Friday, September 04, 2015

Cable companies facing enormous shifts in market, regulatory environments

Cable companies like Comcast, Time Warner and others are facing enormous shifts in the market and regulatory environment that are likely to prove very challenging to navigate going forward. Earlier this year, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission subjected cable companies to Title II of the Communications Act in its Open Internet rulemaking deeming Internet service providers -- cable companies top the list measured by total customer premises served -- common carrier telecommunications utility providers under Title II. 

That's hugely incompatible with cable's business model based on offering subscriptions to bundles of TV channels to selected -- and not all -- customer premises in their service areas. At the same time as this regulatory sea change is occurring, the marketplace is also being disrupted as consumers increasingly shun these offerings.

Cable's subscription-based model is far better suited to the FCC's previously adopted classification of Internet service as a specialized information service -- and the cablecos' market positioning of themselves as entertainment and not telecommunications providers. Now it's gone except in the unlikely event the courts step in and restore it. Meanwhile, consumers are turning elsewhere for video entertainment.

Gov. Beshear, Rep. Rogers launch statewide broadband network – The Ohio County Monitor

Gov. Beshear, Rep. Rogers launch statewide broadband network – The Ohio County Monitor: Reliable, high-speed Internet is coming to every county of the state, and supporters say the broadband project will be the key catalyst for profound and sweeping growth in job creation, health access and education.

To celebrate the construction of the statewide KentuckyWired, I-Way broadband network, Gov. Steve Beshear, Congressman Hal Rogers, state and local officials and hundreds of citizens gathered at Hazard Community and Technical College to learn more about KentuckyWired and how Kentucky’s future will benefit from broadband.

The broadband project will begin in eastern Kentucky and over the next three years will spread throughout the state.

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The leaders also called on communities and local providers to get ready for the project by preparing the “last mile,” or the Internet hookups from the broadband “highway” to homes and businesses. (Emphasis added)

It's one thing to build middle mile Internet infrastructure such as the project reported here. But the value of that middle mile infrastructure can only be fully realized when it connects homes, businesses and institutions via last mile infrastructure. Merely issuing calls to communities and local providers to build it is no assurance that last mile infrastructure be constructed in a timely manner, particularly given the business model and financial challenges. There needs to be a holistic plan to build a complete telecommunications system. Otherwise there's the very real risk of ongoing Internet access disparities as I previously commented.

Friday, August 28, 2015

AT&T to deploy "wireless local loop" fixed premise service in high cost areas

AT&T will apparently use wireless technology to provide fixed premise Internet telecommunications services using funding from the Connect America Fund (CAF) to subsidize infrastructure costs in high cost areas of the nation. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission announced this week that AT&T accepted $428 million in annual subsidies from the CAF to serve 2.2 million rural consumers in 18 states. Since the FCC requires CAF recipients to provide connectivity of "at least" 10Mbps for downloads and 1Mbps for uploads, the wireless gambit could potentially meet that standard. AT&T's wireless strategy was communicated to the FCC in a letter dated August 27, 2015 (H/T to California-based Steve Blum of Tellus Venture Associates):

We anticipate meeting our CAF Phase II obligations through a mix of network technologies, including through the deployment of advanced wireless technologies on new wireless towers that will be constructed in previously unserved areas. We will diligently pursue the necessary tower siting and permitting processes so that these new towers can be completed in a timely manner.

As previously mentioned in this space, the so-called "wireless local loop" (WLL) infrastructure strategy proffered in 2014 as part of AT&T's proposed takeover of DirecTV will also help AT&T meet its universal service obligations under the FCC's recently adopted Open Internet regulatory scheme classifying Internet as a common carrier telecommunications service. The strategy will also provide alternative premise service delivery infrastructure as AT&T retires its legacy copper cable outside plant.

The upshot for AT&T customers: Those that were never offered DSL service when AT&T rolled it out more than a decade ago might now see premise service roughly equivalent to DSL sometime in the next five years while those outside the very limited range of its U-Verse triple play DSL-based service could find themselves switched from legacy DSL to WLL.

An unresolved problem, however, is as Internet bandwidth demand continues its inexorable rapid rise, the WLL technology will be obsolete as soon as it's deployed and falls short of the FCC's current minimum benchmark for Internet service of 25Mbps down and 3Mbps up adopted earlier this year.

U.S. paying price for lack of orderly transition plan to fiber telecom infrastructure

FCC Orders Rules for Copper Retirement | POTs and PANs: The biggest issue I see with getting rid of copper is where the phone company doesn’t have an alternate landline network ready for the transition. It doesn’t seem like a big issue to me when a company like Verizon wants to move customers from copper to FiOS. There have already been tens of millions of customers who have changed from copper to either FiOS fiber or to a cable company network who have experienced and accepted the required changes.

But AT&T has said that they want to walk away from millions of rural copper customers. That would force customers to migrate to either the cable company or to cellular wireless. This could be a huge problem for business customers because there are still a lot of business districts that have never been wired by the cable companies. And even where a business can change to a cable company network, they are not always going to be able to buy the services they want from the cable company. For example, those businesses might be using trunks or Centrex today that isn’t supported by their cable provider. These businesses are going to be facing an immediate and expensive upgrade cost to keep the kind of service they have always had.

Doug Dawson lays out the effects of the train wreck caused by the lack of an orderly transition plan in the U.S. to migrate from copper to fiber telecom infrastructure that should have been put in place a generation ago. The consequences of this and misplaced reliance on market forces in a monopolistic microeconomy are now coming home to roost. More on this in my forthcoming book, Service Unavailable: America's Telecommunications Infrastructure Crisis, available in September.

Friday, August 07, 2015

FCC inquiry could set stage to further reduce pressure on telcos, cablecos to deploy last mile infrastructure

Now that the U.S. Federal Communications Commission appears to be whiffing on enforcing Title II’s universal service and anti-redlining provisions relative to Internet service despite deeming Internet service a common carrier utility in a rulemaking earlier this year, it appears to be setting the stage to give big incumbent telephone and cable companies another potential pass on modernizing and building out their last mile infrastructures.

The FCC signaled that possible gambit this week in opening its annual review as required by Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to determine whether advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely manner.

In previous reviews, the FCC examined advanced telecom infrastructure providing both landline premise as well as mobile wireless and premise satellite service but opted to include only premise landline service in its determination, citing “significant concerns about the quality and reliability of the mobile and satellite service data” as well as factors including latency and usage allowances.

The 2015 review determined infrastructure deployment remained untimely as in previous reviews dating back nearly two decades and that 55 million Americans – 17 percent of the population – lack access to advanced telecommunications services capable of supporting high-quality voice, data, graphics and video.

For its next annual review, the FCC announced an inquiry this week seeking comment on whether mobile wireless and satellite should be included:

While fixed terrestrial broadband service can have advantages for high-capacity home use, mobile broadband has become increasingly important for many uses, including connecting on social media, navigating during travel, communicating with family and friends, receiving timely news updates, and more. In the event mobile broadband is added to the assessment, the FCC is seeking comment on what speed of service should serve as the benchmark for assessing availability. The FCC is also proposing to consider the availability of fixed satellite broadband in its annual assessment of fixed broadband availability.

Such a move could also pave the way for creating a benchmark lower than the new speed standard of 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up established in the 2015 Section 706 review since this level of service is not offered by mobile wireless and satellite providers. That would make it easier for the FCC to declare advanced telecom infrastructure is in fact being timely deployed. Doing so would effectively sanction the deplorable status quo that has existed for many years where about one in five customer premises remain unable to obtain premise landline Internet service.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Early indications that FCC not enforcing Title II Internet universal service, anti-redlining provisions

--FCC accepts AT&T assertion of Title II compliance on its face

--Consumer complaint against Comcast closed despite demand for $535,000 to establish Internet service

Earlier this year, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission deemed Internet service a common carrier utility under Title II of the Communications Act and thus subject to the law’s universal service and non-discrimination obligations. New FCC rules implementing the policy became final on June 12, 2015 and withstood judicial petitions by large telephone and cable companies and their trade associations to block them from taking effect.

Going forward, it remains to be seen whether the FCC will enforce Title II universal service and anti-redlining requirements against the large, dominant telephone and cable companies that provide much of the nation’s premise landline Internet service in tightly proscribed “footprints” within their service areas. Early indications are that the FCC is opting to not enforce these requirements even though it specifically declined to forbear their enforcement in its March 12, 2015 Open Internet Order and Rulemaking, finding that doing so would not be in the public interest. Harold Feld of Public Knowledge termed universal service “the quintessential common-carrier obligation.”

Nevertheless, it appears the FCC rather than enforcing key Title II obligations is choosing to merely pass complaints of violations on to providers and then summarily closing them out once the provider communicates with the complainant. I offer my own experience as evidence.

On June 15, 2015, I attempted to place an online order for Internet service for my home office premise in Northern California and received this screen:

I also obtained the following communication from an AT&T agent in a June 15, 2015 online chat session:

Agent: Unfortunately, neither AT&T Business U-verse nor DSL services are available in your area. There may be several reasons why AT&T Business Internet Service is not available in your area. The most common reason is that there are a set number of ports to deliver service in each area, and we've reached capacity. It's also possible that your business is outside of the range to receive service.

A subsequent attempt to order a small business bundle of phone and Internet service resulted in this email from AT&T:

Dear Fred Pilot,
I'm sorry but internet services are not available to this address at this time. Do you want to continue with the phone line and long distance order?
Thank you for choosing AT&T.


Shelley Zeigler
AT&T Small Business Online

* * *

I filed a complaint with the FCC on June 15, 2015 contending AT&T by failing to fulfill my order for Internet service was in violation of the FCC's recent Open Internet Order and specifically Title II SEC. 201(a) of the Communications Act that requires common carriers to "furnish service upon reasonable request therefor."

On July 30, 2015, I received this update from the FCC:

Hi Frederick,
Your Ticket No. 342043 was served on your carrier for its review and response.
Your carrier has provided the FCC with a response to your complaint. You should receive a copy of the response from the carrier within 7-10 days via postal mail. As such, no further action is required. Your complaint is closed.
Thank you for your complaint and help in furthering the FCC’s mission on behalf of consumers.

*  *  *

On July 18, 2015 I received an email from the manager of the AT&T Office of the President stating that AT&T reviewed my complaint and “determined that neither DSL or U-verse are available at this time,” adding that “AT&T also finds that it is not in violation of the Open Internet Order referenced in the FCC complaint.” 

Bottom line: The FCC closed the case based on AT&T’s assertion that it is not out of compliance with Title II SEC. 201(a). The FCC’s position appears to be we’ll accept AT&T’s word it’s in compliance with the law and move on. That’s hardly what could be termed enforcement by an entity established as a regulatory agency.

Since Comcast also nominally serves my ZIP Code, I also attempted to order Comcast’s 25Mbs Internet service from its consumer website. The site responded “The address you entered could not be recognized” and offered four other addresses in my ZIP Code with numbers matching my own. A few days later, Comcast left a voice mail stating my address was "not serviceable."

I filed a complaint with the FCC alleging Comcast was in violation of Title II Section 201(a) and a ticket was opened. Subsequently, Comcast sent me an email indicating Comcast could service my address if I paid $535,000 to expand its network:

To: Frederick Pilot
Sent: Monday, June 29, 2015 8:58 AM
Subject: RE: Comcast/ESL01973870/Pilot/AE  
Good Morning Mr. Pilot,   I hope your weekend was well. I have just received word from our serviceability team. The serviceability team has confirmed that your address is over a mile from Comcast’s nearest network. The estimated cost to have the Comcast network expanded to your home is $535,000.00. 
Kind regards
Alyssa Executive Customer Relations Comcast | West Division Office: 1-888-966-7794 Ext. 3007906 M-F: 8:00a – 4:30p PDT        

Another email from Comcast clarifying that I (and not Comcast) would have to bear the cost:

WST - Comcast Executive Customer Relations 5
Jun 29 at 10:06 AM
To:  Frederick Pilot
Mr. Pilot,   If you would like to discuss paying the estimated fee of $535,000.00 to have the lines ran to your home I can get you in touch with our construction team. Please let me know how you’d like to proceed.
Alyssa Executive Customer Relations Comcast | West Division Office: 1-888-966-7794 Ext. 3007906 M-F: 8:00a – 4:30p PDT

*  *  *

I added these emails to my FCC complaint file, pointing out the demand for such a large sum in order to provide Internet service potentially violates two additional Title II provisions:

  • Section 254(b)(3) requiring Internet Service Providers to provide access to advanced telecommunications in all regions of the nation at rates that are reasonably comparable to rates charged for similar services in urban areas.
  • Section 202(a) of the Communications Act insofar as it is an unjust, unreasonable and discriminatory charge in order to effect a common carrier communications connection per Section 202(b). 

Apparently this additional information didn’t pique the interest of the FCC, which closed out the complaint on July 17, 2015:

FCC Consumer Complaints July 17, 2015 08:29

Hi Frederick,
Your Ticket No. 351820 was served on your carrier for its review and response.
Your carrier has provided the FCC with a response to your complaint. You should receive a copy of the response from the carrier within 7-10 days via postal mail. (None was received as of 7/31) As such, no further action is required. Your complaint is closed.

Thank you for your complaint and help in furthering the FCC’s mission on behalf of consumers. 

A follow up query to the FCC asking why the complaint was closed produced no response.
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