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Charter, AT&T At War With Google in Louisville Over Pole Access

att poleStall, stall, stall. While Charter Communications and AT&T are working towards improving their broadband service offerings for Kentucky’s largest city, both companies are doing everything possible to slow down the arrival of their nemesis: Google Fiber, which is preparing to wire Louisville for gigabit fiber to the home service.

This past February, Louisville Metro Council unanimously passed a new ordinance called “One Touch Make Ready,” designed to streamline telecom provider access to utility poles, which are getting crowded with at least three telecom companies vying for consumers’ business. The ordinance was passed with the support of Google, which seeks a minimum of red tape from local permit and zoning bureaucracies and its competitors while network engineers begin installing fiber optics across the city. Installing Google Fiber on utility poles may involve moving other providers’ wiring to make room for Google, which in some cases could mean 4-5 different utility companies having to visit each pole to move their wiring. In the past, Google asked the pole owner for access, which has not always been forthcoming on a timely basis. The new ordinance requires the pole owner to respond to access requests within 30 days. If no response is forthcoming, Google can approach the city for a permit to hire a contractor to do all the relocation work on their behalf.

“Such policies reduce cost, disruption, and delay, by allowing the work needed to prepare a utility pole for new fiber to be attached in as little as a single visit—which means more safety for drivers and the neighborhood,” Google wrote on its blog. “This work would be done by a team of contractors the pole owner itself has approved, instead of having multiple crews from multiple companies working on the same pole over weeks or months. One Touch Make Ready facilitates new network deployment by anyone—and that’s why groups representing communities and fiber builders support it, too.”

Louisville, Ky. (Image: Chris Watson)

Louisville, Ky. (Image: Chris Watson)

About two weeks after the ordinance passed, AT&T made it clear they did not support it and took the city to court, claiming it had no right to regulate its utility poles.

“Louisville Metro Council’s recently passed ‘One Touch Make Ready’ Ordinance is invalid, as the city has no jurisdiction under federal or state law to regulate pole attachments,” said AT&T spokesman Joe Burgan. “We have filed an action to challenge the ordinance as unlawful. Google can attach to AT&T’s poles once it enters into AT&T’s standard Commercial Licensing Agreement, as it has in other cities. This lawsuit is not about Google. It’s about the Louisville Metro Council exceeding its authority.”

Time Warner Cable (now Charter Communications) joined AT&T, adding the city is violating the cable company’s corporate constitutional rights by effectively seizing their property (cable lines) and granting a right for third parties to manipulate, move, or manage those lines without Time Warner Cable’s permission.

“The ordinance is simply unworkable,” said Time Warner Cable’s attorney Gardner Gillespie, a partner in the D.C. law firm Sheppard-Mullin. “It does not provide any meaningful way for Time Warner Cable to know what changes have been made to its existing facilities or to assure any damage is promptly cured.”

google fiberGillespie also claimed customers could endure poorer service and outages as a result of unauthorized contractors relocating Time Warner Cable’s equipment, often without the cable company’s knowledge.

City officials dismissed the concerns, but failed to get either lawsuit dismissed.

Charter executives have also opened a new opposition front against Google Fiber’s presence in the city, accusing city officials of unfairly favoring the search engine giant while continuing to burden Charter with a franchise agreement that requires the cable company to provide free cable in city buildings and offer channel space and studio facilities for the city’s Public, Educational, and Government Access channels.

At present, Google is not obligated to provide any of those services and has also won a unique regional franchise that covers the city of Louisville and nearby suburbs in a single agreement. The Metro Council has also granted Google its own public right-of-way access for installing various communications infrastructure. Both AT&T and Charter claim they are only getting involved because they believe they should be given equal treatment. Critics contend they are attempting to slow down Google Fiber, which could begin offering service by fall of 2017.

Time Warner Cable began offering Maxx-upgraded service in March 2016, offering residents up to 300Mbps. AT&T is gradually expanding its U-verse with GigaPower gigabit broadband service in locations around Louisville.

Is Your Landlord Taking Kickbacks to Keep Better Internet Out of Your Building?

xfinity communitiesIs your cable television service included in your rent or condo “services” fee? Have you ever called another provider and told service was not available at your address even through others outside of your condo neighborhood or apartment complex can sign up for service today? Chances are your landlord or property management company is receiving a kickback to keep competition off the property, while you may be stuck paying for substandard services you neither want or need. Worst of all, chances are it’s all legal and everyone is getting a piece of the action… except you.

Welcome to the world of Multiple Dwelling Unit (MDU) Bulk Service Agreements, the seedy underbelly of the anti-competitive cable and telco-TV world. When cable TV first got going, most people wanted access. In the early days, cable franchises were typically exclusive and cable companies maintained the upper hand in negotiations with apartment owners and property owners. Since the service was in demand, many property owners were told to sign whatever “Right Of Entry” Agreement (ROE) was put in front of them. Most contained clauses that guaranteed that cable company would get exclusive access to the property for as long as it was given a franchise to operate within that community. In other words, basically forever.

This turned out very handy when competitors started showing up. First on the scene were satellite television providers, which had a rough time dealing with landlords who loathed tenants installing satellite dishes that “ruined the aesthetics” of the property. Many rental agreements still restrict satellite television dishes in ways that make their use untenable. But things got much more serious when Verizon and AT&T got into the cable business. Initially, both companies found extending FiOS and U-verse to some rental and gated communities was blocked by the exclusive agreements held by cable operators. By 2007, the FCC finally acted to forbid exclusive service contracts, but the cable industry and property developers have played cat and mouse games with the FCC’s loopholes ever since.

Property Developers, Management Companies, Landlords, and Homeowner Associations With Their Hands Out

att connectedWith the FCC’s 2007 declaration that exclusive contracts between cable companies and property owners were “null and void,” the power of the cable industry to negotiate on their terms was markedly diminished. Although many property owners applauded their new-found freedom to tell the local cable company to take a hike if they did not offer better service to their tenants, many others saw dollar signs in their eyes. With leverage now in the hands of the property owner, if the local cable company wanted to stay, in many cases it had to pay. Only the most brazen property owners kicked uncooperative cable companies off their properties, putting tenants at a serious inconvenience. Instead, many found life more peaceful and lucrative to stick with the existing cable company, signing a new contract for “bulk billing” tenants. On the surface, it seemed like a good deal. Property owners advertised that cable TV was included in the rent (and they paid a deeply discounted price per tenant) and the cable operator had a guaranteed number of customers, whether they wanted the service or not.

Bulk billing also proved a very effective deterrent for would-be competitors, who had to overcome the challenge of marketing their service while the tenant was already paying for another as part of their rent. As a result, telco TV competitors often stayed away from properties with bulk billing arrangements.

As broadband has become more prominent and threatens to become more important than the cable TV package, the cable industry has refined its weapons of non-competition. While they cannot force competitors off properties, they can make life very expensive for them. The latest generation of ROE agreements often grant access rights to the building’s telecommunications conduit, cabling, and equipment exclusively to the cable operator.

fiosIf Google Fiber, AT&T U-verse or Verizon FiOS sought to offer service on one of these properties, they would have to overcome the investment insanity of wiring each building with its own infrastructure, including duplicate cables, in separate conduits and spaces not already designated for the exclusive use of the cable company. Verizon in New York City has faced numerous obstacles wiring some buildings, including gaining access to the building itself. Intransigent on site employees, bureaucratic and unresponsive property management companies, and developers have all made life difficult for Verizon’s fiber upgrade.

AT&T often takes the approach “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” and offers its own bulk billing incentives, along with occasional commitments for fiber upgrades. Google Fiber can afford to skip places where it isn’t wanted, although with recent revelations that landlords can raise the rent by up to 11% with the arrival of Google Fiber alone, it may hurt to alienate that fiber to the home provider.

Kickbacks for New Developments = Windfall

Kickbacks for existing properties are lucrative, but nothing compared to the lucrative windfall new property developments can achieve with the right deal.

In 2013, one property developer in Maryland went all out for an exclusive deal with a provider that was going to get de facto exclusivity by using a convoluted series of entities and agreements designed to insulate the company from competition and a challenge from the FCC. A court later ruled the provider used an “elaborate game of regulatory subterfuge” using various corporate entities to escape potential competition.

Some lawyers devote a substantial amount of their practice to the issue of bulk contracts and ROE agreements. Carl Kandutsch serves clients nationwide, many trying to extricate themselves from bad deals of the past. In many cases, an attorney may be needed to find a way out of contracts that don’t meet FCC rules. Other communities sometimes have to buy out an existing contract. Many have to sit and suffer the consequences for years. One residential community found itself trapped with a service provider that was quietly protected by an “airtight contract” negotiated not with the property management company or the homeowner association, but the development’s original builder. The provider delivered lousy service and the community spent six years trying to get rid of the offending firm with no result until they hired an attorney. Although happy to be rid of the bad provider, the homeowner association ended up illustrating how pervasive this problem is after it signed a similar contract with another provider also handing out kickbacks.

Comcast pays up to 10% of a renter's cable bill to the landlord.

Comcast pays up to 10% of a renter’s cable bill to the landlord. (Image: Susan Crawford)

Comcast is more creative than most. It calls its handouts: “Marketing Support Compensation.” The property owner gets an increasing reward for every tenant signed up for Comcast service. Once around two-thirds of tenants are subscribed, the owner gets up to a 10% take of each bill, plus a one time payment of up to $130 per tenant.

Because Comcast’s reputation often precedes it, customers reluctant to sign up without considering other providers will find that tougher to do because Comcast bans other providers from marketing their services to tenants with the support or cooperation of the landlord. In other words, no door hangers, free coffee, brochures in the lobby, or any other on-site promotions. In case a property owner forgets, Comcast sends reminders in the mail:

Comcast likes to remind landlords it has an exclusive. (Image: Susan Crawford)

Comcast likes to remind landlords it has an exclusive. (Image: Susan Crawford)

Susan Crawford calls it “astounding, enormous, decentralized payola” and claims it affects millions of renters.

Crawford

Crawford

“These shenanigans will only stop when cities and national leaders require that every building have neutral fiber/wireless facilities that make it easy for residents to switch services when they want to,” Crawford wrote. “We’ve got to take landlords out of the equation — all they’re doing is looking for payments and deals (understandably: they’re addicted to the revenue stream they’ve been getting), and the giant telecom providers in our country are more than happy to pay up. The market is stuck. Residents have little idea these deals are happening. The current way of doing business is great for landlords and ISPs but destructive in every other way.”

One real world example of how this deters competition comes from Webpass (recently acquired by Google), which offers gigabit Ethernet speeds in select MDUs in San Francisco, San Diego, Miami, Chicago, and Boston. The service comes with a low price, but that doesn’t get the company in the door, according to its president, Charles Barr.

Barr has been refused entry by multiple building owners who have agreements with Comcast, AT&T, or others.

“Tenants want us, but we can’t get in,” Barr said.

Crawford argues the FCC has once again been outmaneuvered by ISPs and their attorneys.

“Sure, a landlord can’t enter into an exclusive agreement granting just one ISP the right to provide Internet access service to an MDU, but a landlord can refuse to sign agreements with anyone other than Big Company X, in exchange for payments labeled in any one of a zillion ways,” added Crawford. “Exclusivity by any other name still feels just as abusive.”

This isn’t a new problem. Stop the Cap! first reported on these kinds of bulk buying arrangements back in 2010, all made possible by the FCC’s regulatory loopholes. Six years later, the problem appears to be getting worse.

AT&T’s King of Lobbyists Endorses Hillary Clinton for President

Cicconi

Cicconi

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was the first major overhaul of telecommunications law in almost 62 years, and the deregulation measure supported with ecstasy by many in the telecom industry was signed into law by none other than President Bill Clinton, opening the door to a massive wave of industry deregulation and multi-billion dollar media consolidation.

It therefore comes as no surprise — to some at least — that AT&T’s top lobbyist Jim Cicconi, perhaps rivaled only by Comcast’s David Cohen in power and influence, has endorsed Hillary Clinton for president. The Wall Street Journal reported Cicconi has joined several other Republican corporate executives signing up for Team Hillary this election cycle.

Cicconi is voting Democratic this year, despite supporting every Republican presidential candidate since President Gerald Ford’s run against Jimmy Carter in 1976. This year is different, he claims.

hillary 2016“I think it’s vital to put our country’s well being ahead of party,” he said in a statement provided by the Clinton campaign. “Hillary Clinton is experienced, qualified, and will make a fine president. The alternative, I fear, would set our nation on a very dark path.”

Comcast’s David Cohen is also well-known for leaning to the left, and has been considered a friend of the Obamas since they took office in 2009. Cohen hosted 120 people in his home for a dinner in 2011 on behalf of Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. It was an expensive dinner — each guest contributed at least $10,000.

The alternative, Donald Trump, represents what corporate America and Wall Street hates above all else – unpredictability and uncertainty.

Telecom issues have not made a big splash this year in either campaign, and regardless of who wins, their appointments to regulatory agencies like the FCC can have a major impact on consumer broadband initiatives and public policy. A Clinton administration could result in appointments of “centrist” Democrats that Bill favored during his two terms in office. Many of those former regulators are now lobbyists for the telecom industry. Or Hillary could move closer to Obama’s surprisingly tough pro-consumer policies on broadband issues and keep Thomas Wheeler at the helm of the FCC for a few more years.

attverizonCicconi would be pleased to see someone like former Tennessee congressman Harold Ford, Jr., take a seat at the FCC under a future Clinton Administration instead. Ford has served as an honorary co-chairman of Broadband for America, an industry-sponsored astroturf operation, for most of Obama’s two terms in office. He remains a close friend of both Bill and Hillary and is never far from the public eye, turning up regularly on MSNBC.

Broadband for America supports deregulation, opposes Net Neutrality, and essentially shills for its corporate sponsors. Rep. Ford would likely oppose Net Neutrality and continue support for near-total deregulation.

Verizon has also shown itself to be a Friend of Hillary. Three Verizon vice presidents each donated $2,700 to Hillary for America. They were joined by a senior vice president and another vice president, who gave an additional $1,000, according to Salon. A former Hillary Clinton operative who now lobbies for Verizon donated $2,700 as well, along with another Verizon lobbyist who pitched in $1,000.

While Bernie Sanders joined striking Verizon workers on the picket line, the Clinton campaign was cashing checks worth tens of thousands of dollars from Verizon executives and lobbyists. In May 2013, the telecom company paid Hillary a $225,000 honorarium in return for a speech (the text has not been disclosed) to Verizon executives.

The Clinton Foundation also benefited from Verizon contributions ranging from $100,000-250,000.

Dish Complains About FCC’s 125% Regulatory Rate Hike; Independent Cable Says It Isn’t High Enough

cable ratesThe Federal Communications Commission is getting an earful from satellite provider Dish Network, upset with the agency’s proposal to boost regulatory fees covering direct broadcast satellite services by 125% this year.

If the FCC adopts its new fee structure, Dish will pay 24 cents per subscriber (up from 12¢) per year to cover the cost of full-time employees at the FCC who spend their days monitoring and regulating satellite television providers. Satellite companies will also pay a one-time fee of 3¢ per subscriber in 2016 to cover the FCC’s downsizing expenses.

The regulator has successfully found a way to cover some of its expenses by charging the companies it oversees “user fees.” In 2015, the FCC collected nearly $340 million in regulatory fees. This year, the FCC wants more, seeking to impose a temporary “facility reduction cost” surcharge that will cover the expenses of moving employees to new, smaller offices, or downsizing the current ones to save money. The FCC says that will cost an extra $44 million. Taxpayers won’t pay those expenses, but pay television customers ultimately will when providers pass both of those fees on.

Dish says the rate hike is unjustified because of its size and scope, and runs contrary to the FCC’s goal of minimizing consumer bill shock. The satellite provider also wants the FCC to explain how it can justify more than doubling user fees while downsizing.

If the FCC doesn’t answer, the American Cable Association, representing small independent cable operators, is willing to share their views on the matter. The ACA complains the FCC isn’t charging DirecTV and Dish enough, noting they are still getting preferential treatment over cable and IPTV providers that are being asked to pay $1 per subscriber this year.

“There is absolutely no basis for keeping the proposed DBS fee levels over 75% below those proposed for other entities in the Cable/IPTV category,” wrote ACA president Matt Polka in comments to the FCC. “DBS providers should be paying the same Media Bureau regulatory fee.”

att directvPolka pointed to AT&T’s acquisition of DirecTV as an example of how disproportionate fees cost small independent cable companies much more on a per-subscriber basis than telecom giant AT&T has to pay for almost 20 million DirecTV satellite customers.

“AT&T, now the nation’s largest [pay TV company], operates two types of services – its U-verse IPTV service and its DirecTV DBS service,” noted Polka. “Yet, AT&T will be assessed starkly lower regulatory fees for its approximately 20 million DirecTV subscribers than it will pay for its approximately 6 million IPTV subscribers, even though all of these services make absolutely comparable use of Media Bureau […]  resources and AT&T’s advocacy […] is on behalf of all its [pay TV] subscribers.”

Polka wants fee parity – charging the same user fees for all providers, regardless of the technology they use.

“Doing so will avoid the competitive distortions the current fee structure creates by having cable operators and IPTV providers, most of whom are far smaller than the DBS providers, cross-subsidize the fee burden of their primary and direct competitors in the marketplace,” Polka argued.

Whatever fee structure is ultimately approved by the FCC, customers can be certain providers will pad those fees when passing them on to customers. For more than a decade, some providers have used regulatory fee increases amounting to spare change as an excuse to pass on new “regulatory surcharges” that are many times more than what those providers actually pass on to the government.

“It’s a price increase,” bluntly notes Mark Cooper from the Consumer Federation of America back in 2004.

This spring, The Consumerist broke down a typical AT&T U-verse bill loaded in junk fees and surcharges. (The RED numbers [1, 4-10, 13-14, 17-20, 22] are AT&T-originating fees; BLUE numbers [2-3, 11-12, 15-16, 21, 23-25] are government fees)

This spring, The Consumerist broke down a typical AT&T U-verse bill loaded in junk fees and surcharges. (The RED numbers [1, 4-10, 13-14, 17-20, 22] are AT&T-originated fees, fake surcharges/bill padding, or fees that represent the cost of doing business; BLUE numbers [2-3, 11-12, 15-16, 21, 23-25] are real government fees passed on to local, state, and federal taxing authorities.)

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.”

 

Opponent of EPB Fiber Expansion: Get ‘Innovative’ Satellite Internet Instead

Cleveland's monument in the downtown district. (Image: City of Cleveland)

Cleveland’s monument in the downtown district. (Image: City of Cleveland)

AT&T, Comcast, and Charter have surrounded the city of Cleveland, Tenn., (population 42,774) for more than 20 years, yet after all that time, there are still many homes in the area that have no better than dial-up Internet access..

An effort to extend municipal utility EPB’s fiber to the home service into the community just northeast of Chattanooga on Interstate 75, has run into organized political opposition campaign, part-sponsored by two of the three communications companies serving the area.

Tennessee state Reps. Dan Howell and Kevin Brooks, both Cleveland-area Republicans, understand the implications. With AT&T, Comcast, and Charter resolute about not expanding their coverage areas anytime soon, the only chance Cleveland has of winning world-class broadband anytime in the reasonable future is through EPB, which has already offered to extend service to at least 1,000 customers in rural Bradley County in as little as three months. Most of those customers now rely on dial-up Internet services, because no broadband is available. Reps. Howell and Brooks are trying to get the the red tape out of the way so EPB can proceed, but the Tennessee legislature hasn’t budged.

EPB provides municipal power, broadband, television, and telephone service for residents in Chattanooga, Tennessee

EPB provides municipal power, broadband, television, and telephone service for residents in Chattanooga, Tennessee

There is a substantial difference between 30kbps dial-up and 100Mbps — one of the “budget” Internet tiers available from EPB. But some Tennessee lawmakers and corporate-backed special interest groups don’t care. To them, stopping public broadband expansion is a bigger priority, and they have attempted to stall, block, or prohibit municipal broadband, just to protect the current phone and cable companies that are among their generous contributors.

In 2010, Chattanooga became the first in America to enjoy gigabit residential broadband speed not because of AT&T, Comcast, or Charter, but because of the publicly owned electric company, EPB. So what’s the problem with that? The fact EPB spent $320 million on the fiber optic network — about $100 million of that coming from a federal grant — keeps some conservatives, corporate executives, and telecom shareholders up at night. They object to the public funding of broadband, calling it unfair competition for the two incumbent cable companies and one phone company, which have their own “privately funded” networks.

Republican Rep. Mike Carter, who serves Ooltewah, thinks that’s a lot of nonsense. He notes AT&T and other providers already receive government funding to service outlying areas that no other providers dare to tread for a lack of return on their investment.

cleveland_tn“[What] convinces me to back expansion of the EPB of Chattanooga is the fact that they received $111 million in stimulus funds, and in the next five years AT&T alone will receive $156 million of your money [in government funding] assessed every month on your bill to provide 10/4-gigabit service in those areas,” Carter explained to the Chattanooga Times-Free Press. “If the EPB’s $111 million matching grant somehow disqualifies those benefits going to my constituents, how do I explain to them that AT&T is receiving non-matching funds?”

“The issue then became, if it is necessary to create the world’s fastest Internet system, why would EPB not offer that for economic growth in its service area?” Carter continued. ” After I heard the story of the [gig’s] creation and realized that the money had already been spent, I asked myself if I would allow a firmly held principle of no competition with private enterprise by government to deny my constituents and neighbors the incredible benefits.”

Justin Owen, president and CEO of the Beacon Center of Tennessee, is dismissive of Carter’s willingness to bend his principles. In his view, those without Internet access have other options instead of getting EPB Fiber on the public dime.

Owen

Owen

“You can get satellite Internet,” said Owen, who added that governments that invest in fiber technology could be “left behind by disruptive innovation,” which in his mind could be satellite Internet. Satellite customers would disagree.

“Horrible, horrible, horrible, and more horrible,” wrote Trey from another Cleveland — this time in Texas. “Speeds are consistently less than 2Mbps and they advertise up to 12. Try a cell phone booster and use that before resorting to satellite Internet.”

Hundreds of customers shared similar stories about their experience with satellite Internet, and they don’t believe it will be disruptive to anything except their bank account.

Owen and his group have not revealed many details about where its funding comes from, but the group is a member of the State Policy Network, which receives financial support from AT&T, Time Warner Cable, Verizon and Comcast. The group’s former leader, Drew Johnson, was also a former opinion page columnist at the Times-Free Press and used column space to criticize EPB and other issues that ran contrary to AT&T’s agenda in Tennessee.

Despite support from the Chattanooga area’s Republican delegation, many legislators from outside the area remain firmly in support of the telecom companies and their wish to limit or destroy community broadband projects like EPB, claiming they are redundant or are based on faulty business plans likely to fail. But while Comcast used to dismiss EPB’s gigabit service as unnecessary and AT&T considered gigabit speeds overkill, both companies are now racing to deploy their own gigabit networks in Chattanooga to compete.

The residents of Cleveland without broadband today probably won’t have it tomorrow or anytime soon. Many are hoping the Tennessee legislature will relent and let EPB solve their broadband issues once and for all. Cleveland resident Aaron Alldaffer is trying to help gin up interest in a renewed legislative push for EPB Fiber expansion with a Change.org petition.

The BBC World Service Global Business program visited Chattanooga in May 2016 to explore EPB Fiber and discuss its implications. (29 minutes)

You must remain on this page to hear the clip, or you can download the clip and listen later.

AT&T Ghostwritten Bill Would Allow End of Rural Landline/DSL Service in California

att californiaIn California, AT&T’s money and influence has the power to bend reality for some members of the California legislature.

This spring, AT&T is lobbying hard for a bill it largely wrote itself that vaguely promises 21st century technology upgrades if the state’s politicians agree to near-total deregulation and permission to scrap landline service and DSL for rural residents.

Assembly Bill 2395, introduced by Assemblyman Evan Low (D-Silicon Valley), allows AT&T to decommission wired service across the state, so long as the company replaces it with any alternative capable of connecting customers to 911. Smoke signals might qualify, but most suspect AT&T’s true agenda is to replace its legacy wireline network with wireless service in areas where it has no interest upgrading its facilities to offer U-verse.

Members of the Assembly’s Utilities & Commerce Committee were easily swayed to believe the company’s claims this will represent a massive upgrade for California telecommunications. At least that is what the company is saying in their lobbying pamphlets. In April, committee chairman Michael Gatto (D-Los Angeles), one of the bill’s strongest advocates, told his fellow committee members it was safe to trust AT&T’s assurances it was not using the bill to kill rural landline telephone service.

“We have a very, very good perspective on history in this committee and you can rest assured that nobody will tear up any copper line infrastructure,” said Gatto, who gradually became less sure of himself as he pondered the impact of AT&T scrapping the one option many rural Californians have to connect to the outside world. “The cost of it, to tear up every street in the United States and take out the copper is not going to happen. At least, I don’t think it’ll happen…. This committee will not let it happen.”

Low

Low

Despite that less-than-rousing endorsement, and the fact the bill’s language would allow AT&T to do exactly that, the bill sailed to approval in the committee. It was also endorsed by a range of non-profit and business groups, including the Boys & Girls Club, Black Chamber of Commerce, Do It Yourself Girls, The Latino Council, NAACP-Los Angeles, San Jose Police Officers’ Association, and the United Women’s Organization — almost all regular recipients of “contributions” from AT&T.

Consumer groups are largely opposed to the measure, because it gives AT&T near carte blanche to disconnect rural residents and leave them with inferior and more expensive wireless alternatives. It also scraps most oversight over AT&T’s business practices in the state, which are not stellar. Those living in rural areas are opposed even more.

The Rural County Representatives of California, representing the interests of local leaders in 35 rural counties across the state, came out strongly against AB 2395, pointing out earlier deregulation efforts and a largely hands-off California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) helped create the digital divide problem that already exists in the state, and AT&T’s bill proposes to make it worse.

S

Frentzen

“While AB 2395 offers the promise of a more modern communications system for California, the bill devises a scheme that minimizes consumer protections and provides avenues for telecommunication providers to abandon their current subscribers from ever experiencing these modern telecommunications options,” said the group. “RCRC would have far more comfort with relinquishment proposals if California’s telecommunications stakeholders, including the CPUC, had met their obligations in providing near universal access. And that access included quality, demand-functions found in other areas of the state. Unfortunately, much of California has either no connectivity (unserved) or inferior connectivity (under-served). Until this digital divide is eliminated, we cannot support changes in the regulatory and statutory environment which furthers this gulf between who gets access and who does not.”

While AT&T continues to deny it will do anything to disconnect rural California, the company vehemently opposes efforts to drop language from the bill that would grant them the right to retire landline service. AT&T’s lobbyists insist the legislature can still trust the company, an idea that failed to impress Shiva Frentzen, the supervisor of El Dorado:

Trust is something that you earn. It’s built over time. We have a rural county each constituent, all your consumers, pay into the infrastructure, but we don’t see the high-speed coming to the rural parts of the county because it does not pencil out. For larger companies to bring the service in those areas – the infrastructure costs a lot and the monthly service does not pay for it. So that is the experience we’ve had with larger providers like yourself. We have not had the trust and the positive experience for our rural county, so that’s why we are where we are.

Editor’s Note: My apologies to Steve Blum, who didn’t get full credit for gathering most of the quotes noted in this piece. We’ve linked above (in bold) to several of his articles that have followed the AT&T lobbying saga, and we’ve added his blog to our permanent list of websites we can recommend.

AT&T Tells Customers $30 Extra for Unlimited Internet is Good News (for AT&T)

fat cat attAT&T has indirectly announced it will enforce hard data caps on its U-verse broadband service for the first time, imposing overlimit fees for customers that exceed their allowance unless they agree to pay $30 extra a month for a new unlimited add-on plan.

AT&T’s Consumer Blog announced effective May 23, AT&T was increasing the usage allowances on its DSL and U-verse broadband service and is introducing a new $30 unlimited option for broadband-only customers many actually had all along because AT&T never enforced its cap for U-verse.

Customers currently bundling video and data services from AT&T/DirecTV will get a break – the unlimited option will apply at no extra charge if you agree to a single, combined bill for all of your AT&T services. The decision to apply usage caps to broadband-only customers, often cord-cutters, while effectively exempting current U-verse TV/DirecTV video customers is sure to raise eyebrows.

AT&T originally told customers its usage caps were designed “to ensure it is providing a sustainable network to customers.”  But in a company FAQ, AT&T destroys its own argument for the need to cap anyone. “Will offering unlimited data negatively impact the AT&T network? No. AT&T will continue to actively manage the network to handle the increasing demand for data.”

AT&T’s need for data caps is also eroded by company claims only a small percentage of customers exceed them.

Why caps again?

Why caps again?

“Today, our home Internet customers use just over 100GB of data per month on average,” AT&T wrote. “So even with our smallest U-verse Internet data allowance of 300 GB the average customer has plenty of data to do more.”

At least for now.

A review of AT&T’s past average usage claims is revealing. In 2011, AT&T told Tom’s Hardware the average customer consumed about 18GB a month. In 2015, AT&T’s cached support site claimed average customers used around 35GB a month. As of this week, AT&T says average users now exceed 100GB a month. If AT&T decides not to regularly revisit allowances (AT&T took five years to revisit the subject this week, having introduced 150GB caps on DSL and 250GB on U-verse in 2011), customers are likely to face pressure to sign up for the $30 unlimited add-on or buy television service from AT&T to avoid overlimit charges that will top out at $200 in penalties for DSL customers, $100 for U-verse overlimit fees.

average usage

Beginning May 23, AT&T’s website will include a data usage meter to help avoid AT&T’s overlimit penalty: $10 for each 50GB increment one exceeds their allowance. AT&T claims only 4% of its customers will exceed their future data allowances. They wouldn’t say how many exceed the current ones.

Because U-verse customers have avoided AT&T’s usage caps in the past, the company is now reminding customers it will give several warnings before you experience bill shock:

  • In the first bill cycle when you reach 100% of your data allowance, AT&T will update you via email, but there will be no charges.
  • In the second bill cycle, AT&T will notify you via email at 65%, 90%, and 100%, and still without charges.
  • In the third bill cycle, and each bill cycle thereafter, you’ll receive reminder emails at 65% and 90%. At 100% AT&T will notify you and add an additional 50GB of data to your account for $10 each time you exceed the allowance. Customers will receive reminders about their data usage for the additional 50GB at 75% and 100%.

All usage — including uploads and downloads — counts towards the cap. There is just one exception. Wireless traffic from an AT&T MicroCell, designed to boost weak cell signals inside the home, is not included in AT&T’s Internet data usage allowance. To help ensure accurate billing, you have to register your AT&T MicroCell account and residential AT&T Internet account.

Here are the new data allowances that will take effect May 23rd:

monthly data allowance

DSL Reports’ Karl Bode is skeptical of the “consumer benefits” AT&T is touting as part of the change:

That last bit is a fairly transparent ploy to address a spike in cord cutting at AT&T — by forcing customers into signing up for television services they may not actually want if they want to avoid usage restrictions. Whether using arbitrary caps to force users to sign up for TV technically violates net neutrality (either the FCC’s rules or the concept in general) is something that’s likely to be hotly debated.

It’s also curious that just as AT&T indicates it’s backing away from U-Verse TV (which should technically free up more bandwidth on the AT&T network), it’s implementing caps on a network it originally stated didn’t need caps thanks to “greater capacity.” That’s because as with Comcast, caps really aren’t about capacity or financial necessity, they’re about protecting traditional TV revenue from Internet video. At the end of the day, AT&T’s just charging $30 a month (or more) for the same service, while trying to frame it as a net positive for consumers.

Commerce Secretary Appoints Comcast VP to Advisory Board to Protect Free & Open Internet

Phillip Dampier: Putting Comcast's David Cohen on a panel to protect the free and open Internet is like appointing Bernie Madoff to run the SEC.

Phillip Dampier: Putting Comcast’s David Cohen on a panel to protect the free and open Internet is like appointing Bernie Madoff to run the SEC.

I got whiplash this afternoon doing a double-take on the improbable announcement that Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker has seen fit to appoint David Cohen, senior vice president and chief lobbyist at Comcast, to the first-ever Digital Economy Board of Advisors, which counts among its goals protecting a free and open Internet. He will be joined by AT&T’s chief lobbyist, the omnipresent Mr. James Cicconi.

Neither has much patience for Net Neutrality. Cicconi and Cohen have both lobbied Congress and regulators to keep Comcast and AT&T free from regulation and oversight, even as Comcast imposes usage-billing and data caps on a growing number of its customers, while exempting its own streaming video content from those caps. For its part, AT&T is exploring “zero rating” preferred content partners to escape the wrath of its own wireless data limits and advocates against community broadband competition.

The board will be co-chaired by Markle Foundation president Zoe Baird and Mitchell Baker, executive chairwoman of Mozilla.

“As we develop an agenda to help the digital economy grow and thrive, it is critical that we engage with those on the front lines of the digital revolution,” said Pritzker.

It apparently doesn’t matter that the front lines being explored are those of the allies and enemies of Net Neutrality. Putting David Cohen on the case to protect a free and open Internet is like appointing Bernie Madoff to head the Securities & Exchange Commission.

Consumers are, as usual, woefully under-represented on the panel. Only Marta Tellado, president and CEO of Consumer Reports, is likely to solely advocate for ordinary Internet users. The rest of the panel is made up of bankers, businesspeople (including the CEO of a home shopping channel), academia, think tanks and dot.com interests:

David "I'm crushing your unlimited Internet access" Cohen

David “I’m crushing your unlimited Internet access” Cohen

  • Karen Bartleson, president-elect of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers
  • Greg Becker, president and CEO of Silicon Valley Bank and SVB Financial Group
  • Austan Goolsbee, Robert P. Gwinn Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago, Booth School of Business
  • Mindy Grossman, CEO and director of HSN
  • Oisin Hanrahan, co-founder and CEO of Handy
  • Sonia Katyal, Chancellor’s Professor of Law at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law
  • James Manyika, director of the McKinsey Global Institute
  • William Ruh, CEO of GE Digital and Chief Digital Officer for GE
  • Brad Smith, president and chief legal officer at Microsoft
  • Corey Thomas, president and CEO of Rapid7
  • Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube
  • John Zimmer, co-founder and president of Lyft

Attacks on Tennessee’s EPB Municipal Broadband Fall Flat in Light of Facts

latinos for tnThe worst enemy of some advocacy groups writing guest editorial hit pieces against municipal broadband is: facts.

Raul Lopez is the founder and executive director for Latinos for Tennessee, a 501C advocacy group that reported $0 in assets, $0 in income, and is not required to file a Form 990 with the Internal Revenue Service as of 2014. Lopez claims the group is dedicated to providing “Latinos in Tennessee with information and resources grounded on faith, family and freedom.”

But his views on telecom issues are grounded in AT&T and Comcast’s tiresome and false talking points about publicly owned broadband. His “opinion piece” in the Knoxville News Sentinel was almost entirely fact-free:

It is not the role of the government to use taxpayer resources to compete with private industry. Government is highly inefficient — usually creating an inferior product at a higher price — and is always slower to respond to market changes. Do we really want government providing our Internet service? Government-run health care hasn’t worked so well, so why would we promote government-run Internet?

Phillip Dampier: Corporate talking point nonsense regurgitated by Mr. Lopez isn't for the good of anyone.

Phillip Dampier: Corporate talking point nonsense regurgitated by Mr. Lopez isn’t for the good of anyone.

Lopez’s claim that only private providers are good at identifying what customers want falls to pieces when we’re talking about AT&T and Comcast. Public utility EPB was the first to deliver gigabit fiber to the home service in Chattanooga, first to deliver honest everyday pricing, still offers unlimited service without data caps and usage billing that customers despise, and has a customer approval and reliability rating Comcast and AT&T can only dream about.

Do the people of Chattanooga want “the government” (EPB is actually a public utility) to provide Internet service? Apparently so. Last fall, EPB achieved the status of being the #1 telecom provider in Chattanooga, with nearly half of all households EPB serves signed up for at least one EPB service — TV, broadband, or phone service. Comcast used to be #1 until real competition arrived. That “paragon of virtue’s” biggest private sector innovation of late? Rolling out its 300GB usage cap (with overlimit fees) in Chattanooga. That’s the same cap that inspired more than 13,000 Americans to file written complaints with the FCC about Comcast’s broadband pricing practices. EPB advertises no such data caps and has delivered the service residents actually want. Lopez calls that “hurting competition in our state and putting vital services at risk.”

Remarkably, other so-called “small government” advocates (usually well-funded by the telecom industry) immediately began beating a drum for Big Government protectionism to stop EPB by pushing for a state law to ban or restrict publicly owned networks.

Lopez appears to be on board:

Our Legislature considered a bill this session that would repeal a state municipal broadband law that prohibits government-owned networks from expanding across their municipal borders. Thankfully, it failed in the House Business and Utilities Subcommittee, but it will undoubtedly be back again in future legislative sessions. The legislation is troubling because it will harm taxpayers and stifle private-sector competition and innovation.

Or more accurately, it will make sure Comcast and AT&T can ram usage caps and higher prices for worse service down the throats of Tennessee customers.

epb broadband prices

EPB’s broadband pricing. Higher discounts possible with bundling.

Lopez also plays fast and loose with the truth suggesting the Obama Administration handed EPB a $111.7 million federal grant to compete with Comcast and AT&T. In reality, that grant was for EPB to build a smart grid for its electricity network. That fiber-based grid is estimated to have avoided 124.7 million customer minutes of interruptions by better detection of power faults and better methods of rerouting power to restore service more quickly than in the past.

EPB provides municipal power, broadband, television, and telephone service for residents in Chattanooga, Tennessee

EPB provides municipal power, broadband, television, and telephone service for residents in Chattanooga, Tennessee

Public utilities can run smart grids and not sell television, broadband, and phone service, leaving that fiber network underutilized. EPB decided it could put that network to good use, and a recent study by University of Tennessee economist Bento Lobo found EPB’s fiber services helped generate between 2,800 and 5,200 new jobs and added $865.3 million to $1.3 billion to the local economy. That translates into $2,832-$3,762 per Hamilton County resident. That’s quite a return on a $111.7 million investment that was originally intended just to help keep the lights on.

So EPB’s presence in Chattanooga has not harmed taxpayers and has not driven either of its two largest competitors out of the city.

Lopez then wanders into an equally ridiculous premise – that minority communities want mobile Internet access, not the fiber to the home service EPB offers:

Not all consumers access the Internet the same way. According to the Pew Research Center, Hispanics and African-Americans are more likely to rely on mobile broadband than traditional wire-line service. Indeed, minority communities are even more likely than the population as a whole to use their smartphones to apply for jobs online.

[…] Additionally, just like people are getting rid of basic at-home telephone service, Americans, especially minorities, are getting rid of at-home broadband. In 2013, 70 percent of Americans had broadband at home. Just two years later, only 67 percent did. The decline was true across almost the entire demographic board, regardless of race, income category, education level or location. Indeed, in 2013, 16 percent of Hispanics said they relied only on their smartphones for Internet access, and by 2015 that figure was up to 23 percent.

That drop in at-home broadband isn’t because fewer Americans have access to wireless broadband, it’s because more are moving to a wireless-only model. The bureaucracy of government has trouble adapting to changes like these, which is why government-owned broadband systems are often technologically out of date before they’re finished.

But Lopez ignores a key finding of Pew’s research:

In some form, cost is the chief reason that non-adopters cite when permitted to identify more than one reason they do not have a home high-speed subscription. Overall, 66% of non-adopters point toward either the monthly service fee or the cost of the computer as a barrier to adoption.

What community broadband provides communities the big phone and cable companies don't.

So it isn’t that customers want to exclusively access Internet services over a smartphone, they don’t have much of a choice at the prices providers like Comcast and AT&T charge. Wireless-only broadband is also typically usage capped and so expensive that average families with both wired broadband and a smartphone still do most of their data-intensive usage from home or over Wi-Fi to protect their usage allowance.

EPB runs a true fiber to the home network, Comcast runs a hybrid fiber-coax network, and AT&T mostly relies on a hybrid fiber-copper phone wire network. Comcast and AT&T are technically out of date, not EPB.

Not one of Lopez’s arguments has withstood the scrutiny of checking his claims against the facts, and here is another fact-finding failure on his part:

Top EPB officials argue that residents in Bradley County are clambering for EPB-offered Internet service, but the truth is Bradley County is already served by multiple private Internet service providers. Indeed, statewide only 215,000 Tennesseans, or approximately 4 percent, don’t have broadband access. We must find ways to address the needs of those residents, but that’s not what this bill would do. This bill would promote government providers over private providers, harming taxpayers and consumers along the way.

Outlined section shows Bradley County, Tenn., east of Chattanooga.

Outlined section shows Bradley County, Tenn., east of Chattanooga.

The Chattanoogan reported it far differently, talking with residents and local elected officials on the ground in the broadband-challenged county:

The legislation would remove territorial restrictions and provide the clearest path possible for EPB to serve customers and for customers to receive high-speed internet.

State Rep. Dan Howell, the former executive assistant to the county mayor of Bradley County, was in attendance and called broadband a “necessity” as he offered his full support to helping EPB, as did Tennessee State Senator Todd Gardenhire.

“We can finally get something done,” Senator Gardenhire said. “The major carriers, Charter, Comcast and AT&T, have an exclusive right to the area and they haven’t done anything about it.”

So while EPB’s proposed expansion threatened Comcast and AT&T sufficiently to bring out their lobbyists demanding a ban on such expansions in the state legislature, neither company has specific plans to offer service to unserved locations in the area. Only EPB has shown interest in expansion, and without taxpayer funds.

The facts just don’t tell the same story Lopez, AT&T, and Comcast tell and would like you to believe. EPB has demonstrated it is the best provider in Chattanooga, provides service customers want at a fair price, and represents the interests of the community, not Wall Street and investors Comcast and AT&T listen to almost exclusively. Lopez would do a better job for his group’s membership by telling the truth and not redistributing stale, disproven Big Telecom talking points.

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