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Mediacom Touts Gig Speeds But Also Acknowledges Low Scores

While Mediacom introduces gigabit speeds to a growing number of their customers, it also acknowledges it has one of the worst customer satisfaction scores of any cable company in the country.

Company officials were in the Quad-Cities of northwest Illinois and southeastern Iowa to speak about 1,000Mbps service introduced earlier this year for its 92,000 customers in the area, according to an article in the Dispatch-Argus.

“No where else in the country has this much broadband capability,” said Phyllis Peters, director of communications for the north central division of Mediacom. “You can live in Port Byron or Ottawa or down the road in Marion or Carbondale, and you’re using the same amount of bandwidth. You have just as much demand and need for bandwidth as if you were living in Austin, Texas.”

To support the expansion, the company added nearly 30 miles of additional fiber capacity to support the faster internet speeds. But so far, fewer than 250 customers in the area have upgraded to gigabit speeds. Most seem content with paying less for slower speeds, but that does not mean customers are not using their internet connections.

“We’ve been looking at an internet business that has been growing,” said J.R. Walden, senior vice president of technology and chief technology officer for Mediacom. “The bandwidth is growing at as much as 65 percent a year for close to 20 years. It means we have to double the size of the network every 18 months.”

Walden

Walden claims that once gigabit speed is embraced by a larger number of their customers, they will contemplate another upgrade to 10Gbps speeds.

Along with faster wired internet, Mediacom has also been installing Wi-Fi hotspots for its customers. XStream Wi-Fi is available to non-customers for a 30-minute trial or unlimited use during certain special events. Mediacom’s broadband customers get free unlimited access by logging in with their Mediacom username and password.

The cable company has 249 Wi-Fi hotspots in Moline, Rock Island, East Moline, Silvis, Davenport and Bettendorf, mostly in business districts or around event venues. Mediacom customers can also use their credentials to access Wi-Fi from other nearby cable operator-operated hotspots, notably those belonging to Comcast, which dominates in Illinois.

The cable company has also been promoting its internet program for the income-challenged. Connect2Compete is a $9.95-a-month internet service for families with at least one student in kindergarten through 12th grade who qualifies for the federal school lunch program. But like most cable companies, Mediacom’s first interest is to protect its own revenue, so it excludes current customers from enrolling if they already scrape enough money together to pay for regular broadband service or who have a past-due balance or unreturned equipment from an old disconnected account.

The American Consumer Satisfaction Index rates Mediacom dead last in 2017.

That is one of the many reasons Mediacom’s customers dislike the company. It perennially scores dead last among all the nation’s cable operators in Consumer Reports’ annual surveys. The Better Business Bureau has also documented multiple bad reviews and KWQC-TV in Moline reports Mediacom’s internet service is notorious for its repeated outages:

JoEllen Seibel said she’s used the company for internet for the last 8 years and has had little to no connection for the last four months.

“It’s all day long, all day long we get no reception.”

Seibel said technicians have come to her house multiple times to fix the problem but is still without service.

“It makes me frustrated if something is really going on on their end that’s what they need to tell their customers or something instead of just sending someone out.”

Nathan, another Mediacom customer, complained to the Better Business Bureau his internet service is completely unreliable.

“As much as I was excited about our internet speeds, they are never persistent. Internet goes out at least ten times a day,” he told the BBB.

Glendon adds Mediacom advertises fast internet speeds it cannot reliably provide its customers.

“I subscribe to 150/30Mbps internet. I rarely get 150 down, usually 50-60, and during peak [usage periods], [speeds drop] into the teens,” he complains, noting things have not improved despite multiple technician visits and a manager’s intervention.

“Very incompetent company that doesn’t seem to care if they’re billing you for a service they can’t provide,” is Glendon’s conclusion.

“We’re not unaware that some of the customer satisfaction scores put out by third-party organizations have had us on the lower end and we think we can do better and to some extent deserve a better score and we’ve been working on that,” Walden told the TV station.

Verizon Tells FCC Revealing Big Telecom Merger Details Irrelevant to Net Neutrality Proceeding

Verizon has told the Federal Communications Commission it should reject a bid from a consumer group to release confidential corporate merger information to the public so it can learn what economic incentives, if any, exist to begin charging content providers extra fees for internet fast lanes and zero rating.

Incompas, which advocates for increased competition in the wireless industry, asked the Commission in July to publicly disclose details of recent telecom mergers obtained in confidence from the companies involved to “interested commenters” in the Net Neutrality proceeding allowing consumers can obtain valuable insight into the “economic incentives and abilities of incumbent broadband providers to curb competition, including through their control of residential broadband connections.”

The group specifically called out AT&T’s merger with DirecTV, Comcast’s failed merger with Time Warner Cable, and Charter’s merger with Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks. All of the entities involved either operate wireless networks themselves or partner with a provider that does. Incompas believes a document release will show increased concentration and market power and the marked impact that can have on what consumers pay for service and how those companies plan to treat competing traffic.

The information disclosure sought by the group was vehemently opposed by Verizon, which doesn’t want its business secrets revealed to the public.

“There is no legal justification or sound policy basis to justify making this highly sensitive business information available in the Restoring Internet Freedom proceeding,” Verizon countered in its filing. The phone company does not want to publicly release details about its connection agreements with other companies or exactly how many customers it serves. “[N]othing has changed since the adoption of these protective orders that warrants the Commission weakening these protections by allowing this sensitive business information to be disclosed to potentially millions of ‘interested commenters’ in the Restoring Internet Freedom proceeding.”

While some Net Neutrality critics have sought to dismiss the more than 13 million comments received so far by the FCC on Net Neutrality as confused ranting, Verizon takes an opposite position saying the Commission is already bogged down with quality comments on Net Neutrality and does not need more, claiming it would only add to a flood of analysis on Net Neutrality. Verizon claimed among the submissions received by the FCC are “millions of comments, thousands of pages of expert testimony and declarations and hundreds of substantive analyses and submissions with detailed economic, legal and policy arguments.”

Charter Communications did not appreciate the proposal either, claiming it was unfair.

“Such an outcome would eviscerate the core protection of the commission’s protective orders, thereby unfairly punishing Charter’s past compliance and threatening the commission’s ability to obtain sensitive information from private parties in the future,” Charter officials wrote.

Telcos Intentionally Cut Rural Broadband Investments Hoping for Taxpayer Subsidies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Source: AT&T)

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

Burstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rural backhaul connectivity is often provided by fiber optic cabling.

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

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

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

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

Verizon Running Short of LTE Capacity in Large Cities like New York

OpenSignal’s State of American Wireless Networks – Aug. 2017

Verizon Wireless customers are seeing declining wireless internet speeds and the greater potential for congestion because Verizon Wireless is experiencing the impact of some overburdened cell sites in some of its largest markets.

Walter Piecyk from BTIG Research reports over the last few weeks, Verizon has begun using the last 10MHz of PCS spectrum left in its inventory in New York City, nine months earlier than expected.

Verizon’s reserve spectrum in PCS Band 2 near 1900MHz is not as ideal as lower frequency spectrum better able to manage inside buildings in a city as densely packed as New York, but if that is all the company has left for immediate use, that is what it will use. The newly activated frequencies, first uncovered by Milan Milanovic, are not yet operational across all of Verizon’s extensive cell network in the Big Apple. Verizon’s need to activate its last remaining PCS frequencies suggests former chief financial officer Fran Shammo may have been overly optimistic when he claimed Verizon was only using 40% of its spectrum inventory. That may be true in smaller cities, but is no longer the case in large metropolitan areas.

“This latest action also means that the only spectrum Verizon has left to convert to LTE in NYC is the 25MHz of 800MHz spectrum that the FCC gave it for free in 1984,” wrote Piecyk. “Unfortunately, that 800MHz spectrum is being used to support CDMA voice traffic and legacy 3G data for enterprise/IoT applications. Meanwhile, Dish sits on 125MHz of vacant spectrum in NYC.”

BTIG Research has been carefully tracking Verizon’s deployment of its spectrum for years. In New York, LTE expansion has depended heavily on spectrum acquisitions and enabling LTE+, which bonds frequencies together to increase speed and capacity.

BTIG Research Tracks Verizon Wireless’ LTE Deployment in NYC

  • 20 MHz: December 2010 – launched LTE on the 20MHz of 700MHz spectrum it bought in the 2008 700MHz auction for $0.46/MHz/POP for the Northeast regional license and $0.77/MHz/POP nationwide.
  • 40 MHz: December of 2013 – XLTE-branded rollout of AWS spectrum, which mainly included the spectrum it bought from Cable in 2011 for $0.69/MHz/POP, but also the spectrum it acquired in the 2006 AWS-1 auction, where it spent $1.33/MHz/POP for the Northeast regional license and $0.73/MHz/POP overall.
  • 20 MHz: December of 2014 – LTE conversion begins on PCS spectrum. Verizon purchased 10MHz from Northcoast as part of a larger transaction valued at $1.58/MHz/POP in 2003, 10MHz covering NYC from NextWave for $4.63/MHz/POP in 2004, and 20MHz from NextWave in 2005 as part of a larger transaction valued at $2.85/MHz/POP. (Link)
  • 10 MHz: Q1 of 2016 – This enabled Verizon to deliver 15MHz x 15MHz connections on Band 2, thereby improving speeds. When this happened we predicted the remaining PCS spectrum would be used in early 2018. (Link)
  • 10 MHz: Q3 of 2017 – Once again, this was spotted by Milanovic (Link), who notes that it has not been deployed on all sites. This effectively expands the Band 2 deployment to a 20MHz x 20MHz deployment.

The company has also attempted to increase capacity with network densification, which adds more cell sites to divide up the traffic load. But activating a new cell site can take years, especially if Verizon encounters zoning and permitting problems or public opposition. Small cells can ease congestion in particularly dense traffic areas, but are not enough alone to deal with increasing network traffic.

Verizon’s own business practices have also complicated things for the wireless company. Ditching two-year contracts and subsidized phones in favor of customers acquiring devices at retail prices financed through wireless carriers like Verizon have led to a slowdown in subscriber upgrades as consumers hold on to their devices for longer.

Most phones acquired in the last year or two now support Voice over LTE (VoLTE), which means phone calls travel over Verizon’s LTE network, not the legacy CDMA network Verizon has used for well over a decade. Verizon has to dedicate a significant amount of prime spectrum in the 850MHz band for its CDMA network. Although Verizon claims it has migrated “more than 50%” of its voice traffic to the newer, more efficient VoLTE standard, that is below analysts’ expectations.

Piecyk thinks it may be possible Verizon has been slow to convert because of the record low phone upgrade rate of its customers. As a result, it cannot repurpose its CDMA spectrum for LTE use. Discussions with Verizon engineers suggest the company may eventually cut back CDMA spectrum, but will likely still keep 5 x 5MHz reserved for CDMA voice calling for at least the next four years to support its customers with older devices.

As part of its network densification effort, Verizon is once again relying on fiber optic buildouts, some of which it may take on itself in areas where it does not provide landline service. Verizon will be placing cables with 1,700 strands of fiber, so it is obviously thinking about future network demands.

Before it can deploy additional upgrades or acquire more spectrum, customers can anticipate more “network management” techniques, suspects Piecyk, especially now that unlimited data plans are for sale again. Verizon already limits its “unlimited” plan to 22GB of usage per month, before wireless data speeds are throttled. OpenSignal believes Verizon’s recent speed drops are a result of its unlimited plans putting more pressure on its network.

“We suspect management will now follow T-Mobile’s lead and suppress video quality like BingeOn to help with the rise in network traffic,” Piecyk wrote. “They might also discuss control of overall peak data speeds. However, if no mobile applications require more than 10Mbps service, would it make any sense to suppress the speeds on your customers’ phone? What’s the benefit other than offering a convenient excuse on why your speed tests are slower than the competition?”

Charter Turns Down Offer to Merge With Sprint, Now Softbank May Acquire Charter Itself

Masayoshi Son, chairman of SoftBank Group

Charter Communications is a prime target for a takeover by Japanese giant SoftBank Group Corp., and chairman Masayoshi Son appears not to be willing to take no for an answer.

Last week, Charter executives rejected a bid by Son to combine Spectrum with Sprint, the nation’s number four wireless carrier controlled by SoftBank. Now Son is attempting to put together an offer Charter’s shareholders can’t refuse.

Son could make an announcement as early as this week, according to Bloomberg News.

SoftBank would be acquiring America’s second largest cable operator estimated to have a market value of $101 billion. SoftBank itself is worth approximately $89 billion. The Japanese conglomerate already carries $135 billion in debt, the second most indebted non-financial company in Japan, outdone only by Toyota.

For most Charter customers, a merger would make the second transition in two years, after Charter acquired Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks.

Son originally planned to combine Charter and Sprint into a new public company. Something similar would likely happen if SoftBank attempts a direct takeover of Charter Communications. Son’s investment in Sprint has not paid off. The wireless carrier has lost billions since SoftBank took control of Sprint in 2013.

“We understand why a deal is attractive for SoftBank, but Charter has no interest in acquiring Sprint,” Charter said in a statement over the weekend before Bloomberg reported Son’s latest plans. “We have a very good MVNO relationship with Verizon and intend to launch wireless services to cable customers next year.”

But Charter’s largest shareholder, Liberty Broadband Corp., controlled by Dr. John Malone, is interested in a deal bringing Charter together with a wireless carrier. But there is no word if Malone approves of a tie-up with Charter and SoftBank.

“Overall our view is that Charter likely does not want to sell, but that SoftBank is one of the few companies that could put a bid in big enough to take control,” analysts at JPMorgan Chase & Co., led by Philip Cusick, said in a note. “While we don’t see a deal as very likely, especially given later headlines that Charter is cool to the idea, Masa is never to be counted out as a buyer.”

Son’s urgency to do a deal may be related to Sprint’s ongoing losses and the bonds used to finance that acquisition near maturity.

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