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California Legislature Wants to Give $300 Million of Your Money Away to AT&T, Frontier, and Big Cable

Delivering 21st century broadband speeds to rural Californians just doesn’t interest incumbent phone companies like AT&T and Frontier Communications, so the California legislature has been hard at work trying to entice upgrades on the taxpayer’s dime while reassuring ISPs they won’t have to break a sweat doing it.

Steve Blum from Telus Venture Associates reports the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF), California’s equivalent of the FCC’s Connect America Fund (CAF) – is about to get a makeover sure to delight the two phone companies while throwing some cash at cable operators like Comcast, Cox and Charter to keep them happy as well.

The changes are encompassed in Assembly Bill 1665, sponsored by Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia (D–Riverside County), who counts AT&T as his sixth biggest contributor. The phone company has cut checks to the former mayor of Coachella not less than a dozen times amounting to $16,700. Garcia has also received special attention from AT&T’s lobbyists, who invited him to appear side-by-side with AT&T officials at press-friendly events where the phone company donated $10,000 to an abused women’s shelter and $25,000 to the Court Appointed Special Advocates of Imperial County.

Blum reports that the bill has been largely a placeholder until now as negotiations and dealmaking happened behind the scenes. The result is a corporate welfare bonanza that will raise $330 million for the CASF by reinstating a telephone tax on consumers and businesses than ended last year. Of that, $300 million will end up in the pockets of phone and cable companies, $10 million will go to regional broadband efforts, and the remaining $20 million will be designated for schools, libraries, and non-profit groups to promote broadband use, but only where providers already offer service or will shortly. In effect, that $20 million will turn public institutions into sales agents for ISPs.

The corporate giveaway bill will also sell Californian consumers down the river:

  • The bill effectively replaces the FCC’s minimum definition of broadband (25/3Mbps) with California’s own minimum: 6/1Mbps — conveniently about the same speed telephone company DSL provides. As Blum writes, the language “makes 1990s legacy DSL technology the new 21st century standard.”
  • AT&T and Frontier Communications get monopoly protection with exclusive CASF rights in areas where they currently receive federal CAF funding. This means both companies will get to double-dip federal and state money to expand inferior DSL or fixed wireless service and never have to worry about taxpayer funding going to their competitors or communities that might choose to build their own superior broadband networks. It virtually guarantees rural California will be stuck with sub-standard internet access indefinitely, and at the taxpayer’s expense.
  • CASF funding has always been exclusively for infrastructure construction — building out the last mile to deliver internet access to consumers and businesses. But the new bill now allows the money to also be spent on “operating costs,” a rat hole where millions can quickly disappear with little improvement in broadband expansion or service.
  • The new bill suggests that provider contributions — where providers agree to kick in a percentage (usually 30-40%) of their own money on expansion projects in return for getting taxpayer subsidies, is just too hard on struggling phone companies like AT&T and Frontier. Under the new proposal, this requirement should be eliminated.
  • Individual homeowners would be able to apply for grants to get broadband connections, a direct nod to the state’s cable companies that routinely ask would-be customers just out of reach of the nearest cable line to pay tens of thousands of dollars to build a line extension. If approved, cable companies could set the installation price as high as the sky and get taxpayers to foot the bill, enriching themselves while avoiding any regulatory scrutiny.

Cable companies also get another wish granted — keeping subsidized broadband out the hands of many poor Californians that need connections for education, job-seeking, and training. The bill proposes to ban funding for broadband facilities in public housing. Cable companies have been irritated spending capital on broadband expansion to public housing only to find many of its customers would likely to qualify for their “internet for the poor” programs that cost as little as $10 a month.

Blum reports the language isn’t final and is likely to be amended as negotiations continue. A hearing of the Communications and Conveyance Committee at the State Capitol, Room 437 is scheduled for 1:30pm PDT today on the bill. You can listen to the hearing when in session here.

AT&T Uses Tax Dollars to Subsidize Expensive, Capped, and Slow Wireless Rural Broadband Solution

AT&T Fiber isn’t coming to rural communities and farms in the phone company’s service area anytime soon. Instead, AT&T grudgingly accepted $428 million in ratepayer-subsidized Connect America funds to build fixed wireless networks that do not meet the FCC’s minimum definition of broadband, come usage-capped, and will offer a price break only to customers who sign up for AT&T’s other services.

AT&T’s Fixed Wireless Internet service begins this week in Georgia, offering up to 10/1Mbps service with a monthly data cap of 160GB (additional 50GB increments cost $10 each). The monthly price is $70, or $60 with a one-year contract, or $50 if a customer has AT&T wireless phone service or DirecTV. The installation fee is $99, waived if you bundle with DirecTV. The fee covers the installation of an outdoor antenna and indoor residential gateway, which remains the property of AT&T. The service works over AT&T’s 4G LTE network. Credit approval is required, and those not approved may have to pay a refundable deposit to start service. These prices do not include taxes, federal and state universal service charges, regulatory cost recovery charges (up to $1.25), gross receipts surcharge, administrative fees and other assessments which are not government-required charges. See att.com/additionalcharges for details on fees & restrictions.

AT&T is using ratepayer funds to construct a sub-standard fixed wireless network that it will use to cross-sell its own products and services by offering customers a discount. The minimum speed to be considered “broadband” according to the FCC is not less than 25Mbps. But AT&T would have to spend considerably more to equip its wireless solution to work at those speeds, and the company has already admitted fixed wireless will be available in areas where it is “uneconomical to build wireline” networks, according to AT&T president of technology operations Bill Smith.

The new wireless network will be in service for 400,000 locations in Georgia by the end of this year, with 1.1 million locations up and running across 17 other states (Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin) by 2020.

The buildout is required to meet the terms of the FCC’s Connect America Fund, which AT&T committed to in 2015.

Fixed wireless fits nicely with AT&T’s long-term strategy of mothballing its wireline networks in rural service areas, in favor of wireless alternatives. The company has been behind bills in more than a dozen state legislatures where it offers landline service to permanently disconnect rural customers from wired landline and broadband services.

“We’re committed to utilizing available technologies to connect hard-to-reach locations,” said Eric Boyer, senior vice president, wireless and wired product marketing at AT&T. Just as long as that technology isn’t fiber optics.

Questions and Answers About AT&T’s Fixed Wireless Internet

What is AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet?

AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet provides qualified households and small businesses with high-speed internet service via an outdoor antenna and indoor Wi-Fi Gateway router. AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet includes:

  • High-speed internet with download speeds of at least 10Mbps.
  • 160GB of internet usage per month. If you exceed the amount of data in your plan, additional data will automatically be provided in increments of 50GB for $10, up to a maximum of 20 such increments or $200
  • Wi-Fi connections for multiple devices (e.g. laptops, tablets, smartphones, gaming consoles, etc.).
  • Wired Ethernet connections for up to 4 devices.

What speed does AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet provide?

AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet will provide speeds of at least 10Mbps for downloading and at least 1Mbps for uploading. However, data speeds can vary depending upon various factors:

  • Wi-Fi isn’t as fast as a wired connection. You get the best Wi-Fi signal closest to your gateway without obstructions. Use a wired (Ethernet) connection for the best results.
  • Devices have a maximum internet speed they can reach, and might not be as fast as your possible internet service level (especially older devices).
  • Multiple devices sharing your internet connection at the same time, whether wired or Wi-Fi, can reduce your internet speed.
  • Learn more at att.com/speed101 and att.com/broadbandinfo.

Can I add AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet to my AT&T Mobile Share Plan and is Rollover Data included?

No, AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet cannot be added to a Mobile Share plan, and Rollover Data is not included in the AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet data plan.

Is Wi-Fi included with AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet?

Yes, you can connect multiple Wi-Fi enabled devices like laptops, smartphones and tablets to the AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet Wi-Fi Gateway, and up to 4 Ethernet-connected devices. When you access your AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet over your Wi-Fi home network using any type of device (including smartphones and some home automation equipment), that counts as AT&T internet data usage. However, if you access the internet via a public or commercial Wi-Fi hotspot, that access does not count as usage.

How far does the AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet Wi-Fi signal reach?

The AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet Wi-Fi Gateway router enables wireless networking capabilities throughout your home or business and helps to minimize wireless dead spots. This smart technology allows you to:

  • Provide high-speed internet connections to multiple devices
  • Create safe and secure wireless networking

Does weather affect service?

AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet relies on a LTE signal from a cell tower. Many things can affect the availability and quality of your service, including network capacity, terrain, buildings, foliage, and weather. A professional installer will confirm sufficient signal strength at your location before installation.

What type of support is available for AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet service?

For AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet Customer Care, call 1-855-483-3063, available 6AM to midnight Central Time 7-days a week.

How long does it take to get AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet service?

AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet service is available for installation within 10 business days of ordering. Professional installation (required) usually takes about 3 hours.

If I move, can I take AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet with me?

If you are moving, please contact AT&T to find out if AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet or other AT&T services are available at your new address. Please do not attempt to move the AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet outdoor antenna.

Can I take AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet to my cottage or second home?

No, AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet is not movable or mobile. Please do not attempt to move the AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet outdoor antenna.  Please contact AT&T to find out if AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet or other AT&T services are available at your cottage or second home.

How is AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet different from AT&T Wireless Home Phone & Internet?

Both AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet and AT&T Wireless Home Phone & Internet provide internet access. AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet includes an outdoor antenna that is professionally mounted on or near the exterior of your home or business to provide a strong signal for better connectivity, while Wireless Home Phone & Internet uses a small desktop device that you can install yourself since there is no outdoor antenna. Stated another way, Wireless Home Phone & Internet is a mobile service, whereas AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet is not. AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet is only available in select (typically rural) areas, while Wireless Home Phone & Internet is available throughout the AT&T wireless footprint.  AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet provides internet download speeds of 10Mbps or over, while Wireless Home Phone & Internet provides the highest speed available to it, typically in the range of 5-12Mbps.

What service limitations apply to AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet?

Services like web hosting or hosted services such as camera, gaming server, peer-to-peer, etc., that require static IP address are not supported by AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet. AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet may not be compatible with DVR/Satellite systems; please check with your provider.

Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium Now Tops in European Broadband Connectivity Index

Denmark, Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands have the most advanced digital economies in the EU followed by Luxembourg, Belgium, the UK and Ireland, while Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and Italy are at the bottom of the latest European Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI).

DESI is a composite index that summarizes how well European states are performing in the 21st century digital/knowledge economy and how well they are evolving in digital competitiveness. The index helps countries track the likelihood of their success in the global market, and gives countries relative goals they should achieve to be ready to compete with North America and Asia.

In 2016, every EU Member State improved on the DESI, with Slovakia and Slovenia turning it the biggest growth. However, growth was so slight in Portugal, Latvia, and Germany it appeared almost static.

In general, the best scoring nations also scored highly in all the categories measured in the DESI: Connectivity, Human Capital/Digital Skills, Citizen Use of the Internet, Business Digital Technology Integration, and Digital Public Services.

In terms of internet connectivity scores which track broadband deployment and quality, the Netherlands scored highest in 2016 followed by Luxembourg and Belgium. The weakest EU performers were Croatia, Bulgaria, and Poland. Europe has made better inroads in guaranteeing access to broadband, with 98% of Europeans able to access at least one provider. About 76% of Europeans can today choose high-speed broadband at speeds of at least 30Mbps.

Wireless 4G mobile networks cover on average 84% of the EU’s population (measured as the average of each mobile telecom operator’s coverage within each country). At least 74% of European homes subscribe to wired broadband, and over one-third of these connections are high-speed. The number of high-speed connections went up by 74% in two years.

Having a skilled population comfortable with the digital economy and knowledgeable enough to navigate it are also important for commerce, education, and employment. Denmark, Luxembourg, Finland, Sweden, and the Netherlands scored the highest in 2016, while Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and Italy got the lowest scores.

Europeans still do not spend as much time on the internet as their American and Asian counterparts. Last year, 79% of Europeans went online at least once a week, up 3 points compared to 2015. But 44% of Europeans still lack basic digital skills. The most popular online activity in Europe is reading news online (70%), followed by online shopping (66%), social media (63%), and online banking (59%).

FCC Considering Making It Easier for Telcos to Kill Landline/DSL Service

The FCC has circulated a draft rulemaking that proposes to make it easier for phone companies to end landline and DSL service in areas they are no longer interested in maintaining existing infrastructure.

“We propose eliminating some or all of the changes to the copper retirement process adopted by the Commission in the 2015 Technology Transitions Order,” according to the draft, which would allow phone companies to end service “where alternative voice services are available to consumers in the affected service area.”

The proposed new policy would depart significantly from the one put in place during the Obama Administration because it would end assurances that competing providers would have reasonable and affordable access to wholesale broadband and voice services after phone companies mothball their copper wire networks in favor of wireless or fiber alternatives. If the FCC proposal passes, incumbent phone companies like Verizon and AT&T could end rural landline and DSL service and not make provisions for competitors to have access to the technology alternatives the phone companies would offer affected customers.

Verizon immediately praised the FCC proposal, saying it was “encouraged the FCC has set as a priority creating a regulatory environment that encourages investment in next-generation networks and clears away outdated and unnecessary regulations,” wrote Will Johnson, senior vice-president of federal regulatory and legal affairs at Verizon. “This action is forward-looking, productive and will lead to tangible consumer benefits.”

Previous attempts by Verizon to discontinue landline and DSL service did not lead to “tangible consumer benefits” as Verizon might have hoped. Instead, it led to a consumer backlash, particularly in areas affected by Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Verizon elected not to rebuild its copper wire infrastructure in affected coastal communities in New York and New Jersey. Instead, it introduced a wireless landline replacement called Voice Link that proved unpopular and caused a revolt among residents on Fire Island. The wireless replacement did not support data, health monitoring, credit card transaction processing, faxing, and was criticized for being unreliable. Verizon eventually relented and opted to expand its FiOS fiber to the home network on the island instead.

Verizon also attempted to market Voice Link to New York residents in certain urban and rural service areas affected by extended service outages in lieu of repairing its existing infrastructure. Under the proposed changes, the FCC would ease the rules governing the transition away from copper-based services, which include traditional landline service and DSL, in favor of wireless technology replacements and fiber optics.

Because telephone companies like AT&T and Verizon have made mothballing rural wireline infrastructure a priority, the FCC strengthened its rules in 2015 by doubling the notification window from 90 to 180 days, giving more time for affected customers to make other service arrangements or complain to regulators that there were no suitable alternatives. The FCC wants to roll back that provision to its earlier 90-day notification window in response to telephone company complaints that maintaining copper wire infrastructure is expensive and diverted investment away from next-generation networks.

AT&T has been lobbying for several years to win permission from state legislatures to abandon copper wireline infrastructure, mostly in rural areas, where the company has chosen not to upgrade to fiber optic networks. AT&T claims only about 10% of their original landline customer base still have that service.

Both Verizon and AT&T have shown an interest in moving rural consumers to more proprietary wireless networks, preferably their own, where consumers would get voice and data services. But consumer advocates complain customers could lose access to competitive alternatives, may not have a guarantee of reliable service because of variable wireless coverage, could pay substantially more for wireless alternatives, and may be forced to use technology that either does not support or works less reliably with home security systems, medical monitoring, faxing, and data-related transactions like credit card processing.

Other consumer groups like AARP and Public Knowledge have complained that shortening the window for a transition away from basic landline and DSL service to alternative technology could disproportionately affect the customers most likely to still depend on traditional wireline service — the elderly, poor, and those in rural areas.

AT&T Wants to Walk Away from Universal Landline Service in Illinois

AT&T is seeking permission to walk away from its decades-long commitment to provide universal access to landline service in Illinois, which could mean the eventual end of landline phone and wired broadband service in parts of the state.

An Illinois Senate committee approved a bill in March effectively ghostwritten by AT&T that will end the phone company’s legal obligation to provide wired services. AT&T claims 90% of consumers have already dropped landlines in Illinois, switching to cell phone or Voice over IP services. But the company would not say how many consumers still get wired broadband service from AT&T.

AT&T is laying the groundwork to eventually mothball its copper wire networks. Customers in urban areas would likely be serviced by AT&T’s fiber-copper U-verse network while rural areas would be served entirely by AT&T’s wireless cellular network. The company has already received approval to drop landline service in 19 of the 21 states where it provides landline service. AT&T Illinois president Paul La Schiazza said the company won’t approach the FCC about switching the network off for good until it gets approval in all 21 states.

If AT&T wins the right to pull the plug, it need only provide customers with 60 days notice. The bill also currently qualifies only one company in Illinois to discontinue service almost immediately — AT&T. Despite that, the bill has won support from independent phone companies in the state including Frontier Communications.

La Schiazza complains the government has treated AT&T unfairly by requiring it to provide service while other companies can cherry-pick service areas.

“What we’re left with in Illinois is we’re not guaranteed any customers, we’re not guaranteed any return … yet we still are required to provide an old-style, voice-only telephone line to every customer in our service territory,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “No competitor is required to do that. They can pick and choose whatever customers they want to serve and they can use whatever available technology that they want to.”

But AT&T’s competitors never enjoyed a legacy as a government-sanctioned monopoly, and do not benefit from rights-of-access, government tax credits, and mature network infrastructure over which it can offer service almost anywhere. AT&T also wins an end to the universal service mandate that has been a part of telecom public policy for decades, which means some rural state residents will not be able to get any telephone or internet service from AT&T or any other provider.

AT&T claims it will invest the money it currently puts into wireline network maintenance into ‘services consumers actually want,’ which has traditionally been its wireless network. AT&T’s preferred solution for rural service is to bolster its wireless network and convert existing wired customers into wireless ones. But that gives some state legislators pause, and efforts to decommission landline service by Verizon in rural New York and Superstorm Sandy-ravaged communities along the New York and New Jersey shoreline met with howls of protest from customers about inferior service.

Abe Scarr, director of the Illinois Public Interest Research Group, warned AT&T’s proposal was good for AT&T but potentially bad news for rural, older, and poor residents. Scarr submitted testimony to the Illinois Senate’s Telecommunications and Information Technology Committee that argued the current bill SB1381 was favorable to AT&T’s corporate agenda but failed to preserve time-honored traditions of universal service, consumer protection, competition, and public safety.

Scarr pointed out several recent wireless failures including several 911 outages that disrupted access to emergency services nationwide and AT&T’s inability to offer reliable wireless service during mass events. He also questioned whether AT&T would actually invest adequately in improving coverage in Illinois.

“I don’t think we can take away the old policy without replacing (it with a) new one and just pray to the gods of the markets to provide everything,” Scarr said. “I’m quite confident that’s not going to work out for all Illinoisans, especially since we don’t have real competition in broadband.”

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