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Spring 2016: An Update and Progress Report for Our Members

stcDear Members,

We have had a very busy winter and spring here at Stop the Cap! and we thought it important to update you on our efforts.

You may have noticed a drop in new content online over the last few months, and we’ve had some inquiries about it. The primary reason for this is the additional time and energy being spent to directly connect with legislators and regulators about the issues we are concerned about. Someone recently asked me why we spend a lot of time and energy writing exposés to an audience that almost certainly already agrees with us. If supporters were the only readers here, they would have a point. Stop the Cap! is followed regularly by legislators, regulators, public policy lobbyists, consumer groups, telecom executives, and members of the media. Our content is regularly cited in books, articles, regulatory filings, and in media reports. That is why we spend a lot of time and energy documenting our positions about data caps, usage billing, Net Neutrality, and the state of broadband in the United States and Canada.

A lengthy piece appearing here can easily take more than eight hours (sometimes longer) to put together from research to final publication. We feel it is critical to make sure this information gets into the hands of those that can help make a difference, whether they visit us on the web or not. So we have made an extra effort to inform, educate, and persuade decision-makers and reporters towards our point of view, helping to counter the well-funded propaganda campaigns of Big Telecom companies that regularly distort the issues and defend the indefensible.

Four issues have gotten most of our attention over the last six months:

  1. The Charter/Time Warner Cable/Bright House merger;
  2. Data cap traps and trials (especially those from Comcast, Blue Ridge, Cox, and Suddenlink);
  3. Cablevision/Altice merger;
  4. Frontier’s acquisition of Verizon landlines and that phone company’s upgrade plans for existing customers.

We’ve been successful raising important issues about the scarcity of benefits from telecom company mergers. In short, there are none of significance, unless you happen to be a Wall Street banker, a shareholder, or a company executive. The last thing an already-concentrated marketplace needs is more telecom mergers. We’re also continuing to expose just how nonsensical data caps and usage-based billing is for 21st century broadband providers. Despite claims of “fairness,” data caps are nothing more than cable-TV protectionism and the further exploitation of a broadband duopoly that makes it easy for Wall Street analysts to argue “there is room for broadband rate hikes” in North America. Stop the Cap! will continue to coordinate with other consumer groups to fight this issue, and we’ve successfully convinced at least some at the FCC that the excuses offered for data caps don’t hold water.

Dampier

Dampier

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler’s broadening of Charter’s voluntary three-year moratorium on data caps to a compulsory term as long as seven years sent a clear message to broadband providers that the jig is up — data caps are a direct threat to the emerging online video marketplace that might finally deliver serious competition to the current bloated and overpriced cable television package.

Wheeler’s actions were directly responsible for Comcast’s sudden generosity in more than tripling the usage allowance it has imposed on several markets across the south and midwest. But we won’t be happy until those compulsory data caps are gone for good.

More than 10,000 Comcast customers have already told the FCC in customer complaints that Comcast’s data caps are egregious and unfair. Considering how unresponsive Comcast has been towards its own customers that despise data caps of any kind, Comcast obviously doesn’t care what their customers think. But they care very much about what the FCC thinks about regulatory issues like data caps and set-top box monopolies. How do we know this? Because Comcast’s chief financial officer this week told the audience attending the JPMorgan Technology, Media and Telecom Broker Conference Comcast always pays attention to regulator headwinds.

“I think it’s our job to make sure we pivot and react accordingly and make sure the company thrives whatever the outcome is on some of the regulatory proposals that are out there,” said Comcast’s Mike Cavanagh. We suspect if Chairman Wheeler goes just one step further and calls on ISPs to permanently ditch data caps and usage billing, many would. We will continue to press him to do exactly that.

Stop the Cap! supports municipal and community-owned broadband providers.

Stop the Cap! supports municipal and community-owned broadband providers.

Other companies are also still making bad decisions for their customers. Besides Comcast’s ongoing abusive data cap experiment, Cox’s ongoing data cap trial in Cleveland, Ohio is completely unacceptable and has no justification. The usage allowances provided are also unacceptably stingy. Suddenlink, now owned by Altice, should not even attempt to alienate their customers, particularly as the cable conglomerate seeks new acquisition opportunities in the United States in the future. We find it telling that Altice feels justified retaining usage caps on customers in smaller communities served by Suddenlink while denying they would even think of doing the same in Cablevision territory in suburban New York City. Both Suddenlink and Cablevision have upgraded their networks to deliver faster speed service. What is Altice’s excuse about why it treats its urban and rural customers so differently? It frankly doesn’t have one. We’ll be working to convince Altice it is time for Suddenlink’s data caps to be retired for good.

We will also be turning more attention back on the issue of community broadband, which continues to be the only competitive alternative to the phone and cable companies most Americans will likely ever see. The dollar-a-holler lobbyists are still writing editorials and articles claiming “government-owned networks” are risky and/or a failure, without bothering to disclose the authors have a direct financial relationship to the phone and cable companies that don’t want the competition. We will be pressing state lawmakers to ditch municipal broadband bans and not to enact any new ones.

We will also continue to watch AT&T and Verizon — two large phone companies that continue to seek opportunities to neglect or ditch their wired services either by decommissioning rural landlines or selling parts of their service areas to companies like Frontier. AT&T specializes in bait-n-switch bills in state legislatures that promise “upgrades” in return for further deregulation and permission to switch off rural service in favor of wireless alternatives. That’s great for AT&T, but a potential life-threatening disaster for rural America.

We continue to abide by our mandate: fighting data caps and consumption billing and promoting better broadband, regardless of what company or community supplies it.

As always, thank you so much for your financial support (the donate button that sustains us entirely is to your right) and for your engagement in the fight against unfair broadband pricing and policies. Broadband is not just a nice thing to have. It is an essential utility just as important as clean water, electricity, natural gas, and telephone service.

Phillip M. Dampier
Founder & President, Stop the Cap!

Sen. Ted Cruz’s Latest Enemy: Community Broadband; Wants State Bans Reinstated

Cruz

Cruz

Although running a distant second behind Donald Trump in the Republican presidential primary, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is still managing to have an influence in the U.S. Senate, where his office is filing a plethora of amendments to various telecommunications bills. Among his top priorities: throwing up roadblocks to keep municipalities from offering broadband to their communities.

Cruz and Sen. Deb Fischer, a fellow Republican from Nebraska, are jointly proposing to attach an amendment to the FCC Process Reform Act that would prohibit the FCC from preempting state laws that limit or prohibit municipal broadband networks. The amendment would “prohibit the FCC from preventing states from implementing  laws relating to provision of broadband Internet access service by state and local governments.”

Several Republicans in Congress have been highly critical of public broadband, despite the fact many local governments in their districts are clamoring for better broadband solutions for their residents.

Cruz and other municipal broadband opponents are responding to FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler’s decision to effectively overturn those restrictions in Tennessee and North Carolina. Wheeler is considering expanding preemptions in other states where lawmakers passed bills restricting or prohibiting municipal broadband expansion.

The FCC is currently defending its actions in court.

Attacks on Tennessee’s EPB Municipal Broadband Fall Flat in Light of Facts

latinos for tnThe worst enemy of some advocacy groups writing guest editorial hit pieces against municipal broadband is: facts.

Raul Lopez is the founder and executive director for Latinos for Tennessee, a 501C advocacy group that reported $0 in assets, $0 in income, and is not required to file a Form 990 with the Internal Revenue Service as of 2014. Lopez claims the group is dedicated to providing “Latinos in Tennessee with information and resources grounded on faith, family and freedom.”

But his views on telecom issues are grounded in AT&T and Comcast’s tiresome and false talking points about publicly owned broadband. His “opinion piece” in the Knoxville News Sentinel was almost entirely fact-free:

It is not the role of the government to use taxpayer resources to compete with private industry. Government is highly inefficient — usually creating an inferior product at a higher price — and is always slower to respond to market changes. Do we really want government providing our Internet service? Government-run health care hasn’t worked so well, so why would we promote government-run Internet?

Phillip Dampier: Corporate talking point nonsense regurgitated by Mr. Lopez isn't for the good of anyone.

Phillip Dampier: Corporate talking point nonsense regurgitated by Mr. Lopez isn’t for the good of anyone.

Lopez’s claim that only private providers are good at identifying what customers want falls to pieces when we’re talking about AT&T and Comcast. Public utility EPB was the first to deliver gigabit fiber to the home service in Chattanooga, first to deliver honest everyday pricing, still offers unlimited service without data caps and usage billing that customers despise, and has a customer approval and reliability rating Comcast and AT&T can only dream about.

Do the people of Chattanooga want “the government” (EPB is actually a public utility) to provide Internet service? Apparently so. Last fall, EPB achieved the status of being the #1 telecom provider in Chattanooga, with nearly half of all households EPB serves signed up for at least one EPB service — TV, broadband, or phone service. Comcast used to be #1 until real competition arrived. That “paragon of virtue’s” biggest private sector innovation of late? Rolling out its 300GB usage cap (with overlimit fees) in Chattanooga. That’s the same cap that inspired more than 13,000 Americans to file written complaints with the FCC about Comcast’s broadband pricing practices. EPB advertises no such data caps and has delivered the service residents actually want. Lopez calls that “hurting competition in our state and putting vital services at risk.”

Remarkably, other so-called “small government” advocates (usually well-funded by the telecom industry) immediately began beating a drum for Big Government protectionism to stop EPB by pushing for a state law to ban or restrict publicly owned networks.

Lopez appears to be on board:

Our Legislature considered a bill this session that would repeal a state municipal broadband law that prohibits government-owned networks from expanding across their municipal borders. Thankfully, it failed in the House Business and Utilities Subcommittee, but it will undoubtedly be back again in future legislative sessions. The legislation is troubling because it will harm taxpayers and stifle private-sector competition and innovation.

Or more accurately, it will make sure Comcast and AT&T can ram usage caps and higher prices for worse service down the throats of Tennessee customers.

epb broadband prices

EPB’s broadband pricing. Higher discounts possible with bundling.

Lopez also plays fast and loose with the truth suggesting the Obama Administration handed EPB a $111.7 million federal grant to compete with Comcast and AT&T. In reality, that grant was for EPB to build a smart grid for its electricity network. That fiber-based grid is estimated to have avoided 124.7 million customer minutes of interruptions by better detection of power faults and better methods of rerouting power to restore service more quickly than in the past.

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

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

Public utilities can run smart grids and not sell television, broadband, and phone service, leaving that fiber network underutilized. EPB decided it could put that network to good use, and a recent study by University of Tennessee economist Bento Lobo found EPB’s fiber services helped generate between 2,800 and 5,200 new jobs and added $865.3 million to $1.3 billion to the local economy. That translates into $2,832-$3,762 per Hamilton County resident. That’s quite a return on a $111.7 million investment that was originally intended just to help keep the lights on.

So EPB’s presence in Chattanooga has not harmed taxpayers and has not driven either of its two largest competitors out of the city.

Lopez then wanders into an equally ridiculous premise – that minority communities want mobile Internet access, not the fiber to the home service EPB offers:

Not all consumers access the Internet the same way. According to the Pew Research Center, Hispanics and African-Americans are more likely to rely on mobile broadband than traditional wire-line service. Indeed, minority communities are even more likely than the population as a whole to use their smartphones to apply for jobs online.

[…] Additionally, just like people are getting rid of basic at-home telephone service, Americans, especially minorities, are getting rid of at-home broadband. In 2013, 70 percent of Americans had broadband at home. Just two years later, only 67 percent did. The decline was true across almost the entire demographic board, regardless of race, income category, education level or location. Indeed, in 2013, 16 percent of Hispanics said they relied only on their smartphones for Internet access, and by 2015 that figure was up to 23 percent.

That drop in at-home broadband isn’t because fewer Americans have access to wireless broadband, it’s because more are moving to a wireless-only model. The bureaucracy of government has trouble adapting to changes like these, which is why government-owned broadband systems are often technologically out of date before they’re finished.

But Lopez ignores a key finding of Pew’s research:

In some form, cost is the chief reason that non-adopters cite when permitted to identify more than one reason they do not have a home high-speed subscription. Overall, 66% of non-adopters point toward either the monthly service fee or the cost of the computer as a barrier to adoption.

What community broadband provides communities the big phone and cable companies don't.

So it isn’t that customers want to exclusively access Internet services over a smartphone, they don’t have much of a choice at the prices providers like Comcast and AT&T charge. Wireless-only broadband is also typically usage capped and so expensive that average families with both wired broadband and a smartphone still do most of their data-intensive usage from home or over Wi-Fi to protect their usage allowance.

EPB runs a true fiber to the home network, Comcast runs a hybrid fiber-coax network, and AT&T mostly relies on a hybrid fiber-copper phone wire network. Comcast and AT&T are technically out of date, not EPB.

Not one of Lopez’s arguments has withstood the scrutiny of checking his claims against the facts, and here is another fact-finding failure on his part:

Top EPB officials argue that residents in Bradley County are clambering for EPB-offered Internet service, but the truth is Bradley County is already served by multiple private Internet service providers. Indeed, statewide only 215,000 Tennesseans, or approximately 4 percent, don’t have broadband access. We must find ways to address the needs of those residents, but that’s not what this bill would do. This bill would promote government providers over private providers, harming taxpayers and consumers along the way.

Outlined section shows Bradley County, Tenn., east of Chattanooga.

Outlined section shows Bradley County, Tenn., east of Chattanooga.

The Chattanoogan reported it far differently, talking with residents and local elected officials on the ground in the broadband-challenged county:

The legislation would remove territorial restrictions and provide the clearest path possible for EPB to serve customers and for customers to receive high-speed internet.

State Rep. Dan Howell, the former executive assistant to the county mayor of Bradley County, was in attendance and called broadband a “necessity” as he offered his full support to helping EPB, as did Tennessee State Senator Todd Gardenhire.

“We can finally get something done,” Senator Gardenhire said. “The major carriers, Charter, Comcast and AT&T, have an exclusive right to the area and they haven’t done anything about it.”

So while EPB’s proposed expansion threatened Comcast and AT&T sufficiently to bring out their lobbyists demanding a ban on such expansions in the state legislature, neither company has specific plans to offer service to unserved locations in the area. Only EPB has shown interest in expansion, and without taxpayer funds.

The facts just don’t tell the same story Lopez, AT&T, and Comcast tell and would like you to believe. EPB has demonstrated it is the best provider in Chattanooga, provides service customers want at a fair price, and represents the interests of the community, not Wall Street and investors Comcast and AT&T listen to almost exclusively. Lopez would do a better job for his group’s membership by telling the truth and not redistributing stale, disproven Big Telecom talking points.

Tenn. Press Outraged By Charter’s Offer of Free Airtime for Politicians Protecting Cable Monopoly

Rep. Calfee

Rep. Calfee

“The sheer audacity of Charter Communications’ offer of free airtime to legislators following the defeat of a broadband access bill is breathtaking,” wrote the editors of the Knoxville News Sentinel in a heated editorial this week. “The spectacle of lawmakers accepting the offer would be revolting.”

The newspaper was responding to the optics of Charter Communications’ generous offer of free airtime for politicians willing to record “public service announcements” just a day after the Tennessee House Business & Utilities Subcommittee killed a bill that would have allowed public utilities to expand fiber broadband service outside of their current electric service area. If that bill became law, it had the potential of giving Charter the formidable competition AT&T, Frontier Communications, and CenturyLink have failed to deliver in Tennessee.

In an election year, anything that gives politicians exposure to voters is worth its weight in gold, which is why taxpayer-sponsored “newsletters” and “voter updates” fill voters’ mailboxes a few months before Election Day. Charter’s plan to saturate subscribers with dubious “PSAs with Politicians” during ad breaks is harder to ignore than another piece of campaign junk mail destined for the recycle bin.

Rep. Daniel

Rep. Daniel

Charter’s vague explanation it was going to offer the airtime before the Subcommittee vote only makes the scandal worse, because it means lawmakers were given advance notice they could be as well-recognized as Henry “The Fonz” Winkler selling reverse mortgages, circus animals and cheerleaders drumming up business for local car dealerships, and kids night at the local family restaurant — all too common tenants of the “local ad insertion” space cable companies get to make more money (or in this case win/reward influence) on the side.

But Charter’s plan appears to be backfiring, drawing unwanted attention on a cable operator Tennessee loves to hate. But more importantly, it gave the Knoxville press an opportunity to remind voters who the real villains of competition are: Republican Reps. Kent Calfee of Kingston and Martin Daniel of Knoxville — two local lawmakers on the Subcommittee voting with Charter, AT&T, and Comcast against their constituents pleading for more cable competition.

news sentinelThe local hero? Rep. Art Swann (R-Maryville) who voted yes (e-mail him a thank you note). He predicts the bill will be back.

The News Sentinel regards the love affair between Charter and lawmakers as compelling as a lunch date with Limburger cheese:

Actually, the stench emanating from the Capitol would indicate something worse than just bad appearances. Tempting lawmakers with free airtime during an election year — even if the commercial technically would not be a campaign ad — is like waving a treat above the snout of an obedient dog.

Charter has not commented on the matter, but its offer certainly gives at least the appearance of trading airtime for votes; surely legislators know better than to take him up on the offer. Tennesseans must hold lawmakers accountable if they do.

Readers can start by telling Reps. Calfee and Daniel they are watching them very closely on this issue and expect them to support public utility broadband expansion when the issue comes before them next time:

Rep. Kent Calfee
301 6th Avenue North
Suite 219 War Memorial Bldg.
Nashville, TN 37243
Phone: (615) 741-7658
Fax: (615) 253-0163
[email protected]
Rep. Martin Daniel
301 6th Avenue North
Suite 109 War Memorial Bldg.
Nashville, TN 37243
Phone: (615) 741-2287
Fax: (615) 253-0348
[email protected]

Tennessee Waltz: State Legislature + Big Telecom Lobbyists = No Rural Broadband Expansion

lobbyist-cashEntrenched telecom industry lobbyists and a legislature enriched by their campaign contributions chose the interests of AT&T, Comcast, and Charter Communications over the broadband needs of rural Tennessee, killing a municipal broadband expansion bill already scaled down to little more than a demonstration project.

The Tennessee House Business and Utilities Subcommittee voted 5-3 Tuesday to end efforts to bring much-needed Internet access to rural Hamilton and Bradley counties, long ignored or underserved by the state’s dominant telecom companies. Rep. Kevin Brooks’ (R-Cleveland) original bill would have allowed Chattanooga-based EPB and other publicly owned utility services to expand fiber broadband and television service to other electric co-ops around the state.

Realizing his bill would be voted up or down by members of a committee that included one former AT&T executive and others receiving substantial campaign contributions from some of Tennessee’s largest phone and cable companies, he reduced the scale of his own bill to a simple demonstration project serving a limited number of customers.

The bill failed anyway, in a vote that took less than a minute.

The Chattanooga Times Free Press described the scene:

Rep. Marc Gravitt (R-East Ridge) voted for Brooks’ amendment and Rep. Patsy Hazlewood (R-Signal Mountain), a one-time AT&T executive, voting against it.

As Rep. Kent Calfee (R-Kingston), the subcommittee’s chairman, prepared to move on to the next bill, he suddenly realized the original bill remained before the panel.

“I’m sorry,” Calfee, who voted against the amendment, told Brooks as the Cleveland lawmaker turned to leave. “It’s the amendment [that failed]. Is there any need to vote on the bill?”

Brooks replied, “The amendment makes the bill. I’d love a vote on the bill.”

“Sorry about that,” Calfee said.

And that was that.

Residents and business people alike in northern Hamilton and portions of Bradley counties say they either have no service, lousy service or wireless service that makes it very expensive to upload and download documents for work and school.

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

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

“It’s a testament to the power of lobbying against this bill and not listening to our electorate,” Brooks told reporters. “The voice of the people today was not heard. And that’s unfortunate.”

Brooks’ bill did attract considerable interest – from telecom industry lobbyists who flooded the state legislative offices with a mission of killing it. The Tennessee newspaper said a “platoon of lobbyists and executives, including AT&T Tennessee President Joelle Phillips,” poured into the House hearing room or watched on nearby video screens to scrutinize the vote.

“I heard they hired 27 lawyers to fight,” Brooks said.

Rural Tennessee Republicans were disappointed by the outcome, which leaves substantial parts of their districts unwired for broadband.

“[This] was the perfect opportunity for EPB to be a pilot and to prove they can do what they say they can do,” said Rep. Dan Howell (R-Georgetown). “And if they can’t do it, it’s a perfect opportunity to put it to rest forever. They wouldn’t even let us do a pilot to prove that EPB can do what it claimed.”

Brooks

Brooks

Rep. Mike Carter (R-Ooltewah), also has a bill being held up in the legislature that would allow expansion of public broadband with the consent of citizen members of co-ops and elected leaders of the rural utilities.

Carter didn’t seem too surprised municipal broadband bills like his were being delayed or killed in the state legislature at the behest of AT&T and other companies.

“You just don’t go up against Goliath unless you have your sling and five stones. I just didn’t have my five stones today,” Carter said.

AT&T declared the bill was flawed, arguing in a statement it was not opposed to municipal broadband, so long as it was targeted only to customers unserved by any other provider. AT&T complained Brooks’ bill lacked language protecting them from unwanted competition.

“None of the bills considered … has any provision that would limit government expansion to unserved areas or even focus on those areas,” AT&T wrote.

Less than 24 hours after the vote ended Charter Communications had a special message for members of the legislature.

The cable operator sent invitations to Tennessee lawmakers giving them free airtime to star in their own “public service announcements” that will blanket the screens of Charter cable TV customers, giving the politicians free exposure.

Rep. Calfee's second largest contributor is AT&T.

Rep. Calfee’s second largest contributor is AT&T.

Charter’s director of government affairs for Tennessee was the executive extending the invitation.

“As a leading broadband communications provider and cable operator serving customers in Tennessee, Charter is committed to providing compelling public affairs programming and public service announcements,” said Nick Pavlis, Charter’s chief lobbyist in the state and a Knoxville city councilman. “We hope you will take advantage of this opportunity to speak directly to your constituents. Taping times are available on a first-come, first-served basis, so we encourage you to schedule yours as soon as possible.”

“Right now it would appear to those watching from the outside that big business won and big business is now reciprocating,” said Brooks.

Sen. Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga) called the invitation inappropriate.

“Charter has done everything they could possibly do to deny rural Bradley broadband, Internet/content service,” Gardenshire told the Times Free Press.

“Well, my first inclination is to say I’m surprised, coming the day after they killed the broadband bill in committee,” added Howell. “[It is] kind of ironic now that they’re asking people to come forward and make public service announcements about how good their service is. I’m kind of stunned.”

FairPoint’s ‘Moosepoop’: Abdicating Its Responsibilities One Customer at a Time

Phillip Dampier: One customer calls FairPoint's deregulation logic "moosepoop."

Phillip Dampier: One customer calls FairPoint’s deregulation logic “moosepoop.”

In 2007, Verizon Communications announced it was selling its landline telephone network in Northern New England to FairPoint Communications, a North Carolina-based independent telephone company. Now, nearly a decade (and one bankruptcy) later, FairPoint wants to back out of its commitments.

In 2015, FairPoint stepped up its push for deregulation, writing its own draft legislative bills that would gradually end its obligation to serve as a “carrier of last resort,” which guarantees phone service to any customer that wants it.

The company’s lobbyists produced the self-written LD 1302, introduced last year in Maine with the ironic name: “An Act To Increase Competition and Ensure a Robust Information and Telecommunications Market.” The bill is a gift to FairPoint, allowing it to abdicate responsibilities telephone companies have adhered to for over 100 years:

  • The bill removes the requirement that FairPoint maintain uninterrupted voice service during a power failure, either through battery backup or electric current;
  • Guarantees FairPoint not be required to offer provider of last resort service without its express consent, eliminating Universal Service requirements;
  • Eliminates a requirement FairPoint offer service in any area where another provider also claims coverage of at least 94% of households;
  • Eventually forbids the Public Utilities Commission from requiring contributions to the state Universal Service Fund and forbids the PUC from spending that money to subsidize rural telephone rates.

opinionSuch legislation strips consumers of any assumption they can get affordable, high quality landline service and would allow FairPoint to mothball significant segments of its network (and the customers that depend on it), telling the disconnected to use a cell phone provider instead.

FairPoint claims this is necessary to establish a more level playing ground to compete with other telecom service providers that do not have legacy obligations to fulfill. But that attitude represents “race to the bottom” thinking from a company that fully understood the implications of buying Verizon’s landline networks in a region where some customers were already dropping basic service in favor of their cell phones.

FairPoint apparently still saw value spending $2.4 billion on a network it now seems ready to partly abandon or dismantle. We suspect the “value” FairPoint saw was a comfortable duopoly in urban areas, a monopoly in most rural ones. When it botched the conversion from Verizon to itself, customers fled to the competition, dimming its prospects. The company soon declared bankruptcy reorganization, emerged from it, and is now seeking a legislative/regulatory bailout too. Regulators should say no.

fairpointLast week, even FairPoint’s CEO Paul Sunu appeared to undercut his company’s own arguments for the need of such legislation, just as the company renewed its efforts in Portland to get a new 2016 version of the deregulation bill through the Maine legislature.

“We’ve operated in and we have experience operating basically in duopolies for a long time,” Sunu told investors in last week’s quarterly results conference call. “Cable is a formidable competitor. Look, they offer a nice package and a bundle and they – in certain areas, they certainly have a speed advantage. So we recognize that and so our marketing team does a really good job of making sure that our packages are competitive and we can counter punch on a both aggregate and deconstructive pricing.”

“Our aim is not to be a low cost, per se,” Sununu added. “What we want to do is to make sure that people stay with us because we can provide a better service and a better experience and that’s really what we aim to do. And as a result, we think that we will be able to change the perception that people have of Fairpoint and our brand and be able to keep our customers with us longer.”

Paul H. Sunu

Paul H. Sunu

Of course customers may not have the option to stay if FairPoint gets its deregulation agenda through and are later left unilaterally disconnected. In fact, while Sunu argues FairPoint’s biggest marketing plus is that it can provide better service, its agenda seems to represent the opposite. AARP representatives argued seniors want and need reliable and affordable landline service. FairPoint’s proposal would eliminate assurances that such phone lines will still be there and work even when the power goes out.

At least this year, customers know if they are being targeted. FairPoint is proposing to immediately remove from “provider of last resort service” coverage in Maine from Bangor, Lewiston, Portland, South Portland, Auburn, Biddeford, Sanford, Brunswick, Scarborough, Saco, Augusta, Westbrook, Windham, Gorham, Waterville, Kennebunk, Standish, Kittery, Brewer, Cape Elizabeth, Old Orchard Beach, Yarmouth, Bath, Freeport and Belfast.

At least 10,000 customers could be affected almost immediately if the bill passes. Customers in those areas would not lose service under the plan, but prices would no longer be set by state regulators and the company could deny new connection requests.

FairPoint argues that customers disappointed by the effects of deregulation can simply switch providers.

fairpoint failure“The market determines the service quality criteria of importance to customers and the service quality levels they find acceptable,” Sarah Davis, the company’s senior director of government affairs, wrote. “To the extent service quality is deficient from the perspective of consumers, the competitive marketplace imposes its own serious penalties.”

Except FairPoint’s own CEO recognizes that marketplace is usually a duopoly, limiting customer options and the penalties to FairPoint.

Those customers still allowed to stay customers may or may not get good service from FairPoint. Another company proposal would make it hard to measure reliability by limiting the authority of state regulators to track and oversee service complaints.

Company critic and customer Mike Kiernan calls FairPoint’s legislative push “moosepoop.”

“FairPoint has been, from the outset, well aware of the issues here in New England, since they had to demonstrate that they were capable of coping with the conditions – market and otherwise – in their takeover bid from Verizon,” Kiernan writes. “Yet now we see where they are crying poverty (a poverty that they brought on themselves) by taking on the state concession that they are trying desperately to get out from under, and as soon as possible.”

Vermont Public Radio reports FairPoint wants to get rid of service quality obligations it has consistently failed to meet as part of a broad push for deregulation. (2:23)

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

Kiernan argues FairPoint should be replaced with a solution New Englanders have been familiar with for over 200 years – a public co-op. He points to Eastern Maine Electrical Co-Op as an example of a publicly owned utility that works for its customers, not as a “corporate cheerleader.”

Despite lobbying efforts that suggest FairPoint is unnecessarily burdened by the requirements it inherited when it bought Verizon’s operations, FairPoint reported a net profit of $90 million dollars in fiscal 2015.

Newest Google Fiber Cities Rely on Pre-Existing Fiber Networks; Is Google Cost-Cutting?

google fiberTwo of Google Fiber’s newest fiber cities will only get the gigabit fiber-to-the-home service because someone else already laid the fiber.

In the last week, residents of San Francisco and Huntsville, Ala. were told they were next in line for Google Fiber service. But instead of proposing to build a citywide fiber network for all residents, Google will rely almost entirely on pre-existing fiber networks they will use to reach customers.

In San Francisco, only an unspecified portion of the metro area will qualify for Google Fiber, namely certain apartments, condos, and subsidized housing units already served by a fiber optic connection. Single family homes and apartments not currently connected to fiber may never qualify for Google’s service.

A Google Fiber executive seemed to signal Google may be taking a harder look at the cost of building fiber service, and future expansion may rely on renting space on someone else’s cable.

“To date, we’ve focused mostly on building fiber-optic networks from scratch,” said Michael Slinger, Google Fiber’s business operations director. “Now, as Google Fiber grows, we’re looking for more ways to serve cities of different shapes and sizes.”

That suddenly makes existing municipal and private dark fiber networks very attractive and in demand. Many municipalities have underused institutional fiber networks that serve anchor institutions, public safety, and government offices. Public access is often limited to non-existent. The prospect of Google paying to use those networks to reach more customers may prove attractive to cash-strapped cities. Private fiber overbuilders and those with excess capacity may also find a new revenue stream renting space to the search engine giant. In Huntsville, Google will have non-exclusive access to the city’s publicly owned fiber network. Any competitor could technically offer their services over the same network.

Competitors and analysts seemed ready to dismiss Google’s latest expansion announcements. Diffusion Group analyst Joel Espelien told the San Jose Mercury News Google Fiber’s plans to wire affordable housing in San Francisco was nothing more than “pure PR.” He’s unimpressed with Google Fiber generally, dismissing it as “Costco Internet,” delivering bulk sized connections at prices most consumers are unaccustomed to paying for Internet access.

“It’s both cheap and it isn’t cheap,” Espelien said. “It kind of depends on your point of view.”

Google’s reasons to offer service to only a few locations in San Francisco are clearly pegged to the costs of wiring the entire city.

“We considered a number of factors, including the city’s rolling hills, miles of coastline, and historic neighborhoods,” Google said in a blog post. All of those features that tourists love to see are also expensive because of costly engineering efforts to hide the cables from view to stay within zoning regulations.

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.

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  • Steve P.: How many people have any real competition for Internet? I know I don't. Certainly not DSL at a fourth the speed....
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  • Christopher G.: I used to work in the industry for multiple companies. We are the richest country yet one of the lower tiers of speed for internet. Why? Internet c...
  • Joe V: Keep it up Phil. I just wrote a piece to Frontline PBS about the state of broadband duopolies in this country. I hope they read and respond....
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  • Duncan: Cut the cord today, and used this blog post as inspiration. TWC jacked my bill from $140 to $180, and that was the final straw. Goodbye, TWC, but ...
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  • Paul Houle: @Lee, it is worse than that. It is not that they cannot afford to give you fiber, it is that they can already make so much money selling you infe...
  • Lee: Frontier will not deliver that 5 Mbps to me. It will not matter what modem I have or what they have in the dslam located at the school. The copper lin...
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