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Lifeline Broadband Stalled Despite Evidence Internet Access Improves 93% of Children’s Grades

Comcast claims 93% of families participating in its affordable internet service for the income-challenged report an improvement in their children’s grades at school.

That result is not surprising, according to research cited by FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who told the New York Times last year that one-third of students from kindergarten through 12th grade who live in low-income or rural households either have no access, or cannot afford access to the internet at home.

A 2015 Pew Research report found that with approximately 29 million households in America having children between the ages of 6 and 17, five million households with school-age children do not have high-speed internet service at home. Low-income households – and especially black and Hispanic ones – make up a disproportionate share of that number:

Pew Research analysis of the Census data finds that the lowest-income households have the lowest home broadband subscription rates. Roughly one-third (31.4%) of households whose incomes fall below $50,000 and with children ages 6 to 17 do not have a high-speed internet connection at home. This low-income group makes up about 40% of all families with school-age children in the United States, according to the bureau’s American Community Survey. (The survey asked questions on home internet use for the first time in 2013.)

There are fewer studies measuring how a lack of internet access impacts on academic performance. With ongoing budget constraints now forcing seven out of 10 teachers assigning homework that requires students to set aside outdated textbooks and do research online, a significant number of students from income-disadvantaged or rural homes are struggling to keep up with their richer peers.

Concerns about fraud in the Lifeline program are stalling aggressive efforts to get affordable internet into poor and rural family homes.

In Coachella, Calif., and Huntsville, Ala., school districts report the problem has become so bad, many students are now depending on buses equipped with Wi-Fi to function as mobile study halls, where students sometimes ride for hours frantically trying to complete homework they cannot do at home. Some school buses are now parked in neighborhoods overnight with Wi-Fi service left on continuously where few families can afford a home internet connection at the prices demanded by the local phone and cable companies.

“This is what I call the homework gap, and it is the cruelest part of the digital divide,” said Rosenworcel, a Democratic member of the FCC who has tried to adapt the Lifeline program to include home internet access.

Rosenworcel and others in favor of subsidizing internet access for the poor are up against two powerful groups in Washington — the providers themselves, which have launched a PR blitz designed to promote their own voluntary low-cost internet programs like Comcast’s Internet Essentials and Charter Communications’ Spectrum Internet Assist. The other obstacle comes from a number of Republicans in Congress who frequently demagogue Lifeline as a rat hole of waste, fraud, and abuse and are reticent about expanding it to cover broadband.

In a hearing held this morning by the Senate Commerce Committee, senators questioned a representative of the Government Accountability Office that released a report in May that found “extensive problems” with the Lifeline program. The report targeted 12 phone companies for approving Lifeline applications with fake eligibility information 63% of the time, potentially exposing taxpayers to millions of dollars in losses for non-qualified or deceased applicants.

Attempts to strengthen verification procedures are ongoing, first initiated by former FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler, who approved a national verifier system for providers to ensure compliance. But for current FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who voted against Wheeler’s compliance program, complaining that states did a better job of combating fraud, the results of the GAO study confirmed his own skepticism about the Lifeline program. Earlier this year, he blocked the approval of nine companies from joining the program to offer affordable internet access and shows no signs of relenting.

That leaves private telecom companies to continue expanding their own affordable internet programs. Comcast recently reported it had enrolled almost 20,000 families in its program in New Jersey alone. Its Internet Essentials program offers internet access to families qualified for the National School Lunch Program for $9.95 a month and offers a modest computer for $150. Comcast’s program now in its sixth year and recently increased its offered broadband speed to 15/2Mbps and offers 40 free hours a month to XFINITY Wi-Fi hotspots.

American Enterprise Institute’s Shallow Formula for Broadband Nirvana

AEI: If you bought broadband service, that means you like your service and don’t need or want anything better.

The American Enterprise Institute wants the FCC to judge to quality of America’s broadband based on what customers are able to buy today and how much they are willing to pay to get it.

Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires the FCC to report to Congress whether broadband “is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.” As part of that process, the FCC must determine if Americans are getting internet connections capable of providing “advanced telecommunications capability.”

If the FCC reports to Congress that the country’s biggest telecom companies are letting their customers down with inadequate service or no service at all, that can create conditions for the FCC to step in and start insisting on more competition and oversight as well as setting benchmarks for providers to meet. If the report shows that broadband service is adequately provided, the FCC need not regulate, and in some cases such a finding will fuel calls to further deregulate the industry by getting rid of “unnecessary regulation.”

Not surprisingly, findings since 2001 have varied depending on which political party holds the majority on the Commission. Under President George W. Bush, the FCC consistently found broadband service was being adequately deployed to Americans. The FCC also set the bar pretty low on broadband speed, claiming anything at or above 4/1Mbps service constituted “broadband.” That definition comfortably accommodated DSL service from the phone companies.

Wheeler – Argued for better broadband and more competition.

During the Obama Administration, the FCC set the bar higher. With dissent from the Republican minority, the FCC raised the minimum speed that could be defined as broadband to 25/3Mbps, immediately excluding most DSL and wireless connections. In 2015, former FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler specifically excluded satellite and wireless connections from that formula, despite objections from FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai. Particularly under Wheeler’s watch, the Democratic majority frequently complained about inadequate broadband and competition, and used Section 706 as its authority to override state laws in North Carolina and Tennessee that placed onerous restrictions on municipal broadband networks. Wheeler felt such laws were anti-competitive, but the courts ruled the FCC exceeded its authority and overturned his pre-emption orders.

Under the Trump Administration, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai seems to be headed down a similar path taken during the Bush Administration, which was optimistic about the state of broadband service and, as a result, applied a lot less pressure on the telecommunications industry.

Chairman Pai is seeking to overturn current Net Neutrality regulations and seems ready to support efforts to undermine the broadband speed standard established by his predecessor. That would allow mobile/wireless companies to offer 10/1Mbps speed and have it qualify as broadband service. Even better, ISPs — wired or wireless — would be considered “competitive” in many cases, even if only one provider offered service in the area.

Pai’s proposal was met with serious objections from Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn who claimed even the current 25/3Mbps standard no longer met the definition of “advanced telecommunications capability.”

“The statute defines advanced telecommunications capability as broadband that is capable of ‘originat[ing] and receiv[ing] high-quality voice, data, graphics, and video telecommunications. High-definition video conferencing is squarely within the rubric of ‘originating and receiving high-quality… video telecommunications,’ yet the 25/3Mbps standard we propose would not even allow for a single stream of 1080p video conferencing, much less 4K video conferencing. This does not even consider that multiple devices are likely utilizing a single fixed connection, or the multiple uses of a mobile device.”

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Pai: Wants broadband providers and the competitive marketplace to determine whether broadband is good enough.

AEI dismissed the entire debate, claiming the only people who will respond to the FCC’s request for comments on the subject will be “pundits, special interests, and companies with skin in the game.”

Instead, AEI proposes the FCC rely on watching customers navigate their broadband options — a monopoly for some, duopoly for many others — and only address problems if something unusual emerges. AEI’s test is to see if “a location or demographic is inexplicably different and purchases less than would be expected.”

If something odd does happen in a particular area, AEI argues there could only be two reasons for that:

  • Barriers to competition;
  • Outdated government regulations and policies standing in the way of progress.

Missing from AEI’s list of possibilities is the presence of an abusive monopoly provider, a comfortable duopoly among two providers with no interest from a third competitor to enter the market, or an area served by two lackluster providers that won’t invest in their networks.

AEI’s test depends entirely on gathering data about what internet services are available for sale in any particular area now and then study who is buying what. But this does not measure customer satisfaction or consider whether those speed tiers and prices are adequate.

Under AEI’s test, “if a geographic area does not have broadband, the FCC could use the results of its customer study to determine what customers in the area would likely find valuable. Then, the FCC could do a cost-benefit study and an economic feasibility study — and conduct a reverse auction if a subsidy is potentially needed — to determine what, if any, financial incentive might be appropriate for the area.”

In other words, the same think tank that has been on record for decades opposing government subsidies to private companies now wants to offer telecom companies government funding to build what would become largely unregulated privately-owned broadband networks that would run with little or no oversight.

AEI’s willingness to let “customers express their opinions through their purchases” is hardly an adequate replacement for current broadband policies designed to keep the U.S. competitive with the rest of the world and ensure adequate service and competition. As any cable subscriber knows, you can subscribe to Comcast or Charter/Spectrum and still loathe your options and want something better. AEI doesn’t appear interested in seeing you get those options, much less preserve what little oversight, consumer protection, and broadband benchmarks we have now. Neither does current FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.

Mid-Rivers’ Mandatory Usage-Based Billing: $19.99/Mo + $0.20/GB

Mid-Rivers Communications, a Montana-based telecom co-op, wants everyone to believe their mandatory, usage-based broadband scheme that charges $19.95 a month + $0.20 per gigabyte is popular with their customers.

After the company noticed that fewer than 20% of customers were responsible for more than 90% of Mid-Rivers’ network traffic, it decided to ditch its traditional usage-capped, speed tier plans in favor of a compulsory usage-based billing scheme that included the maximum speed available, sometimes as high as 1Gbps, with no usage allowance.

To listen to Michael Candelaria, Mid-Rivers CEO and general manager, people have lined up at the doors just waiting to sign up, according to an interview published by Telecompetitor:

Initially the company tested usage-based pricing as an option in one CLEC market. But considering that 80% of customers opted for usage-based pricing within one year of its introduction, Mid-Rivers moved completely to usage-based pricing and launched it throughout all four CLEC markets.

Mid-Rivers has been particularly proud of the response it has received from local businesses. Candelaria noted that local hotels have seen occupancy drop after the area experienced an oil-related boom, followed by a bust. Nearly-empty hotels were paying $500 to $1,000 a month for high-bandwidth connections from competitors but only using a fraction of the capacity. The Mid-Rivers usage-based broadband offering was perfect for them.

During certain months, the hotels’ bills are dramatically lower than they were before.

“When the hotel is full, their bill goes up and they know why,” Candelaria said.

Meanwhile, as businesses that were not Mid-Rivers customers heard about the usage-based offering, “they came to us” after “we beat on their door for 20 years,” he noted.

But as news of the interview spread, it seems more than a few customers are not happy with Mid-Rivers’ new broadband pricing, and accused the company of propagandizing its usage based pricing scheme and censoring social media to suppress customer backlash.

Candelaria admitted the company used to take a lot of heat from customers that called up and asked for the cheapest internet plan available, which was $40 a month for 1.5Mbps service. At those speeds and prices, customer slammed the company’s Facebook page.

“This is where Candelaria time traveled a bit on his answer,” reflects Dan Corey, a customer rebutting Candelaria’s case. “Before the usage-based internet [plans], the tiers Mid-Rivers [offered] were 8, 12, and up to 50Mbps. There has not been a 1.5Mbps speed at Mid-Rivers for years.”

These days, Candelaria claims, complaints about speed and pricing are mostly gone.

“Of course they are gone,” responds customers J.P. and Kyle Jones, who jointly shared their feelings with Stop the Cap! “Mid-Rivers now censors their social media after taking a lot of heat so complaints are never publicly seen on their Facebook page.”

“Mid-Rivers must approve any comments made on their Facebook page, so 90% of the complaints are never seen unless Mid-Rivers has a full (even if not accurate) response ready to post along with it,” adds Corey. “No dissatisfied customers would know of others because of the control. Their Facebook page used to show all comments when posted, but that changed once they got a better understanding of how to control the flow of comments.”

Jones points out that the reason “80% of customers opted for usage-based pricing” is that any account change automatically forced the customer onto a usage-based pricing plan whether they wanted it or not. Most customers, including himself, do not want data caps or usage pricing, but he didn’t get a choice in the end.

“Put yourself in the shoes of a customer that used to be enrolled in Mid-Rivers’ Preferred Plan, which cost $59.95 a month and includes 600GB of usage at 12/1Mbps speeds,” writes J.P. “People don’t live in Montana for the social life so we spend a lot of time streaming video at home. Under Mid-Rivers’ new plan, if I used 500GB a month, I’d pay $20 for the account and $100 in usage charges — double what I paid a month earlier just for faster speed I could have paid more to get if I wanted or needed it. How many people do you think are enthusiastically waiting to pay double what they used to for internet?”

Mid-Rivers new usage-based plan.

For Candelaria, “Wide Open Wi-Fi”  is about selling fast internet access for less, and customers should only pay for what they use.

“People have been paying for utilities by usage for some time,” he told Telecompetitor. “Customers don’t tally up how much electricity they use and then order a 30-kilowatt plan and they don’t count how many showers they take to determine what kind of water plan they need. Why should the internet be any different? Everybody should have good internet. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich, poor, you should be able to afford fast internet.”

Customers like J.P. agree with wanting fast and affordable internet, but argue this isn’t that. Where available, “Wide Open Wi-Fi” quickly becomes the only option Mid-Rivers offers, he claims.

“The reason for the [high] ‘take rates’ is that if you attempt to change or upgrade service, you are forced onto the usage-based service,” adds Corey. “There is no choice, so the take rates are very misleading. Customer satisfaction would increase for those that don’t use the service as of now. However, with more and more of the world going to internet, those customers will feel the squeeze soon enough.”

For customers that avoid calling Mid-Rivers and keep their heads down to keep their current plan, that doesn’t stop the company from eventually notifying customers their plan was changing whether they liked it or not.

Mid-Rivers older tiered plans.

“You will be ‘offered’ the Wide Open internet shortly I’m sure. Just like we in the cable modem towns were,” noted BigSkyGuy. “However, once not enough people switch to it, or it’s been some pre-determined amount of time, you’ll be forced onto it like the rest of us. Then you can enjoy the larger bills. Just like your forced router unfortunately.”

Mid-River sells its “Wide Open” service as a great way to get rid of data caps and tiered plans, and includes a free Wi-Fi router:

  • Virtually unrestricted speeds
  • Connected Home Wi-Fi included!
  • No more tiered plans! You automatically get the fastest speed!
  • No more data caps
  • Pay for only what you use
  • Your speed and experience will be greatly enhanced
  • Your perfect plan – whether you need the fastest speeds or the most affordable option
  • You as the customer will have control over your Internet bill*

That asterisk points to fine print that explains for $19.95 a month, you get no data allowance. You are billed $0.20 per gigabyte in one gigabyte increments. Don’t like the high bill that results?

“Your bill can be controlled by monitoring how much data you are using, use less and your bill will decrease,” the company explains.

But for most internet users, using less isn’t an easy option, especially as cord-cutting shifts more viewing towards the internet. Once Netflix, Hulu and similar services detect the faster speeds available on Mid-Rivers’ metered plan, their players increase video bandwidth to match available speed unless the customer intervenes. If they don’t, streaming can get very expensive.

“I have been hit with that Wide Open internet scam […] and unless you change your settings in [Netflix, Hulu, CBS, etc.] it’ll run you up to 7GB an hour, especially when it reads that speed setting from the Wide Open. In essence, Mid-Rivers is making you pay $1.40 per hour of Netflix,” writes BigSkyGuy. “Now granted, you can go in and change your settings, but how many people really know you can do that?”

The meter is lurking.

Candelaria argues the majority of Mid-Rivers customers use less than 100GB a month and their bill is less than $40, which is nearly $5 less than Mid-Rivers’ cheapest plan at $44.95, which includes a 300GB data allowance. He also claimed ‘the change to usage-based broadband has increased customer satisfaction and take rates – and while margins initially dropped, profitability was back to its previous level within six months.’

To accomplish that, either the company has signed up more new customers under the plan than it expected or usage charges from heavier users are covering the lost revenue. For Candelaria’s statement to remain true, “most customers” would have to use less than 100GB of usage a month for their bill to remain under $40. Lighter use customers may benefit from the faster speeds and continue to pay less as long as their usage stays at or near 100GB a month. But as average internet use continues to increase, so will customers’ bills.

Jones says the news isn’t all good for Montana businesses either.

“In areas where Charter/Spectrum offers business internet service, their bills are a fraction of what Mid-Rivers is charging if that business tends to run up a lot of usage, and there are no surprise bills from Mid-Rivers’ traffic charges,” Jones notes. “The problem is that Mid-Rivers is charging sky-high usage fees of $0.20/GB while other ISPs pay at most pennies per gigabyte. In fact, most ISPs buy bandwidth based on meeting demand during peak usage times, not traffic alone. During off-peak times, using your connection costs Mid-Rivers next to nothing, but Mid-Rivers keeps charging $0.20/GB day and night.”

BigSkyGuy notes other ISPs in the area are offering customers a better value proposition with flat-rate internet that will quickly be the envy of many Montanans facing future Mid-Rivers’ usage charges:

  • RTC/Reservation Telephone Cooperative: (100/100Mbps) UNLIMITED DATA $55/month
  • Midco/Midcontinent Communications: (75/5Mbps) UNLIMITED DATA $56/month or (25/3Mbps) UNLIMITED DATA $42/month
  • Nemont: (10/10Mbps) UNLIMITED DATA $71/month

Bloomberg Editorial Calls Broadband a Necessity of Modern Life; A Public Utility

A business news service that has traditionally supported private, free-market business interests has called on the government to declare broadband essential for navigating daily life and to get more involved in assuring every American has access to it.

The editorial board of Bloomberg News published an extraordinary opinion piece this morning urging government involvement and oversight to resolve the rural broadband gap once and for all.

It is often said that internet service, like electricity or water, should be treated (and regulated) more like a public utility. Without wading into the contentious and long-running debate about that, it’s easy enough to point out that the government can do more, at the margins, to help bring better internet service to places where the market hasn’t. Fast internet service is to the 21st century what a telephone line was to the 20th: essential to navigating daily life.

The editors point out that 39% of rural America — 23 million people — still lack suitable internet access despite years of speeches from politicians, targeted or restricted-use public funding, government grants, and public-private “partnerships.”

Bloomberg rightly calls out the biggest impediment to rural broadband expansion — funding for last-mile infrastructure projects that actually deliver broadband service to unserved homes and businesses, not just public institutions or exclusive office parks. Because private phone companies (and to a lesser degree cable operators) either do not want the funding to come with strings attached or seek taxpayer funds to transfer the cost of rural investment away from shareholders and on to the government, the results have been patchy service and scandals.

Some companies, like Verizon, have shown almost no interest in government subsidies to further expand DSL service into its most rural territories. Others, like Frontier Communications, are aggressively seeking funding to defray the cost of wiring rural areas and, alleges one government oversight report, discovered a ‘revenue opportunity’ for itself along the way.

A report by the U.S. Commerce Department’s Office of Inspector General alleged Frontier has become an expert on gaming the system with padded invoices that overcharged a federal grant program $4.7 million dollars. Company employees reportedly even boasted about their ability to creatively ripoff taxpayers:

The scathing, 31-page report declared the payments “unreasonable” and “unallowable.” Meanwhile, Frontier saw the tacked-on charges as a “revenue opportunity,” according to an internal company email cited in the report. Frontier employees referred to the extra fees as “markups” and “profit.”

Bloomberg’s editors think the FCC should keep rural broadband expansion funding simple and avoid favoring one technology over another. Various grant programs have failed in the past because they are exceptionally specific about the kinds of technologies that qualify for funding, set unreasonable deadlines, improperly vet the financial capabilities of applicants, and attract some applicants that tailor-write applications to fit funding opportunities instead of creating sustainable and meaningful projects that can remain solvent and operating after the grant funding ends.

The different approach advocated by Bloomberg calls on the government to set goals and benchmarks and avoid micromanaging how applicants achieve them. For example, Bloomberg supports the FCC’s 25Mbps minimum definition of broadband, but could care less how providers deliver that speed to rural consumers — via satellite, cable, or something else. It also thinks the current grant system favors incumbent rural phone companies and that has not benefited consumers. Bloomberg’s editors believe startups can bring innovative solutions to rural broadband problems that rural phone companies may not have the ability or flexibility to deliver themselves.

Some comments on the piece believe Bloomberg can find its “win-win” solution to the problem by targeting funding on rural, member-owned energy and telephone co-ops, instead of investor-owned utilities like Frontier, CenturyLink, and Windstream.

“The same entities that were responsible for bringing power to rural areas would be the perfect vehicle for stringing internet cable to those same customers,” wrote one commenter. “Namely, the rural electric co-ops who continue to serve this vital need.”

Telcos Intentionally Cut Rural Broadband Investments Hoping for Taxpayer Subsidies

AT&T: Using taxpayer and ratepayer dollars to subsidize 4G LTE upgrades for its customers.

With taxpayer subsidies on the horizon, phone companies cut back investing their own money on rural broadband expansion hoping taxpayers would cover funding themselves.

That is the conclusion of Dave Burstein, a long-standing and well-respected industry observer and publisher of Net Policy News. Burstein is concerned the unintentional consequence of Obama and Trump Administration rural broadband funding programs has been fewer homes connected than what some carriers would have managed on their own without government subsidies.

“Since 2009, carrier investment in broadband in rural areas has gone down drastically,” Burstein wrote.

As a result, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced plans to spend $4.53 billion from a public-financed Mobility Fund over the next decade to advance 4G LTE service, primarily in rural areas that would not be served in the absence of government support. Burstein suspects much of that money could end up being unnecessarily wasted.

“Under current plans, most of the money is likely to go where telcos would build [4G] without a subsidy, [or will be used to] buy obsolete technology, or give the telcos two or three times what the job should cost,” Burstein wrote. “Any spending on wireless except where towers or backhaul is unavailable should be assumed wasteful until proven otherwise.  Realistic costs need to be developed and subsidies allocated on that basis.”

AT&T’s rural fixed wireless expansion program, funded substantially by U.S. taxpayers and ratepayers, is a case in point. AT&T is receiving almost $428 million a year in public funds to extend wireless access to 1.1 million customers in 18 states, the FCC says. Much of that investment is claimed to be spent retrofitting and upgrading existing cell towers to support 4G LTE service. But AT&T claims 98% of its customers already have access to 4G LTE service — more than any other carrier in the country, so AT&T is actually spending the money to bolster its existing 4G LTE network, something more likely to benefit its cell customers, not a few thousand fixed wireless customers.

(Source: AT&T)

“An AT&T exec in California said communities didn’t need to worry about the impact of the CAF-funded project, since it was almost all going to be on existing towers,” Burstein wrote, allaying fears among members of the public that money would be spent on lots of new cell towers. “I don’t know what loophole AT&T is using to get the money, but it’s a pretty safe guess they would have upgraded most of them without the government paying. 4G service now reaches all but 3-5 million of the 110-126 million U.S. households. Probably half [of the less than five million] targeted would soon be served without a subsidy – if the telcos knew no subsidy was likely. Before spending a penny on subsidies, the FCC needs to do a thorough assessment of what would be built without government money.”

Burstein

Wireless executives were delighted when the U.S. government in 2009 committed to spending $7 billion in taxpayer funds on broadband stimulus funding as part of a full-scale economic stimulus program to combat the Great Recession.

“Both George Bush in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008 had promised to bring affordable broadband to all Americans,” Burstein noted. “The clamor to reach these last few million was so loud, telcos became confident the government would pay for it if they just stopped their own investment. They aren’t stupid and refused to spend their own money. Before 2009 and the expected huge stimulus program, most telcos expanded their networks each year, based on available capital funds.”

Burstein believes some phone companies became better experts at milking government money to pay for needed network upgrades than frugally spending public funds on rural broadband expansion. As a result, after eight years and massive spending, Burstein notes fewer than two million of the “unserved” six million homes were reached by wireline or wireless broadband service when the funding ran out.

Under Chairman Pai’s latest round of rural broadband funding, Burstein believes much of this new money is also at risk of being wasted.

“[Pai] needs to dig into the details of what he’s proposing,” Burstein wrote. “Nearly all cells with decent backhaul will be upgraded to 4G; Verizon and AT&T have already reached 98% of homes. Government money should go to building towers and backhaul where that’s missing, not filling in network holes the carriers would likely cover.”

Rural advocacy groups have been frustrated for years watching rural telephone companies deliver piecemeal upgrades and service expansion, often to only a few hundred customers at any one time. When they learn how much was spent to extend broadband service to a relatively few number of customers, they are confused because companies often spend much less when they budget and pay for projects on their own without government subsidies.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announcing rural broadband initiatives in New York.

Burstein is currently suspicious about the $200 million approved in subsidy funding to extend rural broadband in parts of upstate New York. Burstein notes Pai is factually wrong about his claim that the hundreds of millions set aside for New York would be spent on “unserved areas of rural New York.”

“Most of that money will not go to unserved areas,” Burstein reports. “Some grants are going to politically connected groups. I’ve read the rules and the approved proposals. The amounts look excessive based on the limited public details.”

Telephone companies have become skilled negotiators when it comes to wiring their rural service areas. Most want more money than the government has previously been willing to offer to help them meet their Return On Investment expectations. Burstein noted that under normal circumstances, a government program offering a 25% subsidy to extend rural broadband into areas considered unprofitable to serve would be enough in most cases to get approval from rural phone companies like CenturyLink and Frontier Communications. But many phone companies, including AT&T, Verizon, and Qwest (now a part of CenturyLink) did not even file applications to participate in early funding rounds. Qwest’s lack of interest was especially problematic, because the former Baby Bell served the Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountain regions where some of the worst broadband accessibility problems persisted.

Burstein claims Jonathan Adelstein, then Rural Utilities Administrator, had to double his subsidy offer to get Qwest’s attention with a 50% subsidy.

Rural backhaul connectivity is often provided by fiber optic cabling.

“Qwest refused, demanding 75%,” Burstein noted. “That was probably twice the amount necessary and Adelstein rightly refused. They knew the government had few ways to reach those unserved without paying whatever the telcos demanded. A few years later, Qwest is part of Centurylink. Many of those lines are now upgrading under [public] Connect America Funds with what amounts to a greater than 100% subsidy.”

Net Neutrality appeared to have no impact on telephone company investment decisions, even in rural areas. The investment cuts followed a trend that began even before President Barack Obama took office. Wireless carriers slash investments in rural areas when management is confident the government is motivated to step in and offer taxpayer dollars to expand rural broadband service. When those funds do become available, a significant percentage of the money isn’t spent on constructing new infrastructure to extend the reach of wired and wireless networks into unserved rural areas. Instead, it pays for expanding existing infrastructure that may coincidentally reach some rural customers, but is still primarily used by existing cellular customers.

“In many extreme rural areas, only the local telco has the ability to deliver broadband at a reasonable cost,” noted Burstein. “You need to have affordable backhaul and a local staff for repairs. Because the ‘unserved’ are in very small clusters, often less than 100 homes, it’s usually impractical for a new entrant to bring in a backhaul connection.”

Instead, AT&T is attempting to fill some of the gaps with fixed wireless service from existing cell towers. While good news for customers without access to cable or DSL broadband but do have adequate cellular coverage to subscribe to AT&T’s Fixed Wireless service, that is not much help for those in deeply rural areas where AT&T isn’t investing in additional cell towers to extend coverage. In effect, AT&T enjoys a win-win for itself — adding taxpayer-funded capacity to their existing 4G LTE networks at the same time it markets data-cap free access to its bandwidth-heavy online video services like DirecTV Now. That frees up capital and reduces costs for AT&T’s investors. But it also alienates AT&T’s competitors that recognize the additional network capacity available to AT&T also allows it to offer steep discounts on its DirecTV Now service exclusively for its own wireless customers.

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