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Frontier Fires West Virginia’s Senate President After He Refused to Block Pro-Competition Bill

Frontier is the dominant phone company in West Virginia.

Frontier Communications terminated the employment of West Virginia Senate president Mitch Carmichael just weeks after he refused to kill a pro-competitive state broadband expansion bill the company fiercely opposed.

Carmichael (R-Jackson), worked for Frontier for six years, most recently as a sales executive. Shortly after voting in favor of a bill making it easier for public broadband co-ops to deliver better broadband service in West Virginia, he was suddenly given two weeks notice his employment was being terminated.

Frontier refused to comment about its sudden decision to eliminate Carmichael’s job, but there is speculation the company was unhappy with Carmichael’s unwillingness to act on their behalf in the state legislature. Carmichael told the Charleston Gazette his dismissal came as a complete surprise, and he was not aware of any other layoffs in recent weeks.

“This was not something I wanted at all,” Carmichael told the newspaper. “They had a bad year, from a legislative perspective. They severed ties from me. 

Carmichael also noted Frontier was insistent on getting him to sign a nondisclosure agreement that would forbid him from talking about his job being terminated. He claims he refused to sign it.

The newspaper calls Carmichael Frontier’s most powerful ally in the state legislature. As Senate president, Carmichael was instrumental in killing a 2016 bill that would have launched a statewide municipal broadband network that Frontier never wanted to see get off the ground. Carmichael argued the competing network would have discouraged Frontier from investing in or expanding its own network, largely acquired from Verizon Communications in 2010. The bill died in the House of Delegates.

Carmichael

But as West Virginians continue to endure poor quality DSL service from Frontier and the company continues to experience financial pressures from its declining stock price and increasing investor discontent, it seemed unlikely Frontier would embark on dramatic new spending to boost internet speeds. This year, legislators proposed allowing up to 20 families or businesses to form nonprofit co-ops to offer internet service where Frontier and other providers have failed to expand service. The bill also permits up to three cities or counties to join forces and jointly construct new public broadband networks.

Frontier’s lobbyists loathed the bill, worrying about the prospects of facing new competition. The company devoted significant attention to block the bill in the legislature, but was apparently surprised when Carmichael refused to repeat his 2016 objections and recused himself from debate on the bill, and later voted for it. A short time later, his job was gone.

Whether Frontier assumed Carmichael’s primary loyalty should lay with the company and not the public that elected him to office isn’t known. Ironically, Carmichael tried to leave Frontier last summer after accepting a job with Frontier rival Citynet. Frontier offered a lucrative pay increase to convince Carmichael to change his mind. Ultimately, Carmichael returned to Frontier days later last August after he said the company begged him to stay.

Carmichael makes it clear he wasn’t in office just to represent Frontier’s political and corporate interests.

“The one thing I’m not going to do here as Senate president is advance special interests,” Carmichael told the newspaper. “It was obvious the body [Legislature] wanted that bill, and I wasn’t going to stand in the way of it.”

New Report Attacking Municipal Broadband Thin on Facts, Heavy on Hypocrisy

When the multibillion dollar telecom industry wants to push its narrative about telecom public policy, it employs an army of secretly funded astroturf groups, corporate-backed “policy institutes,” professional lobbyists, and ex-regulators and politicians that help move their agenda forward.

One of the latest methods to win influence is finding researchers willing to produce scholarly reports offering “independent” analyses of regulatory policies or telecom company business practices. It has now become a cottage industry, with the same select few authors regularly writing papers that align perfectly with the interests of cable and telephone companies that sponsor the groups, think tanks, or schools that employ them.

The blurred line between academic independence and “research-for-hire” has become increasingly indefensible at the nation’s think tanks, where politically motivated individuals and corporate donors funnel millions in funding with the expectation the think tank, its leadership and researchers will fall in line with the political views of the donor and act accordingly. When they don’t, the checks stop coming or a donor-led coup d’état similar to what happened in April at the Heritage Foundation can follow.

The idea that a think tank represents an independent body of researchers tackling random issues of the day without bias is quaint and often a thing of the past. These days, some think tanks and policy institutes dependent on corporate and big donor contributions are little more than willing corporate tools in policy and regulatory debates. Last month, this reached a new level of absurdity with the announcement that the MGM Resorts — a Las Vegas casino, was starting its own policy institute co-chaired by retired Sen. Harry Reid and former House Speaker John Boehner. Neither will be working for free. The stated purpose of the MGM think tank is to “concentrate on comprehensive, authentic and relevant national and international policy issues that impact the travel, tourism, hospitality and gaming industries and the global communities in which they operate.”

In short, it’s another way for the casino industry to lobby while operating under a veneer of independence at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

If a researcher cannot find work at a policy institute or think tank, they can always produce research papers under the auspices of a university or business school that welcomes corporate funding. These institutions assume they are protecting their credibility and reputation with claims of a firewall between industry money and research, yet too often the reports that result from this arrangement are embarrassingly industry-aligned. Questions of conflict of interest are also increasingly common when a researcher turns up at hearings to deliver ostensibly independent testimony on issues like regulation or their views about multi-billion dollar mergers and acquisitions that are in perfect alignment with the companies that donate to that researcher’s employer.

Yoo

Researchers like Christopher Yoo at the University of Pennsylvania Law School in Philadelphia bristle at the notion corporate dollars play any role in his research or findings, despite the fact he was accused of a major conflict of interest testifying strongly in favor of Comcast’s attempted merger with Time Warner Cable in 2014. Yoo defended the Comcast deal at every turn, telling Congress the merger would have little impact on consumer prices or competition, despite the fact ample antitrust concerns ultimately torpedoed the deal.

Yoo avoided disclosing the fact he had ties to Comcast’s chief lobbyist David Cohen, who sat five seats to his right at the hearing. Cohen served as chairman of the board of trustees at the University of Pennsylvania and Comcast is an extremely generous financial donor of the university — two obvious conflicts of interest that observers expressed shock were not disclosed in advance. Yoo focused instead on delivering testimony we characterized back in 2014 as “a nod in Cohen’s direction with an affirming, ‘whatever he said.'”

When the media called him out on the subject, Yoo downplayed any connection or conflict.

“The views of any other person in the university administration do not have any impact on my academic views or any public statements I make,” Yoo told the Washington Post. He added the Center for Technology, Innovation, and Competition that he founded was only “a tiny little bit” funded by the cable industry. We’ll fact check that claim shortly.

Like Harry Reid and John Boehner, Christopher Yoo does not work for free. Despite his claims that as a tenured professor, his academic freedom is protected, Mr. Yoo’s recent written work has been so closely aligned with the interests of the nation’s cable and phone companies, he comes alarmingly close to being an academic version of a corporate sock puppet.

Yoo is hardly the only researcher that has an amazing record of producing studies that coincidentally line up in perfect unison with the public policy interests of giant cable companies. Daniel Lyons of Boston College Law School prodigiously writes papers defending the cable industry’s practice of data caps. He’s been hard at work since 2012 trying to convince anyone that would listen that data caps are good for consumers, competition, and innovation. Like Yoo, Lyons was also a big supporter of Comcast’s attempted purchase of Time Warner Cable, “spontaneously” and “independently” penning long letters to the editor to newspapers all around the country defending the deal.

So what causes researchers to suddenly decide to write about some topics but not others? Random chance or money?

Last month, Yoo unveiled his latest paper, “Municipal Fiber in the United States: An Empirical Assessment of Financial Performance,” co-authored by Timothy Pfenninger.

Yoo claimed in his executive summary that the “current emphasis on infrastructure projects in the United States has intensified the debate over municipal broadband.” That’s news to us. In fact, the high water mark of the municipal broadband debate occurred in the last administration when FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler sought to nullify corporate ghostwritten municipal broadband bans passed by several state legislatures.

Yoo decided he would be a “helper” for cities contemplating repeating the success of EPB, the municipal power company in Chattanooga, Tenn., that built a successful public gigabit fiber to the home broadband network for the city and nearby communities. The “widespread news coverage” of EPB that Yoo wrote about, without mentioning it was almost exclusively positive, has apparently inspired a number of other communities to contemplate repeating Chattanooga’s success story.

In what we like to call Yoo’s “Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt” opening, he warns “city leaders who turn to existing municipal fiber analyses for guidance will discover that these studies limit their focus to the supposed success stories instead of systematically analyzing these systems’ financial performance.”

So instead of those studies, Yoo offers his own, which he claims “fills the information gap” by creating a whole new systematic analysis, using Yoo’s own hand-crafted criteria, to judge the success or failure of municipal broadband.

He doesn’t waste any time hinting municipal broadband is a bad idea, puts cities at risk for defaults, bond rating reductions, and taxpayer bailouts. In fact, Yoo characterized municipal broadband as a mere distraction from more important priorities he claims communities have. And besides, there is evidence showing “little current need for [the] high broadband speeds” that community broadband networks offer that incumbent cable and phone companies won’t.

Yoo’s take is like bringing a boyfriend home to your parents who claim they support and love you no matter who you date but then spend the next two hours telling you why he’s all wrong for you.

Follow the Money

We thought it would be useful to look into Yoo’s claims and conclusions more carefully. As always, we focused on two things: fact-checking the evidence and following the money.

It took very little time to turn up more red flags than one would find at a May Day parade in Red Square.

Academics with conflicts of interest or uncomfortably close ties to the telecom industry and the reports they peddle often escape scrutiny, because their research can intimidate journalists unprepared to challenge their premise, research, or conclusions without a substantial investment of time and fact-checking. But as we’ve learned over the years, there are very clear warning signs when more investigation is necessary.

We’re not alone. This week National Public Radio updated its Ethics Handbook with “a cautionary tip sheet about relying on the work product of think tanks.

It is “our job to know about ‘experts’ conflicts of interest” and share that information with our audience (or not use experts whose conflicts are problematic).  As we’ve said, it’s not optional. Click here for related reading from JournalistsResource.org. It includes “some questions journalists should ask when researching think tanks.” Among them:

  • “Look at the think tank’s annual report. Who is on staff? On the board or advisory council? Search for these people. They have power over the think tank’s agenda; do they have conflicts of interest? Use OpenSecrets’ lobby search, a project of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, to see if any of these individuals are registered lobbyists and for whom.
  • “Does the organization focus on one issue alone? If so, look carefully at its funding.
  • “Does the organization clearly identify its political leanings or its neutrality?
  • “Does the annual report list donors and amounts? Are large donors anonymous? If the answer to the second question is yes, you should be concerned that big donors may be trying to hide their influence.
  • “Does it have a conflict of interest policy?”

The Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy is even more frank in its warning to journalists who rely on think tanks and industry-based research:

[…] Entrenched conflicts of interest across the political spectrum, and pandering to donors, often raise questions about their independence and integrity. A few years ago, think tanks were seen as places for wonky scholars and former officials to bang out solutions to critical policy problems. But today, as the Boston Globe has written, many “are pursuing fiercely partisan agendas and are funded by undisclosed corporations, wealthy individuals, or both.”

Something smells funny.

Unsurprisingly, Yoo’s research was immediately distributed and promoted by a range of groups critical of public broadband to build what they believe to be an authoritative record against municipal broadband initiatives. In effect, ‘it isn’t just us saying public broadband is a bad idea, look at this ”independent” research.’

But exactly how independent is the research produced by Mr. Yoo and his Center for Technology, Innovation and Competition (CTIC)? Unfortunately, Yoo does not follow the common practice of disclosing the funding sources for his research and report. If it was funded through the Center, that should be disclosed. If a corporate donor provided funding or a stipend, that should be disclosed. If part or all of Mr. Yoo’s compensation comes from a bank account replenished in part or whole by an outside company, that should be disclosed. If he wrote the report in this spare time for fun, that should be disclosed as well.

Since Mr. Yoo doesn’t talk about the money, we will.

The CTIC’s website spends some time predicting the obvious conflicts of interest questions raised by its extensive corporate donor base.

“The Center for Technology, Innovation & Competition (CTIC) receives financial support from corporations, foundations, and other organizations that is vital to our continued growth and success,” the website states, which means without that support, there probably would be no CTIC.

Which corporations donate money is important to consider. If a substantial amount of a researcher’s funding comes from telecom companies that are either on record opposing public broadband, or would be forced to compete with a municipal broadband provider, that would represent a very clear conflict of interest.

CTIC attempts to inoculate itself from accusations it has that inherent conflict of interest with this statement on its website:

“CTIC does not accept financial support that limits our ability to conduct independent research. This allows us to produce scholarship that is free from outside influence and consistent with Penn’s ethics and values. All corporate donors agree to provide funding free from restrictions and promised results or deliverables.”

But that is not adequate enough to protect readers from researcher bias introduced by the donor funding that CTIC admits is “vital” to their existence. Consider the example of the tobacco industry, one of the first to leverage researchers willing to write papers created to distort, downplay, or confuse the debate about the safety of tobacco products. There was no need for a tobacco company to limit researcher independence or demand a certain result. That allowed researchers to claim editorial independence, but they also understood that if their reports did not meet the expectations of the tobacco company that paid for them, they would never be made public and that researcher would never be used again.

A corporate donor is unlikely to continue funding an organization that issues reports it disagrees with or worse, publicly bolsters its competitors or criticizes its public policy agenda. Had Yoo concluded municipal broadband was an ideal solution for the rural broadband, internet speed, and competition problems in this country would AT&T, CTIA, Comcast, Charter/Time Warner Cable, NCTA and Verizon still send them checks?

While considering the veracity of Mr. Yoo’s research and conclusions, do you believe CTIC’s donors would be pleased or unhappy about the report? Here is the list of companies and groups that help keep the lights on at CTIC:

  • American Tower (owns cellular and broadcast transmission towers)
  • AT&T
  • Broadband for America (funded by the cable/telco industry)
  • Cellular Operators Association of India
  • Comcast-NBC Universal
  • CTIA (the cellular industry’s top lobbying trade association)
  • Facebook
  • Google
  • GSMA (Mobile industry trade association)
  • ICANN
  • Information Technology Industry Council
  • Intel
  • Internet Society
  • Microsoft
  • National Science Foundation
  • NCTA (cable industry’s top lobbying group)
  • New York Bar Foundation
  • Qualcomm
  • Time Warner Cable (now Charter Communications)
  • Verizon
  • Walt Disney Co.

It’s clear there are few friends of municipal broadband donating to the CTIC while we count about eight likely opponents.

Even the way Mr. Yoo introduced his municipal broadband report at a Wharton Business School “broadband breakfast discussion” opened the door to more questions. To suggest the panel was stacked against public broadband would be an understatement.

In addition to Mr. Yoo, the former mayor of Philadelphia and governor of Pennsylvania Ed Rendell — who was hired by Comcast-NBC Universal less than two months after coming out in strong support of the merger of Comcast and NBC-Universal, was tasked with keynote remarks. Joining both on the discussion panel was Frank Louthan, a Wall Street analyst for Raymond James who regularly covers big cable and telco companies for investors and wouldn’t appreciate giving the bad news to clients about municipal broadband’s profit-killing competition and Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the corporate dark money-backed American Action Forum who seemed enamored of all-things Comcast. In 2014, Holtz-Eakin went out of his way to write a long piece urging regulators to approve the Comcast-Time Warner Cable acquisition as soon as possible.

Anyone who wanted to hear a positive view of municipal broadband would have had to eat breakfast somewhere else.

Yoo’s “Evidence”

For the benefit of readers and local officials that want a more detailed refutation of Mr. Yoo’s study and his findings on the granular level, we point you to Community Broadband Networks’ excellent report debunking the obviously biased findings from Mr. Yoo, who appears to be working on behalf of some of America’s largest telecom companies. Mr. Yoo will claim those companies did not sponsor the study, but we remind readers that without the extensive donor support of Yoo’s group from the telecom industry, there would likely be no study.

But we found several red flags to share as well.

Red Flag #1: Changing the metrics.

Mr. Yoo hand-selects the metrics by which municipal network success or failure can be determined… by him. He relies on Net Present Value, a particularly complicated and not always accurate measurement of a network’s prospects for success or failure. Clearly, every municipal network will face some challenges. Many are in areas deemed unprofitable to serve by the commercial telecom industry. But then, municipal broadband is all about solving the problem of broadband accessibility that other ISPs won’t. These public networks don’t exist to make shareholders and executives rich, nor do they have to allocate money to pay shareholder dividends. Even commercial ISPs have their hands out looking for subsidies to wire rural areas they would otherwise never serve. There is more to the story of municipal broadband than profit and loss.

Red Flag #2: Financing concrete.

Mr. Yoo’s predictions that some networks may never pay off their debts or will take dozens of years or more doing so assumes almost nothing changes for those networks in the near or distant future. Broadband networks are constantly evolving, as are potential revenue sources. Imagine a cable company having to exclusively rely on cable TV revenue to pay down their debt. Then remember the day cable operators discovered they could use a portion of their existing network to sell something called “broadband” service for another $30 a month. Ancillary revenue from the introduction of innovative new products and services is precisely how the cable industry successfully boosted subscriber revenue even in mature markets where adding new customers was challenging. They followed the time-tested principle of selling more things to the customers they already have.

But then Mr. Yoo agreed with this concept himself… when he was talking about the some of the same telecom companies that write his group checks. Municipal networks are somehow… different, however:

The development of the Internet has greatly increased the value of the services that can be provided by last-mile networks. The rollout of convergent technologies, such as Internet telephony and packet video, will break down the barriers that previously limited the revenues generated by any particular transmission technology. Cable is already able to provide voice through its coaxial network, and it is just a matter of time before telephone companies are able to provide video. Application-based distinctions between transmission media will completely collapse once all applications become packetized.

He also downplays the tool of refinancing. Altice turns that concept into a weekend hobby. This European cable conglomerate’s business plan leverages debt like no other cable operator. It manages that debt by regularly repackaging and refinancing debt at lower rates as it also works to pay it down. These same options are available to municipal providers.

Red Flag #3: Municipal broadband is too expensive, or is it?

There are massive start-up costs to build broadband networks, costs that might put a community’s finances at risk, Yoo’s report concludes. That leaves the obvious impression communities should avoid going there. But that wasn’t the attitude he had in 2006, when network costs were even higher than they are today.

“The economics of the last mile have changed radically in recent years,” Yoo said. “The fixed costs of establishing last-mile networks have dropped through the floor. Switching equipment that used to take up an entire building can now be housed in a box roughly the size of a personal computer. Copper wires have been replaced by a series of innovations, including terrestrial microwave, satellites, and fiber optics, which have greatly reduced the costs of transmission.”

When he is talking about municipal broadband, he seems to tell an entirely different story. Why might that be?

Red Flag #4: Yoo misrepresents the problem.

Mr. Yoo has reflexively defended his donor base for several years across a myriad of broadband public policy issues — data caps/zero rating, Net Neutrality, mergers and acquisitions, network costs, and more. The hypocrisy emerges when his entirely different standards for municipal broadband become clear.

The toll from “personal turmoil and distraction” Yoo worries about with municipal broadband projects ignores the real problem — the lack of suitable broadband in a community with no solution in sight. Just ask families that drive their kids to a fast food restaurant to borrow a Wi-Fi connection to complete homework assignments, or the difficulty getting broadband in a neighborhood bypassed by DSL or cable. If a community defines broadband as an essential utility, it provides it even if it doesn’t turn a profit. Public infrastructure projects are not unusual. The amount of money spent by an industry worried about losing its duopoly or monopoly profits to oppose such projects could have been spent on improving and expanding service.

If a local community wants a municipal solution, it is Mr. Yoo’s donors that create most of the turmoil by ghostwriting municipal broadband bans into state law and filing groundless stall tactic lawsuits designed to protect their markets or run up costs.

Red Flag #5: There is “little current need” for high broadband speed (unless Comcast offers it).

One of the best clues that Mr. Yoo’s research isn’t as “independent” as he implies is the fact his conclusions seem to change depending on whether he is referring to a corporate ISP or a municipal provider. For example, Yoo’s study downplays the importance of gigabit fiber speeds. In one highlighted statement, Yoo declares, “The U.S. take-up rate of gigabit service remains very low, and media outlets report that consumers are questioning if gigabit service is really necessary.”

“The media” in this case is Multichannel News, a cable industry trade publication that has changed its tune about that subject recently and now publishes stories regularly about ISPs across the country moving towards gigabit speeds. In the article noted by Yoo, the story quotes a single CenturyLink executive who claims customers can live with the slower speeds CenturyLink often provides, but also admits his company is working to deploy, wait for it, gigabit-capable networks. As Stop the Cap! has explained to readers for a decade, the companies that always claim consumers don’t need a gigabit are the same ones that do not offer it to a large percentage (or any) of their customers. Yoo fails to explain why so many ISPs are preoccupied with offering fast internet speeds that he declares are unwanted, especially when a municipal provider plans to offer them.

Yoo’s allegiance to the current big cable and phone company provider paradigm is revealed when you scrutinize his reasons why community fiber is unnecessary. Take this example from his report:

“Wireless technologies—such as 5G—and legacy copper technologies—such as G.fast—are also exploring ways to provide gigabit speeds without incurring the cost associated with FTTH.”

“Exploring” is very different from “delivering.” Let’s also not forget he held a very different view when he wasn’t slamming municipal broadband:

“On the one hand, the Bell System created a telephone network that was the envy of the world and pioneered Nobel Prize-winning breakthroughs such as the transistor. On the other hand, it was extremely slow to deploy innovative technologies like DSL.”

It’s also important to note a large percentage of community broadband networks are based on fiber optics while commercial wireless companies like AT&T and Verizon are among the few willing to deploy 5G and incumbent telephone companies show only limited interest in G.fast.

And again, Yoo should take a bit of his own advice on picking or discouraging technology or municipal broadband provider winners and losers:

“At this point, it is impossible to foresee which architecture will ultimately represent the best approach. When it is impossible to tell whether a practice would promote or hinder competition, the accepted policy response is to permit the practice to go forward until actual harm to consumers can be proven. This restraint provides the room for experimentation upon which normal competitive processes depend. It also shows appropriate humility about our ability to predict the technological future.”

Red Flag #6: Innovation is in the eye of the beholder. (Subject to change on a whim).

Yoo also distorts a 2014 New York Times article by focusing on the lack of applications available to take advantage of gigabit speeds. But he ignores the fact that customers and entrepreneurs are delighted that speed is available, and offers the potential of significant innovation including very high quality video and enough bandwidth to power the explosion of connected devices in the home. Every major ISP in the country reports consumers are upgrading to faster internet packages, and some customers remain dissatisfied those speeds are still not fast enough.

Again, Yoo is suspiciously inconsistent. When major ISPs sought permission to develop faster traffic lanes for brand new services, Yoo was one of the biggest supporters of the innovation opportunities of that concept:

He hopes that the FCC’s easing restrictions on broadband providers’ ability to charge different prices for delivering different Internet content could spur innovation by allowing both established companies and startups to offer new online services tailored for the Internet “fast lane” delivery. For instance, Yoo pointed to the differentiation between standard U.S. first class postal service with overnight FedEx mail and noted how new businesses have grown around the overnight delivery option.

Apparently the distinction is that companies like Comcast have to be the mail carrier for that to be any good. If a community does it, that means it is unwanted, unnecessary, and bad.

We could go on and on, but we assume most readers get the point. Fixing facts around a narrative has been a part of the telecom industry’s cynical lobbying for decades. Let’s face facts. Yoo’s donors don’t want the competition and don’t want to be forced to invest in upgrades they should have completed long ago. Yoo’s report is part of the campaign to stop municipal broadband before it gets off the ground.

Where did we learn this? From Yoo himself, who wrote the best way to improve broadband is remove barriers that keep new providers, including municipal ones if he wants to be consistent, from launching service:

“Competition policy thus teaches us that any vertical chain of production will only be as efficient as its least competitive link. The proper focus of broadband policy is to identify the level of production that is the most concentrated and the most protected by entry barriers and to try to make it more competitive.”

“Furthermore, large, established players have more resources and experience with which to influence the regulatory process.”

Those are two things we can agree on.

FCC’s Mike O’Rielly Tells ALEC FCC Should Ban State Laws on Broadband Privacy, Consumer Protection

O’Rielly

Republican FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly wants the FCC to prohibit states from attempting an end run around the current majority’s broad-based deregulation of ISPs, likening it to a war of socialist forces vs. free market capitalism.

Speaking at the American Legislative Exchange Council’s Spring Task Force Summit Annual Summit in Charlotte, N.C. on May 5, O’Rielly made it clear he intends to stop states from writing broadband privacy rules to replace those killed by the Republican majority in Congress and also wants to restrict states from enacting new rules impacting Voice over IP and broadband. O’Rielly told the audience he had already spoken to Chairman Ajit Pai about his ideas, potentially giving his agenda a majority vote on the Commission. Currently, the FCC has just three commissioners – Ajit Pai, Mike O’Rielly, and Democrat Mignon Clyburn.

In earlier remarks, Pai rejected allowing states to make their own decisions about broadband privacy policies.

“It is both impractical and very harmful for each state to enact differing and conflicting privacy burdens on broadband providers, many of which serve multiple states, if not the entire country,” said Pai. “If necessary, the FCC should be willing to issue the requisite decision to clarify the jurisdictional aspects of this issue.”

FCC action could potentially pre-empt any state laws from at least 10 states that have either passed ISP privacy laws or are planning to.

O’Rielly declared he intends to move broadband regulation away from the agenda favored by the Obama Administration’s FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler and return to hands-off policies allowing cable and phone companies to manage their businesses without government interference. O’Rielly told a cheering audience at the corporate-funded conference that under Chairman Pai’s watch, the FCC will return to “its previous approach to broadband that enabled staggering innovation, creativity, competition, disruption and consumer benefit.”

O’Rielly characterized groups fighting for consumer legislation banning zero rating/data caps, rate regulation, oversight, and consumer protection laws as part of a nefarious “progressive agenda to vanquish capitalism and economic liberty.” Like ALEC, O’Rielly claimed, the FCC has been unfairly attacked by progressive groups that call out both Chairman Pai’s agenda at the FCC and ALEC itself for ghostwritten legislation actually written by large corporate interests and passed for their welfare.

“Like ALEC, the new commission is facing its share of unwarranted and inappropriate criticism,” O’Rielly complained.

O’Rielly’s speech declared war on three hot issues broadband companies and consumers are concerned with: Net Neutrality, community-owned broadband networks, and state regulators seen as meddling with the free market.

  • Net Neutrality: “All of the propaganda in the world cannot paper over the fact that these new burdens were not in response to actual marketplace events but hypothetical concerns dreamed up by radical activists.”
  • Regulation of Voice over IP Phone Service in Minnesota to assure quality of service: “Such inappropriate jurisdictional overreaches by states should be nipped in the bud.”
  • Municipal Broadband: “It would be easy, as some have done, to blindly support any means necessary to get more and faster broadband to people they represent.”

O’Rielly sought a tighter partnership with ALEC to stop consumer groups from enacting new laws that protect an open internet:

“The members of ALEC can serve an important role as the new Commission seeks to restore free market principles to broadband offerings. Many of you know all too well of the pressure on us to buckle and acquiesce to the whims of the misinformed screaming for Net Neutrality. You likely face it at your respective statehouses as you debate the various matters before you. The ‘progressive agenda’ being pushed in so many settings is really an effort to use government as a means to redistribute hard earned assets from one group of people to favored interests. Do not let your voices go unheard as Net Neutrality advocates slowly, but surely, seek to drag the U.S. economy toward socialism.”

On municipal broadband, O’Rielly stretched his premise into a comparison of communities that want to have the ability to build their own networks with past offers of discounted heating oil from former Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez, suggesting good deeds on the surface may lead to unintended consequences later on.

Byron is on ALEC’s Communications and Technology Task Force

O’Rielly has also been infuriated with Minnesota’s Public Utilities Commission, which has been sparring with Charter Communications over its cable “digital phone” service in the U.S. District Court in St. Paul.

In March 2013, Charter Fiberlink Companies transferred 100,000 Minnesota customers to “an affiliate, Charter Advanced Services Companies, which provided VoIP phone service that was not certified” by the PUC, the Commerce Department said.

Better known as Spectrum Voice, Charter’s VoIP service had failed to collect any fees to support the state’s Telecommunications Access Minnesota program, which provides equipment for hearing-impaired and blind consumers who use the Minnesota Relay Service. Charter also refused to credit low-income consumers who would otherwise qualify for Lifeline phone service at discounted rates.

If the court determined VoIP was a “telecommunications service,” Minnesota regulators could force Charter to comply with state law. If determined to be an “information service,” federal rules exempting Charter would apply.

The week after O’Rielly delivered his speech a Minnesota federal charge ruled in favor of Charter and against the state regulator.

U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson relied on arcane terminology that lets Charter avoid state regulation:

“The court agrees with Charter Advanced that Spectrum Voice engages in net protocol conversion, and that this feature renders it an ‘information service’ under applicable legal and administrative precedent,” according to the opinion. Although Judge Nelson agreed that “the frank purpose” behind Charter’s customer shuffling was to “limit the reach of state regulation, thereby enhancing Charter’s market competitiveness,” she said the service fit the qualifications of an information service.

“The touchstone of the information services inquiry is whether Spectrum Voice acts on the customer’s information — here a phone call — in such a way as to ‘transform’ that information,” the opinion said.

Regardless of the judge’s decision, O’Rielly wants to prevent a recurrence of state regulator interference in the cable industry’s phone business.

“The commission should have just declared VoIP to be an interstate information service,” O’Rielly told the audience. “Arguably, VoIP is just an application not even subject to FCC jurisdiction much less that of individual states.”

“50 Shades of Grey” Community Broadband Ban Bill Ties the Hands of Missouri Communities

Emery

It’s 2017 and a lot of Missouri residents are still tortured by the lack of access to basic broadband service, and if a community broadband ban bill becomes state law it will remain that way for years to come.

SB 186 is essentially a copy of last year’s community broadband ban that eventually died in the legislature. Just like last year, many of the sponsors and promoters of the latest attempt to impose a municipal broadband ban have close ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and receive copious amounts of money from Missouri’s largest telecom companies. Some even win awards from the state’s biggest telecom lobbyists.

State Sen. Ed Emery (R-Lamar) loves the headlines he attracts from throwing ideological bombs into the public debate (he called homosexuality a mental illness, compared public education to slavery and a pathway to prison, and questioned whether former president Barack Obama was actually an American citizen). But he is not in touch with the rural residents in his state who have had their pleas for broadband service ignored by AT&T and other telecom companies for years.

Emery is a big fan of ALEC and serves as a Missouri state chairman. In 2015 he told an audience at an ALEC event he found the group’s efforts inspiring and helpful. ALEC acts as a giant clearinghouse for corporate-inspired legislation that ends up in the hands of friendly state legislators. ALEC’s model bills, including one banning municipal broadband, win passage in part because state legislatures do not get the kind of media attention and public scrutiny seen in Washington. SB 186, its predecessor, and other similar bills introduced in other states are frequently ghostwritten by telecom company lawyers and lobbyists and are designed to stop municipal broadband networks before they can get started.

Emery’s current bill is designed to apply a “scorched earth” response to communities trying to find ways to get rural broadband service up and running after a decade of being ignored by private telecom companies. It’s corporate protectionism and welfare at its finest, with a thicket of language that would force public providers into price and speed regulation. Emery’s bill would interfere with the types of loan agreements communities could contemplate to provide the service, and the language required for a mandatory referendum is heavily slanted to suggest such service is redundant and unnecessary. Emery’s bill also offers assurances his business friends could get gigabit speeds from community-owned providers, but not necessarily consumers.

Like the failed broadband hit bill introduced in Virginia, SB 186 is an ironic piece of legislation, heavy-handed with regulation and micromanagement and anchored with bureaucratic requirements designed to guarantee disappointment and costly failure. Emery’s career in public life has been spent railing against costly and unnecessary overregulation, yet his bill exemplifies both in action.

SB 186 also protects the status quo for broadband in Missouri, which is dreadful outside of major cities. It would assure incumbent telecom companies won’t face any service-improving competition and keep municipalities off their turf. For example, Columbia Water and Light has a “dark fiber” institutional fiber network at its disposal that is woefully underutilized. In addition to helping provide some connectivity for local government functions, the city-owned network also leases connections to hospitals and other public buildings, as well as some businesses. But the utility does not sell internet service itself.

The city believes much of the fiber network’s capacity is sitting un-utilized and could prove a valuable asset to the local connectivity economy. With the fiber already in place, expanding the network could be a cost-effective/common sense way to reach city residents that want better internet service than what incumbents are offering, and the city is more than willing to open the network up to those incumbents as well. SB 186 could eliminate that option in Missouri, just to protect the same private companies that have delivered underwhelming service for years.

In cities like Centralia, now exploring enhanced smart grid technology to improve the area’s electricity infrastructure, SB 186 would make the upgrade much more costly. Smart grid technology relies on fiber optic technology, often laid deep into neighborhoods and office parks. Only a tiny portion of that capacity is used to monitor utility infrastructure. The rest of the bandwidth on the fiber optic cable — already in place, could easily offer gigabit broadband service to every resident and business, especially if the city wires fiber to or near individual utility meters. That wouldn’t be allowed under SB 186 either, so communities like Centralia could not recoup some of the cost of the fiber optic technology by selling broadband service. That’s great news for companies like AT&T, CenturyLink, and Charter Communications. It’s also a relief for the phone companies who need not invest in their networks to offer something better than 20th century DSL.

Rural America: not a broadband-a-plenty

Emery offers two contradictory defenses for his bill:

  1. It is necessary to protect taxpayers from municipal broadband which Emery calls “unsuccessful, leaving ratepayers to cover debt costs.” But when asked by local media for any examples of a Missouri public broadband project that has failed, he could not.
  2. “We need more private-sector opportunities and not drive them out or hinder offerings coming into a community.”

In other words, Emery believes all public broadband networks are failures -and- they represent a major threat to private telecom companies that will be discouraged from investing in broadband expansion because a publicly owned competitor could be ready to “drive them out.”

Of course, neither is true. In rural Missouri there is no line of eager telecom companies seeking to expand broadband service into unprofitable rural communities and where only one broadband provider exists, there is no pressure to improve service quality or speed. In the first instance, there is no investment by private companies to discourage and in the second, the presence of a new provider encourages upgrades and investment. It’s a concept called “competition.” Sen. Emery would have a difficult time providing the name(s) of telecom companies that exited a community because of the presence of a municipal broadband alternative.

Rural farms are among the least likely places to get adequate internet service.

Sen. Emery’s family has a feed and grain business background, and those businesses (as well as Missouri’s farmers) are among the hardest hit economically by the lack of suitable broadband. But Emery is now far away from the business his father and grandfather ran. These days, he harvests big dollar contributions from some of the country’s largest corporations and much of his last campaign was financed by just two families — one with a vendetta against unions and the other — Rex Sinquefield — bucking to be Missouri’s own version of the Koch Brothers, who has his own private agenda he’d like enacted into law. Sinquefield has close ties to the Grow Missouri PAC, that also has close ties to the Club for Growth, ALEC, and the Koch Brothers’ backed Americans for Prosperity. Birds of a feather flock together.

Missouri’s biggest telecom companies are also generous contributors to Sen. Emery, which isn’t a surprise considering his bill and voting record directly benefits their businesses in the state. That may explain why the Missouri Cable Telecommunications Association — the state’s top cable lobbying group — gave Emery its Legislator of the Year award. Not to be outdone, the phone companies’ Missouri Telecommunications Industry Association gave Emery its own Leadership Award. Anyone who can introduce a bill that eliminates the best prospect of competition in suburban and rural Missouri for years is probably worthy of both.

In return for favors like that, some familiar names appear at the top of Emery’s list of campaign contributors:

  • AT&T ($6,000)
  • Comcast ($4,000)
  • Verizon Communications ($4,000)
  • CenturyLink ($3,500)
  • Charter ($2,000)
  • Time Warner Cable ($1,500)
  • Charter Communications ($1,325)
  • Sprint ($1,000)

Emery clearly listens to their interests more than average Missouri consumers still searching for broadband service.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported last summer that there are significant gaps in broadband coverage even in St. Louis County, where one million residents live. “Fringe suburban spots” too costly to meet Return On Investment requirements guarantee no service, indefinitely. In St. Clair County, 5,000 homes are without broadband for the same reason. In large parts of the state, what constitutes broadband no longer meets that definition — 25Mbps, as established by the FCC. Every telephone ratepayer pays a “universal service fee” on their phone bill, in part to extend broadband into rural areas. But that extension has been spotty because not every phone company accepts the money and the conditions that come with it to broaden their reach. That leaves many rural Missourians with <1Mbps DSL service. That’s the case in Wildwood, where streaming media is out of the question because internet speeds are too low.

The Broadband Berlin Wall: Wildwood, Mo. — Broadband service is easily available to the east of Highway 109. But to the west, service is spotty to non-existent.

Wildwood — in western St. Louis County, is living in “Third World conditions,” even though “we’re not in rural Timbuktu,” according to resident Marilyn Gilbert. It’s also comparable to Cold War-era Berlin, except in reverse. Eastern Wildwood offers residents broadband options from both Charter and AT&T. But the Broadband Berlin Wall dividing the community — Highway 109, separates the broadband haves’ from the have-nots’. The larger part of Wildwood to the west, now growing with new housing and businesses, is a broadband swamp with few, if any choices for local residents.

Gilbert “enjoys” AT&T DSL and speeds that never come close to 1Mbps. It is her only option.

“I tried to download my Windows update and it timed out,” she said. “The amount of time you waste waiting for things to open up or download!”

Remember, this is in St. Louis County, the old home for the headquarters of Charter Communications, which dominates the city of St. Louis.

Despite earning billions every year from the broadband business, Charter has refused to extend its lines of service into the western half of Wildwood, despite efforts to attract the company that date back six years. Residents report broadband availability is among their top concerns taken to local officials, who have in turn sought help from Charter, AT&T, and the state legislature.

The city of Wildwood’s efforts were met with a demand by Charter to pay the cable company $3 million in taxpayer funds to extend service. The city said no.

“The comment we hear constantly is that kids need high-speed (internet) in order to access their school work,” said Wildwood councilman Larry McGowen. “These days, internet is just like another utility. It has become every bit as important in people’s lives as electricity.”

But it apparently is not important enough to allow Wildwood and other communities the option of constructing their own local broadband solutions for residents if Emery’s bill becomes law.

Ironically, the same companies that refuse to extend their service into rural Missouri are also vehemently opposed to letting local governments do it in their absence.

The stalemate has caused some residents to sell their homes and move, just to get internet access. David Norell left town because he couldn’t survive with satellite internet service, which costs $80 a month and offers spotty service with a low data allowance.

That makes Emery’s bill, and others like it, a travesty. Banning local communities from doing the job large for-profit companies won’t seems nothing short of corporate protectionism. After all, as critics of Emery’s bill charge, how can a local government unfairly compete with a company that doesn’t compete at all? Also of concern is the fact those residents that do get token DSL service from AT&T may be trapped using it forever if Emery’s bill keeps better and faster service from co-ops and other public broadband options off the table.

If it seems like Sen. Emery is putting the interests of big telecom companies – many dues-paying members of ALEC – above those of his constituents, perhaps he is. Consider the fact Emery is a state chairman at ALEC, an organization that included this loyalty pledge in its draft state chair agreement:

I will act with care and loyalty and put the interests of the organization (ALEC) first.

Emery has taken heat for his ongoing love affair with ALEC before, including an ethics complaint about a $3,000 meal at the Dallas Chop House where Emery ate. ALEC’s corporate members picked up the tab. That kind of unethical conflict of interest, along with the aforementioned loyalty pledge, infuriated the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

Mr. Emery and his ilk can believe what they want, but they should play no part in allowing corporations to hide their agendas, and their lobbying expenses, by pretending to be something they are not. The proof is in ALEC’s actions, which as Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank outlined, hid itself behind closed doors in a meeting last week in the nation’s capital, pushing reporters away while claiming they had nothing to hide.

No, ALEC exists solely to hide. To hide money. To hide agendas. To hide its hijacking of democracy.

Lawmakers who care about the constitution and their commitment to voters should be fleeing faster than the corporations who realize ALEC is simply a bad investment.

Emery at a 2015 ALEC event.

It was not an isolated incident. Ed and his wife Rebecca Emery also enjoyed a $141.10 meal paid for by the Missouri Telecommunications Association. It’s safe to assume nobody had just a small salad. Other meals and drinks were courtesy of AT&T and CenturyLink. (Peabody Energy footed the bill for the Emerys’ taxi rides back and forth.)

When the wining and dining ended, the lobbyists were back with campaign contribution checks in hand.

These kinds of municipal broadband bans are toxic to economic development for rural communities that already face built-in economic and infrastructure disadvantages. The 21st century digital knowledge economy has the potential to make rural America equally competitive, assuming there is adequate infrastructure in place to participate.

Relying on private investment alone can work in urban areas where broadband profits are easy because the essential infrastructure to provide the service was constructed and paid for decades ago, originally to deliver telephone and television service. Rural areas suffer from deteriorated wireline infrastructure some phone companies want to abandon altogether and no cable broadband service at all.

Charter and AT&T first answer to shareholders. Local governments answer to their residents. Legislators are supposed to do the same. For Mr. Emery, loyalty to the interests of ALEC and the state’s telecommunications companies seems clear. It’s too bad his bill suggests a lot less loyalty to the voters in his district that need internet access or better broadband are will assuredly not get it if this bill ever becomes state law.

How State Politics Screwed Up a Solid Broadband Plan for Western Massachusetts

While rural western Massachusetts is stuck in a rural broadband swamp of Verizon’s making, politics in the state capital and governor’s office are risking Yankee ingenuity for another “free market” broadband solution that won’t solve the problem.

The dedicated locals that created WiredWest, the grassroots-envisioned regional broadband solution for more than two dozen towns suffering with inadequate or non-existent broadband service, have toiled for nearly a decade to accomplish what Verizon (or a cable operator) has never managed to do – provide consistently available internet access. WiredWest spent years carefully listening and learning the needs and challenges of each of their member towns. Communities affected by broadband deficiencies in this part of Massachusetts range from the most prosperous areas of the Berkshires to those financially struggling with a range of economic challenges.

On August 13th, 2011, The WiredWest Cooperative in western Massachusetts was officially formed by charter member towns. The project has gained some town, lost some others as the region works towards faster broadband.

WiredWest’s original plan would have brought fiber broadband to practically everyone in the region in just a few years, with more prosperous and populous towns helping subsidize network construction costs for their more budget-challenged rural neighbors. The goal was to avoid the patchwork of broadband have’s and have not’s that many private providers have created across rural America.

Establishing a regional network instead of trying to launch dozens of smaller community-owned providers would help streamline costs, avoid duplicating services, and deliver continuity of service. The concept made plenty of sense to two dozen town leaders and the participating communities, most voting to support the regional approach. But it apparently didn’t seem to make a lot of sense to a bureaucratic state agency called the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) that suddenly questioned the project’s operating plan and has avoided releasing tens of millions of dollars stashed in its bank account designated for rural broadband network construction.

MBI’s detractors call the agency a “concern troll” and some question whether MBI’s objections are the result of the usual friction between out-of-touch state bureaucrats and the rural communities they are supposed to help, or something more insidious. Others are content stating MBI’s position simply does not make any sense.

MBI spent more than a million dollars of taxpayer funds on lawyers and a Bangalore, India-based consultancy to produce and defend a dubious hit piece “analysis” about WiredWest rife with misconceptions and factual errors. The MBI-sponsored report concluded WiredWest would simply never work. What works better for MBI is handing out $4 million in taxpayer dollars to Comcast, with tens of millions more to be spent on funding private rural broadband projects in the future.

Crawford

Earlier this month, broadcast activist Susan Crawford shared her blistering conclusions about the usefulness of MBI:

For an agency that has produced virtually nothing so far, MBI is a high-priced operation. As far as I can tell, last year MBI spent $1 million of those state funds on consultants, lawyers, and administrative costs in order to hand $4 million to Comcast to provide its usual service to about a thousand homes in those nine Massachusetts towns that already had some cable service. What’s odd is that MBI told the public it chose Comcast because the company had vast experience and could get the work done without involving MBI—so it cost $1 million in oversight expenses to choose a company that doesn’t need oversight.

Despite protests from many residents across WiredWest’s would-be service area, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker sided with his bureaucrats and stalled rural broadband deployment further with a temporary hold, which some claimed gave MBI and community broadband opponents additional time to further undermine WiredWest’s efforts.

Most recently, the same agency that wrung its hands worrying about the efficacy of WiredWest had no problem offering a quick $20 million in grants to private companies for rural broadband solutions. Few in broadband-challenged western Massachusetts are likely to be happy about the results of the latest machinations of MBI’s “free market solution with public taxpayer funds.” Last week, the public got its first look at the submitted applications, largely underwhelming in scope and specifics. None come close to offering the kind of ubiquitous and affordable broadband WiredWest proposed.

MBI also tailored their request for proposals to arbitrarily limit applicants, declaring only companies with $100 million in yearly revenue and at least five years experience building, operating, and maintaining residential broadband networks need apply. Had Google Fiber proposed to wire the entire region with fiber optics in an application, MBI would have turned Google down for lack of experience. (Google Fiber launched service in late 2012.) In fact, no startup or municipal project of any kind could realistically apply. Comcast and Charter could, and both did.

MBI claims each town will make their own final decision, but many communities have already done that by choosing WiredWest. Some towns are frustrated by the state’s interminable delays and politics and are discouraged with the potential spectacle of MBI continuing to throw up roadblocks for political reasons. Those communities are planning their own alternative projects if WiredWest can never get off the ground. The only current alternative is hoping a private company will step up and deliver service. Six applicants responded to MBI’s request for proposals from private providers. Only two showed any willingness to offer service across all of broadband-challenged western and central Massachusetts. Two others were cable operators that have neglected expanding service on their own because it was not profitable to do so. Another two applicants only wanted to serve a handful of communities. Here is an overview of the proposals:

Crocker Communications: Short on specifics, Crocker’s proposal claims an interest in wiring almost 40 unserved communities for $59.15 million, including $18.33 million in taxpayer funds, split into individual grants for each community. But even Crocker, among the most ambitious and detailed applicants, cannot meet MBI’s revenue qualifications, so it attempts to claim a vendor relationship with Fujitsu Network Communications of Japan, which supplies network infrastructure. How Fujitsu would be financially involved in the project to minimize the chances of Crocker running into financial problems while building out its proposed network is not adequately explained. Crocker only specifies $5 million of its own assets will be on the line.

Crocker’s website promotes the company’s desire to have a bigger presence in the state thanks to its cooperation with MBI. Crocker currently provides internet service to customers of a Leverett-based community broadband project. Coincidentally, Peter d’Errico of Leverett’s Broadband Committee was one of the contributors to MBI’s sponsored report slamming the WiredWest project as unrealistic and underfunded. We’re not sure what d’Errico thinks about Crocker Communications’ proposal, which asks for grants as little as $150,000 to help wire one community — New Ashford.

In an aspirational executive summary, Matthew Crocker, president of Crocker Communications, offers an admission there are “inherent challenges in fulfilling the Request For Proposals.” His conclusion: “If this were easy, it would be well underway.”

Crocker’s proposal won’t be easy for roughly 30% of those living in the nearly 40 communities his company proposes to serve. That’s because his company won’t be serving them. Crocker’s proposal only suggests he will deliver service to about 70% of the service area. MBI wanted proposals that would reach 96% of the population. But there will be plenty of time to contemplate these points. Crocker’s proposal warns residents may have to wait until 2021 before they can get service. That will give would-be customers four years to save enough money to pay Crocker’s proposed installation fees: “under $2,000 for 70% of homes passed” or “$3,000 for 96% of homes passed.” Ouch.

Whip City Fiber: Even more murky than Crocker Communications’ proposal, Westfield Gas & Electric’s “Whip City” fiber service submitted a plan offering to serve any of the 40 communities MBI identifies as underserved, but the details aren’t there, except to describe the service the company already provides to its own customers. The actual number of towns to be served and the schedule to launch service are all: TBD = To Be Determined.

Mid-Hudson Data: The most modest of proposals from this Catskill, N.Y. based company seeks $260,000 to offer 279 homes fiber service and wireless for another 20 in the community of Tyringham. Customers would pay an installation fee of $150. While potentially good news for customer living near George Cannon Road, it isn’t much help to the rest of the region.

Fiber Connect, LLC: Another modest proposal from this regionally based ISP offers to provide broadband service for Alford, Becket, New Marlborough, Otis, Tolland and Tyringham. The proposal notes the company is already running a pilot broadband program in Monterey and Egremont. One potential stumbling block is a poorly explained installation fee ranging from $0 if municipalities agree to a “fixed average cost” that could be included in grant funding or a municipally guaranteed lease-to-own payment to $299 if a customers apply for a mysterious promotion or rebate, or $999 which is defined as the basic “initial installation cost.”

Charter Communications: Formerly Time Warner Cable, Charter is hunting for taxpayer-funded grants to expand broadband service to Egremont, Hancock, Monterey, New Salem, Princeton and Shutesbury. All of those communities are near existing Charter/Time Warner Cable systems and the company spared no time in their application promoting their existing close ties with MBI to bring broadband to Hinsdale, Lanesborough, and West Stockbridge. Charter claims it can expand its cable service into the nearby communities in a “reasonable amount of time” but does not get more specific than that.

Comcast: Boils down its application to “we’re doing you a favor, but you pay” language reminding MBI the communities Comcast now proposes to serve: Goshen, Montgomery, Princeton and Shutesbury don’t come close to Comcast’s demand for return on its investment. But since taxpayers are helping to foot the bill….

The one noticeable difference Comcast has over all the rest of the applicants is a page-and-a-half of details about the various regulator-imposed fines and penalties it has had to pay recently for being an ongoing menace to its own customers. Is it arrogance for a company to assume such a vast number of damaging disclosures would not lead a responsible grantor to put the application in the circular file, or is it something else? After all, Comcast was already awarded up to $4 million in taxpayer funds in Massachusetts as a gushing press release reported in August, 2016:

WESTBOROUGH – The Massachusetts Broadband Institute at MassTech (MBI) and Comcast have reached an agreement that will extend broadband access in nine municipalities in Western and North Central Massachusetts, a project which is estimated to deliver broadband connectivity to 1,089 new residences and businesses, and will bring the overall coverage level in each town to 96% or above. The grant will provide up to $4 million in state funds to reimburse partial project costs for Comcast, which has existing networks in each of the towns, to construct broadband internet extensions to additional homes and businesses.

“This agreement further demonstrates our administration’s commitment to tackling broadband connectivity challenges for unserved residents and businesses,” said Governor Charlie Baker. “This public-private partnership will deliver sustainable, reliable, and cost-effective broadband connectivity to nine rural communities that previously faced significant coverage gaps, allowing nearly 1,100 households and businesses to participate more fully in the digital economy.”

“Our results-oriented approach to bridging broadband access gaps is connecting thousands of rural residents to the modern internet,” said Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito. “We will continue to employ a dynamic, flexible approach to the Last Mile project, and seek solutions that meet the unique needs of communities and residents unserved by broadband access.”

The construction of the broadband extensions in Buckland, Conway, Chester, Hardwick, Huntington, Montague, Northfield, Pelham, and Shelburne is estimated to be completed within two years from the start of the project. The public-private partnership will extend high-speed internet service to unserved residents at speeds that meet or exceed the FCC’s definition of broadband service, through a hybrid fiber/coaxial-cable network.

Wired West Responds With a New Plan

Faced with insurmountable political obstacles, the folks behind WiredWest have bowed to the reality of the current political landscape and reintroduced themselves and their newest plan to get western Massachusetts wired for fiber optic broadband while trying to avoid any further encounters with MBI’s speed bumps and obstacles.

If WiredWest made one mistake, it was forgetting to establish the one connection that apparently matters more than anything else in Massachusetts: a political connection with state lawmakers. But the indefatigable group has not given up, and if the MBI is being honest about being an impartial partner in improving rural broadband in Massachusetts, there is still a better option available to communities than the six proposals recently submitted to MBI. That option is WiredWest.

In its latest proposal WiredWest would continue to play a significant role in the network after being built, with proven service plans that will deliver real broadband service to residents at rates comparable to what private companies charge. But the project will rely on member towns to construct their own fiber networks using private contractors and state and local funding. That puts more responsibility and network ownership in the hands of each individual town, an idea some towns originally rejected as too expensive and cumbersome. But MBI holds the money and has apparently rewritten the rules, so what MBI wants is what MBI will get.

The added cost to the project and the communities involved is significant: there will be some towns that cannot afford or manage the responsibility of constructing their own fiber networks and will likely drop out of the project. The new network plan will also increase costs WiredWest originally hoped to avoid. The group’s financial model also effectively subsidized some of the costs for the smallest and least able communities — a model that could be gone for good.

Each participating town network that does eventually get built will be connected in a ring topology to MassBroadband123, the state’s “middle mile” fiber network that is run privately by Axia Networks. At this point, it appears 14 communities are still on board with WiredWest, seven are “considering” the new WiredWest plan, and another 16 are “pursuing other options” but have not ruled out staying with WiredWest.

It is our recommendation that communities do everything possible to stay loyal to WiredWest, which has a proven track record of being responsive and accessible to communities across the region. Bucking the state’s inexcusable political interference by remaining united sends a strong message that local communities know best what they need, not a high-priced consultant, Springfield-based lawyers and bureaucrats, or the governor. None of those people have to live with the consequences of inferior or non-existent broadband and none have given the problem the kind of serious attention WiredWest has. The biggest challenge to WiredWest isn’t its financial sustainability, it is politics, and that needs to stop.

We’ve reviewed the submissions from MBI’s latest round of grant funding for private projects and they are all inadequate. While many of the companies involved are well-meaning and we believe could play a role in improving rural broadband, most of the applications seem to have been rushed and many lack specifics.

The region should not accept any plan offering only 70% broadband coverage, much less a proposal that will force another four-year wait for broadband (we credit Crocker Communications for at least including a specific timetable, something many of the other proposals did not.) Installation fees up to $3,000 are also unaffordable, with or without a financing plan.

Some analysts still worry if WiredWest can attract enough customers to be sustainable. If it isn’t, most of the private projects MBI has received applications for certainly are not either. Assuming customers can afford a few thousand dollars for installation — a major impediment to getting new customers, there is no guarantee which homes will get service and when. Competitively speaking, considering the only available alternative in most cases is spotty 1-6Mbps DSL from Verizon — a service the company has lost interest in improving or expanding — Verizon is likely to receive the same treatment it gets in other communities where better alternatives exist — a mass exodus of customers cutting Verizon’s cord for good. In fact, Verizon may ultimately sell its landline network in western Massachusetts to another company as it continues to disengage from its wireline businesses. It is highly unlikely any competitor of WiredWest will guarantee access to at least 25Mbps broadband.

WiredWest proposes to charge $59 for 25Mbps or $75 for 1,000Mbps broadband. Digital phone service is $19 a month. An installation fee of $99 will also apply. That is not out of line with what cable companies and other gigabit providers have charged, and they have won a comfortable market share. Private cable and phone companies also continue to raise rates on broadband, if only because they can, providing additional competitive insulation.

MBI’s grants should also not be the end of the story. New York last week rescued up to $170 million from the FCC’s Connect America Fund (CAF) to expand broadband deployment in unserved rural areas of New York State — money Verizon forfeited by expressing no interest in rural broadband expansion. That precedent opens the door for other states to recapture similar federal grants, including those that could target western Massachusetts where Verizon has also declined to accept CAF money. That could ease some of the money worries about WiredWest’s construction costs as well.

At the end of the day, area residents have turned up repeatedly at various events across the region holding signs supporting their choice in local providers: WiredWest. Nobody was holding up a sign hoping Comcast or Charter would be the company that finally brings broadband to their communities. The irony of using taxpayer dollars to fund Comcast in particular is not lost on their customers — many that loathe the company and wish they had another choice. Handing $20 million to that cable giant to expand in western Massachusetts guarantees their newest customers won’t have a choice either. Isn’t it time to give these communities what they want? They clearly want WiredWest.

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