Monday, October 25, 2021

In potential model for nation, California poised to scale up open access fiber

California is poised to adopt a model of open access fiber infrastructure. The state is initially focusing on “middle mile” transmission infrastructure but could later extend the model that structurally separates end user services from the fiber that delivers them to “last mile” distribution infrastructure connecting customer premises.

The model, financed by a current state budget allocation of $3.5 billion for state owned transmission infrastructure and a similar amount for distribution infrastructure in the form of grants and loan securitization, dovetails with the current federal regulatory regime put in place in 2018 that regards the service layer as distinct from infrastructure, regulating IP services as information services under Title I of the Communications Act of 1934.

It also emerges one year after the U.S. Federal Communications Commission conditionally repealed rules put in place by the 1996 amendment to the act requiring incumbent telephone companies to sell wholesale access to its proprietary infrastructure to competitive local exchange carriers -- CLECs. That heightens the need for open access transmission infrastructure such as that being planned in California.

Both federal policies also pave the way for non-incumbents/CLECs including public sector entities and consumer telecom cooperatives to more widely build out and operate open access fiber distribution networks. Incumbent telcos and CLECs are limited by their business models requiring rapid returns on investment and relatively high ARPU. Consequently, these investor-owned companies offer limited distribution fiber in select neighborhoods most likely to meet those requirements, leaving the majority of homes without fiber connections as legacy copper telephone infrastructure has become obsolete as demand for quality, reliable connectivity rises rapidly.

Instead of mitigating risk by cherry picking select neighborhoods, the open access model separates end user services from infrastructure. It thus spreads the risk of areas that are costlier to build fiber to all doorsteps by aggregating demand across a broad customer base, cross subsidizing the high-cost areas from revenues generated by businesses and institutions. That’s how the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) explained it in comments filed with the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) this month. In addition, the EFF recommends the CPUC develop a new license category for transmission infrastructure. In order to obtain licensure, the infrastructure would have to be offered on an open access basis to distribution infrastructure operators at affordable rates and offering sufficient capacity.

Thursday, October 07, 2021

Telcos, Comcast target fiber upgrades to business customers -- not residences

Two legacy telephone companies and the nation's biggest cable TV company are upgrading their legacy metallic delivery infrastructures to fiber for business customers. Not targeted for the upgrades are residential users.

Residential voice telephone service was cross subsidized by business customers. There isn't a similar situation when it comes to advanced digital telecommunications. That's because under current U.S. regulatory policy, it's classified like the information services of the 1990s dialup era, AmericaOnline and CompuServe, and not as telecommunications services. 

Information services -- regulated under Title I of the Communications Act of 1934 -- are considered optional, discretionary services and not utilities. Hence, they are not subject to universal service and anti-redlining requirements, providing no regulatory incentive for telcos and cablecos to offer fiber connections to residences.

Tuesday, October 05, 2021

County's public-private partnership with telco looks more like a pass through federal subsidy and not a PPP

AT&T Takes the Public-Private Broadband Partnership Plunge - Telecompetitor: This AT&T public-private project still needs final funding approval from the County, which will trigger finalization of a contract between the two parties. No terms have been disclosed. Public-private partnerships are growing in momentum, as cities, towns, and localities look to ensure their communities have the adequate broadband infrastructure and are willing to put up funds to accomplish it. Increasingly, incumbent carriers like AT&T are interested in partnering.

But is this truly a public private partnership? Per the story below, it looks more like a pass through federal subsidy for a proprietary closed access network in which the county would have no partnership interest.

EVANSVILLE, Ind. — Unincorporated Vanderburgh County will now be the focus of a nearly $40 million investment into broadband service provided by AT&T. 

AT&T was selected following its response to a Vanderburgh County request for proposal and unanimously approved Tuesday by the Vanderburgh County Commissioners. Four companies responded to the request, a jump from the county’s previous broadband project, which had one response. 

The total investment will be $39.6 million, of which $9.9 million is public money through the American Rescue Plan Act and $29.7 million is investment by AT&T.

Friday, September 24, 2021

Treasury Department guidance on American Rescue Plan Act funding for state and local government fiber projects raises questions on throughput standard

The U.S. Treasury Department has updated guidance on the use of $10 billion in American Rescue Plan Act grant funding to state, local and tribal governments for capital projects to construct advanced telecom infrastructure. The text below is excepted from the guidance:

Broadband Infrastructure Projects. The construction and deployment of broadband infrastructure projects (“Broadband Infrastructure Projects”) are eligible for funding under the Capital Projects Fund program if the infrastructure is designed to deliver, upon project completion, service that reliably meets or exceeds symmetrical download and upload speeds of 100 Mbps. If it would be impracticable, because of geography, topography, or excessive cost, for a Broadband Infrastructure Project to be designed to deliver services at such a speed, the Project must be designed so that it reliably meets or exceeds 100 Mbps download speeds and between 20 Mbps and 100 Mbps upload speeds and be scalable to a minimum of 100 Mbps symmetrical for download and upload speeds. Treasury encourages Recipients to focus on projects that will achieve last-mile connections. Recipients considering funding middle-mile projects are encouraged to have commitments in place to support new and/or improved last-mile service.

This guidance favors fiber to the premises projects providing symmetrical throughput, something fiber can easily support. What's curious is the highlighted text. It begs the question of how "geography, topography, or excessive cost" (and what would be excessive?) would allow projects providing asymmetric throughput to qualify if those specific qualifications are met. It makes no sense because none of those factors would reasonably affect whether the delivered throughput is symmetric or asymmetric for a fiber to the premises project. Treasury clearly has some more explaining to do.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Biden administration’s delayed FCC appointments suggests telecom policy strategy overhaul in the works

Telecom policy wonks fretted and info tech press have scratched their heads for months over the Biden administration’s delay in fully staffing the Federal Communications Commission and naming a permanent chair. Affording the administration the benefit of the doubt, it’s likely the new administration has been taking its time developing a wholistic two-pronged telecommunications strategy.

Here’s how it might be playing out. The goal of the first part is to address the nation’s accumulated advanced telecommunications infrastructure deficits built up over the past two decades and bring robust connectivity to as many American doorsteps as quickly as possible. That element of the strategy is expressed in the administration’s “build back better” American Jobs Plan infrastructure initiative, now legislation pending in the House. It appropriates $42 billion to the states for advanced telecommunications infrastructure.

The second strategy prong would have a longer timeline with the goal of establishing a durable regulatory and subsidy regime to ensure Americans can get connectivity no matter where they live, with reliable service at affordable rates. It’s linked to the first prong: The infrastructure measure would require the FCC to conduct an inquiry on universal service and make policy recommendations to Congress.

Given the broad and long-term implications of that component, the administration would naturally want to move at a deliberate pace in nominating FCC members as well as naming a permanent chair. The administration would want to ensure its nominees are fully on board with its broader strategy and able to implement it.

It’s also possible the administration is mulling over the respective roles of the FCC and National Telecommunications and Information Administration relative to advanced telecommunications as part of a broader restructuring that could end up as a legislative proposal later in the administration. The NTIA will develop rules and oversee the telecom infrastructure funding allocated in the pending infrastructure bill.

Friday, August 27, 2021

Americans have a strong public interest group on advanced telecommunications policy: themselves. And they’ve been lobbying hard for two decades.

It has been postulated that America’s advanced telecommunications infrastructure deficits are largely attributable to the lack of public interest representation in public policymaking. There’s no equivalent of the Sierra Club for environmental policy in the case of telecommunications policy as Christopher Mitchell, Director of the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Networks Initiative, observed in a recent Background Briefing with Ian Masters (@10:18).

That’s not entirely true. For years, Americans have been barraging their elected representatives at all levels of government with complaints and pleas for action to remedy lack of connectivity, high costs and poor customer service. When people are vexed to see neighbors just down the road or around the bend with landline connections but not available at their address and don’t get a satisfaction from providers, their next calls are often to their elected representatives and the news media. It’s been going on two decades now. It began in the early 2000s when DSL service didn’t quite extend to their homes and calls to telephone companies for connections were rebuffed or service promised “soon” that never arrived as the years crept by. Meanwhile, many were forced to turn to substandard, poor value wireless options.

During the COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying public health measures that turned homes into offices, classrooms and medical clinics, their predicament grew more dire and the calls to elected representatives for action more desperate as household members dealt with sluggish, unreliable and costly connectivity. In 2020, some elected representatives noted the subject had become the top issue in constituent communications with their offices.

When people don’t see their situations improving year after year despite their petitions to elected officials and only lip service from them, they naturally begin to wonder if they are really being heard. They grow disillusioned and angry and receptive to corrosive political messaging that the “system is rigged against them.”

A reinforcing perception that has become something of self-fulfilling prophecy is the big telephone and cable companies are the only voices that truly count. People can petition their elected representatives all they want, but their supplications don’t really mean anything in the end because the companies will always get their way and investors’ interests outweigh those of the public. It’s a variation on testimony by the then president of General Motors at a 1953 Senate hearing suggesting that what’s good for GM is good for America.

The comparison doesn’t apply to AT&T and Comcast today. While most Americans could buy an affordable car in the 1950s, many cannot get a landline advanced telecommunications connection at most any price or at an affordable monthly rate for those that can.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Federally backed credit facilities needed to fund fiber expansion

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed by the Senate provides a strong infusion of grant funding for fiber advanced telecommunications infrastructure builds. Particularly for public and consumer cooperative owned fiber distribution infrastructure connecting homes, businesses and institutions. As President Biden suggested when he put forth his outline for the bill as the American Jobs Plan, building this critical infrastructure to reach all premises is more likely to occur when funding prioritizes networks owned, operated by, or affiliated with local governments, non-profits, and co-operatives. Providers Biden noted, with “less pressure to turn profits and with a commitment to serving entire communities.” With that reduced financial burden and tax-exempt status, these entities can make funding go further than legacy telephone and cable companies.

Grant funding under the bill is a kick starter. More money will be needed given the high capital as well as operating costs involved. That’s where federal government-backed credit facilities could prove most useful while at the same time encouraging the use of fiber. It’s “future proof” technology as called for in the American Jobs Plan and has a life span of decades, corresponding to long term loan payback periods. The use of credit facilities is also more likely to appeal to fiscal conservatives than grant funding.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act would give tax exempt status to state issued bonds used for telecom infrastructure. But the bill language limits their use to areas where more than half of addresses that would be served in a census block group lack access to throughput that later generation DSL or fixed terrestrial wireless can provide. That’s not fiber, potentially leaving some premises with outdated, inadequate and poor value options.

Separate legislation pending in the House but thus far not advancing, H.R. 7302, would provide for low cost loan term loan guarantees and lines of credit for advanced telecommunications infrastructure administered by the federal Department of Commerce. Long term loans could cover up to 49 percent of capital costs and lines of credit up to 33 percent. The Department of Commerce would select eligible projects in areas lacking access download speed of at least 100 megabits per second and upload speed of at least 20 megabits per second and with latency that is sufficiently low to allow real-time, interactive applications. That could potentially rule out areas served by existing cable TV providers. While open access networks are specifically preferred under the bill language, fiber is not per a “technology neutrality” provision.

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Localities, consumer utility coops could take default lead role in future distribution fiber construction

The United States continues to lack a unified advanced telecommunications infrastructure policy framework 25 years after the enactment of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The law did not set forth standards governing physical infrastructure deployment. It merely directed the Federal Communications Commission to monitor the progress of the availability of advanced telecommunications. The FCC opted to measure that progress based on a sampling of throughput – not by the infrastructure being built to deliver it -- as advertised by providers in a given ZIP Code or census block and reported annually to the FCC.

Throughout most of this period and currently, the FCC chose to treat Internet delivered services as optional information services like those that existed in 1996 -- e.g. CompuServe and America Online -- instead of a telecommunications utility with a universal service mandate. Consequently, there was no regulatory incentive for telephone companies to reach all addresses within their service territories or to upgrade their legacy copper cable plants. They instead opted to provide DSL delivered services over copper only to homes that were technically serviceable due to DSL’s limited range. Seeing opportunity with the slow walking of fiber by telephone companies, cable companies revamped their coax cable networks to deliver IP services within their limited franchise “footprints.”

While large legacy telephone and cable companies are now the dominant providers, they are constrained by business models averse to capital investments. They have loads of debt on their balance sheets and investors expecting short term gains and dividends incompatible with the high costs and long term horizon of infrastructure investments. All of these factors led to only about a third of all American homes having fiber connections as the third decade of the 21st century begins.

Several hundred local governments and electric cooperatives stepped into the gap and have and are building fiber infrastructure. The question going forward is how these relatively small scale, disparate deployments created out of necessity will fit into the larger scheme going forward and their role in bringing fiber to every American doorstep. It’s a policy question inherent in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed by the Senate this month.

The legislation would allow states to make the initial determination by giving them jurisdiction over how $42 billion allocated in the bill for infrastructure grants is spent, with oversight by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Local governments and cooperatives would also help decide themselves since they would have to put up a 25 percent match for new infrastructure. With the structural business model challenges facing the large legacy telcos and cablecos, localities and cooperatives could move into a default leadership position. One off grants can’t remedy the incumbents’ ongoing structural limitations.

While the bill allows states to determine where the funding goes for distribution infrastructure, it authorizes states as well as a broad range of eligible entities to seek grants with a 30 percent match to construct critical transmission or “middle mile” infrastructure. That component of the nation’s advanced telecommunications infrastructure is growing increasingly crucial to support the growth of fiber distribution infrastructure and the resultant bandwidth demand the legislation will spur if enacted. Commercial entities that already own most transmission infrastructure would likely be the primary recipients.