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Lifting Co-Op Broadband Restrictions in Tennessee Triggers Major Fiber Expansion

While parts of rural Tennessee languish with little or no broadband service, the state’s electric cooperatives are jumping to deliver internet access over fiber optic cables after the governor eased restrictions written into state law on rural co-ops offering public broadband service.

After Gov. Bill Haslam (R) signed a bill in 2017 permitting not-for-profit electric co-ops to offer broadband service to their customer-members, at least seven of Tennessee’s 22 municipal co-ops almost immediately launched fiber to the home service projects that offer faster and more reliable service than many of the state’s phone companies that still offer DSL service (or nothing at all).

Offering broadband service is a win-win for small communities and the co-ops that serve them, because existing infrastructure already in place to provide electric service can be augmented with fiber optic cables to deliver phone, television, and internet service as well. Co-ops can also use the fiber infrastructure to manage smart electricity grids, which can better detect outages and offer useful power management tools.

Among some of the projects now underway:

  • Tri-County Fiber Communications  of Lafayette, Tenn., serves more than 50,000 customers in rural Tennessee and Kentucky. Its fiber project will serve part of its current service area and is enrolling customers now who want to commit themselves as future customers and avoid a $1,500 installation fee.
  • SVEConnect, providing electric service since 1939, will offer customers in seven counties starting internet speeds of 200 Mbps and up to 1 Gbps in 2018, along with phone and television service.
  • Gibson Connect, operated by the Gibson Electric Membership Corporation, offers service to 39,000 homes and businesses in eight west Tennessee counties (Crockett, Dyer, Gibson, Haywood, Lake, Lauderdale, Obion and Madison) and four west Kentucky counties (Carlisle, Fulton, Graves and Hickman). Fiber broadband is planned to roll out gradually in many of these areas, and the co-op has already signed up 6,000 customers before service is even available. Gibson Connect will sell 100 Mbps internet for $49.95 and 1,000 Mbps service for $69.95 a month. Some customers in its service area are already served by other providers, but Gibson promises faster speeds, no data caps, and more affordable pricing.

The conservative and industry-backed groups that coordinated with the telecom industry to push Tennessee to pass restrictive laws effectively banning municipal or public broadband competition are grudgingly tolerating co-ops entering the broadband marketplace, as long as they only service areas where they won’t compete with an established phone or cable company. They also must remain within their electric service area.

Those opposed to public broadband claim the networks offer unfair competition because they often receive subsidies or grants. But many municipalities are doubly frustrated because the same companies that are lobbying to keep them out of the broadband business also refuse to provide service in their towns and villages. Many communities are too small or sparsely populated to provide enough Return On Investment (ROI) to entice those providers to expand, they add.

In areas where residents are quick to complain about government spending, many are strongly in favor of broadband development. Local officials have been told by frustrated residents, “if you do not provide the service, nobody else will.”

Despite the flourishing of fiber-fast broadband in areas served by co-ops, other parts of Tennessee remain broadband dead zones because the current state law continues to frustrate local communities trying to build financially feasible broadband projects that have a chance of breaking even. Tennessee’s Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who is running for a Senate seat this year, is notoriously one of the country’s biggest allies of AT&T, Comcast, and other telecom companies and favors keeping public broadband in shackles. She is also among the top recipients of campaign contributions from the telecom industry.

Charter Spectrum Launches Mobile Phone Service Today

Charter Communications today launched Spectrum Mobile, a new no-contract mobile phone service for existing Spectrum internet customers offering two simplified plans, including a “pay per gigabyte” plan that will allow customers to get unlimited calling, texting and 1 GB of data for $14 a month.

Spectrum Mobile relies on Verizon Wireless’ 4G LTE network to assure strong network coverage, and phones sold are also designed to simplify connections to home Wi-Fi and Spectrum’s nationwide network of Wi-Fi hotspots. But Spectrum Mobile appears to limit speeds of certain Verizon Wireless network traffic, notably videos, which “typically stream at 480p.”

The plans and website are remarkably similar to Comcast’s XFINITY Mobile, except Spectrum’s “pay per gig” plan costs $2 more ($14) than the one on offer from Comcast ($12).

Spectrum Mobile also does not currently permit customers to bring their own devices — customers must buy new devices from Spectrum’s store, which as of today only offers five Android phones from Samsung (Galaxy S8, S8+, S9, S9+)  and LG (K30). Phones can be purchased up front or financed for 24 months at 0% interest at prices ranging from $7.50 a month for the LG phone to $35.42/month for the Galaxy S9+. A separate trade-in program is available to reduce the cost of investing in a new phone. Spectrum accepts most phones from Apple, Samsung, HTC, Google and LG as long as they meet trade-in standards.

Customers are given the option of two plans, based on anticipated data consumption. Customers who typically use 3 GB or more per month should sign up for the unlimited plan:

Unlimited $45

  • Unlimited talk
  • Unlimited texting (does not count against 20 GB threshold)
  • “Unlimited” data: After 20 GB of usage per month, speeds may be throttled for the rest of the billing cycle.
  • Customers can switch a line from Unlimited to By the Gig at the end of your billing cycle, charged $14/GB.

By The Gig $14

  • Unlimited talk
  • Unlimited texting (does not count towards data usage)
  • $14/GB for data
  • Customers can switch a line from By the Gig to Unlimited at any time during the billing cycle, assuring you won’t pay more than $45 a month for a plan.

Spectrum’s initial assortment of smartphones is extremely limited.

There are various fine print terms and conditions to be aware of if considering switching to Spectrum Mobile:

  • New Spectrum internet customers with fewer than 30 days of service are limited to up to two lines. Devices associated with these lines are shipped to the internet service address on file. After 30 days of Spectrum internet service, customers may be eligible for more lines, up to a total of five, based on credit rating.
  • Equipment, taxes and fees (including regulatory recovery fees, surcharges and other applicable charges) extra and subject to change.
  • There are no additional fees for using your phone as a mobile hotspot. After 5 GB of mobile hotspot data use in the bill cycle, mobile hotspot speeds are reduced to a maximum of 600 kbps for the rest of the bill cycle. Mobile hotspot data counts toward your 20 GB high-speed data allowance.
  • DVD-quality video streaming is supported. Video typically streams at 480p.
  • If a residential Spectrum internet subscription isn’t maintained, an additional $20 per-line monthly charge will be applied and Spectrum Wi-Fi speeds will be limited to 5 Mbps. You can change your rate plan, but you won’t be able to add additional lines.
  • Spectrum Mobile is not currently considered part of your Spectrum service bundle, so no bundling discounts are available.
  • Spectrum will not pay any early termination fees you might encounter if you cancel service with your old carrier and have a service contract.
  • Auto-pay with a credit or debit card is required.

AT&T’s 5G Trials and Tribulations: Fast Speeds for Some, Zoning Concerns for Others

AT&T is continuing its 5G wireless trials in several cities around the country, attempting to determine if there is a business case for wireless home broadband offering speeds up to a gigabit on a shared, next-generation wireless network. While some trial participants are getting blazing fast speeds, some may be out of luck if their homeowner association or apartment owner bans outdoor antenna equipment from being attached to the side of buildings for aesthetic reasons.

More than a year ago, AT&T launched an enterprise 5G trial in Austin to learn more about millimeter wave spectrum and how it could be used to deliver very high-speed fixed wireless internet access. In late 2017, AT&T expanded 5G trials to Waco, Tex., Kalamazoo, Mich., and South Bend, Ind., to test whether the service would work in residential and suburban neighborhoods where tree-lined streets and yards could theoretically block the extremely high and very line-of-sight frequencies AT&T’s 5G service uses.

“My team spent countless hours collecting data and talking to real people who elected to join the trial,” wrote Melissa Arnoldi, president, technology and operations for AT&T, in a blog post. “What worked? What didn’t? What did we need to change? Why was this happening here and not there? Would mmWave spectrum really work to deliver 5G? Did we really just hit that speed in South Bend?”

Part of AT&T’s 5G wireless service trial is taking place in the River Park neighborhood of South Bend, Ind.

What AT&T also learned is to talk about the successes and keep the failures to themselves. In a more recent blog post, Arnoldi shared how the Rubbelke family is benefiting from AT&T’s 5G wireless service at their home in the River Park neighborhood, just to the southeast of downtown South Bend:

Well, for one – it’s providing them with ultra-fast wireless speeds. Just how fast?  At the Rubbelke household, they’re seeing peak wireless speeds nearing 1 Gbps and latency rates less than 20 milliseconds.

Using this emerging technology, Rebecca can easily stream their 3-year-old daughters’ favorite TV show on the tablet. Her husband, Michael, can download textbooks and research materials in an instant for his graduate program. And they can connect with family over video chat without noticeable buffering.

And they can use all of these bandwidth-heavy applications simultaneously and seamlessly—something that would be nearly impossible with current LTE technologies.

Arnoldi’s summary of AT&T’s experiences with 5G are all positive, all the time:

Waco, Texas
Participants: Small and mid-sized businesses

  • Provided 5G mmWave service to a retail location more than 150 meters away from the cell site and observed wireless speeds of approximately 1.2 Gbps in a 400 MHz channel.
  • Observed latency rates at 9-12 milliseconds.
    • Latency impacts things like the time between pressing play and seeing a video start to stream or hitting a web link and seeing a webpage begin to load. For context, MIT researchers discovered the human brain “latency” is 13 milliseconds.
  • Supported hundreds of simultaneous connected users using the 5G network.

Kalamazoo, Michigan
Participants: Small businesses 

  • Observed no impacts on 5G mmWave signal performance due to rain, snow or other weather events.
  • Learned mmWave signals can penetrate materials such as significant foliage, glass and even walls better than initially anticipated.
  • Observed more than 1 Gbps speeds under line of sight conditions up to 900 feet. That’s equal to the length of 3 football fields.

South Bend, Indiana
Participants: Small business and residential customers

  • Observed a full end-to-end 5G network architecture, including the 5G radio system and core, demonstrating extremely low latency.
  • Successfully provided gigabit wireless speeds on mmWave spectrum in both line of sight and some non-line of sight conditions.

But it isn’t all great news.

Line of Sight vs. Zoning and HOA Restrictions

AT&T’s millimeter wave trials are taking place in the 28 and 39 GHz bands that are way above even the 5 GHz Wi-Fi your home router may be equipped with. Anyone who has compared the older 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi band with the newer, but less congested 5 GHz band knows that while 5 GHz can deliver faster speeds with less interference, it is also more distance sensitive than the lower frequency alternative. The more obstacles between your Wi-Fi enabled router and your wireless device, the poorer the results.

A simulated small cell antenna as part of a light pole. (Image courtesy of Crown Castle)

AT&T claims its beta tests are showing “better than expected” results from its 5G service in both line of sight and non-line of sight conditions, but won’t say how much speeds are affected in more marginal reception conditions. AT&T’s 5G antennas are located outdoors, which should offer a clearer path between the transmitter and the receiver, and AT&T claims the signal “performs well” despite foliage and buildings blocking the line of sight between the antenna and a subscriber’s home.

But AT&T itself must not be totally satisfied with the results, because the company told Ars Technica it has begun testing adaptive beamforming and beam tracking to “enable non-line-of-sight 5G services in our trials.” ‘Enable’ in this context suggests that without these adaptive technology add-ons to overcome foliage and building blockages, 5G service did not work well.

Other blockages, those AT&T cannot outwit with technology, are zoning controversies over small cell antennas and homeowner association agreements that restrict outdoor antennas, even though fixed wireless antennas are protected by a FCC ruling allowing them. Despite the fact these antennas are small and unobtrusive — usually installed on an exterior wall near the roof-line — some requests have created controversy in neighborhoods for aesthetic or dubious health and safety concerns.

Even more controversial are the small cell antennas that must be installed inside neighborhoods within 200-800 feet of customers. Some local authorities and homeowner associations may object less to the antenna than to its power supply and battery backup equipment, usually housed inside large-sized metal cabinets placed nearby on the ground or on the pole itself.

In South Bend, AT&T Fiber is on the way in many parts of the city, offering wired gigabit speed service without the limitations of marginal signal reception or fussy HOA agreements and paranoid neighbors. That fact has not been lost on AT&T’s executive management, who remain uncertain about the business case of offering fixed 5G wireless home broadband in areas that will also be served by AT&T Fiber, the company’s fiber to the home service.

In the case of South Bend, AT&T’s trial is taking place in a relatively dense city neighborhood that would normally be a prime target for AT&T Fiber. The cost to provision fiber to the home service in areas already wired for AT&T Fiber may prove a better value for AT&T than contemplating the cost of installing nearly 60 small cells to serve each square mile of South Bend.

AT&T Raising Administrative Fees on Wireless Customers, Helping to Defray Merger Costs

AT&T has some expensive legal bills to pay facing down the Justice Department’s objections to its recent expensive acquisition of Time Warner, Inc. But no worries, AT&T’s wireless customers will be helping to pick up the tab after another major hike in an “Administrative Fee” that will raise at least $800 million a year for the phone company.

BTIG Research analyst Walt Piecyk caught AT&T hiking its Administrative Fee twice during the last quarter, now reaching $1.99 a month, billed to every post-paid wireless customer.

AT&T introduced the fee in 2013, claiming it would cover some of AT&T’s costs connecting phone calls and managing its wireless network. It started at $0.61 a month, then increased at some point to $0.76.

Although AT&T received negative press after introducing the fee, for most customers it is just one of several barely noticed charges applied in a separate section of monthly bills usually reserved for mandatory government fees and taxes. Many customers assume the fees are mandated by local, state, or federal governments, but in fact many are actually conjured up by AT&T and pocketed by the company. Most analysts believe companies create these fees to raise revenue without the perception of raising rates.

“The Administrative Fee helps defray certain expenses AT&T incurs, including but not limited to: (a) charges AT&T or its agents pay to interconnect with other carriers to deliver calls from AT&T customers to their customers; and (b) charges associated with cell site rents and maintenance.” – AT&T

Customers are now noticing the $1.99 Administrative Fee and complaining about it, after the company nearly tripled it over the last three months.

Fees and surcharges paid by a typical AT&T wireless customer in Illinois.

“In April of 2018, the Administrative fee increased to $1.26 and in June it rose again to $1.99,” Piecyk writes. “We believe the increase applies to all post-paid phone lines other than perhaps some large enterprise contract customers. We have confirmed that it does not apply to pre-paid lines after some customer service reps incorrectly told us otherwise last night. We believe this fee is included in AT&T’s reported service revenue and ARPU despite AT&T’s accounting change last quarter, which stripped regulatory fees and taxes out of both revenue and cost of service.”

Piecyk calculates that if 85% of AT&T’s 64.5 million postpaid wireless customers are now charged the fee, it will result in $800 million of incremental service revenue annually.

Piecyk is skeptical AT&T needed the money to cover cost increases.

“It’s hard to believe that interconnection costs have increased in the past six months enough to justify this fee increase,” Piecyk writes. “In fact, wireless operators have been crediting LOWER interconnection costs when explaining why their cost of service was in decline. Not surprisingly, we don’t recall any reductions in Administrative Fees by AT&T or its peers associated with reductions in interconnection expenses.”

Tower fees, also mentioned by AT&T, may have increased slightly, but as compensation for building out FirstNet, a public safety/first responder-prioritized wireless network, taxpayers are reimbursing AT&T $6.5 billion of FirstNet’s construction costs, despite the fact FirstNet will also benefit AT&T’s ordinary paying customers who will share the benefits of AT&T’s network expansion.

AT&T’s Administrative Fee hike will play right into the hands of T-Mobile, which has an advertising campaign blasting other wireless companies for sneaky fees. (0:45)

Delrahim Suggests Justice Dept. Was Outgunned by CNN, Judge in AT&T-Time Warner Merger

Phillip Dampier June 27, 2018 AT&T, Audio, Competition, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

Delrahim

The top antitrust regulator in the United States partly blames CNN for helping AT&T and Time Warner outmaneuver the Justice Department and win approval of their merger, despite antitrust objections.

“We have some of the best and most dedicated public servants who tried this case, but we don’t have the same resources available to us,” Makan Delrahim, assistant attorney general of the United States and chief of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division told Marketplace Morning Report. “We don’t have a 24-hour dedicated news channel to go out and spin your case to the American public and judges and others as some merging parties might.”

CNN is owned by Turner Broadcasting System, Inc., a division of Time Warner, Inc.

Delrahim admitted the government “is often the underdog in a lot of these cases, and we’re still considering our next steps and whether or not the government will appeal.”

AT&T and Time Warner clearly do not believe the government will further pursue the case, treating the merger as a done deal as the two companies move forward on combining their assets.

Delrahim complained about the judge handling the case, whose ruling excoriated the government’s case and strongly urged the Justice Department to not contemplate an appeal. In Delrahim’s view, the judge gave favorable weight to evidence from the two companies and dismissed much of the evidence the government presented.

“I think eight out of 10 judges may have treated this case differently,” he concluded.

Delrahim expressed his general frustration with government antitrust regulators attempting to impose various deal conditions and limitations designed to mitigate a transaction’s anti-competitive harm in the marketplace.

“If there’s a substantial lessening of competition, that’s the legal test, then the transaction is illegal,” Delrahim said. Instead of that simple test, the antitrust division often tries to rescue troublesome transactions with deal conditions he calls “microengineering an industry which is dynamic,” and in his view, is contrary to the role Congress assigned to the Antitrust Division. “I think the role is you go in, if there’s problematic aspect of a transaction, you divest and you let the market decide what the prices are now.”

“So the idea is: the greater the competitive process, the better the price ultimately will be, or the better the products will be for the consumer. And that’s where you have fair competition in the marketplace,” he added. “Our job is to police that. It isn’t to keep companies from getting too big. If they’re better at what they do, if customers like what they do, more power to them. The free market system encourages that. And we shouldn’t punish them once they have reached a certain level of success. If they are too big though, they also got to be careful. They can’t take anti-competitive practices that harms competition, which ultimately harms consumers.”

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