Friday, May 14, 2021

Revised California state budget proposes $7 billion investment over 3 years to enhance advanced telecom access and affordability

A revised budget for the State of California’s fiscal year beginning July 1 calls for spending $7 billion over three years to enhance advanced telecom access and affordability. According to a budget summary issued today, slightly more than half of state residents have access to infrastructure providing fiber level service. “Service at speeds below 100 Mbps is not enough for households who are juggling the demands of distance learning, telework, and accessing health care on-line,” the summary states. “These numbers are an indication of lack of access, lack of quality infrastructure, and lack of affordability.”

The budget would also appropriate state funds to supplement federal American Rescue Act funds to construct a statewide transmission network. “The statewide network will incentivize providers to expand service to unserved and underserved areas by substantially reducing their upfront infrastructure costs, creating new opportunities for municipal fiber networks, and promoting affordability for consumers,” the summary states. “This essential backbone infrastructure is a foundational step towards the entire state having access to broadband. Moreover, the generational investment will create tens of thousands of quality jobs to help the state’s economy recover from the pandemic.”

The proposed budget would also establish a $500 million Loan Loss Reserve Account to help local governments, tribes and non-profits secure private financing for fiber infrastructure. “These last-mile networks require large upfront investments but the return to customers, communities, and California is significant,” the summary notes. The budget also proposes to supplement an existing high-cost area subsidy program managed by the state public utility commission with $500 million in federal American Rescue Act funds.

The state Legislature must approve the proposed budget by June 15. Separately, lawmakers are considering submitting a bond measure (AB 34) to state voters that would raise $10 billion for grants to local governmental entities and Indian tribes for advanced telecommunications infrastructure and services.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Biden admin telecom infrastructure policy: Rural vs. urban not just a false choice. It's a false dichotomy.

For now, at least, the debate over the Biden broadband plan has mostly broken down along party lines, with familiar divisions emerging between those working to close the broadband availability gap in rural America and those working to close the access and affordability gap in cities. To Jonathan Chambers, a partner with the rural fiber-connectivity company Conexon, the Biden plan risks diverting funding to cities, when it ought to go toward building out networks in rural America, where it's more costly to build and where a sparse population makes it harder to recover costs through subscription fees. "I'm in favor of spending money on infrastructure, but unless you identify the problem first and target the money toward the problem, you're just going to perpetuate the problem," said Chambers, who previously worked for both the Senate and the FCC. Chambers worried that the Biden plan is motivated by "the folks in the Biden administration want[ing] to support their constituency, which are cities." Proponents of the Biden plan view the rural-urban divide as a false choice. "We have a real challenge in connecting both rural and urban populations," said Mitchell. "To the extent that we have to choose between them, I think we're doing something wrong." (Emphasis added)

Mitchell's right. Not only is this a false choice, it's a false dichotomy. When it comes to telecommunications infrastructure policy, too many discuss the issue as if it were still 1950 and there were largely two Americas, one urban and one rural. 

Today, it's not as binary. Americans have also settled in suburbs, small towns and expanding exurbs at the edges of metropolitan areas. Advanced telecom infrastructure deployment is very unevenly deployed in these areas, where people have moved to escape congested and costly urban areas. The public health restrictions of the past year or so have accelerated that trend. The Biden administration's American Jobs Plan that would allocate $100 billion to building public option open access fiber to the home advanced telecom infrastructure offers a substantial start to meet this need.

Argument that public option open access fiber is unnecessary "overbuilding" misses the point

Cable companies' argument against municipal broadband is not new. Cable, they say, already blankets the country. Why build more capacity where it already exists when there are still parts of the country with no capacity at all? Besides, they argue, it's not the government's place to interfere with private competition. "The belief that municipalities deserve some type of preference in the distribution of funds and that that somehow is going to lead to some greater consumer benefit? We don't think that's true or that there's any real evidence," said James Assey, executive vice president of NCTA. That argument has gotten cable companies their way in state after state, including in Tennessee, where AT&T fought efforts by Chattanooga's successful municipal network to expand in 2016. And it's gaining ground among lawmakers in Congress too. "The proposal today would prioritize, unfortunately, inefficient government-run networks, at the expense of private networks, and create arbitrary speed thresholds that favor fiber-only projects with no restrictions to prevent overbuilding in areas where broadband already exists," Republican congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers said during a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee last week.

The "overbuilding" argument misses the point. Building open access fiber to the home infrastructure provides a badly needed public option (and NOT market competition given telecom infra is a natural monopoly) to ensure access to and affordability of advanced telecommunications. Investor owned companies answer first to their shareholders and have no public obligation to ensure those exist. By contrast, the Biden administration's telecom infrastructure plan proposed as part of the American Jobs Plan serves the American people whose interests undoubtedly outweigh those of shareholders.

The timing of the proposed public option is propitious. Legacy telephone and cable companies lack the financial capacity to take on the job and can only invest where they can be assured of a rapid return on investment. Private capital investment is too risk averse, like the legacy providers favoring dense residential "communities" such as planned unit and multi-family development.

Saturday, May 08, 2021

Public option open access fiber holds promise of ending unproductive "broadband mapping"

First and foremost, the FCC, Congress, local government, community groups, and existing service providers need to work together to create accurate broadband maps. Without an understanding of where broadband infrastructure actually exists, we won’t know which communities lack access to the Internet and which are served.

Risks and Rewards of the U.S. Broadband Funding Boom | Internet Society

While on the surface, this appears to be a rational starting point, in reality it's retrogressive and not a step forward. "Broadband mapping" originates from the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that gave the U.S. Federal Commission authority to define advanced telecommunications based on throughput. The FCC determines what constitutes "broadband" level throughput. Providers are required to report annually to the FCC where they are selling it. Efforts to map this data have resulted in decades of unproductive gaming and wasteful controversy among regulators, policymakers, service providers and public interest advocates over the accuracy and utility of the reports.

The Biden administration's proposed American Jobs Plan properly regards advanced telecommunications as critical infrastructure rather than "broadband" as a service. It defines a level of throughput that makes it a de facto fiber to the home infrastructure standard. It would also create a public option by prioritizing networks owned by public sector and nonprofit entities such as consumer cooperatives.

Instead of mapping "broadband speed," what policymakers should do first is identify existing public sector and nonprofit entities that currently operate fiber networks. The American Jobs Plan and other potential sources of federal funding should be directed to them to expand and strengthen their networks. Where these networks are absent, funding should be allocated to enable regional public sector and nonprofit operators to design and build open access fiber as a much needed public option to remedy widespread gaps in access and affordability.

Friday, May 07, 2021

Cable Firms Fear Being Left in Dust in Biden Broadband Quest

(Bloomberg) -- The Biden administration’s multitrillion-dollar infrastructure proposal includes $100 billion to bring high-speed broadband to every American, an idea that might be expected to win applause from those who provide the service.

But cable companies such as Comcast Corp. and Charter Communications Inc. that connect about two-thirds of U.S. homes that have broadband service fear the plan’s specific call for “future-proof” technology could leave them facing subsidized competitors.

That’s because the traditional coaxial lines that cable companies still use to serve most of their subscribers don’t handle the upload speeds that consumer advocates say should be required to receive federal infrastructure aid. Many say subsidies should go only to systems that can download and upload traffic at speeds of at least 100 megabits per second.

Cable Firms Fear Being Left in Dust in Biden Broadband Quest

A few observations here:

  • Cable isn’t in the residential telecommunications business. It’s in the video entertainment and live spectator sports business, selling various video and sports packages.
  • Cable companies only got into the IP-delivered services such as data and VOIP because of an accident of history when telephone companies didn’t upgrade their copper to fiber and instead opted for DSL. Cable offered better throughput than DSL.
  • As they were getting into IP services in mid 2000s, cable companies lobbied successfully to create new state laws establishing “video franchises” regulated by state public utility commissions to neuter the power of local governments -- the traditional issuer of cable franchises -- to require service be made available to all addresses. For those households not passed by their cable, they demand thousands and even hundreds of thousands of dollars in connection fees to extend their cable down the road or cul de sac to establish service.
  • Cable service is pricey (consistent with its positioning as a discretionary consumer service rather than a utility) and poor customer service is legendary.
  • All that being said, there is a future for this industry: as a video content provider in a public option open access fiber ecosystem.


Thursday, May 06, 2021

Biden administration’s American Jobs Plan: Reframing telecommunications as infrastructure policy

America’s hodge podge of unevenly deployed residential fiber optic connections that reach only about one third of all homes can be traced back to public policy expressed in the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

Although fiber optic technology was available when the law was enacted, the drafters of the statute instead charted a future course based on legacy twisted pair copper telephone lines for dialup and its irregularly deployed successor, DSL. That in turn created path dependency on twisted pair copper to deliver Internet-based services to homes even though it’s technically substantially inferior to fiber given it was designed to deliver analog voice and not digital services.

The fundamental problem with the Act is it viewed telecommunications as a market much like the hot 1990s personal computer market. Its basis is “light touch” market regulation, hoping to encourage market competition that would spur innovation, lifting all boats and creating relative parity in service availability and quality across the nation. PCs are a commodity market whereas telecommunications is not. It’s infrastructure and requires infrastructure policy.

The Biden administration’s infrastructure proposal, the American Jobs Plan, is an opportunity to make a much overdue course correction and establish policy that treats telecommunications as the essential infrastructure it is.

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Deloitte white paper points up flawed U.S. policy of chasing throughput versus modernizing copper to fiber

Despite more than $107 billion in federal subsidies between 2010 and 2020 to boost throughput outside of densely populated metro centers, the United States hasn't obtained appreciable and durable benefit, concludes a recently issued white paper by the consulting firm Deloitte.

Optimism over the past 10 years that billions of private and public investment in underserved geographies for broadband access and adoption would help close the digital divide has waned as outcomes have often disappointed. Previous programs increased the number of people with access to the FCC’s definition of broadband by less than 1% (<1%; 1.6 million people) between 2014 and 2019, partially as a result of the changing definition of broadband.

Unless the nation changes course on telecommunications policy and stops chasing "broadband" throughput and instead replaces copper telephone lines reaching nearly every American home with fiber, the paper suggests, it will continue the wasteful cycle and reap less than optimal economic advantage. 

The Biden administration's proposed infrastructure plan offers an opportunity to do that by prioritizing fiber built by public sector and nonprofit corporations that don't carry the burden of generating profits that disincentivizes investing in fiber and only doing so proscribed neighborhood deployments that potentially offer the most favorable return on investment. A big advantage of building public option fiber is it ends the broadband speed chase since fiber can easily accommodate expected growth in bandwidth requirements. That necessitates dispensing with the "technology neutral" standard of the 1996 Telecommunications Act that gave rise to unending debates over what constitutes broadband and the related issue of net neutrality, as described in the Deloitte paper:

Since 1996, the US government has set minimum speed requirements to define broadband service, with the hopes of keeping pace with the exponential growth in consumption. These minimum performance expectations have changed as applications require increasing amounts of bandwidth. From 2011 to 2014, the FCC definition of broadband was 4 Mbps uplink and 1 Mbps downlink. In 2015, the FCC updated its definition of broadband to speeds of 25 Mbps downlink and 3 Mbps uplink. The 2015 broadband definition, which persists today, was more suitable to support new applications. Now, pandemic induced requirements for streaming, videoconferencing, and the promise of further innovation make the FCC’s 2015 broadband definition of 25/3 the topic of ongoing debate at both the state and federal levels.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

As policymakers consider potential major FTTH expansion, U.S. confronts labor and supply chain constraints.

As the United States confronts the need to rapidly ramp up deployment of fiber to the home (FTTH) advanced telecommunications infrastructure, it faces a major labor and supply chain challenges. There are only so many qualified people who know how to design, build, operate and maintain FTTH networks. Over the past two decades or so, field technicians were laid off by investor-owned telephone companies that limited FTTH construction as their legacy copper outside plant was placed in run off mode and deteriorated. Others have retired or are about to, but aren’t being replaced by younger journeymen, notes industry observer Doug Dawson.

Additionally, there is a limited capacity to manufacture fiber optic cable and electronic equipment that controls the photons that carry the bits and bytes of information that power high quality digital voice, video and data.

In a recent podcast interview, Dawson said these constraints disadvantage the small community fiber projects that have sprung up to fill the many potholes in America’s FTTH infrastructure that currently passes only a third of all homes. Due to their limited purchasing power, these smaller builds will go to the back of the line, particularly if they– as is the case with many – lack a “shovel ready” construction plan. Waiting for years for FTTH, they’ll face yet further delay as they are out competed by larger projects and those able to pay higher labor rates – estimated to comprise about 70 percent of construction costs.

These circumstances point to the need for solutions, particularly as federal policymakers contemplate a major fiber infrastructure expansion under the Biden administration’s American Jobs Plan. In this context, it’s properly framed as a jobs plan since the nation will need to raise a large corps of workers to construct the enormous amount of fiber needed to bring it to where it needs to be at present and going forward. It might well be a modified 21st century version of the infrastructure oriented 1939 Works Progress Administration with a digital infrastructure component.

Infrastructure funding might also target projects of a broader regional scope in order to compete for labor and equipment and invest more efficiently due to enhanced market power and economies of scale.

As part of or to supplement the American Jobs Plan, policymakers should also consider industrial policy that would provide incentives to rapidly expand the supply of needed fiber optic cable and electronics and establish temporary capacity to ramp up production.