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VIDEO: How Big Telecom Isolates Rural America

From the producers of Dividing Lines:

Across the country, state legislatures have created barriers to community involvement in expanding internet access.

In Tennessee, lobbyists from AT&T, Charter, and Comcast spread huge campaign contributions around the state legislature. AT&T’s influence is felt in the governor’s own broadband expansion legislation, which was tailor-written to allow the phone company to collect huge taxpayer subsidies to expand inferior DSL into rural parts of Tennessee.

Meanwhile, some local communities seeking to build state-of-the-art fiber to the home networks capable of delivering 10 gigabit service found that doing so would be illegal under state law.

Think about that for a moment.

A multi-billion dollar telecom company is allowed to expand its slow speed DSL network with taxpayer-funded grants while your local community is forbidden to bring fiber optic service to your home even if your community votes to support such a project. Exactly who is the governor and state legislature working for when it comes to resolving Tennessee’s rural broadband nightmare?

In part two of this series, watch State Senator Janice Bowling describe how much influence AT&T has over the Tennessee state legislature. (5:31)

VIDEO: Dividing Lines – Dialed Back to Dial-Up in Rural America

From the producers of Dividing Lines:

The online world is no longer a distinct world. It is an extension of our social, economic, and political lives. Internet access, however, is still a luxury good. Millions of Americans have been priced out of, or entirely excluded from, the reach of modern internet networks. Maria Smith, an affiliate of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society and Harvard Law School, created Dividing Lines to highlight these stark divides, uncover the complex web of political and economic forces behind them, and challenge audiences to imagine a future in which quality internet access is as ubiquitous as electricity.

This is the first part of a series being deployed by organizations and community leaders across the country, from San Francisco to Nashville to Washington, D.C., in an effort to educate stakeholders and catalyze policymaking that elevates the interests of the people over the interests of a handful of corporations.

The fight for rural broadband in Tennessee pits a publicly owned electric utility against Comcast and AT&T and their allies in the state legislature. (5:25)

Frontier Boost Speeds in Fiber Markets While Its DSL Customers Suffer

Frontier can boost speeds on its acquired fiber to the home networks, which offer almost unlimited capacity upgrades.

Frontier Communications is America’s feast or famine broadband provider, today announcing speed upgrades for its acquired Frontier FiOS and Vantage Fiber service areas while the company continues to pile up hundreds of complaints about poor quality DSL service in the northern U.S. where fiber upgrades are unlikely to ever happen.

Frontier today announced gigabit service (1,000/1,000 Mbps) is now available in its FiOS (California, Texas, Florida, and parts of the Pacific Northwest and Indiana) and Vantage Fiber (primarily Connecticut) service areas. The company also unveiled new plans offering 200/200 and 300/300 Mbps speed options in Indiana, Oregon, and Washington.

“Frontier is pleased to now offer a 200/200 Mbps service, the fastest, most efficient introductory broadband service available in our markets, plus eye-popping speed and capacity with our FiOS Gigabit for the home,” said John Maduri, executive vice president and chief customer officer at Frontier Communications. “Speed and reliability are hallmarks of FiOS Fiber broadband service. Two-way speeds over our all-fiber network make Internet tasks faster and more efficient, regardless of the time of day, while also enabling the many connected devices and streaming services in the home to work simultaneously and smoothly.”

Frontier’s fiber networks are only found in certain regions of the country, including 1.4 million homes in the Tampa Bay/six-county region along the central west coast of Florida, parts of Southern California, Dallas, and individual communities in Indiana, Oregon, and Washington that used to be served by Verizon.

Frontier’s Vantage Fiber network was largely acquired from AT&T’s U-verse service area in Connecticut, with more recent limited rollouts in North Carolina and Minnesota. Life for the unfibered masses in the rest of Minnesota is less sunny, with nearly 500 complaints against Frontier filed by frustrated consumers stuck with a company they feel has forgotten about them.

City Pages notes no company affirms the notoriety of a bad phone company like Frontier Communications, which still relies on a deteriorating copper wire network in most of its original (a/k/a “legacy”) service areas. Complaints about mediocre internet access, missing in action repair crews, and Soviet era-like delays to get landline service installed are as common as country roads.

City Pages:

The grievances read like a cannonade of frustration. They speak of no-show repairmen. Endless waits on hold. Charges for services never rendered. Outages that last for days.

“I have never dealt with a more incompetent company than Frontier,” writes one customer on Google Reviews. “I have no other choice for internet or phone service in my area…. It took me over three months just for Frontier to get to my house to even connect my service…. They also canceled multiple times for installation without calling. They just didn’t show up.”

These maladies aren’t exclusive to the outbacks. They also extend to Watertown Township, in the exurbs of Carver County.

“Frontier Communications is my only option for internet,” Kathleen McCann wrote state regulators. “My internet service is worse than dial-up…. As a dentist, I am not able to email dental X-rays. It took me 47 minutes to upload one small photo to Facebook recently.”

Frontier vice president Javier Mendoza at least admits most rural Minnesotans will be waiting for upgrades forever.

“The economic reality is that upgrading broadband infrastructure in the more rural parts of the state is not economically viable,” he says.

That leaves customers hoping some other entity will step up and serve the critical digital needs of one of America’s most important agricultural states. If not, the future is dismal.

“Those people are screwed,” Christopher Mitchell of the Institute of Local Self-Reliance, a Minneapolis nonprofit, tells the newspaper. “People who make business or real estate decisions are not going to move to that area.”

With that bleak assessment, several rural Minnesota communities are doing something remarkable — building their own public broadband networks. Even more surprising is that many of those towns are led by hardcore Republican local governments that have very different views about municipal broadband than the national party.

Life is rougher for Frontier’s legacy customers that depend on the company’s decades-old copper wire networks.

Some have joked they could change the mind of big city Republicans that are openly hostile to the concept of public broadband by making them spend two weeks without adequate internet access.

In the Minnesota backcountry, in the heart of Trumpland, broadband is about as bipartisan an issue you can find. Ten cities and 17 townships in Renville and Sibley counties went all-out socialist for suitable, super high-speed fiber optic broadband. RS Fiber, the resulting co-op, delivers superior internet access with fewer complaints than the big phone and cable companies offer in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Public broadband is no more a “big government” takeover than municipal co-ops were when they were formed to bring electric and phone service to rural farms during the days of FDR. Waiting for investor-owned utilities to find adequate profits before breaking ground came second to meeting the public need for reliable power and phone service.

Today, part of that need is still there, even with an incumbent phone company delivering something resembling service. Frontier DSL is internet access that time forgot, with customers comparing it to the days of dial-up. Speed tests often fail to break 1 Mbps. Cable companies won’t come anywhere near most of these communities, many inconveniently located between nothing and nowhere.

As long as Frontier remains “checked out” with make-due internet access, rural Minnesota won’t ever benefit from the kinds of fiber fast speeds Frontier is promoting on the fiber networks that other companies originally built. Frontier is not in the business of constructing large-scale fiber networks itself. It prefers to acquire them after they are built. That makes Frontier customers in legacy service areas still served with copper envious of the kind of speeds available in California, Texas, and Florida.

Investors continue to pressure Frontier to reduce spending and pay down its debts, piled up largely on the huge acquisitions of Verizon and AT&T landline customers Frontier effectively put on its corporate credit card. For Wall Street, the combination of debt repayments and necessary upgrade expenses are bad news for Frontier’s stock. The company already discontinued its all-important dividend, used for years to lure investors. A growing number of analysts suspect Frontier will face bankruptcy reorganization in the next five years, if only to restructure or walk away from its staggering debts.

Verizon Quits ALEC After Group Hands Microphone to Right-Wing Provocateur David Horowitz

Down one big member — Verizon

Verizon has quit the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate funded alliance between big business and Republican state lawmakers, after right-wing activist David Horowitz used a guest appearance at the 45th ALEC Annual Meeting in New Orleans to launch into a tirade against opponents of President Donald Trump, claiming Democrats are socialists bent on attacking traditional American values.

To rousing applause from many of the 1,500 legislators and lobbyists in attendance, Horowitz used two speeches to attack the LGBTQ community, people of color, public education, feminism, gender equality, and the rights of women to seek independent access to reproductive healthcare.

Specifically, Horowitz claimed public schools are “indoctrination and recruitment centers for the Democratic party and its socialist left” and that “school curricula had been turned over to racist organizations like Black Lives Matter and terrorist organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood.” On a later panel, Horowitz told the audience Trump had not gone far enough attacking his enemies, and defended the president’s remarks calling a woman “a pig.” Those who disagreed were called “communists” by Horowitz.  He also argued the United States could only have been founded by Protestant Christians.

Horowitz speaks at ALEC conference in August 2018.

The incendiary remarks are nothing new for Horowitz, who repeatedly called President Barack Obama “a secret Muslim” and sponsors a website that claims Muslim migrants are carriers of infectious disease and predators with a “violent lust for ‘white’ women.”

Rep. Chris Taylor (D-Wisc.) attends ALEC events often to learn more about what the opposition is doing. Her observations from this year’s conference reflect ALEC in disarray, as the formerly unified, corporate-focused group is becoming more fragmented as emboldened right-wing activists demand a voice at the table.

They want state’s rights, except when they don’t. The same contradiction is evident with their struggle with local control–sometimes they like it, sometimes they don’t. The defining factor is whether these levels of government promote the far-right ALEC agenda. It is getting harder and harder for ALEC to ignore these internal contradictions.

And there are visible cracks in ALEC world. Collectively, this was the messiest and least disciplined ALEC conference I have attended since 2013. In the energy task force, presentations were all over the place. A natural gas and electricity supplier went off script by openly discussing the billions in subsidies the oil and gas industry receives. There was silence in the crowded task force room, filled with fossil fuel producers and lobbyists.

[…] In the Health and Human Services task force, the Goldwater Institute and Buckeye Foundation were in a tizzy because the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was still in existence and the left seemed to win that war, at least for now. How could it be, they moaned, when Republicans are in charge of EVERYTHING? They whined that the “debacle of last year was horrible” and that Congress wouldn’t touch another repeal with a 10-foot poll. So, 100 conservative groups came together to propose an alternative plan that guts the ACA, again. But the list was messy and confusing, and even the presenters seemed doubtful their plan would ever succeed.

But the biggest disaster I have ever seen at an ALEC conference was on a panel about the Convention of States (COS) project. COS is mobilizing in states to call an Article V Constitutional Convention for the purposes of amending the federal constitution by passing a balanced budget amendment, term-limits for federal judges, and who knows what else. One of the key speakers was right-wing provocateur David Horowitz. Horowitz is listed in a Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) report published by Alternet with the title “10 of America’s Most Dangerous Hatemongers”.

After converting from being a Marxist decades ago, Horowitz now runs his own right-wing think tank, bankrolled to the tune of $3.4 million by the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation, according to the Center for Media and Democracy. Horowitz gained recent fame as a key mentor of Trump advisor Stephen Miller, the man behind Trump’s family separation policy according to the Atlantic.

[…] ALEC is moving into dangerous territory. Despite the formidable infrastructure they have built over 45 years, their control of 33 state legislatures and their hordes of corporate cash that perpetually grease their wheels, the organization seems to be increasingly in disarray and in an identity crisis. While simultaneously distancing themselves from the chaos and corruption of President Trump, the reality is that they need him, and his hate-mongering, to further the foundation of their right-wing agenda–gutting the ACA and federal conservation standards, repealing workers’ rights, pushing down wages and privatizing public education.

And so the Horowitz’s of the world, who ALEC at least publicly has kept at a distance during my tenure, are now becoming part of the ALEC universe. Are ALEC supporters, including their corporate funders, willing to embrace this hate-mongering to continue to advance their corporate agenda?

Horowitz’s brand of politics may be popular with party activists, but corporate ALEC members are more concerned about their public image.

After Horowitz’s appearance, Verizon notified ALEC it was resigning from the group.

“Our company has no tolerance for racist, white supremacist or sexist comment or ideals,” a Verizon spokesperson said in a statement.

It is a severe blow to ALEC, which welcomed Verizon as a dues paying member in 1988, when Verizon lobbyist Ron Scheberle served as chairman of ALEC’s board.

ALEC’s damage control effort came in a statement to the press:

ALEC takes speaker vetting seriously and—in partnership with meeting sponsors—applies a rigorous process to identify speakers on important matters of public policy. Each speaker is apprised of the ALEC policy focus, how to address the audience and what issues not to discuss. ALEC does not work on social issues. Rather it focuses on limited government, free markets and federalism at the intersection of the economy and public policy.

In this case, the speaker was advised of the program parameters and did not abide the process.

Upon learning of concern following the conclusion of remarks, ALEC staff removed the video archive of the livestream and ceased promotion of the speech as the comments were inconsistent with the manner in which speeches are offered at ALEC.

ALEC was launched to give its corporate members and lobbyists direct access to state legislators to shepherd corporate ghost-written bills into state laws or at least heavily influence members’ bills to make them corporate-friendly. In some cases, corporate-written “model bills” were adopted word-for-word by some state legislatures and became law, with the help of Republican support and co-sponsors.

Rep. Taylor

Verizon and other telecom company members like Comcast and AT&T have benefited handsomely from membership in ALEC, successfully pushing through state laws for statewide video franchising, eliminating local control over cable television providers, pole attachment and zoning reform for wireless companies, working to eliminate universal service obligations and regulatory oversight for landline service, state bans on municipal broadband competition, and most recently working to stop states from writing their own net neutrality provisions to replace those lost on the federal level.

ALEC has always maintained close ties to Republicans and its deep pocketed corporate members. But until recently, it has usually shied away from headlining lightning rod social issues out of deference to its controversy-shy corporate members.

Horowitz’s remarks, live-streamed across the internet by ALEC, may have been the final straw for Verizon. In late August, 79 public interest and environmental groups co-signed a letter to ALEC members drawing attention to Horowitz’s remarks and asking companies to leave the group for good.

“Make no mistake, your continued financial support of ALEC is an endorsement of this dangerous vision for our country,” the letter said.

It’s also apparently bad for business.

David Horowitz speaking at 2018 ALEC Conference in New Orleans, La. on Aug. 10, 2018. (17:51)

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.

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Recent Comments:

  • JFParnell: When the Chips are Down the Buffalo moves ON....
  • Justin Trella: I guess as long as the service is stable you’ll most likely not deflect. I quick call every year or so usually gets your rates back down. If you are l...
  • Justin Trella: I imagine the reason being is it’s a technically no credit check. It’s based solely on the fact you were approved for regular services which are no cr...
  • Ian L: I live in what has to be one of the last MDUs in Austin wired for copper by AT&T rather than fiber. Until June, 50/10 was the highest available sp...
  • Ian L: I wouldn't go so far as to say "no need". FTTH has lower latency and effectively zero jitter, and cable systems today are just now catching up to the ...
  • Lee: One of two possibilities exist. The person you talked to was not correct that would happen, or they are correct and that would happen. It appears they...
  • Malinda Villamil: I called Frontier Communications on 4/10 to request a New Battery Backup battery for my FIOS. I received on 4/17 a case for D Cell batteries and charg...
  • Lorimoore: Personally i think all these rich guys dont really give a s**t. They got thier nice cars nice homes a good hot yummy meal too eat 3 times a day, nice ...
  • dean: obamas rules were never enforced anyway just like illegal immigration laws. it was a fake law...
  • nick: Well, wireless carriers were never included under the net neutrality rules that were rolled back. So net neutrality technically isn't and wasn't ever...
  • Carlton Brown: I have to correct people it's megabits not megabytes. 1gigabits is about 100 megabytes...
  • Phillip Dampier: The $29.99 price is a very targeted promo in some competitive areas offered on a promo door hanger or other brochure for multi-dwelling units and requ...

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