP at a rapid rate, to the point that state regulation of broadband and telephone infrastructure and service, which depends on legacy copper rules, will effectively end.

California telecoms backdoor deregulation bill, AB 1366, stalls

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Front line dispatch 625

Assembly bill 1366 was “pulled by the author” ahead of a committee hearing this afternoon. The California senate’s energy, utilities and communications committee was supposed to review amendments made last Friday, but that didn’t happen. No reason was given. The bill might be dead, or it might be going through a final rewrite, ahead of tonight’s hard, constitutional deadline for amending it. Or something else – anything is possible today. Tomorrow, well, that’ll be a different story. Stay tuned.

AT&T snakes perks into California deregulation bill, while its author ducks for cover

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Copper head snake 625

AT&T slipped more special privileges into a bill that would, in effect, deregulate broadband and modern voice service in California. At the same time, the bill was disowned, sorta, by its godmother, assembly member Lorena Gonzalez (D – San Diego).

Assembly bill 1366, which would extend an existing ban on regulation of voice over Internet protocol service (VoIP), was amended ahead of Friday’s soft deadline for changing bill language in the California legislature (Tuesday is the hard, constitutional cutoff for amendments). Many of the changes are tweaks that weaken the few, feeble consumer protections that were added to the bill as it moved through committee and floor votes. AT&T, because of its basic service obligations over a large rural footprint and its plans to replace wireline networks with low capacity fixed broadband technology, will benefit particularly. So will Frontier Communications for the same reasons, albeit over a much smaller subscriber base.

Gonzalez, who introduced the bill and muscled it through the Sacramento sausage machine, took her name off of it and handed it over to a pair of assembly members – Jay Olbernolte (R – San Bernardino) and Tom Daly (D – Orange) – who are less likely to be damaged by blowback from organised labor, which strongly opposes AB 1366.

The prior version of AB 1366 would have allowed current California Public Utilities Commission regulations governing basic telephone service and universal service programs to encompass VoIP service. No longer – those potential loopholes were sewn shut on Friday. A more specific set of rules that sets out requirements for incumbents when they are the “carrier of last resort” – an issue primarily for rural areas – still applies to VoIP, but only to the extent that they must “offer” telephone connections to hard-to-reach customers. The CPUC would no longer be able to oversee “the provision of” those carrier of last resort services. In other words, AT&T and Frontier can use VoIP to meet their most basic service obligations, but the quality and reliability of that service is up to them.

Another gift is the exclusion of “services using radio frequency spectrum licensed by the Federal Communications Commission” from already weak and exception-ridden time frames for restoring VoIP service following an outage. The immediate benefit will be to mobile carriers that use new “voice over LTE” (VoLTE) technology, but over the long term it will also apply to “wireless local loop” (WLL) systems that AT&T plans to use to replace rural telephone lines. WLL runs on licensed spectrum, but not much of it – capacity is a fraction of what wireline networks can carry.

Another change might make AB 1366 easier to swallow for some union allies in the legislature, but also sets up a potentially lucrative payday for lawmakers, particularly those planning to run for statewide office. Instead of lasting five years, the ban on VoIP regulation would only last two years. That would mean a rerun of this session’s backroom dealing, just ahead of the 2022 campaign cycle for California constitutional offices. That’s when big, corporate contributions, such as those AT&T, Comcast and the rest lavish on their friends, are needed to reach voters across the state. Gonzalez plans to run for the California secretary of state’s job then.

Unanimous approval by key committee sends AT&T’s deregulation bill to a vote of the full California senate

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

When the legislative dust settled on Friday, after a whirlwind morning in which the fate of hundreds of bills were announced after being decided behind closed doors in Sacramento, assembly bill 1366 remained alive. Carried by assembly member Lorena Gonzalez (D – San Diego) would, on the face of it, simply extend an existing ban on regulation of “Internet Protocol enabled communications services”, including voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) telephone service.

Given the increasing number of consumers switching – and being switched without their consent – from legacy copper-based plain old telephone service (POTS) to VoIP since the regulatory ban went into effect six years ago, AB 1366 spells a de facto end to state oversight of broadband and telephone infrastructure and service in California. As presently written, AB 1366 has a few exceptions to the broad prohibition on state or local VoIP regulation, but doesn’t say how those will be enforced. According to the most recent legislative staff analysis of the bill, it “places these provisions in a portion of the Business and Professions Code over which no board at the Department of Consumer Affairs has oversight…As a result, lawsuits brought by the Attorney General may be the only mechanism to enforce these provisions”.

AT&T deployed its cash, lobbyists and astroturf non-profit groups to argue for the bill, with universally similar support from Frontier Communications, Comcast and other cable, telephone and mobile companies. So far, it has prevailed over objections from organised labor, the California Public Utilities Commission and the Newsom administration. The seven members of the California senate’s appropriations committee – five democrats and two republicans – unanimously voted in favor of the bill, and passed it on to the senate floor without new amendments.

There’s less than two weeks left in the California legislature’s 2019 regular session, with a soft deadline of the end of this week to amend bills, and a hard, constitutional deadline of next Tuesday. The question will be whether Gonzalez listens to her (otherwise) allies in organised labor – particularly the Communications Workers of America union – and tries to find new language they will accept, or simply sends the current version on to a vote by the full senate.

Newsom administration says telecoms deregulation bill offer little protection, particularly in rural California

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Leaning pole

Key opposition to assembly bill 1366 is coming from inside California governor Gavin Newsom’s administration. AB 1366 is the bill that would extend a ban on regulation of “Internet protocol enabled services”, including standard telephone service delivered by voice over Internet protocol technology (VoIP). It’s backed by AT&T, Comcast, Charter Communications, Frontier Communications and other telecoms companies, and a long list of non-profit organisations that they pay, but which otherwise have no particular interest in telecoms policy.

The California department of finance registered its formal opposition to AB 1366, which requires sign-off from the governor’s office. The finance department’s objections mirror those made earlier: that the rapid conversion of California’s telephone networks from regulated legacy technology to unregulated VoIP is a backdoor path to complete deregulation of broadband and phone service and infrastructure, and the sham consumer protections added to the bill as window dressing are worthless.

The bill assigns responsibilities of enforcement to the AG without any authority besides litigation and it establishes certain requirements of VoIP service providers without providing any penalty or enforcement mechanisms if they do not comply…

The Legislature and AG do not have any mechanism for resolving those complaints outside of legislation or litigation. The Department of Justice’s resources will likely be taxed given it has to now enforce VoIP service quality requirements and work through all the issues associated with VoIP.

The damage, according to the finance department, will fall disproportionately on rural Californians…

Recent catastrophic wildfires and disasters have demonstrated broader vulnerabilities in the communications grid, highlighted the lack of resiliency, and underscored the need for standards and rules. This bill would continue to prevent the [California Public Utilities Commission] from undertaking investigations or rulemakings that would result in regulations or standards for a large share of the technology used on the communications grid…
Customers who are most at risk of experiencing service abandonment if the [carrier of last resort] requirement is not enforced will be in rural areas where there is no other provider of reliable, affordable telephone service. This represents a significant public safety concern given the increased amount of catastrophic wildfires and disasters in these areas and need to access the communications grid unfailingly.

AB 1366 is in legislative limbo right now. It’s sitting in the California senate’s appropriations committee, which means that legislative leadership will decide on Friday whether it moves forward to a vote by the full senate. Although the millions of dollars that AT&T and the rest of the telecoms industry pays to California senators and assembly members matters a lot, but maybe not as much as the opposition of organised labor and, now, the governor’s office, if not the governor himself.

California telco deregulation bill amended, but not by much

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Burlingame pole 8aug2019

The latest, but probably not the final, amendments to assembly bill 1366 are posted on the California legislature’s website. It’s the bill that would extend a current ban on regulation of “Internet protocol enabled” services, including, particularly, voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) service.

The new version does not address the core objection of telecoms labor unions and the California Public Utilities Commission. They say that because AT&T and Frontier are switching customers from regulated legacy telephone technology to unregulated VoIP service, extending the ban on VoIP regulation would effectively deregulate telephone service completely in California.

On the whole, the new amendments track with suggestions made in the most recent legislative committee analysis of AB 1366. The biggest change to the bill is to the extension itself: it’s now five years instead of ten. Another change is that telephone companies that have obligations to provide a basic level of voice service to anyone that wants it – AT&T is the biggest example – would still have to do that, even if they were using VoIP technology.

There’s still a requirement in the bill for residential VoIP providers to “initiate steps to restore service within 24 hours of receiving a report of a service outage” and complete the restoration within 72 hours, although there’s a long list of exceptions to the rule. Language was added to clarify 1. that the California attorney general “may” – not shall – “institute and prosecute actions or proceedings to enforce” the new rules, and 2. that the CPUC has no “jurisdiction or authority” in that regard.

Other changes require the CPUC to collect consumer complaints and forward them to the attorney general, and allow the California office of emergency services to set some 911 standards.

The Communications Workers of America, AT&T’s biggest union, is strongly opposed to the bill, and democratic lawmakers have been visibly uncomfortable with the idea of going against their wishes. Right now AB 1366 is in the hands of the senate’s appropriations committee, which will decide behind closed doors at the end of the month whether it moves forward or not.

Telephone deregulation bill amended by California senate committee, but it’s still a hot mess

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Deregulation of telephone service – and with it, telecommunications infrastructure – moved ahead yesterday in the California senate’s energy, utilities and communications committee. Backed by AT&T, Frontier Communications, Comcast and other monopoly model incumbents, assembly bill 1366 was approved on a largely positive, but not quite unanimous vote. It extends a ban on regulation of voice over Internet protocol service (VoIP) by the California Public Utilities Commission and other state agencies. As the shift from old style, regulated telephone service to unregulated VoIP continues, the effect is to allow telcos and cable companies to back out from under the CPUC’s jurisdiction.

That’s a clearly stated goal of the bill’s author, assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez (D – San Diego) who told the committee “we’ve got to figure out a better way than just handing something to the PUC, which would take ten years to get the kind of progress we’re making right now with this bill”.

AB 1366 was amended, but I don’t know exactly what those amendments are yet. Printed copies were given to committee members just before the bill was taken up. It appears that the changes are largely in line with recommendations in an earlier analysis by committee staff and will, to some degree, allow VoIP regulation in regards emergency services and “last resort” rural services.

Judging from the discussion, though, the bill is still confusing and contradictory, with drafting errors, loopholes and a vague and largely useless enforcement mechanism. Gonzalez said that more changes would be made later.

Gonzalez and a couple of representatives from non-profit groups (who demonstrated no particular telecommunications policy involvement or knowledge) spoke in favor of the bill. They were followed by long line of similarly irrelevant endorsers, led by AT&T staff lobbyist Bill Devine, and joined by lobbyists for Frontier, Comcast, Cox Communications, CTIA and Verizon.

Then came the opposition.

A representative from the Communications Workers of America, AT&T’s principal union, repeated arguments made in the assembly. CPUC commissioner Martha Guzman Aceves then made the case for keeping the commission in the game…

We know that millions of Californians do not benefit from any competition in the communications marketplace, that hundreds of thousands have no high speed broadband access, and a third of Californians – 13 million approximately – do not benefit from any competition. This is an oligopoly, it’s not a free market. This bill prohibits the state from guaranteeing essential and reliable communications services to all Californians, simply because the infrastructure has been upgraded. It will eliminate programs to insure infrastructure access to rural Californians, to the deaf, to the disabled and to the poor…

The bill is not about stifling innovation or apps like Skype. This bill is about deregulating the companies that own and manage the poles, wires and radios in California. Companies like Comcast and AT&T, not these apps. Under this bill, these companies will be left to their own sense of social responsibility…

They’ll decide which communities receive the next generation of technologies, like fiber, like 5G…they’ll decide whether or how quickly infrastructure is repaired or upgraded in poor communities and rural communities. They’ll decide whether they address complaints from local governments and your constituents…They will decide whether the service they provide is reliable and redundant so all Californians can reach 911 dispatchers at all times.

The next stop for AB 1366 is the senate appropriations committee, where more amendments might surface. That might not happen until the end of August. If it survives, it’ll go to a vote by the full senate. Labor organisations are strongly opposed to the bill, a fact that made Gonzalez visibly uncomfortable. If that opposition continues, all bets are off on AB 1366’s future.