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Telcos Intentionally Cut Rural Broadband Investments Hoping for Taxpayer Subsidies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Source: AT&T)

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

Burstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rural backhaul connectivity is often provided by fiber optic cabling.

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

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

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

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

AT&T Using $9.7 Million in Public Dollars to Bolster its Cell Towers in South Carolina

AT&T will spend $9.7 million in annual public subsidies to bolster its cell tower network in South Carolina in part to expand its rural wireless broadband program.

The Federal Communications Commission approved the funding, which is expected to cost Americans nearly $10 million annually until 2020 to boost wireless coverage in 20 mostly rural counties in South Carolina to reach an estimated 12,000 new homes and businesses by the end of this year. Nationwide, the company is getting almost $428 million a year to extend access to 1.1 million customers in 18 states, the FCC says.

AT&T plans to spend the money to improve cell towers it already has in place for its mobile phone customers. The company admitted it will rely on existing infrastructure and won’t lay a single new strand of fiber optics. Instead, wireless broadband customers will share space with AT&T’s existing mobile customers on AT&T’s backhaul network.

“Because of the wireless aspect of it and the greater ability to deliver that last-mile connection, it does help to overcome any obstacles that may be in the cost equation,” Hayes said. “This initial build, with it being infrastructure that we have in place with these towers, that comes from years of investment.”

AT&T will also be able to promote its own products and offer customers discounts and free installation when they agree to sign up for other AT&T services. Hayes said the service will cost $60 a month for everyone else, along with a one-time installation fee of $99.

“Because of the wireless aspect of it and the greater ability to deliver that last-mile connection, it does help to overcome any obstacles that may be in the cost equation,” spokesman Daniel Hayes told The Post and Courier. “This initial build, with it being infrastructure that we have in place with these towers, that comes from years of investment.”

AT&T is treating the fixed wireless program, which offers up to 10Mbps service, as an alternative to wiring fiber optics in outer suburban and rural areas.

With taxpayer/ratepayer dollars financing a significant part of the cost, AT&T will have a de facto monopoly in its rural service areas where it has traditionally declined to offer or maintain DSL service or consider fiber optic upgrades, leaving these areas without broadband service until the subsidy program began.

AT&T Fixed Wireless Expands to 8 New States; Up to 10Mbps, 160GB Usage Cap

AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet, intended for rural areas, is now available in eight new states in the southern U.S., joining Georgia:

  • Alabama
  • Florida
  • Kentucky
  • Mississippi
  • North Carolina
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee
  • Louisiana

More than 70,000 locations can now subscribe to the fixed wireless service at prices ranging from $50-70 a month. AT&T said it was on track to expand the service to over 400,000 locations by the end of 2017 and over 1.1 million locations by 2020. Later this year, the service will be introduced in rural areas of Arkansas, California, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin.

“We’re committed to connect hard-to-reach locations to the internet. This changes lives and creates economic growth for these areas,” said Cheryl Choy, vice president of wired voice and internet products at AT&T. “We’re excited to bring this service to even more underserved locations.”

An exact list of communities served isn’t available, but AT&T allows potential customers to enter their zip code on its website to determine availability.

AT&T introduced the fixed wireless service in parts of rural Georgia earlier this spring. The plan offers up to 10Mbps of speed with a 160GB monthly data cap. If a customer exceeds that amount, their account is charged $10 for each additional 50GB increment, up to a maximum overlimit fee of $200 a month.

Customers with a DirecTV and AT&T mobile phone subscription can get AT&T’s Fixed Wireless service for $50 a month. Those who don’t have a satellite package but are willing to sign a one-year contract will pay $60 a month. If you want to skip the contract, the price rises to $70 a month. An installation fee of $99 also applies, unless a customer also signs up for DirecTV.

AT&T Adds Contract Language to Replace Wired Landlines with VoIP or Wireless Alternative

Phillip Dampier May 17, 2017 AT&T, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't 5 Comments

AT&T has spent the last several years laying the foundation to pull the plug on its wired legacy landline service.

In preparation for a transition away from Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS), AT&T is notifying customers of a change to the residential service agreement governing home phone service. The company has added a new section entitled “Network Changes” that gives AT&T the right to temporarily suspend landline service to replace it either with AT&T’s U-verse “Voice over IP” service or a wireless home phone alternative. The agreement requires customers to accept the transition, allow technicians to enter the customer’s home to install new equipment, and permits AT&T to use the customer’s electricity to power that equipment. If a customer refuses to grant entry, AT&T can permanently disconnect your landline phone service without recourse.

Similar contract language was introduced in other areas where wireless home phone equipment was intended to replace traditional landline service in areas where a local phone company chose not to repair or upgrade its facilities. AT&T intends to enforce the agreement in areas where it serves as the local landline phone company.

d. Network Changes.

AT&T reserves the right at any time to temporarily suspend or interrupt Services to make necessary changes in how we provide Services to your premises. We will provide advance notice of these network changes to the extent required by this Agreement, applicable law, and regulation. In some cases, such changes in how we provide Services may require a technician to be dispatched to your home to install new network equipment at your premises and transfer your service to the new network equipment in order to ensure you continue to receive such Services. The network equipment we install at your home may require the use of your electrical power for the operation of our facilities. Where a technician visit is required, if you do not allow AT&T to install the new network equipment at your premises, your telephone service may be disconnected in compliance with subsection (b) above.

(Image courtesy: “Ramsaso” of Houston, Tex.)

California Legislature Wants to Give $300 Million of Your Money Away to AT&T, Frontier, and Big Cable

Delivering 21st century broadband speeds to rural Californians just doesn’t interest incumbent phone companies like AT&T and Frontier Communications, so the California legislature has been hard at work trying to entice upgrades on the taxpayer’s dime while reassuring ISPs they won’t have to break a sweat doing it.

Steve Blum from Telus Venture Associates reports the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF), California’s equivalent of the FCC’s Connect America Fund (CAF) – is about to get a makeover sure to delight the two phone companies while throwing some cash at cable operators like Comcast, Cox and Charter to keep them happy as well.

The changes are encompassed in Assembly Bill 1665, sponsored by Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia (D–Riverside County), who counts AT&T as his sixth biggest contributor. The phone company has cut checks to the former mayor of Coachella not less than a dozen times amounting to $16,700. Garcia has also received special attention from AT&T’s lobbyists, who invited him to appear side-by-side with AT&T officials at press-friendly events where the phone company donated $10,000 to an abused women’s shelter and $25,000 to the Court Appointed Special Advocates of Imperial County.

Blum reports that the bill has been largely a placeholder until now as negotiations and dealmaking happened behind the scenes. The result is a corporate welfare bonanza that will raise $330 million for the CASF by reinstating a telephone tax on consumers and businesses than ended last year. Of that, $300 million will end up in the pockets of phone and cable companies, $10 million will go to regional broadband efforts, and the remaining $20 million will be designated for schools, libraries, and non-profit groups to promote broadband use, but only where providers already offer service or will shortly. In effect, that $20 million will turn public institutions into sales agents for ISPs.

The corporate giveaway bill will also sell Californian consumers down the river:

  • The bill effectively replaces the FCC’s minimum definition of broadband (25/3Mbps) with California’s own minimum: 6/1Mbps — conveniently about the same speed telephone company DSL provides. As Blum writes, the language “makes 1990s legacy DSL technology the new 21st century standard.”
  • AT&T and Frontier Communications get monopoly protection with exclusive CASF rights in areas where they currently receive federal CAF funding. This means both companies will get to double-dip federal and state money to expand inferior DSL or fixed wireless service and never have to worry about taxpayer funding going to their competitors or communities that might choose to build their own superior broadband networks. It virtually guarantees rural California will be stuck with sub-standard internet access indefinitely, and at the taxpayer’s expense.
  • CASF funding has always been exclusively for infrastructure construction — building out the last mile to deliver internet access to consumers and businesses. But the new bill now allows the money to also be spent on “operating costs,” a rat hole where millions can quickly disappear with little improvement in broadband expansion or service.
  • The new bill suggests that provider contributions — where providers agree to kick in a percentage (usually 30-40%) of their own money on expansion projects in return for getting taxpayer subsidies, is just too hard on struggling phone companies like AT&T and Frontier. Under the new proposal, this requirement should be eliminated.
  • Individual homeowners would be able to apply for grants to get broadband connections, a direct nod to the state’s cable companies that routinely ask would-be customers just out of reach of the nearest cable line to pay tens of thousands of dollars to build a line extension. If approved, cable companies could set the installation price as high as the sky and get taxpayers to foot the bill, enriching themselves while avoiding any regulatory scrutiny.

Cable companies also get another wish granted — keeping subsidized broadband out the hands of many poor Californians that need connections for education, job-seeking, and training. The bill proposes to ban funding for broadband facilities in public housing. Cable companies have been irritated spending capital on broadband expansion to public housing only to find many of its customers would likely to qualify for their “internet for the poor” programs that cost as little as $10 a month.

Blum reports the language isn’t final and is likely to be amended as negotiations continue. A hearing of the Communications and Conveyance Committee at the State Capitol, Room 437 is scheduled for 1:30pm PDT today on the bill. You can listen to the hearing when in session here.

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