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North Carolina, Where Fiber Begets More Fiber; Ting Explores Wiring Cities Google Forgot

Ting-truck-closedNorth Carolina residents bypassed by Google Fiber and impatient waiting for AT&T U-verse with GigaPower may still have a chance to get gigabit fiber Internet.

Ting, a Toronto-based wireless provider, is exploring building fiber broadband networks in as many as a half-dozen cities in 2016, and some of them may be in North Carolina.

Elliot Noss, CEO of Ting’s parent company, told the Triangle Business Journal he is impressed with the enthusiasm for fiber optic broadband in the state. He recognized Greenlight, Wilson’s community-owned fiber network, as a fiber pioneer that helped fuel demand for better Internet in the state. He added North Carolina is one of the leaders in fiber to the home service in the country, and that makes it a very suitable place to bring even more fiber to the state.

The Triangle region of North Carolina is receiving network upgrades from Time Warner Cable and AT&T, and Google Fiber is coming to Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham, but there remains a number of Triangle communities including Clayton, Dunn, Henderson, Louisburg, Norlina, Oxford, Pittsboro, Rocky Mount, Roxboro, Sanford, Selma, Siler City, Smithfield, Tarboro and Wake Forest where fiber networks would be welcomed.

Ting workers installing fiber optics in Charlottesville, Va.

Ting workers installing fiber optics in Charlottesville, Va.

Noss believes fiber begets even more fiber, which may explain why some states are getting huge investments in competing fiber optic projects while others struggle with little or no fiber at all. As soon as a fiber provider enters a region, it creates a higher level of awareness that better Internet service exists when you look beyond “good enough” broadband from phone and cable companies. The resulting “broadband envy” fuels demand for network upgrades.

Noss believes smaller, outlying metros bypassed for fiber upgrades now want them more than ever because they are at a competitive disadvantage without better Internet access.

“North Carolina might be the first state in the union that has moved from where cities and towns are looking at fiber as a way to differentiate and to lead,” Noss told the newspaper. “(North Carolina) is seeing it almost defensively: We need it for our survival because we’re surrounded by it.”

So what makes a community ripe for fiber broadband? A community already sold on fiber and willing to make things happen quickly and smoothly.

“The first thing we look for when we’re engaging with a city or town is an understanding that this is something they deeply want to do,” Noss says. “We don’t take meetings with cities who want to hear about why they should have fiber or gigabit connectivity.”

That attitude is shared by Google, which has taken to issuing a checklist for city officials interested in attracting Google Fiber to their community. In short, it means developing a working relationship between zoning/permitting officials and Google’s engineers to cut the “red tape.”

In the past, politicians often treated cable franchise contracts as valuable enough to ask providers for concessions in return for an agreement. Many cities treated Verizon the same way when it sought franchise agreements to offer cable television over its FiOS fiber to the home network. Some city officials sought compensation for PEG services – Public Access, Educational, and Government channels. Others sought funding for technology and educational programs, community centers, or free service for public and government-owned buildings.

Google has turned that formula upside down. Today, communities offer concessions to Google competing to be the next fiber city. Other providers entering the fiber market with promises of better Internet are getting a similar reception from eager communities.

Charlottesville, Va. and Westminster, Md., neither a likely prospect for Google Fiber or Verizon FiOS did not need any convincing. Ting now provides gigabit fiber service in both communities for $89 a month or a cheaper 5/5Mbps budget option for $19 a month — both with a $399 installation fee. Customers cannot wait to sign up for service, often to say goodbye to companies like Comcast or Verizon’s DSL offering.

Ting is owned by Tucows, Inc., a provider of network access, domain names, and other Internet services.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Ting What gigabit fiber means for Westminster 2015.mp4

Ting produced this video about what gigabit fiber broadband will mean for a community like Westminster, Md. (2:07)

Wall Street Analyst Tells Congress Broadband Needs to Be More Than Just “Profitable” to Spur Investment

greedUnless a broadband provider can deliver the same kind of profitability earned by U.S. cable operators, don’t expect significant private investment in broadband expansion even if the company can easily turn a profit.

That was the argument brought to a House hearing on funding broadband infrastructure expansion by Craig Moffett, a Wall Street analyst at Moffett Nathanson.

“Infrastructure deployment requires the expectation of a healthy return on capital,” Moffett told the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee in a hearing this afternoon. “That should be taken as a given, but all too often, in my experience, the issue of return on capital is either ignored or misunderstood in policy forums. It is not a matter of whether a business is or isn’t profitable, it is instead a matter of whether it is sufficiently profitable to warrant the high levels of capital investment required for the deployment of infrastructure.”

Moffett pointed to the massive profits earned by cable operators Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Charter and Cablevision, all of which earned returns well in excess of their cost of capital, ranging from 13-33 percent. Moffett argued Wall Street has come to expect those kinds of returns, and investors will take a hard look at companies deploying new expensive networks against those that have largely paid back much of the capital costs incurred when their networks were built decades ago.

Moffett continued to criticize the broadband expansion being undertaken by large incumbent telephone companies that he claims does not earn attractive returns for their wireline businesses, even as they have introduced new services like faster broadband and television.

“For example, a decade after first undertaking their FiOS fiber-to-the-home buildout to 18 million homes, Verizon has not yet come close to earning a return in excess of their cost of capital,” said Moffett. “In 2014 their aggregate wired telecommunications business earned a paltry 1.2% return, against a cost of capital of roughly 5%. For the non-financial types in the room, that’s the equivalent of borrowing money at 5% interest in order to earn interest of 1%. That’s a good way to go bankrupt.”

analysisMoffett was also critical of AT&T’s planned expansion of gigabit fiber broadband.

“AT&T has committed to the FCC to make fiber available to a total of 11.7 million locations in their footprint in order to make their acquisition of DirecTV more palatable to policy-makers, but it is hard to be optimistic that they will do much better this time around,” Moffett argued.

Moffett believes competition is bad for the profitable broadband business.

Moffett

Moffett

“The broader take-away here is that the returns to be had from overbuilding – that is, being the second or third broadband provider in a given market – are generally poor,” Moffett said. “Let that sink in for a moment. Stated simply, it means that market forces are unlikely to yield a competitive broadband market. Neither, by the way, does wireless appear to offer the promise of imminent competition for incumbent broadband providers. Wireless networks simply aren’t engineered for the kind of sustained throughput required for a wired-broadband-replacement service.”

As a result, investors prefer that the broadband marketplace remain a monopoly or duopoly to guarantee the kinds of healthy returns they have earned for years, especially from the cable stocks Moffett has always favored in reports to his clients. Additional competition drives prices down, reducing profits, which in turn discourages investors who have high expectations their money will make them a lot more money.

Moffett’s arguments are largely based on broadband being a for-profit private enterprise, not a public infrastructure effort. But it does explain why there is a willingness to compete in large cities where network construction costs are lower and rural communities remain relatively unserved. As with electrification 100 years ago, investor-owned utilities were willing to wire large communities while ignoring rural farms and communities. Only after electricity was deemed a necessary utility did alternative means of funding, including member-owned co-ops and community-owned utilities finish electrifying areas private capital ignored.

Moffett’s guide to better broadband is based entirely on profitability — delivering enough profits and other returns to attract investors that will look elsewhere if costs become too high. Community-owned broadband avoids this dilemma by advocating for break-even or modestly profitable networks that focus on service, not investor-attractive profits.

Several members of Congress commented Moffett’s vision of broadband was discouraging, even depressing, because it seemed to be locked in a for-profit, private sector model that had few answers to offer for communities left behind. Moffett even warned against oversight and regulation of incumbent cable and phone companies, claiming it would further drive away private investment.

But broadband customers, Moffett admitted, will still pay the price for investor expectations.

comcast cartoon“As everyone understands, the cable video business is facing unprecedented pressure,” Moffett testified. “Cord cutting has been talked about for years but is finally starting to show up in a meaningful way in the numbers. And soaring programming costs are eating away at video profit margins. From a cable operator’s perspective, the video business and the broadband business are opposite sides of the same coin. It is, after all, all one infrastructure. Pressure on the video profit pool will therefore naturally trigger a pricing response in broadband, where cable operators will have greater pricing leverage.”

Moffett said the kinds of rate hikes consumers used to pay for cable television now increasingly transferred to broadband customers is nothing nefarious. To keep investors happy, the kind of returns once earned from cable television will now have be delivered on the backs of broadband customers if Congress expects cable companies to continue upgrading and expanding their networks.

“All else being equal, that will mean that even new builds of broadband will become increasingly economically challenged and therefore will become less and less likely,” said Moffett. “Or they will simply have to sharply raise broadband prices.”

Moffett’s comments do come with some baggage, however. His clients pay for his advice and Moffett has been a long-time supporter of cable industry stocks. He has been a strong and natural advocate for a cable industry that faces only token opposition. He has browbeaten executives to start broadband usage caps and usage-based billing to further boost broadband profits, slammed telephone company competition in the cable business as financially reckless and unwarranted, and dismissed Google Fiber as a project designed to help Google’s public policy aims more than earn the search giant profits from the broadband business.

But Moffett has also been wrong in the past, particularly with respect to cord-cutting which he used to downplay as an urban legend and on the ease cable companies would be able to acquire and merge with each other.

Beyond all that, Moffett and his clients have a proverbial dog in the fight. After years of pumping cable stocks, suggestions that more competition for the cable industry is a good thing would simply be bad for business.

Australia’s Netflix Anxiety Attack Exposes Weakness of Broadband Upgrades on the Cheap

netflix-ausWith video streaming now accounting for at least 64 percent of all Internet traffic, it should have come as no surprise to Australia’s ISPs that as data caps are eased and popular online video services like Netflix arrive, traffic spikes would occur on their networks as well.

It surprised them anyway.

Telecom analyst Paul Budde told the WAToday newspaper “video streaming requires our ISPs to have robust infrastructure, and to use it in more sophisticated ways, and that largely caught Australia off guard. I think it’s fair to say everybody underestimated the effect of Netflix.”

Not everybody.

Australia’s National Broadband Network (NBN) was originally envisioned by the then Labor government as a fiber-to-the-home network capable of enormous capacity and gigabit speed. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd proposed buying out the country’s existing copper phone wire infrastructure from telecom giant Telstra to scrap it. Instead of DSL and a limited number of cable broadband providers, the national fiber to the home network would provide service to the majority of Australians, with exceptionally rural residents served by wireless and/or satellite.

Conservative critics slammed the NBN as a fiscal “white elephant” that would duplicate or overrun private investment and saddle taxpayers with the construction costs. In the run up to the federal election of 2013, critics proposed to scale back the NBN as a provider of last resort that would only offer service where others did not. Others suggested a scaled-down network would be more fiscally responsible. After the votes were counted, a Coalition government was formed, run by the conservative Liberal and National parties. Within weeks, they downsized the NBN and replaced most of its governing board.

Netflix's launch increased traffic passing through Australia's ISPs by 50 percent, from 30 to 50Gbps in just one week, and growing.

Netflix’s launch increased traffic passing through Australia’s ISPs by 50 percent, from 30 to 50Gbps in just one week, and growing.

Plans for a national fiber to the home network similar to Verizon FiOS were dropped, replaced with fiber to the neighborhood technology somewhat comparable to AT&T U-verse or Bell Fibe. Instead of gigabit fiber, Australians would rely on a motley mix of technologies including wireless broadband, DSL, VDSL, cable, and in areas where the work had begun under the earlier government, a limited amount of fiber.

In hindsight, the penny wise-pound foolish approach to broadband upgrades has begun to haunt the conservatives, who have already broken several commitments regarding the promised performance of the downsized network and are likely to break several more, forcing more costly upgrades that would have been unnecessary if the government remained focused on an all-fiber network.

Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has admitted the new NBN will not be able to deliver 25Mbps service to all Australians by 2016. Only 43 percent of the country will get that speed, partly because of technical compromises engineers have been forced to make to accommodate the legacy copper network that isn’t going anywhere.

Think Broadband called the fiber to the neighborhood NBN “a farce” that has led to lowest common denominator broadband. A need to co-exist with ADSL2+ technology already offered to Australians has constrained any speed benefits available from offering faster DSL variants like VDSL2. Customers qualified for VDSL2 broadband speeds will be limited to a maximum of 12Mbps to avoid interfering with existing ADSL2+ services already deployed to other customers. Only multi-dwelling units escape this limitation because those buildings typically host their own DSLAM, which provides service to each customer inside the building. In those cases, customers are limited to a maximum of 25Mbps, not exactly broadband nirvana. The NBN is predicting it will take at least a year to take the bandwidth limits off VDSL2.

nbnThe need for further upgrades as a result of traffic growth breaks another firm commitment from the conservative government.

NBN executive chairman Ziggy Switkowski told reporters in 2013 that technology used in the NBN would not need to be upgraded for at least five years after construction.

“The NBN would not need to upgraded sooner than five years of construction of the first access technology,” Switkowski said. “It is economically more efficient to upgrade over time rather than build a future-proof technology in a field where fast-changing technology is the norm.”

Since Switkowski made that statement two years ago, other providers around the world have gravitated towards fiber optics, believing its capacity and upgradability makes it the best future-proof technology available to handle the kind of traffic growth also now being seen in Australia. At the start of 2015, 315,000 Australians were signed up for online video services. Today, more than two million subscribe, with Netflix adding more than a million customers in less than four months after it launched down under.

Many ISPs offer larger data caps or remove them altogether for “preferred partner” streaming services like Netflix. With usage caps in place, some customers would have used up an entire month’s allowance after just one night watching Netflix.

But the online viewing has created problems for several ISPs, especially during peak usage times. iiNet reports up to 25% of all its network traffic now comes from Netflix. As a result iiNet is accelerating network upgrades.

Customers still reliant on the NBN’s partial copper network are also reporting slowdowns, especially in the evening. The NBN will have to upgrade its backbone connection as well as the last mile connection it maintains with customers who often share access through a DSLAM. The more customers use their connections for Netflix, the greater the likelihood of congestion slowdowns until capacity upgrades are completed.

Hackett

Hackett

Optus worries its customers have extended Internet peak time usage by almost 90 minutes each night as they watch online streaming instead of free-to-air TV. Telstra adds it also faces a strain from “well over half” of the traffic on its network now consisting of video content.

This may explain why Internet entrepreneur and NBN co-board director Simon Hackett wishes the fiber to the neighborhood technology would disappear and be replaced by true fiber to the home service.

“It sucks,” Hackett told an audience at the Rewind/Fast Forward event in Sydney in March, referring to the fiber to the neighborhood technology. His mission is to try and make the government’s priority for cheaper broadband infrastructure “as least worse as possible.”

“Fiber-to the-[neighborhood] is the least-exciting part of the current policy, no arguments,” he added. “If I could wave a wand, it’s the bit I’d erase.”

Another cost of the Coalition government’s slimmed-down Internet expansion is already clear.

According to Netflix’s own ISP speed index, which ranks providers on the quality of streaming Netflix on their networks, Australia lags well behind the top speeds of dozens of other developed nations, including Mexico and Argentina.

But even those anemic speeds come at a high cost to ISPs, charged a connectivity virtual circuit charge (CVC) by NBN costing $12.91 per 1Mbps. The fee is designed to help recoup network construction and upgrade costs. But the fee was set before the online video wave reached Australia. iiNet boss David Buckingham worries he will have to charge customers a “Netflix tax” of $19.18 a month for moderate Netflix viewing to recoup enough money to pay the CVC fees. If a viewer wants to watch a 4K video stream, Buckingham predicts ISPs will have to place a surcharge of $44.26 a month on occasional 4K viewing, if customers can even sustain such a video on NBN’s often anemic broadband connections.

Some experts fear costs will continue to rise as the government eventually recognizes its budget-priced NBN is saddled with obsolete technology that will need expensive upgrades sooner than most think.

Instead of staying focused on fiber optics, technology the former Rudd government suggested would offer Australians gigabit speeds almost immediately and would have plenty of capacity for traffic, the conservative, constrained, “more affordable” NBN is leaving many customers with no better than 12Mbps with a future promise to deliver 50Mbps some day. There is little value for money from that.

Thurman, N.Y. White Space Rural Broadband Wins “Most Innovative Project Award”

rural connectOne of the few “white space” wireless broadband projects deployed in the United States to deliver broadband to rural residents has won the “Most Innovative Project” award, presented during the 2015 New York State Broadband Summit.

The collaborative project between the Town of Thurman, Rainmaker Network Services and Frontier Communications to offer high-speed Internet access to around 65 residents is seen as a successful private-public collaboration to address rural broadband issues in sparsely populated areas.

Frontier Communications provided the trunk line for the service and a $200,000 state grant helped acquire the infrastructure to power the wireless network, which works over unoccupied UHF television channels. The 12 currently subscribing households pay $50 a month for broadband, plus a $292 equipment fee when they sign up. Plans to reach more households have been delayed by a handful of town board members opposed to the project and residents who refuse to grant easements to place equipment on private property. The project had to be re-engineered to workaround some of these difficulties.

PrintDespite the delays, there are estimates another 40-50 households will be able to get the service by the end of summer.

Customers love the service, which is faster than traditional Wireless ISP technology, and comes without speed throttling or data caps.

“By implementing an innovative white space network, Thurman found a way to provide Internet service to a rural area without the need for a large amount of costly infrastructure,” said David Salway, executive director of the New York Broadband Program Office. “Where there was once only dial-up and satellite service, Thurman citizens will have reliable high-speed Internet at affordable rates.”

 http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Carlson Wireless Technologies Rural Connect 3-2015.mp4

Carlson Wireless Technologies explains how next generation white space wireless broadband can be a cost-effective solution to the digital divide. (3:41)

Another Reminder Wireless ISPs are Not a Good Choice if a Fiber Alternative is Possible

Rationing Your Internet Experience: Stick to e-mail and web pages.

Rationing Your Internet Experience: Stick to e-mail and web pages.

This week’s news that the alleged owner of a Wireless ISP serving parts of New England may have fled the country to avoid an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission on an unrelated digital currency matter has left about 1,000 Vermont customers of GAW Wireless with no certain future for their Internet Service Provider.

As the “Geniuses At Work” came under pressure from public accusations the company was running a scam on digital currency investors, so went the performance of GAW Wireless. In February, a two-week service outage left many customers without telephone and Internet service. This month, e-mail accounts stopped working for some and nobody appears to be answering the firm’s customer service line. Even Vermont’s Attorney General cannot find the owner.

While Wireless ISPs (WISPs) can be a good option for North America’s unserved rural communities, they are not always the best choice, especially as customers continue to gravitate towards high bandwidth applications like Netflix.

Some rural WISPs have kept up with customer demand and continue to offer good service. Others have educated customers about being a good steward of a limited resource by showing courtesy to other customers by self-limiting heavy traffic applications to off-peak hours.

But other providers have chosen usage-discouraging data caps or usage-based billing to cover up for their inadequate infrastructure investment. In Nova Scotia, Eastlink’s new 15GB monthly usage cap on rural customers is nothing short of Internet rationing, completely ignorant of the fact most customers have moved beyond the Internet applications Eastlink envisioned them using when it built its network in 2006. Nearly a decade later, it is ridiculous to suggest customers should be happy continuing to pay almost $50 a month for a 1.5Mbps connection designed for e-mail, basic web browsing, and occasional dabbling into downloads, music, and video.

Come for the view but don't stay for the broadband.

Come for the view but don’t stay for the wireless broadband.

Some angry customers suspect Eastlink is simply being greedy. We believe it is more likely Eastlink’s existing wireless network is no longer adequate for the needs of Nova Scotians (or practically anybody else in 2015). The evidence that congestion is the real problem was supplied by customers who have noticed the network’s performance has slowed over the last few years. That is a sign the network is either oversold — too many customers trying to share the same bandwidth limited resource — or has become congested because of the growth of Internet traffic generally. It might even be both.

Implementing draconian usage caps only alienates customers and suggests Eastlink wants to collect as much revenue as it can from a resource that should either be vastly upgraded or retired in favor of superior technology. We have not seen anything from Eastlink that suggests major upgrades are on the way. In fact, the only conclusion we can make from Eastlink’s public comments is they think equal access to an inadequate resource is fairer than actually upgrading it.

Eastlink claims nobody could have envisioned Internet traffic growth from the likes of Netflix. In fact, equipment manufacturers like 3Com and Cisco were issuing scare stories about Internet brownouts and future traffic exafloods since December, 1995 — the year before Eastlink planned its Nova Scotia wireless network. Smart network planners have kept up with demand, which has been made easier by technology improvements accompanying the increased traffic. A good ISP recognizes upgrades are continual and essential to keep up with customer needs. A bad ISP introduces a rationing usage cap and claims it is only trying to be fair to every customer.

Phillip "Fiber is Good for You" Dampier

Phillip “Fiber is Good for You” Dampier

Usage caps and usage-based billing have never been about “fairness.” We’ve seen all sorts of usage enforcement schemes imposed on customers since 2008 when Stop the Cap! was founded. In each instance, usage caps were only about the money. Eastlink customers will not see any rate decrease as a result of its rationing plan, giving users less value for their broadband dollar. If an Eastlink customer confines use of their high traffic applications to the overnight hours, when they would cause little or no congestion, they will still eat into their monthly usage allowance.

All the benefits of usage caps accrue to Eastlink, either by reducing traffic on its network and allowing the company to delay necessary upgrades, or by pocketing the inevitable overlimit fees, which may or may not go towards upgrades. In our experience, the case for spending capital on network upgrades has never depended on overlimit fees collected from subscribers squirreled away in a separate bank account.

This is why communities in Vermont, Nova Scotia and beyond should strongly consider investing in fiber optics for broadband delivery and consider wireless only for the least populated areas. A broadband project in rural western Massachusetts can offer a guide to resolving the ongoing problem of unserved or underserved communities ignored by commercial providers. Deprived of upgrades from Verizon and shunned by Comcast and Time Warner Cable, the residents of these towns continue to vote overwhelmingly in favor of fiber optics.

The WiredWest approach is a solid solution. The initiative secures bond authorizations from each participating town in a public vote backed by deposits of $49 per household, held in escrow to be later used to cover the first month of broadband service when the service launches. Each town must have at least a 40% buy-in from residents, providing strong evidence the project has a solid customer base, is financially viable, and can recover construction costs and pay off the bonds estimated at $100-120 million within a reasonable amount of time. The state legislature contributed an additional $40 million dedicated to last mile infrastructure — the cost to wire each home or business. (In contrast, Nova Scotia and the federal government spent $34 million subsidizing the Eastlink wireless network in 2007 that has not aged well. Fiber optics is infinitely upgradable.) By choosing fiber optics, instead of getting rationed, slow speed, or no Internet service, WiredWest towns will be able to subscribe to 25Mbps for $49 a month, 100Mbps service for $79, or 1,000Mbps for $109 a month
.

In comparison, Eastlink charges $46.95 a month for “up to” 1.5Mbps with a 15GB cap and GAW Wireless (when working) charges $39.95/mo for “up to 7Mbps.”

Gigabit Fiber Coming to Frontenac, Kansas for $70 a Month

craw-kan_logoOne of Kansas’ fastest and most innovative gigabit fiber broadband projects will be built in a community originally bypassed by AT&T.

Earlier this month the Frontenac City Council approved Craw-Kan Telephone Cooperative’s plan to build a fiber optic network in the city that will sell 1,000Mbps service for $70 a month.

frontenac“It’s just superior to anything out there,” said Craig Wilbert, general manager of Craw-Kan. “We’ve been doing fiber for several years. We have well over 2,000 customers, and I think we just finally asked ourselves why are we restricting the use of this fiber optic cable when it can do so much more than what most people are receiving?”

Craw-Kan Telephone Cooperative Association, Inc., began in March 1954 serving 14 subscribers in southeastern Kansas, very close to the borders of both Missouri and Oklahoma. After a series of acquisitions, the cooperative grew to more than 24 community exchanges, all bringing direct dialing to customers starting in the mid-1950s with plans to bring gigabit fiber to customers in the mid-2015s.

Construction of the network starts this summer with a completion date of next year.

Can’t Achieve Your National Broadband Plan’s Objectives? Change the Objectives

brazil internetBrazil’s plans to bring at least 25Mbps fiber broadband to 45 percent of Brazilian households by 2018 are on hold after private providers balked about spending the money.

The Ministry of Communications’ ambitious Broadband for All program is a public-private partnership. Public broadband expansion funding would be matched by generous tax credits to encourage private matching investments to improve Brazil’s telecommunications infrastructure. Telephone customers already pay a tax on their telecom bills to fund Brazil’s version of the Universal Service Fund, which helps subsidize expenses in high cost service areas.

The plan derailed after investment markets saw little opportunity for big profits from a fiber upgrade. Brazil’s president Dilma Vana Rousseff embarrassed her Minister of Communications Ricardo Berzoini, who had already publicly announced plans to get the upgrades started last month.

A source close to the president told Reuters the government has sided with commercial providers and is slowing the project down for now.

“We have to adjust the timing of investments to adapt to the appetite of the market and public finances,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

brazilA less ambitious expansion program is tentatively scheduled to start in mid-October, but is only likely to incrementally improve broadband in larger cities.

At least one company balked about poor revenue and profit opportunities serving economically challenged regions in Brazil. It argued the population lacked enough income to pay the prices they intended to charge for fiber service.

Community and broadband activists complain critics have demagogued the effort from the beginning with stories of wiring fiber across vast expanses of the Amazon Rain Forest that would ultimately serve few, if any customers. After years of sub-standard service, many believe broadband should be provided and regulated like an essential utility. Currently, only landline-based broadband is regulated in the public interest.

For the consumer protection agency PROTEST, fast broadband is essential to society and where private providers have dropped the ball, the Brazilian government should pick it up and build broadband networks itself, using the proceeds of the Universal Service Fund.

“This deference to big telecom companies to decide Brazil’s online future is a huge mistake,” complained Carlos Filho, an Internet user in Cuiabá, the capital city of the state of Moto Grosso. “I cannot even get 1Mbps DSL in my downtown apartment. You have to use wireless, which is very expensive, to get anything done. The government should be building broadband like it builds roads.”

This afternoon, officials from the Ministry of Communications will meet with Russian Deputy Communications Minister Rashid Ismailov in St. Petersburg to seek Russian investment in Brazil’s wireless and rural broadband ventures.

Canada’s Choice: Privatized MTS Enriches Itself, Publicly Owned SaskTel Enriches Customers

Truth or Consequences: Does privatizing a government-owned telephone company encourage innovation and efficiency or serve to enrich a handful of executives and shareholders at the cost of customer service? Two essentially equal telephone companies serving the Canadian prairie provinces offer some useful insights.

sasktelThe provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan are remarkably similar in their landscape and their sparse populations — 1.29 million in Manitoba and 1.13 million in Saskatchewan. Today, most are concentrated in or near a few large cities with many small agricultural towns scattered across great distances.

At the dawn of the 1900s, the “Sunny way” of Prime Minister Sir Henri Charles Wilfrid Laurier and his Liberal party was to push open the western frontiers and lay new railways across Canada. Part of the zeal for expansion came from a sense of growth and optimism, but there were also pervasive fears that without significant settlements in central Canada, the Americans could end up annexing huge swaths of empty Canadian agricultural lands for its own interests.

To prevent this and enhance its own national identity, Canada threw its doors open to immigration, especially to hard-working Americans from the midwest who were inundated with government-sponsored advertisements about a new life and opportunities that waited in the Canadian prairies.

The campaign worked. Between 1901 and 1906, the population of Saskatchewan surged from 91,279 to 257,763, 86.8% settled in rural farming areas. By 1911, the population almost doubled again to 492,432 with over 80% located away from the cities of Regina and Saskatoon. Next door in Manitoba, many new residents preferred areas south of Winnipeg, closer to the American border.

mtsServing this population boom depended heavily on Canadian railroads, which delivered settlers and laborers, medicine, farming equipment, and the latest news from Ottawa. The trains returned east with part of the harvest and various meats.

It was no surprise Canada’s telecommunications infrastructure (along with more than a few new towns) would grow up along its railway lines.

With Bell Canada preoccupied with its larger client base in Ontario and Quebec, both the governments of Manitoba and Saskatchewan established provincial, publicly owned, phone companies to take control of their telecommunications future. In 1908, the Manitoba Telephone System (MTS) was born, made up mostly of former Bell customers. In 1909, SaskTel was established as a publicly owned operation as well, again comprising former Bell customers in the province. Both MTS and SaskTel quickly bought out all the remaining private telephone companies still operating in their midst.

The Winnipeg Free Press notes both MTS and SaskTel successfully served their respective customers for nearly 90 years. In 1997, Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative premier Gary Filmon broke his pledge to keep hands off MTS and privatized the company, claiming it would be more innovative in private hands.

That move would not be repeated in Saskatchewan, where every political party in office usually treated SaskTel as sacrosanct to the province’s economic development. Even the conservative Saskatchewan Party, which held power in the province from 1982-1991, never got around to privatizing the phone company, and a pledge to privatize crown corporations in the near future was just one of several issues that led to the party’s downfall in the election of 1991.

w canadaFor the last 18 years, Canadians have been able to see which province made the wisest choice. The newspaper concluded after nearly two decades, there is strong evidence MTS’ main priorities are to satisfy shareholders and commercial business customers, while rewarding their executives with handsome pay packages.

“Meanwhile, SaskTel appears to focus on customer service and satisfaction, being a good employer and on providing returns to their public shareholder: the people of Saskatchewan,” the Winnipeg Free Press concluded.

Evidence of SaskTel’s service ethic could be found last week when SaskTel was acknowledged as western Canada’s most dependable wireless carrier, according to a new study by market researcher J.D. Power.

“SaskTel ranks highest in overall network quality and performs particularly well in call quality, messaging quality and data quality,” J.D. Power said in its report.

SaskTel has never been reserved about its own accomplishments, particularly its success delivering innovative new services to sparsely populated regions across Saskatchewan:

  • SaskTel was the first telecommunications company in Canada to complete its rural individual line service program, eliminating all party lines in 1990;
  • SaskTel was at the forefront of Internet provision as the first in Canada to remove the long distance charges on dial-up Internet and the first in North America to offer high-speed service on phone lines through DSL technology;
  • SaskTel was among the first commercial users of fiber-optics in the world, today offering customers competitive cable television, broadband, and phone service.
Filmon

Filmon

MTS has not turned out to be the innovator it was promised to be as a private company. While SaskTel was becoming a world leader in converged fiber optic networks, supplying voice, data and video across a strand of fiber, MTS was raising rates on landline customers.

Today, a basic landline in Saskatchewan costs around $8 a month — 27% less than the cheapest MTS home phone service. Everything at MTS usually costs more, which has turned out very well for shareholders and executives. While MTS earns roughly double the profit of SaskTel, almost all goes to major shareholders and top executives. SaskTel has returned $497 million over the last five years to the provincial government as well as customers through an annual dividend payment. Over in Manitoba, MTS has proved to be innovative in avoiding its tax bill — only paying corporate taxes once in 10 years — and that was just $1.2 million in 2010. Creative accounting at MTS has allowed the profitable company to pay “a big fat zero in federal and provincial corporate income taxes,” according to the newspaper, and MTS does not expect to owe a penny in income taxes until 2020 at the earliest.

So where do MTS profits go? Last year, MTS former CEO Pierre Blouin received $7.8 million in compensation, well above his five-year average of $4.8 million. Blouin’s salary was more than 10 times higher than what SaskTel’s CEO receives annually.

The newspaper adds MTS directors are paid more than 10 times what SaskTel’s directors are paid. But even more disturbing, the man who made the Money Party possible for MTS — former premier Gary Filmon — had a cozy, well-compensated home waiting for him on the MTS board after he lost his re-election bid. He has used his time at MTS to feather his own nest with more than $1.4 million in director fees and compensation over 10 years, along with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of shares.

“None of this is meant to suggest SaskTel is an ideal company, but it appears abundantly clear this publicly owned and operated company provides better service at lower costs to its customers than the privatized MTS, and it also provides much larger benefits to the people of the province from its profits,” writes economist Toby Sanger. “Despite all this, the Saskatchewan government may be laying the groundwork for privatization of SaskTel. If this is what we can expect from the privatizations of other public utilities — higher fees for the public, lower-quality service, much higher compensation for CEOs and executives, higher corporate profits but much lower returns for the provinces — we can see why Bay Street [Canada’s Wall Street] is so excited about the privatization of Hydro One — and why the people of Ontario should be very worried.”

Empire Access Expands Fiber to the Home Service Across Western N.Y./Southern Tier

empireA Prattsburgh, N.Y. family-owned company has picked up where Verizon left off and is busily wiring up small communities across western New York and the Southern Tier with fiber to the home service, giving both Verizon and Time Warner Cable some competitive headaches.

Empire Access is concentrating its service in areas where Verizon FiOS will never go and Time Warner Cable maxes out at 50/5Mbps. The company recently launched service in downtown Batavia in Genesee County and will be launching serving in Big Flats later this year.

Empire promises no data caps or usage-based billing and offers 100/20Mbps at introductory prices ranging from between $45-65/mo. Gigabit broadband speed is also available.

Where it has franchise agreements with local communities, Empire also offers cable television packages ranging from $31.45-73.40, with up to 130 channels. The packages are not as comprehensive as those from Time Warner Cable, but customers may not mind losing a dozen or two niche cable channels to save up to $30 a month off what Time Warner charges. Nationwide home phone service is also an option.

Empire relies heavily on two public/non-profit fiber backbone networks to deliver service. The Southern Tier Network comprises a 235-mile long fiber backbone that runs through Steuben, Chemung and Schuyler counties. Further north, Axcess Ontario provides backbone connectivity across its 200+ mile fiber ring around Ontario County.

fiber backboneWith the help of public and non-profit broadband infrastructure, residents in small communities across a region extending from Sayre, Pa., north to Batavia, N.Y., will have another choice besides Verizon or Frontier DSL, Comcast or Time Warner Cable.

Residents in some communities, like Hammondsport and Bath — south of Keuka Lake, love the fact they have a better choice than Time Warner Cable. Empire has reportedly signed up 70 percent of area businesses and has more than a 20% residential market share in both villages after a year doing business in the Finger Lakes communities.

Empire targets compact villages with a relatively affluent populations where no other fiber overbuilder is providing service. It doesn’t follow Google’s “fiberhood” approach where neighborhoods compete to be wired. Instead, it provides service across an entire village and then gradually expands to nearby towns from there.

Most western New York villages are already compact enough to attract the attention of cable companies, predominately Time Warner Cable, which has an effective broadband monopoly. Verizon and Frontier offer limited slowband DSL, but Verizon has stopped expanding the reach of its broadband service and will likely never bring FiOS fiber to the home service to any western N.Y. community outside of a handful of suburbs near Buffalo.

empire-access-truckThe arrival of Empire reminds some of the days when the first cable company arrived to wire their village. Word of mouth is often enough to attract new customers, but a handful of local sales agents are also on hand to handle customer signups. From there, one of the company’s 80+ employees in New York handle everything else.

Bryan Cummings, who shared the story of Empire Access with us, “is pretty stoked.”

“Bye, bye Time Warner Cable,” Cummings tells Stop the Cap!.

Time Warner has treated most of western New York about as well as its service areas in Ohio, often criticized for not keeping up with the times. With fiber overbuilders Empire Access in the Finger Lakes region and Southern Tier and Greenlight Networks in Rochester, the fastest Internet options are not coming from the local phone and cable company anymore.

WSKG in Binghamton explores fiber broadband developments in the Southern Tier of upstate New York. Empire Access is providing the fast fiber broadband Verizon, Frontier, and Time Warner Cable won’t. (3:54)

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

At present, Empire Access provides service in:

  • Village of Arkport
  • City of Batavia
  • Village of Bath
  • Village of Canisteo
  • Village of Hammondsport
  • City of Hornell
  • Village of Montour Falls
  • Village of Naples
  • Village of North Hornell
  • Village of Watkins Glen
  • Village of Waverly (N.Y.)
  • Boroughs of Sayre, Athens, and South Waverly (Pa.)
  • Borough of Troy (Pa.)

Communities on Empire’s radar for future expansion include Urbana, Dansville, Wayland and Cohocton. Further out, there is some consideration of larger cities like Corning and Elmira, as well as other towns in far northern Pennsylvania. With Empire’s expansion into Naples, the company also has many options in affluent and growing communities in Ontario County, south of Rochester.

Hometown Newspaper of Charter Communications Warns Time Warner Deal Not in the Public Interest

Editor’s Note: This editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch is reprinted in its entirety. It comes from a newspaper that has covered Charter Communications since its inception. The Post-Dispatch reporters are also some of Charter’s subscribers — the cable company serves all of metropolitan St. Louis. Charter has never been received particularly well in St. Louis and in other cities where it provides generally mediocre service. Communities across Missouri that have endured poor cable and broadband service have recently taken a serious look at doing something about this by building their own public broadband networks as an alternative. But big money telecom interests, especially AT&T, have found it considerably less expensive to lobby to ban these networks from ever getting off the ground than spending the money to upgrade networks to compete.

charter twc bhOn May 15, the last day of this year’s session of the Missouri Legislature, House Bill 437 finally was assigned to a committee, where it promptly died. Given the power of the American Legislative Exchange Council, it may well be back next year.

HB 437, sponsored by Rep. Rocky Miller, R-Lake Ozark, was full of gobbledygook about “municipal competitive services,” but its effect would have been to condemn Missourians to ever-higher prices for broadband Internet service. Cities would have been forbidden from establishing their own broadband services to compete with private operators, thus holding down prices.

ALEC, which wines and dines state lawmakers and then gets them to pass pro-business “model legislation” in their states, had succeeded in getting restrictions on public Internet providers in 20 states. But in February, the Federal Communications Commission struck down North Carolina’s ALEC-inspired law, so the future of other such laws is uncertain.

About 22 percent of Missourians are still regarded as “underserved,” having no reliable access to broadband service of at least 25 megabits per second — what’s needed to stream video without lags. About 1 in 6 Missourians have only one wired access provider to choose from. More than 400,000 Missourians have no wired broadband at all.

Missouri is ranked 38th “most connected” in the nation by the federal-state Broadband Now initiative. In the 21st century, this is like being underserved by railroads in the 19th century or power lines in the early 20th. In parts of rural Missouri, it’s hard to do business, which helps explain why HB 437 died in committee.

Rep. Rocky Miller (R-Lake Ozark)

Rep. Rocky Miller (R-Lake Ozark)

The basic question is whether companies that invest in high-speed Internet infrastructure should be able to charge whatever they can get away with, or whether broadband service should be treated as a public utility. If it’s the latter, as the FCC determined in February, then government must make sure it’s affordable.

Which brings us to Charter Communications proposed $56 billion takeover of Time Warner Cable and its $10.4 billion acquisition of Bright House Networks. Both deals were announced May 26; both will need approval from the FCC and the Justice Department’s antitrust regulators.

In St. Louis, we have a love-hate relationship with Charter, a homegrown company built atop what was once Cencom Cable. It has dominated the cable TV market here almost as long as there’s been a cable market.

Charter customers endured years of poor service, its bankruptcy, its legal challenges, its ownership and management changes. Just when it got itself together, in 2012, the headquarters was moved from Des Peres to Stamford, Conn., though it retains a significant presence here.

Today our little Charter is a big fish; the Time Warner and Bright House deals would make it the nation’s second-largest cable company, with 24 million customers, behind only Philadelphia-based Comcast, with 27 million.

But cable TV no longer drives cable TV. Internet-based video services, like YouTube and Netflix, have revolutionized the way people, particularly younger people, watch TV. When cable companies first started connecting customers to the Internet through the same cables that delivered TV programming, it was regarded as a nice add-on business. Now broadband delivery is seen as a far bigger part of the future than providing TV programs.

missouriIndeed, when Comcast tried to acquire Time Warner last year, the dominance (nearly 60 percent of the market) that the combined company would have had over broadband service caused federal regulators to look askance. Comcast abandoned its bid in April.

By contrast, a Charter-Time Warner-Bright House combination (it will do business as Spectrum) will control 30 percent of the broadband market. Charter Spectrum will have 20 million broadband subscribers, compared with 22 million for Comcast.

So what can customers expect? Charter’s CEO Tom Rutledge has promised “faster Internet speeds, state-of-the-art video experiences and fully featured voice products, at highly competitive prices.”

This begs the question, competitive with whom? Comcast? Mom-and-pop operations that can’t afford the infrastructure? Municipal service providers who are being ALEC’d out of business?

Neither Charter nor Time Warner has particularly good customer service ratings (though to be fair, Charter is miles ahead of where it used to be, at least in St. Louis). Still, Charter will take on lots of debt to finance the deal, much of it in high-yield junk bonds. The broadband business provides leverage. As analyst Craig Moffett of MoffettNathanson told the Wall Street Journal: “Broadband pricing is almost an insurance policy for cable operators, in that if all else fails, you’ve always got the option to raise broadband rates.”

America wouldn’t let a private operator own 30 percent of its roads and highways. It wouldn’t allow two of them to control half the electricity. If broadband Internet service is a public utility, it must be regulated strictly.

The lesson is old as the hills: The free-marketeers who talk most passionately about competition are generally in the business of trying to eliminate it. Charter and Time Warner are both members of ALEC.

The Charter-Time Warner deal clearly is not in the public interest. The upside for shareholders is huge. The upside for Charter executives is even bigger. But it’s hard to see how Charter’s customers would see much benefit at all.

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