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Erie County Executive Blasts Bad Internet Access for Harming Western N.Y. Economy

Western New York

In a recent survey of 2,000 residents living in Erie County (Buffalo), N.Y., it was clear almost nobody trusts their internet service provider, and 71% were dissatisfied with their internet service.

Seventeen years after many western New York residents heard the word “broadband” for the first time at a 2000 CNN town hall at the University of Buffalo, where then U.S. Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton called for increased federal funding for high-speed internet, many upstate residents are still waiting for faster access.

The Buffalo News featured two stories about the current state of the internet in western New York and found it lacking.

Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz blames internet service providers for serving up mediocre broadband, and no service at all in some parts of the county he represents.

“It’s been put in the hands of the private sector, and the private sector has, for whatever reason, elected to not expand into particular areas or not increase speeds in particular areas, putting those areas behind the eight ball,” he said.

Poloncarz effectively fingers the three dominant internet providers serving upstate New York – phone companies Verizon and Frontier and cable company Charter/Spectrum. He argues that companies will not even consider locating operations in areas lacking the most modern high-speed broadband. The digital economy is essential to help the recovery of western New York cities affected by the loss of manufacturing jobs and the ongoing departure of residents to other states.


An important part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s statewide broadband improvement initiative is prodding Charter Communications and its predecessor Time Warner Cable to do a better job offering faster internet speeds and more rural broadband expansion. The New York Public Service Commission, as part of its approval of Charter’s acquisition of Time Warner Cable, extracted more concessions from the cable giant than any other state. Among them is a commitment to expand the cable company’s footprint into adjacent unserved areas by 2020 to reach at least 145,000 homes and businesses now outside of Charter’s service area.

Last week, the cable company told the PSC it was ahead of schedule on its expansion commitment, now reaching 42,889 additional households and businesses, which is above its goal of 36,771. It has two years left to add at least another 102,111 buildings.

Charter also recently increased broadband speeds to 100 Mbps for 99% of its customers in New York and has committed to boosting those speeds to 300 Mbps by the end of next year.

But where Charter does not provide service, broadband problems come courtesy of western New York’s biggest phone companies – Verizon and Frontier. In Erie County, a broadband census found a lack of service in parts of South Buffalo, the far West Side and East Side of Buffalo, as well as in parts of every town in the county except in the prosperous communities of West Seneca and Orchard Park. Verizon FiOS can be found in a handful of well-to-do Buffalo suburban towns, but not in the city itself or in rural parts of the region.

Verizon spokesman Chris McCann said the company had no further plans to expand FiOS service in upstate New York, and stopped announcing additional expansions in 2010. In the rest of its service area, Verizon supplies DSL service as an afterthought, and has made no significant investments to improve or expand service. Frontier Communications, which is the dominant phone company in the greater Rochester region, also provides service in some other rural western New York communities, but its DSL service rarely meets the FCC’s minimum speed definition to qualify as  broadband.

Rep. Collins

Both phone companies have no plans for significant fiber optic upgrades that would boost internet speeds. There is little pressure on either company to begin costly upgrades. In rural communities, both companies lack cable competition and in more urban areas, both have written off their ongoing customer losses to their cable competitor. That leaves towns like North Collins in a real dilemma. Poloncarz told the newspaper residents frequently park in the town library parking lot at night to connect to the library’s Wi-Fi service, because they lack internet service at home.

A political divide has opened up between area Democrats and Republican officials on how to solve the rural broadband problem. Democrats like Poloncarz are exploring solving the rural internet problem with a county-owned fiber network that would be open to all private ISPs to assist them in expanding service. He is joined by Erie County legislator Patrick Burke, who thinks it is time to spend the estimated $16.3 million it will take to build an “open access network” across Erie County.

“There are literally geographic dead zones, and it’s unnecessary,” said Burke, a Buffalo Democrat. “There’s no excuse.”

Poloncarz is more cautious and told the newspaper he will only propose the idea if he is convinced it will solve the problem, but is willing to continue studying it.

Republicans from the western New York congressional delegation believe deregulation and other incentives may give private companies enough reasons to begin upgrades and expansion.

Rep. Chris Collins, a Clarence-area congressman with close ties to the Trump White House, defended FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s recent decision to eliminate net neutrality. Pai was born in Buffalo.

Collins argues net neutrality only raised the cost of business for ISPs, and being rid of it would inspire cable and phone companies to boost investment in 105 exurban and rural towns in his district, which covers eight counties and extends from the Buffalo suburbs east to Canandaigua, 80 miles away. More than 65% of those areas are under-served because DSL is often the only choice, and at least 3.3% had no internet options at all.

Rep. Tom Reed (R-Corning) has just as many internet dead zones in his district, if not more. Reed represents the Southern Tier region of western New York in a district that runs along the Pennsylvania border from the westernmost part of New York east nearly to Binghamton. Much of recent broadband development in this part of New York comes as a result of Gov. Cuomo’s state-funded broadband expansion initiative, not private investment.

Reed has a record in Congress that is better at explaining the rural broadband dilemma than solving it.

“In a rural district, there are areas that are just physically difficult to serve,” Reed shrugged.

Collins’ hope that the banishment of net neutrality will inspire Frontier, Verizon, and Charter to use their own money to expand into the frontiers of western New York seems unlikely. Gov. Cuomo’s plan, which uses public funds to help subsidize mostly private companies to expand into areas where Return On Investment fails to meet their metrics has had more success.

But the rural broadband debate has been accompanied by a fierce pushback among upstate New Yorkers against the Republican-controlled FCC and elected officials like Collins who support the recent gutting of net neutrality. A backlash has developed in his district, and some have accused Collins of aiding and abetting a corporate takeover of the internet.

“The hysteria and narrative that this will kill the internet is blatantly false,” responded Collins. “Internet service providers have said they do not increase speeds for certain websites over others, and I have signed onto legislation that would make such a practice illegal.”

Defenders of FCC’s Ajit Pai Miss the Point on Cutting Broadband Speed Standards

Defenders of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai are rushing to defend the Republican majority’s likely support for an initiative to roll back the FCC’s 25/3Mbps speed standard embraced by his predecessor, Thomas Wheeler.

Johnny Kampis, writing for Watchdog.org, claims that broadband speed standard has had an adverse affect on solving America’s rural broadband gap.

After raising that standard, suddenly those areas with speeds below 10 mbps were lumped into the same group with those who could access speeds of 10-25 mbps, resulting in diminished focus on those areas where the broadband gap cut the deepest.

Raising the standard meant, too, that fans of big government could point to the suddenly higher percentage of the population that was “underserved” on internet speeds and call for more taxpayer money to solve that “problem.”

Kampis is relying on the talking points from the broadband industry, which also happens to support the same ideological interests of Watchdog.org’s benefactor, the corporate/foundation-funded Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity. The argument suggests that if you raise broadband standards, that opens the door to more communities to claim they too are presently underserved, which then would qualify them for government-funded broadband improvements.

Kampis’ piece, like many of those published on Watchdog.org, distorts reality with suggestions that communities with 50Mbps broadband service will now be ripe for government handouts. He depends on an unnamed source from an article written on Townhall.com and also quotes the CEO of Freedom Foundation of Minnesota, which is closely associated with the same Franklin Center that hosts Watchdog.org. Kampis’ piece relies on sourcing that is directly tied to the organization hosting his article.

In reality, rural broadband funding has several mechanisms in place which heavily favor unserved, rural areas, not communities that already have 50Mbps internet access. ISPs also routinely object to projects proposed within their existing service areas, declaring them already served, and much of the funding doled out by the Connect America Fund (CAF) Kampis suggests is a government handout are being given to telephone companies, not municipalities.


Kampis is satisfied free market capitalism will eventually solve the rural broadband problem, despite two decades of lackluster or non-existent service in areas deemed unprofitable to serve.

“So while Pai’s critics denigrate him because his FCC is considering lowering that broadband standard, he’s just correcting an earlier mistake, with the realization that the free market, not big government, will solve the rural broadband gap if given enough time,” Kampis writes. “And returning to the old standards will help ensure that the focus will be placed squarely on the areas that need the most help.”

Kampis suggests that free market solution might be 5G wireless broadband, which can potentially serve rural populations less expensively than traditional wired broadband service. Communities only need wait another 5-10 years for that to materialize, if it does at all.

Kampis claims to be an investigative reporter, but he didn’t venture too far beyond regurgitating press releases and talking points from big phone companies and opponents of municipal broadband. If he had spent time reviewing correspondence sent to the FCC in response to the question of easing broadband speed standards, he would have discovered the biggest advocates for that are large phone companies and wireless carriers that stand to benefit the most from the change.

Following the money usually delivers a clearer, more fact-based explanation for what motivates players in the broadband industry. In this case, the 25Mbps speed standard has regularly been attacked by phone and wireless companies hoping to tap into government funds to build out their networks. Traditional phone companies are upset that the 25Mbps requirement means their typical rural broadband solution – DSL, usually won’t cut it. Wireless companies have also had a hard time assuring the FCC of consistent 25Mbps speeds, making it difficult for them to qualify for grants. AT&T wasn’t happy with a 10Mbps standard for wireless service either.

Incidentally, these are the same companies that have failed to solve the rural broadband gap all along. Most will continue not serving rural areas unless the government covers part of their costs. AT&T illustrates that with its own fixed wireless rural broadband solution, which came about grudgingly with the availability of CAF funding.

The dark money ATM network hides corporate contributions funneled into advocacy groups.

The free market broadband solution is rooted in meeting Return On Investment metrics. In short, if a home costs more to serve that a company can recoup in a short amount of time, that home will not be served unless either the homeowner or someone else covers the costs of providing the service. By wiping out the Obama Administration’s FCC speed standard, more ratepayer dollars will be directed to phone and wireless companies that will build less expensive and less-capable DSL and wireless networks instead of investing in more modern technology like fiber optics.

Mr. Kampis, and others, through their advocacy, claim their motive is a reduction in government waste. But in reality, and not by coincidence, their brand of journalism hoodwinks readers into advocating against their best interests of getting fast, future-proofed broadband, and instead hand more money to companies like AT&T. The Franklin Center refuses to reveal its donor list, of course, but SourceWatch reported the Center is heavily dependent on funding from DonorsTrust, which cloaks the identity of its corporate donors. Mother Jones went further and called it “a dark money ATM.”

Companies like AT&T didn’t end up this lucky by accident. It donates to dark money groups that fund various sock puppet and astroturf operations that avoid revealing where the money comes from, while the groups get to claim they are advocating for taxpayers. By no coincidence, these groups frequently don’t attack corporate welfare, especially if the recipient is also a donor.

New York’s rural broadband initiative is on track to deliver near 100% broadband coverage to all New York homes and has speed requirements and a ban on hard data caps.

Raising speed standards does not harm rural broadband expansion. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s broadband expansion campaign is on track to reach the remaining 150,000 homes still without broadband access by sometime next year. His program relies on broadband expansion funding that comes with requirements that insist providers offer internet access capable of at least 25Mbps (with a preference for 100Mbps) for $60 or less and a ban on hard usage caps. Kampis claims the 25Mbps speed standard hampers progress, yet New York is the first state in the nation moving towards 100% broadband availability for its residents at that speed or better.

Chairman Pai’s solution is little more than a gift to the country’s largest phone and wireless companies that would like to capture more CAF money for themselves while delivering the least amount of service possible (and keep money out of the hands of municipalities that want to build their own more capable networks). The evidence is quite clear — relying on the same companies that have allowed the rural broadband crisis to continue for more than 20 years is a stupendously bad idea that only sounds brilliant after some corporation writes a large check.

Michigan’s Michele Hoitenga Kills Her Own Broadband Ban Bill; Chamber of Commerce Objected


In what must be a new speed record, Michigan’s Republican state Representative Michele Hoitenga introduced and then effectively pulled support for her bill that would have banned community broadband initiatives across the state.

Introduced Oct. 12, the bill succinctly banned any use of public funds to construct a municipal internet alternative to the phone and cable companies. The bill came under immediate criticism for its content and accuracy, erroneously transposing speeds of a “qualified internet service” as one offering at least 10Mbps upload speed and 1Mbps download speed.

Hoitenga claimed the sudden interest from telecommunications companies that began donating to her campaign in this election cycle ($2,500 from Telecommunications Association of Michigan, $1,500 from AT&T Michigan, $500 from Comcast Corporation & NBC Universal, $500 from Michigan Cable Telecommunications) had nothing to do with her bill and would not have impacted her vote.

“I’ve got to be a voice of the people,” she told Cadillac News, adding she introduced the bill because she wanted to start a conversation. But after her constituents and the media (including Stop the Cap!) started asking questions, Hoitenga banned and blocked several reporters from her Twitter channel and wrote on her Facebook page that she had received death threats and profane phone calls about her bill.

Hoitenga also faced criticism from consumer groups and public policy organizations for attempting to eliminate a rural broadband solution for large rural areas of the state with inadequate service.

As quickly as the bill was introduced, its author declared it effectively dead because members of her area’s Chamber of Commerce objected to the bill’s wording.

“I really respect the chamber,” she told the newspaper, explaining that she will now not hold hearings on the bill, which will effectively kill it.

Rep. Hoitenga Locked and Blocked Her Twitter Channel Because of “Death Threats”


Rep. Michele Hoitenga (R-Mich.), blocked Stop the Cap! and a handful of other reporters and locked down her Twitter account from being publicly accessible after claiming to receive death threats after being questioned about her bill to block community broadband projects in her state.

“[I] had to capture profiles who were threatening me and my family and the horrific vulgarity being used,” Hoitenga claimed on her Facebook page. “I’ll have a statement in a bit. The safety of me and my family comes first.”

Hoitenga is the author of House Bill 5099, which would completely ban municipal broadband in Michigan if it becomes law.

Stop the Cap! was blocked within hours of sending her four tweets in an effort to engage her in a discussion about her bill. For the record, at no time were we either threatening or vulgar. (Some of her constituents are unhappy about the bill, however, based on responses on her Facebook page.)

It was the first time Stop the Cap! was blocked by any Twitter user, and we were surprised it was a public official.

Mich. Lawmaker Seeks Ban on All Community Broadband Networks (And Blocks Stop the Cap!)

Rep. Michele Hoitenga (R-Manton) doesn’t care much for community broadband, so she introduced a bill in the Michigan legislature that is as stark as it is short:

House Bill 5099:

The bill is remarkable for its brevity — most proposed community broadband ban bills avoid outright bans, preferring to use forced complicated referendums or operational limitations that usually make municipal broadband projects untenable. But Rep. Hoitenga’s bill leaves no doubt she wants private cable and phone companies left unmolested by publicly funded alternatives. Although the Michigan Republican chairs the House’s Communications and Technology committee, she appears confused about the difference between upload and download speeds. Her bill would define a “qualified” internet service as one offering at least 1/10Mbps service. Yes — 1Mbps download speed and 10Mbps upload speed.

Ars Technica’s Jon Brodkin asked Rep. Hoitenga about the oddity of the language in her bill:

When asked about this on Twitter, Hoitenga said she would have to “speak with the attorneys who wrote the bill” to determine whether the listed speed was a mistake. “I will speak with the attorneys who wrote the bill. They changed the language I submitted but will ask why they changed it,” Hoitenga wrote.

Rep. Hoitenga

Rep. Hoitenga used her Twitter account to promote and defend her bill, pointing out the district she represents had “37 providers” to choose from — a fact she gleaned from an online AT&T Yellow Pages directory. Stop the Cap! investigated that claim and found the majority of the providers cited did not offer internet access to members of her district, provided service only in adjacent communities, or sold commercial internet services to businesses only. In fact, for the overwhelming majority of her constituents, there are only two providers to choose from — AT&T or Comcast. Both are top donors to Rep. Hoitenga’s campaign, but more on that later.

Michigan has never been a hotbed of community broadband initiatives, despite having uneven broadband service in suburban and rural areas across the state. Michigan law already includes several significant roadblocks for public broadband projects, notes Lisa Gonzalez from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance:

“Michigan already has a significant state barrier in place; municipalities that wish to improve connectivity must first appeal to the private sector and can only invest in a network if they receive fewer than three qualifying bids. If a local community then goes on to build a publicly owned network, they must comply with the terms of the RFP, even though terms for a private sector vendor may not be ideal for a public entity.

“Nevertheless, several communities in Michigan have dealt with the restrictions in recent years as a way to ameliorate poor connectivity. They’ve come to realize that their local economies and the livelihood of their towns depend on improving Internet access for businesses, institutions, and residents.”

Although Rep. Hoitenga’s bill offers the possibility for “public-private” partnerships, her bill would bring a significant chilling effect because the proposed law fails to define how such partnerships should be structured.

Rep. Hoitenga told Stop the Cap! the bill would put a stop to tax dollars being spent on broadband service, something she felt was unwarranted. We asked the Michigan representative, “Did you know the phone and cable companies receive taxpayer subsidies already in the form of PILOT agreements, and other incentives?” which received the non-sequitur response that her office’s phones were ringing constantly with callers praising her new bill.

But that isn’t what Rep. Hoitenga told her Facebook fans.

“Many individuals have reached out to my office in regards to HB5099; with the belief that I am attempting to limit broadband expansion,” Hoitenga wrote. “This could not be further from the truth. One of my main goals as the Chair of the House Communications and Technology committee is to make internet access more easily obtainable. This legislation does indeed prevent cities from using tax dollars to subsidize ISPs; especially without a vote of the people. While at first glance government operated networks may sound like a good idea, the argument in support of them crumbles with an in depth look into the financial and long-term investment side of implementing such a network.”

So we remain unsure if the wave of phone calls Hoitenga referenced were in support of her proposed bill or opposed to it. Either way, the Michigan representative mischaracterized her own three-paragraph bill by claiming it would prevent cities from using tax dollars for internet service, “without a vote of the people.” But no provision for such a vote exists or would be allowed by her existing bill. Hoitenga’s bill also clearly makes internet access less obtainable, especially in communities where a for profit provider does not exist and a community is seeking to provide an alternative.

Hoitenga later states communities may not need to worry about internet accessibility because, “there is also a package of bills in the senate regarding Small Cell Technology (which also attempts to reduce barriers),” she wrote. That provision is backed by AT&T, which is currently one of the two ISPs serving her district.

She then picks up familiar talking points distributed by public broadband opponents:

“There are examples throughout the state and nation of taxpayers being on the hook for failed networks. There is also concern that some of these networks are in towns where employee pensions are severely underfunded, causing layoffs and cutting services, yet there seems to be money for high risk broadband investments. It’s time to address these issues.

“My colleagues and I have introduced legislation that aims to remove some of the current barriers (HB5096-5098), and help streamline the broadband expansion and installation process for private providers. Municipalities should not be allowed to push out the free markets with unlimited tax payer resources and unfair advantages but could partner with providers to offer fiber for expansion to unserved areas.”

She also cited a 2017 study critical of municipal broadband networks authored by University of Pennsylvania Law School Professor Christopher Yoo and co-author Timothy Pfenninger. Neither author or Rep. Hoitenga disclosed the group that produced the study is funded by AT&T and Comcast, among other large telecom companies and their respective lobbying organizations.

After opening a dialogue with the Michigan representative, she did not take kindly to questions or criticism about her bill, and summarily blocked Stop the Cap! from seeing her Tweets or communicating with her further — the first time anyone has blocked our group on Twitter. Shortly after that, she changed her Twitter channel to be viewable by invitation only, limiting her potential audience to her 284 current followers. At the moment, the only social media outlet that seems to be still open to communicating with Rep. Hoitenga is Facebook, where she is taking heat from her constituents about her bill.

The Michigan representative has been behind several controversial bills introduced in the current session of the Michigan House, including a proposal to allow concealed pistols to be carried in public and a ban on Sharia law being practiced in the United States.

Her top donors for the current legislative session include:

#2 – Telecommunications Association of Michigan PAC, $3,000
#4 – AT&T Michigan, $1,500
#11 – Comcast Corp. & NBC Universal, $500

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