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Newly Independent Cable One Plans Broadband Makeover With Speed Upgrades

cable oneNewly independent Cable One will reduce its emphasis on cable television and turn its time, attention, and capital towards improving broadband service for its 690,000 largely rural customers in 19 states.

Cable One was spun off from Graham Holdings on July 1 and is not likely to stay independent for long before it is acquired by another cable operator, most likely Patrick Drahi’s Altice, S.A. — which recently acquired Suddenlink. But in the meantime, Cable One is attempting to persuade investors it is remaking itself into a broadband company, de-emphasizing the traditional cable television package in favor of dedicating more bandwidth for faster broadband speeds.

“Our standard broadband offering for our residential customers since 2011 has been a download speed of 50Mbps, which is at the high-end of the range of standard residential offerings even today in our markets,” the company reported in a statement. “Our enhanced broadband offering for our residential customers is currently a download speed of 75Mbps, which we expect to raise to 100Mbps by the end of 2015.”

Cable One primarily serves small cities and towns in the central and northwestern United States.

Cable One primarily serves small cities and towns in the central and northwestern United States.

In several markets, 100Mbps speed is already available and regular pricing has been simplified to $1 per megabit of service: 50Mbps for $50, 75Mbps for $75, or 100Mbps for $100 a month.

To protect its broadband business model, which carries prices traditionally higher than larger operators, Cable One will stay focused on largely uncompetitive markets where it faces token DSL broadband competition from companies like Frontier Communications, CenturyLink, and Windstream. More than 75 percent of its customers are located in Mississippi, Idaho, Oklahoma, Texas and Arizona, many served by these three telephone companies.

Cable One signaled it will hold the line on cable programming costs as well. In April 2014, the company dropped 15 Viacom networks, including MTV, VH1, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon and others over contract renewal prices it claimed were too high. The cable TV package has continued without the Viacom networks for more than a year, resulting in the loss of more than 20% of its cable TV customers. More than 100,000 homes have dropped Cable One video service for another provider, but ironically that actually helped Cable One increase its cash flow by more than 11%, because it no longer has to pay programming fees on behalf of the lost customers.

On the bright side, Cable One executives discovered many of its former TV customers have stayed with Cable One for Internet service because the competition either does not offer broadband or generally provides DSL at speeds under 10Mbps. Company officials have emphasized this point to investors, suggesting broadband is a true money-maker and television can safely take second chair without sabotaging profits.

“We certainly have some sympathy for the notion that a broadband-only cable operator might be more profitable,” wrote analyst Craig Moffett in an investor note this month. “But there are some critical holes in the Cable One story. Does the company truly believe that all costs are variable such that cutting video will bring endless margin expansion? Are Cable One’s new shareholders really better off for having played hardball with Viacom?”

Moffett does not believe so because he is convinced Cable One’s independence will be short-lived.

“We all know the consensus opinion is that someone will buy Cable One,” Moffett wrote. “But the above questions still matter. Any potential acquirer would still place value on a video business, or pay less for the fact that Cable One has less of one.”

But as long as rural telephone companies barely compete for broadband customers, Cable One’s broadband performance will deliver them a de facto broadband monopoly in their largely rural service areas. That gives the cable company, or its next owner, plenty of room for rate hikes.

Myanmar (Burma) Will Get Fiber-to-the-Home Broadband Service, Courtesy of Thai Consortium

myanmarResidents of one of the world’s most isolated countries will soon have the option of getting fiber-to-the-home service that will offer faster Internet access than most Americans get with traditional DSL from their phone company.

Thailand’s Benchachinda Holding Company has partnered with four other technology companies to launch Myanmar Information Highway Limited (MIH), with the goal of wiring fiber-to-the-home service to every home and business that wants service in Yangon and other major economic cities. It’s a remarkable investment for a country that had until recently been run by a military dictatorship for more than 50 years and is still liberalizing its economy and implementing democratic reforms.

Benchachinda’s president, Vichai Bencharongkul, said the group’s investment in international businesses in Myanmar is the first of a few foreign investments in other nations. Bencharongkul told the Thai press fiber broadband sells itself and investment in Myanmar would make good business sense.

vichai

Bencharongkul

He can point to the fact MIH was able to quickly get permission to lay fiber-optic cable from Yangon Electricity Supply Corporation, the country’s dominant electric utility. Myanmar’s bureaucracy can prove daunting to doing business in the country, but the promise of faster broadband overcame those concerns.

Internet access in Myanmar, better known internationally as Burma, has traditionally been a frustrating experience. Despite some fiber Internet rollouts by state-owned Myanma Posts & Telecommunications (MPT), offering up to 100Mbps, the average upper income Myanmar household still relies on DSL service and gets only up to 6Mbps speed. The country is ranked 159 out of 198 by Net Index for consumer download speed, averaging just 5Mbps. Fiber optic broadband will change that.

In a cost-saving measure, MIH will launch service with speeds averaging 20Mbps — four times faster than the current average speed in the country — and raise speeds and capacity going forward. They intend to deliver stiff competition to both Yatanarpon Teleport (YTP) and the state telephone company, which charges almost $65 a month for a basic DSL line. MPT charges $1,200 a month for 20Mbps fiber broadband and focuses on business customers. MIH is expected to charge lower prices for service and will rely on its own network instead of the one owned and controlled by the state-owned telephone company.

Getting Lousy DSL Service from Windstream? Here’s How to Get a $10 Monthly Discount

windstreamlogoAre you paying Windstream for 6Mbps DSL service and getting half that speed or less? Stop the Cap! doesn’t think it is fair to charge full price for half or less the speed you paid good money to receive. If Windstream shrugs its shoulders when you complain and tells you there is nothing they can do to improve your speed, it’s time to take 10 minutes to file a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission. That 10 minute investment may get you $120 in relief.

Complaints sent to the FCC are forwarded to Windstream’s executive relations team of customer service representatives, who have tried to placate customers with a monthly $10 discount off poor-performing DSL. Although your complaint will not get Windstream to pry open its safe and make immediate investments to correct your situation, it will keep the phone company’s fingers out of your wallet, collecting money it doesn’t deserve for a level of service it refuses to provide.

Windstream blames the Internet slowdowns on Internet traffic growth that other providers quietly manage with periodic upgrades. Windstream would not experience these congestion problems if it elected to spend some of the money it collects from customers on upgrades. As Stop the Cap! has reported before, in states like Georgia, PennsylvaniaSouth Carolina, New MexicoKentuckyAlabama, and beyond that does not seem to be happening as often as it should. Windstream appears to be waiting for a ratepayer bailout from Connect America Funds to pay for service upgrades it should be doing with its own money. Until they do, you are owed a discount and here is how to apply for one:

Filing a Complaint with the FCC Regarding Your Windstream DSL Service

windstream dsl

  1. Visit Windstream’s Speed Test website, select the server nearest you, and perform several speed tests, preferably over the course of a few days. Windows users can hit the F10 key on their keyboard to capture a screen image, use the paste command in any picture editor, and then crop and save the result as an image file. Paint.net is a good freeware program to use for this purpose. Mac users can follow these instructions. If this is too complicated, you can print a copy of the web page within your web browser.
  2. Visit the FCC’s Consumer Help Center – Internet Complaint Form and complete the form online. You can upload and attach file(s) showing your speed test results at the bottom of the complaint form. Choose “speed” as your complaint category and let the FCC know you are paying x dollars for x Mbps DSL service from Windstream you are not getting. If you have previously complained about the speed and performance of your connection to Windstream directly, let the FCC know that as well, in addition to any response you received. The more details about your bad experience(s), the better. You can also suggest that as long as the problem continues, you want a discount for the poor performance of your Internet connection.
  3. If you wish to mail or fax your complaint, download this complaint form and attach any printouts showing speed test results.

It will likely take at least 4-6 weeks for a response to reach you from the FCC, usually also containing a written response from Windstream. Some customers scheduled for significant upgrades this year may not get the same credit others not scheduled may receive. There are no guarantees Windstream will offer you any specific discount or credit for your service, especially if the problem can be corrected right away. But you won’t get a thing if you don’t ask.

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.

Windstream Tells Its DSL Customer in South Carolina to Consider Satellite Internet Instead

windstream

On the outside looking in.

Windstream’s DSL service in parts of Inman, S.C. is so bad, the company has recommended some DSL customers consider signing up for a competitor’s satellite-based Internet service instead.

In a remarkable response to a complaint filed with the Federal Communications Commission by a Windstream customer, Mollie Chewning, an executive customer relations representative for Windstream, suggested no broadband upgrades were likely before 2016 and beyond a $10 monthly discount for a year, customers in Inman will just have to live with DSL speeds that are often less than 1Mbps or consider switching to satellite-delivered Internet from another company.

“Windstream acknowledges some Iman [sic], SC have been experiencing high-speed Internet issues,” Chewning wrote Sharon Bowers, the department division chief of the FCC’s Consumer Information Bureau. “This is a result of the tremendous growth in Internet usage over the past few years as well as the challenging economics of serving rural and remote areas with broadband. Unfortunately, our records indicate Mr. [redacted] service address will likely not benefit from any of our scheduled upgrades in 2015. It is possible some upgrades may be explored in 2016 could assist some customers in Inman via Connect America funding, but Windstream is still finalizing upgrade plans for next year.”

Speed test results

Speed test results

James Corley, the victim of Windstream’s poor-performing DSL, launched a blog to get Windstream moving on upgrades or entice area cable operator Charter Communications to wire his neighborhood for service.

Inman, S.C.

Inman, S.C.

“I am a resident of a small subdivision […] and for nearly a decade, we have been forced to rely on Windstream Communications’ disgraceful DSL internet and telephone services,” Corley writes. “The company’s representatives have been promising us for years that we would be upgraded to faster speeds but the promised upgrades have repeatedly failed to materialize and even though I cannot say for sure where Windstream’s priorities lie, it certainly isn’t with their customers.”

Corley is not asking for much. He’s subscribed to a basic 3Mbps service plan. Windstream does not come close to delivering even those speeds, however, with speed test results showing performance ranging usually below 1Mbps all the way down to 40kbps — less than dial-up.

“Given existing high-speed Internet issues, Mr. [redacted] will receive a $10 discount, which will appear on his account monthly through July 2016,” Chewning wrote. “If Mr. [redacted] finds this information unacceptable, he may want to explore alternate service options such as Internet via satellite.”

Corley has elected to pursue Charter Communications instead. It can offer considerably faster speeds than Windstream or satellite providers at a much lower cost. But Charter has thus far refused to wire Corley’s neighborhood for free. Charter wants at least $7,000 to extend service to the subdivision, after which it will start construction and deliver service within 45 days. Charter has no problem spending $55 billion to acquire Time Warner Cable but is unwilling to spend $7,000 to attract most, if not all 16 residents on the customer’s street.

Windstream appears to be more interested waiting for telephone ratepayers across the country to subsidize incremental improvements in its slow speed DSL service through the Connect America Fund, which has a poor record subsidizing cable operators to bring far superior broadband service to customers like those in Inman.

Until the Windstream customer and his neighbors manage to scrape together $7,000, or Charter extends service at no charge in the name of good public relations, residents of Inman (and beyond) are stuck with Windstream broadband that does not come close to broadband.windstream-fcc-response-1

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)

As Clearwire Service Prepares to Shutdown, Customer Service Agents Suggest Comcast as Alternative

clear-logoClearwire users seeking alternatives after the wireless ISP shuts down its WiMAX network this fall are surprised to hear some Clear customer service representatives recommending Comcast as their best option.

Stop the Cap! reader Randall Page has been looking for a new ISP after receiving a notification from Clearwire its network is ceasing operations before the end of this year and he needs to find a different provider:

Dear Valued CLEAR/Clearwire Customer,

You are receiving this notice because our records show you are subscribed to services on the CLEAR 4G (WiMAX) Network or Clearwire Expedience network. Sprint is in the process of implementing major enhancements to the Sprint 4G LTE Network, including the deployment of Sprint Spark, an enhanced LTE network capability, by repurposing the CLEAR 4G (WiMAX) Network and Clearwire Expedience Network. As a valued customer, we are providing you formal notice that Sprint will cease operating the CLEAR 4G (WiMAX) Network and Clearwire Expedience Network on November 6, 2015 at 12:01AM EST.

What this means to you:

  • Sprint will no longer support CLEAR 4G WiMAX and Clearwire Expedience devices or services.
  • Your CLEAR 4G WiMAX and Clearwire Expedience devices and services will no longer work, including your ability to contact 9-1-1.
  • You should not return your device(s).

To discuss your options or learn more, please call 1-888-888-3113.

Thank you for your business.

Sincerely,
CLEAR/Clearwire Wireless

clearsprint

The Page family has used Clearwire for years to get Internet service in their rural home near Lynden, Wash. The service was affordable and more than adequate for the occasional web browsing and e-mail Page’s parents rely on. After learning the service was being discontinued, Page called Clearwire customer service to learn what other options were available.

“They claim they will essentially match your current level of Clearwire service on the Sprint network,” Page told Stop the Cap! “Although Clearwire originally advertised unlimited service, the representative was not willing to match that through Sprint. Instead, they built a recommended usage plan based on reviewing actual use over the last several months.”

Clear/Clearwire's modems and routers were designed to work with their WiMAX network, which is being decommissioned. This equipment will be obsolete and cannot be reused on a new provider.

Clear/Clearwire’s modems and routers were designed to work with their WiMAX network, which is being decommissioned. This equipment will be obsolete and cannot be reused with a new provider.

Page was offered a 30GB plan adequate for his parents, but the quoted price of $110 a month was more than twice the price of Clearwire. The family also had to pay $200 for a replacement modem compatible with Sprint’s LTE network to replace the Clearwire WiMAX modem that isn’t.

“No consideration for Clearwire customers, no special promotions, no loyalty discounts, nothing for customers like us who have been with Clearwire for almost five years,” Page complained. “When Alltel was sold off and their network was changed, customers were given a free replacement phone as a courtesy, but Sprint seems to care less about us.”

Sprint acquired Clearwire in 2013 mostly for its massive spectrum holdings in the 2.5GHz band. After the deal closed, Sprint fired 75% of Clearwire’s workforce and began planning the end of Clearwire’s legacy WiMAX network, also familiar to first generation 4G Sprint customers who used it before the launch of LTE service.

Clearwire’s higher frequency spectrum never penetrated buildings well and did not reach as far as wireless signals on lower frequencies, which meant Clearwire was required to build a large cellular network to deliver reasonable service. Sprint inherited 17,000 Clearwire-enabled cell sites in the deal, many deemed redundant. A Sprint filing with the Securities & Exchange Commission indicated Sprint was shutting down no fewer than 6,000 of those sites by the end of this year, with the remaining transitioned to TD-LTE service as part of the Sprint Spark project.

The change will allow Sprint to better monetize its 2.5GHz spectrum by selling usage-based plans and more expensive home wireless broadband service. It’s the second major wireless technology shutdown organized by Sprint. In 2013, Sprint shut off the last 800MHz iDEN Nextel cell site inherited from its acquisition of Nextel. Sprint now provides LTE 4G service over the frequencies formerly used by Nextel.

Page was not happy with Clearwire’s alternative through Sprint, and remarkably the representative then suggested his family should sign up for Comcast service instead.

“I was floored to hear a representative working on behalf of Sprint recommend Comcast,” Page said.

It isn’t the first time Clearwire has done this:
clearwire sprintClearwire’s own Facebook page was abandoned in 2013, presumably right after its sale to Sprint was complete. Stranded customers are complaining about the impending loss of service and the lack of alternative options and information.

Wireless 'n WiFi's high usage data plan has gotten good reviews from Stop the Cap! readers,  although it is expensive.

Wireless ‘n WiFi’s high usage data plan has gotten good reviews from Stop the Cap! readers, although it is expensive and relies on Sprint’s less-than-great network.

Unfortunately, the Page home is not serviced by Comcast and DSL from CenturyLink is not an option either. Page and his immediate neighbors are instead joining a group “family plan” on a wireless carrier and will share a Wi-Fi hotspot that can reach three homes. It technically violates the terms and conditions of most family plans to share a connection in this way but it is the only affordable choice the families have for now.

Those rural Clearwire customers who cannot subscribe to cable or DSL broadband might also explore some options from Wireless ‘n WiFi, which sells high limit 3G/4G LTE plans that work on Sprint’s 3G and 4G networks.

Their current plan offers up to 60GB of usage per month, up to 30GB of which can come from using Sprint’s 3G network. The service costs a still steep $109.99 a month (including all taxes and fees) and comes with additional startup costs:

  • Rental of NetGear 341u USB modem and MBR1200B Cradlepoint Wi-Fi Router ($100 equipment deposit required, refunded when equipment returned)
  • $49.99 Activation Fee
  • $8.95 Priority Mail Shipping (for Equipment)
  • $268.93 total startup cost includes all charges referenced above (not including monthly service fee)

Service is month-to-month, no term contract. Overlimit fee is $5/GB.

freedompop plans

Some lighter users report reasonably priced service is available from FreedomPop, as long as you are careful to avoid over 10GB of usage per month ($59.99) and you turn off revenue generators like automatic top-off and other various extras they pitch (including data rollover if you find you use up most of your monthly allowance anyway).

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.”

Owner of Vermont Wireless ISP May Have Fled the Country to Avoid SEC Investigation

Garza is front of one of several of his Ferraris.

Garza shows off his wealth.

Rural Vermont residents relying on a wireless Internet provider experiencing service problems appear to be collateral damage after a series of scandals and criminal investigations may have prompted the alleged owner to flee to a middle eastern country with no extradition treaty with the United States.

Houston native Homero Josh Garza, 30, had his hands in as many as a dozen business ventures in Vermont, Delaware, and Massachusetts, including Brattleboro’s Great Auk Wireless. But the wireless ISP founded in 2004 apparently is no longer high on Garza’s list of priorities after the entrepreneur discovered the prospect of big profits mining Bitcoins.

GAW’s 1,000 wireless customers are trying to maintain their Internet service, which is experiencing a growing number of service failures. Recently, customers began having trouble sending and receiving email, with nobody answering a support line to help. Last week, the company’s website appeared to be down for several days. Vermont officials considered it another example of why they believe GAW has proven itself a subpar provider with troublesome service.

That could be worrisome in underserved areas like western Massachusetts, where wireless ISPs like GAW have been promoted as less costly alternatives to fiber to the home service. In 2012, Garza gave up on building broadband access in Ashland, Mass., despite being offered a $40,000 government broadband grant, according to the Christian Science Monitor.

Platterpus Records proprietor Dave Witthaus suggests residents and businesses might want to think twice about firms like GAW. Witthaus told Coindesk businesses dependent on the wireless service provider encountered “routine issues with connectivity and customer service.” He told the online publication some businesses switched providers after a two week phone outage in February.

“They could have done well in this area but the customer service has just been awful,” Witthaus said. “And now, two weeks without phone is just unacceptable.”

Is GAW Wireless operating on autopilot?

Is GAW Wireless operating on autopilot?

Garza’s performance in the Bitcoin world has been given similar reviews after his mining venture rose to prominence and then collapsed, leaving investors and regulators looking for answers.

Bitcoin, a digital currency, is not issued by any central banking authority. Instead, new coins are issued to those running complex software that verifies the alternative currency’s public ledger of earlier transactions. The process protects the virtual currency from tampering or other illicit acts like re-spending by its original owner. In return for volunteering computer time to help support the security of the Bitcoin, the software pays users transaction fees and a subsidy of newly minted coins.

The prospect of getting “free money” just by running software encouraged the start of a virtual Gold Rush. Instead of mining in the ground looking for precious metals, prospectors eventually sought investors to fund powerful computers dedicated entirely to “mining” for Bitcoins. The Bitcoin system only releases so many coins at a time, and that number has been dwindling by design and will eventually reach zero. As a result, individual enthusiasts running the Bitcoin software during their spare time have seen their awards deteriorate as large-scale “mining operations” capture a growing percentage of the newly issued currency. To combat this trend, mining pools share resources to compete with the larger players and private contractors sell individuals and clubs time and access on powerful computers in return for a “mining contract.”

gawEnter GAW, which stands for “Geniuses At Work.” Garza’s business depended on a steady stream of clients investing in his enormous mining operation. GAW Miners claimed it has 200,000 customers and $120 million in revenue in just six months. GAW also reportedly collected 28,000 Bitcoins worth over $10 million in just two months.

Garza was never modest showing off his success, appearing in a tuxedo flying around in a private jet, showing off a collection of expensive Ferraris, and living in a $600,000 5,300-square foot stone house outside of Springfield, Mass.

But even as Garza’s company began moving hundreds of “mining rigs” (high-powered computers) into its newly leased 150,000-square foot warehouse in Park Purvis, Miss., some disgruntled ex-clients and investors began complaining Garza’s record was heavy on promises and light on delivery. Bitcoin news sites also began expressing concern about Garza’s operation. At around the same time back in Vermont, Great Auk Wireless customers experienced a very serious service outage that disrupted their phone and Internet service. While the rumor mill swirled about Garza’s ethics, the Mississippi Power Company was investing hundreds of thousands of its dollars to upgrade power to Garza’s warehouse. In return, GAW committed to stay for at least one year. It left after just a few months, folding operations and leaving the utility with $220,000 in unpaid electric bills and over $73,000 in damages and costs. The utility sued and was ignored by GAW.

“Mississippi Power filed a motion for default judgment because GAW failed to answer or otherwise defend the lawsuit,” the power company said in a statement. “We are asking the court to give us a final judgment on the amount that’s owed on this account.”

GAW Miners' data center in Mississippi.

GAW Miners’ data center in Mississippi.

Collecting any judgment may prove difficult because most of GAW’s employees and management have reportedly fled, resigned, or been terminated.

With GAW Miners largely defunct, the Securities and Exchange Commission has taken an interest, questioning whether Garza’s ventures involved unregulated securities, a big no-no with the feds. The SEC is also sharing its wealth of information with the Federal Trade Commission, which is investigating GAW Miners for potential false advertising. The Department of Homeland Security also wants to know if Garza was engaged in money laundering, and the IRS is pondering whether Garza reported all of his capital gains for tax purposes.

To get these answers, Garza’s firm was subpoenaed in February to turn over relevant documents. As of late May, Bitcoin traders suspect Garza has left the country and federal investigators behind and relocated to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, which has no extradition treaty with the U.S.

Taxpayers may also be victims.

GAW Wireless collected $18,018 in state grant money to expand wireless broadband service in 2014. The company never delivered the service, according to Vermont officials. A Maidstone couple also alleges GAW never paid them the $3,000 they agreed upon for leasing property in East Maidstone. Guy and Gail Giampaolo were to receive free Internet service and a $300 annual payment in return for the lease agreement. They reportedly received neither.

The VTDigger reported several other instances of service problems from the wireless venture in a detailed article published earlier this month. Even the state Attorney General has been unable to contact the company after an earlier letter was returned by the post office with no forwarding address. The Department of Public Service is asking customers who use GAW Wireless to call the Consumer Affairs Line at 1-800-622-4496. The department will provide customers with information about alternative wireless Internet service providers.

Uproar Over Eastlink’s 15GB Usage Limit Brings Call to Ban Data Caps in Rural Canada

EastlinkLogoA plan to place a 15GB monthly usage cap on Eastlink broadband service in rural Nova Scotia has led to calls to ban data caps, with a NDP Member of the Legislative Assembly of Nova Scotia leading the charge.

NDP MLA Sterling Belliveau is calling on the Liberal government to prohibit Eastlink from placing Internet data caps on rural broadband.

“This newly announced cap really sends us back to the 1990s when it comes to technology,” Belliveau said in a news release Tuesday. “The province paid $20 million to bring this service to rural communities, and as such, the Minister of Business needs to tell Eastlink this can’t stand.”

Belliveau’s office is being flooded with complaints from residents and business owners upset about Eastlink’s data cap, which includes a $2/GB overlimit fee, up to a maximum of $20.

“Only rural customers get penalized for using the Internet,” complained Angel Flanagan on Twitter. “We can’t have Netflix or YouTube. Eastlink, stop this cap and upgrade your services and give us better Internet. We don’t need to use it less.”

“I am so angry about the Internet capping,” said Emma Davis. “Eastlink you are out of your goddamn minds. Rural Nova Scotia is entering the Dark Ages.”

rural connect

Eastlink’s Rural Connect package is a wireless service, delivering speeds up to 1.5Mbps at a cost of $46.95 a month. The service is provided where wired providers are generally not available, including Annapolis, Hants, Digby, Yarmouth, Queens, Lunenburg, Shelburne and Kings counties. Eastlink says its new usage cap was designed to accommodate “intended usage like surfing the web, reading/sending emails, social media, e-commerce, accessing government services, etc. — and NOT video streaming, for which the service was not intended.”

Belliveau

Belliveau

Eastlink’s continued dependence on a low capacity wireless network platform has conflicted with the changing needs of Internet users, who increasingly use high bandwidth applications like streaming video that can quickly clog wireless ISP traffic.

When the service was designed, the popular video streaming service “Netflix was shipping DVDs by mail,” says Eastlink spokesperson Jill Laing.

The cap was implemented to “address Internet traffic, which we believe will help provide equal access to the service and deliver a better overall rural Internet experience for customers,” Laing wrote.

Eastlink says the average customer uses about 12GB of traffic, excluding video streaming. Setting a usage cap at 15GB should not be a problem for customers who stay off Netflix, argues the ISP.

“Those who are using the service as it was intended to be used should not be impacted by monthly usage,” she wrote.

The fact Eastlink labeled some traffic legitimate while video streaming was discouraged did not go over well with customers.

“Who made them Internet Gods when our provincial tax dollars helped finance their Internet project,” asks Al Fournier. “The very fact they would suggest a 15GB cap with a straight face in 2015 should be ringing alarm bells in Ottawa about the rural broadband crisis in Canada.”

nova scotiaFournier suspects Eastlink has not invested enough to keep up with a growing Internet because the service originally advertised itself as a way to listen to online music and watch video. But he also wonders if the data cap is an attempt to force the government to fund additional upgrades to get Eastlink to back down.

“This is why wireless ISPs suck for 21st century Internet,” Fournier argues. “They are incapable of keeping up with growing traffic and bandwidth needs and need to be retired in favor of fiber.”

But at least one wireless provider in Nova Scotia does not understand why Eastlink is making a fuss over data caps.

Cape Breton’s Seaside Wireless Communications offers Internet access in Antigonish, Cape Breton, Colchester, Cumberland, Guysborough, Inverness, Pictou, Richmond and Victoria counties, along with rural parts of Halifax County, and has no data caps.

“It is not even on our radar,” said Loran Tweedie, CEO of Seaside Wireless. “This is a differential we are proud of.”

Some Nova Scotians are also questioning why their Internet service is being capped while rural Eastlink customers in Newfoundland, Labrador and Ontario can continue to use the Internet cap-free, at least for now. Others are suspicious about the future of Eastlink’s maximum cap on overlimit fees, currently $20. Canadian providers have a history of raising the maximum cap, subjecting customers to greater fees.

“It’s hard to speak to what will happen over time. We’ll certainly evaluate where we’re at later in the fall,” said Laing.

Liberal provincial Business Minister Mark Furey said he was aware of Eastlink’s rural broadband data cap but only promised to monitor the situation for now.

Starting next month, Eastlink’s rural Internet packages will be capped at 15 gigabytes of usage per month. CBC Radio Nova Scotia’s “Information Morning” program speaks with Eastlink and Port Royal resident Gary Ewer about the impact the usage cap will have. (10:15)

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