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Only Co-Ops Can Fix West Virginia’s Dismal Broadband Desert

West Virginia still ranks 43rd in the nation for having the worst broadband availability, despite claims from providers like Frontier Communications that rural broadband expansion has been ongoing and have cost the company tens of millions of dollars.

The state’s two senators are working to get more attention on broadband issues in one of the country’s most rural and mountainous states, despite the fact the free market is not likely to solve West Virginia’s broadband woes.

“Broadband high-speed is tremendously needed,” said Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.V.). “We have over 18 to 20 percent of West Virginians not connected whatsoever.”

“I’m working everyday on this in a bipartisan way,” said Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.V.). “It’s essential for our economy, our health care, our education. All of the things that are in a new economy.”

The federal government has distributed broadband grant funds to help address rural broadband unavailability, but after a decade of assistance, rural residents often remain without service. Charlie Dennie believes taking charge of broadband issues on the local level is the only way broadband problems will finally be resolved. Dennie is a big believer in public broadband co-ops, where local communities manage their own internet access affairs without waiting around for big phone and cable companies or the federal government. Dennie runs a business in the state that depends on broadband, and if he waited for incumbent providers like Frontier to deliver 21st century broadband service, his business is likely to go out of business.

That prompted him to write this commentary:

Dennie

Much of West Virginia is a broadband desert, and we have been foolishly pleading with the major carriers for water.

Recently, we seem to be coming to terms with reality. The reality is, they’re not coming, broadband is not a utility. The international, modern-day, robber barons dominating internet delivery have no obligation or incentive to meet our needs. Their aggressive return on investment models can’t be met in the small markets. Still, they attempt to roadblock appropriately scaled providers from entering the market and meeting our needs.

Since internet and cable TV are not utilities, the carriers are free to pick the low hanging fruit of our more densely populated communities and move on, leaving smaller markets stranded on the wrong side of the digital divide. The major carriers’ only obligations or concerns are with Wall Street. Main Street and all that term implies is not a consideration.

If we’re going to see our desert watered and blooming, we’ll be digging our own wells, meaning, building our own networks. The incumbent telephone companies and the cable TV providers bristle at this idea. The major providers spent over $66 million last year to lobby the states and Congress. Twenty-one states have now roadblocked or outlawed municipal or community-owned fiber. Municipal or community owned fiber is a serious threat to the status quo.

In years past, no one would have been surprised if West Virginia lawmakers had sat on their hands and done nothing or, enacted more protectionist legislation. That didn’t happen with this Legislature. Paraphrasing Bob Dylan, “The times they are a-changing.”

During the 2017 legislative session, I witnessed the boldest and most fearless leadership in my memory. The House of Delegates Judiciary Committee led by its chairman, Del. John Shott (R-Mercer), and Vice-Chairman, Del. Roger Hanshaw (R-Clay), introduced HB-3093. It was a sweeping piece of legislation sending a strong message to the incumbent internet providers to provide better service or make room for someone who will.

Carmichael

HB-3093 created the West Virginia Broadband Enhancement Council, streamlined the process for attaching fiber to utility poles, cleared the way for new construction methods, authorized the West Virginia Economic Development Authority to make loan guarantees for broadband construction and authorized the creation of cooperative associations for internet. As a proponent of the legislation, I requested a public hearing. Gathering in the House chamber only hours before the vote, industry lobbyists voiced strenuous objections. The strongest objections to the bill were the provisions streamlining attachments to utility poles and authorizing cooperative associations to provide broadband.

HB-3093 passed the house with 97 votes. I spoke to Senate President Mitch Carmichael (R-Jackson), just before the bill was introduced in the Senate. Sen. Carmichael had the power to keep the bill from advancing and Frontier, his employer at the time, was out in force to stop it. Before the bill went to the floor Sen. Carmichael said to me, “They’ll fire me, but I have to do what I think is right.” HB-3093 passed the Senate with Sen. Mike Romano (D-Harrison), casting the single, dissenting vote. A few days later, Frontier Communications fired Sen. Carmichael. Today, there are some who want to “Ditch Mitch,” but I will always remember the day he was called to choose between his economic self-interest and what was best for his constituency. Mitch fell on his sword. He did what he thought was right.

It’s important to know where you have been to understand where you are going, and this is only a chapter of our emerging broadband story. Changing the rules that protect the powerful to move us forward requires courageous leadership. If you believe broadband isn’t a political issue, I can give you 66 million reasons why you couldn’t be more wrong.

Ironically, community owned networks will be good for the current providers. The community owned networks provide the “last mile” to the home or business that enables delivery of high-speed internet. The community networks still need the content provided by current carriers. The communities will have choices and can negotiate with providers. Everybody wins.

I’ll have more for you later. Meanwhile, visit the broadband council at https://broadband.wv.gov. Take the speed test, then look under the “Resources Tab” about co-ops. Ignore the naysayers. I’ll show you how co-ops will change everything.

Fixed Wireless Not a Good Solution for Rural Areas; Usage Demand Outstrips Capacity

Morrow

Australia is learning a costly lesson finding ways to extend broadband service to rural areas in the country, choosing fixed wireless and satellite networks that will ultimately cost more than extending fiber optic broadband to rural customers.

Australia’s National Broadband Network (NBN) is tasked with supplying virtually all of Australia with internet access, using fiber/wired broadband in urban and suburban areas and fixed wireless and satellite internet access in the country’s most remote locations.

But just a few years after debuting satellite broadband and fixed LTE 4G wireless service in many parts of the country, demand has quickly begun to overwhelm capacity, forcing costly upgrades and punitive measures against so-called “heavy superusers.” The NBN has also scrapped plans to introduce higher-speed fixed wireless services, fearing it will only create additional demands on a network that was not envisioned to manage heavy broadband usage from video streaming.

NBN CEO Bill Morrow has elected to place most of the blame on his customers, specifically “superusers” that he characterized as “online gamers” who spend hours during the day and peak usage periods consuming large parts of the fixed wireless network’s available capacity.

“In the fixed wireless, there’s a large portion [of end users] that are using terabytes of data,” Morrow said. “We’re evaluating a form of fair use policy to say, ‘We would groom these extreme users.’ Now the grooming could be that, during the busy period of the day when these heavy users are impacting the majority, that they actually get throttled back to where they’re taking down what everybody else is taking down.”

Under the current NBN fair use policy, monthly downloads per household are capped at 400 GB, with maximum usage during peak usage periods limited to 150 GB a month, which is already significantly less than what most average American households consume each month. With expensive and unexpected early upgrades to more than 3,100 cell towers to manage rapidly growing usage, the cost of service is starting to rise substantially, even as usage limits and speed reductions make these networks less useful for consumers.

In areas where the NBN extends a fiber optic network, the fixed wholesale price for a 50/20 Mbps connection is $32.00 (U.S.) per month. (A 100/40 Mbps connection costs $46.25). For fixed wireless, prices are rising. A 50/20 Mbps fixed wireless connection (with usage cap) will now cost $46.25 a month.

Morrow took heat from members of Parliament over his claim that online gamers were chiefly responsible for slowing down the NBN’s fixed wireless network.

“With great respect to everything you said over the last 15 minutes, you have been saying to us the problem here is gamers,” said MP Stephen Jones (Whitlam).

Morrow clarified that online gamers were not the principal cause of congestion. The main issue is concurrency, which drags down network speeds when multiple family members unexpectedly use an internet connection at the same time. The worst congestion results when several family members launch internet video streams at the same time. Online video not only leads average users’ traffic, it can also quickly outstrip available cell tower capacity. High quality video streaming can quickly impact 4G LTE service during peak usage periods, driving speeds down for all users. The NBN now considers these newly revealed capacity constraints a limit on the feasibility of using wireless technology like LTE to supply internet access.

The current mitigation strategy includes limiting video bandwidth, discouraging video streaming with usage caps or speed throttles, capacity upgrades at cell towers, and public education requesting responsible usage during peak usage times. With capacity issues becoming more serious, Morrow canceled plans to upgrade fixed wireless to 100 Mbps speeds because of costs. The proposed upgrades would have cost “exponentially” more than wired internet access.

Hype vs. Reality: Most Australians reject fixed wireless and satellite internet as woefully inadequate. (Source: BIRRR)

Actual Fixed Wireless speeds

Actual Satellite Internet speeds

The concept of supplying fixed wireless or satellite internet access to rural areas may have made sense a decade ago, but there are growing questions about the suitability of this technology based on growth in consumer usage patterns, which increasingly includes streaming video. The cost to provide a sufficiently robust wireless network could easily rival or even outpace the costs of extending traditional fiber optic wired service to many rural properties currently considered cost prohibitive to serve. In Australia, fixed wireless and satellite has delivered sub-standard access for rural consumers, and requires the imposition of “fair usage” caps and speed throttles that inconvenience customers. For now, Morrow believes that is still the best solution, given that Australia’s national broadband plan relies heavily on wireless access in rural communities.

“[The benefit of a fair usage policy is] big enough to where if we did groom them during the busy time of the day, it would be a substantial [speed] lift for people,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a silver bullet in any of this – this is going to require us to think through a number of different areas.”

Better Internet for Rural, Regional and Rural Australia (a volunteer consumer group) shares horror stories about relying on satellite to solve rural broadband problems. (7:50)

 

Stop the Cap! Endorses Zephyr Teachout for N.Y. Attorney General

Phillip Dampier August 27, 2018 Editorial & Site News, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

Teachout

It may not be a surprise to our regular readers that our biggest audiences, as measured by Google’s analytics, are concentrated in New York City, Albany, and the upstate cities of Rochester-Buffalo-Syracuse — all in New York, closely followed by Washington, D.C., and Southern California. Stop the Cap! is headquartered in Rochester, N.Y., but the broadband issues affecting upstate New York are identical almost everywhere, because companies like Charter and Comcast, AT&T and Verizon dominate in many states.

For the benefit of our New York readers, we would like to take a moment to endorse one candidate for our state’s next attorney general. Who wins this race will have a ripple effect on almost all of our readers, because New York’s long history providing oversight of critical public and private utilities impacts not only on the people living here, but often sets precedents that deliver real benefits to consumers across all 50 states.

New York needs a strong and active attorney general, especially at a time when a pervasive culture of corruption in Washington, D.C. and Albany continues to fester. An attorney general can provide independent oversight and investigate behavior the current Congress and state legislature refuse to do for partisan reasons. Corruption, corporate influence, and pay-for-play politics is a bipartisan problem.

Our last attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, horrified us after revelations he allegedly physically assaulted some of the women he dated while also claiming to be a strong ally for the #MeToo movement. Many of his public policy positions were admirable, but his irresponsible, reckless, and unforgivable behavior reminded New Yorkers how flawed many of our state’s elected officials are. Schneiderman was just the latest to resign over a decade of resignations including a former governor, legislative leaders, aides, and elected officials from Buffalo to Long Island.

What New York needs now is a new generation of not-well-connected politicians that have no interest in joining an insider network of good ‘ole boys (and girls) who cynically cut deals and look the other way for political expediency. We need leaders that pledge loyalty, not to the party they belong to, but to the people they were elected to serve. That means an end to “everybody does it” campaign trolling for corporate cash, friendly (usually secretive) meet and greets with Wall Street, and wink and nod pledges of “understanding” by those taking frequent trips through the revolving door of public office and industry. New York has seen the impact of these practices in major scandals up and down the state involving deep pocketed construction companies, Wall Street banks, wealthy donors, and various well-connected business interests looking for contracts or tax breaks.

This time, there is a candidate that will deliver exactly what New York needs in an attorney general. Zephyr Teachout couldn’t be more independent if she tried. She wrote a book on political corruption, ran against New York’s current governor Andrew Cuomo, has been involved in a number of public policy groups advocating campaign finance reform, sunshine laws, protection from voter suppression, and providing stronger oversight of corporate interests, including a willingness to break up corporate monopolies.

On telecommunications issues, she couldn’t be a stronger candidate:

  • She opposed Charter Communications acquisition of Time Warner Cable.
  • She is tired of unopposed, competition-killing mergers like AT&T and Time Warner (Entertainment), Inc.
  • She favors net neutrality.
  • She supports public/municipal broadband, and for spending public money to resolve rural broadband problems.
  • She will continue a lawsuit against Charter Communications for failing to meet its obligations to customers.
  • She will fight the pervasive and corrosive impact of corporate political contributions and their distortion of public policy.

New York voters have several options to choose from for our next attorney general. Among the Democrats, New York City Public Advocate Letitia James has taken on Charter/Spectrum downstate and railed against Verizon’s broken FiOS commitments in New York City. While she now seems intent on carefully investigating Charter’s performance, that comes a little late. New York City has faced a number of problems with telecom companies breaking their commitments, many while James was in office. Those companies do not seem to be afraid of her. Her campaign platform seems focused on downstate issues that are likely not going to attract significant support upstate.

New York’s primary day is Sept. 13.

Leecia Eve is the establishment favorite for attorney general. Her website says little about her positions, but her resume speaks uncomfortable volumes about her close ties to the Clintons and the D.C. Democrats that enabled the telecom industry’s era of consolidation while doing almost nothing to stop monopoly abuse. Even worse, she is a veteran of D.C.’s revolving door, moving between government and private business in an all-too-familiar game that rarely turns out well for constituents. The deal breaker for us is Eve’s current job — a lobbyist for Verizon New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. She actually calls that experience a plus. Not for us. There are far better choices.

Sean Patrick Maloney is the first openly gay member of Congress elected from New York. Previously, he was a partner at two global law firms and ran a high-tech business. He is dubbed ‘the upstate candidate’ because he currently represents the 18th district, which includes all of Orange County and Putnam County, as well as parts of southern Dutchess County and northeastern Westchester County. His district includes Poughkeepsie. He is considered to the right of the other candidates, likely reflecting the more conservative upstate views of his district, where Donald Trump won over Hillary Clinton by just under two points in the 2016 presidential election.

Maloney’s campaign positions are thin, mostly focused on blocking Trump Administration policies that impact New York, particularly those on immigration. He also claims he will fight to stop corruption in Albany, but has said little else.

He is, by far, the most strident candidate in the race, reflecting a ‘tough talk’ style, sometimes laced with profanity, that usually doesn’t hurt candidates in New York politics. His message: he won’t take any crap from the president or his supporters.

“I don’t give a f**k what the Trump fans say. That’s not what this is about,” Maloney said in response to a question about Trump supporters’ feelings about his sexual orientation and family. “This is about speaking from the heart. About a family I’ve built for 25 years that’s in the crosshairs of these assholes. And doing something about it.”

He’s also upset about the less-than-robust response from fellow Democrats to rhetorical bomb-throwers on the right during the last two years of Donald Trump’s presidency.

“It feels like the people who are fueled by hate, demagoguery and anger have their sh*t together, and those of us who want to talk about love and hope and inclusion have been hiding in the shadows,” he said. “And it’s time to get out of the shadows and at least defend our ground. But I’d rather even get on offense.”

Maloney’s strong beliefs and style seem better suited to Congress than the state attorney general’s office. Although no stranger to grandstanding, the AG’s office usually spends most of its time reaching private settlements with offenders or taking them to court.

The Republicans have endorsed Keith Wofford for attorney general. His platform is wrapped around the premise the attorney general’s office in New York has been too hostile to companies in New York, essentially extorting settlements and deal conditions that hurt corporate interests while spending too much time on oversight and compliance and not enough time on attracting new businesses and jobs. That’s a philosophy former Oklahoma AG Scott Pruitt (who served as the president’s EPA administrator until his resignation in July) would strongly endorse.

“The business environment here is horrible— and the attorney general has been a big part of that problem,” Wofford writes. “Recent AGs have twisted New York’s laws, strong-armed companies to settle flimsy lawsuits, and used New York companies as a piggy bank. This has driven away jobs and investment. And the cost falls upon all New Yorkers, who are denied jobs and opportunity — because businesses refuse to invest here, or simply leave.”

After two years of the Trump Administration’s scandalous performance allowing corporate foxes to patrol the hen houses, Wofford’s double-down on Trump’s policies is woefully out-of-place.

For all these reasons, Stop the Cap! strongly endorses Zephyr Teachout for New York’s next attorney general. She is right on our issues and will instinctively fight to stop consumer abuse, often before it starts. She will be immune to the influences of corporate cash and the kinds of cozy Albany-insider politics that have allowed corruption to fester for too long.

Countries Moving at Light Speed to Expand Fiber, While U.S. Keeps Subsidizing DSL

This week, the FCC announced bidding has finished for the latest Connect America Fund (CAF) broadband subsidies auction.

Once again, the FCC gave first priority to incumbent phone companies to bid for the subsidies, which defray the cost of expanding internet access to homes and businesses otherwise unprofitable to serve. Nearly $2 billion was left on the table by disinterested phone companies after the first round of bidding was complete, so the FCC’s second round opened up the leftover money to other telecom companies.

Winning bidders will receive their portion of $198 million annually in 120 monthly installments over the next ten years to build out rural networks. In return, providers must promise to deliver one broadband and voice service product at rates comparable to what urban residents pay for service. The winning bids, still to be publicly announced, will come from rural electric and phone cooperatives, satellite internet providers, fixed wireless companies, and possibly a handful of cable operators. But much of the money overall will be spent by independent phone companies rolling out slow, copper-based, DSL service.

Because the total committed will take a decade to reach providers, rural Americans will likely face a long wait before what purports to be “broadband” actually reaches their homes and businesses.

While many co-ops will spend the money to expand their own homegrown fiber-to-the-home services, most for-profit providers will rely on wireless or copper networks to deliver service.

Telefónica Spain

Overseas, broadband expansion is headed in another direction — expansion of fiber-to-the-home service, with little interest in investing significant sums on furthering old technology copper wire based DSL and fixed wireless services. The expansion is moving so quickly, Verizon made certain to sign long-term contracts with optical fiber suppliers like Corning in 2017 to guarantee they will not be affected by expected shortages in optical fiber some providers are already starting to experience.

Virtually everywhere in developed countries (except the United States), fiber broadband is quickly crowding out other technologies, despite the significant cost of replacing copper networks with new optical fiber cables. If a provider is brave enough to discount investor demand for quick returns and staying away from big budget upgrade efforts, the rewards include happier customers and a clear path to increased revenue and business success.

Not every Wall Street bank is reluctant to support fiber upgrades. Credit Suisse sees a need for optical fiber today, not tomorrow among incumbent phone and cable companies.

“The cost of building fiber is less than the cost of not building fiber,” the bank advised its clients. The reason is protecting market share and revenue. Phone companies that refuse to upgrade or move at a snail’s pace to improve their broadband product (typically DSL offering 2-12 Mbps) have lost significant market share, and those losses are accelerating. Ditching copper also saves companies millions in maintenance and repair costs.

Canada’s Telus is a case in point. Its CEO, Darren Entwistle, reports Telus’ effort to expand fiber optics across its western Canada service area is already paying off.

“We see churn rates on fiber that are 25% lower than copper,” Entwistle said. “35% lower in high-speed internet access, and 15% lower on TV — 25% lower on average. We’re seeing a reduction in repair volumes to the tune of 40%. We’re seeing a nice improvement in revenue per home of close to 10%.”

Telus promotes its fiber to the home initiative in western Canada as a boost to medical care, education, the economy, and the Canadian communities it serves. (1:31)

Telus’ chief competitor is Shaw Communications, western Canada’s largest cable company. Fiber optics allows Telus to vastly expand internet speeds and reliability, an improvement over distance sensitive DSL. Shaw Cable has boosted its own broadband speeds and offers product bundles that have been largely responsible for Telus’ lost customers, until its fiber network was switched on.

In economically challenged regions, fiber optic expansion is also growing, despite the cost. In Spain, Telefónica already provides service to 20 million Spaniards, roughly 70% of the country, and plans to continue reaching an additional two million homes and businesses a year until the country is completely wired with optical fiber. In Brazil, seven million customers will have access to fiber to the home service this year, expanding to ten million by 2020.

Verizon and AT&T regularly ring alarm bells in Congress that China is outpacing the United States in 5G wireless development, but are strangely silent about China’s vast and fast expansion into fiber optic broadband that companies like Verizon stopped significantly expanding almost a decade ago. China already has 328 million homes and businesses wired for fiber and added another five million homes in the month of June alone. AT&T will take a year to bring the same number of its own customers to its fiber to the home network.

The three countries that are most closely aligned with the mentality of most U.S. providers — the United Kingdom, Australia, and Germany — are changing their collective minds about past arguments that fiber to the home service is too costly and isn’t necessary.

The government of Martin Turnbull’s cost concerns forced a modification of the ambitious proposal by the previous government to deploy fiber to the home service to most homes and businesses in the country. That decision to spend less is coming back to haunt the country after Anne Hurley, a former chief executive of the Communications Alliance involved in the National Broadband Network (NBN), admitted the cheaper NBN will face an expensive, large-scale replacement within a decade.

ABC Australia reports on findings that the country’s slimmed-down National Broadband Network is inadequate, and parts will have to be scrapped within 5-10 years (1:37)

Turnbull’s government advocated for less expensive fiber to the neighborhood technology that would still rely on a significant amount of copper wiring installed decades ago. The result, according to figures provided to a Senate committee, found only a quarter of Australians will be able to get 100 Mbps service from the NBN, with most getting top speeds between 25-50 Mbps.

Despite claims of technical advancements in DSL technology which have claimed dramatic speed improvements, Hurley was unimpressed with performance tests in the field and declared large swaths of the remaining copper network will have to be ripped up and replaced with optical fiber in just 5-10 years.

“If you look around the world other nations are not embracing fiber-to-the-[neighborhood] and copper … so yes, it’s all going to have to go and have to be replaced,” she said.

In the United Kingdom, austerity measures from a Conservative government and a reluctant phone company proved ruinous to the government’s promise to deliver “superfast broadband” (at least 24 Mbps) over a fiber to the neighborhood network critics called inadequate from the moment it was switched on in 2012. The government had no interest in financing a fiber to the home network across the UK, and BT Openreach saw little upside from spending billions upgrading the nation’s phone lines it now was responsible for maintaining as a spun-off entity from BT. In 2015, BT Openreach’s chief technology officer called fiber to the home service in Britain “impossible” and too expensive.

Two years later, while the rest of Europe was accelerating deployment of fiber to the home service, the government was embarrassed to report its broadband initiative was a flop in comparison, and broke a key promise made in 2012 that the UK would have the fastest broadband in Europe by 2015. Instead, the UK has dropped in global speed rankings, and is now in mediocre 35th place, behind the United States and over a dozen poorer members of the EU.

What was “impossible” two years ago is now essential today. The latest government commitment is to promote optical fiber broadband using a mix of targeted direct funding, “incentives” for private companies to wire fiber without the government’s help, and a voucher program defraying costs for enterprising villages and communities that develop their own innovative broadband enhancements. The best the government is willing to promise is that by 2033 — 15 years from now — every home in the UK will have fiber broadband.

Deutsche Telekom echoed BT Openreach with claims it was impossible to deliver fiber optic broadband throughout an entire country.

Deutsche Telekom’s dependence on broadband-enhancements-on-the-cheap — namely speed improvements by using vectoring and bonded DSL are increasingly unpopular for offering too little, too late in the country. Deutsche Telekom applauded itself for supplying more than 2.5 million new households with VDSL service in 2017, bringing the total number served by copper wire DSL in Germany to around 30 million. The company, which handles landline, broadband and wireless phone services, is slowly being dragged into fiber broadband expansion, but on a much smaller scale.

In March, Telekom announced a fiber to the home project in north-east Germany’s Western Pomerania/Rügen district for 40,000 homes and businesses. The network will offer speeds up to 1 Gbps. In July, Telekom was back with another announcement it was building a fiber optic network for Stuttgart and five surrounding districts Böblingen, Esslingen, Göppingen, Ludwigsburg, and Rems-Murr, encompassing 179 cities and municipalities. But most of the work will focus on wiring business parks. Residents will have a 50% chance of getting fiber to the home service by 2025, with the rest by 2030.

In contrast, the chances of getting fiber optic broadband in the U.S. is largely dependent on which provider(s) offer service. In the northeast, Verizon and Altice/Cablevision will go head to head competing with all-fiber networks. Customers serviced by AT&T also have a good chance of getting fiber to the home service… eventually, if they live in an urban or suburban community. Overbuilders and community broadband networks generally offer fiber service as an alternative to incumbent phone and cable companies, but many consumers don’t know about these under-advertised competitors. The chances for fiber optic service are much lower if you live in an area served by a legacy independent phone company like Frontier, Consolidated, Windstream, or CenturyLink. Their cable competitors face little pressure to rush upgrades to compete with companies that still sell DSL service offering speeds below 6 Mbps.

CAF funding from the FCC offers some rural areas a practical path to upgrades with the help of public funding, but with limited funds, a significant amount will be spent on yesterday’s technology. In just a few short years, residents will be faced with a choice of costly upgrades or a dramatic increase in the number of underserved Americans stuck with inadequate broadband. Policymakers should not repeat the costly mistakes of the United Kingdom and Australia, which resulted in penny wise-pound foolish decisions that will cost taxpayers significant sums and further delay necessary upgrades for the 21st century digital economy. The time for fiber upgrades is now, not in the distant future.

Frontier’s Latest Salvation Plan Doesn’t Include Significant Broadband Upgrades

While celebrating its success at cutting $350 million in expenses, Frontier’s newest plan to keep the company from drifting towards bankruptcy is a $500 million increase in revenue (and hopefully profits) with a series of “revenue enhancements” and cost cutting.

Significant broadband upgrades in legacy DSL service areas are not on the table, as Frontier continues to spend most of its capital on matching Connect America Funds (CAF) and state grants to expand broadband into unserved and underserved rural areas.

“Approximately 80% of our capital program continues to focus on revenue generating and productivity enhancing projects,” said R. Perley McBride, Frontier’s outgoing chief financial officer. “The focus of our capital spending remains consistent. We continue to focus on our CAF builds, using both wired and wireless technologies.”

Frontier has been criticized by some for spending too much on its network and acquisitions and not enough on shareholder return. The company suspended its dividend in February, and the share price has remained below $6 a share since July. After announcing its latest quarterly results and a new $500 million EBITDA initiative on July 31, the average share price posted only modest gains of around $0.25 a share.

Frontier’s business remains troubled, with looming debt repayments in its future. The date to remember is Sept. 15, 2022 — the day Frontier needs to repay $2 billion in unsecured bonds to maintain its credibility in the credit markets. If it fails to pay, the company could find future financing difficult, which is often what triggers a trip to bankruptcy court.

The year 2022 is also very important to Californians. Frontier disclosed it planned to expand rural broadband service to 847,000 unserved/underserved rural residents by the end of 2022, with specific commitments in the next few years to upgrade 77,402 locations, in part with CAF funding, increase broadband speed for 250,000 households, and deploy newly available service to 100,000 homes.

Frontier’s own deployment goals in California — goals the company may not be honoring. (Image courtesy of: Steve Blum’s blog)

According to the California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF), Frontier has no intention of meeting its rural broadband commitments. In effect, similar to Charter Communications, it merely made the commitments to win approval of its acquisition of Verizon’s wireline and FiOS business in California.

A day of reckoning for the company’s alleged failure to meet its obligations is likely forthcoming. Steve Blum’s blog notes Frontier isn’t saying much:

In its formal response to CETF’s allegations, Frontier never actually says that it kept to that timetable. All it says is that “Frontier sent a letter to the Communication Division dated March 8, 2018 on its commitments that includes a confidential attachment reflecting completed locations through December 31, 2017”. It sent a letter, but doesn’t say what’s in the letter or even claim that the letter documents fulfillment of its obligations.

CETF told California regulators a disturbing story about Frontier’s failure to perform and other allegations in its filing with the California Public Utilities Commission, alleging Frontier is reneging on the deal it made with the state and various stakeholders in return for getting its acquisition approved. The group also accused Frontier of failing to deliver on its affordable broadband offering, because the company made signing up difficult and bundled extra fees and surcharges onto the bill.

“Frontier launched its existing affordable broadband offer in late August 2016 and to date only 9,173 adoptions have been achieved, a mere 4.5% of the 200,000 household adoption goal,” the CETF wrote. “Due to the initial Frontier eligibility requirement that Frontier customers be a telephone landline Lifeline subscriber and the total bundled cost, the affordable broadband offer has only attracted 7,452 low-income subscribers, which is 190,827 households short of the agreed-upon goal.”

Frontier has a employer turnover problem in California, evident from this filing by the CETF. (Courtesy: CETF)

The CETF said Frontier was “shirking” and should face the maximum fine of $50,000 a day retroactive to July 1, 2016 for failure to comply with its obligations. As of the end of July, 2018 that fine would amount to over $39 million.

To comply with existing obligations to California, Frontier could have to spend in excess of $1 billion in the next two years. But Frontier has told investors it planned to spend no more than $1.15 billion on capex in fiscal year 2018 across its entire national service area. This could explain why Frontier may be stalling on upgrades in California.

Also raining on Frontier’s parade is the muted reaction to Frontier’s latest money-raising scheme. Shareholders appear lukewarm, with some openly skeptical that Frontier can deliver what it promises.

The plan’s success depends on:

  • Frontier’s ability to raise rates and find other “revenue enhancements” of $150-200 million. Rate increases drive customers to competitors, reducing revenue.
  • Vague “operational improvements” are expected to bring $150-200 million.
  • Customer care and support savings are anticipated to generate $125-175 million in EBITDA benefit.

Outgoing CFO McBride relies heavily on opaque corporate-speak like this, with few specifics:

“In addition to the dedicated resources, we are utilizing a new approach that will significantly accelerate the benefits of both revenue and expense initiatives. This new approach involves utilization of external expertise to significantly reduce the time to successfully realize our objectives. This will allow us to execute more initiatives in parallel while still managing day to day requirements of the business.”

In short, this suggests Frontier will outsource a lot of initiatives they used to manage in-house. The company also plans to start limiting truck rolls to customer homes if the company determines the problem is likely elsewhere in their network. It also claims it is cutting customer hold times at their call centers, which are still frequently outsourced.

What Frontier has made clear, again, is their determination to keep a cap on spending, which means much of the money Frontier will spend each year will go towards network maintenance, not service upgrades. Therefore, customers can expect incremental upgrades, usually when a construction project requires Frontier to replace existing copper wire infrastructure with fiber optics or at a building site for a new housing development. Most customers in existing neighborhoods served by legacy copper wiring on the poles since the 1960s will continue to be serviced by those lines until they are torn down in a storm or stolen. Frontier has consistently shown no interest in wholesale network upgrades in its legacy service areas.

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  • Dylan: 20gigs? Abysmal. I would use that in a couple of hours. Even 50. I’m certainly fortunate to have unlimited internet with Spectrum....
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  • Phillip Dampier: Just to clarify, I think they are throwing in a free or discounted dish, which isn't such a big deal if you can find a promotion that does the same. I...
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