Home » Community Networks » Recent Articles:

Community Broadband Battle in Savannah Media Pits Local GOP Against Broadband Choice

Savannah, Ga.

The very idea that a city would get involved in selling better broadband service to its residents has sparked a coordinated campaign to sully municipally owned providers and color the results of an ongoing study to determine if Savannah, Ga. is getting the kind of internet access it needs.

While the city and county continue their Broadband Fiber-Optic Feasibility Study and survey residents about incumbent providers including AT&T, Comcast, and Hargray Communications, an organized pressure campaign coordinated by the Chatham County GOP is well underway to undermine any idea the city should compete against the three dominant local internet providers.

“The purpose of this study is to examine how we are currently served with broadband infrastructure, particularly focused on the services available to our community residents, anchor institutions, businesses, and key services like public safety, health and education,” a Savannah city spokesperson told Stop the Cap!

The city’s goal is to: “confirm that residents, anchor institutions and businesses have access to the services they need and that those services are competitively priced.” Incumbent providers are betting the answer to that question will likely be no and have started early opposition to discourage the city from attempting to build its own broadband network. Comcast and AT&T have apparently teamed up with the local Chatham County GOP to defend current providers in suspiciously similar-sounding letters to the editor.

Consider two examples.

About a month ago, Stephen Plunk, executive secretary of the Chatham County Republican Party, liberally sprinkled talking points provided by outside think tanks in an editorial published by the Savannah Morning News:

The Savannah Morning News published this ominous illustration adjacent to a guest editorial from a Chatham County GOP official opposing public broadband.

Only 6,000 residents in Chatham County, out of about 280,000, do not have access to wired internet of any sort. About 90 percent of Savannah residents can choose from two or more wired internet service providers . The city’s current residential providers offer speeds up to 105 mbps, and its 12 business providers offer speeds that are generally between 100 mbps and one gigabit.

Private providers also are making big new investments here. Last year, Hargray Communications announced a plan to offer one gigabit speeds to Lowcountry customers. In March, Comcast announced its intention to offer 10-gigabit speeds to city businesses. Last month, AT&T said it also will begin offering superfast capacity.

Next, let’s look at whether a city should provide service directly to customers. Or, is it wise? To determine that, the city council must ask itself whether it wants to go down the path of Marietta, which ran its own internet company several years ago but was forced to sell that network at a loss when it failed to turn a profit year after year. Marietta’s mayor eventually admitted the city never should have become an ISP. There are government ISPs that do make a profit every year, but they are rare. Chattanooga’s government-run system is often touted as a model, but the city received more than $100 million from the federal government to get its system started.

This morning, Mary Flanders, chairwoman of the Chatham County GOP wrote essentially the same things in an “opposing views” piece published by the Connect Savannah weekly newspaper (and at least cited some of her sources):

They should proceed carefully. Cautionary tales about municipal broadband networks abound.

Consider the situation in Marietta, the sprawling suburb northwest of Atlanta. Marietta started its own municipal network that stretched along a 210-mile long route. After spending $35 million to build out the network, Marietta earned a grand total of 180 customers.

The then-Mayor said the city couldn’t keep pace with the expenses associated with the constant flood of technology upgrades required to manage a broadband network. The city ultimately sold the network in 2004 for a $20 million loss.

Pacific Research Institute, in a report on municipal broadband, found that “Mariettans had decided that they would rather take a $20.33 million loss than continue to subsidize a municipal telecom venture that was sucking their city dry.”

Marietta may be relatively close to home, but it’s not the only example. Provo, Utah spent $40 million to build its network, only to sell it to Google Fiber for the princely sum of $1. In Groton, Connecticut, taxpayers lost $38 million.

City leaders need to consider the downside risk to municipal services if and when the broadband network fails to attract customers and generate case. The shortfall has to be made up somewhere. Where will the money come from? Tax hikes?

Budget cuts to basic services or to the police or fire department? Try explaining that to voters come election time, especially if the crime rate is on the rise.

According to Kelly McCutcheon, President of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, typically the consultants are the only ones who come out good on these deals. It would be a bitter pill to swallow by Savannah citizens and city leaders alike.

Let’s dig into some of the specifics on Internet needs in Savannah. Of the 280,000 residents in Chatham County, only 6,000 residents do not have access to wired Internet of any kind. About 90% of Savannah residents can choose from two or more wired Internet service providers (ISPs).

The city’s current residential providers offer speeds up to 105 mbps, and its twelve business providers offer speeds that are generally between 100 mbps and one gigabit, which is considered to be very speedy in the Internet world.

Private providers also are making big new investments in the area. Last year, Hargray Communications announced a plan to offer one gigabit speeds to Lowcountry customers. In March, Comcast announced its intention to offer 10-gigabit speeds to city businesses. Last month, AT&T said it also would begin offering incredibly fast capacity to Savannah entrepreneurs.

On track to be profitable by 2006, local politics forced an early sale of the community fiber network that was succeeding.

Most of these talking points have been debunked by Stop the Cap! over our nine-year history. The examples of municipal broadband failures are so few and far between, we’ve come to recognize them, and many of the shop worn examples provided by the Chatham County Republicans are more than five years old.

In Groton, Conn., the emergence of a municipal provider inspired network upgrades and more competition from Comcast while the phone company Southern New England Telephone (later AT&T and today Frontier Communications) did everything possible to keep the publicly owned provider from offering phone services to customers. In the end, Comcast undercut the municipal provider and AT&T’s deployment of U-verse created problems for the then-rosy revenue projections the municipal provider was depending on to recoup its original construction costs. The network was sold five years ago to a private provider and customers still appreciate the quality of the original network today run by Thames Valley Communications, which rates four out of five stars while its competitors Frontier and Comcast rate two. It would be wrong to assume today’s municipal broadband providers have not learned important lessons and now account for incumbents responding to competition with heavily discounted rate retention plans for customers threatening to leave, as well as network upgrades. Revenue projections have become more conservative, both to deal with unexpected construction costs and the revenue likely to be earned in light of cut-rate plans from the competition. But many customers make the switch anyway, persuaded by the quality and reliability of superior fiber networks, rate stability, and a more responsive level of customer service.

The networks in Provo, Utah and Marietta, Ga., are examples of what happens when politicians opposed to the concept of municipal broadband intentionally meddle with them in an effort to prove an ideological argument or to help move along a pre-conceived sale of publicly owned infrastructure to private companies.

In Provo, the fiber to the home network was built and quickly hamstrung by a Utah state law that forbade the city from selling broadband service to the public. Instead, it had to sell wholesale access to private companies it had to attract, who in turn would provide service to the public. Imagine a marketing campaign for a new provider that required customers to deal with two unfamiliar providers just to sign up.

Christopher Mitchell, who studies municipal networks and advocates for community involvement in broadband, wrote a year ago iProvo was facing serious challenges primarily because politicians and industry lobbyists got in the way:

“Industry lobbyists convinced Utah legislators to restrict local authority over municipal networks to ‘protect’ taxpayers and that argument is still frequently used today by groups opposing local internet choice. The law does not actually revoke local authority to invest in networks, it monkeys around with how local governments can finance the networks and requires that municipalities use the wholesale-only model rather than offering services directly.

“However, the debt-financed citywide wholesale-only model has proven to be the riskiest approach of municipal networks. Building a municipal fiber network where the city can ensure a high level of service is hard and can be a challenge to make work financially. Trying to do that while having less control over quality of service and splitting revenues with 3rd parties is much harder.”

Marietta’s experience with municipal broadband failed only because a new mayor unilaterally declared it an ideological failure and sold the network at a loss for political reasons. We covered that debacle ourselves back in 2012:

In Marietta, the public broadband “collapse” was one-part political intrigue and two-parts media myth.

Marietta FiberNet was never built as a fiber-to-the-home service for residential customers.  Instead, it was created as an institutional and business-only fiber network, primarily for the benefit of large companies in northern Cobb County and parts of Atlanta.  The Atlanta-Journal Constitution reported on July 29, 2004 that Marietta FiberNet “lost” $24 million and then sold out at a loss to avoid any further losses.  But in fact, the sloppy journalist simply calculated the “loss” by subtracting the construction costs from the sale price, completely ignoring the revenue the network was generating for several years to pay off the costs to build the network.

In reality, Marietta FiberNet had been generating positive earnings every year since 2001 and was fully on track to be in the black by the first quarter of 2006.

So why did Marietta sell the network?  Politics.

Marietta’s then-candidate for mayor, Bill Dunway, did not want the city competing with private telecommunications companies.  If elected, he promised he would sell the fiber network to the highest bidder.

He won and he did, with telecommunications companies underbidding for a network worth considerably more, knowing full well the mayor treated the asset as “must go at any price.”  The ultimate winner, American Fiber Systems, got the whole network for a song.  Contrary to claims from that the network was a “failure,” AFS retained the entire management of the municipal system and continued following the city’s marketing plan.  So much for the meme government doesn’t know how to operate a broadband business.

While members of the Chatham County GOP took potshots at outside consultants hired to consider whether Savannah should explore offering community broadband, Ms. Flanders was far more sanguine about her sources: the Pacific Research Institute (PRI) and the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

In fact, the Pacific “Research Institute” doesn’t do independent research and it’s not an institute. It’s a right-wing, dark money-funded think tank with ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Koch Brothers. The Georgia Public Policy Foundation, like PRI, prides itself on not revealing the sources of its funding, but SourceWatch uncovered their financial ties to the Donors Capital Fund, a corporate-“murky money maze” specifically designed to hide corporate contributions and the motives those companies have to send the money. So it isn’t a stretch to assume that when a think tank suddenly takes an interest in municipal broadband, checks from AT&T, Comcast, and others have proven to be helpful motivators.

Frozen in Time: Verizon’s Ultra Slow DSL Languishes On in Massachusetts

When the Berkshire Eagle asked readers to test their internet speeds and share the results, along with opinions about their broadband options, the newspaper hit a nerve.

Over 400 readers in western Massachusetts promptly responded, many with scathing stories about slow speeds and unresponsive customer service.

The newspaper preferred to call it “tortured testimony.”

“It is slow and getting slower,” wrote Bob Rosen, from Otis. “Many times it just says, ‘not responding.'”

It” is Verizon’s DSL — broadband for the masses of landline customers in Massachusetts unlucky enough not to have FiOS fiber to the home service available before Verizon decided to stop expanding its copper-replacement fiber network. For the last seven years, Verizon’s DSL has remained more or less “as-is,” with no significant service improvements or apparent expansion effort.

Source: The ConsumeristUnfortunately, as customer demand for bandwidth grows, performance drops unless providers continually invest in new equipment to manage demand appropriately. Customers in western Massachusetts report Verizon seems to be making do with what they already have, and speeds have suffered.

Douglas Mcnally of Windsor, a member of the Select Board and consultant whose job depends on a good internet connection told the newspaper he really doesn’t have a consistently reliable connection. One test showed a speed of 2.82Mbps, but a second one returned a speed result of 0.64Mbps. Barbara Craft-Reiss from Becket has a connection also topping out at 0.64Mbps.

In Dalton, a customer that repeatedly complained about his 1.5Mbps speed was told that was as good as Verizon DSL was going to get.

“I have had several communications with Verizon and they always say not to expect any more,” the reader told the newspaper. “At times it is so slow the web page expires before it comes up. There are many times it does not work at all.”

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 instead of waiting around for Verizon, Comcast, and Charter.

Verizon seemed to echo its “done with DSL” attitude to Robert Rosen who has subscribed since the 1990s at his home in the Otis Woodlands area.

“In the beginning, the signal was very strong. Every six months I would call Verizon and see if I could get a stronger signal. Sometimes it was boosted, however in the past several years I have been told by Verizon I am at max strength,” Rosen said.

But at least he could subscribe. Verizon customer service agents have warned some customers if they drop DSL service, they cannot come back. Bob Johnson dropped his 2Mbps Verizon DSL account — the one he inherited under the previous account-holder’s name.

“I was told that if I cancelled the previous owner’s account, I would not be able to get an account at all,” Johnson reported.

A Verizon spokesperson claimed DSL is still available in Verizon’s FiOS-less service areas, as long as the customer’s line passes a loop qualification test. Only ISDN has been decommissioned in certain service areas, the spokesperson claimed.

But Stop the Cap! has heard from countless Verizon customers who share stories of deteriorating performance and disinterest in improving service, and customer service agents won’t even sell DSL to customers without bundling landline phone service.

“They are just letting the old telephone network fall apart piece by piece,” claims John Landis, a Verizon DSL customer outside of Buffalo, N.Y. “The investment is just not clear anymore. When is the last time Verizon introduced a new service on their wired network, such as faster internet speeds? We’re living with a company where time has stopped, unless you are on Verizon Wireless.”

Verizon’s apparent disinterest in selling DSL broadband has proved to be a significant benefit for cable operators that continue to take market share from the phone company. Strategy Analytics reports cable companies added more than three million new subscribers from 2015 on. Cable operators now have a 62% broadband market share, compared to just 15% for DSL, a percentage that has dropped for years. (Fiber broadband now accounts for a 23% share.)

“The telco operators haven’t been able to shake off the losses of DSL subscribers, but we expect to see increased fiber deployments in the coming quarters, which should help AT&T and Verizon return to growth,” Jason Blackwell, director of Strategy Analytics’ Service Provider Strategies Service said last summer. But much of that growth seems to be targeted for urban and suburban areas, not rural areas where DSL is often the only available broadband technology.

Cable broadband is generally not available in rural areas.

Despite telco claims that wireless broadband alternatives will eventually solve the rural broadband problem, Blackwell is skeptical.

“The reality is fixed broadband is continuing to grow in the U.S., and not being replaced by mobile broadband as some have reported,” he claimed. “The cable operators are driving the growth with increased speeds and multiplay bundles.”

The availability of a cable competitor has helped some in western Massachusetts resolve their broadband problems, but only in communities where cable operators exist. Many western Massachusetts residents are still waiting for community-owned gigabit-capable fiber broadband through the WiredWest project.

In late 2015, politics from the governor’s office put a “pause” on all state “last-mile broadband” projects and a sudden policy shift required each town to own its own network infrastructure despite the widely expressed desire on the local level for a regional approach. More than a year later, the project to improve broadband across the western half of the state is still trapped by bureaucratic interference, allowing the state’s big cable and phone companies to continue the status quo with no alternatives on the immediate horizon.

As of late December, the project is gathering support for sending a resolution to state officials reaffirming their request to allow local communities involved in the project to determine their broadband future without onerous requirements from the governor’s office.

Without WiredWest, the future is not good. Unless Verizon changes its mind about broadband deployment in western Massachusetts or cable operators Charter and Comcast spontaneously expand their service areas, readers of the Berkshire Eagle can expect more of what staff writer Larry Parnass summed up in two words: extreme disappointment.

Trump’s Short List for FCC Chairman Contains Industry Insider Who Questions Need for FCC

robber-barons

Making America Great for Robber Barons Again

The president-elect’s choice for chairing the Federal Communications Commission may conclude there is little reason to even have a regulatory agency for telecommunications.

Donald Trump has gone farther to the right than any president-elect in modern history, at least in how he has chosen to staff his transition team. Having a place on that team is traditionally seen as a fast track to getting a plum cabinet position or leadership role in Washington’s bureaucracy, and Mr. Trump’s choices for overseeing tech and telecom policy have more in common with Ayn Rand than Ralph Nader.

Two of the top picks for his FCC transition team are true believers in the “laissez-faire/the free market always knows best” camp, but both have also been on the payroll of Big Telecom companies that believe special favors are perfectly acceptable.

The notorious D.C. revolving doorman Jeffrey Eisenach, now a leading contender for the next chairman of the FCC, is a man with so many hats that the New York Times published an exposé on him, noting it has become hard to tell whether Eisenach’s views are his own, those of his friends at the corporate-friendly American Enterprise Institute (AEI), or those of various telecom companies like Verizon that have had him on the payroll.

Eisenach has been heavily criticized for his especially close ties to telecom companies, fronting their positions at various Washington events often under the cover of his role as a “think tank scholar” at AEI. Eisenach despises Net Neutrality with a passion, and has used every opportunity to attack the open internet protection policies as overregulation. At the same time, Eisenach’s consulting firm was also doing work on behalf of the cellular telephone industry, including Verizon and other cell companies.

Eisenach is exceptionally casual about disclosing any paid financial ties, and has received criticism for it. His prominence as a member of the Trump transition team is therefore curious, considering incoming vice president Mike Pence has tried to clean the transition team of lobbyists.

Eisenach

Eisenach

Trump’s other leading contender is Mark Jamison, a former lobbyist for Sprint who now works for AEI. Jamison has received less attention and scrutiny from the telecommunications press, but in some cases his views, well-represented on his blog, are even more extreme than those of Mr. Eisenach.

In a 2013 report to the Florida Public Service Commission, Jamison looked down on consumer involvement in creating and enforcing telecom regulations:

Does customer involvement in regulation improve outcomes? Not always, according to PURC Director Mark Jamison. Speaking at the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission annual conference in Brisbane, Australia, Dr. Jamison explained that the key question is, “Who do we expect to change when regulators and customers engage?” Most discussion on customer engagement is about customers informing regulators about customer preferences and utility practices. Learning by regulators is important, but so are the building legitimacy, ensuring regulator integrity, and engaging in adaptive learning that are largely about changing customers. An over emphasis on changing regulators can result in pandering to current norms, which hinders institutional strengthening and adaptive work.

In that same report, Jamison echoed some of the same sentiments he has made on his blog, questioning the wisdom of regulating telecommunications policies, providing subsidies to ensure affordable telephone service (Lifeline), subsidizing rural broadband expansion, and maintaining the core concept of universal service, which means assuring every American that wants utility service can affordably get it.

Jamison even questioned the need for the FCC in its current form, particularly overseeing rate regulation, fair competition, and enforcing rules that overturn the telecom industry’s cartel-like agreement on mandated set-top boxes (and rental fees), Net Neutrality and interconnection agreements and fees, and consumer protection:

Most of the original motivations for having an FCC have gone away. Telecommunications network providers and ISPs are rarely, if ever, monopolies. If there are instances where there are monopolies, it would seem overkill to have an entire federal agency dedicated to ex ante regulation of their services. A well-functioning Federal Trade Commission (FTC), in conjunction with state authorities, can handle consumer protection and anticompetitive conduct issues.

Content on the web competes well with content provided by broadcasters, seeming to eliminate any need for FCC oversight of broadcasters. Perhaps there is need for rules for use of the airwaves during times of emergency, but that can be handled without regulating the content providers themselves.

The only FCC activity that would seem to warrant having an independent agency is the licensing of radio spectrum. Political interference in spectrum licenses would at least dampen investment and could lead to rampant corruption in the form of valuable spectrum space being effectively handed out to political cronies.

Jamison

Jamison

Jamison’s theories are interesting, but in the real world they are impractical and frankly untrue. Readers of Stop the Cap! have long witnessed the impact of the insufficiently competitive telecom marketplace — higher broadband fees, data caps, and relentlessly terrible customer service. The costs to provide service have declined, but prices continue to rise. For many consumers, there is barely a duopoly for telecom services with cable companies taking runaway victory laps for providing 21st century broadband speeds while an area’s phone company continues to try to compete with underinvested DSL. The FTC has been a no-show on every important telecom issues of our time, in part because the industry got itself deregulated, leaving oversight options very limited.

It wasn’t the FTC that halted AT&T’s attempted buyout of T-Mobile and Comcast didn’t lose its struggle to acquire Time Warner Cable because of the FTC either. Pushback from the FCC and Department of Justice proved to be the only brakes on an otherwise consolidation-crazed telecom sector.

Oversight of broadcasting remains important because unlike private networks, the airwaves are a publicly owned resource used for the good of the American people. Jamison would abandon what little is left of regulations that required broadcasters to serve the public interest, not just private profit motives. Programming content is not the only matter of importance. Who gets a license to run a television or radio station matters, and so does the careful coordination of spectrum. It is ironic Jamison theorizes that a lack of regulation (of spectrum) would lead to political interference, rampant corruption, and cronyism. Anyone who has followed our experiences dealing with many state regulatory bodies and elected officials over telecom mergers and data caps can already use those words to describe what has happened since near-total deregulation policies have been enacted.

Public and private broadband competitors like local communities and Google have been harassed, stymied, and delayed by organized interference coordinated by incumbent telecom companies. Allowing them off the leash, as Jamison advocates, would only further entrench these companies. We have a long history in the United States dealing with unfettered monopoly powers and trusts. Vital infrastructure and manufacturing sectors were once held captive by a handful of industrialists and robber barons, and consumers paid dearly while those at the top got fabulously rich. Their wealth and power grew so vast and enduring, we are still familiar with their names even today — Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Morgan, Schwab, Mellon, Duke, and Carnegie, just to name a few.

Jamison wrote a blog entry mapping out how to ultimately destroy the effectiveness of the FCC:

  • Take direction from politicians,
  • Promote partisan divides,
  • Change the language in orders after the FCC votes,
  • Ignore the facts, or at least manipulate them.

Jamison intended to argue that represented the current state of the Obama Administration’s FCC, but it is just as easy to ponder what comes after the Trump-lit bonfire of burned regulations and oversight, leaving only Big Telecom companies and their paid mouthpieces to manipulate the facts.

Jamison also undercuts his own argument in two other ways: first by declaring Michael Powell one of the great FCC chairmen of the modern era (after leaving the FCC he became president of the country’s biggest cable industry lobbying group) and second by relying extensively on quoting people with direct and undisclosed financial ties to the telecom companies that will directly benefit from implementing Jamison’s world views.

New York Times: In a 2014 email, Mr. Eisenach encouraged Michael O’Rielly, a Republican F.C.C. commissioner, to use an American Enterprise Institute event to “lay out the case against” internet regulations.

New York Times: In a 2014 email, Mr. Eisenach encouraged Michael O’Rielly, a Republican FCC commissioner, to use an American Enterprise Institute event to “lay out the case against” internet regulations.

Who doesn’t ultimately matter much in this debate, according to Jamison, are customers and consumers, whose input in these discussions is dismissed as either trendy or misinformed. No similar conclusions are forthcoming from Mr. Jamison about the influence and misinformation emanating from huge telecommunications companies that keep more than a few of his self-interested sources in comfortable suburban Virginia homes, driving their nice cars to and from the offices of shadowy think tanks that receive direct corporate funding or go out of their way to hide their benefactors.

Appointing either Mr. Eisenach or Mr. Jamison to the Federal Communications Commission would be the ultimate rubber stamping of business as usual in Washington, exactly what Donald Trump ran against. That may make Verizon or Comcast “great again,” but it certainly won’t help the rest of the country.

Alaska’s Telecom Companies Will Waste $365 Million in Taxpayer Funds Building Duplicate 4G Networks

A new fiber provider is expected to vastly expand Alaska's internet backbone, but there are not enough middle mile networks to allow all Alaskans to benefit.

Quintillion, a new underseas fiber provider, is expected to vastly expand Alaska’s internet backbone, but there are not enough terrestrial middle mile networks to allow all Alaskans to benefit.

A federal taxpayer-funded effort to improve broadband access in rural Alaska will instead improve the bottom lines of Alaska’s telecommunications companies who helped collectively “consult” on a plan that will pay $365 million in taxpayer subsidies to companies building profitable and often redundant 4G wireless networks.

The Alaska Plan, which took effect Nov. 7, is a decade-long effort to subsidize telecom companies up to $55 million annually to encourage them to expand broadband service to 134,000 Alaskan households that get either no or very little internet service today. The Alaska Telephone Association (ATA) — an industry trade association and lobbying group, claims if the plan is successful, only 758 Alaskans will still be waiting for broadband by the year 2026.

But critics of the plan claim taxpayers will give millions to help subsidize private telecom companies that have plans to spend much of the money on redundant, highly profitable 4G wireless data networks that will cost most Alaskans large sums of money to access.

One company — AT&T, which refused to participate in the plan, is still taken care of by the plan, receiving $15.8 million dollars from taxpayers for doing absolutely nothing to improve broadband service in Alaska. The plan directs the money to AT&T to provide phase-down, high-cost support, which drew a sharp rebuke from Republican FCC commissioner Ajit Pai, who questioned why taxpayers had to subsidize AT&T for anything.

“The order claims this a ‘reasonable’ accommodation but cannot explain why the nation’s second largest wireless carrier needs ‘additional transition time to reduce any disruptions,’” Pai wrote.

quintillionThe biggest weakness of the plan, according to its critics, is its lack of support for middle-mile networks — wired infrastructure that connects providers to a statewide broadband backbone that can manage traffic needs without having to turn to slow-speed satellite connectivity. One of Alaska’s biggest challenges is finding low-cost connectivity with Canada and the lower-48 states. Much of the state relies heavily on GCI’s still-expanding TERRA network, which provides fiber as well as microwave connectivity to 72 towns and villages in rural Alaska. Quintillion, a new player, is working on stretching fiber connectivity through the Northwest Passage. Its forthcoming 30 terabit capacity fiber network offers the possibility of dramatically lower broadband rates and no more data caps, assuming providers have the network capacity to connect their service areas and the nearest fiber access point.

Instead of subsidizing the development of middle mile networks for this purpose, the authors of The Alaska Plan have instead favored wireless connectivity, including the very lucrative 4G wireless networks cellular providers want to expand. By definition, the broadband plan accommodates the limitations of wireless by easing broadband speed requirements for providers. To earn a subsidy, providers need not offer the FCC’s minimum speed to qualify as broadband — 25Mbps.

gciInstead, the ATA managed to convince regulators that 10/1Mbps service was good enough — speed that can be achieved by the DSL service phone companies favor. This is well below Alaska’s Broadband Task Force goal of 100Mbps for every state resident by 2020. Another free pass built into the plan is allowing providers to collect subsidies even when they do not offer 10Mbps because of network limitations, including lack of suitable middle mile networks. In those cases, the only speed requirement is 1Mbps download speeds and 256kbps uploads, the same as satellite broadband providers.

Commissioner Pai complained those are broadband speeds reminiscent of the internet a decade ago and hardly represents a vision for a faster future.

In a rare moment of bipartisanship at a divided FCC, Commissioner Mignon Clyburn joined Commissioner Pai dissenting from Alaska’s plan.

“It is clear that Alaska’s ‘majestic geography’ makes deployment difficult, but without affordable middle-mile connectivity, high-cost program support spent on the last mile does little to improve communications service to Alaskans,” Clyburn wrote. “Commissioner Pai and I supported an approach that would have taken the $35 million a year in duplicative universal service money and use[d] it to support a middle-mile mechanism that would enable many Alaskans in the Bush to receive broadband for the very first time. The status quo is simply not good enough, and the cost of doing nothing is far too high.”

Pai

Pai

Both Clyburn and Pai also complained federal tax dollars will be used to build duplicative 4G wireless networks that will primarily benefit providers. From Commissioner Clyburn’s statement:

We do not subsidize competition. We do not provide duplicative high-cost support to carriers in the same area and we do not subsidize carriers where other unsubsidized carriers are providing service. That underlying principle should be applied here as well. With Alaska’s “sublime scale,” we should instead be directing support to areas that are unserved, not subsidizing competition in areas that already receive mobile service. And just what is the cost to the American consumer of continuing to support overlap in these areas? About $35 million a year!

The companies benefiting from federal tax subsidies include: ASTAC, Copper Valley Wireless, Cordova Wireless, GCI, OTZ Wireless, which covers Northwest Alaska, TelAlaska Cellular, covering Interior and Northwest Alaska, and Windy City Cellular, covering Adak.

Clyburn

Clyburn

Pai called many of the spending priorities a waste of money that will still leave 21,000 Alaskans without 4G LTE broadband and another 46,000 without 25Mbps fixed broadband:

All together these wasted payments total $365 million, or about one quarter of the total Alaska Plan pot. That’s $365 million that could be used to link off-road communities to urban Alaska as requested by the Alaska Federation of Natives, the Bering Straits Native Corporation, the Chugachmiut rural healthcare organization, and many others. That $365 million is more than eight times the $44 million grant from the Broadband Initiatives Program that launched the TERRA Southwest middle-mile network that connected 65 off-road communities in 2011.

With the federal government now pouring federal tax dollars into Alaskan broadband, the state government has been using that as an opportunity to slash state investments in internet access.

A bill from Rep. Neal Foster (D-Nome) to upgrade all rural school districts to 10Mbps broadband for $6.2 million died in committee without any hearings, according to the Alaska Commons. State Rep. Lynn Gattis (R-Wasilla) proposed killing a $5 million broadband grant to schools, and the House Education subcommittee also recommended eliminating the Online with Libraries (OWL) program. Both programs ultimately survived, but not before the state legislature significantly cut the budgets of both programs.

Guttenberg

Guttenberg

State Rep. David Guttenberg (D-Fairbanks) hopes the results from last week’s election in Alaska will allow him to position stronger broadband-related legislation in the state legislature.

Guttenberg wants to reinstate a long-cut Broadband Task Force and Working Group while also creating a public Broadband Development Corporation that would build and own middle mile broadband infrastructure and sell it to telecommunications companies that have refused to build those types of networks on their own.

A lot of members of the ATA are lining up in opposition, the newspaper notes, because they won’t directly own the infrastructure. Guttenberg’s view is that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of deep-pocketed telecom companies.

“If you want to build a strong state, if you want to build a strong community, we need to start putting those pieces together,” Guttenberg said of broadband infrastructure last year. “If you give a kid a laptop or a pad in a school district, it’s pointless if he can’t get online.”

Google Fiber’s CEO Out of a Job; Fiber Expansion on Hold Indefinitely in Many Cities

Down the rabbit hole

Down the rabbit hole

Google has quietly announced an indefinite suspension of further fiber expansion as it prepares to downsize fiber division employees and re-evaluate its fiber business model.

In a blog post tonight from Craig Barratt, senior vice president of Alphabet and CEO of Google’s Access division, it becomes clear Google is rethinking its entire fiber strategy and is likely moving towards fixed wireless technology going forward:

Now, just as any competitive business must, we have to continue not only to grow, but also stay ahead of the curve — pushing the boundaries of technology, business, and policy — to remain a leader in delivering superfast Internet. We have refined our plan going forward to achieve these objectives. It entails us making changes to focus our business and product strategy. Importantly, the plan enhances our focus on new technology and deployment methods to make superfast Internet more abundant than it is today.

Barratt outlines the immediate implications of Google’s dramatic shift:

  • In the cities where we’ve launched or are under construction, our work will continue;
  • For most of our “potential Fiber cities” — those where we’ve been in exploratory discussions — we’re going to pause our operations and offices while we refine our approaches. In this handful of cities that are still in an exploratory stage, and in certain related areas of our supporting operations, we’ll be reducing our employee base.
Barratt

Barratt

Barratt himself is jumping ship (or was pushed). He announced in his blog entry he is “stepping away” from his CEO role, but will remain as an “adviser.”

Observing Google’s recent fiber efforts and acquisitions, it seems clear Google no longer thinks fiber-to-the-home service is an economically viable solution in light of competitors like AT&T rolling out increasing amounts of fiber and the cable industry is on the cusp of launching DOCSIS 3.1, which will dramatically boost internet speeds without a substantial capital investment.

Google’s investors have been lukewarm about the company’s economic commitments relating to its fiber broadband networks. Often built from the ground up, Google’s fiber construction complexities also include trying to navigate costly roadblocks established by their competitors (notably Comcast and AT&T), dealing with bureaucracies and red tape even in states where near-total-deregulation was supposed to make competition easy. Google Fiber has also not proved to be a runaway economic success, and now faces more challenges in light of upgrades from their competitors. Cable companies have slashed prices for customers threatening to cancel and have added free services or upgrades to persuade customers to stay, and Google’s proposition of selling consumers $70 gigabit access has proved tougher than expected.

It is highly likely the future of Google’s Access business will be deploying wireless broadband solutions powered by Webpass, a company Google acquired earlier this year. Webpass uses a high-speed point to point wireless transmission system the company claims can deliver gigabit broadband access to customers in multi-dwelling buildings and other urban areas. Webpass sells access for $60 a month (discounted to $550/yr if paid in advance) for 100Mbps-1,000Mbps speed depending on network density and capacity in the customer’s building. So far, Webpass has not been able to guarantee speed levels, and some customers report significant variability depending on their location and network demand.

Webpass’ wireless infrastructure costs a fraction of what Google has coped with building fiber to the home networks, and the installation of point-to-point wireless antennas on participating buildings has been less of a regulatory nightmare than digging up streets and yards to lay optical fiber.

webpassBut despite Webpass’ claim its performance is comparable to fiber, its inability to guarantee customers a certain speed level and its tremendous performance variability from 100 to 1,000Mbps exposes one of the weaknesses of fixed wireless networks. At a time when capacity is king, only fiber optic networks have shown a consistent ability to deliver synchronous broadband speeds that do not suffer the variability of shared networks, poor antenna placement/signal levels, or harmful interference.

There is room for wireless technology to grow and develop, as evidenced by the wireless industry’s excitement surrounding future 5G networks and their ability to offer a home broadband replacement. The emergence of 5G competition is almost certainly also a factor in Google’s decision. But even AT&T and Verizon acknowledge a robust 5G network will require a robust fiber backhaul network to support both speed and user demand. The more users sharing a network, the slower the speed for all users. No doubt Webpass has made the same assumption that cable operators did in the early days of DOCSIS 1 — current internet applications won’t tax a network enough to create a traffic logjam that would be noticed by most customers. The phone companies also learned a similar lesson trying to serve too many DSL customers from inadequate middle mile networks or traffic concentration points. (Some phone companies are still learning.)

Whether it was yesterday’s peer-to-peer file sharing or today’s online video, capacity matters. That is why fiber broadband remains the gold standard of broadband technology. Fiber is infinitely upgradable, reliable, and robust. Wireless is not, at least not yet. But technology arguments rarely matter at publicly-traded corporations that answer to Wall Street and investors, and it appears Google’s backers have had enough of Google Fiber.

Stop the Cap!’s View

tollAt Stop the Cap!, we believe these developments further the argument broadband is an essential utility best administered for the public good and not solely as a profit-motivated venture. The path to fiber to the home service in rural, suburban, and urban communities has and will continue to come from a mix of private and public utilities, just as local public and private gas and electric companies have served this country for the last century. Where there is a business model for fiber to the home service that investors support, there is a for-profit fiber provider. Where there isn’t, now there is often no service at all. So far, the FCC in conjunction with Congress has seen fit to solve broadband availability problems by bribing private providers into offering service (usually low-speed DSL that does not even meet the FCC’s definition of broadband) with cash subsidies, tax write-offs, or occasional tax abatement schemes. Imagine if we followed that model with the nation’s public roads and highways. We would today be paying tolls or a subscription to travel down roads built and owned by a private company often financed by tax dollars.

Not every product or service needs to earn Wall Street-sized profits. Nobody needs to get rich selling water, gas, and electricity… or broadband. Public broadband networks can and should be established wherever they are needed, and they should be priced to recover their costs as well as expenses that come from support, billing, and ongoing upgrades. Naysayers like to claim municipal broadband is socialism run wild or an instant economic failure, yet the same model has provided Americans with reliable and affordable gas, electricity, and clean water for over 100 years.

Maine was made for municipal broadband.

Maine was made for municipal broadband.

In New York, publicly owned/municipal utilities often charge a fraction of the price charged by investor-owned utilities. In Rochester, where Stop the Cap! is headquartered, one need only ask a utility customer if they would prefer to pay the prices charged by for-profit Rochester Gas & Electric or live in a suburb where a municipal provider like Fairport Electric or Spencerport Electric offers service. RG&E has charged customers well over 10¢ a kilowatt-hour when demand peaks (along with a minimum connection charge of over $21/mo and a “bill issuance charge” of 72¢/mo). Spencerport Electric charges 2.9¢ a kilowatt-hour and a connection charge of $2.66 a month, and they issue their bills for free. There is a reason real estate listings entice potential buyers by promoting the availability of municipal utility service. The same has proven true with fiber-to-the-home broadband service.

The economic arguments predicting doom and gloom are far more wrong than right. Municipal utilities are often best positioned to offer broadband because they already have experience providing reliable service and billing and answer to the needs of their local communities. Incompetence is not an option when providing reliable clean water or electricity to millions of homes and customers have rated their public utilities far superior to private phone or cable companies.

Google’s wireless future may prove a success, but probably only in densely populated urban areas where a point-to-point wireless network can run efficiently and profitably. It offers no solution to suburban, exurban, or rural Americans still waiting for passable internet access. Clearly, Google is not the “free market” solution to America’s pervasive rural broadband problem. It’s time to redouble our efforts for public broadband solutions that don’t need a seal of approval from J.P. Morgan or Goldman Sachs.

Search This Site:

Contributions:

Recent Comments:

  • Paul Houle: My take is that a "wireless recession" will soon be at hand. There are a number of stories talked about on this site that, I think, are connected w...
  • Keanyn Gray: frontier every month for the last 8 month for incorrect bills amounts, each time they tell me they will correct credit my bills to the agreed amount ...
  • JayS: Channels, before they were removed from Tv and used to start the cellular telephone networks, went up to 83. Due to technology limitations, UHF (...
  • Josh: As near as I can tell we've had broadcast TV spectrum stolen from us TWICE. (Once during the NTSC to ATSC transition, but apparently once before that...
  • Phillip Dampier: The retention staff in Syracuse actually stopped handling those types of calls in early 2016 and referred everyone to the national customer retention ...
  • T Nelson: I am a Twc customer in the Rochester, NY area. In November my special promotion program ran out. In the past I had dealt with a retention specialist...
  • Milan Gohil: Thank you for publicizing my ordeal, Phillip! I hope this report opens the eyes of consumers and Spectrum executives!...
  • LG: They should be taken into Federal receivership. They only care about cell phones, so we need to take that away from them. Make it a requirement to m...
  • Joe V: Six months ago I moved from San Francisco to southeastern Massachusetts 30 miles south from Boston. It is pathetic that on one side of my town they ...
  • Matt K: Does that 23% on fiber count only true FTTH or are they also counting crap like AT&T's Uverse?...
  • Ralph: Hmmm... this sounds like prime territory and infrastructure for Frontier to purchase. They've already got years worth of excuses and promises they co...
  • Josh: "Brilliant" move guys. I'm suuuuure THIS cable company with a record of screwing over their employees will be the good company that's out for your in...

Your Account: