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West Virginia Lawmakers Battle Slow Broadband; Propose to Fine ISPs for False Speed Claims

frontier speedFrontier Communications is the obvious target of an effort by members of West Virginia’s House of Delegates to embarrass the company into providing at least 10Mbps broadband service or face steep penalties if it does not stop advertising slow speed DSL as “High-Speed Internet.”

State lawmakers continue to be flooded with complaints about the poor performance of Frontier Communications’ DSL service, which customers claim delivers slow speeds, unreliable service, or no service at all.

Although Frontier frequently advertises broadband speeds of 10Mbps or faster, customers often do not receive the advertised speeds, and the service can be so slow it will not work reliably with online video services.

West Virginia’s broadband problems remain so pervasive, the state legislature this year will entertain several broadband improvement measures, including a proposal to spend $72 million to build a publicly owned middle mile fiber optic network. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Chris Walters (R-Putnam) claims the new fiber network would boost Internet speeds, improve service, and force down broadband pricing.

With cable broadband available only in major communities, much of West Virginia is dependent on DSL service from Frontier Communications, the telephone company serving most of the state. That is a unique situation for Frontier, which typically serves smaller and medium-sized cities in-between other communities serviced by larger providers like Verizon, AT&T, and Qwest/CenturyLink. Frontier’s problems meeting customer expectations have been well heard in Charleston, the state capitol, if only because most members of the state legislature have Frontier customers in their districts.

Legislators have found they have little recourse over a business that operates largely without regulation or government oversight, as Delegate John Shott (R-Mercer) told the Charleston Gazette. Shott heads the House Judiciary Committee and gets plenty of complaints from his constituents.

“[Customers] feel they never get the speed the Internet providers represent,” said Shott. “There doesn’t seem to be any recourse or regulatory body that has any ability to cause that to change.”

In the absence of regulation or direct oversight, a class action lawsuit on behalf of Frontier DSL customers in the state is still working its way through court. In December 2015, a separate action by West Virginia Attorney General Pat Morrisey resulted in a settlement agreement with Frontier. The company agreed to guarantee at least 6Mbps speeds for around 28,000 customers, or give them a substantial monthly discount off their broadband bill.

frontier wvShott’s bill, HB 2551, targets “unfair or deceptive acts or practices” of Internet Service Providers that advertise fast speeds but never deliver them. The bill would expose a violating ISP to damages up to $3,000 per customer, a $5,000 state fine, and allow customers to walk away from any outstanding balance or contract:

It is an unfair or deceptive act or practice and a violation of this article for any seller or Internet service provider to advertise or offer to provide “high speed Internet service” that is not at least ten megabytes per second.

If a seller or Internet service provider violates […] this section, the consumer has a cause of action to recover actual damages and, in addition, a right to recover from the violator a penalty in an amount, to be determined by the court, of not less than $100 nor more than $3,000. No action brought pursuant to this subsection may be brought more than two years after the date upon which the violation occurred or the due date of the last scheduled payment of the agreement, whichever is later.

If a seller or Internet service provider violates […] this section, any sale or contract for service is void and the consumer is not obligated to pay either the amount due, the amount paid or any late payment charge. If the consumer has paid any part of a bill or invoice, or of a late payment fee, he or she has a right to recover the payments from the violator or from any [collection agency] who undertakes direct collection of payments or enforcement of rights arising from the alleged debt.

The Attorney General of this state shall investigate all complaints alleging violations […] and has a right to recover from the violator a penalty in an amount, to be determined by the court, of not less than $500 nor more than $5,000 per violation, with each advertisement or contract to sell or provide “high speed Internet” being a separate violation. The Attorney General also has the power to seek injunctive relief.

As of today, the bill counts Delegates J. Nelson, Border, Kessinger, Arvon, Moffatt, A. Evans, Wagner, Cadle, and D. Evans as sponsors.

Delegate Shott

Delegate Shott

“The list of sponsors of this bill [HB 2551] are from a broad geographic area,” Shott told the newspaper. “They’ve identified this as a problem in their areas.”

Some legislators believe West Virginia should enforce the FCC’s latest minimum definition of broadband – 25Mbps, but the Gazette reports that kind of robust speed definition could be difficult for a DSL provider to achieve without significant additional investment. Some worry companies like Frontier could have difficulty justifying further rural broadband expansion in a state traditionally challenged by its number of rural areas and difficult terrain.

Despite those difficulties, incumbent providers like Frontier, Suddenlink, and Comcast have not appreciated efforts to help expand public broadband networks in the state, including the proposal outlined in Sen. Chris Walters’ SB 315, which would authorize about $72 million to build a public middle mile fiber network that would be offered to ISPs at wholesale rates.

Frontier strongly objects to the project because it would use public dollars to compete with private businesses like Frontier. The phone company’s opposition raised eyebrows among some in Charleston, who note Frontier had no objections to accepting $42 million in state dollars in 2010 to construct and install a fiber network it now operates for hundreds of public facilities across the state and $283 million in federal dollars to expand rural broadband. The 2010 fiber project was rife with accusations of waste, fraud, and abuse. Critics allege Frontier overcharged the state, installing service for $57,800 per mile despite other providers routinely charging about $30,000 a mile in West Virginia.

The West Virginia Cable Television Association, representing cable operators in the state, called the project a money-waster, noting it would not result in a single new hookup for broadband service. Middle mile networks do not reach individual homes and businesses and the bill does not authorize the state to get into the ISP business.

Sen. Walters

Sen. Walters

Much of the support for the public network comes from smaller ISPs like Citynet, which predominately serves commercial customers, and equipment vendors like Alpha Technologies. Walters believes if West Virginia builds the network, broadband providers will come to use it. The state’s dominant cable and phone companies vehemently disagree. The cable association has launched an all-out PR war, hoping to attract opposition from conservative lawmakers with claims the project will mandate state and local governments to buy Internet connectivity exclusively from the state-owned network and would trample on corporate rights by using eminent domain to seize parts of the cable industry’s fiber networks to complete the state network.

Walters brushed away the accusations, telling the Gazette there is no mandate that state agencies use the network and there are no plans for the government to take any fiber away from a private company.

Cable operators prefer an alternative measure also introduced in the West Virginia Senate. SB 16 would grant tax credits of up to $500 per address for any phone or cable company that agrees to wire a previously unserved rural address. The bill would limit total tax credits to $1 million.

The difference between the two measures? Walters’ bill would use public money to build a public broadband network owned by the public and answerable to the state. The cable industry-backed proposal would use public money in the form of tax offsets to wire homes and businesses to broadband owned by private businesses answerable to shareholders.

Frontier FiberHouse Debuts in Connecticut… to Exactly Two Homes in One Development

fiber comingFrontier Communications has topped AT&T’s penchant for grandiose Fiber to the Press Release announcements with a new gigabit fiber to the home service now being promoted in Connecticut, despite being available to only two homes in a single upscale subdivision in North Haven.

Frontier FiberHouse is Frontier’s answer to Verizon FiOS, says Joseph Ferraiolo, Frontier’s regional general manager in New Haven County. Ferraiolo told the New Haven Register Frontier has introduced the service to a pair of homes in Lexington Gardens, a new single-family subdivision.

Frontier’s expansion of the service in 2016 does not appear to be exactly aggressive, with plans to only wire up to 200 newly built homes in the immediate area.

Frontier’s fiber network relies on a Gigabit Passive Optical Network (GPON) and is intended to replace copper telephone wiring.

Ferraiolo admits Frontier is currently favoring new housing developments where fiber can be dropped in a conduit/pre-existing trench during construction without the cost of tearing up yards and streets. But he also claims Frontier will make a commitment to any municipality that gets the fiber service that it will be available to every part of the community, not just those likely to be most profitable. If Frontier keeps its promise, it will be the first time the phone company has provided customers with universal access to uniformly high-speed broadband. Even its acquired FiOS networks in Indiana and the Pacific Northwest are not guaranteed to be available to every resident.

frontier frank“We think this is a good option for us: new builds, small complexes,” Ferraiolo said. “The developer is very happy with it and we’re very happy with it.”

Customers like William Morico will believe it when they see it.

“We have been trying to get ‘high-speed’ Internet in our neighborhood for years, well before the Frontier disaster,” Morico writes. “All we want is the 12-18Mbps service that is advertised and available elsewhere in New Haven. [We] cannot get any answers from Frontier. Even their customer service and tech staff are frustrated with this company. It’s time for the state gig project.”

The company claims it is “exploring” other rollouts of Frontier FiberHouse in Stamford and New Haven, but there are no specifics.

Some observers question the timing of Frontier’s fiber announcement, noting state and local officials are still considering a private-public partnership that could lead to a public statewide gigabit fiber network in Connecticut. News that a private company is willing to shoulder the entire expense of a fiber project could be used in legislative efforts to derail Connecticut’s CT Gig Project. But Frontier has offered no guarantees whether or if it intends to blanket its service area across the state with fiber or limit FiberHouse to a de-facto demonstration project in a handful of homes in new housing developments.

Frustration-Relief: Wilson, N.C. Expanding Greenlight Community Broadband to Nearby Pinetops

gigabit_banner_retinaAfter years of enduring substandard broadband and a law virtually banning community broadband in the state, the 1,300 residents of Pinetops, N.C. are celebrating the forthcoming arrival of public gigabit-capable fiber to the home service from the nearby city of Wilson.

Broadband provider Greenlight will light up its fiber network in the community by April 2016, according to Community Broadband Networks. It isn’t soon enough for frustrated residents and town officials.

“Current providers haven’t made significant upgrades to our broadband service through the years,” said Pinetops interim city town manager Brenda Harrell. “They haven’t found us worth the investment. Through this partnership with Greenlight and our neighbors in Wilson, we are able to meet a critical need for our residents.”

The service comes after five years of negotiations, mostly stalled by the North Carolina Legislature’s passage of HB129, a bill co-authored by Time Warner Cable and celebrated by lawmakers like Rep. Marilyn Avila. Rural North Carolina didn’t get better broadband from HB129, but Avila got a $290 dinner and honored as a guest speaker before grateful cable executives.

greenlight logoIn February 2015, FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler announced HB129 was overruled by the federal regulator as anti-competitive, finally opening the door for Pinetops to secure a better broadband future for itself.

In its order, the FCC cited many provisions in North Carolina’s law that violate the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Six of those provisions are mysteriously near-identical to language ghost-written by telecom companies in a “model broadband bill” offered to state legislators as a template by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), according to an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity.

Jim Baller, the attorney representing Chattanooga, Tenn., and Wilson, N.C., in their challenge to overturn those two state’s anti-community broadband laws, told the Center the FCC’s citing of those six provisions in its decision leaves much of ALEC’s model law untenable and subject to challenge.

pinetopsnc“Because the North Carolina law uses similar language to that found in the ALEC model legislation, it would seem to follow that any other state that has relied heavily on the ALEC model has also effectively banned municipal broadband investments,” Baller wrote in an email to the group.

ALEC’s “model law” has kept gigabit fiber broadband far away from the residents of Pinetops, challenged by an economic transformation that has put at least a century of tobacco farming and textiles far behind for a small business, high-tech manufacturing, and digitally powered economic future. Just one example is Cary-based ABB, which maintains manufacturing facilities in Pinetops that produce sensors, current transformers, cutouts and other distribution equipment that power smart grid electric utility networks. Bringing more high-tech business to town is a priority for town officials, but having the right infrastructure is crucial.

pinetopsGregory Bethea, Pinetops’ former town manager, told the New York Times in 2014, “if you want to have economic development in a town like this, you’ve got to have fiber.”

But Pinetops’ small size almost guaranteed it would never get fiber from North Carolina’s powerful telecom companies, which include AT&T, CenturyLink, and Time Warner Cable. Many rural communities around the country facing anti-municipal broadband laws like HB129 complain corporate influence threatens the economic viability of small communities over a service incumbents have no intention of offering in small towns, and apparently don’t want anyone else to offer either.

The agreement with Pinetops is also good news for Greenlight, which finally gets to expand outside of its existing service area that reaches about 20,000 residents. Growing Greenlight can bring economic benefits including greater economy of scale and better rates for programming. It will also allow communities in the same economic situation as Wilson, 40 miles east of Raleigh, the opportunity to stay competitive with improving broadband networks in cities like Charlotte and the Piedmont Triad cities of Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and High Point.

GOP Candidate Marco Rubio Wants to Kill Public Municipal Broadband

Marco Rubio swallows the talking points of AT&T while also spending their money.

Marco Rubio drinks AT&T’s Kool Aid while also spending their money.

Eight Republican senators, including presidential candidate Marco Rubio, are so upset about communities building their own broadband networks, they’ve signed a letter demanding the Federal Communications Commission stop making life easier for the would-be competitors.

Rubio joined Sens. Deb Fischer, Ron Johnson, John Cornyn, Pat Roberts, John Barrasso, Michael Enzi, and Tim Scott in protesting the Commission’s interference in “overriding [Tennessee and North Carolina’s] sovereign authority to regulate their own municipalities.”

The senators are concerned about an FCC decision to override state laws in the two states that make it nearly impossible to launch a public broadband network. The laws were widely criticized as being written and lobbied for by incumbent telecom operators that wanted to avoid competition.

The eight adopted the phrase “government-owned networks,” popular with telecom-funded critics of community broadband, to describe local broadband networks owned and operated in the public interest, mostly offering service in areas bypassed or underserved by incumbent phone and cable companies.

The letter complains “agency officials have begun engaging in outreach to persuade communities to deploy municipal broadband networks.”

The senators were particularly upset about remarks from one agency official who stated, “Where you’ve got a community infrastructure or a rural electric company, a rural electric co-op, states shouldn’t be telling local communities what they can and cannot do.”

The eight believe private broadband providers should be given due deference over other competitors but also demanded the FCC stop “choosing winners and losers in the competitive broadband marketplace.”

EPB's biggest problem is that they are not AT&T.

EPB’s biggest problem is that they are not AT&T. The fiber to the home municipal utility outperforms both Comcast and AT&T and charges dramatically lower pricing for high speed service.

“Typical hypocrisy from those in the back pocket of AT&T,” responds Tim Weller, an advocate for expanding EPB’s municipal fiber network to other communities adjacent to Chattanooga, Tenn. “By telling the FCC to stop allowing cheaper, more reliable, and faster service from municipal utilities like EPB, they have no issue picking AT&T and Comcast as winners. Rubio couldn’t be closer to AT&T if he located his campaign headquarters in their corporate office in Dallas.”

Few candidates have closer ties to corporate telecom interests than Marco Rubio. AT&T lobbyist Scott Weaver, who works as the public policy co-chair of high-powered DC law firm Wiley Rein, is a close Rubio associate. Weaver, also assisting in litigation against the FCC to curb municipal broadband, is one of three lobbyist money-bundlers working on behalf of the Rubio campaign. He has raised at least $33,000 so far for the Florida senator.

Rubio has lived off AT&T’s generosity since his days in the Florida legislature, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, including $22,000 in personal expenses, on a state Republican Party American Express card that was paid each month with funds donated by AT&T and other special interests.

The International Business Times reported Rubio’s long history courting companies like AT&T to give heavily to murky Republican-controlled fundraising groups that bypassed Florida’s ban on gifts from lobbyists.

In 2003, as a member of the Florida state House, Rubio created a special fundraising committee, called Floridians for Conservative Leadership, that could accept unlimited contributions. In the span of a year, the committee raised $228,000, with large donations from lobbyists, telecom giant AT&T, health plan manager WellCare and the state’s sugar conglomerates, Florida Crystals and U.S. Sugar. Not all of the contributors were disclosed, and some are listed simply as gold or silver memberships.

By mid-2004, the group had spent $193,000. More than a third of the committee’s money was spent on meals and travel. Some of those expenditures were made as reimbursements to Rubio and his wife, Jeanette. Other payments appear to be multiple items lumped together as single expenditures — an uncommon arrangement — like a $3,476 expense listed under “Citibank Mastercard” that includes hotel, airfare, meals and gas. Another $71,000 was spent on staff and consultants.

While Rubio was in the legislature in the February 2004, he created a federal 527 organization with a similar name, called Floridians for Conservative Leadership in Government. Rubio was listed as the group’s president, with his wife as vice president. The committee raised $386,000 by the end of 2004, with donations from Hewlett-Packard, Dosal Tobacco Corporation and private prison company GEO Group, according to filings with the Internal Revenue Service.

The federal group spent $316,000 by the end of 2005. The bulk of its spending was on consulting, but the committee also paid Rubio’s relatives roughly $14,000 for items wrongly described as “courier fees,” the Tampa Bay Times reported.

As Marco’s money controversies emerged, some members of his staff decided to move to the private sector, including Rubio’s former chief of staff, Cesar Conda, who now works as a professional lobbyist for AT&T. As a U.S. senator, Rubio continues to cash AT&T’s campaign contribution checks.

“This letter is nothing more than naked corporate protectionism from senators that get donations from the same telecom companies that are threatened by a challenge to their monopolies,” Weller added.

The senators also demanded Wheeler answer questions about how much money the FCC has given to municipal providers, whether the presence of municipal providers would lead to cuts in funding for private phone companies from the Universal Service Fund/Connect America Fund, and what exactly the FCC plans to advocate or regulate with respect to public broadband in 2016.

Arizona Voters Put Cable Lobbyist in Charge of Telecom Oversight Agency; Scandal Ensues

Susan Bitter Smith

Susan Bitter Smith

To say Susan Bitter Smith is beholden to Arizona’s cable industry would be an understatement.

In addition to purportedly representing the citizens of Arizona on regulated utility matters, Bitter Smith is one of the state’s most powerful cable industry lobbyists, earning a salary that consumes 40 percent of the annual budget of the Southwest Cable Communications Association, which represents most cable operators in Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada.

Despite clear ties to the telecommunications industry Bitter Smith has no intention of ending, in 2012 she ran for the chair of the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) — the state body that oversees and regulates phone, cable, and power utilities. Unlike many other states that appoint commissioners, Arizona voters elect them to office. Giving voters a direct election is written into the state constitution, and was designed to limit potential corporate influence and favoritism. Unfortunately for voters, the 2012 election cycle preoccupied by a presidential race and a rare open Senate seat left the mainstream media little time or interest exploring the backgrounds of candidates for the telecom regulator.

Bitter Smith never exactly hid her business relationship with Arizona’s largest cable companies, notably Cox Communications, the cable operator that dominates Phoenix. But she routinely downplayed the obvious conflict of interest, claiming the ACC dealt with regulated utilities, and cable companies were mostly deregulated. The Arizona Republic offered few insights into Bitter Smith’s background, failing to disclose her lobbying connections in their voter recommendations. Instead, the newspaper wrote a single sentence about Bitter Smith’s campaign in its editorial endorsements for the 2012 election: “Bitter Smith enjoys a great reputation as a strong-willed partisan, which seems a difficult fit for the Corporation Commission, at least as compared with the competition.”

bitter smith campaignPartisanship was exactly what a lot of voters apparently wanted, however, because the vote swung decidedly Republican in large parts of Arizona in the 2012 election. The turnout in Maricopa County, the largest in Arizona, was strongly anti-Obama and voters seemed content voting the party line down the ballot. Incumbents like Democrat Paul Newman did not exactly win an endorsement from the Republic either. The newspaper called him a “fierce and provocative partisan.”

“It is difficult to fathom work getting done at the commission with a microphone anywhere within Newman’s reach,” the newspaper added. The other Democratic incumbent, Susan Kennedy, was dismissed as an on-the-job trainee by the newspaper.

Broadband Issues Overshadowed by Arizona’s Solar Energy Debate

For most in Arizona, the 2012 election at the ACC was much more about energy issues than high cable bills and dreadful broadband. That year, investment in solar energy was the hot topic and it made the election of business-friendly candidates a high priority for the existing power-generating utilities and their friends at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Both could claim a major victory if a state ready-made for solar renewable energy turned its back for the sake of incumbent fossil fuel power generators.

alec-logo-smBitter Smith was never a member of ALEC, not having been a state legislator, but many of her fellow Republicans serving on the ACC were, and some were not shy claiming the Obama Administration’s pro-solar energy policies were “reckless and dangerous.” ALEC and utility companies oppose requirements that mandate the purchase of excess power generated from solar and wind customers at market rates and also want to introduce surcharges for customers relying on solar energy. Their fear: if a large percentage of sun-rich Arizonans installed solar panels, revenue for the investor-owned utilities could plummet.

Against that backdrop, Bitter Smith’s close relationship with Cox Cable went unnoticed while the media focused their attention on incumbent Republican commissioner Bob Stump – dubbed by some “Trash Burner Bob” for successfully pushing approval of a permit for a 13 megawatt trash burning plant in West Phoenix. Despite a reputation for pollution, Stump sold trash burning as a better renewable energy source for Arizona than solar energy. Waste hauling companies were delighted. The campaign met with less opposition than some expected, in part because anonymous voting guides turned up conflating solar panels as fire hazards that were difficult to extinguish, exposed users to dangerous chemicals, and constituted a hazard to firefighters whose ‘neurons may be blocked‘ when they approached solar panel fires, allegedly caused by electricity inside the panel.

Trash Burning Bob Stump

“Trash Burner Bob” Stump

Newcomer Robert Burns also won his election to the ACC that same year. His time at the Commission has also been rocky. This year, he faces an ethics complaint for remaining a registered lobbyist with the Arizona Telecommunications and Information Council, a group funded by the state’s largest telecom companies. After the complaint was filed, Burns claimed it was all a mistake. He later asked the group’s attorney to send a letter to the Arizona Secretary of State’s office requesting his lobbying connection be removed.

Some critics of the Commission have tolerated Burns’ alleged ethical lapse because he has demonstrated some independence from the energy companies he helps oversee.

Burns has argued the Arizona Public Service Company (APS) – a large investor-owned utility – must disclose how much it spent in campaign contributions and lobbying efforts to get its preferred candidates elected to the Corporation Commission. His demand for disclosure comes at the same time his fellow commissioner Stump is being investigated for exchanging text messages with APS officials during the 2014 election. Critics suggest he may have been illegally coordinating the campaigns of two of his closest allies — Tommy Forese and Doug Little. Both won seats on the ACC that year and have maintained a strong alliance with Stump, much to the chagrin of good government bloggers, who frequently refer to all three collectively as “Tommy Little Stump.”

Steve Muratore, editor of the Arizona Eagletarian, calls all three “shameless,” as they tirelessly fight to stop any investigation that could force open APS’ books to reveal what money, if any, was spent to help get both into office.

Utility giant APS will approach the Arizona Corporation Commission to win a 400% rate hike on special fees for solar panel users.

Utility giant APS will approach the Arizona Corporation Commission to win a 400% rate hike on special fees for solar panel users.

Forese claims the regulator has no business examining APS’ books.

“Commissioners attempting to influence elections in their official capacity through this relationship [as a result of their constitutional authority] would exceed the bounds of their constitutional mandate over public service corporations,” Forese argues.

While the political soap operas play out, in 2013, APA delivered its first Commission-approved blow against solar power, winning permission to apply a surcharge averaging $5 a month for using solar panels to generate electricity. APC successfully argued solar customers cheat other utility ratepayers by not contributing enough to the utility’s fixed costs.

This year, APC is seeking a 400%+ rate increase, proposing a surcharge averaging $21 a month for using solar panels. Customers served by the Salt River Project in Tempe faced even more onerous charges from that utility — a $50 a month fee for using solar panels. The new fees have effectively stopped residential solar power expansion in that utility’s territory, with the approval of ACC commissioners.

Flying Under the Radar

In the context of these other controversies, Bitter Smith’s own apparent conflicts of interest have largely flown under the radar from 2012 until earlier this year. Federal cable deregulation laws limit the Arizona regulator’s oversight of cable companies like Cox, Cable One, and Comcast. That has given Bitter Smith a defense for serving as both a lobbyist and a regulator. Corporation-Commission-signShe claims she only lobbies for the cable television and broadband services sold by cable companies like Cox Communications and abstains from consideration of cases such as those involving Cox’s digital phone service, which is still subject to some regulatory scrutiny. Bitter Smith also claims it is easy to tell where the ethical line falls because companies like Cox run different aspects of its business under a variety of affiliated subsidiaries.

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich was not impressed with that explanation and last week filed a Petition for Special Action to remove Bitter Smith from office for violating the state’s conflict of interest statute.

“Arizonans deserve fair and impartial regulators,” said Brnovich. “We filed this case to protect the integrity of the Commission and to restore the faith of Arizona voters in the electoral process. Arizona law clearly prohibits a Commissioner from receiving substantial compensation from companies regulated by the Commission.”

On Sept. 2, the Attorney General’s Office (AGO) launched an investigation into Bitter Smith after receiving a formal complaint against her. The AGO investigation found Bitter Smith receives over $150,000 per year for her trade association work, on top of her $79,500 salary as a Commissioner.  Arizona State Statute 40-101 prohibits Commissioners from being employed by or holding an official relationship to companies regulated by the Commission. The law also prohibits Commissioners from having a financial interest in regulated companies. Section 40-101 promotes ethics in government and prevents conflicts of interest.

“This isn’t one of these instances where this was maybe somebody skating too close to a line, or maybe somebody that had gone into a grey area. I think the law is very clear on this case,” Brnovich said.

KJZZ in Phoenix began raising questions about Bitter Smith’s apparent conflicts of interest last summer and carried this special report on Aug. 24, 2015. (7:18)

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

Bitter Smith’s Shadowy and Scrubbed “PR Firm”

More troubling for Bitter Smith’s case is the “public affairs firm” Technical Solutions, jointly run by Bitter Smith and her husband. A careful scrubbing of the firm’s website “disappeared” the detailed description of the firm’s lobbying services, which counted Bitter Smith’s presence on the Commission a major asset for would-be telecom company clients. Google’s cache resolved that dilemma. Among those taking advantage of Technical Solutions’ services are AT&T, the former wireless company Alltel, and most of the state’s largest cable operators. Bitter Smith also claimed expertise setting up astroturf “grassroots” campaigns advocating her clients’ agendas and interests, but hiding any corporate connection. She also promoted her ability to plant stories with the media for her paying clients.

This was scrubbed off the website

Scrubbed from the website, but retained by Google’s cache.

Reporters at KJZZ, a public radio station in Phoenix, have spent months following the fine line Bitter Smith has laid as a defense against conflict of interest charges.

Oopsy

Bitter Smith depends on cable and phone companies setting up different entities in name only to manage regulated and unregulated services. That means a cable company could approach the Commission under several different names, one for its phone, one for its television, and one for its broadband business. That distinction allows Bitter Smith to claim she is careful about conflicts of interest:

Bitter Smith said that, because the telecom entities are so separate, it’s OK to vote on telecom matters related to Cox, Suddenlink and other members at the commission. But she still tries not to.

“We thought about that, ‘Well, maybe just from the appearance sake it wouldn’t hurt,’” she said.

Since Bitter Smith took office in 2013, records show the commission has voted at least seven times on matters involving the telephone side of the cable association’s members.

She recused herself four of those times, such as last year when a tariff increase was approved for Cox.

But she didn’t recuse herself on three matters, which she said was accidental, including another tariff increase for Cox approved in 2013.

“Probably should have, just didn’t catch it,” she said.“It was on the consent agenda, I zoomed through.”

She also didn’t recuse herself in May from voting to rescind a $225,000-bond requirement for Mercury Voice & Data, an entity identified in public documents as doing business in Arizona as Suddenlink Communications. She said she missed that one accidentally as well.

“Suddenlink is my member, Mercury Voice & Data is not an entity that I’m familiar with,” Bitter Smith said. “If I had understood, I probably would have, you know, just for optics sake. There’s no legal reason I would need to do that but, had I understood that there was another entity that they now form with a new name, separate entity with a new name, I probably would have.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Corporation Commissioner Is Paid Lobbyist For Same Corporations She Regulates 12-3-15.mp4

Real News AZ talked with attorney Thomas Ryan about the ethics of serving as a Corporation Commissioner while also employed as a paid lobbyist working for the interests of the companies regulated by that Commission. (7:08)

Ryan

Ryan

Bitter Smith’s ‘oopsies‘ infuriate government watchdog and Arizona attorney Thomas Ryan, who has tangled with Arizona’s high-powered politicians before… and won.

“This will not go quietly in the night and whoever she retains will no doubt fight it tooth and nail,” Ryan said of Bitter Smith. “But the state of Arizona deserves a Corporation Commission that is not bought and paid for by the very people it’s supposed to regulate, the very industries it’s supposed to regulate.”

Ryan is particularly incensed that Bitter Smith’s apparent ethical lapses are costing Arizonans twice — taxpayers pay her nearly $80,000 salary as a Commissioner and the increasingly expensive cable and phone bills that grow as a result of some of the Commission’s pro-telecom decisions. But at least Bitter Smith is doing well, also collecting her six figure salary from the cable lobbying association she leads.

Pat Quinn, former director of the Residential Utility Consumer Office, or RUCO, which advocates for consumers at the ACC, isn’t moved by Bitter Smith’s fine line and he should know – he’s the former Arizona president of Qwest Communications (today CenturyLink).

Quinn said Bitter Smith’s explanation about the separateness of telecom entities from cable is making a “difference without a distinction.”

“While you may be able to, accounting wise, separate your expenses between what you put in phone and what you put in cable, how do you take out of your mind, ‘Oh, they’re paying me over here and we do good things for them over here, but I’m going to be fair and unbiased when I look at not only Cox on the phone side, but any of the other phone providers,’” Quinn told KJZZ.

How Bitter Smith helped kill rural community broadband in Arizona for the benefit of the state’s biggest cable companies. (6:43)

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

Killing Community Broadband to Protect Arizona Cable Profits

The clearest cut evidence of Bitter Smith’s lobbying for Arizona cable companies while claiming to represent the public interest as a commissioner came in 2013, when Bitter Smith and Cox Communications lobbyist Susan Anable tried to pressure Galen Updike, a state employee tasked with mapping broadband availability in Arizona and advocating for solutions for the 80 percent of rural communities in the state that remain broadband-challenged to this day.

In February, Bitter Smith and Anable allegedly solicited the help of state employees to kill a state contract with GovNet, a firm that had previously received $39 million in federal dollars to bring broadband to rural Arizona.

govnet

Updike said Bitter Smith trashed GovNet’s reputation, claiming the provider walked away from earlier projects leaving them incomplete.

“‘There was a better alternative,'” Updike recalls Bitter Smith telling him. “‘You’ve got existing cable companies in the area that are having now to compete against these dollars that come in from the federal government. Can you help us get rid of GovNet’s contract?’ [was the request]. It took my breath away.”

COX_RES_RGBUpdike said Bitter Smith maintained a near-constant presence at their meetings, but she had no interest in solving Arizona’s rural broadband problems.

“The only reason for Bitter Smith to be there was to talk about telecommunications policy, broadband policy,” Updike said.

Updike’s efforts to make things better for broadband in rural Arizona met constant headwinds from Bitter Smith and lobbyists for the state’s cable and phone companies.

“All the broadband providers were cherry picking — going after the high easy places to put broadband into where there’s high concentration of population dollars,” Updike said. “And basically the low population areas, the rural areas of the state of Arizona, are sucking wind. They have no possibility for it.”

bearEfforts to develop the Arizona Strategic Broadband Plan were effectively sabotaged by the cable industry, especially Cox. Bitter Smith immediately objected to the contention the cable industry could collectively offer broadband to 96 percent of the state if it chose. She claimed that was invalid. She also criticized the proposal to begin a comprehensive broadband mapping program claiming it lacked proof it would be any real ongoing benefit to anyone.

At the center of the lobbying effort backed by Cox was an argument the state should not involve itself in expanding broadband networks. Instead, it should spend its funds promoting the broadband service already available from cable operators to those not yet signed up.

Things got much worse for Updike as Republicans cemented their grip on the Corporation Commission in 2013. Updike continued to voice concerns about Bitter Smith’s conflicts of interest and was eventually taken aside and told to be quiet about the issue.

“I was told to stop poking the bear. The bear was the combination of Cox, CenturyLink and Susan Bitter Smith,” Updike told the radio station.

By May 2013, the broadband planning council’s meetings began to be mysteriously canceled. No strategic broadband plan was ever adopted. That same month, Updike was told he no longer had a job at the Arizona Department of Administration.

Henry Goldberg, and independent consultant who helped draft the never-adopted state broadband plan has little to fear from Bitter Smith, so he was frank with KJZZ.

“To me when you stop discussions of the plan, disband this council, which is supposed to advise the governor on digital policy, there’s something inappropriate going on there. Something like this is critical for the citizens of Arizona.”

Four Red States Launch Coordinated Attack on Municipal/Public Broadband in Advance of FCC Hearing

Gov. Haslam

Gov. Haslam

Top officials of four southern states are coordinating efforts with Republican House members to oppose the Federal Communications Commission’s preemption of state laws that restrict or prohibit municipal/public broadband competition.

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange, and Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slattery have all backed efforts by House Republicans to curtail the regulatory powers of the FCC, claiming states’ rights should have precedence over the federal regulator. All four have sent letters to the House Energy & Commerce Committee putting their opposition on paper.

In 2014, FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler announced the FCC would seek to preempt state laws in North Carolina and Tennessee that severely restrict the development of broadband networks owned or controlled by municipalities and public utilities. The laws typically allow existing municipal networks to continue operating, but prohibit expansion beyond a pre-defined service area. Networks planning to launch after the laws took effect usually face onerous conditions and disclosure requirements that make many untenable. Large incumbent cable and phone companies were exempted from the law.

Wheeler’s efforts came in response to requests from community broadband providers seeking to deliver service to expanded service areas. The debate has put several local governments and utilities in an uncomfortable position of opposing their colleagues in state government.

In North Carolina, Attorney General Roy Cooper has taken the FCC to court in a petition to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

“Despite recognition that the State of North Carolina creates and retains control over municipal governments, the FCC unlawfully inserted itself between the State and the State’s political subdivisions,” Cooper wrote to the court. Cooper says the FCC’s actions are unconstitutional and exceeds the commission’s authority; “is arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of discretion within the meaning of the Administrative Procedure Act; and is otherwise contrary to law.”

comcast attMuch of the opposition to municipal broadband comes from Republican politicians on the state and federal level. Most claim municipal providers represent unfair competition to the private sector. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) considers municipal broadband a significant issue. The corporate-funded group offers state legislators the opportunity to meet with telecom company lobbyists. Legislators are also provided already-written sample legislation restricting municipal broadband developed by ALEC’s telecom company members, including AT&T, Comcast, and Time Warner Cable. In states where Republicans hold the majority in the state legislature, such bills often become law.

The FCC represents a serious threat to the telecom company-sponsored broadband legislation. Instead of debating the impact of the law on unpopular phone and cable companies, the four state officeholders claim the dispute is a battle pitting states’ rights against the powers of the federal government.

Haslam, who also serves as the national chairman of the Republican Governors Association, formally asked Congress to intervene against the FCC to protect state sovereignty. In a separate appeal to the FCC, Tennessee officials argued the FCC violated the country’s founding concept of separation of state and federal power, citing the 10th Amendment to the Constitution reserving power not delegated to the United States for the states respectively, or to the people.

Haslam’s critics contend the governor has delegated his own power to protect the interests of large telecommunications corporations operating in his state — companies the critics claimed wrote and lobbied for a state law that established anticompetitive broadband corporate protectionism in Tennessee. Among Haslam’s top campaign contributors are AT&T and Comcast — Tennessee’s two largest telecommunications companies.

Gov. Haley

Gov. Haley

Slattery, appointed by the Tennessee Supreme Court, argued in his letter to Congress the FCC lacked any authority to circumvent Tennessee state law.

The FCC has consistently claimed it is not overturning any state laws. Instead, it is performing its duties under its mandate.

The FCC cites Section 706 authority to regulate when broadband is not being deployed in a reasonable and timely manner, something that cannot happen if a state law impedes new competitors and entrants.

Alabama’s attorney general joined the fight in a brief to the Sixth Circuit opposing preemption, with a copy sent to the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, which is planning to hold a hearing on the matter. Alabama has several municipal and public utility networks operating in the state. AT&T and Comcast also serve large parts of Alabama. AT&T gave $11,000 to Strange’s campaign, Comcast sent $8,500. The Koch Brothers, fierce opponents of community broadband, also donated $10,000 to Strange through Koch Industries.

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley told legislators she strongly opposes external entities like the FCC overreaching into her state’s business. She did not mention AT&T is her fifth largest contributor, donating more than $16,000 to her last campaign. South Carolina’s largest cable operator is Time Warner Cable. It donated $9,900 to the governor’s campaign fund.

AT&T U-verse with GigaPower Gigabit Internet Dribs and Drabs Out in 23 New Cities

u-verse gigapowerAT&T has introduced 23 new communities and adjacent service areas in North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Illinois, Texas, and Tennessee to the possibility of getting gigabit broadband speeds, if customers are willing to wait for AT&T to reach their home or small business.

Here are the latest cities on AT&T’s new launch list:

  • Florida: Coral Gables, Homestead, Miami Gardens, North Miami, Oviedo, Sanford, and Parkland
  • Georgia: Alpharetta, Cartersville, Duluth, East Point, Avondale Estates, Jonesboro, and Rome
  • Illinois: Bolingbrook, Mundelein, Shorewood, Elmwood Park, Volo, and parts of Munster, Ind.
  • North Carolina: Clemmons, Garner, Holly Springs and Salisbury
  • Tennessee: Spring Hill and Gallatin
  • Texas:  Hunters Creek Village and Rosenberg

AT&T claims its fiber to the home service will eventually reach more than 14 million customers across its service area, but adds it will only reach a fraction of them – one million – by the end of 2015. Most customers will have around a 7% chance of getting gigabit speeds from AT&T this year.

Warren

Warren

In Salisbury, N.C., where Fibrant delivers community-owned broadband at speeds up to 10Gbps, AT&T gave space in its press release for Rep. Harry Warren, the local Republican member of the state House of Representatives, to praise the phone company.

“I’m excited about this new development, and appreciate AT&T’s continued investment in Rowan County,” Warren said.

Warren says he fought to protect Fibrant from a 2011 state law — drafted by the state’s largest phone and cable companies — that effectively outlawed community-owned broadband competition. But he, along with most of his Republican colleagues, also voted in favor of it.

Earlier this year, Federal Communications Commission chairman Thomas Wheeler announced the FCC would pre-empt municipal broadband bans in North Carolina and Tennessee. Warren told the Salisbury Post he wondered if Wheeler was guilty of “federal overreach.”

“That’s my biggest concern about it,” he said.

Both AT&T and Time Warner Cable have been regular contributors to Warren’s campaigns since 2010.

Brock

Brock

State Sen. Andrew Brock, also a Republican, told the newspaper Wheeler’s actions show how out of touch the Obama Administration is with “technology and the pocketbooks of American families.”

“I find it interesting that a bureaucrat that is not beholden to the people can make such a claim without going through Congress,” Brock said.

The year Brock voted in favor of banning community broadband competition in North Carolina, he received $3,750 from telecom companies. This election cycle, Time Warner Cable is his second largest contributor. AT&T and CenturyLink also each donated $1,000 to Brock’s campaign fund.

While AT&T is free to expand its gigabit U-verse upgrade as fast or as slow as it chooses, the community providers that delivered gigabit speeds well before AT&T are limited by state law from expanding service outside of their original service areas or city limits. In plain English, that effectively gives AT&T state-sanctioned authority to decide who will receive gigabit speeds and who will not.

The FCC’s pre-emption, if upheld despite ongoing challenges from Republican lawmakers on the state and federal level, could allow Fibrant to join forces with other municipal providers in North Carolina to expand fiber broadband to new communities around the state.

Comcast Steamrolls Arkansas, Louisiana, Tenn. and Virginia With More Usage Caps Starting 12/1

comcast gunComcast is accelerating its rollout of compulsory usage caps, adding new markets in the southern U.S. to its three-year old “trial” of what it calls its “data usage plan.” DSL Reports received a tip Comcast is now sending e-mail to affected customers.

Little Rock, Ark., Houma, LaPlace, and Shreveport, La., as well as Galax, Va., will be treated to Comcast’s 300GB usage cap with a $10 per 50GB overlimit fee beginning Dec. 1. These three states join Florida, Alabama, Kentucky, Georgia, Maine, Mississippi, South Carolina and Arizona, which now face Comcast’s form of usage rationing.

In Tennessee, Comcast is introducing its 300GB cap in Johnson City, Gray, and Greenville. The cable operator is also risking customers by introducing caps in Chattanooga, where it already faces serious competition from gigabit provider EPB, which has no usage limits, and AT&T U-verse, which doesn’t dare enforce its own 250GB cap.

Comcast began rapidly expanding its usage cap trial this fall, with new markets being announced for usage limits about once a month.

Chattanooga resident Ron Rogers called to cancel his Comcast service this afternoon. He’s giving up a good promotional discount Comcast offered to keep him a customer back in January and is headed to EPB Fiber.

“This was the last straw for Comcast,” Rogers tells Stop the Cap! “I am tired of being abused by these people. They must be crazy to think anyone who seriously uses the Internet is going to tolerate this when there are two other providers smart enough to realize usage caps are ridiculous in this day and age. Comcast can shove it.”

data trialsComcast’s spreading usage caps are not popular with customers. Within hours of the news Comcast would be expanding its cap “trial,” more than 900 negative comments appeared on Reddit slamming the company.

“It is just staggering that despite all the bad press, publicity and truly awful service, Comcast is actually taking calculated measures to make things worse,” wrote one Reddit commenter.

Comcast’s frequent defense of its usage plan is that the majority of its customers will never be affected by it, consuming less than 40GB a month. But those with experience living under Comcast’s cap tell Stop the Cap! anyone playing downloadable video games or using online video are at serious risk of being charged penalty overlimit fees.

“It is very easy to hit 100GB just downloading game updates and if you watch your shows online, you will come uncomfortably close to the cap,” said Pat Kershaw in Kentucky. “Leaving a live video stream running overnight one night by mistake after I fell asleep meant a Netflix-free weekend for me last month, because it would have put me past my allowance. Hulu’s autoplay feature is also very dangerous.”

courtesy-noticeHans says any household with kids will quickly learn Comcast isn’t being honest claiming usage caps only affect a “few customers” after they start getting warning messages injected into their web browser.

“What is worse is every time I call support about the messages that I am getting on the 18th of the month because I have already burned through my limit with my kids watching all their online content, support keeps putting me back on the queue for the next person or dropping the line,” Hans writes. “No one wants to deal with it!”

Those web warning messages also become intrusive for many customers, because some claim they never go away until the end of the billing cycle.

“I made sure to go over the 300GB cap this month to see what would happen and I received a phone call telling me I’ve went over and now I receive a popup from Comcast on my computer about every 30 seconds telling me I’ve went over as well,” writes Gldoorii. “The popups never stop. I have to deal with them until the end of the month as they keep interrupting my work.”

Other Comcast customers have grown suspicious about the company’s usage measurement tool, which in some cases reported spikes in usage only after the cap began to be enforced.

comcastdatausagemeter“I checked my data usage on Oct. 21 and it said I only used 162GB,” writes Sharon. “I even have [a screenshot] and saved it as I had a feeling Comcast would pull something. [On] Oct. 23, I had a pop-up on my computer that says ‘you have used 292 of 300GB’ and I went to the data usage and it shows that. Nobody in my house downloaded any huge files the past two days. So, is Comcast artificially pumping up our usage to make us go over or what? It is impossible that I only used 162GB for 21 days and then used 130GB the past two days.”

Sharon is lucky her usage meter is working. Other customers report Comcast’s meter often stops working for weeks.

“My data usage meter still does not work and it has been 19 days,” says Gldoorii. “No chat or support person has been able to figure out why it doesn’t work and that I need to call or chat whenever I want to ask what my usage is.”

Customers who want out also get the Comcast treatment as they head for the exit.

“We were charged a $150 early termination fee because Comcast does not consider imposing a usage cap to be a material change to our contract, which is unbelievable,” writes Anna Lu in Ft. Lauderdale. “These guys are nothing less than crooks and they only forgave it after my roommate complained to the Better Business Bureau. They said they were doing us a favor forgiving the charge. No wonder everyone hates Comcast.”

But not everyone is unhappy about Comcast’s usage caps.

“Our call center volumes are way up ever since Comcast brought caps to Atlanta and Florida,” reports an AT&T sales representative who agreed to talk to Stop the Cap! if we kept his identity private. “It’s common knowledge we do not enforce any caps on U-verse although we cannot tell customers that officially, but most never even ask. We’re signing up ex-Comcast customers right and left. They are not happy we cannot give them the same speeds Comcast does, but they won’t have to worry about a cap from us, at least for now.”

Other customers are waiting impatiently for Google Fiber or other competitors.

“In Atlanta Comcast now offers an unlimited data option add on to your plan for additional $35,” writes a customer on Comcast’s support forum. “So now we get to pay over $100 for 25Mbps service whereas Google Fiber [in] Atlanta [charges] $70 for one gigabit service and no data cap.”

In July, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts downplayed the impact of the company’s usage caps with investors, suggesting some customers actually supported the usage plans.

“We do have a few trials going on in different markets,” Roberts said. “The responses have been neutral to slightly positive. We don’t have any plans on expanding that to other market/bases anytime soon.”

Stop the Cap! Testimony to N.Y. Public Service Commission Advocating Major Telecom Study

logoOctober 20, 2015

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

Dear Ms. Burgess,

New York State’s digital economy is in trouble.

While providers claim portions of New York achieve some of the top broadband speeds in the country, the vast majority of the state has been left behind by cable and phone companies that have never been in a hurry to deliver the top shelf telecom services that New Yorkers need and deserve.

The deregulation policies of the recent past have resulted in entrenched de facto monopoly and duopoly markets with little or no oversight. Those policies, instead of benefiting New Yorkers, are ultimately responsible for allowing two companies to dominate the state’s telecommunications marketplace.

In virtually all of upstate New York, the services consumers receive depend entirely on the business priorities of local incumbent providers, not market forces or customer demand. As a result, New Yorkers face relentless, unchecked rate increases, well-documented abysmal and unresponsive customer service, and inadequate broadband provided by a workforce under siege from downsizing, cost-cutting, and outsourcing.

Certain markets, particularly those in the New York City area, have at least secured a promise of better broadband from Verizon’s FiOS fiber to the home upgrade. But at least 100,000 New Yorkers have languished on Verizon’s “waiting list,” as the company drags its feet on Non Standard Installation orders.[1] In upstate New York, Verizon walked away from its FiOS expansion effort five years ago, leaving only a handful of wealthy suburbs furnished with fiber service while effectively abandoning urban communities like Buffalo and Syracuse with nothing better than Verizon’s outdated DSL, which does not meet the FCC’s minimum definition of broadband – 25Mbps.[2]

Cablevision’s broadband performance dramatically improved because of investment in network upgrades, and the company has been well-regarded for its broadband service ever since.[3] But the proposed new owner of Cablevision – Altice, NV — has sought “cost savings” from cuts totaling $900 million a year, which will almost certainly devastate that provider’s future investments, its engineering and repair crews, and customer service.[4]

At least downstate New York has the prospect for +100Mbps broadband service. In upstate New York, three providers define the broadband landscape for most cities and towns:

  • Time Warner Cable dominates upstate New York with its cable broadband service and has the largest market share for High Speed Internet. As of today, Time Warner Cable’s top broadband speed outside of New York City is just 50Mbps, far less than the 1,000Mbps service cities in other states are now on track to receive or are already getting.[5]
  • Verizon Communications is the largest ILEC in upstate New York. Outside of its very limited FiOS service areas, customers depend on Verizon’s DSL service at speeds no better than 15Mbps, below the FCC’s minimum speed to qualify as broadband;[6]
  • Frontier Communications has acquired FiOS networks from Verizon in Indiana and the Pacific Northwest, and AT&T U-verse in Connecticut. Frontier has made no significant investment or effort to bring FiOS or U-verse into New York State. In fact, in its largest New York service area, Rochester, there are significant areas that can receive no better than 3.1Mbps DSL from Frontier. The vast majority of Frontier customers in New York do not receive service that meets the FCC’s minimum definition of broadband, and some investors predict the company is “headed for financial disaster.”[7]

The competitive markets the DPS staff envisions in its report to the Commission are largely a mirage. When an ILEC like Frontier Communications admits its residential broadband market share “is less than 25% in our 27 states excluding Connecticut,” that is clear evidence the marketplace has rejected Frontier’s legacy DSL service and does not consider the company an effective competitor.[8]

While incumbent cable and phone companies tout ‘robust competition’ for service in New York, if the Commission investigated the market share of Time Warner Cable upstate, it would quickly realize that ‘robust competition’ has been eroding for years, with an ongoing shift away from DSL providers towards cable broadband.[9]

Frontier’s primary market focus is on rural communities where it often enjoys a monopoly and can deliver what we believe to be inadequate service to a captive customer base. The company is currently facing a class action lawsuit in West Virginia, where it is alleged to have failed to provide advertised broadband speeds and delivers poor service.[10]

Verizon’s ongoing investment in its legacy wireline network (and expansion of DSL to serve new customers) has been regularly criticized as woefully inadequate.[11] From all indications, we expect the company will eventually sell its legacy wireline networks, particularly those upstate, within the next 5-10 years as it has done in northern New England (sold to FairPoint Communications) and proposes to do in Texas, California, and Florida.[12] (Verizon also sold off its service areas in Hawaii, West Virginia, and much of its territory acquired from GTE.)

Across New York, service problems and controversial deals between telecom providers have made headlines. Here are just a few:

  1. Superstorm Sandy’s impact on Verizon’s legacy wireline network on Fire Island and in other downstate communities left many without service. Instead of repairing the damage, Verizon proposed to scrap its wireline network and substitute inferior wireless service with no possibility of wired broadband.[13] The DPS received a large number of comments from the public and local elected officials fiercely opposed to this proposal, one that Verizon eventually withdrew in the face of overwhelming opposition.[14]
  2. There are growing allegations Verizon may be underspending on its legacy wireline network and even worse, may be misallocating costs and revenues to deceive the Commission.[15] Some allege much of the company’s ongoing investments, charged to the wireline operation, in reality are for the benefit of its wireless network. This may have allowed Verizon Communications/New York to claim significant losses on its wireline books the company then argued justified rate increases on ratepayers.[16] A full scale accounting of Verizon’s books is essential for all concerned and corrective action may be necessary if these allegations are proven true.
  3. Verizon’s foot-dragging on FiOS buildouts in New York City led to a damning audit report commissioned by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio this summer and oversight hearings were held last week by the City Council of New York.[17] [18] Despite Verizon’s creative definition of “homes passed,” a substantial number of New Yorkers cannot receive the benefits of “today’s networks” the DPS staff refers to. Instead, many are stuck with poorly-performing DSL or no service at all.[19] Regardless of whether fiber passes in front of, over, in between, or behind buildings, Verizon signed an agreement compelling them to give customers a clear timeline to establish FiOS service. It is apparent Verizon is not meeting its obligations.[20]
  4. The proposed sale of Time Warner Cable to Comcast led the Commission’s staff to admit the majority of respondents to requests for public input were strongly opposed to the merger and without substantial modifications concluded would not be in the public interest.[21] Comcast eventually withdrew its proposal in the face of overwhelming opposition.
  5. The proposed sale of Time Warner Cable to Charter Communications, where the DPS staff concluded as the application stood, there would be no public interest benefits to the transaction.[22]

Those are just a few examples of why aggressive oversight of telecommunications is critical for all New Yorkers. In most of these examples, the DPS never ruled one way or the other. The companies individually made their own decisions, and we believe they would have decided differently if they did not face grassroots opposition from consumers.

New Yorkers deserve an active DPS prepared to aggressively represent our interests, ready to investigate what Verizon is doing with its legacy wireline network, legacy wired broadband services, FiOS and Verizon Wireless. With Time Warner Cable having such a dominant presence in western and central New York, its sale should never be taken lightly, as it will impact millions of New Yorkers for years to come.

While the DPS seems prepared to passively wait around to discover what Time Warner Cable, Frontier and Verizon are planning next, the rest of the country is getting speed upgrades New York can only dream about.

Google Fiber and AT&T, among others, are aggressively rolling out 1,000Mbps fiber service upgrades in other states, while a disinterested Verizon refuses to invest further in FiOS expansion, leaving millions of New York customers with nothing better than DSL.

The lack of significant competition upstate is why we believe Time Warner Cable has not yet chosen any market in New York except New York City for its Maxx upgrade program, which offers substantially faster speeds and better service.[23] There is no compelling competitive reason for Time Warner to hurry upgrades into areas where they already enjoy a vast market share and no threat of a broadband speed race. So much for robust competition.

Charter’s proposed acquisition of Time Warner Cable proposes a modest upgrade of broadband speeds to 60-100Mbps, but as we wrote in our comments to the DPS regarding the merger proposal, upstate New York would be better off waiting for Time Warner Cable to complete its own Maxx upgrades over what will likely be 100% of its footprint in the next 24-30 months.[24] Time Warner Cable Maxx offers maximum broadband speeds three times faster than what Charter proposes for upstate New York, while also preserving affordable broadband options for those less fortunate. Approving a Charter buyout of Time Warner Cable will only set upstate New York back further.

We confess we were bewildered after reviewing the initial staff assessment of telecommunications services competition in New York. Its conclusions simply do not reflect reality on the ground, particularly in upstate communities.

It was this type of incomplete analysis that allowed New York to fall into the trap of irresponsible deregulation and abdication of oversight that has utterly failed to deliver the promised competition that would check rate hikes, guarantee better customer service, and provide New York with best-in-class service. In reality, we have none of those things. Rates continue to spiral higher, poor customer service continues, and New York has been left behind with sub-standard broadband that achieves no better than 50Mbps speeds in most upstate communities.

This summer, the American Customer Satisfaction Index told us something we already know. Americans dislike their cable company more than any other industry in the nation.[25] A survey of more than 14,000 customers by ACSI found service satisfaction achieving a new all-time low, scoring 63 out of 100.

“Customers expect a lot more than what the companies deliver,” said ACSI managing director David VanAmburg, who called poor customer service from cable operators “endemic.”

This year, Time Warner Cable again scored the worst in the country. As the only cable provider for virtually all of upstate New York, if residents in New York are given a choice between Time Warner Cable and the phone company’s slow-speed DSL, they are still likely to choose Time Warner Cable, but only because they have no other choices for broadband that meets the FCC definition of broadband.

Providers are quick to suggest consumers can turn to so-called competitors like satellite broadband or wireless Internet from mobile providers. They conveniently ignore the fact satellite-delivered Internet is such a provider of last resort, less than 1% of New Yorkers choose this option. Those that have used satellite broadband tell the companies providing it they rarely achieve the claimed speeds and are heavily speed throttled and usage capped.[26] It’s also costly, particularly when measuring the price against its performance.

Mobile Internet, which some ILECs have advocated as a possible replacement for rural wireline networks, is also a very poor substitute for wired Internet access. Wireless broadband pricing is high and usage allowances are low. Attempts to convince New Yorkers to abandon Verizon landline service in favor of Verizon’s 4G LTE wireless replacement have led to consumer complaints after learning their existing unlimited Verizon DSL service would be substituted for a wireless plan starting at $60 a month with a 10GB usage allowance.[27]

A customer with a 6Mbps DSL line from Verizon consuming 30GB of usage a month – hardly a heavy user – pays Verizon $29.99 a month for DSL service during the first year. In contrast, that same customer using Verizon Wireless’ home 2-5Mbps wireless LTE plan will pay $120 a month – four times more, with the added risk of incurring a $10 per gigabyte overlimit fee for usage in excess of their allowance.[28]

None of this information is a secret, yet it seems to have escaped the notice of the DPS staff in its report. Part of the reason why may be the complete lack of public input to help illuminate and counter incumbent providers’ well-financed public and government relations self-praise campaigns. If only actual customers agreed with their conclusions, we’d be well on our way to deregulation-inspired broadband nirvana.

Except New Yorkers do not agree all is well.

Consumer Reports:

Our latest survey of 81,848 customers of home telecommunications services found almost universally low ratings for value across services—especially for TV and Internet. Those who bundled the three services together for a discount still seemed unimpressed with what they were getting for their money. Even WOW and Verizon FiOS, which got high marks for service satisfaction, rated middling or lower for value, and out of 14 providers, nine got the lowest possible value rating.

What is it about home telecommunications that leaves such a sour taste in customers’ mouths? When we asked Consumer Reports’ Facebook followers to tell us their telecom stories, the few happy anecdotes of attentive service technicians and reliable service were overwhelmed by a tidal wave of consumer woe involving high prices, complicated equipment, and terrible service.[29]

The effective competition that would rely on market forces to deter abusive pricing and poor customer service is simply not available in a monopoly/duopoly marketplace. New entrants face enormous start-up costs, particularly provisioning last-mile service.

The nation’s telephone network was first constructed in the early half of the last century by providers guaranteed monopoly status. The cable industry developed during a period where regulators frequently considered operators to be a “natural monopoly,” unable to survive sustained competition.[30] Many cable operators were granted exclusive franchise agreements which helped them present a solid business case to investors to fund a costly network buildout. The end of franchise exclusivity happened years after most cable operators were already well established.

Today, those marketplace protections are unavailable to new entrants who face a variety of hurdles to achieve success. Some are competitive, others are regulatory. Google Fiber, which provides competitive service in states other than New York, publishes a guide for local communities to make them more attractive prospects for future Google Fiber expansion.[31]

For many overbuilders, pole attachment issues, zoning and permitting are significant obstacles to making new service available to residential and commercial customers. New York must ensure pole owners provide timely, non-discriminatory, and reasonable cost access. Permitting and zoning issues should be resolved on similar terms to speed network deployment.

Because a long history of experience tells us it is unreasonable to expect a competing telephone or cable company to enter another provider’s territory, in many cases the only significant possibility for competition will come from a new municipal/co-op/public-owned broadband alternative.

The hurdles these would-be providers face are significant. Incumbent provider opposition can be substantial, especially on a large-scale buildout. In rural areas, incumbents can and do refuse to cooperate, even on projects that seek to prioritize access first to unserved/underserved areas currently bypassed by those incumbents.

The effort to wire the Adirondack Park region is a case in point. Time Warner Cable has refused to provide detailed mapping information about their existing network, making it difficult to assess the viability of a municipal and/or a commercial broadband expansion project into these areas. Time Warner Cable maintains it has exclusivity to granular map data showing existing networks for “competitive reasons,” effectively maintaining an advantageous position from which it can strategically apply for state broadband expansion funding to expand its network using public funds.

Time Warner Cable benefits from access to publicly-owned rights of way and sanctioned easements. Without this access, their network would likely be untenable. As a beneficiary of that public access, making granular map data available to broadband planners is a fair exchange, and nothing precludes Time Warner from building its network into those unserved/underserved areas – something that might deter a would-be competitor’s business argument to overbuild a high-cost, rural area. The Commission should ask itself how many rural New York communities have two (or more) competing cable companies serving the same customers. If the answer is none, Time Warner Cable does not have a valid argument.

There is ample evidence the Commission needs to begin a full and comprehensive review of telecommunications in this state. It must build a factual, evidence-based record on which the Commission can build a case that oversight is needed to guarantee New Yorkers get the high quality telecommunications services they deserve.

Broadband and telephone service is not just a convenience. In September 2015, the Obama Administration declared broadband was now a “core utility,” just as important as telephone, electric, and natural gas service. Isn’t it about time the Department of Public Service oversee it as such?[32]

Respectfully submitted for your consideration,

Phillip M. Dampier

Director, Stop the Cap!

[1] http://stopthecap.com/2015/10/19/n-y-city-council-investigates-verizon-foot-dragging-fios-possible-contract-violations/
[2] http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702303410404575151773432729614
[3] https://www.fcc.gov/reports/measuring-broadband-america-2014
[4] http://variety.com/2015/biz/news/altice-group-patrick-drahi-cablevision-bid-1201599986/
[5] http://www.pcmag.com/slideshow/story/310861/if-you-want-gigabit-internet-move-here/1
[6] https://www.fcc.gov/document/fcc-finds-us-broadband-deployment-not-keeping-pace
[7] http://seekingalpha.com/article/2888876-frontier-communications-headed-for-financial-disaster
[8] http://seekingalpha.com/article/2633375-frontier-communications-ftr-ceo-maggie-wilderotter-q3-2014-results-earnings-call-transcript?part=single
[9] http://www.leichtmanresearch.com/press/051515release.html
[10] http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20141020/GZ01/141029992
[11] http://www.cwa-union.org/news/entry/cwa_calls_for_regulators_to_investigate_verizons_refusal_to_invest_in_landl
[12] http://stopthecap.com/2015/05/05/fla-utility-says-negotiations-with-verizon-make-it-clear-verizon-will-exit-the-wireline-business-within-10-years/
[13] http://money.cnn.com/2013/07/22/technology/verizon-wireless-sandy/
[14] http://documents.dps.ny.gov/public/MatterManagement/CaseMaster.aspx?Mattercaseno=13-C-0197
[15] http://www.cwa-union.org/news/entry/cwa_calls_for_regulators_to_investigate_verizons_refusal_to_invest_in_landl
[16] http://newnetworks.com/publicnn.pdf/
[17] http://www1.nyc.gov/office-of-the-mayor/news/415-15/de-blasio-administration-releases-audit-report-verizon-s-citywide-fios-implementation
[18] http://arstechnica.com/business/2015/10/verizon-tries-to-avoid-building-more-fiber-by-re-defining-the-word-pass/
[19] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/27/nyregion/new-york-city-and-verizon-battle-over-fios-service.html?_r=0
[20] http://www.nyc.gov/html/doitt/downloads/pdf/verizon-audit.pdf
[21] http://documents.dps.ny.gov/public/Common/ViewDoc.aspx?DocRefId={0A5EAC88-6AB7-4F79-862C-B6C6B6D2E4ED}
[22] http://documents.dps.ny.gov/public/Common/ViewDoc.aspx?DocRefId=%7BC60985CC-BEE8-43A7-84E8-5A4B4D8E0F54%7D
[23] http://www.timewarnercable.com/en/enjoy/better-twc/internet.html
[24] http://documents.dps.ny.gov/public/Common/ViewDoc.aspx?DocRefId={FCB40F67-B91F-4F65-8CCD-66D8C22AF6B1}
[25] http://www.marketwatch.com/story/the-most-hated-cable-company-in-america-is-2015-06-02
[26] https://community.myhughesnet.com/hughesnet?topic_list%5Bsettings%5D%5Btype%5D=problem
[27] http://www.verizon.com/home/highspeedinternet/
[28] http://www.verizonwireless.com/b2c/lte-internet-installed/
[29] http://www.consumerreports.org//cro/magazine/2014/05/how-to-save-money-on-triple-play-cable-services/index.htm
[30] http://www.citi.columbia.edu/elinoam/articles/Is_Cable_Television_Natural_Monopoly.pdf (p.255)
[31] https://fiber.storage.googleapis.com/legal/googlefibercitychecklist2-24-14.pdf
[32] http://thehill.com/policy/technology/254431-obama-administration-declares-broadband-core-utility-in-report

Municipal Provider EPB Introduces Chattanooga to 10Gbps Residential Broadband: $299 a Month

nextnetThe first provider in the country to offer community-wide gigabit fiber broadband to residential customers today announced it would far surpass the rest of the marketplace with a new 10 gigabit broadband package dubbed NextNet, available throughout the Chattanooga, Tenn. service area of municipal utility EPB for $299 a month.

“Five years ago, Chattanooga and Hamilton County became the first in the United States to offer up to 1 Gig Internet speeds,” said Harold DePriest, president and CEO of EPB. “Today, we become the first community in the world capable of delivering up to 10 Gigs to all 170,000 households and businesses in our service area.”

Its largest competitor — Comcast, charges $299 for up to 2Gbps service in limited service areas, if the customer can wait 6-8 weeks for installation, can afford up to $1,000 in activation and installation fees, and can commit to a two-year contract with a steep early termination fee. EPB will offer its five-times-faster-than-Comcast service to any customer with no lengthy waiting period, no contract, and free installation.

EPB will leverage Alcatel-Lucent’s TWDM-PON broadband technology to deliver scalable fiber broadband, and is also introducing 5 and 10Gbps plans for small businesses and 3, 5, and 10Gbps plans for larger commercial customers. Customers will receive an ONT unit installed by technicians about two weeks before installation is complete. The box, about the size of a DVD player, is required to support the new high speeds. It is usually mounted on a wall near the computer.

“Chattanooga’s 10 Gig fiber optic network is a world-class platform for innovation,” DePriest said. “In recent years, the need for faster Internet speeds has increased rapidly. Chattanooga is the perfect place for companies to enhance their productivity today and test the applications everyone in the country will want tomorrow.”

Despite detractors that claim municipal/public broadband services are economic failures waiting to happen, EPB has delivered tangible economic benefits across the Chattanooga region and is now recognized internationally as one of the country’s most successful public broadband projects.

A study recently released by University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Finance professor Bento Lobo shows “the Gig Network” helped the Chattanooga area generate at least 2,800 new jobs and at least $865.3 million in economic and social benefits. The study also found the EPB smart grid, which is the cornerstone application of the utility’s community-wide fiber optic network, has allowed customers to avoid an estimated 124.7 million minutes of electric service interruptions by automatically re-routing power (often in less than a second) to prevent an outage or dramatically reduce outage duration.

EPB has proven so successful, it has attracted visitors from around the world to study how community fiber broadband can transform a local economy.

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  • Jonny: My smaller cable company Suddenlink (1.4M customers) started the same thing. 250GB cap with with their medium speed of 50mbps. They are only doing thi...
  • Joe V: Man these guys just don't get it. Not to worry, just as the music industry learned the hard way that to piss off their customers by giving them crap, ...
  • Mike D.: The TV providers have never been willing to fight for the consumer with the other conglomerates who bundled crap with one or two channels of good cont...
  • Sean Colbert: The comcast cap isnt even bad compared to mine. I have Hughesnet Gen4 (All I can get in my area) and I have a 20gb a month limit with an extra 50 in b...
  • zychor: 59Mbps down, 5.9Mbps up ..it doesn't matter internet is so slow...
  • Phillip Dampier: Rats... and I knew I caught this in the proofread and made the change but it stayed a draft while the inaccurate one went live. Thanks for catching th...
  • Dave: Quit whining....bunch of babies...
  • bob: how is this fair to existing customers who reside in areas where upgrade hasnt gone through. im supposed to pay 60 plus dollars each month for extreme...
  • Michael Elling: Paul, part of this stems from the industry's infatuation with vertical models and the govt-granted quasi-monopoly structure stemming from spectrum sal...
  • Paul Houle: One of the funny things about the current debate is that communities everywhere are asking for better wireline broadband, but you don't see many peop...
  • Duffin: I have just dropped my cable, and I do plan on getting Hulu Plus instead, but you know what? If they stop putting current episodes on Hulu I'm just no...
  • David Manthos: The bill is actually HB 2551, not 2511. http://www.legis.state.wv.us/Bill_Status/Bills_history.cfm?input=2551&year=2016&sessiontype=RS&...

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