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Republican FCC Commissioners Pai and O’Rielly Get Ethics Complaints, Investigations

Phillip Dampier March 2, 2018 Net Neutrality, Public Policy & Gov't, Video No Comments

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is under investigation by the Inspector General of the Federal Communications Commission after being alleged of improperly taking actions to benefit Sinclair Broadcast Group, while one of his colleagues, Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, is the subject of an ethics complaint after allegedly violating the Hatch Act by openly advocating for the re-election of President Donald Trump.

Pai’s actions as head of the FCC under the Trump Administration have been under scrutiny by some members of Congress since last fall. Ranking Member of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.J.) and Ranking Member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) signed a joint letter addressed to FCC Inspector General James Hunt last November requesting an investigation after they claimed Chairman Pai “has repeatedly refused to adequately respond to Congressional inquiries” on the matter.

Pallone and Cummings noted press reports that Pai specifically timed certain FCC regulatory actions to directly benefit Sinclair, seen as politically friendly to the Trump Administration and Republicans. As evidence, they included multiple examples of suspiciously timed regulatory changes that seemed to coincide with Sinclair’s business deals and the company’s lobbying efforts in Washington:

Sinclair-Bonten License Transfer Application

Chairman Pai rescinded a guidance in February (2017), effectively loosening the scrutiny the FCC’s staff applied to deals that could skirt local TV ownership restrictions by using a sharing agreement (effectively allowing Sinclair to control stations owned by another company). The FCC approved a deal three months later where Sinclair used several of these sharing agreements, potentially to circumvent the rules.


Reinstatement of the UHF Discount Rule

Press reports indicated in March, 2017, Sinclair was in talks with Tribune Media Company about a potential merger, but analysts remarked the deal would likely require the FCC to reinstate an outdated rule called the “UHF discount.” This rule, left over from the days of analog television and finally rescinded in 2016, did not count UHF television stations above Channel 13 the same as VHF stations (Chs. 2-13) when defining how many TV stations a single company can own. The theory behind the discount was that analog UHF reception was more difficult and, as a result, such stations were less valuable than their lower channel counterparts. But digital television largely erased that distinction because UHF reception has improved, TV stations can be “mapped” by digital tuners to any channel number, and, in some areas, digital VHF stations suffer more reception problems than UHF stations do.

Chairman Pai suddenly announced his plan to reinstate the outdated UHF discount rule the same month Sinclair began talks with Tribune. Sinclair announced its proposed acquisition of Tribune’s TV stations just two weeks after the FCC reinstated the UHF discount. If approved, the transaction would solidify Sinclair as the country’s largest TV group owner with a potential to reach 70% of the country, which is far in excess of the current 39% limit.

LG’s Ultra High Definition (UHD) televisions support ATSC 3.0, and were demonstrated at the 2017 Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea.

Next Gen TV (ATSC 3.0)

Sinclair has been one of the main proponents of the ATSC 3,0 (also known as “Next Gen TV”) transition, and its subsidiary holds patents that reports indicate could provide billions of dollars in licensing fees to Sinclair. Chairman Pai announced during his first full month in office a proposal to allow the TV industry to accelerate a transition to the new standard.

Since that time, the FCC has pushed ATSC 3.0 forward and the new technology has begun to be tested in the United States. Some consumer groups worry the new technology will be costly if consumers cannot afford or find converter boxes for existing televisions, although ATSC 3.0 proponents promise stations will continue to broadcast a Standard Definition version of existing TV stations for at least five years after the transition begins.

New televisions supporting the standard have already gone on sale in South Korea at prices ranging from around $900-$1,500US. The government is subsidizing TV station owners a minimum of $1.75 billion as part of a TV station repack that will precede the introduction of ATSC 3.0. But no subsidies will be given to consumers. Those buying ATSC 3.0 tuners or televisions will do so out of their own pocket if they wish to continue watching over-the-air stations. Sinclair will also get a royalty payment for each new television or tuner sold.

Main Studio Rule

The FCC voted last October to eliminate rules requiring a local broadcast station to maintain a physical presence in the market in which it operates. This means a station could deliver programming to a station’s transmitter from another city, with no local programming or personnel. This move would make Sinclair’s potential merger even more profitable by eliminating many of the costs of maintaining local stations, particularly labor and news-gathering costs.

Broadcast Ownership Rules

Chairman Pai plans to significantly change the existing broadcast media ownership limits. This would clear away virtually all remaining obstacles to Sinclair increasing its reach beyond the Tribune merger proposal and acquire still more television stations. Sinclair has carefully prepared for this eventuality by contractually obligating the new owner(s) of stations Sinclair is required to sell to remain under whatever ownership cap still exists to sell those stations back to Sinclair if and when Sinclair requests it.

According to the two Democrats, “all of these actions — when taken in context with reported meetings between the Trump Administration, Sinclair, and Chairman Pai’s office — have raised serious concerns about whether Pai’s actions comply with the FCC’s mandate to be independent.”

Pai’s critics are also concerned about the increased partisanship of the chairman and another Republican FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly. Both turned up at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Maryland last week.

The NRA’s “Charlton Heston Courage Under Fire Award” for Ajit Pai’s Assassination of Net Neutrality Includes a Kentucky Long Gun

Pai at CPAC

When Pai arrived on stage to deliver a short speech, Dan Schneider, executive director of the American Conservative Union, which sponsors CPAC, took the microphone to introduce the FCC chairman.

“Ajit Pai is the most courageous, heroic person that I know,” Schneider said. “He has received countless death threats. His property has been invaded by the George Soros crowd. He has a family, and his family has been abused in different ways. Chairman Pai, thank you for everything you’ve done.”

He then turned the podium over to Carolyn Meadows, second vice president of the National Rifle Association, who surprised Pai with the NRA’s “Charlton Heston Courage Under Fire Award,” a rare honor given only to firebrand conservatives willing to push through their political agenda regardless of criticism or voter backlash. Pai was being recognized for ignoring the comments of tens of millions of supporters of net neutrality and pushing through a complete repeal of the open internet rules, regardless of the possible political consequences.

Previous award winners include controversial former Milwaukee Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr., Undersecretary John Bolton, who once threw a tape dispenser at a female government contractor and chased her down a Moscow hotel hallway, conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh, and Vice President Mike Pence.

The honor included a “Kentucky hand-made long gun,” said Meadows, who promised to store the gun for Pai at an NRA museum. That prompted a Tweet from the former director of the Office of Government Ethics, Walter Shaub, claiming Pai’s gun award likely violated federal ethics rules.

As criticism of the FCC chairman grew, Pai’s office sent letters on Thursday to both the NRA and the American Conservative Union declining the handmade weapon. Pai indirectly blamed the NRA, claiming his staff has asked at the event that the gun not be given to him. But the NRA came up with its own compromise, storing the gun until Pai left office.

“As you know, once my staff became aware of what was happening, they asked backstage that the musket not be presented to me to ensure that this could be first discussed with and vetted by career ethics attorneys in the FCC’s Office of General Counsel,” Pai wrote, an FCC source told Politico. “Therefore, upon their counsel, I must respectfully decline the award. I have also been advised by the FCC’s career ethics attorneys that I would not be able to accept the award upon my departure from government service.”

FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly Calls for the Re-Election of President Trump and Violates the Hatch Act


At the same CPAC event, FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly also managed to find himself the subject of controversy in response to a question.

Q. What can the FCC do to stop the constant “ping pong” of issues, like net neutrality, every time the party in power changes in the nation’s capital?
A. “I think what we can do is make sure as conservatives that we elect good people to both the House, Senate and make sure that President Trump gets re-elected,” O’Rielly answered.

Experts claim O’Rielly violated the Hatch Act, a law that prohibits employees in the executive branch of the federal government, except the president, vice-president, and certain designated high-level officials from engaging in certain forms of political activity. Telling the public to re-elect President Trump counts as a violation.

The Office of Special Counsel (OSC) already warned government officials so steer clear of President Trump’s already announced 2020 re-election campaign. In short, the Hatch Act “prohibits federal employees, while on duty or in the workplace, from expressly advocating for or against his reelection in 2020,” the OSC wrote in a guidance memo distributed to all federal agencies.

American Oversight, a group that monitors ethics issues in Washington, filed a formal complaint with the OSC against O’Rielly on Feb. 23:

“American Oversight respectfully requests that the Office of Special Counsel (“OSC”) immediately open an investigation into whether Michael O’Rielly, Commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), violated the Hatch Act during an appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference today, February 23, 2018. We do not believe this presents a hard question.

“Appearing in his capacity as a commissioner of the FCC, Commissioner O’Rielly improperly engaged in partisan political activity by expressly advocating for the re-election of Donald Trump
and exhorting the crowd to “elect good people to the House [and] the Senate.” Specifically, during the panel discussion, Commissioner O’Reilly delivered the following remarks:

“‘I think what we can do is make sure as conservatives that we elect good people to both the House, the Senate, and make sure that President Trump gets re-elected. But there’s another thing you can do. We’re going to have a fight over the Obama internet rules in the next couple months in the U.S. Senate. And that’s going to matter and that vote matters, and so making sure people take the right course on that, really does affect what policies we’re able to keep in place moving forward. So we can certainly use everyone’s help along those lines.’

“These remarks, made in Commissioner O’Rielly’s capacity as a commissioner at the FCC, constitute prohibited partisan political activity under the Hatch Act. As you know, the Hatch Act generally prohibits federal officials from engaging in partisan political activity while on duty. Advocating for the election of a candidate in a partisan election is the classic example of such prohibited activity.”

“The FCC controls our airwaves, the internet, and so many of the things we interact with every single day,” said Austin Evers, the executive director of American Oversight. “It should be independent, it should not be partisan, and bottom line, it should obey the law.”

Another group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) is also reviewing the event.

“This certainly raises Hatch Act issues,” spokesman Jordan Libowitz told the Chicago Tribune. “[O’Rielly] is prohibited from taking part in partisan political activity using his official title or position.”

“The Young Turks” explain Ajit Pai’s attack on net neutrality and the award the NRA gave him for killing it. (7:16)

Frontier Communications Under Investigation in Minnesota for “Lousy Service”

Phillip Dampier March 2, 2018 Consumer News, Frontier, Public Policy & Gov't, Video No Comments

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (MPUC) has opened an inquiry into whether Frontier Communications is meeting its service obligations to customers after receiving a major spike in complaints about the phone company.

The MPUC acknowledged it has been “receiving a large volume of complaints related to the service quality, customer service, and billing practices of Frontier Communications.” The regulator is concerned that “after attempts to mediate these complaints, many of them remain unresolved.”

The investigation will include the Minnesota Department of Commerce and Minnesota’s Attorney General, both tasked with determining if Frontier is complying with MPUC rules and Minnesota state law.

Frontier provides service to more than 98,000 landlines in Minnesota, doing business as Frontier Communications and Citizens Telecommunications. Most Frontier customers are located in northeastern and southern Minnesota, as well as communities like Apple Valley, Burnsville, Farmington, and Rosemount.

A survey of filed complaints found many involved Frontier’s DSL internet service, which customers complained was slow and prone to frequent outages. Other complaints involved inaccurate billing and missed service calls, which sometimes led to delays of days or weeks before service could be restored.

“I’d heard a bunch of complaints of poor service all across my district,” said Rep. Rob Ecklund (DFL-International Falls) in a news release. “I am a Frontier customer myself, and the service has been lousy.”

Other customers had their complaints published in the Timberjay newspaper, which has been the unofficial meeting place for frustrated customers who cannot get satisfaction from Frontier.

“This has been the worst service experience of my life,” said Melissa Holmes, of Embarrass in northeastern Minnesota. “My whole neighborhood here on Wahlsten Road in Embarrass has had service issues with Frontier for decades. Repeated calls to the company go nowhere.”

The newspaper blamed Frontier’s wrong priorities in a scathing editorial last fall:

Prospects for an improvement in Frontier’s service quality appear unlikely given the increasingly tenuous financial condition of the company. Frontier went deeply in debt in early 2016, when it completed an $11 billion purchase of landline infrastructure formerly owned by Verizon in California, Texas, and Florida. The acquisition more than doubled the size of the company, but also prompted a major restructuring, which included significant layoffs.

Frontier officials had touted the acquisition at the time, arguing that the company knew how to make money from traditional landline infrastructure even as the industry is rapidly transitioning to wireless. But the company has yet to demonstrate it is up to the challenge and as complaints over poor service have mounted, the company has hemorrhaged customers, particularly in more populated regions, where customers often have viable alternatives.

In response, Frontier claims it updated its billing software and is making “process improvements” in the way it conducts business.

If you live in Minnesota and wish to share your views with the MPUC, you can visit their website, register, and comment until May 25, 2018.

The state’s initial investigation and report on Frontier is due on May 11.

KSTP-TV in Minneapolis-St. Paul reports Frontier is under investigation by the state telecom regulator for poor service. (2:21)

Charter/Spectrum Launches ‘Choice’, a True A-La-Carte Video Package for $25

Charter Communications has introduced internet-delivered cable television packages that its cable TV subscribers have requested for years, including one offering a true a-la-carte lineup of network TV channels and the customer’s choice of 10 cable channels for $25 a month.

Spectrum Choice was soft-launched this week and is a companion to a larger internet-delivered package of TV services targeting cord-cutters called Spectrum Stream, which is also available in many areas.

Although Spectrum customers can visit the order page to sign up for Spectrum Choice immediately, when we tested it this afternoon we found the website was not able to complete an order. It turns out Spectrum is initially “hand-selecting” about 100,000 customers in selected areas for Spectrum Choice, but won’t disclose exactly where those areas are. We know from some reviews, it is available in parts of Ohio.

For now, would-be customers can try building their own package from at least 65 cable networks, including several networks Spectrum usually bundles into higher cost Silver and Gold packages. For example, Turner Classic Movies, Hallmark Movies and Mysteries, and FX Movie Channel are all available to choose. Spectrum Choice also offers all three major cable news networks as well as Spectrum News (where available). ESPN, ESPN II, FOX Sports, NBC Sports Network, and NFL Network are also available for sports fans. Even Music Choice is included.

Spectrum Choice customers are not tied down with a bloated package of channels, except for the included large bundle of local stations, which includes ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, CW, MyNetworkTV, PBS, and independent/foreign language over the air stations. The availability of public television is a rarity among online cable TV alternatives. In most areas, digital subchannels like Grit and MeTV are also included, depending on what networks are provided by stations in your area. You will also get several shopping channels, C-SPAN I, II, and III, and local Public, Educational, and Government Access channels as seen on your local cable system.

If you visit their website can complete an order online, you are qualified to receive their service. If there is no option to move forward to complete an order, you are not qualified to sign up at this time, but check back later or call Spectrum and ask.

The service relies on the Spectrum TV app (available on iOS, Android, Roku, and Xbox One) and the Spectrum website to stream video programming to customers, and no set-top box is required. DVR service is not worth the effort or cost. It requires a traditional DVR set top box and you can only watch recorded shows on the television connected to the DVR. Be aware there are also restrictions viewing some channels outside of the home, just as Spectrum’s cable TV customers already understand:

Linear OOH: Watching a live channel while away from home
VOD OOH: Watching on-demand content while away from home
TVE App Name: TV Everywhere App Name – Independent apps used by programmers or viewing on their websites
VOD Parity: Cable TV and Spectrum Choice customers get access to the same on-demand programming options.

Details (click the name of the package for more information):

Spectrum Choice TV

    If you don’t mind Charter/Spectrum choosing your channel lineup, a second option offers more channels for about the same price.

  • 7-day money back guarantee/trial, then $15 for the first month
  • To get the service, you must have an internet-only plan or an internet + voice plan from Spectrum. You cannot be a current traditional cable TV subscriber
  • After the first month, the service costs $25 per month for the first two years, including the Broadcast TV Surcharge, but excluding tax
  • After 24 months, price increases to $30 a month
  • Your assigned Spectrum TV username and password will also work on websites that authenticate you as a qualified cable TV customer
  • Premium channels are $7.50 each for HBO, Showtime, The Movie Channel, Starz, and Starz Encore or bundle all-five for $15 a month for two years. Epix is also available a-la-carte.

Spectrum Stream TV

  • $21.99 a month (not including $3 Broadcast TV Surcharge) for 25+ pre-selected channels including local stations and major basic cable networks
  • All features included with Choice TV work similarly except the lineup is not a-la-carte. But you may get more channels at a comparable price.
  • After two years, the price increases to $26.99. Starting in year three, the price rises again to $34.99.
  • The same $15 promotion for five premium movie networks noted above applies, if interested.

Spectrum’s promotion of Stream TV. (1:00)

AT&T’s Contractors Burning Down, Damaging Homes in Texas Fiber Build

Phillip Dampier February 19, 2018 AT&T, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, Video 1 Comment

Some residents in Houston and Dallas are furious at AT&T and its contractors for causing major damage to homeowners’ property, in one case burning down a Houston family home after accidentally hitting a natural gas line that resulted in a fire.

Joyce Skala’s home in Cypress was seriously damaged in a fire just before Thanksgiving 2017 and almost three months later, Skala says AT&T and its contractors won’t talk to her about the damages and who will pay for them.

“Everything you look at when you leave your house in the morning, it was gone,” Skala told KPRC News after the Nov. 14 fire. “I have not heard from a soul — not one. Not even a representative of a representative.”

The damage was not an isolated incident. KPRC noted two days later, AT&T’s contractors damaged an electric line in Shelli Moore’s yard in a different neighborhood, causing a power outage. Repairing the damage will cost her almost $2,000, and so far, Moore appears to be left holding the bill.

“That would break me,” she said. “I have no idea where I would come up with that kind of money, but we have to have lights and heat,” Moore said.

Joyce Skala’s home, destroyed by fire after an AT&T contractor hit a natural gas line (Image: KTRK)

In the Dallas-Ft. Worth area, utility workers made themselves right at home at Norma Logan’s home, using her back patio as a dining area and completely “trashing” her backyard.

Logan came home to find AT&T digging a deep trench along her back fence, damaging sections of it, as well as destroying her personal property. Then they left without a word.

“They broke many things out there,” Logan told KTVT. “They broke the fence. They broke the statue. They broke some of the things that I use to decorate the flower bed.”

A day later, the workers returned unannounced, this time with heavy equipment that continued to tear up her yard. But before getting to work, they spent a leisurely breakfast at her patio table just outside her back door. They didn’t bother to clean up after they finished.

The subcontractor responsible in these cases was NX Utilities, which has piled up a number of complaints against it since last fall. But AT&T appears to still be using the company to construct its fiber to the home network in both cities.

Contractors left evidence of their presence behind. (Image: Logan)

Anni Shugart’s Cypress home was damaged by an electric surge, and AT&T didn’t want to talk to her about the damage to her home either.

“I couldn’t get anywhere with AT&T,” Shugart said.

Shugart, like others, was left holding the bill after AT&T denied her claim, suggesting they are not responsible for the damages. They pointed her to NX Utilities, but that didn’t make much difference either so she called her insurance company, which is covering her repairs, except for the $4,500 deductible she is paying out of pocket.

“Well, I hope I’ll get it back eventually,” she said. “It’s a lot of money.”

Two days later, contractors hit another gas line. Four days after that they cut another underground power line.

“People in my neighborhood are mad at AT&T,” homeowner Pam Grossman told KPRC.

AT&T claims that it is not directly responsible for the damage, because it was caused by its third-party contractor NX Utilities. In fact, NX is just one of several layers of contractors working on AT&T’s fiber project, and in the event of a problem, the contractors are excellent at pointing fingers at one another.

KPRC reports when the fire marshal turned up to investigate the fires, the report included claims from contractors blamed each other while holding themselves harmless.

“There was no way that his company was involved in the fire,” said the owner of Connect Links in the fire marshal’s report.

KPRC in Houston reviews the damage being done in the Houston area by AT&T’s subcontractors managing the company’s fiber buildout. (3:58)

AT&T contractor NX Utilities allegedly damaged Norma Logan’s fence in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. (Image: KTVT)

AT&T won’t say how many damage reports about it or its contractors have been filed in Houston and Dallas-Ft. Worth. But AT&T did say it was doing both cities a big favor by enabling them for gigabit fiber internet, and regrets the problems that have developed along the way.

“Our goal is to minimize impact on residents before, during and after construction and to keep them informed through a variety of means throughout the network expansion process,” AT&T said in a statement. “If construction-related issues do occur, we work quickly to resolve and restore any impacts from our work.”

The key emphasis is “our work” and AT&T feels its subcontractors are responsible for fixing their own problems.

“Whether large or small, these damages impact the public and that is not lost on us,” AT&T said. “We track damages and other issues and review performance with our contractors performing the work. As we identify poor performers, we cull those out. Damage can occur for a number of reasons, from contractor error to locates not being accurate. Before we begin a project, we talk with locating firms to provide them with some high-level visibility into where we anticipate completing work on a regular basis. Furthermore, as a part of the large project locate process, we typically provide 30-60 days’ notice versus the minimum 10 days.”

Logan discovered utility workers dug this trench in her backyard along the fence line. (Image: KTVT)

AT&T says projects of this large size and scope require careful planning and implementation, and the company has gotten significant experience managing fiber upgrades in a number of cities where it provides telephone and broadband service.

“We have dozens of supervisors and inspectors in the field to ensure our contractors are performing to our standard,” said AT&T. “We work closely with city officials to ensure our work is done in a timely and orderly fashion. Our contractors are trained to obtain proper permitting, closely follow local construction codes, and abide by rules governing rights-of-way and property easements.”

But many homeowners report they never got any advance notification about the construction work and even less often understood how it would impact on their property.

Logan said she received no notification, despite claims by NX it placed fliers on her door. But those fliers said nothing about heavy construction equipment being brought in, driven over grass and into a cramped backyard to dig. Logan was incensed as she watched equipment dig a trench several feet deep along her backyard fence line, ruining some of her lawn ornaments and damaging her fence.

A second day of empty coffee cups and fast food wrappers left on her patio table was also an unpleasant reminder of their presence.

NX later claimed they reprimanded their workers, not for the damage done to her property, but for not cleaning up their trash as they left.

The sudden arrival of heavy equipment attempting to navigate into Logan’s backyard only upset her further. (Image: KTVT)

AT&T is not the only telecom company that receives criticism for property damage while installing fiber cables. Google Fiber generated “hundreds of complaints” in the Austin area for construction mishaps, including alleged flooding from backed up storm drains that damaged multiple properties. In Charlotte, N.C., Google was accused of causing damage to water wells and allegedly struck a sanitary sewer, flooding a home with raw sewage.

Since September 2015, Charlotte city officials have cited contractors for ordinance violations more than 40 times for $21,300, data show. That included $14,200 in general violations and $6,700 for closing a portion of a right-of-way without the proper traffic control. Fines ranged from $100 to $1,800. Ansco, a contractor for AT&T, was cited the most: 17 times for $8,400. Bechtel, which does work for Google, was cited six times for $2,100, including fines that also mentioned another subcontractor.

How to protect yourself

If a company is performing work involving installation of underground cables, that carries the greatest risk of potential damage to property or other utilities. Many mishaps are caused by inaccurate maps that purport to show where other underground utilities are installed. In some areas, those maps are incomplete or wrong. In the United States, these problems are so serious that there is a nationwide free hotline – 811 – available to consumers and contractors for free on-site location flagging of where underground utilities are actually located.

AT&T is installing fiber optics in several Texas cities.

You can request your own site survey at no charge and photograph the results for your records.

Here is how to request a site survey:

  • Call 811 from anywhere in the country at least two days before digging and your call will automatically be routed to your local one call center. Visit the 811 service state map to see if your local one call center accepts online requests.
  • Give the operator information about how to contact you, approximately where you or a contractor will likely dig, and what type of work will be done. If you don’t know all the details, that is okay. Request a general assessment of where utilities have placed their cables on or near your property and let 811 know a contractor hired by the telecom company will be doing the work independently.
  • Utility companies who have potential facilities involved will be notified of the imminent arrival of a contractor preparing to dig on or near your property.
  • Each affected utility company will send a location team to mark the approximate location of underground utility lines. Sometimes they spray paint the location on grass or pavement in different colors reflecting the service. In other cases, they plant small plastic flags in a line where the cabling is located. This typically occurs within 2-3 working days, but some states may have different rules.  To access specific information about your state, visit the 811 state map.

Contractors are usually required by ordinance to notify you in advance of any utility work that is done on or near your property. This notice is usually in writing and can be a mailed or placed flier or a doorhanger card. Retain this notification until the work is complete. It will generally include contact information about the company doing the work and what to do in case a problem arises, and most importantly, who to contact.

Prior to the arrival of the construction crews, photograph your yard to document its current condition. Make sure to get clear photos along property lines or easements, documenting the condition of fencing, landscaping, and any pre-existing structures. If damage occurs, you will have before and after photos to show the contractor, town officials, and/or your attorney.

If possible, stay home on the day work is being done. Making your presence known will greatly reduce the chance utility workers will be careless with your personal property or how they conduct themselves. Document any suspicious or disturbing activity by taking video on your cell phone. Watch for workers attempting to access areas of your property unaffected by the work. They do not have the right to use your outdoor furniture for lounging or eating. They also do not have the right to relieve themselves in your yard.

Buried wire flags

In every case, they are responsible for reasonably restoring your property to the same condition it was in before they arrived. That means repairing ruts or reseeding disturbed portions of your lawn, repairing or replacing damaged items like fencing, lawn ornaments, buildings, and other personal property. If they damage or kill a tree, they are responsible for removing and replacing it, if it was located on your property and not in an easement (in those cases, contact your local town or city officials and ask how to proceed.)

If you discover damage to another company’s infrastructure (or public utilities), call the affected company or public utility right away. They will need to document the damage and arrange for repairs. If a utility power line is knocked down or damaged between the pole or yard pedestal and your home, some companies may require you to hire a private contractor to replace the line. You will want to notify the contractor that did the damage about the incident and begin documenting the process to receive reimbursement.

It is not your responsibility to navigate a company’s complex maze of contractors and subcontractors. Contact the telecom company doing the work and insist they identify the contractor involved and agree to liaison with you to get the matter resolved quickly to your satisfaction. They cannot walk away from their responsibility to correct damage just because they chose to hire an independent company to perform work on their behalf.

When an AT&T contractor hit a utility line, it caused a power surge damaging homeowners’ utility boxes and outside walls. (Image: KPRC)

KPRC asked Texas real estate attorney Nikolas Spencer about who is responsible in these cases according to Texas state law.

“All of them are,” he said. “If they know that this particular subcontractor is routinely causing fires at people’s houses, or even just nicking the lines themselves, that’s a repeated and dangerous situation that AT&T is on notice as happening. They’re responsible for that.”

Your municipality may be willing to share violation details about contractors performing work in your area. If you can document repeated instances of careless work or violations, that can be strong evidence to prove AT&T was aware of the situation, yet continued to use an offending contractor.

KPRC recommends hiring an attorney if severe damage is caused by a utility. For minor property damage, you may get fast results asking for a supervisor or filing a complaint with the Better Business Bureau or a state Attorney General’s office. Those complaints are generally forwarded to a senior customer service manager better empowered to get quick results.

Having a fiber optic upgrade is almost always a good thing, and can increase the value of your home in a sale. But for many homeowners, it has been decades since major utility construction work was done in older neighborhoods and people can forget the disruption, noise, inconvenience, and occasional damage that can be done along the way. Those best prepared in advance to fight for their interests are the most likely to win quick resolution and satisfaction from utility companies that do damage and may not have adequate resources (or interest) in correcting the problem before you give up in frustration and go away.

KTVT in Dallas reports AT&T’s fiber construction crews have damaged personal property and inconvenienced customers. (2:03)

New Law Would Tax ISPs and Websites Serving Kansas to Solve Rural Broadband Woes

Kansas House Bill 2563 would require content providers that sell products and services in Kansas to pay into the state’s rural broadband fund.

ISPs and any website that generates at least $500,000 in revenue from Kansas residents would be required to pay into a state fund to subsidize rural broadband, if a bill introduced by a Lawrence Republican becomes law.

Rep. Thomas Sloan’s House Bill 2563 — a bill requiring broadband and content providers to pay into the Kansas Universal Service Fund (KUSF), drew immediate fire from cable and telephone companies across the state, and Sprint Corp. told state officials the bill was illegal.

“Rural residents lack the same broadband opportunities as urban residents because of the high cost to serve low-population density areas,” Sloan said. “We have a classic case of rising customer expectations for capabilities delivered through a broadband communications system and a fiscally stressed telecommunications provider network’s ability to serve high-cost rural customers.”

As in many rural states, finding the funding to solve the rural broadband problem gets more difficult as those hardest to serve are also the most expensive to reach. Kansas currently spends about $40 million annually to reach homes and businesses that are still using dial-up or forced to invest in satellite internet service. Most KUSF money is given to incumbent rural telephone, wireless or cable providers to subsidize expansion, keeping costs in line with each company’s Return On Investment expectations.

But as demand for faster and more robust broadband accelerates, and as the definition of broadband itself has evolved, rural providers are increasingly challenged reaching both unserved customers and those now considered underserved because older technologies like DSL often do not meet the current FCC definition of broadband: 25/3 Mbps service.

Sloan said his bill is designed to address both problems by wiring unserved areas and improving access to reliable, high-speed internet service where only slower alternatives now exist. The bill would provide funding to more than 90 Kansas counties with a population density of less than 100 people per square mile (excepting the county seat). In an agricultural state like Kansas, that would directly inject cash for upgrades into large sections of the state. Sloan says his law would cover at least 40% of a provider’s wiring and upgrade costs.

Rep. Sloan

House Bill 2563 would fund a rural broadband project that:

  • is capable of minimum download speeds of 25 Mbps and minimum upload speeds of three megabits per second;
  • provides an average latency of less than 100 milliseconds to enable the use of real time communications; and
  • provides subscribers with a minimum monthly data allowance of 150 gigabytes per month.

“Poor connectivity to the internet undermines operation of businesses, filing of government documents, school research projects, viewing of entertainment and other day-to-day activities,” Sloan said.

ISPs would likely pass along the costs of the new broadband universal service fund charge to subscribers, which means urban Kansans will be contributing a portion of their monthly internet bill to benefit their rural neighbors.

Sloan’s bill would also take the unprecedented step of taxing internet content companies and for-profit websites that generate at least $500,000 in revenue attributable to Kansas customers and use the money for rural broadband expansion as well. Websites like Amazon.com, Netflix, and Hulu would certainly be liable, but so would thousands of other smaller website ventures, including porn websites and online publishers like newspapers.

Telecom industry lobbyists quickly descended on state lawmakers in Topeka to encourage them to kill Sloan’s bill:

  • Catherine Moyer, chief executive officer of Pioneer Communications in Ulysses, represents the interests of the State Independent Telephone Association for Kansas and the Kansas Rural Independent Telecommunications Coalition. She is strongly opposed to the bill because she claims it would weaken the current Kansas Universal Service Fund (KUSF) model that has given rural companies confidence and certainty their rural expansion investments will be backed with adequate state subsidies. Under Sloan’s bill, the disbursement formula and the areas entitled to receive state support would be expanded, potentially reducing funds that were payable to projects under the old KUSF subsidy system.
  • Patrick Fucik, national director of legislative affairs for Sprint Corp. in Overland Park, is concerned about broadening the universal service fund to tax content providers and other websites, claiming the state lacks the legal authority under federal law to impose such taxes.
  • John Idoux, a lobbyist with CenturyLink, which serves more than 100 Kansas communities with fewer than 1,000 residents, said the bill would likely make lawyers rich from the “prolonged” and inevitable legal challenges that will begin if the bill becomes law, “all while creating false hope of rural broadband availability.” Idoux also wants to make sure none of the KUSF money will be spent in areas already served by a fixed broadband provider (like CenturyLink). He does not want to see public money competing with private investment, even if it results in better service.

An audio-only hearing of the Committee on Energy, Utilities and Telecommunications of the Kansas State Legislature on HB2563, held Feb. 5, 2018. (35:53)

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