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FCC Surrenders on Municipal Broadband; Won’t Appeal Pre-Emption Loss to Supreme Court

Slow-Road-Sign-378pxCommunity broadband advocates will have to redouble their efforts to overturn state laws that restrict or prohibit municipal broadband, because the Federal Communications Commission today signaled it will no longer be a part of that fight.

The federal regulator chaired by Thomas Wheeler sought to preempt state laws that restrict or ban publicly owned broadband networks, but municipal broadband opponents challenged the FCC in court and won in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. The judges found the FCC had exceeded its authority.

“The FCC will not seek further review of the Sixth Circuit’s decision on municipal broadband after determining that doing so would not be the best use of Commission resources,” agency spokesperson Mark Wigfield told Motherboard.

In short, the FCC will let stand that court’s decision overturning the FCC’s preemption of state laws that restrict or prohibit municipal broadband, handing a major victory to Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, and Time Warner Cable (now Charter).

“Sometimes you’ve got to know when to fold ‘em,” Harold Feld, senior vice president of Public Knowledge, told Motherboard. “This case was always something of a long-shot, but now it’s too much of a long-shot to put money on.”

The decision not to appeal will require broadband advocates to battle in each impacted state to overturn the restrictive laws, which could be a long and arduous process. The alternative is voting in a majority of Democrats to the U.S. House and Senate. Democratic Sen. Cory Booker (NJ) introduced the “Community Broadband Act” — legislation to end anti-broadband state laws. Critics of the laws contend they are often written and lobbied for by incumbent telecom companies that don’t want competition. But the legislation has no chance of passage as long as Republicans maintain their House and Senate majority.

Meet North Carolina’s Sen. Thom Tillis (R-ALEC/Time Warner Cable)

Tillis was honored in 2011 as ALEC's "Legislator of the Year" and received an undisclosed cash reward.

Tillis was honored in 2011 as ALEC’s “Legislator of the Year” and received an undisclosed cash reward.

Back when we first became aware of Republican member of the North Carolina legislature Thom Tillis around 2010, he was hard at work building his political future just as Republicans were poised to take control of the state legislature for the first time since the days of Reconstruction. Despite running unopposed in 2010, Tillis raised more money from cable and phone companies than any other lawmaker in the state, depositing $37,000 before knowing he would be the next Speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives in January 2011. To celebrate, AT&T, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon each gave Tillis $1,000 just a few weeks before the swearing-in ceremony. It was money well spent, if you were a cable or phone company doing business in North Carolina.

Tillis left the legislature in 2015 to become the junior U.S. Senator from North Carolina. The telecom industry made sure to keep the campaign contributions flowing, if only to give their thanks for Tillis’ unwavering support for their agenda. Tillis doesn’t care much for his rural constituents still waiting for something better than dial-up internet access and as long as his campaign coffers remain bulging with corporate contributions, he doesn’t think he has much to fear from the state’s voters either. After all, he survived accusations from a resigning House Finance chairman that he had a secret business relationship with Time Warner Cable.

Raleigh’s The News & Observer felt it was their duty to mention Tillis in their editorial pages anyway, taking him to task for “cheering a loss for North Carolina consumers last week after a federal appeals court upheld a cable company protection law that he supported as state House speaker in 2011.”

The newspaper is talking about North Carolina’s infamous anti-public broadband bill that was literally constructed by lobbyists working for Time Warner Cable. The law effectively made it impossible for community broadband providers to bring their much-needed service to adjacent communities that have waited more than a decade for companies like Time Warner Cable, AT&T, CenturyLink and others to offer internet access in rural and underserved parts of the state.

Tillis personally helped shepherd the corporate protection bill, designed to shield incumbent cable and phone companies from community competition, through the state legislature, supporting it every step of the way. It would become law in 2011 and rural broadband in North Carolina hasn’t gotten any better since. In fact, it’s almost stagnant. But Tillis cannot say the same thing about his campaign bank accounts, which continue to bulge with corporate donations now in excess of $11 million.

An effort by the Federal Communications Commission to pre-empt the state law failed in a federal appeals court, much to the delight of Thom Tillis, something the newspaper calls an “insult” to North Carolinians looking for a better deal.

“Today’s ruling affirms the fact that unelected bureaucrats at the FCC completely overstepped their authority by attempting to deny states like North Carolina from setting their own laws to protect hard-working taxpayers and maintain the fairness of the free market,” Tillis said in a statement. Cough, cough.

The newspaper’s response:

Translation: Time Warner and other companies, thank goodness, will retain control of the market without having to worry about towns competing with them and thus will be able to charge people whatever the market will bear.

For Tillis to say the court ruling, which should be appealed, is a triumph for taxpayers is preposterous. It’s a setback. The “free market” he backs is one free of competition from municipal broadband services that offer a better product at a lower price.

Google Fiber Puts Expansion on Hold as It Contemplates Wireless Instead

google fiberFurther expansion of Google Fiber appears to be on hold as the company contemplates moving away from fiber to the home service towards a wireless platform that could provide internet access in urban areas for less money.

The Wall Street Journal today reports Google parent Alphabet, Inc., is looking to cities to share more of the costs of building faster broadband networks or using cheaper wireless technology to reach customers instead.

Six years after Google first announced it would finance the construction of fiber to the home networks, the company has made progress in wiring just six communities, many incompletely. Progress has been hampered by infrastructure complications including pole access, permitting and zoning issues, unanticipated construction costs, and according to one Wall Street analyst, the possibility of lack of enthusiasm from potential subscribers.

Google’s recent acquisition of Webpass, a company specializing in beaming internet access over fiber-connected wireless antennas between large multi-dwelling units like apartments and condos appears to be a game-changer for Google. Webpass was designed mostly to service urban and population dense areas, not suburbs or neighborhoods of single-family dwellings. Webpass’ reliance on wireless signals that travel between buildings removes the cost and complexity of installing fiber optics, something that appears to be of great interest to Google.

Google Fiber is planning a system that would use fiber for its core network but rely on wireless antennas to connect each home to the network, according to a person familiar with the plans. Alphabet chairman Eric Schmidt said at the company’s shareholder meeting in June that wireless connections can be “cheaper than digging up your garden” to lay fiber. The only question is what kind of performance can users expect on a shared wireless network. Google’s plans reportedly do not involve 5G but something closer to fixed wireless or souped-up high-speed Wi-Fi. A web video on Webpass’ website seems to concede “you get best speeds with a wired connection.”

Even Google's wireless technology solutions provider Webpass concedes that wired broadband is faster.

Even Google’s wireless technology solutions provider Webpass concedes that wired broadband is faster.

Former Webpass CEO Charles Barr, now an Alphabet employee, argues wireless solves a lot of problems that fiber can bring to the table.

“Everyone who has done fiber to the home has given up because it costs way too much money and takes way too much time,” Barr said.

Barr’s statements are factually inaccurate, however. Fiber to the home projects continue in many cities, but if they are run by private companies, chances are those rollouts are limited to areas where a proven rate of return is likely. Large incumbent phone and cable companies are also contemplating some fiber rollouts, at least to those who can afford it. Many of the best prospects for fiber to the home service are customers in under-competitive markets where the phone company offers slow speed DSL and cable broadband speeds are inadequate. Rural communities served by co-ops are also prospects for fiber upgrades because those operations answer to their members, not investors. Community broadband projects run by local government or public utilities have also proven successful in many areas.

subBut like all publicly traded companies, Google must answer to Wall Street and their investors and some are not happy with what they see from Google Fiber. Craig Moffett from Wall Street research firm MoffettNathanson has rarely been a fan of any broadband provider other than cable operators and Google Fiber is no different.

“One can’t help but feel that all of this has the flavor of a junior science fair,” Moffett said of Google Fiber, pointing out the service has managed to attract only 53,000 cable TV customers nationwide as of December. Moffett concedes there are significantly more broadband-only customers signed up for Google, but that didn’t stop him from suggesting Google Fiber has had very little impact on increasing broadband competition across the country.

Analysts suggest Google Fiber is spending about $500 per home passed by its new fiber network. But that is a fraction of the $3,000+ per customer often spent by cable operators buying one another.

Google’s wireless deployment will likely take place in Los Angeles, Dallas, and Chicago according to people familiar with the company’s plans. Less dense cities slated for Google Fiber including San Jose and Portland, Ore., may never get any service from Google at all, but they are likely to hear something after a six month wait.

Google is also reportedly asking cities if the company can lease access on existing fiber networks. Another tactic is requesting power companies or communities build fiber networks first and then turn them over to Google to administer. The latter seems less likely, considering there are successful public broadband networks operating on their own without Google’s help.

Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Reverses FCC Rule Allowing Public Broadband Expansion

6th CircuitA federal appeals court has reversed an effort by the Federal Communications Commission to pre-empt state laws restricting municipal broadband expansion in Tennessee and North Carolina, ruling the FCC exceeded its authority by interfering with both states’ rights to define the boundaries where the community broadband networks can and cannot operate.

In a near-unanimous decision (with some minor dissent from one judge), judges from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals found the FCC exceeded their authority.

“The FCC order essentially serves to re-allocate decision-making power between the states and their municipalities,” the court ruled. “This is shown by the fact that no federal statute or FCC regulation requires the municipalities to expand or otherwise to act in contravention of the preempted state statutory provisions. This preemption by the FCC of the allocation of power between a state and its subdivisions requires at least a clear statement in the authorizing federal legislation. The FCC relies upon § 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 for the authority to preempt in this case, but that statute falls far short of such a clear statement. The preemption order must accordingly be reversed.”

In other words, the court ruled that the FCC’s belief that Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 allowed it to pre-empt state broadband laws goes too far. The judges opined Congress would have to rewrite the law to clearly state it was acceptable for the federal branch of government to overrule how a community or state decides to draw boundaries for public utilities.

EPB is the municipal utility in Chattanooga, Tenn.

EPB is the municipal utility in Chattanooga, Tenn.

The ruling will have an immediate impact on plans by municipal utility EPB in Chattanooga and city-owned provider Greenlight in Wilson, N.C., to expand service outside of their respective service areas. EPB has been working inside the Tennessee legislature to overturn or change the current broadband law but has been unsuccessful so far. Comcast and AT&T have lobbied the Tennessee legislature to keep municipal competitors from expanding, even where neither company offers service.

“Ultimately, Tennessee’s broadband gap is a problem for Tennesseans, and we need a Tennessee solution,” said David Wade, president of EPB. “We will continue to work with the growing number of state legislators and grassroots citizens interested in removing the barriers that prevent EPB and other municipal providers from serving our neighbors in surrounding areas who have little or no access to broadband. We are further encouraged by Commissioner Randy Boyd’s interest in addressing the lack of broadband in rural areas. As the head of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, he is especially well positioned to join with state lawmakers in addressing this challenge on behalf of Tennesseans.”

Greenlight announces gigabit service for Wilson, N.C.

Greenlight announces gigabit service for Wilson, N.C.

North Carolina’s law was effectively drafted by Time Warner Cable, who shepherded the bill through the Republican-controlled state legislature, making huge political campaign contributions along the way, eventually winning enough votes to see the bill become law.

The ruling is a serious blow to FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler, who made municipal broadband expansion one of his active agenda items at the FCC. Wheeler believed the two state laws were not supposed to inhibit rural broadband expansion. Critics of the laws contend they were written and lobbied for by the same incumbent cable and phone companies that could eventually face competition from public broadband networks.

“Let’s be clear: industry-backed state laws to block municipal broadband only exist because pliant legislators are listening to their Big Cable and Big Telecom paymasters,” said Michael Copps, a former FCC commissioner. “This decision does not benefit our broadband nation.”



Wheeler tacitly agreed, saying today’s decision “appears to halt the promise of jobs, investment and opportunity that community broadband has provided in Tennessee and North Carolina.”

“[Since 2015], over 50 communities have taken steps to build their own bridges across the digital divide,” Wheeler said in written comments. “The efforts of communities wanting better broadband should not be thwarted by the political power of those who, by protecting their monopoly, have failed to deliver acceptable service at an acceptable price.”

The ruling can be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the FCC has an excellent chance of getting the high court to overturn today’s decision. Rulings issued by the Sixth Circuit were reversed by the Supreme Court 24 out of the 25 times they were reviewed in the five annual terms starting in October 2008 and ending in June 2013 — the highest number of any federal appellate court during that time period.

Broadband activists can also return to the two state legislatures and urge that the broadband laws be modified or repealed. Wheeler seems ready to join the fight.

“Should states seek to repeal their anti-competitive broadband statutes, I will be happy to testify on behalf of better broadband and consumer choice,” Wheeler said. “Should states seek to limit the right of people to act for better broadband, I will be happy to testify on behalf of consumer choice.”

Charter Ready to Introduce HD and Internet Access on Berkshire Cable Systems… in 2016

lanesboroughIt is hard to imagine there are still cable systems serving customers with nothing more than a slim lineup of standard definition cable television channels in 2016, but not if you live in three Berkshire towns over the New York-Massachusetts border where Charter Communications will finally introduce HD television and internet service starting next week.

Lanesborough, West Stockbridge, and Hinsdale all suffer from the pervasive lack of broadband common across western Massachusetts. But these communities, along with Charter’s cable system in nearby Chatham, N.Y., are benefiting from regulator-mandated upgrades as a condition of approving Charter’s acquisition of Time Warner Cable. Charter Communications has almost no presence in New York, except for 14,000 customers in Plattsburgh and the seriously antiquated system in Chatham that isn’t too far from the dilapidated systems serving the Berkshires on the Massachusetts side of the border. Like in Chatham, customers in the Berkshires pay for service similar to what cable customers received in the 1980s – no video on demand, no internet access, and a capacity-strained system that lacks enough bandwidth to offer HD channels.

The upgrades will cost about $6,000 per customer — numbering 2,500 in Chatham and another 800 in the three towns in Massachusetts. Charter is paying the bill. Charter’s acquisition of Time Warner Cable will make things easier for the cable operator, because it will extend fiber connections between the Charter systems and existing Time Warner Cable infrastructure nearby.

In Massachusetts, Charter’s upgrades require customers to install new set-top boxes in time for the switchover on Aug. 2. A week later, on Aug. 9, internet access will be available at the two speeds Charter traditionally offers — 60 and 100Mbps.

Most customers care a lot less about improved cable television and are more concerned about getting broadband. Western Massachusetts’ broadband problems have affected property values and kept businesses from relocating or expanding in the area. Few areas in the northeast have languished with inadequate internet access more than Massachusetts communities west of Springfield.

The large consortium of 44 communities working under WiredWest have spent years working towards community-owned fiber to the home service in the western half of the state, but the project ran into political interference at the state government level. Lanesborough had been part of the WiredWest collaborative effort, reports iBerkshires. With Charter’s upgrade, the community may decide to drop out of the project, even though it would likely deliver superior broadband service over what Charter will offer.

Pre-Empting Moronic Broadband Law Means Everything to Rural North Carolina

greenlightThe community of Pinetops, N.C. has finally got 21st century gigabit broadband, but no thanks to a state legislature so beholden to Time Warner Cable, it let the cable giant write its own law to keep potential competitors away.

The passage of H129 was almost a given after Republicans regained control of both chambers of the state legislature in 2011 for the first time since 1870. The bill made it almost impossible for any of the state’s existing community-owned broadband networks to expand out of their immediate service areas. It also discouraged any other rural towns from even considering starting a public broadband network to solve pervasive broadband problems in their communities.

It was not the finest moment for many of H.129’s supporters, who had to explain to the media and constituents why the state’s largest cable operator needed protection from potential competition and more importantly, why public officials were catering to the corporate giant’s interests over that of the public.

"I wish you'd turn the camera off now because I am going to get up and leave if you don't," said Rep. Julia Howard

“I wish you’d turn the camera off now because I am going to get up and leave if you don’t,” said Rep. Julia Howard

Rep. Julia Howard (R-Davie, Iredell) found herself losing her cool when WNCN reporters in Raleigh caught up with her and confronted her with the fact her campaign coffers had been filled by the state’s largest telecom companies. She didn’t have an answer for that. Moments later, she appeared ready to flee the interview.

“I wish you’d turn the camera off now because I am going to get up and leave if you don’t,” Howard told the reporter.

Rep. Marilyn Avila was so close to Marc Trathen, then Time Warner Cable’s top-lobbyist in the state, we decided five years ago it would be more accurate to list Time Warner Cable as her sole constituent. Avila’s name appeared on the bill, but it was readily apparent Time Warner Cable drafted most of its provisions. The nearest city in Avila’s own district wanted no part of H129, and neither did many of her constituents.

The bill managed to pass the legislature and after becoming law effectively jammed up community broadband expansion in many parts of the state.

It would take the Federal Communications Commission to pre-empt the legislation on the grounds it was nakedly anti-competitive and prevented broadband improvements in communities major telecom companies have ignored for years.

As a result of the FCC’s actions, the community of Pinetops now has access to gigabit broadband, five years late, thanks in part to Rep. Avila who got a $290 dinner for her efforts and was honored as a guest speaker at a cable industry function in recognition of her service… to Time Warner Cable.

Rep. Avila with Marc Trathen, Time Warner Cable's top lobbyist (right) Photo by: Bob Sepe of Action Audits

Rep. Avila with Marc Trathen, Time Warner Cable’s top lobbyist (right) Photo by: Bob Sepe of Action Audits

Greenlight, Wilson’s community-owned fiber to the home provider, switched on service in the community this spring to any of the 600 Pinetops homes that wanted it, and many did.

“We just love it!” said Brenda Harrell, the former acting town manager.

In fact, Greenlight is now delivering the best broadband in Edgecombe County, and deploying fiber to the home service was hardly a stretch for Greenlight, which was already installing fiber optics to manage an automated meter infrastructure project. The only thing keeping better broadband out of the hands of Pinetops residents was a law written by an industry that loathes competition and will stop it at all costs. Time Warner Cable didn’t bother to offer service in the community even after its bill became law and residents endured years of unreliable DSL or dialup access instead. Talk about a win-lose scenario. Time Warner Cable got to keep its comfortable cable monopoly while many families had to drive their children to businesses miles away just to borrow their Wi-Fi signal to finish homework assignments.

Faster broadband is likely to be transformative for the quiet rural community. Current town manager Lorenzo Carmon sees more than nearby fields of sweet potatoes and soybeans. With gigabit fiber and cheap local housing, Pinetops could become a bedroom community for upper income professionals now living in Greenville, a university town heavily populated by doctors, students, and high-tech knowledge economy workers. If and when they arrive, they’ll find a tech-ready community, right down to the local Piggly-Wiggly supermarket, which now has fiber fast internet service too.

pinetopsPinetops offers proof of the obscenity of bought-and-paid-for-politicians supporting corporate protectionism that harms people, harms education, harms jobs, and leaves rural communities with no clear path to the digital economy of the 21st century. Legislation like H129, which continues to be enforced in more than a few U.S. states, needs to be pre-empted nationwide or even better repealed by state legislators.

But North Carolina’s legislature still isn’t getting the message. They are outraged the FCC outsmarted Time Warner Cable and them, and are now wasting time and resources to have the FCC’s pre-emption overturned in court, evidently so that rural North Carolina can continue to tough it out with DSL indefinitely. That’s political malpractice and North Carolina voters need to show the door to any elected representative that cares more about the interests of a giant cable company than what is good for you and your community. Reps. Avila and Howard don’t have to live with 3Mbps DSL, so why should you?

“If the private sector is not providing the services, the government has to step in,” said Carmon. “The internet is just like electricity. You can’t live without it.”

We couldn’t agree more.

Hillary Clinton’s Broadband/Tech Policies: Aspirational, Bureaucratic, and Often Vague

(Editor’s Note: In keeping with the changes introduced by the latest “AP Stylebook 2016,” as much as it pains us, starting today we will refer to the “internet” in lowercase.) 

clintonThe internet.

“I have a plan for that.”

High tech jobs.

“I have a plan for that.”

Facilitate Citizen Engagement in Government Innovation.

Yes, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has a plan for that, too. Whatever “that” is, there is essentially a four-year plan.

Hillary Clinton’s Initiative on Technology & Innovation” runs 15 pages and immediately reminds readers of the menu at Cheesecake Factory. There is literally something for everyone. It’s surprisingly robust for someone who professed she didn’t understand much of the email controversy she entangled herself in while serving as Secretary of State and admittedly doesn’t know how to work a fax machine. The question is, if voters choose Mrs. Clinton as the next president of the United States, how can they be sure her administration will achieve those promises, starting with a commitment to bring internet service to 100 percent of the country.

opinionBelieve it or not, there are organizations out there that track just how many of these pledges are actually kept during each administration, and surprisingly the track record is better than you might think. Politifact’s Obameter shows the Obama Administration achieved the majority of its tech policy objectives, compromised on a few others, and broke its promise on just one: Requiring companies to disclose personal information data breaches.

After almost two decades of telecommunications deregulation, President Obama turned plenty of attention to internet issues in the last two years of his second term. His de-facto enforcer turned out to be FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler, who has been tenaciously dismantling years of an industry-fueled “trust us, we know best” regulatory policy framework partly established during the (Bill) Clinton Administration. An exception to the usual revolving door of regulators taking well paid jobs in the private sector after leaving government, Wheeler has gone the other way — leaving the private sector as a former telecom lobbyist and venture capitalist to serve as FCC chairman during Obama’s second term. He’s a huge improvement over former chairman Julius Genachowski, who was typically resolute on telecom issues until he wasn’t.

Politifact's Obameter gives high marks to President Obama for delivering on his tech issues platform.

Politifact’s Obameter gives high marks to President Obama for delivering on much of his tech issues platform.

Many progressives looking to keep or even build on Wheeler’s willingness to check telecom industry power are unsure whether Hillary Clinton will be tenacious like Sen. Elizabeth Warren or get up close and personal with big telecom companies, like former Tennessee congressman Harold Ford, Jr., who still serves as honorary chairman of the industry front group Broadband for America.

Progressives with long memories do not fondly recall the first Clinton Administration’s willingness to compromise away or abandon major policy positions it seemed steadfast on during two campaigns. After the 1992 election, Knight-Ridder Newspapers compiled a list of 160 specific commitments made by Bill Clinton. As he approached the end of his first term, the newspaper chain found Clinton managed to achieve 106 of them — a surprising 66% success rate. The reason for the perception-reality gap? Many of those commitments involved low-key, barely noticed policy changes or were originally so broadly defined as to make them achievable based on even the thinnest evidence of change.

The George W. Bush administration managed worse under a perpetual cloud of post Bush v. Gore partisanship and a change in priorities after 9/11, leading to a failure to deliver on most of his policy positions and pledges, according to CBS News. But the Bush Administration’s love of deregulation was well-apparent at the FCC during his two terms in office under FCC chairmen Michael Powell (now a top cable industry lobbyist) and Kevin Martin. Some of those deregulation policies have been reconsidered during the Obama Administration, and some voters are wondering if that will stay true should Mrs. Clinton be our next president.

Many of Clinton’s pledges on tech issues are bureaucratic crowdpleasers that have little immediate relevance or understanding outside of Washington. There are expansions in various federal programs, appointments of new federal overseers to keep a lookout for burdensome regulations on the state and local levels, and a variety of programs to expand broadband at a growing number of “anchor institutions” (not your home or business) through the use of public-private partnerships. It is worth noting many similar projects have already been up and running for at least a decade. Some of these anchor institutions cannot afford to pay the ongoing cost of getting service from these projects, and many are already served more than adequately, with capacity to spare. As we reviewed Mrs. Clinton’s tech policy positions, it also became clear the greater the scope and likely cost of any single pledge, the more vague it seemed to be, especially regarding the money required to pay for it and how its success will be measured.

America's rural broadband problem.

America’s rural broadband problem.

In particular, Mrs. Clinton is promising to “finish the job of connecting America’s households to the internet, committing that by 2020, 100 percent of households in America will have the option of affordable broadband that delivers speeds sufficient to meet families’ needs.”

Left undefined: what is “affordable,” what speeds are “sufficient” to meet families’ needs, and what technologies will be used to deliver it. Mrs. Clinton is satisfied with “directing federal agencies to consider the full range of technologies as potential recipients—i.e., fiber, fixed wireless, and satellite—while focusing on areas that lack any fixed broadband networks currently.” In other words, doing exactly the same thing they already do today.

Satellite internet access, as it now exists, often performs much slower than the FCC’s definition of broadband – consistent download speed of 25Mbps. Most Americans subscribed to traditional DSL service don’t receive true broadband speeds either. Since satellite internet technically reaches the continental United States already, there will be plenty of ways for Mrs. Clinton to “declare victory” on this pledge without allocating the billions needed to provide quality wired or high-speed wireless broadband to still-unserved rural America.

Mrs. Clinton also proposes a new “model digital communities” grant program that will “leverage the $25 billion Infrastructure bank she plans to establish” to facilitate access to high-speed internet. Again, much of this proposal is left woefully undefined. Structured properly, this could be used to develop high-tech cities with high-speed service such as in Kansas City (Google) or Chattanooga (EPB Fiber). These could offer a road map for other communities. The problem is finding the money to build such networks. Private providers will argue they already have advanced networks that don’t require public tax dollars, so these projects are unnecessary. Local governments might admit if they don’t secure similar federal funding that “model cities” get to help cover some of the costs, they won’t proceed. Others may philosophically object to having the federal government meddling in overseeing local projects. Some others might prefer the money be simply spent to wire up rural communities that don’t have any access at all and call it a day.

Put it (almost) anywhere.

Put it (almost) anywhere.

The Clinton campaign is also sure to attract fans among the country’s wireless carriers because her campaign promises to review regulatory barriers the phone and cable companies deal with, particularly pole access, zoning and cell tower issues, streamlining small cell placement, and continued promotion of “climb/dig once” policies which encourage placing fiber and/or conduit in trenches whenever/wherever a utility performs upgrades or outdoor maintenance. Oh, and she’s for 5G spectrum allocations as well. None of this, pardon the pun, is groundbreaking either.

Clinton is more specific supporting the Obama Administration’s Net Neutrality policy, backed by Title II authority, allowing the FCC latitude to manage abusive ISP behavior in a barely competitive marketplace. But she stops well short of criticizing companies about some of their current abusive, anti-consumer policies. She has nothing to say about data caps or zero rating, pricing or poor service, and doesn’t lament the sorry state of competition in the American broadband marketplace.

Clinton’s policy positions seem to suggest the federal government will have to help multi-billion dollar phone and cable companies get over their Return On Investment anxieties by subsidizing them to encourage rural broadband or enhancing outdated infrastructure. We’d prefer a position that moves this country towards universal broadband service, even if it comes at the price of short-term profits at the nation’s top ISPs. It would be useful to see some politicians stand up and suggest Comcast and AT&T, among others, are not entirely paragons of virtue, and they need to do more to solve this pervasive problem. That is something their customers already understand. In return for the billions in profits they earn annually in a de facto duopoly, they should be willing to devote more energy towards network expansion and less on cooking up schemes like data caps/zero rating and the usual share buybacks, dividend payouts, acquisitions and executive compensation. Asking nicely doesn’t seem to work, so now it’s time to tell them.

Although we’ve been a bit tough on Mrs. Clinton, we have not forgotten her likely opponent, Donald Trump, so far lacks any coherent summary of his tech policies. We do know he opposes Net Neutrality because he believes it is an Obama-inspired “attack on the internet” in a “top-down power grab.” Trump believes Net Neutrality will somehow be used to “target conservative media.” That makes about as much sense as saying pistachio is a liberal ice cream flavor. Trump’s team has a lot of work to do before November.

Cable Industry Frets Over FCC’s “Artificial Competition” Requirement in Charter Merger

loophole_breakfast_of_lawyers_smallA condition imposed by the Federal Communications Commission requiring newly merged Charter-Time Warner Cable-Bright House to expand service into at least two million new homes already served by another cable or phone company already offering High Speed Internet is causing heartburn for smaller cable and phone companies that fear government-mandated competition in their service areas.

FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler has long believed that cable operators could compete against one another for customers, driving down prices for consumers while forcing service improvements. One of the conditions approving the Charter deal could have put Wheeler’s theory to the test, but not if Charter can help it.

Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge implied that he will continue to shield fellow cable operators from unwanted competition.

“When I talked to the FCC, I said I can’t overbuild another cable company, because then I could never buy it, because you always block those,” Rutledge said at last month’s MoffettNathanson Media & Communications Summit. “It’s really about overbuilding telephone companies.”

It seems unlikely Charter will ever directly overbuild one of its friends in the cable industry, especially important ones like Comcast, Cox, and Cablevision. Smaller independent cable companies don’t feel as secure, which is why the trade group that represents many of them, the American Cable Association, has tried to get the FCC to back off.

charter twc bh“The overbuild condition imposed by the FCC on Charter is stunningly bad and inexplicable government policy,” ACA president Matthew Polka said in a statement. “On the one hand, the FCC found that Charter will be too big and therefore it imposed a series of conditions to ensure it does not exercise any additional market power. At the same time, the FCC, out of the blue, is forcing Charter to get even bigger.”

The FCC probably crafted the deal conditions to force Charter to compete with other cable operators, because one million of those new customer locations must be where at least 25Mbps broadband service is already available. That protects many phone companies still offering DSL as an afterthought, because most don’t offer speeds anywhere close to 25Mbps. But the FCC left several counter-intuitive loopholes in the language that Republican FCC commissioner Ajit Pai says lends credibility to the ACA’s argument.

“Unless Charter chooses to exclusively overbuild areas served by Comcast, which I find highly unlikely, Charter’s increased broadband market share will come at the expense of smaller competitors,” Pai wrote in comments about the proposal.

unitelNotably, Charter is allowed to buy up other small telecom companies and count up to 250,000 of their customers towards the one million new homes served requirement. If those are small rural cable companies, that means the FCC is allowing Charter to grow even larger instead of providing more competition. Charter could also choose to overbuild municipal broadband providers and co-ops, especially in areas next to existing Charter/TWC/Bright House systems. That would harm the FCC’s current interest in removing roadblocks to publicly owned broadband networks. Enthusiasm for such networks could be dampened if Charter is willing to wire the area at their own expense.

Rutledge’s announcement is sure to make life uncomfortable for a number of rural phone companies that have invested in fiber network upgrades and now face the potential of Charter taking away customers that are helping to pay off those upgrades.

An unintended consequence of the FCC’s various loopholes could place a heavy burden on independent telephone companies that invested in network upgrades for faster broadband even as wealthier and larger phone companies are protected from that competition by delivering frustratingly slow DSL.

One potential target for a Charter overbuild could be UniTel, headquartered in Unity, Maine. UniTel offers residential customers in Albion, Dixmont, Newburgh, Thorndike, Troy, and Unity broadband speeds up to 1 gigabit. Unity is located between Bangor and Portland — both served by Time Warner Cable (now Charter).

Phone companies like UniTel call the FCC’s mandate “artificial competition” that could put it and other rural independent phone companies into financial distress. UniTel has a speed edge over anything Charter plans to offer customers in the immediate future as it deploys fiber to the home service, but television is another matter. One of the benefits of being a large cable company is volume-discounted pricing for cable television networks. Smaller independent operators cannot compete when wholesale television programming discounts are calculated in, allowing larger companies to undercut smaller ones with lower pricing.

UniTel officials criticized the FCC for creating deal conditions that Charter will exploit to the detriment of improving rural broadband service.

“Rather than allow New Charter to unilaterally narrow the scope of the buildout condition to meet its own business objectives, UniTel respectfully urges that the Commission should act to narrow the scope of any buildout condition, not to meet the private business objectives of New Charter, but rather to meet the public policy objectives of universal service in rural areas,” the company argued in its filing with the FCC.

A handful of rural telecom associations generally agree with UniTel and want the FCC to retarget Charter’s buildout requirements to fixing the rural broadband problem by expanding into unserved service areas instead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


$24 million spent and nothing to show for it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rural Floridians endure more broken promises for better broadband.

Rural Floridians endure more broken promises for better broadband.

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

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

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

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

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

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