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Some of America’s Largest Telecom Companies Are Overbilling You

bill errorAs part of its investigation of cable and satellite television companies, the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations found large discrepancies in how five of America’s largest cable and satellite companies—Charter Communications, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, DirecTV, and Dish—identify and correct overcharges caused by company billing errors.

The subcommittee released its report to coincide with today’s hearings on customer service and billing practices in the cable and satellite television industry. The Senate subcommittee focused its attention primarily on billing errors associated with rented set-top boxes and receivers, not programming packages or add-on services. The bipartisan report found satellite TV company Dish was probably the least prone to billing errors associated with satellite equipment and Time Warner Cable was the worst at identifying equipment billing discrepancies. Even when it did find instances of overbilling, the company refused to give customers automatic full refunds as a matter of “efficiency.”

That “efficiency” is expected to be very profitable for Time Warner Cable, which is likely to collect $1,919,844 from overbilling this year alone. Time Warner Cable estimates that, in 2015, it overbilled 40,193 Ohio customers a total of $430,393 and 4,232 Missouri customers a total of $44,152. Time Warner Cable also told the subcommittee that, during the first five months of 2016, it overbilled customers in Ohio for 11,049 pieces of equipment, totaling $108,221.

Charter Communications only did marginally better, mostly because it is a much smaller cable company. Charter estimates that it has overcharged approximately 5,897 Missouri customers a total of $494,000. Charter, along with Time Warner Cable, made no effort to trace equipment overcharges to their origin unless customers specifically asked them to and did not provide notice or refunds to customers.

Let’s review how the five companies compare:

Time Warner Cable

time-warner-cable-sucksTime Warner Cable is notorious for its “no refunds unless asked” policy, which often leaves customers uncompensated for service outages and other problems. That policy also extends to equipment-related billing errors. During the 6.5 year time period covered by the subcommittee investigation, Time Warner Cable never automatically refunded or credited customer for equipment overcharges discovered by the company. Instead, Time Warner’s “Revenue Assurance” team quietly identified and corrected billing errors without any notification or explanation to customers, which may explain why your Time Warner Cable bill can change even when you are locked in with a promotion.

The subcommittee discovered Time Warner Cable still relies on two entirely different billing systems. One, “Integrated Communications Operations Management System”, otherwise known as ICOMS, is especially troublesome to navigate at Time Warner because the company does not use standardized coding across the entire company. Placing an order for Internet service in the Northeast Division of Time Warner Cable is completely different from ordering the same product in a city like Kansas City or the west coast. Employees have complained about ICOMS for years, noting it can take up to 30 separate codes entered correctly in the system to add just one product, like High-Speed Internet. A simple data entry error can mess up an order and generate a billing error (or a lost order or service request that is never processed). But Time Warner Cable also relies on a different platform developed by CSG to manage some of its billing. Some of Time Warner Cable’s acquisitions, like Insight Communications, have operated under the Time Warner Cable brand for several years, but still use some of the billing platforms that were in place before Time Warner took over.

The subcommittee found strong evidence ICOMS is a big problem for Time Warner Cable. Attempts to audit the platform often crash, as it did in May of this year, preventing Time Warner Cable from identifying billing issues. At best, the company only aims for an 80% correction rate using its auditing tools.

One audit uncovered 18,000 customers in the Carolinas, Midwest, and Northeast that were being overbilled for modem and CableCARD equipment. Although Time Warner Cable was going to remove the erroneous charges going forward, it had no plans to automatically refund customers it identified as overcharged unless customers somehow realized that themselves and called in to request retroactive credit.

icoms error

Time Warner Cable erroneously billed one of its own employees for three Internet accounts.

Time Warner Cable once erroneously billed one of its own employees for three Internet accounts.

The subcommittee found if an audit showed that a customer had not been billed for equipment or services that the customer had received, the company treats those inconsistencies as undercharges and adds the charge to the customer’s bill going forward. Time Warner Cable does not attempt to retroactively charge the customer for previous months where that customer was undercharged.

If the audit shows that a customer has been billed for equipment or services that he or she does not have, the story is more complicated. In some cases, customers agree to pay for equipment they do not actually have so that they can receive a cheaper package price—for example, a consumer who wants only Internet service might decide the cheapest option is a promotional package including both Internet and cable television. By participating in the promotion, the customer agrees to pay a monthly rental fee for a set-top box but may instruct the company not to provide a set-top box. In such a case, the customer’s billing records will show a charge for a set-top box, but the customer’s equipment records will show that he or she does not physically have a set-top box. In April 2016, for example, Time Warner Cable identified 49,132 pieces of equipment associated with overcharges; of those 37,653 (approximately 77 percent) were not “correctable” overcharges because they were associated with accounts participating in promotional offers.

Time Warner Cable does not attempt to trace billing errors to their origin. Instead, it only provides a partial credit for the month during which the error was discovered. The company will not notify you of the error or for how long it has been on your bill. Unless you call and demand full credit for the overbilling, you will not receive it.

The cable company defends its policy on the ground that it is “efficient.” Going through months of customer bills to identify overcharges would be costly and time consuming, the company argues. The company also claims that the customer is best positioned to notice an overcharge and bring it to Time Warner Cable’s attention.

After reviewing policies at several different companies, the subcommittee cast doubt on Time Warner’s assertions, noting other companies had no problems returning overbilled amounts to customers without a request to do so.

Charter Communications

Unfortunately for customers, not included on the list of companies willing and able to automatically refund overbilling is Charter Communications, which recently acquired Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks.

therealcharterbundleThe subcommittee called Charter’s process of identifying and correct overbilling “substandard.”

According to Charter, prior to August 2015, the company did not run any systematic audits to reconcile its billing records with equipment records. Charter’s failure to perform regular audits means that overcharged customers could not receive a prospective correction of their bill unless they noticed the problem themselves and contacted Charter. Beginning in August 2015, however, Charter began taking steps to identify equipment overcharges now on its system. Charter will complete that process in June 2016.

Charter recently upgraded some of its systems to make sure that when an employee adds or deletes services and/or equipment, an update to the customer’s billing record occurs automatically. Charter has 21 employees working for its Billing Quality Assurance department. The employees randomly sample bills to check their accuracy and when Charter changes its bill format or presentation, the team is supposed to review the bills to make certain any billing changes do not introduce mass errors. The subcommittee found these auditing methods were unlikely to discover common “one-off” errors, such as when customers are overbilled for equipment or programming on their specific account.

Charter’s alternate methods of identifying discrepancies quickly become more convoluted and less useful after that.

For example, beginning in August 2015, Charter undertook what it called a “controller reconciliation,” in which the company began to reconcile its billing records with equipment data from its 35 “controllers” throughout the country. These “controllers” are designed to manage box authorizations and “from the office” service connection and disconnection so that a truck roll is unnecessary. These systems can also be useful in identifying unauthorized equipment installed at locations where they were never registered or if the box was authorized for channels a customer was not paying to receive. A controller reconciliation allowed Charter to identify anomalies like in Missouri, where almost 6,000 customers were being billed for set-top boxes they were not using.

The subcommittee was unhappy neither Time Warner Cable or Charter seem willing to use “brute manpower to identify how long a customer has been overcharged and automatically grant a refund or credit,” as well as do more to minimize equipment and programming mismatches with billing records.

Comcast has bigger problems than overbilling.

Comcast has bigger problems than overbilling.

Comcast

Comcast relies on a very similar auditing process in use at Time Warner Cable to identify billing discrepancies, except once Comcast finds one it identifies how long a customer was overcharged, notifies the customer and automatically credits the customer’s account. Starting late last year, Comcast began running audits weekly to improve billing accuracy. Comcast claims just a 0.3% error rate.

Comcast has more than 60 employees nationwide on the east and west coasts examining billing issues and, when needed, individually investigates each case to identify applicable refunds.

DirecTV

DirecTV doesn’t do regular audits, instead relying on a program called SAS Enterprise Miner to search for billing errors before bills are generated. It can also use the same tools to identify and correct past billing errors. The satellite provider goes as far back as necessary to correct past mistakes, and pointed to instances where credits of thousands of dollars were issued to affected customers. DirecTV’s Revenue Assurance department can also reach out and communicate with employees at all levels of the company to investigate billing issues and prevent future ones. What will change as a result of AT&T’s ownership of the company isn’t known.

Dish Network

dishDish was cited by the subcommittee report as having the billing system least likely to generate billing errors. Dish links its equipment and billing systems together, which means any change on one system automatically updates the other.

According to Dish, it is impossible to add or remove equipment without altering the customer’s billing records. Dish provides each customer with one free “receiver”—Dish’s term for the equivalent of a set-top box—and charges $7.00 to $15.00 per month for each additional receiver a customer has. That is the only equipment charge. Dish’s system will only send a television signal to receivers that have been “activated,” which happens as part of the installation process. Once a receiver has been activated, the customer’s billing information is automatically updated to reflect that addition. That system ensures that no receiver is added to a customer’s account unless it has been activated.

Dish customers return their receivers by mail. Dish provides a packaging label so that it can track the receiver once it has been mailed. When the receiver returns to the Dish warehouse, an employee scans the barcode on the receiver, which removes the receiver from the customer’s provisioning records and, in turn, from the customer’s bill.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Senate Cable Billing Practices 6-23-16.mp4

Hearing: Customer Service and Billing Practices in the Cable and Satellite Television Industry

Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, June 23, 2016 10:00AM ET

(Video starts at 19:55) (2:18:54)

Dish Complains About FCC’s 125% Regulatory Rate Hike; Independent Cable Says It Isn’t High Enough

cable ratesThe Federal Communications Commission is getting an earful from satellite provider Dish Network, upset with the agency’s proposal to boost regulatory fees covering direct broadcast satellite services by 125% this year.

If the FCC adopts its new fee structure, Dish will pay 24 cents per subscriber (up from 12¢) per year to cover the cost of full-time employees at the FCC who spend their days monitoring and regulating satellite television providers. Satellite companies will also pay a one-time fee of 3¢ per subscriber in 2016 to cover the FCC’s downsizing expenses.

The regulator has successfully found a way to cover some of its expenses by charging the companies it oversees “user fees.” In 2015, the FCC collected nearly $340 million in regulatory fees. This year, the FCC wants more, seeking to impose a temporary “facility reduction cost” surcharge that will cover the expenses of moving employees to new, smaller offices, or downsizing the current ones to save money. The FCC says that will cost an extra $44 million. Taxpayers won’t pay those expenses, but pay television customers ultimately will when providers pass both of those fees on.

Dish says the rate hike is unjustified because of its size and scope, and runs contrary to the FCC’s goal of minimizing consumer bill shock. The satellite provider also wants the FCC to explain how it can justify more than doubling user fees while downsizing.

If the FCC doesn’t answer, the American Cable Association, representing small independent cable operators, is willing to share their views on the matter. The ACA complains the FCC isn’t charging DirecTV and Dish enough, noting they are still getting preferential treatment over cable and IPTV providers that are being asked to pay $1 per subscriber this year.

“There is absolutely no basis for keeping the proposed DBS fee levels over 75% below those proposed for other entities in the Cable/IPTV category,” wrote ACA president Matt Polka in comments to the FCC. “DBS providers should be paying the same Media Bureau regulatory fee.”

att directvPolka pointed to AT&T’s acquisition of DirecTV as an example of how disproportionate fees cost small independent cable companies much more on a per-subscriber basis than telecom giant AT&T has to pay for almost 20 million DirecTV satellite customers.

“AT&T, now the nation’s largest [pay TV company], operates two types of services – its U-verse IPTV service and its DirecTV DBS service,” noted Polka. “Yet, AT&T will be assessed starkly lower regulatory fees for its approximately 20 million DirecTV subscribers than it will pay for its approximately 6 million IPTV subscribers, even though all of these services make absolutely comparable use of Media Bureau […]  resources and AT&T’s advocacy […] is on behalf of all its [pay TV] subscribers.”

Polka wants fee parity – charging the same user fees for all providers, regardless of the technology they use.

“Doing so will avoid the competitive distortions the current fee structure creates by having cable operators and IPTV providers, most of whom are far smaller than the DBS providers, cross-subsidize the fee burden of their primary and direct competitors in the marketplace,” Polka argued.

Whatever fee structure is ultimately approved by the FCC, customers can be certain providers will pad those fees when passing them on to customers. For more than a decade, some providers have used regulatory fee increases amounting to spare change as an excuse to pass on new “regulatory surcharges” that are many times more than what those providers actually pass on to the government.

“It’s a price increase,” bluntly notes Mark Cooper from the Consumer Federation of America back in 2004.

This spring, The Consumerist broke down a typical AT&T U-verse bill loaded in junk fees and surcharges. (The RED numbers [1, 4-10, 13-14, 17-20, 22] are AT&T-originating fees; BLUE numbers [2-3, 11-12, 15-16, 21, 23-25] are government fees)

This spring, The Consumerist broke down a typical AT&T U-verse bill loaded in junk fees and surcharges. (The RED numbers [1, 4-10, 13-14, 17-20, 22] are AT&T-originated fees, fake surcharges/bill padding, or fees that represent the cost of doing business; BLUE numbers [2-3, 11-12, 15-16, 21, 23-25] are real government fees passed on to local, state, and federal taxing authorities.)

Stop the Cap! to N.Y. Public Service Commission: Time Warner Cable Stalls Upgrades

stc

June 16, 2016

Hon. Kathleen H. Burgess
Secretary, Public Service Commission
Three Empire State Plaza
Albany, NY 12223-1350

Dear Ms. Burgess,

Today, we confirmed that Charter Communications has ordered an indefinite suspension of the Time Warner Cable Maxx broadband upgrade program pending a review that seems to carry no specific timeline for completion.[1]

We are deeply concerned about the implications of this decision, particularly as Time Warner Cable has been performing broadband upgrades this spring and summer in the Hudson Valley[2] and Syracuse/Central New York[3] regions that deliver important speed upgrades to customers in New York State. We have good information that Rochester was the next city scheduled for these upgrades, followed by Buffalo. These upgrades would have provided customers with up to 300Mbps broadband service as soon as late this year across a significant section of upstate New York, with the western New York/Buffalo region upgraded in 2017.

It is clear the only reason these upgrades have been suspended relates to the recent ownership change of Time Warner Cable, approved by the N.Y. Public Service Commission.

As you know, Stop the Cap! argued our concerns about approving the merger transaction between Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable, in part because Time Warner Cable’s Maxx upgrade program offered more compelling broadband upgrades, at a lower price, and introduced faster than Charter’s own offer.[4]

The alarming development of an indefinite nationwide suspension of the Maxx upgrade program has profound implications on large sections of upstate New York waiting for urgently needed broadband speed upgrades. The announcement also suggests large sections of New York will be waiting much longer to reach speed parity with cities, mostly downstate, that already enjoy up to 300Mbps service on an upgraded, less trouble-prone network.

Once again, New Yorkers are being divided into those with reasonably fast speeds, and those without. Should Charter adopt the slowest possible upgrade schedule permitted by the Commission, several upstate cities will be waiting until the end of 2018 – almost two years, to receive 100Mbps broadband.[5] I’d remind the Commission other major cable companies are offering residential customers speeds up to 2Gbps today[6], and many already offer tiers that well exceed Charter’s promised maximum speed.

Charter’s corporate decisions also impact New Yorkers more profoundly than other states because of the absence of significant competition. Outside of limited deployments of Verizon FiOS, DSL continues to predominate from New York telephone companies, including Verizon, Frontier, TDS, Windstream, and others. In most cases, these speeds do not come close to achieving the minimum 25Mbps speed that the FCC defines as “broadband.”

In states to our west, AT&T is already offering gigabit Internet service to residential customers, and Google Fiber (which has bypassed the entire northeastern U.S. for fiber deployment) continues its own expansion.

We urge the Commission to obtain definitive information about the current Maxx upgrade delay, the reasons for it, the timetable to resume upgrades (if ever), and an assurance that Charter Communications will resume a comparably rapid Maxx-equivalent upgrade for New Yorkers that Time Warner Cable was well on its way to complete within the next two years. We also hope the Commission will share its findings with the general public.

Yours very truly,

 

Phillip M. Dampier
Director

[1] Text of a company memo obtained by Stop the Cap! originally sent to Time Warner Cable’s engineering/customer support team: “The Maxx Internet Speed Increase Program is currently undergoing review by our leadership team. As a result, all speed increases and customer communications were placed on a temporary hold beginning Thursday, May 26. Once the updated launch schedule is determined, updated hub schedules will be posted to KEY and area management will be notified. Customers will continue to receive notification when the new speeds are available in their hubs.” (http://stopthecap.com/2016/06/16/charter-indefinitely-suspends-time-warner-cable-maxx-upgrades-pending-review/)

[2] http://www.timewarnercable.com/en/about-us/press/twc-increases-internet-speed-hudson-valley.html

[3] http://www.timewarnercable.com/en/about-us/press/twc-to-transform-tv-internet-experience-central-northern-ny.html

[4] http://documents.dps.ny.gov/public/Common/ViewDoc.aspx?DocRefId={FCB40F67-B91F-4F65-8CCD-66D8C22AF6B1}

[5] http://documents.dps.ny.gov/public/Common/ViewDoc.aspx?DocRefId={DEE1823A-AADD-48D4-94BD-B96BAC096DAA}

[6] http://www.xfinity.com/multi-gig-offers.html

House Republicans Fail in Attempt to Gut Lifeline Program

Phillip Dampier June 22, 2016 Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

lifelineAn effort by a House Republican to scale back the FCC’s Lifeline subsidy program failed on a largely party-line vote Tuesday.

Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.) introduced the last-minute End Taxpayer Funded Cell Phones Act, a virtual carbon copy of legislation he proposed in March – H.R. 4884, the Controlling the Unchecked and Reckless Ballooning of Lifeline Act of 2016 (CURB Act). Scott pointed to a proposed FCC fine of $51 million against Total Call Mobile that alleges the company knowingly enrolled ineligible customers for dramatically discounted cell phone service. He also objected to the FCC’s recent request for an expanded Lifeline budget of $2.25 billion annually as an example of government spending running wild.

“I have been fighting to end the unchecked spending and lack of accountability in the Lifeline program since I came to Congress,” said Rep. Scott. “While the program’s original purpose had merit, the program in its current form is wrought with fraud and abuse, and its past time for Washington to respond to the calls of our constituents to rein this program in. American citizens, who are all too familiar with ‘Obama Phones’, understand this and can agree that it is simple good governance to ensure we are curbing wasteful spending while also promoting accountability across the federal government. We have a responsibility to the American citizens to practice the same spending discipline they would in their own homes.”

Scott

Scott’s Georgia district includes the cities of Warner Robins, Tifton, Thomasville, and Moultrie.

Scott’s use of the term “Obama Phones,” didn’t sit well with his opponents, including Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), who blasted Scott and the House Republican leadership for suddenly bringing Scott’s bill to the floor for a vote.

“[House Speaker] Ryan and the Republican majority is bringing a bill to the floor that would eliminate the successful Lifeline program that provides millions of low-income Americans access to basic communications services,” said Pallone, who reminded his Republican colleagues the Lifeline program was created in 1985 during the middle of the Reagan Administration and was extended to include wireless service under the George W. Bush administration. Pallone added the Obama Administration has rooted out nearly $750 million in waste, fraud, and abuse of the Lifeline program.

“The American people know that if Republicans were really serious about battling poverty and shrinking the size of Lifeline, they would work with us to create more jobs for those that are unemployed or under-employed,” Pallone said. “The best way to lower the costs of the Lifeline program is to lift people up, not to take away their connection to a better life.”

The vote was 207 in favor of Scott’s bill, 143 against. All but one of the “yes” votes came from Republicans (seven opposed the bill). The 143 voting against were almost entirely Democrats, with just one voting in favor.

Because the bill was brought to the floor during a suspension of House rules, a two-thirds vote in favor was required to pass it. Having failed to achieve that, Scott’s bill died on the floor.

AT&T Exec Admits Wireless Network Built On Backs of Landline Customers

att mobileAn AT&T executive casually told an audience attending the Wells Fargo 2016 Convergence & Connectivity Symposium that a significant part of AT&T’s wireless network was built with money intended for AT&T’s landline network.

“I came more from the wireline [landline] business and had always a little bit of frustration for me because for many years before I picked up operations in construction and everything for the wireless side of the business, in the wireline world, I was spending a lot of money that was directly supporting the wireless operation, but it showed up as wireline spend,” said Bill Smith,  who has been with AT&T for 37 years and has served as president of AT&T’s Technology Operations since January, 2010. “So we’re not that good at allocating those expenditures.”

Smith’s admission gives further evidence that AT&T has been shortchanging investment in wireline and fiber networks for years, to the benefit of AT&T’s profitable wireless business.

Smith

Smith

When mobile networks were first being constructed, there was concern that private investment, not landline ratepayers, be responsible for covering the costs of building wireless infrastructure. Both AT&T and Verizon submitted regular rate increase requests to state regulators during the period, claiming additional compensation was needed to cover the costs of landline network upkeep and upgrades. In most cases, regulators approved those rate increases.

Smith’s admission suggests AT&T systematically allocated expenses associated with its wireless network on the wireline side of the business ledger, reducing the amount available to maintain landline service. Had regulators known, they would have likely rejected the rate increase requests and, more importantly, required AT&T to stop spending landline ratepayer funds on wireless networks.

By depleting funds designated for wired networks, AT&T ultimately made a cheaper choice about the type of advanced network it would deploy. AT&T rejected Verizon’s choice of FiOS fiber to the home service because it was ‘too expensive.’ AT&T’s less costly solution, U-verse, relies on fiber to the neighborhood, with existing copper wiring remaining in place between the nearest fiber link and the telephone interface box on the back of your home or business.

Smith also handily defeated his employer’s justifications for data caps, telling the audience AT&T has strong capacity with plenty to spare, noting increasing traffic demands on AT&T’s networks are nothing new for the company.

“But getting back to the capacity question, I don’t lay awake at night worried about that,” Smith said. “Yeah there are a lot more demands coming in to the business, but there is nothing new about that. We’ve lived through many, many cases of new applications, new waves causing increases in consumption. I feel very good about where we are. The density of our network is very strong, and as I mentioned, I think we lead the industry in terms of U.S. footprint in the density of our network and that’s great. Also we have things like small cell coming on the horizon.”

 

Altice Making Big Changes With Cablevision Purchase Now Complete

drahi stuffWith today’s completion of Cablevision’s absorption into the Altice empire, the European cable conglomerate announced big changes that are expected to refocus the “center of gravity” and Altice’s future profits on the United States instead of Europe.

Altice today becomes America’s fourth largest cable operator, serving 4.6 million customers in 20 states. But Altice is not finished empire-building, and is widely expected to target privately held Cox Communications for acquisition sometime next year.

To lay the groundwork for future expansion, current controlling shareholder Patrick Drahi is turning over leadership of his growing U.S. operations to trusted lieutenant Dexter Goei, who will be chairman and CEO of Altice USA. Goei’s first mission is to lead a team of fierce cost-cutters into the offices of Suddenlink and Cablevision and ruthlessly slash expenses. Much of those savings are expected to come from significant job cuts among Cablevision’s 14,000 workers, especially middle management, engineering, and administrative workers. Last fall, Altice told investors Cablevision’s workers in the high cost suburban New York area were ripe for cutbacks, with much of the work currently managed by six figure salaried Cablevision employees likely to be transferred to Missouri-based Suddenlink, which operates in smaller cities in low labor cost states where employees are paid considerably less.

Approval of Cablevision’s sale to Altice by the New York Public Service Commission was given with the requirement Altice is prohibited from laying off, involuntarily reducing or taking any action “intended to reduce (excepting attrition and retirement incentives) any customer-facing jobs in New York,” such as call centers or walk-in centers for a period of four years. But as Altice’s call center employees at France’s SFR-Numericable attest, that does not prevent Altice from closing current call centers and transferring those jobs to cheaper locations in New York staffed by those willing to work for much less.

drahi“The number of customer service agents is exactly the same, but their competency to handle customer problems, and their salaries, are not,” said Jean Libessart, whose fiancé lost a job with Altice after call centers were moved overseas. “They stayed within the competition authority’s rules by exploiting the loopholes.”

Altice is seeking cuts of “hundreds of millions of dollars” from Cablevision’s expenses within the first six months of ownership. After that, Drahi wants to earn 50% of Altice’s future revenue by refocusing the business on “the madness of margins” in the United States — a term that acknowledges the United States tolerates deregulated telecom duopolies that can raise prices at will, something European governments would consider to be unconscionable. Drahi noted there are just four super-sized telecom companies in the United States facing down smaller companies, many that agree not to compete in territories already served by other companies.

Les Echos notes France is the antithesis of the American model, with more than 100 competing mobile and wired telecom operators fighting for some of the same customers. The result is that telecom rates in France are the lowest in Europe. It’s hard for a billionaire to make billions more when he cannot raise prices. That is why Mr. Drahi is setting his sights on the United States, where constant rate increases are actually expected by consumers. Just as surprising to Europeans, the ever-increasing prices are tolerated by regulators and members of Congress that sometimes end up working for the same telecom companies they oversaw during their stay in Washington.

Drahi can usually find loan money to buy up more American cable companies, because those companies can raise prices to pay back the massive debts Altice has already accumulated during several years of spending sprees.

cablevision“In every country, my strategy is to be number one or two,” Drahi told a hearing of the Economic Affairs Committee of the French Senate this month. In France, Altice is already number two and it will be very difficult to pass Orange, the dominant leader in French telecom. In the United States, there is still plenty of room to grow. After the completion of the acquisition of Cablevision, Altice will only control 2% of the market, giving Drahi plenty of room to push towards at least 10% market share starting in 2017.

Drahi originally had no intention of waiting even a year to further consolidate the U.S. cable market, but financial markets trembled over the €50 billion debt Drahi’s companies have amassed. The new line is that Altice will wait until next year before it acquires more companies in the United States, to give it a chance to properly merge Suddenlink and Cablevision into a more efficient operation.

“We want get bigger in the U.S., but I don’t know when, clearly not in 2016, which is the year of integration of our assets and operations,” Goei said in a recent interview. “Thereafter, you’d be surprised if we didn’t do anything, but we’re not going to buy things at stupid prices.”

Wall Street analysts are not so sure. More than a few believe Altice vastly overpaid for both Suddenlink and Cablevision. Many believe Drahi will have to be extremely generous to bring Cox Communications into the Altice family as well.

America’s 5G Revolution Comes By Giving Wireless Industry Whatever It Wants

Wheeler

Wheeler

FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler today told an audience at the National Press Club that 5G — the next generation of wireless networks — “is a national priority, and why, this Thursday, I am circulating to my colleagues proposed new rules that will identify and open up vast amounts of spectrum for 5G applications.”

Wheeler’s proposal, dubbed “Spectrum Frontiers,” is supposed to deliver wireless connectivity as fast as fiber optic broadband, and in Wheeler’s view, will deliver competitive high-speed access for consumers.

“If the Commission approves my proposal next month, the United States will be the first country in the world to open up high-band spectrum for 5G networks and applications,” said Wheeler. “And that’s damn important because it means U.S. companies will be first out of the gate.”

Central to Wheeler’s 5G proposal is opening up very high frequency millimeter wave spectrum — for unlicensed and licensed data communications. Wheeler named two in his speech: a “massive” 14GHz unlicensed band and a 28GHz “shared band” that will allow mobile and satellite operators to co-exist.

“Consider that – 14,000 megahertz of unlicensed spectrum, with the same flexible-use rules that has allowed unlicensed to become a breeding ground for innovation,” Wheeler said.

5g“Sharing is essential for the future of spectrum utilization. Many of the high-frequency bands we will make available for 5G currently have some satellite users, and some federal users, or at least the possibility of future satellite and federal users,” Wheeler noted. “This means sharing will be required between satellite and terrestrial wireless; an issue that is especially relevant in the 28GHz band. It is also a consideration in the additional bands we will identify for future exploration. We will strike a balance that offers flexibility for satellite users to expand, while providing terrestrial licensees with predictability about the areas in which satellite will locate.”

The CTIA – The Wireless Association, America’s largest mobile carrier lobbying and trade association, is all for opening up new spectrum for the use of their members — AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint, T-Mobile, among others. They just don’t want to share it. Ironically, they are calling on the FCC to regulate who gets access to what frequencies and what services can use them. They’d also appreciate federal rules restricting or preempting local officials responsible for approving where new cell towers can be located, and some form of price regulation for backhaul services would also be nice:

First, we need the right rules for high-band spectrum based on a time-tested regulatory framework. It must strike a reasonable balance for licensed and unlicensed use while promoting investment with clear service and licensing rules. We should avoid experimenting with novel spectrum sharing regimes or new technology mandates.

Second, we need the right rules to help build our 5G infrastructure. Traditional spectrum travels many miles, depending on large cell towers to transmit signals. In contrast, high-band spectrum – capable of carrying greater amounts of data –travels meters, not miles and will require the deployment of thousands of new small cells the size of smoke alarms. This network evolution requires a new infrastructure approach, and Congress, the FCC and states must streamline and simplify local siting and rights of way rules.

Wheeler recognizes that 5G services will work very differently from the 3G and 4G networks we’ve used in the past.

ctia

CTIA is the wireless industry’s biggest lobbyist and trade association.

“5G will use much higher-frequency bands than previously thought viable for mobile broadband and other applications,” Wheeler said. “Such millimeter wave signals have physical properties that are both a limitation and a strength: they tend to travel best in narrow and straight lines, and do not go through physical obstacles very well. This means that very narrow signals in an urban environment tend to bounce around buildings and other obstacles making it difficult to connect to a moving point. But it also means that the spectrum can be reused over and over again.”

In other words, think about 5G as an initially limited range wireless network that may turn out to be best suited for fixed wireless service or limited range hotspots, especially before network densification helps make 5G service more ubiquitous. The wireless industry doesn’t think Wheeler’s vision will be enough to resolve capacity issues in the short term, and is calling on the FCC to release even more low and mid-band spectrum in the 600MHz range that can travel inside buildings and offer a wider coverage area.

Wheeler’s recognition that 5G’s shorter range signals will likely require a massive overlay of new infrastructure has also opened the door for the CTIA to call on the FCC to revisit local zoning and antenna placement rules and policies, with the likely goal of preempting or watering down local authority to accept or reject where cell phone companies want to place their next small cell or cell tower. Wireless companies are also expected to push for easy access to utility poles, time limits to approve new cell tower construction applications, and pricing regulation for fiber lines needed to connect 5G infrastructure to backhaul networks.

Cell tower camouflage failure.

Cell tower camouflage failure.

On the issue of backhaul — the connection between a cell tower and the wireless carrier’s network, the FCC is planning a pro-regulatory “anchor pricing” approach to benefit wireless companies. Consumers can also relate to being overcharged for slow speed Internet access with little or no competition, but the FCC is only acting for the benefit of the wireless companies for now — the same companies that would undoubtedly complain loudly if anchor pricing was ever applied to them.

“Lack of competition doesn’t just hurt the deployment of wireless networks today, it threatens as well to delay the buildout of 5G networks with its demand for many, many more backhaul connections to many, many more antennae,” complained Wheeler. “Before the end of this year the Commission will take up a reform proposal – supported by the nation’s leading wireless carriers, save one – that will encourage innovation and investment in Business Data Services while ensuring that lack of competition in some places cannot be used to hold 5G hostage.”

While Wheeler’s goals are laudable, there are stunning examples of hypocrisy and self-interest from the wireless industry. Yet again, the industry is seeking regulatory protection from having to share spectrum with unlicensed users, existing licensees, or competitors.  No letting the “free market” decide here. Second, there are absolutely no assurances the wireless industry will deliver substantial home broadband competition. Verizon and AT&T will be effectively competing with themselves in areas where they already offer wired broadband. Is there a willingness from AT&T and Verizon to sell unlimited broadband over 5G networks or will customers be expected to pay “usage pack”-prices as high as $10 per gigabyte, which doesn’t include the monthly cost of the service itself. Offering customers unlimited 5G could cannibalize the massive profits earned selling data plans to wireless customers.

Cactus or cell tower

Cactus or cell tower

Upgrading to 5G service will be expensive and take years to reach many neighborhoods. Verizon’s chief financial officer believes 5G wireless will be more cost-effective to deploy than its FiOS fiber to the home network, but considering Verizon largely ended its deployment of FiOS several years ago and has allowed its DSL customers to languish just as long, 5G will need to be far more profitable to stimulate Verizon’s interest in spending tens of billions on 5G infrastructure. It does not seem likely the result will be $25/month unlimited, fiber-like fast, Internet plans.

Although the mobile industry will argue its investment dollars should be reason enough to further deregulate and dis-empower local officials that oversee the placement of cellular infrastructure, it would be a tremendous mistake to allow wireless carriers to erect cell towers and small cells wherever they see fit. Most small cells aren’t much larger than a toaster and will probably fit easily on utility poles. But it will likely spark another wave of pole access controversies. The aesthetics of traditional cell tower placement, especially in historical districts, parks, and suburbs, almost always create controversy. The FCC should not tip the balance of authority for tower placement away from those that have to live with the results.

The mobile industry doesn’t make investments for free, and before we reward them for investing in their networks, let’s recall the United States pays some of the highest mobile service prices in the world. The industry argues what you get in return for that $100+ wireless bill is better than ever, an argument similarly used by the cable industry to justify charging $80 a month for hundreds of channels you don’t watch or want. Therefore, incentives offered to the wireless industry should be tied to permanent pro-consumer commitments, such as unlimited 5G broadband, better rural coverage, and the power to unbundle current wireless packages and ditch services like unlimited texting many customers don’t need. Otherwise, it’s just another one-sided corporate welfare plan we can’t afford.

Charter Indefinitely Suspends Time Warner Cable Maxx Upgrades Pending “Review”

charter twcTime Warner Cable customers getting inundated with ads promising great things from Charter’s buyout of Time Warner Cable have their first broken promise from “Spectrum” to contend with instead.

Charter Communications has quietly informed Time Warner technicians and network engineers — but not customers — it has indefinitely suspended the Time Warner Cable Maxx upgrade program until further notice until the new leadership team “reviews” the program.

“The Maxx Internet Speed Increase Program is currently undergoing review by our leadership team. As a result, all speed increases and customer communications were placed on a temporary hold beginning Thursday, May 26. Once the updated launch schedule is determined, updated hub schedules will be posted to KEY and area management will be notified. Customers will continue to receive notification when the new speeds are available in their hubs.”

charter sucksThe internal Time Warner Cable memo, now confirmed as genuine by Time Warner, suggests the hold is temporary, but sources tell us Charter executives are reviewing expenses across the board to find cost saving opportunities. Most states approving the transaction gave Charter plenty of room to maneuver while approving its merger deal because of Charter’s considerably less aggressive upgrade schedule, in comparison to Time Warner Cable. Few states asked Charter for anything more than what Charter volunteered itself.

Charter has formally committed to offering two broadband speed tiers: 60 and 100Mbps by 2019. Except in New York, where regulators insisted on more aggressive upgrades that match Maxx speeds, Charter is within its rights as the new owner to discard or ignore any earlier commitments or public statements previously made by Time Warner Cable management.

Stop the Cap! filed comments last year opposing Charter’s merger in New York, California, and with the Federal Communications Commission, arguing Charter’s claimed merger deal benefits offered to regulators represented a step backwards for Time Warner Cable customers. Time Warner Cable had previously committed to move forward on its Maxx upgrade program, which offers Internet speeds three times faster than what Charter is promising, on a schedule that would have likely finished upgrades by the end of next year or early 2018. Charter has only committed to complete its less compelling speed upgrade to a maximum 100Mbps by the end of 2019 — three years from now.

We will continue to notify regulators about Charter’s performance to compel action and raise public awareness of any gaps between Charter’s glowing promises of better things to come in their letters and TV spots and what actually happens on the ground. It is not a good start for “Spectrum” with consumers, just days after customers received a welcome letter in the mail signed by Charter CEO Tom Rutledge. Less than two weeks later, some customers already feel like they’ve been lied to.

twc

Opponent of EPB Fiber Expansion: Get ‘Innovative’ Satellite Internet Instead

Cleveland's monument in the downtown district. (Image: City of Cleveland)

Cleveland’s monument in the downtown district. (Image: City of Cleveland)

AT&T, Comcast, and Charter have surrounded the city of Cleveland, Tenn., (population 42,774) for more than 20 years, yet after all that time, there are still many homes in the area that have no better than dial-up Internet access..

An effort to extend municipal utility EPB’s fiber to the home service into the community just northeast of Chattanooga on Interstate 75, has run into organized political opposition campaign, part-sponsored by two of the three communications companies serving the area.

Tennessee state Reps. Dan Howell and Kevin Brooks, both Cleveland-area Republicans, understand the implications. With AT&T, Comcast, and Charter resolute about not expanding their coverage areas anytime soon, the only chance Cleveland has of winning world-class broadband anytime in the reasonable future is through EPB, which has already offered to extend service to at least 1,000 customers in rural Bradley County in as little as three months. Most of those customers now rely on dial-up Internet services, because no broadband is available. Reps. Howell and Brooks are trying to get the the red tape out of the way so EPB can proceed, but the Tennessee legislature hasn’t budged.

EPB provides municipal power, broadband, television, and telephone service for residents in Chattanooga, Tennessee

EPB provides municipal power, broadband, television, and telephone service for residents in Chattanooga, Tennessee

There is a substantial difference between 30kbps dial-up and 100Mbps — one of the “budget” Internet tiers available from EPB. But some Tennessee lawmakers and corporate-backed special interest groups don’t care. To them, stopping public broadband expansion is a bigger priority, and they have attempted to stall, block, or prohibit municipal broadband, just to protect the current phone and cable companies that are among their generous contributors.

In 2010, Chattanooga became the first in America to enjoy gigabit residential broadband speed not because of AT&T, Comcast, or Charter, but because of the publicly owned electric company, EPB. So what’s the problem with that? The fact EPB spent $320 million on the fiber optic network — about $100 million of that coming from a federal grant — keeps some conservatives, corporate executives, and telecom shareholders up at night. They object to the public funding of broadband, calling it unfair competition for the two incumbent cable companies and one phone company, which have their own “privately funded” networks.

Republican Rep. Mike Carter, who serves Ooltewah, thinks that’s a lot of nonsense. He notes AT&T and other providers already receive government funding to service outlying areas that no other providers dare to tread for a lack of return on their investment.

cleveland_tn“[What] convinces me to back expansion of the EPB of Chattanooga is the fact that they received $111 million in stimulus funds, and in the next five years AT&T alone will receive $156 million of your money [in government funding] assessed every month on your bill to provide 10/4-gigabit service in those areas,” Carter explained to the Chattanooga Times-Free Press. “If the EPB’s $111 million matching grant somehow disqualifies those benefits going to my constituents, how do I explain to them that AT&T is receiving non-matching funds?”

“The issue then became, if it is necessary to create the world’s fastest Internet system, why would EPB not offer that for economic growth in its service area?” Carter continued. ” After I heard the story of the [gig’s] creation and realized that the money had already been spent, I asked myself if I would allow a firmly held principle of no competition with private enterprise by government to deny my constituents and neighbors the incredible benefits.”

Justin Owen, president and CEO of the Beacon Center of Tennessee, is dismissive of Carter’s willingness to bend his principles. In his view, those without Internet access have other options instead of getting EPB Fiber on the public dime.

Owen

Owen

“You can get satellite Internet,” said Owen, who added that governments that invest in fiber technology could be “left behind by disruptive innovation,” which in his mind could be satellite Internet. Satellite customers would disagree.

“Horrible, horrible, horrible, and more horrible,” wrote Trey from another Cleveland — this time in Texas. “Speeds are consistently less than 2Mbps and they advertise up to 12. Try a cell phone booster and use that before resorting to satellite Internet.”

Hundreds of customers shared similar stories about their experience with satellite Internet, and they don’t believe it will be disruptive to anything except their bank account.

Owen and his group have not revealed many details about where its funding comes from, but the group is a member of the State Policy Network, which receives financial support from AT&T, Time Warner Cable, Verizon and Comcast. The group’s former leader, Drew Johnson, was also a former opinion page columnist at the Times-Free Press and used column space to criticize EPB and other issues that ran contrary to AT&T’s agenda in Tennessee.

Despite support from the Chattanooga area’s Republican delegation, many legislators from outside the area remain firmly in support of the telecom companies and their wish to limit or destroy community broadband projects like EPB, claiming they are redundant or are based on faulty business plans likely to fail. But while Comcast used to dismiss EPB’s gigabit service as unnecessary and AT&T considered gigabit speeds overkill, both companies are now racing to deploy their own gigabit networks in Chattanooga to compete.

The residents of Cleveland without broadband today probably won’t have it tomorrow or anytime soon. Many are hoping the Tennessee legislature will relent and let EPB solve their broadband issues once and for all. Cleveland resident Aaron Alldaffer is trying to help gin up interest in a renewed legislative push for EPB Fiber expansion with a Change.org petition.

The BBC World Service Global Business program visited Chattanooga in May 2016 to explore EPB Fiber and discuss its implications. (29 minutes)

You must remain on this page to hear the clip, or you can download the clip and listen later.

Middle Mile Madness: Rural Florida Blows $24 Million on Wireless Network Serving Nobody

12126179-florida-rural-broadband-alliance-logoA word to the wise: using public money to build a middle mile broadband network without any customers lined up to sign up is a disaster waiting to happen.

In April, the disaster arrived in the form of a Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing on behalf of the Florida Rural Broadband Alliance (FRBA), which threw away $24 million in federal grants on a network that was so unviable, the contractor that was supposed to run it apparently ran away instead, resulting in confusion and an eventual declaration it was “doomed to fail” anyway.

The sordid story started almost seven years ago when Florida’s Heartland Regional Economic Development Initiative (FHREDI) and Opportunity Florida (OF) — two non-profit organizations dedicated to spurring economic development across rural Florida, discovered federal grant money was available for rural Internet expansion as part of the Obama Administration’s 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The two groups fashioned a broadband proposal they were confident would win approval. At the time, rural broadband across northwest and south-central Florida was dismal at best, with only 39% of homes covered. Largely unserved by cable and barely served with DSL from AT&T and other telephone companies, the two groups believed a wireless network would be the best solution for Hardee, DeSoto, Highlands, Okeechobee, Glades, Hendry, Holmes, Washington, Jackson, Gadsden, Calhoun, Liberty, Gulf and Franklin counties.

empty-office

$24 million spent and nothing to show for it.

Although $24 million is not an insubstantial sum, it was clearly never adequate to build a comprehensive rural broadband network reaching homes and businesses. Instead, the two groups envisioned a “middle mile” network funded by the government, with central offices in Orlando and Tallahassee equipped with microwave dishes and computer servers. Unlike most middle mile networks, the one proposed by the FRBA would rely on a network of microwave towers instead of fiber optics, and would ultimately serve all of its customers over a wireless network.

When complete, the wireless network was supposed to deliver up to 1Gbps capacity throughout the region, relying on leased space on existing cell towers to support microwave links that would bounce signals from one area to the next. Initially promising to serve more than 174,000 homes and 16,400 businesses, the one immediate flaw noticed by those skeptical of the proposal was the lack of a definitive plan to sell Internet service to paying residential and business customers. The brochures suggested existing commercial Internet Service Providers would magically step into that role. Early critics called that “wishful thinking.”

Despite what some felt was an untenable business plan and an incomplete application, the group won its federal “BTOP” grant of $24 million in 2010 and began a very lengthy planning process using well-paid consultants to get the network fully scoped out and built. Within a year, controversy quickly threatened to swamp the project, and a congressional oversight investigation quickly found evidence of wasteful spending and put its funding on hold. That would hardly be the first allegation raised against the FRBA and those overseeing it. By 2013, the Columbia County Observer had run more than a dozen stories reporting irregularities and other problems with the project. Few were noticed more than the report Rapid Systems, Inc., one of the contractors on the project, had filed a $25 million lawsuit replete with soap operatic allegations against FRBA for not being paid for its work.

Rapid Systems CEO, Dustin Jurman and CFO/VP Denise Hamilton. (Image: Columbia County Observer)

Rapid Systems CEO, Dustin Jurman and CFO/VP Denise Hamilton. (Image: Columbia County Observer)

Rapid Systems alleged everything from fraud and double-dipping to sexual promiscuity over what it called the “FRBA Fraud Scheme.”

At the heart of the lawsuit were allegations money was being misspent, “to pay inflated salaries to employees, who then fled to South America, and that grant money was used for inflated fees to consulting companies which were owned by FRBA principals.”

Rapid Systems claimed FRBA was very generous paying management consulting fees of $10,000 a month to an entity known as the Government Service Group (GSG), along with a pro rata share (3% of the grant) for a “Grant Compliance Fee” and an additional 13% of the grant as a “Capital Improvement Program Administrative Fee.” And you thought only Comcast and Time Warner Cable were creative conjuring up fees. When added up, it appeared just one consultant — GSG — would walk away with 16% of the entire grant — nearly $4 million in total “management fees” before a single broadband connection would be made.

The lawsuit also claimed the grant money was gorged on by the leadership of both non-profits, one who allegedly relocated to South America the lawsuit states in another aside. The two “were being paid fees in the amount of $8,500 a month to themselves cloaked as administrative and community outreach funds,” according to the lawsuit.

Phillip Dampier: To be a credible supporter of community broadband, it is responsible to call out the disasters so that they are not repeated.

Phillip Dampier: To be a credible supporter of community broadband, it is responsible to call out the disasters so they are not repeated.

Meanwhile, the public eagerly awaiting something better than the non-broadband AT&T and some independent phone companies were supplying in the region couldn’t get answers about the project’s progress. Neither could the media, which reported the business phone number for the FRBA would ring unanswered for hours or days. Those hired to provide community outreach about the broadband project were frequently unable to answer even basic questions about the network or its status, or where the principals involved in the project even met.

By 2014, Opportunity Florida’s Facebook page claimed the network was 90% complete. But the project now decidedly downplayed how many homes and businesses would get service. Instead, the middle mile network promoted itself as an institutional network, dedicated primarily to serving “community anchor institutions:”

The FRBA system provides lower cost, high capacity broadband to Community Anchor Institutions, commonly referred to as “CAIs.” CAIs include local government and public agencies including schools, libraries and hospitals. The NTIA grant was initiated with these unserved or underserved CAIs as the intended target. Most government and public services have moved, or are in the process of moving, to paperless transactions and record-keeping and need the additional broadband and Internet based capabilities. Another benefit of the FRBA system will be capacity to schools and libraries as both those institutions face online and digital mandates.

Commercial ISPs willing to use the network to offer service to individual non-institutional customers were invited to visit an Opportunity Florida webpage (now gone) for more information. There is no evidence any major ISP ever bothered. In fact, even institutional users didn’t seem very interested. We remain unclear if there was ever a single paying customer on the network, despite a report filed by the NFBA with the federal government that claimed through September 30, 2012, the NFBA had 11 anchor institutions, zero residents, and zero businesses hooked up to its network.

A year later, the Columbia County Observer went further and called some of those involved in evangelizing the project “clueless,” and based on the post-mortem of what has happened since, they may be right.

Those directly involved in the project have since displayed a stunning lack of knowledge about its operations and practices, or what has become of the $24 million:

The unfortunate "I see nothing, I hear nothing, I know nothing" brigade.

The unfortunate “I see nothing, I hear nothing, I know nothing” brigade answers questions from the media.

  • Gina Reynolds, the last executive director of FHREDI, which administered FRBA, claimed the network was running fine when she left in the summer of 2015 to start her own economic development consultancy. She may be among the very few that got out before the project ultimately fell apart. Although FHREDI managed to pay her for her services, it suddenly lacked any resources to pay anyone to replace her after she left;
  • Greg Harris, a Highlands County commissioner and FHREDI director, disclosed at a recent county commission meeting FRBA was in Chapter 7 bankruptcy and the group that oversaw it — FHREDI, was being dissolved. But like the phoenix rising from the ashes, some of those involved in FHREDI and FRBA are now associating themselves with a new group called the Florida Heartland Economic Region of Opportunity (FHERO). Says Harris: “We didn’t really know what FHREDI was doing. They were spending most of their opportunity on FRBA and the rural broadband. It got away from what we really needed to focus on.”
  • Terry Burroughs, an Okeechobee County commissioner, is FHERO’s chairman. But last year, the ex-telephone company executive was a FHREDI board member. His memory is excellent about where the taxpayer-funded equipment to run the network eventually ended up: in warehouses in Lake Placid and Tallahassee. But his answers were more vague when asked how things went so wrong. Burroughs tried to put substantial distance between himself and the failed wireless broadband network: “When I first got on the board, they were trying to negotiate with a contractor. Gina [Reynolds] was working with that, and it went on and on and on. There was probably a network at some given time, but I don’t think a last mile ever deployed. When I got there, the last mile was dark. … I never knew of a paying customer. They were trying to build a telephone company, and they were doomed to failure.”
  • Paul McGehee, business development manager for Glades Electric and a FHERO director, did an even better job explaining he knew nothing, saw nothing, and heard (almost) nothing: “The operator who was contracted to run it as a company stepped away from it,” McGehee said, adding he could not recall the contractor’s name. The flaw in FRBA’s plan, according to McGehee, was that while the grant bought the equipment, there were no federal funds for operations. “No one wanted to step up and operate the network, and there was no way to pay the tower leases… The end product wasn’t a viable sustainable thing.”

fhrediToo bad nobody bothered to consider that before spending $24 million of the taxpayers’ money on a non-viable network.

Commissioner Jim Brooks didn’t seem too bothered by the admissions of total failure. After hearing an explanation about the network’s demise and the money spent on it, he told his fellow commissioners he “didn’t have a problem with it.”

A multitude of articles that have documented this disaster (including our own from September 2011) illustrates what can happen when over-enthusiastic consultants overwhelm projects with happy talk not recognized as such by a board that has little or no understanding of the technology, the broadband business, or, in this case, the project itself. The claims and projections consistently simply bore no reality… to reality. What is even more concerning is some of those consultants didn’t work for free, and may have tapped a substantial portion of the total available grant for themselves.

It is also remarkable and disappointing to read candid assessments about a project “doomed to failure” from those with direct knowledge and or involvement only after the liquidator from the federal government turns up. As stewards of public taxpayer money, one expects more than a shrug of the shoulders and a quiet shuffle dance out of FHREDI into a new, reincarnated “rural economic development” initiative. How can we trust the same mistakes won’t be made again?

We remain strong supporters of community broadband, but messes like this hand potent ammunition to corporate-ISP-funded think tanks that use these kinds of failures to sully all public broadband projects. We must call out of the bad ones to be seen as credible supporting the good ones. It also never hurts to learn from others’ mistakes.

Among the biggest reasons this project was a flop (beyond the dubious skills of those in charge of overseeing it) was its size, scope, and technology choice. The biggest challenge to any rural broadband project is always “the last mile” — the point where the connection leaves a regional fiber network and reaches a nearby neighborhood’s utility poles and finally enters your home. It also happens to be the most costly segment of the network, and often the hardest to fund with government subsidies. But it is the one that makes the difference for individual homeowners and businesses who either have broadband or don’t.

Rural Floridians endure more broken promises for better broadband.

Rural Floridians endure more broken promises for better broadband.

Like too many middle mile projects of this type, the story initially fed to the press and supporters is that such networks will somehow alleviate rural broadband problems. Only later do supporters realize they are actually getting an institutional middle mile network that will offer service to hospitals, schools, and public safety buildings — not to homes and businesses. Ordinary citizens cannot access such networks unless a commercial ISP shows interest in leasing it to resell, which is unlikely. The closest most will ever get to experiencing an institutional network they paid for is staring at the fiber cable stretched across the utility poles in front of your house.

FRBA was too ambitious in size and scope, and a credible consultant should have advised those in charge to get credible evidence that a network built with grant money could be sustained without it going forward. If not, scale back the project or don’t apply for the grant.

This project proposed a wireless backbone to power a large regional wireless network. Winning support among anchor institutions was predictably difficult, because many already have existing contracts with commercial telecom companies. With government funding available in many instances, an institution can get full fiber or metro Ethernet service easier than a rural farmer can get 6Mbps DSL from a disinterested phone company.

The evidence shows there were few takers — institutional or otherwise — of what FRBA had to offer. Did the project organizers not see this lack of interest as a problem as the network prepared to launch? After launch, there were almost immediate signs it lacked enough of a customer base to sustain itself. Did the project backers assume the government would bail out the network or dump millions more into it to make it viable to sell to homes and businesses? Such assumptions would have been irresponsible.

There are too many underutilized middle mile or institutional fiber networks already built with taxpayer dollars that remain off-limits to those who paid to build them. Utilizing those networks by extending grant funding for last mile projects would be helpful, as would sufficient subsidies to assure middle mile construction is followed by last mile construction and actual service. We remain big believers in fiber to the home service. Although expensive, such projects are best positioned for success and future viability and can take advantage of the massive amount of dark fiber already laid in many areas. Some cities prefer to run the networks themselves, others contract day-to-day operations out to independent operators. Either would be preferable to a network that took six years to build and fail, without any evidence it could attract, support and sustain enough customers to support anything close to viability.

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