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AT&T’s Latest Sneaky Wireless Rate Hike

Always looking for a new angle.

Always looking for a new angle.

While T-Mobile and Sprint are preparing to battle it out offering dueling unlimited data plans, Verizon Wireless and AT&T are continuing to raise prices for many customers while pushing upgrades on customers some do not need.

This week, AT&T officially introduced its Mobile Share Advantage plan, with most of the advantages going to AT&T.

Per device fees have shot up by as much as 33% if you have more than two smartphones on your account. AT&T used to charge $15 per smartphone as a device fee. Now it is $20, offset in many cases by some reductions in data plan costs. But once you add a third device, you are paying a $5 rate increase per device.

The company is also trying to clean up its reputation by eliminating the scourge of data-related overlimit fee bill shock. Before the change, AT&T customers faced an overlimit fee of $5 for each 300MB used on its 300MB data plan and $15 per gigabyte on other plans. Instead of billing overlimit fees, AT&T is adopting punishing speed throttles for customers over their allowance. Once customers exceed their plan limit, speeds are reduced to 2G levels, up to 128kbps. While that is just painful for web pages, it makes watching video and uploading photos next to impossible without experiencing frustrating network timeout error messages.

Gone are the 2, 5, and 15GB plans. Customers can now choose from 12 different usage plans ranging from 1-100GB.

data plans att

But AT&T’s most conservative users of data are going to pay more under the new plan. Customers enrolled in the old 2GB $30 data plan, suitable for those who use their phones to check e-mail and view web pages, will find that same $30 will only buy them 1GB if they switch to the new plan. To avoid the likelihood of hitting the speed throttle, these customers will have to upgrade to a 3GB plan for $40 — a $10 increase.

For everyone else who happens to slightly exceed their data allowance, many may end up preferring the old $15 overlimit fee system. Under the new plan, customers have to live with speed throttles that make their devices almost unusable until the billing cycle refreshes. We predict many customers won’t wait and will upgrade their data plan to restore functionality. But upgrades from the 3GB and 6GB plans come in $20 increments — $5 more than the overlimit fee charged for slightly going over. Even worse, if the overage was a one-time issue, many customers will spend $20 more on a data allowance many probably won’t use.

Customers are free to keep their existing plan, for now. But if they change plans, they won’t be able to switch back.

Unlimited Data is Back (With Fine Print): T-Mobile/Sprint Push Unlimited Data Plans for All

Tmo1LogoSeveral years after wireless unlimited data plans became grandfathered or riddled by speed throttling, America’s third and fourth largest carriers have decided the marketplace wants “unlimited everything” after all and is prepared to give customers what they want, at least until they read the fine print.

T-Mobile Announces “The Era of the Data Plan is Over”: T-Mobile ONE

T-Mobile CEO John Legere used a video blog to announce a major shakeup of T-Mobile’s wireless plans this morning, centered on the concept of “unlimited everything.”

“The era of the data plan is over,” said Legere. T-Mobile’s new plan — T-Mobile ONE — does away with usage caps and usage-based billing and offers unlimited calls, texting, and data on the company’s 4G LTE network. The plan becomes available Sept. 6 at T-Mobile stores nationwide and t-mobile.com for postpaid customers. Prepaid plans will be available later.

tmoone

“Only T-Mobile’s network can handle something as huge as destroying data limits,” said Legere. “Dumb and Dumber can’t do this. They’ve been running away from unlimited data for years now, because they built their networks for phone calls, not for how people use smartphones today. I hope AT&T and Verizon try to follow us. In fact, I challenge them to try.”

Legere

Legere

T-Mobile claims the savings with its unlimited plan are enormous compared to its bigger competitors AT&T and Verizon Wireless.

Verizon’s largest LTE usage-capped data plan would cost a family of four $530/month. That’s $4,440 more than T-Mobile ONE will charge.

T-Mobile ONE costs $70 a month for the first line, $50 a month for the second, and additional lines are $20 a month, up to 8 lines with auto pay (add $5 per line if you don’t want autopay). Customers can add tablets for an extra $20 a month.

T-Mobile does offer some caveats in the fine print which are relevant to customers:

  • All video streaming on this plan is throttled to support a maximum of 480p picture quality. Higher video quality is available with an HD add-on plan for $25/mo per line;
  • Tethering is included with T-Mobile ONE, but it is painfully speed-limited to 2G speeds — around 70kbps, just a tad faster than dial-up. At that speed, a web page that will take less than five seconds to load on a 4G network will take 17-25 seconds. A 60 second YouTube video will take nearly five minutes to watch, and downloading apps or sharing images is often impossible because of timeouts. If you want 4G tethering, that will be $15 a month for 5GB, please;
  • Customers identified as among the top 3% of data users, typically those who use more than 26GB of 4G LTE data a month will find themselves in the same data doghouse T-Mobile’s Simple Choice customers are in. That means during peak usage periods on busy cell towers, heavier users are deprioritized on T-Mobile’s network, but we’re not sure if that results in slight speed reductions or the kind of drastic 2G-like experience these kinds of “fair usage” policies often deliver.

Our analysis:

bingeonWhile we’re happy to see unlimited data plans return to prominence, T-Mobile is continuing to punish high bandwidth applications, tethering, and usage outliers with frustrating speed throttles.

T-Mobile’s biggest source of increasing traffic is coming from online video. About a year ago, Legere introduced T-Mobile’s Binge On program, which offers streaming video from T-Mobile’s partners without it counting against your usage allowance. This program had the potential of causing problems with the Federal Communications Commission’s Net Neutrality rules.

Legere seemed to avoid trouble by revealing enough information about Binge On to make it clear why the program exists — to reduce video traffic’s impact on T-Mobile’s network. That might seem counterintuitive until one looks at what it takes to be a Binge On partner — allowing T-Mobile’s Binge On-related traffic to be “optimized” to Standard Definition video (around 480p). No money changes hands between T-Mobile and its Binge On partners.

T-Mobile makes it easy to be a BingeOn participant.

T-Mobile makes it easy to be a Binge On participant.

Binge On was an important factor in freeing up bandwidth on T-Mobile’s network. Some analysts suggest two-thirds of T-Mobile’s video traffic load disappeared after Binge On was introduced. Video is likely the single biggest bandwidth consuming application on wireless networks today. If a customer is watching on a smartphone or even a small tablet, 480p video is generally adequate and has a lower chance of stopping to buffer.

slowAnother clue about the impact of online video on T-Mobile’s network is the same video throttling strategy is built into T-Mobile ONE and applies to all online video, whether the provider partners with T-Mobile or not. Also consider the extraordinary cost of the optional HD Video add-on, which defeats video throttling: a whopping $25 per month per device. That kind of pricing clearly suggests 1080p or even 4K video is a major resource hog for T-Mobile, and customers looking for this level of video quality are going to pay substantially to get it.

T-Mobile is also clearly concerned about tethering, relegating hotspot and tethered device traffic to 2G speeds, which will quickly deter anyone from depending on it except in emergencies. Again, traffic is the issue. Some semi-rural customers unserved by cable but able to get a 4G signal from a T-Mobile tower may think of using T-Mobile as their exclusive source of internet access. At speeds just above dial-up, they won’t consider this an option.

We’re also disappointed to see 26GB of usage a month as the threshold for potential speed throttling. T-Mobile ONE is not cheap, and without more detailed information about how often those exceeding 26GB face speed slowdowns, how much of a slowdown, and how quickly those speed reductions disappear when the tower gets less congested would be very useful. Until then, customers are likely to interpret 26GB as a type of soft usage allowance they will not want to exceed.

T-Mobile ONE also delivers a powerful signal to Wall Street because it raises the lowest price a T-Mobile postpaid customer can pay to become a customer from $50 to $70 a month for a single line. That’s quite a burden for some customers who will have to look to prepaid plans or resellers to get cheaper service. Other carriers rushed to meet T-Mobile’s $50 2GB plan when it was introduced, which has served as an entry-level price range for occasional data dabblers. If those carriers don’t immediately raise prices as well, they will undercut T-Mobile. That could provoke an increase in cancellations among customers buying on price, not plan features. T-Mobile is banking consumers will appreciate unlimited data enough to pay extra for peace of mind.

Jackdaw Research found customers enrolled in 2GB and 6GB T-Mobile plans, T-Mobile ONE represents a price increase. Those signed up for 10GB or unlimited service will pay the same or slightly less with T-Mobile ONE.

Jackdaw Research found customers enrolled in 2GB and 6GB T-Mobile plans will see a price increase with T-Mobile ONE. Those signed up for 10GB or unlimited service will pay the same or slightly less.

sprintlogoSprint: Unlimited Freedom: Two Lines of Unlimited Talk, Text, and Data for $100/month

Not to be outdone by T-Mobile, Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure today announced his own company’s overhaul of wireless plans, featuring the all-new Sprint Unlimited Freedom plan, which offers two lines of unlimited talk, text and data for $100 a month, with no access charges or hidden fees.

Starting Friday, Aug. 19, Sprint customers can sign up for the new plan, which costs $60 for the first line, $100 for two lines, and $30 for each additional line, up to 10. Sprint pounced on the fact its Unlimited Freedom plan for two is $20 less than T-Mobile charges.

Otherwise the two plans are remarkably similar — too similar for the CEOs of both companies that spent part of today engaged in a Twitter war.

T-Mobile CEO John Legere and Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure traded tweet barbs this morning.

T-Mobile CEO John Legere and Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure traded tweet barbs this morning.

“Sprint’s new Unlimited Freedom beats T-Mobile and AT&T’s unlimited offer – only available to its DirecTV subscribers – while Verizon doesn’t even offer its customers an unlimited plan,” read Sprint’s press release.

unlimited freedom“Wireless customers want simple, worry-free and affordable wireless plans on a reliable network,” said Marcelo Claure, Sprint president and CEO. “There can be a lot of frustration and confusion around wireless offers, with too much focus on gigabytes and extra charges. Our answer is the simplicity of Unlimited Freedom. Now customers can watch their favorite movies and videos and stream an unlimited playlist at an amazing price.”

Sprint has also essentially joined the T-Mobile optimization bandwagon, limiting streaming video to 480p, but it goes further with optimization of games — limited to 2Mbps, and music — limited to 500kbps. There does not seem to be any option to pay more to avoid the “optimization” and Sprint is not offering a tethering option with this plan.

“While we initially questioned using mobile optimization for video, gaming and music, the decision was simpler when consumers said it ‘practically indistinguishable’ in our tests with actual consumers,” said Claure. “In fact, most individuals we showed could not see any difference between optimized and premium-resolution streaming videos when viewing on mobile phone screens. Both provide the mobile customer clear, vibrant videos and high-quality audio. Mobile optimization allows us to provide a great customer experience in a highly affordable unlimited package while increasing network efficiency.”

sprint

boostAlso, beginning Friday, Aug. 19, Sprint’s leading prepaid brand, Boost Mobile introduces its own unlimited offer, Unlimited Unhook’d:

  • Unlimited talk, text and optimized streaming videos, gaming and music
  • Unlimited nationwide 4G LTE data for most everything else
  • $50 a month for one line
  • $30 a month for a second line up to five total lines

In addition to the Unlimited Unhook’d plan, Boost Mobile will also unveil the $30 Unlimited Starter plan, which includes unlimited talk, text and slower network data (2G or 3G) with 1GB of 4G LTE data. Customers looking for more high-speed data can add 1 GB of 4G LTE data for $5 per month or 2 GB of 4G LTE data for $10 per month. Multi-line plans are also available for families looking to save some money for an additional $30 a month per line.

“There’s a lot of confusion and clutter in prepaid, but is doesn’t have to be that way. Boost Mobile is offering the simplest solution with plans that are easy to understand,” said Claure. “Boost has something for everyone, whether you need a truly unlimited plan with 4G LTE data or want to save extra money with a low-cost plan.”

Verizon Ponders Installing Partners’ Bloatware on Your Android Phone for $1-2/App

Uninvited apps that cannot be removed infest smartphones.

Uninvited apps that cannot be removed infest smartphones.

Verizon Wireless keeps looking for those end runs around Net Neutrality, this time offering its preferred partners a chance to force-install their apps on your new Android phone without your permission.

Most consumers call these unwanted apps “bloatware,” but the geniuses from Verizon’s marketing department prefer to call it “brandware.” Whatever it’s called, each app successfully installed on your next Android phone will net the wireless giant $1-2, according to Ad Age.

Verizon has pitched the program to ad agencies and their major retail and financial clients rich enough to not worry about spending $1-2 million on app installations. Verizon’s app program is more dynamic than traditional pre-loaded bloatware that customers cannot uninstall. Through the use of Google’s remote install feature, a client could pay Verizon to trigger an automatic download and installation of a banking or shopping app the moment a customer turned on their new phone. The customer would likely assume such apps came with the phone, just like traditional pre-installed bloatware. But unlike the myriad of uninvited game trials, shopping and media apps that customers can’t get rid of, Verizon’s program would let customers uninstall the apps they never wanted installed on their phone to begin with.

Apple iPhone users have nothing to fear from Verizon’s “brandware” because the Apple ecosystem is more tightly controlled by Apple.

Ad Age notes the app program would only send apps to new smartphones being activated for the first time. That isn’t a small market. Verizon activates about 10 million new phones each quarter out of 75 million postpaid customers.

The program raised eyebrows among advertisers and consumer activists worried about Net Neutrality. A deep pocketed app maker would have an instant advantage pre-installing a new game or social networking app on millions of phones while smaller competitors would have to attempt to build scale through word-of-mouth, reviews, or other marketing efforts. Verizon would effectively be giving its preferred partners an unfair advantage over other app makers.

Advertisers are also reportedly wary about blowback from consumers that don’t appreciate uninvited apps chewing through their usage allowance installing themselves.

Consumers generally dislike all the excess apps stuffing up their phones, Azher Ahmed, director of digital at DDB Chicago told Ad Age. “If the app doesn’t offer valuable content and experiences, you’re going to deal with a lot of frustrated users calling out your bloatware.”

Google Fiber Puts Expansion on Hold as It Contemplates Wireless Instead

google fiberFurther expansion of Google Fiber appears to be on hold as the company contemplates moving away from fiber to the home service towards a wireless platform that could provide internet access in urban areas for less money.

The Wall Street Journal today reports Google parent Alphabet, Inc., is looking to cities to share more of the costs of building faster broadband networks or using cheaper wireless technology to reach customers instead.

Six years after Google first announced it would finance the construction of fiber to the home networks, the company has made progress in wiring just six communities, many incompletely. Progress has been hampered by infrastructure complications including pole access, permitting and zoning issues, unanticipated construction costs, and according to one Wall Street analyst, the possibility of lack of enthusiasm from potential subscribers.

Google’s recent acquisition of Webpass, a company specializing in beaming internet access over fiber-connected wireless antennas between large multi-dwelling units like apartments and condos appears to be a game-changer for Google. Webpass was designed mostly to service urban and population dense areas, not suburbs or neighborhoods of single-family dwellings. Webpass’ reliance on wireless signals that travel between buildings removes the cost and complexity of installing fiber optics, something that appears to be of great interest to Google.

Google Fiber is planning a system that would use fiber for its core network but rely on wireless antennas to connect each home to the network, according to a person familiar with the plans. Alphabet chairman Eric Schmidt said at the company’s shareholder meeting in June that wireless connections can be “cheaper than digging up your garden” to lay fiber. The only question is what kind of performance can users expect on a shared wireless network. Google’s plans reportedly do not involve 5G but something closer to fixed wireless or souped-up high-speed Wi-Fi. A web video on Webpass’ website seems to concede “you get best speeds with a wired connection.”

Even Google's wireless technology solutions provider Webpass concedes that wired broadband is faster.

Even Google’s wireless technology solutions provider Webpass concedes that wired broadband is faster.

Former Webpass CEO Charles Barr, now an Alphabet employee, argues wireless solves a lot of problems that fiber can bring to the table.

“Everyone who has done fiber to the home has given up because it costs way too much money and takes way too much time,” Barr said.

Barr’s statements are factually inaccurate, however. Fiber to the home projects continue in many cities, but if they are run by private companies, chances are those rollouts are limited to areas where a proven rate of return is likely. Large incumbent phone and cable companies are also contemplating some fiber rollouts, at least to those who can afford it. Many of the best prospects for fiber to the home service are customers in under-competitive markets where the phone company offers slow speed DSL and cable broadband speeds are inadequate. Rural communities served by co-ops are also prospects for fiber upgrades because those operations answer to their members, not investors. Community broadband projects run by local government or public utilities have also proven successful in many areas.

subBut like all publicly traded companies, Google must answer to Wall Street and their investors and some are not happy with what they see from Google Fiber. Craig Moffett from Wall Street research firm MoffettNathanson has rarely been a fan of any broadband provider other than cable operators and Google Fiber is no different.

“One can’t help but feel that all of this has the flavor of a junior science fair,” Moffett said of Google Fiber, pointing out the service has managed to attract only 53,000 cable TV customers nationwide as of December. Moffett concedes there are significantly more broadband-only customers signed up for Google, but that didn’t stop him from suggesting Google Fiber has had very little impact on increasing broadband competition across the country.

Analysts suggest Google Fiber is spending about $500 per home passed by its new fiber network. But that is a fraction of the $3,000+ per customer often spent by cable operators buying one another.

Google’s wireless deployment will likely take place in Los Angeles, Dallas, and Chicago according to people familiar with the company’s plans. Less dense cities slated for Google Fiber including San Jose and Portland, Ore., may never get any service from Google at all, but they are likely to hear something after a six month wait.

Google is also reportedly asking cities if the company can lease access on existing fiber networks. Another tactic is requesting power companies or communities build fiber networks first and then turn them over to Google to administer. The latter seems less likely, considering there are successful public broadband networks operating on their own without Google’s help.

Verizon 5G: Finally a “Fiber” Broadband Service Verizon Executives Like

verizon 5gIt wasn’t difficult to understand Verizon’s sudden reticence about continuing its fiber to the home expansion program begun under the leadership of its former chairman and CEO Ivan Seidenberg. Starting his career with Verizon predecessor New York Telephone as a cable splicer, he worked his way to the top. Seidenberg understood Verizon’s wireline future as a landline phone provider was limited at best. With his approval, Verizon began retiring decades-old copper wiring and replaced it with fiber optics, primarily in the company’s biggest service areas and most affluent suburbs along the east coast. The service was dubbed FiOS, and it has consistently won high marks from customers and consumer groups.

Seidenberg

Seidenberg

Seidenberg hoped by offering customers television, phone, and internet access, they would have a reason to stay with the phone company. Verizon’s choice of installing fiber right up the side of customer homes proved highly controversial on Wall Street. Seidenberg argued that reduced maintenance expenses and the ability to outperform their cable competitors made fiber the right choice, but many Wall Street analysts complained Verizon was spending too much on upgrades with no evidence it would cause a rush of returning customers. By early 2010, Verizon’s overall weak financial performance coupled with Wall Street’s chorus of criticism that Verizon was overspending to acquire new customers, forced Seidenberg to put further FiOS expansion on hold. Verizon committed to complete its existing commitments to expand FiOS, but with the exception of a handful of special cases, stopped further expansion into new areas until this past spring, when the company suddenly announced it would expand FiOS into the city of Boston.

Seidenberg stepped down as CEO in July 2011 and was replaced by Lowell McAdam. McAdam spent five years as CEO and chief operating officer of Verizon Wireless and had been involved in the wireless industry for many years prior to that. It has not surprised anyone that McAdam’s focus has remained on Verizon’s wireless business.

McAdam has never been a booster of FiOS as a copper wireline replacement. Verizon’s investments under McAdam have primarily benefited its wireless operations, which enjoy high average revenue per customer and a healthy profit margin. Over the last six years of FiOS expansion stagnation, Verizon’s legacy copper wireline business has continued to experience massive customer losses. Revenue from FiOS has been much stronger, yet Verizon’s management remained reticent about spending billions to restart fiber expansion. In fact, Verizon’s wireline network (including FiOS) continues to shrink as Verizon sells off parts of its service area to independent phone companies, predominately Frontier Communications. Many analysts expect this trend to continue, and some suspect Verizon could eventually abandon the wireline business altogether and become a wireless-only company.

With little interest in maintaining or upgrading its wired networks, customers stuck in FiOS-less communities complain Verizon’s service has been deteriorating. As long as McAdam remains at the head of Verizon, it seemed likely customers stuck with one option – Verizon DSL – would be trapped with slow speed internet access indefinitely.

Verizon's FiOS expansion is still dead.

Verizon’s FiOS expansion rises from the dead?

But McAdam has finally shown some excitement for a high-speed internet service he does seem willing to back. Verizon’s ongoing trials of 5G wireless service, if successful, could spark a major expansion of Verizon Wireless into the fixed wireless broadband business. Unlike earlier wireless data technologies, 5G is likely to be an extremely short-range wireless standard that will depend on a massive deployment of “small cells” that can deliver gigabit plus broadband speeds across a range of around 1,500 feet in the most ideal conditions. That’s better than Wi-Fi but a lot less than the range of traditional cell towers offering 4G service.

What particularly interests McAdam is the fact the cost of deploying 5G networks could be dramatically less than digging up neighborhoods to install fiber. Verizon’s marketing mavens have already taken to calling 5G “wireless fiber.”

“I think of 5G initially as wireless technology that can provide an enhanced broadband experience that could only previously be delivered with physical fiber to the customer,” said McAdam during Verizon’s second-quarter earnings call. “With wireless fiber the so-called last mile can be a virtual connection, dramatically changing our cost structure.”

McAdam

McAdam

Verizon’s engineers claim they can build 5G networking into existing 4G “small cells” that are already being deployed today as part of Verizon’s efforts to increase the density of its cellular network and share the increasing data demands being placed on its network. In fact, McAdam admitted Verizon’s near-future would not depend on acquiring a lot of new wireless spectrum. Instead, it will expand its network of cell towers and small cells to cut the number of customers trying to share the same wireless bandwidth.

McAdam’s 5G plan depends on using extremely high frequency millimeter wave spectrum, which can only travel line-of-sight. Buildings block the signal and thick foliage on trees can dramatically cut its effective range. That means a new housing development of 200 homes with few trees to get in the way could probably be served with small cells, if mounted high enough above the ground to avoid obstructions. But an older neighborhood with decades-old trees with a significant canopy could make reception much more difficult and require more small cells. Another potential downside: just like Wi-Fi in a busy mall or restaurant, 5G service will be shared among all subscribers within range of the signal. That could involve an entire neighborhood, potentially reducing speed and performance during peak usage times.

Verizon won’t know how well the service will perform in the real world until it can launch service trials, likely to come in 2017. But Verizon has also made it clear it wants to be a major, if not dominant player in the 5G marketplace, so plenty of money to construct 5G networks will likely be available if tests go well.

Ironically, to make 5G service possible, Verizon will need to replace a lot of its existing copper network it has consistently refused to upgrade with the same fiber optic cables that make FiOS possible. It needs the fiber infrastructure to connect the large number of small cells that would have to be installed throughout cities and suburbs. That may be the driving force behind Verizon’s sudden resumed interest in restarting FiOS expansion this year, beginning in Boston.

“We will create a single fiber optic network platform capable of supporting wireless and wireline technologies and multiple products,” McAdam told investors. “In particular, we believe the fiber deployment will create economic growth for Boston. And we are talking to other cities about similar partnerships. No longer are discussions solely about local franchise rights, but how to make forward-looking cities more productive and effective.”

If McAdam can convince investors fiber expansion is right for them, the company can also bring traditional FiOS to neighborhoods where demand warrants or wait until 5G becomes a commercially available product and offer that instead. Or both.

There are a lot of unanswered questions about how Verizon will ultimately market 5G. The company could adopt its wireless philosophy of not offering customers unlimited use service, and charge premium prices for fast speeds tied to a 5G data plan. Or it could market the service exactly the same as it sells essentially unlimited FiOS. Customer reaction will likely depend on usage caps, pricing, and performance. As a shared technology, if speeds lag on Verizon’s 5G network as a result of customer demand, it will prove a poor substitute to FiOS.

Hillary Clinton’s Broadband/Tech Policies: Aspirational, Bureaucratic, and Often Vague

(Editor’s Note: In keeping with the changes introduced by the latest “AP Stylebook 2016,” as much as it pains us, starting today we will refer to the “internet” in lowercase.) 

clintonThe internet.

“I have a plan for that.”

High tech jobs.

“I have a plan for that.”

Facilitate Citizen Engagement in Government Innovation.

Yes, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has a plan for that, too. Whatever “that” is, there is essentially a four-year plan.

Hillary Clinton’s Initiative on Technology & Innovation” runs 15 pages and immediately reminds readers of the menu at Cheesecake Factory. There is literally something for everyone. It’s surprisingly robust for someone who professed she didn’t understand much of the email controversy she entangled herself in while serving as Secretary of State and admittedly doesn’t know how to work a fax machine. The question is, if voters choose Mrs. Clinton as the next president of the United States, how can they be sure her administration will achieve those promises, starting with a commitment to bring internet service to 100 percent of the country.

opinionBelieve it or not, there are organizations out there that track just how many of these pledges are actually kept during each administration, and surprisingly the track record is better than you might think. Politifact’s Obameter shows the Obama Administration achieved the majority of its tech policy objectives, compromised on a few others, and broke its promise on just one: Requiring companies to disclose personal information data breaches.

After almost two decades of telecommunications deregulation, President Obama turned plenty of attention to internet issues in the last two years of his second term. His de-facto enforcer turned out to be FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler, who has been tenaciously dismantling years of an industry-fueled “trust us, we know best” regulatory policy framework partly established during the (Bill) Clinton Administration. An exception to the usual revolving door of regulators taking well paid jobs in the private sector after leaving government, Wheeler has gone the other way — leaving the private sector as a former telecom lobbyist and venture capitalist to serve as FCC chairman during Obama’s second term. He’s a huge improvement over former chairman Julius Genachowski, who was typically resolute on telecom issues until he wasn’t.

Politifact's Obameter gives high marks to President Obama for delivering on his tech issues platform.

Politifact’s Obameter gives high marks to President Obama for delivering on much of his tech issues platform.

Many progressives looking to keep or even build on Wheeler’s willingness to check telecom industry power are unsure whether Hillary Clinton will be tenacious like Sen. Elizabeth Warren or get up close and personal with big telecom companies, like former Tennessee congressman Harold Ford, Jr., who still serves as honorary chairman of the industry front group Broadband for America.

Progressives with long memories do not fondly recall the first Clinton Administration’s willingness to compromise away or abandon major policy positions it seemed steadfast on during two campaigns. After the 1992 election, Knight-Ridder Newspapers compiled a list of 160 specific commitments made by Bill Clinton. As he approached the end of his first term, the newspaper chain found Clinton managed to achieve 106 of them — a surprising 66% success rate. The reason for the perception-reality gap? Many of those commitments involved low-key, barely noticed policy changes or were originally so broadly defined as to make them achievable based on even the thinnest evidence of change.

The George W. Bush administration managed worse under a perpetual cloud of post Bush v. Gore partisanship and a change in priorities after 9/11, leading to a failure to deliver on most of his policy positions and pledges, according to CBS News. But the Bush Administration’s love of deregulation was well-apparent at the FCC during his two terms in office under FCC chairmen Michael Powell (now a top cable industry lobbyist) and Kevin Martin. Some of those deregulation policies have been reconsidered during the Obama Administration, and some voters are wondering if that will stay true should Mrs. Clinton be our next president.

Many of Clinton’s pledges on tech issues are bureaucratic crowdpleasers that have little immediate relevance or understanding outside of Washington. There are expansions in various federal programs, appointments of new federal overseers to keep a lookout for burdensome regulations on the state and local levels, and a variety of programs to expand broadband at a growing number of “anchor institutions” (not your home or business) through the use of public-private partnerships. It is worth noting many similar projects have already been up and running for at least a decade. Some of these anchor institutions cannot afford to pay the ongoing cost of getting service from these projects, and many are already served more than adequately, with capacity to spare. As we reviewed Mrs. Clinton’s tech policy positions, it also became clear the greater the scope and likely cost of any single pledge, the more vague it seemed to be, especially regarding the money required to pay for it and how its success will be measured.

America's rural broadband problem.

America’s rural broadband problem.

In particular, Mrs. Clinton is promising to “finish the job of connecting America’s households to the internet, committing that by 2020, 100 percent of households in America will have the option of affordable broadband that delivers speeds sufficient to meet families’ needs.”

Left undefined: what is “affordable,” what speeds are “sufficient” to meet families’ needs, and what technologies will be used to deliver it. Mrs. Clinton is satisfied with “directing federal agencies to consider the full range of technologies as potential recipients—i.e., fiber, fixed wireless, and satellite—while focusing on areas that lack any fixed broadband networks currently.” In other words, doing exactly the same thing they already do today.

Satellite internet access, as it now exists, often performs much slower than the FCC’s definition of broadband – consistent download speed of 25Mbps. Most Americans subscribed to traditional DSL service don’t receive true broadband speeds either. Since satellite internet technically reaches the continental United States already, there will be plenty of ways for Mrs. Clinton to “declare victory” on this pledge without allocating the billions needed to provide quality wired or high-speed wireless broadband to still-unserved rural America.

Mrs. Clinton also proposes a new “model digital communities” grant program that will “leverage the $25 billion Infrastructure bank she plans to establish” to facilitate access to high-speed internet. Again, much of this proposal is left woefully undefined. Structured properly, this could be used to develop high-tech cities with high-speed service such as in Kansas City (Google) or Chattanooga (EPB Fiber). These could offer a road map for other communities. The problem is finding the money to build such networks. Private providers will argue they already have advanced networks that don’t require public tax dollars, so these projects are unnecessary. Local governments might admit if they don’t secure similar federal funding that “model cities” get to help cover some of the costs, they won’t proceed. Others may philosophically object to having the federal government meddling in overseeing local projects. Some others might prefer the money be simply spent to wire up rural communities that don’t have any access at all and call it a day.

Put it (almost) anywhere.

Put it (almost) anywhere.

The Clinton campaign is also sure to attract fans among the country’s wireless carriers because her campaign promises to review regulatory barriers the phone and cable companies deal with, particularly pole access, zoning and cell tower issues, streamlining small cell placement, and continued promotion of “climb/dig once” policies which encourage placing fiber and/or conduit in trenches whenever/wherever a utility performs upgrades or outdoor maintenance. Oh, and she’s for 5G spectrum allocations as well. None of this, pardon the pun, is groundbreaking either.

Clinton is more specific supporting the Obama Administration’s Net Neutrality policy, backed by Title II authority, allowing the FCC latitude to manage abusive ISP behavior in a barely competitive marketplace. But she stops well short of criticizing companies about some of their current abusive, anti-consumer policies. She has nothing to say about data caps or zero rating, pricing or poor service, and doesn’t lament the sorry state of competition in the American broadband marketplace.

Clinton’s policy positions seem to suggest the federal government will have to help multi-billion dollar phone and cable companies get over their Return On Investment anxieties by subsidizing them to encourage rural broadband or enhancing outdated infrastructure. We’d prefer a position that moves this country towards universal broadband service, even if it comes at the price of short-term profits at the nation’s top ISPs. It would be useful to see some politicians stand up and suggest Comcast and AT&T, among others, are not entirely paragons of virtue, and they need to do more to solve this pervasive problem. That is something their customers already understand. In return for the billions in profits they earn annually in a de facto duopoly, they should be willing to devote more energy towards network expansion and less on cooking up schemes like data caps/zero rating and the usual share buybacks, dividend payouts, acquisitions and executive compensation. Asking nicely doesn’t seem to work, so now it’s time to tell them.

Although we’ve been a bit tough on Mrs. Clinton, we have not forgotten her likely opponent, Donald Trump, so far lacks any coherent summary of his tech policies. We do know he opposes Net Neutrality because he believes it is an Obama-inspired “attack on the internet” in a “top-down power grab.” Trump believes Net Neutrality will somehow be used to “target conservative media.” That makes about as much sense as saying pistachio is a liberal ice cream flavor. Trump’s team has a lot of work to do before November.

Honest Ads: The Cell Phone Provider You Wish You Had

On the occasion of Verizon Wireless’ new and “exciting” cell phone plans that will cost many customers more money, here is what an honest ad from a cell phone company would look like. (From the folks at Cracked.) (3:45)

AT&T Exec Admits Wireless Network Built On Backs of Landline Customers

att mobileAn AT&T executive casually told an audience attending the Wells Fargo 2016 Convergence & Connectivity Symposium that a significant part of AT&T’s wireless network was built with money intended for AT&T’s landline network.

“I came more from the wireline [landline] business and had always a little bit of frustration for me because for many years before I picked up operations in construction and everything for the wireless side of the business, in the wireline world, I was spending a lot of money that was directly supporting the wireless operation, but it showed up as wireline spend,” said Bill Smith,  who has been with AT&T for 37 years and has served as president of AT&T’s Technology Operations since January, 2010. “So we’re not that good at allocating those expenditures.”

Smith’s admission gives further evidence that AT&T has been shortchanging investment in wireline and fiber networks for years, to the benefit of AT&T’s profitable wireless business.

Smith

Smith

When mobile networks were first being constructed, there was concern that private investment, not landline ratepayers, be responsible for covering the costs of building wireless infrastructure. Both AT&T and Verizon submitted regular rate increase requests to state regulators during the period, claiming additional compensation was needed to cover the costs of landline network upkeep and upgrades. In most cases, regulators approved those rate increases.

Smith’s admission suggests AT&T systematically allocated expenses associated with its wireless network on the wireline side of the business ledger, reducing the amount available to maintain landline service. Had regulators known, they would have likely rejected the rate increase requests and, more importantly, required AT&T to stop spending landline ratepayer funds on wireless networks.

By depleting funds designated for wired networks, AT&T ultimately made a cheaper choice about the type of advanced network it would deploy. AT&T rejected Verizon’s choice of FiOS fiber to the home service because it was ‘too expensive.’ AT&T’s less costly solution, U-verse, relies on fiber to the neighborhood, with existing copper wiring remaining in place between the nearest fiber link and the telephone interface box on the back of your home or business.

Smith also handily defeated his employer’s justifications for data caps, telling the audience AT&T has strong capacity with plenty to spare, noting increasing traffic demands on AT&T’s networks are nothing new for the company.

“But getting back to the capacity question, I don’t lay awake at night worried about that,” Smith said. “Yeah there are a lot more demands coming in to the business, but there is nothing new about that. We’ve lived through many, many cases of new applications, new waves causing increases in consumption. I feel very good about where we are. The density of our network is very strong, and as I mentioned, I think we lead the industry in terms of U.S. footprint in the density of our network and that’s great. Also we have things like small cell coming on the horizon.”

 

America’s 5G Revolution Comes By Giving Wireless Industry Whatever It Wants

Wheeler

Wheeler

FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler today told an audience at the National Press Club that 5G — the next generation of wireless networks — “is a national priority, and why, this Thursday, I am circulating to my colleagues proposed new rules that will identify and open up vast amounts of spectrum for 5G applications.”

Wheeler’s proposal, dubbed “Spectrum Frontiers,” is supposed to deliver wireless connectivity as fast as fiber optic broadband, and in Wheeler’s view, will deliver competitive high-speed access for consumers.

“If the Commission approves my proposal next month, the United States will be the first country in the world to open up high-band spectrum for 5G networks and applications,” said Wheeler. “And that’s damn important because it means U.S. companies will be first out of the gate.”

Central to Wheeler’s 5G proposal is opening up very high frequency millimeter wave spectrum — for unlicensed and licensed data communications. Wheeler named two in his speech: a “massive” 14GHz unlicensed band and a 28GHz “shared band” that will allow mobile and satellite operators to co-exist.

“Consider that – 14,000 megahertz of unlicensed spectrum, with the same flexible-use rules that has allowed unlicensed to become a breeding ground for innovation,” Wheeler said.

5g“Sharing is essential for the future of spectrum utilization. Many of the high-frequency bands we will make available for 5G currently have some satellite users, and some federal users, or at least the possibility of future satellite and federal users,” Wheeler noted. “This means sharing will be required between satellite and terrestrial wireless; an issue that is especially relevant in the 28GHz band. It is also a consideration in the additional bands we will identify for future exploration. We will strike a balance that offers flexibility for satellite users to expand, while providing terrestrial licensees with predictability about the areas in which satellite will locate.”

The CTIA – The Wireless Association, America’s largest mobile carrier lobbying and trade association, is all for opening up new spectrum for the use of their members — AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint, T-Mobile, among others. They just don’t want to share it. Ironically, they are calling on the FCC to regulate who gets access to what frequencies and what services can use them. They’d also appreciate federal rules restricting or preempting local officials responsible for approving where new cell towers can be located, and some form of price regulation for backhaul services would also be nice:

First, we need the right rules for high-band spectrum based on a time-tested regulatory framework. It must strike a reasonable balance for licensed and unlicensed use while promoting investment with clear service and licensing rules. We should avoid experimenting with novel spectrum sharing regimes or new technology mandates.

Second, we need the right rules to help build our 5G infrastructure. Traditional spectrum travels many miles, depending on large cell towers to transmit signals. In contrast, high-band spectrum – capable of carrying greater amounts of data –travels meters, not miles and will require the deployment of thousands of new small cells the size of smoke alarms. This network evolution requires a new infrastructure approach, and Congress, the FCC and states must streamline and simplify local siting and rights of way rules.

Wheeler recognizes that 5G services will work very differently from the 3G and 4G networks we’ve used in the past.

ctia

CTIA is the wireless industry’s biggest lobbyist and trade association.

“5G will use much higher-frequency bands than previously thought viable for mobile broadband and other applications,” Wheeler said. “Such millimeter wave signals have physical properties that are both a limitation and a strength: they tend to travel best in narrow and straight lines, and do not go through physical obstacles very well. This means that very narrow signals in an urban environment tend to bounce around buildings and other obstacles making it difficult to connect to a moving point. But it also means that the spectrum can be reused over and over again.”

In other words, think about 5G as an initially limited range wireless network that may turn out to be best suited for fixed wireless service or limited range hotspots, especially before network densification helps make 5G service more ubiquitous. The wireless industry doesn’t think Wheeler’s vision will be enough to resolve capacity issues in the short term, and is calling on the FCC to release even more low and mid-band spectrum in the 600MHz range that can travel inside buildings and offer a wider coverage area.

Wheeler’s recognition that 5G’s shorter range signals will likely require a massive overlay of new infrastructure has also opened the door for the CTIA to call on the FCC to revisit local zoning and antenna placement rules and policies, with the likely goal of preempting or watering down local authority to accept or reject where cell phone companies want to place their next small cell or cell tower. Wireless companies are also expected to push for easy access to utility poles, time limits to approve new cell tower construction applications, and pricing regulation for fiber lines needed to connect 5G infrastructure to backhaul networks.

Cell tower camouflage failure.

Cell tower camouflage failure.

On the issue of backhaul — the connection between a cell tower and the wireless carrier’s network, the FCC is planning a pro-regulatory “anchor pricing” approach to benefit wireless companies. Consumers can also relate to being overcharged for slow speed Internet access with little or no competition, but the FCC is only acting for the benefit of the wireless companies for now — the same companies that would undoubtedly complain loudly if anchor pricing was ever applied to them.

“Lack of competition doesn’t just hurt the deployment of wireless networks today, it threatens as well to delay the buildout of 5G networks with its demand for many, many more backhaul connections to many, many more antennae,” complained Wheeler. “Before the end of this year the Commission will take up a reform proposal – supported by the nation’s leading wireless carriers, save one – that will encourage innovation and investment in Business Data Services while ensuring that lack of competition in some places cannot be used to hold 5G hostage.”

While Wheeler’s goals are laudable, there are stunning examples of hypocrisy and self-interest from the wireless industry. Yet again, the industry is seeking regulatory protection from having to share spectrum with unlicensed users, existing licensees, or competitors.  No letting the “free market” decide here. Second, there are absolutely no assurances the wireless industry will deliver substantial home broadband competition. Verizon and AT&T will be effectively competing with themselves in areas where they already offer wired broadband. Is there a willingness from AT&T and Verizon to sell unlimited broadband over 5G networks or will customers be expected to pay “usage pack”-prices as high as $10 per gigabyte, which doesn’t include the monthly cost of the service itself. Offering customers unlimited 5G could cannibalize the massive profits earned selling data plans to wireless customers.

Cactus or cell tower

Cactus or cell tower

Upgrading to 5G service will be expensive and take years to reach many neighborhoods. Verizon’s chief financial officer believes 5G wireless will be more cost-effective to deploy than its FiOS fiber to the home network, but considering Verizon largely ended its deployment of FiOS several years ago and has allowed its DSL customers to languish just as long, 5G will need to be far more profitable to stimulate Verizon’s interest in spending tens of billions on 5G infrastructure. It does not seem likely the result will be $25/month unlimited, fiber-like fast, Internet plans.

Although the mobile industry will argue its investment dollars should be reason enough to further deregulate and dis-empower local officials that oversee the placement of cellular infrastructure, it would be a tremendous mistake to allow wireless carriers to erect cell towers and small cells wherever they see fit. Most small cells aren’t much larger than a toaster and will probably fit easily on utility poles. But it will likely spark another wave of pole access controversies. The aesthetics of traditional cell tower placement, especially in historical districts, parks, and suburbs, almost always create controversy. The FCC should not tip the balance of authority for tower placement away from those that have to live with the results.

The mobile industry doesn’t make investments for free, and before we reward them for investing in their networks, let’s recall the United States pays some of the highest mobile service prices in the world. The industry argues what you get in return for that $100+ wireless bill is better than ever, an argument similarly used by the cable industry to justify charging $80 a month for hundreds of channels you don’t watch or want. Therefore, incentives offered to the wireless industry should be tied to permanent pro-consumer commitments, such as unlimited 5G broadband, better rural coverage, and the power to unbundle current wireless packages and ditch services like unlimited texting many customers don’t need. Otherwise, it’s just another one-sided corporate welfare plan we can’t afford.

Middle Mile Madness: Rural Florida Blows $24 Million on Wireless Network Serving Nobody

12126179-florida-rural-broadband-alliance-logoA word to the wise: using public money to build a middle mile broadband network without any customers lined up to sign up is a disaster waiting to happen.

In April, the disaster arrived in the form of a Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing on behalf of the Florida Rural Broadband Alliance (FRBA), which threw away $24 million in federal grants on a network that was so unviable, the contractor that was supposed to run it apparently ran away instead, resulting in confusion and an eventual declaration it was “doomed to fail” anyway.

The sordid story started almost seven years ago when Florida’s Heartland Regional Economic Development Initiative (FHREDI) and Opportunity Florida (OF) — two non-profit organizations dedicated to spurring economic development across rural Florida, discovered federal grant money was available for rural Internet expansion as part of the Obama Administration’s 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The two groups fashioned a broadband proposal they were confident would win approval. At the time, rural broadband across northwest and south-central Florida was dismal at best, with only 39% of homes covered. Largely unserved by cable and barely served with DSL from AT&T and other telephone companies, the two groups believed a wireless network would be the best solution for Hardee, DeSoto, Highlands, Okeechobee, Glades, Hendry, Holmes, Washington, Jackson, Gadsden, Calhoun, Liberty, Gulf and Franklin counties.

empty-office

$24 million spent and nothing to show for it.

Although $24 million is not an insubstantial sum, it was clearly never adequate to build a comprehensive rural broadband network reaching homes and businesses. Instead, the two groups envisioned a “middle mile” network funded by the government, with central offices in Orlando and Tallahassee equipped with microwave dishes and computer servers. Unlike most middle mile networks, the one proposed by the FRBA would rely on a network of microwave towers instead of fiber optics, and would ultimately serve all of its customers over a wireless network.

When complete, the wireless network was supposed to deliver up to 1Gbps capacity throughout the region, relying on leased space on existing cell towers to support microwave links that would bounce signals from one area to the next. Initially promising to serve more than 174,000 homes and 16,400 businesses, the one immediate flaw noticed by those skeptical of the proposal was the lack of a definitive plan to sell Internet service to paying residential and business customers. The brochures suggested existing commercial Internet Service Providers would magically step into that role. Early critics called that “wishful thinking.”

Despite what some felt was an untenable business plan and an incomplete application, the group won its federal “BTOP” grant of $24 million in 2010 and began a very lengthy planning process using well-paid consultants to get the network fully scoped out and built. Within a year, controversy quickly threatened to swamp the project, and a congressional oversight investigation quickly found evidence of wasteful spending and put its funding on hold. That would hardly be the first allegation raised against the FRBA and those overseeing it. By 2013, the Columbia County Observer had run more than a dozen stories reporting irregularities and other problems with the project. Few were noticed more than the report Rapid Systems, Inc., one of the contractors on the project, had filed a $25 million lawsuit replete with soap operatic allegations against FRBA for not being paid for its work.

Rapid Systems CEO, Dustin Jurman and CFO/VP Denise Hamilton. (Image: Columbia County Observer)

Rapid Systems CEO, Dustin Jurman and CFO/VP Denise Hamilton. (Image: Columbia County Observer)

Rapid Systems alleged everything from fraud and double-dipping to sexual promiscuity over what it called the “FRBA Fraud Scheme.”

At the heart of the lawsuit were allegations money was being misspent, “to pay inflated salaries to employees, who then fled to South America, and that grant money was used for inflated fees to consulting companies which were owned by FRBA principals.”

Rapid Systems claimed FRBA was very generous paying management consulting fees of $10,000 a month to an entity known as the Government Service Group (GSG), along with a pro rata share (3% of the grant) for a “Grant Compliance Fee” and an additional 13% of the grant as a “Capital Improvement Program Administrative Fee.” And you thought only Comcast and Time Warner Cable were creative conjuring up fees. When added up, it appeared just one consultant — GSG — would walk away with 16% of the entire grant — nearly $4 million in total “management fees” before a single broadband connection would be made.

The lawsuit also claimed the grant money was gorged on by the leadership of both non-profits, one who allegedly relocated to South America the lawsuit states in another aside. The two “were being paid fees in the amount of $8,500 a month to themselves cloaked as administrative and community outreach funds,” according to the lawsuit.

Phillip Dampier: To be a credible supporter of community broadband, it is responsible to call out the disasters so that they are not repeated.

Phillip Dampier: To be a credible supporter of community broadband, it is responsible to call out the disasters so they are not repeated.

Meanwhile, the public eagerly awaiting something better than the non-broadband AT&T and some independent phone companies were supplying in the region couldn’t get answers about the project’s progress. Neither could the media, which reported the business phone number for the FRBA would ring unanswered for hours or days. Those hired to provide community outreach about the broadband project were frequently unable to answer even basic questions about the network or its status, or where the principals involved in the project even met.

By 2014, Opportunity Florida’s Facebook page claimed the network was 90% complete. But the project now decidedly downplayed how many homes and businesses would get service. Instead, the middle mile network promoted itself as an institutional network, dedicated primarily to serving “community anchor institutions:”

The FRBA system provides lower cost, high capacity broadband to Community Anchor Institutions, commonly referred to as “CAIs.” CAIs include local government and public agencies including schools, libraries and hospitals. The NTIA grant was initiated with these unserved or underserved CAIs as the intended target. Most government and public services have moved, or are in the process of moving, to paperless transactions and record-keeping and need the additional broadband and Internet based capabilities. Another benefit of the FRBA system will be capacity to schools and libraries as both those institutions face online and digital mandates.

Commercial ISPs willing to use the network to offer service to individual non-institutional customers were invited to visit an Opportunity Florida webpage (now gone) for more information. There is no evidence any major ISP ever bothered. In fact, even institutional users didn’t seem very interested. We remain unclear if there was ever a single paying customer on the network, despite a report filed by the NFBA with the federal government that claimed through September 30, 2012, the NFBA had 11 anchor institutions, zero residents, and zero businesses hooked up to its network.

A year later, the Columbia County Observer went further and called some of those involved in evangelizing the project “clueless,” and based on the post-mortem of what has happened since, they may be right.

Those directly involved in the project have since displayed a stunning lack of knowledge about its operations and practices, or what has become of the $24 million:

The unfortunate "I see nothing, I hear nothing, I know nothing" brigade.

The unfortunate “I see nothing, I hear nothing, I know nothing” brigade answers questions from the media.

  • Gina Reynolds, the last executive director of FHREDI, which administered FRBA, claimed the network was running fine when she left in the summer of 2015 to start her own economic development consultancy. She may be among the very few that got out before the project ultimately fell apart. Although FHREDI managed to pay her for her services, it suddenly lacked any resources to pay anyone to replace her after she left;
  • Greg Harris, a Highlands County commissioner and FHREDI director, disclosed at a recent county commission meeting FRBA was in Chapter 7 bankruptcy and the group that oversaw it — FHREDI, was being dissolved. But like the phoenix rising from the ashes, some of those involved in FHREDI and FRBA are now associating themselves with a new group called the Florida Heartland Economic Region of Opportunity (FHERO). Says Harris: “We didn’t really know what FHREDI was doing. They were spending most of their opportunity on FRBA and the rural broadband. It got away from what we really needed to focus on.”
  • Terry Burroughs, an Okeechobee County commissioner, is FHERO’s chairman. But last year, the ex-telephone company executive was a FHREDI board member. His memory is excellent about where the taxpayer-funded equipment to run the network eventually ended up: in warehouses in Lake Placid and Tallahassee. But his answers were more vague when asked how things went so wrong. Burroughs tried to put substantial distance between himself and the failed wireless broadband network: “When I first got on the board, they were trying to negotiate with a contractor. Gina [Reynolds] was working with that, and it went on and on and on. There was probably a network at some given time, but I don’t think a last mile ever deployed. When I got there, the last mile was dark. … I never knew of a paying customer. They were trying to build a telephone company, and they were doomed to failure.”
  • Paul McGehee, business development manager for Glades Electric and a FHERO director, did an even better job explaining he knew nothing, saw nothing, and heard (almost) nothing: “The operator who was contracted to run it as a company stepped away from it,” McGehee said, adding he could not recall the contractor’s name. The flaw in FRBA’s plan, according to McGehee, was that while the grant bought the equipment, there were no federal funds for operations. “No one wanted to step up and operate the network, and there was no way to pay the tower leases… The end product wasn’t a viable sustainable thing.”

fhrediToo bad nobody bothered to consider that before spending $24 million of the taxpayers’ money on a non-viable network.

Commissioner Jim Brooks didn’t seem too bothered by the admissions of total failure. After hearing an explanation about the network’s demise and the money spent on it, he told his fellow commissioners he “didn’t have a problem with it.”

A multitude of articles that have documented this disaster (including our own from September 2011) illustrates what can happen when over-enthusiastic consultants overwhelm projects with happy talk not recognized as such by a board that has little or no understanding of the technology, the broadband business, or, in this case, the project itself. The claims and projections consistently simply bore no reality… to reality. What is even more concerning is some of those consultants didn’t work for free, and may have tapped a substantial portion of the total available grant for themselves.

It is also remarkable and disappointing to read candid assessments about a project “doomed to failure” from those with direct knowledge and or involvement only after the liquidator from the federal government turns up. As stewards of public taxpayer money, one expects more than a shrug of the shoulders and a quiet shuffle dance out of FHREDI into a new, reincarnated “rural economic development” initiative. How can we trust the same mistakes won’t be made again?

We remain strong supporters of community broadband, but messes like this hand potent ammunition to corporate-ISP-funded think tanks that use these kinds of failures to sully all public broadband projects. We must call out of the bad ones to be seen as credible supporting the good ones. It also never hurts to learn from others’ mistakes.

Among the biggest reasons this project was a flop (beyond the dubious skills of those in charge of overseeing it) was its size, scope, and technology choice. The biggest challenge to any rural broadband project is always “the last mile” — the point where the connection leaves a regional fiber network and reaches a nearby neighborhood’s utility poles and finally enters your home. It also happens to be the most costly segment of the network, and often the hardest to fund with government subsidies. But it is the one that makes the difference for individual homeowners and businesses who either have broadband or don’t.

Rural Floridians endure more broken promises for better broadband.

Rural Floridians endure more broken promises for better broadband.

Like too many middle mile projects of this type, the story initially fed to the press and supporters is that such networks will somehow alleviate rural broadband problems. Only later do supporters realize they are actually getting an institutional middle mile network that will offer service to hospitals, schools, and public safety buildings — not to homes and businesses. Ordinary citizens cannot access such networks unless a commercial ISP shows interest in leasing it to resell, which is unlikely. The closest most will ever get to experiencing an institutional network they paid for is staring at the fiber cable stretched across the utility poles in front of your house.

FRBA was too ambitious in size and scope, and a credible consultant should have advised those in charge to get credible evidence that a network built with grant money could be sustained without it going forward. If not, scale back the project or don’t apply for the grant.

This project proposed a wireless backbone to power a large regional wireless network. Winning support among anchor institutions was predictably difficult, because many already have existing contracts with commercial telecom companies. With government funding available in many instances, an institution can get full fiber or metro Ethernet service easier than a rural farmer can get 6Mbps DSL from a disinterested phone company.

The evidence shows there were few takers — institutional or otherwise — of what FRBA had to offer. Did the project organizers not see this lack of interest as a problem as the network prepared to launch? After launch, there were almost immediate signs it lacked enough of a customer base to sustain itself. Did the project backers assume the government would bail out the network or dump millions more into it to make it viable to sell to homes and businesses? Such assumptions would have been irresponsible.

There are too many underutilized middle mile or institutional fiber networks already built with taxpayer dollars that remain off-limits to those who paid to build them. Utilizing those networks by extending grant funding for last mile projects would be helpful, as would sufficient subsidies to assure middle mile construction is followed by last mile construction and actual service. We remain big believers in fiber to the home service. Although expensive, such projects are best positioned for success and future viability and can take advantage of the massive amount of dark fiber already laid in many areas. Some cities prefer to run the networks themselves, others contract day-to-day operations out to independent operators. Either would be preferable to a network that took six years to build and fail, without any evidence it could attract, support and sustain enough customers to support anything close to viability.

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