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USDA’s Rural Broadband Funding Protects Incumbents

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is trumpeting the availability of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to fund rural broadband programs around the country, but only in the most rural communities where an existing monopoly provider won’t be harmed.

“USDA has been investing in rural telecommunications infrastructure for decades, and our current programs offer more than $700 million per year for modern broadband e-Connectivity in rural communities,” the USDA writes on its new Broadband website. “In the coming months, USDA will almost double these longstanding programs with at least $600 million of additional funds for expanding rural broadband infrastructure in unserved rural areas and tribal lands.”

The funds will target unserved areas through a “pilot program” that goes to great lengths to keep funds away from underserved areas where an existing phone company offering slow speed DSL might suddenly face unwanted competition.

The Trump Administration’s budget language requires that funds be only spent in rural areas with a population of less than 20,000 residents, and only where there is insufficient access to broadband service with speeds of at least 10/1 Mbps — a drop from the FCC’s 25/3 Mbps standard. That lower speed threshold is widely seen as protecting incumbent phone companies and will keep broadband funds out of communities where DSL service predominates. The USDA will also notify all service providers in the general area about any application for funds, providing ample opportunity to object if a provider(s) report it already offers service to at least some of its customers at speeds of 10/1 Mbps or more.

If a dispute arises about service availability, the USDA will consult broadband availability maps that Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said “stink” or send USDA employees to the community to conduct an investigation.

For the moment, the USDA is asking rural Americans to share their stories about their broadband experiences:

To best bridge the e-Connectivity gap in rural America, USDA wants to hear the thoughts and needs of those individuals living and doing business in rural communities. Only through your participation can this program succeed in making rural America great again, so please share your user and service provider feedback, insights and ideas, on the many factors we’re considering, including:

  • How affordable and reliable should rural broadband service be?

  • What time-of-day (morning, afternoon or evening) do rural residents and businesses most need to use high-speed internet?

  • How fast of internet connectivity is needed for business management, e-commerce, farming, ranching, education, and medical/healthcare purposes in rural areas, especially for large data transfers and real-time communications?

Share your feedback with the USDA.

Consumer, Industry Groups Slam T-Mobile/Sprint Merger Now Before FCC

“Devastating.”

“Too big to fix.”

“A bad, recurring dream.”

“An oligopoly.”

“A meritless merger.”

These were some of the comments from objectors to T-Mobile and Sprint’s desire to merge the two wireless carriers into one.

Consumer and industry groups filed comments largely opposed to the merger on the grounds it would be anti-competitive and lead to dramatic price increases for U.S. consumers facing a consolidated market of just three national wireless carriers.

Free Press submitted more than 6,000 signatures from a consumer petition opposed to the merger.

“This is like a bad recurring dream,” one of the comments said, reflecting on AT&T’s attempt to acquire T-Mobile in 2011.

The comments reflected consumer views that mergers in the telecom industry reduce choice and raise prices.

The American Antitrust Institute rang alarm bells over the merger proposal it said was definitively against the public interest and probably illegal under antitrust laws. It declared two competitive harms: it creates a “tight oligopoly of the Big 3 and [raises] the risk of anticompetitive coordination” and it “eliminates head-to-head competition between Sprint and T-Mobile.”

The group found the alleged merger benefits offered by the two companies unconvincing.

“The claim that two wireless companies need a merger to expand or upgrade their networks to the next generation of technology is well worn and meritless. The argument did not hold any water when AT&T-T-Mobile advanced it in 2011 and the same is true here,” the group wrote. “The FCC should reject it, particularly in light of the merger’s presumptive illegality and almost certain anticompetitive and anti-consumer effects. Both AT&T and T-Mobile expanded their networks in the wake of their abandoned merger. And T-Mobile became a vigorous challenger to its larger rivals. Sprint-T-Mobile’s investor presentation notes, for example ‘T-Mobile deployed nationwide LTE twice as fast as Verizon and three times as fast as AT&T.’”

“The Sprint-T-Mobile merger is one of those mergers that is ‘too big to fix,’” the group added. “Like the abandoned AT&T-T-Mobile proposal, it is a 4-3 merger. It combines the third and fourth significant competitors in the market, creating a national market share for Sprint-T-Mobile of about 32%. Next in the lineup is AT&T, with a share of about 32%. Verizon follows with a share of about 35%. These three carriers would make up the vast majority (almost 99%) of the national U.S. wireless market with smaller MVNOs accounting for the remaining one percent. These carriers include TracPhone, Republic Wireless, and Jolt Mobile, Boost Mobile, and Cricket Wireless, which purchase access to wireless infrastructure such as cell towers and spectrum at wholesale from the large players and resell at retail to wireless subscribers.”

A filing from the groups Common Cause, Consumers Union, New America’s Open Technology Institute, Public Knowledge and Writers Guild of America West essentially agreed with the American Antitrust Institute’s findings, noting removing two market disruptive competitors by combining them into one would hurt novel wireless plans that are unlikely to be introduced by companies going forward.

Rivals, especially AT&T and Verizon, have remained silent about the merger. That is not surprising, considering T-Mobile and Sprint have forced the two larger providers to match innovative service plans, bring back unlimited data, and reduce prices. A combined T-Mobile and Sprint would likely reduce competitive pressure and allow T-Mobile to comfortably charge nearly identical prices that AT&T and Verizon charge their customers.

Smaller competitors are concerned. Rural areas have been largely ignored by T-Mobile, and Sprint’s modestly better rural coverage has resulted in affordable roaming arrangements with independent wireless companies. Sprint has favored reciprocal roaming agreements, allowing customers of independent carriers to roam on Sprint’s network and Sprint customers to roam on rural wireless networks. T-Mobile only permits rural customers to roam on its networks, while T-Mobile customers are locked out, to keep roaming costs low. Groups like NTCA and the Rural Wireless Association shared concerns that the merger could leave rural customers at a major disadvantage.

Many Wall Street analysts that witnessed the AT&T/T-Mobile merger flop are skeptical that regulators will allow the Sprint and T-Mobile merger to proceed. The risk of further consolidating the wireless industry, particularly after seeing T-Mobile’s newly aggressive competitive stance after the AT&T merger was declared dead, seems to prove opponents’ contentions that only competition will keep prices reasonable. Removing one of the two fiercest competitors in the wireless market could be a tragic mistake that would impact prices for a decade or more.

The American Antitrust Institute reminded regulators:

In 2002, there were seven national wireless carriers in the U.S.: AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, Nextel, AllTel, and Cingular. In a consolidation spree that began in 2004, Cingular acquired AT&T. This was followed by Sprint’s acquisition of Nextel in 2005—a merger that has been called one of the “worst acquisitions ever.” At the time of the merger, Sprint and Nextel operated parallel networks using different technologies and maintained separate branding after the deal was consummated. The company lost millions of subscribers and revenue in subsequent years in the wake of this costly and confused strategy.

In 2009, Verizon bought All-Tel. This was followed by AT&T’s unsuccessful attempt to buy T-Mobile in 2011 and T-Mobile’s successful acquisition of mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) Metro PCS. The DOJ and the FCC forced the abandonment of the AT&T-T-Mobile deal. Like Sprint-T-Mobile, it was also a 4-3 merger that would have eliminated T-Mobile, a smaller, efficient, and innovative player that set the industry bar high for the remaining rivals.

AT&T’s rationale that the merger with T-Mobile was essential for expanding to the then-impending 4G LTE network technology also did not pass muster. In August of 2014, two years after the abandoned attempt, Forbes magazine concluded that there would have been “no wireless wars without the blocked AT&T-T-Mobile merger.”

Missouri, California, Oklahoma, and Virginia Big Winners in Rural Broadband Fund Auction

Telecom companies in four states will receive almost 50% of the $1.488 billion the FCC has set aside in support to expand rural broadband service in unserved areas of 45 states.

Missouri ($254,773,117.90), California ($149,026,913.20), Oklahoma ($113,599,113.70), and Virginia ($108,923,612.60) were the only states to win more than $100 million each to expand internet access to a total of 257.436 residents, and many of the award winners are planning to offer fixed wireless service.

The FCC claims 713,176 homes and businesses will get internet service over the next six years from 103 different providers as a result of the auction, with half getting the option of 100 Mbps. An additional 19% will have gigabit service available. All but 0.25% will have at least 25 Mbps service available, meeting the FCC’s current broadband definition. Many of the providers will charge substantially for faster speed service, however. Some wireless ISPs offering fixed wireless service currently charge up to $999.95 a month for 100/100 Mbps service.

“The successful conclusion of this first-of-its kind auction is great news for the residents of these rural communities, who will finally be able to share in the 21st-century digital opportunities that broadband provides,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “By tapping the mechanisms of the marketplace, the Phase II auction served as the most appropriate and cost effective way to allocate funding for broadband in these unserved communities, bringing the highest-quality broadband services to the most consumers at the lowest cost to the ratepayer.”

The winners are a mix of phone, cable, satellite, and fixed wireless companies and several rural utility co-ops. The biggest recipient is Wisper ISP, a Mascoutah, Ill. company awarded over $220 million to expand its fixed wireless service in Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. Other significant auction winners include California’s Cal.net, a fixed wireless provider serving rural areas east of Sacramento as far as South Lake Tahoe and Commnet Wireless, LLC which provides cell service and fixed wireless in rural Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming.

Providers must build out to 40 percent of the assigned homes and businesses in a state within three years and increase by 20 percent in each subsequent year, until complete buildout is reached at the end of the sixth year.

The Connect America Fund Phase II auction is part of a broader effort by the FCC to close the digital divide in rural America. In addition to the funding that will provided by this auction, the Commission is working toward the launch of a $4.53 billion Mobility Fund Phase II auction to expand 4G LTE wireless coverage throughout rural America. And the Connect America Fund is in the midst of providing over $9 billion over a six-year period for rural broadband in areas served by large carriers.

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Frontier’s New Ad Campaign Criticizes Slow Broadband, Like What It Offers Its Own Customers

With friends like these…

In an effort to attract new business, Frontier Communications has launched a new nationwide brand platform it claims will help customers “facing challenges and frustrations navigating today’s internet services market.”

The “Don’t Go it Alone” campaign advertises Frontier as your friend on the digital frontier.

In one ad, a balladeer laments customers trying to use a home internet connection that is too slow and unreliable to depend on for working from home. The ad shows customers flocking to nearby coffee shops “looking for bandwidth” they do not have at home.

While the ads claim Frontier’s FiOS network is faster than its competitor — Charter Spectrum, many Frontier customers living outside of a FiOS service area will likely find Frontier’s ads ironic. That is because Frontier has a poor track record achieving the promised speeds it advertises to its large base of DSL customers. The 2016 FCC Report, “Measuring Fixed Broadband” (the annual reports were discontinued by the Trump Administration’s FCC in early 2017), found Frontier a poor performer. Even its fiber network Frontier FiOS was measured losing ground in delivering advertised speeds and performance.

Minnesota Public Radio reports hundreds of complaints about Frontier Communications have prompted statewide public hearings about the company’s alleged poor performance. MPR shares the stories of two frustrated Frontier DSL customers paying for service they do not get. (3:28)

“Our internet here is horrible, our provider is Frontier,” Monica King Von Holtum of Worthington in southwest Minnesota, told Minnesota Public Radio. “It’s infuriating.”

Her service is so bad, she can tell if a neighbor starts using the internet or another family member starts browsing.

“If I’m literally the only person using the internet, it’s fine,” said King Von Holtum. “As soon as we have one or more people using different devices it just tanks and we can’t get anything done.”

She is hardly alone. In Minnesota, the Public Utility Commission has received more than 400 complaints and comments about Frontier’s frustrating performance. Customers report service interruptions lasting up to a week and internet speeds slower than dial-up.

One customer said Frontier lacks “common decency” because of the way it treats its customers, often stuck with only one choice for internet access in their rural service areas.

A speed test showing 0.4 Mbps from 2013 shows this is an ongoing problem.

King Von Houltum showed MPR the results of a speed test while being interviewed.

“We have 0.4 megabits per second,” said King Von Holtum, who pays Frontier for 6 Mbps service. “And our upload is pretty much nonexistent.”

Melody Webster’s family makes regular 5-mile trips into the town of Cannon Falls to use their local library’s Wi-Fi service. It is the only way her children can complete their school assignments, because Frontier’s DSL struggles to open web pages. Webster has called Frontier again and again about the speed problems, but told the public radio station she gets “lied to or pretty much laughed at.”

That’s a story Frontier’s balladeer is not likely to put to song.

Frontier spent an undisclosed amount hiring the ad agency responsible for the new advertising.

“A brand campaign must be creative and memorable. It also has to drive a client’s business forward,” said Lance Jensen, chief creative officer of Hill Holliday, which created the campaign. “The Balladeer is a fun and accessible character who brings humanity and humor to the frustrating experience of dealing with internet and TV service. We can’t wait to put him to work for the Frontier brand.”

The campaign launches this week in Frontier markets nationally and includes broadcast, radio, online video, out of home, digital and social components.

An “affable balladeer” sings about the frustrations of internet users who do not get the internet service they paid for, in this new 30-second ad from Frontier Communications. Ironically, slow speed is the most common complaint about Frontier’s own DSL service. (0:30)

Countries Moving at Light Speed to Expand Fiber, While U.S. Keeps Subsidizing DSL

This week, the FCC announced bidding has finished for the latest Connect America Fund (CAF) broadband subsidies auction.

Once again, the FCC gave first priority to incumbent phone companies to bid for the subsidies, which defray the cost of expanding internet access to homes and businesses otherwise unprofitable to serve. Nearly $2 billion was left on the table by disinterested phone companies after the first round of bidding was complete, so the FCC’s second round opened up the leftover money to other telecom companies.

Winning bidders will receive their portion of $198 million annually in 120 monthly installments over the next ten years to build out rural networks. In return, providers must promise to deliver one broadband and voice service product at rates comparable to what urban residents pay for service. The winning bids, still to be publicly announced, will come from rural electric and phone cooperatives, satellite internet providers, fixed wireless companies, and possibly a handful of cable operators. But much of the money overall will be spent by independent phone companies rolling out slow, copper-based, DSL service.

Because the total committed will take a decade to reach providers, rural Americans will likely face a long wait before what purports to be “broadband” actually reaches their homes and businesses.

While many co-ops will spend the money to expand their own homegrown fiber-to-the-home services, most for-profit providers will rely on wireless or copper networks to deliver service.

Telefónica Spain

Overseas, broadband expansion is headed in another direction — expansion of fiber-to-the-home service, with little interest in investing significant sums on furthering old technology copper wire based DSL and fixed wireless services. The expansion is moving so quickly, Verizon made certain to sign long-term contracts with optical fiber suppliers like Corning in 2017 to guarantee they will not be affected by expected shortages in optical fiber some providers are already starting to experience.

Virtually everywhere in developed countries (except the United States), fiber broadband is quickly crowding out other technologies, despite the significant cost of replacing copper networks with new optical fiber cables. If a provider is brave enough to discount investor demand for quick returns and staying away from big budget upgrade efforts, the rewards include happier customers and a clear path to increased revenue and business success.

Not every Wall Street bank is reluctant to support fiber upgrades. Credit Suisse sees a need for optical fiber today, not tomorrow among incumbent phone and cable companies.

“The cost of building fiber is less than the cost of not building fiber,” the bank advised its clients. The reason is protecting market share and revenue. Phone companies that refuse to upgrade or move at a snail’s pace to improve their broadband product (typically DSL offering 2-12 Mbps) have lost significant market share, and those losses are accelerating. Ditching copper also saves companies millions in maintenance and repair costs.

Canada’s Telus is a case in point. Its CEO, Darren Entwistle, reports Telus’ effort to expand fiber optics across its western Canada service area is already paying off.

“We see churn rates on fiber that are 25% lower than copper,” Entwistle said. “35% lower in high-speed internet access, and 15% lower on TV — 25% lower on average. We’re seeing a reduction in repair volumes to the tune of 40%. We’re seeing a nice improvement in revenue per home of close to 10%.”

Telus promotes its fiber to the home initiative in western Canada as a boost to medical care, education, the economy, and the Canadian communities it serves. (1:31)

Telus’ chief competitor is Shaw Communications, western Canada’s largest cable company. Fiber optics allows Telus to vastly expand internet speeds and reliability, an improvement over distance sensitive DSL. Shaw Cable has boosted its own broadband speeds and offers product bundles that have been largely responsible for Telus’ lost customers, until its fiber network was switched on.

In economically challenged regions, fiber optic expansion is also growing, despite the cost. In Spain, Telefónica already provides service to 20 million Spaniards, roughly 70% of the country, and plans to continue reaching an additional two million homes and businesses a year until the country is completely wired with optical fiber. In Brazil, seven million customers will have access to fiber to the home service this year, expanding to ten million by 2020.

Verizon and AT&T regularly ring alarm bells in Congress that China is outpacing the United States in 5G wireless development, but are strangely silent about China’s vast and fast expansion into fiber optic broadband that companies like Verizon stopped significantly expanding almost a decade ago. China already has 328 million homes and businesses wired for fiber and added another five million homes in the month of June alone. AT&T will take a year to bring the same number of its own customers to its fiber to the home network.

The three countries that are most closely aligned with the mentality of most U.S. providers — the United Kingdom, Australia, and Germany — are changing their collective minds about past arguments that fiber to the home service is too costly and isn’t necessary.

The government of Martin Turnbull’s cost concerns forced a modification of the ambitious proposal by the previous government to deploy fiber to the home service to most homes and businesses in the country. That decision to spend less is coming back to haunt the country after Anne Hurley, a former chief executive of the Communications Alliance involved in the National Broadband Network (NBN), admitted the cheaper NBN will face an expensive, large-scale replacement within a decade.

ABC Australia reports on findings that the country’s slimmed-down National Broadband Network is inadequate, and parts will have to be scrapped within 5-10 years (1:37)

Turnbull’s government advocated for less expensive fiber to the neighborhood technology that would still rely on a significant amount of copper wiring installed decades ago. The result, according to figures provided to a Senate committee, found only a quarter of Australians will be able to get 100 Mbps service from the NBN, with most getting top speeds between 25-50 Mbps.

Despite claims of technical advancements in DSL technology which have claimed dramatic speed improvements, Hurley was unimpressed with performance tests in the field and declared large swaths of the remaining copper network will have to be ripped up and replaced with optical fiber in just 5-10 years.

“If you look around the world other nations are not embracing fiber-to-the-[neighborhood] and copper … so yes, it’s all going to have to go and have to be replaced,” she said.

In the United Kingdom, austerity measures from a Conservative government and a reluctant phone company proved ruinous to the government’s promise to deliver “superfast broadband” (at least 24 Mbps) over a fiber to the neighborhood network critics called inadequate from the moment it was switched on in 2012. The government had no interest in financing a fiber to the home network across the UK, and BT Openreach saw little upside from spending billions upgrading the nation’s phone lines it now was responsible for maintaining as a spun-off entity from BT. In 2015, BT Openreach’s chief technology officer called fiber to the home service in Britain “impossible” and too expensive.

Two years later, while the rest of Europe was accelerating deployment of fiber to the home service, the government was embarrassed to report its broadband initiative was a flop in comparison, and broke a key promise made in 2012 that the UK would have the fastest broadband in Europe by 2015. Instead, the UK has dropped in global speed rankings, and is now in mediocre 35th place, behind the United States and over a dozen poorer members of the EU.

What was “impossible” two years ago is now essential today. The latest government commitment is to promote optical fiber broadband using a mix of targeted direct funding, “incentives” for private companies to wire fiber without the government’s help, and a voucher program defraying costs for enterprising villages and communities that develop their own innovative broadband enhancements. The best the government is willing to promise is that by 2033 — 15 years from now — every home in the UK will have fiber broadband.

Deutsche Telekom echoed BT Openreach with claims it was impossible to deliver fiber optic broadband throughout an entire country.

Deutsche Telekom’s dependence on broadband-enhancements-on-the-cheap — namely speed improvements by using vectoring and bonded DSL are increasingly unpopular for offering too little, too late in the country. Deutsche Telekom applauded itself for supplying more than 2.5 million new households with VDSL service in 2017, bringing the total number served by copper wire DSL in Germany to around 30 million. The company, which handles landline, broadband and wireless phone services, is slowly being dragged into fiber broadband expansion, but on a much smaller scale.

In March, Telekom announced a fiber to the home project in north-east Germany’s Western Pomerania/Rügen district for 40,000 homes and businesses. The network will offer speeds up to 1 Gbps. In July, Telekom was back with another announcement it was building a fiber optic network for Stuttgart and five surrounding districts Böblingen, Esslingen, Göppingen, Ludwigsburg, and Rems-Murr, encompassing 179 cities and municipalities. But most of the work will focus on wiring business parks. Residents will have a 50% chance of getting fiber to the home service by 2025, with the rest by 2030.

In contrast, the chances of getting fiber optic broadband in the U.S. is largely dependent on which provider(s) offer service. In the northeast, Verizon and Altice/Cablevision will go head to head competing with all-fiber networks. Customers serviced by AT&T also have a good chance of getting fiber to the home service… eventually, if they live in an urban or suburban community. Overbuilders and community broadband networks generally offer fiber service as an alternative to incumbent phone and cable companies, but many consumers don’t know about these under-advertised competitors. The chances for fiber optic service are much lower if you live in an area served by a legacy independent phone company like Frontier, Consolidated, Windstream, or CenturyLink. Their cable competitors face little pressure to rush upgrades to compete with companies that still sell DSL service offering speeds below 6 Mbps.

CAF funding from the FCC offers some rural areas a practical path to upgrades with the help of public funding, but with limited funds, a significant amount will be spent on yesterday’s technology. In just a few short years, residents will be faced with a choice of costly upgrades or a dramatic increase in the number of underserved Americans stuck with inadequate broadband. Policymakers should not repeat the costly mistakes of the United Kingdom and Australia, which resulted in penny wise-pound foolish decisions that will cost taxpayers significant sums and further delay necessary upgrades for the 21st century digital economy. The time for fiber upgrades is now, not in the distant future.

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