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Mich. Lawmaker Seeks Ban on All Community Broadband Networks (And Blocks Stop the Cap!)

Rep. Michele Hoitenga (R-Manton) doesn’t care much for community broadband, so she introduced a bill in the Michigan legislature that is as stark as it is short:

House Bill 5099:

The bill is remarkable for its brevity — most proposed community broadband ban bills avoid outright bans, preferring to use forced complicated referendums or operational limitations that usually make municipal broadband projects untenable. But Rep. Hoitenga’s bill leaves no doubt she wants private cable and phone companies left unmolested by publicly funded alternatives. Although the Michigan Republican chairs the House’s Communications and Technology committee, she appears confused about the difference between upload and download speeds. Her bill would define a “qualified” internet service as one offering at least 1/10Mbps service. Yes — 1Mbps download speed and 10Mbps upload speed.

Ars Technica’s Jon Brodkin asked Rep. Hoitenga about the oddity of the language in her bill:

When asked about this on Twitter, Hoitenga said she would have to “speak with the attorneys who wrote the bill” to determine whether the listed speed was a mistake. “I will speak with the attorneys who wrote the bill. They changed the language I submitted but will ask why they changed it,” Hoitenga wrote.

Rep. Hoitenga

Rep. Hoitenga used her Twitter account to promote and defend her bill, pointing out the district she represents had “37 providers” to choose from — a fact she gleaned from an online AT&T Yellow Pages directory. Stop the Cap! investigated that claim and found the majority of the providers cited did not offer internet access to members of her district, provided service only in adjacent communities, or sold commercial internet services to businesses only. In fact, for the overwhelming majority of her constituents, there are only two providers to choose from — AT&T or Comcast. Both are top donors to Rep. Hoitenga’s campaign, but more on that later.

Michigan has never been a hotbed of community broadband initiatives, despite having uneven broadband service in suburban and rural areas across the state. Michigan law already includes several significant roadblocks for public broadband projects, notes Lisa Gonzalez from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance:

“Michigan already has a significant state barrier in place; municipalities that wish to improve connectivity must first appeal to the private sector and can only invest in a network if they receive fewer than three qualifying bids. If a local community then goes on to build a publicly owned network, they must comply with the terms of the RFP, even though terms for a private sector vendor may not be ideal for a public entity.

“Nevertheless, several communities in Michigan have dealt with the restrictions in recent years as a way to ameliorate poor connectivity. They’ve come to realize that their local economies and the livelihood of their towns depend on improving Internet access for businesses, institutions, and residents.”

Although Rep. Hoitenga’s bill offers the possibility for “public-private” partnerships, her bill would bring a significant chilling effect because the proposed law fails to define how such partnerships should be structured.

Rep. Hoitenga told Stop the Cap! the bill would put a stop to tax dollars being spent on broadband service, something she felt was unwarranted. We asked the Michigan representative, “Did you know the phone and cable companies receive taxpayer subsidies already in the form of PILOT agreements, and other incentives?” which received the non-sequitur response that her office’s phones were ringing constantly with callers praising her new bill.

But that isn’t what Rep. Hoitenga told her Facebook fans.

“Many individuals have reached out to my office in regards to HB5099; with the belief that I am attempting to limit broadband expansion,” Hoitenga wrote. “This could not be further from the truth. One of my main goals as the Chair of the House Communications and Technology committee is to make internet access more easily obtainable. This legislation does indeed prevent cities from using tax dollars to subsidize ISPs; especially without a vote of the people. While at first glance government operated networks may sound like a good idea, the argument in support of them crumbles with an in depth look into the financial and long-term investment side of implementing such a network.”

So we remain unsure if the wave of phone calls Hoitenga referenced were in support of her proposed bill or opposed to it. Either way, the Michigan representative mischaracterized her own three-paragraph bill by claiming it would prevent cities from using tax dollars for internet service, “without a vote of the people.” But no provision for such a vote exists or would be allowed by her existing bill. Hoitenga’s bill also clearly makes internet access less obtainable, especially in communities where a for profit provider does not exist and a community is seeking to provide an alternative.

Hoitenga later states communities may not need to worry about internet accessibility because, “there is also a package of bills in the senate regarding Small Cell Technology (which also attempts to reduce barriers),” she wrote. That provision is backed by AT&T, which is currently one of the two ISPs serving her district.

She then picks up familiar talking points distributed by public broadband opponents:

“There are examples throughout the state and nation of taxpayers being on the hook for failed networks. There is also concern that some of these networks are in towns where employee pensions are severely underfunded, causing layoffs and cutting services, yet there seems to be money for high risk broadband investments. It’s time to address these issues.

“My colleagues and I have introduced legislation that aims to remove some of the current barriers (HB5096-5098), and help streamline the broadband expansion and installation process for private providers. Municipalities should not be allowed to push out the free markets with unlimited tax payer resources and unfair advantages but could partner with providers to offer fiber for expansion to unserved areas.”

She also cited a 2017 study critical of municipal broadband networks authored by University of Pennsylvania Law School Professor Christopher Yoo and co-author Timothy Pfenninger. Neither author or Rep. Hoitenga disclosed the group that produced the study is funded by AT&T and Comcast, among other large telecom companies and their respective lobbying organizations.

After opening a dialogue with the Michigan representative, she did not take kindly to questions or criticism about her bill, and summarily blocked Stop the Cap! from seeing her Tweets or communicating with her further — the first time anyone has blocked our group on Twitter. Shortly after that, she changed her Twitter channel to be viewable by invitation only, limiting her potential audience to her 284 current followers. At the moment, the only social media outlet that seems to be still open to communicating with Rep. Hoitenga is Facebook, where she is taking heat from her constituents about her bill.

The Michigan representative has been behind several controversial bills introduced in the current session of the Michigan House, including a proposal to allow concealed pistols to be carried in public and a ban on Sharia law being practiced in the United States.

Her top donors for the current legislative session include:

#2 – Telecommunications Association of Michigan PAC, $3,000
#4 – AT&T Michigan, $1,500
#11 – Comcast Corp. & NBC Universal, $500

AT&T Loses 390,000 U-verse, DirecTV Subscribers; Denies Cord-Cutting a Factor

Phillip Dampier October 12, 2017 AT&T, Competition, Consumer News, Online Video 3 Comments

AT&T tried to calm investors Wednesday in an 8-K filing with regulators, reporting that although it has likely lost 390,000 DirecTV satellite and U-verse video customers in the last three months, it has gained 300,000 online streaming customers for its DirecTV Now TV service.

The company is required to report materially adverse changes to its business to shareholders, and AT&T elected not to wait until its next quarterly earnings report to divulge the substantial losses in video customers. DirecTV Now gains are not expected to be a significant panacea for investors because AT&T reportedly makes little or no profit from the service since it launched in late 2016.

AT&T avoided blaming cord-cutting for customer losses:

The video net losses were driven by heightened competition in traditional pay TV markets and over-the-top services, hurricanes and our stricter credit standards. The decline of traditional video subscribers negatively impacts our Entertainment Group revenues and margins, resulting in an adjusted consolidated operating income margin that will be essentially flat versus the year-ago third quarter.

Overall, the company confessed it lost 90,000 total video subscriptions once DirecTV Now’s gains were included.

AT&T told investors earlier this year it was substantially cutting marketing of its U-verse video service and began encouraging customers to subscribe to DirecTV satellite service instead. But the satellite TV service is rapidly losing customers as well. Wall Street analysts suggest the only explanation for this is cord-cutting.

“The issue is in the acceleration in cord-cutting, and the prevalence of [online streaming], not each other,” said Craig Moffett of MoffettNathanson. “It is becoming increasingly clear that the wheels are falling off of satellite TV” noting that Dish Networks subscriber numbers appeared dismal as well.

Moffett predicted with the ongoing video losses impacting satellite television, he thought it unthinkable the two satellite companies might consider merging.

Puerto Ricans Giving Up on U.S. Cell Phone Providers; Mexico’s Claro Has Best Coverage

U.S. cell phone providers are facing increasing criticism they are dragging their feet on restoring cell service in Puerto Rico while Mexican-owned Claro has now successfully restored service in 28 of the territory’s 78 municipalities.

Claro Puerto Rico, owned by Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim’s America Movil, has dramatically outpaced AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint in getting their damaged cell phone facilities back up and running. Claro is Puerto Rico’s second most popular cell company behind AT&T.

“Claro is the only one with service here,” Francisco Portales, 47, a customer of privately held Puerto Rico-based network provider Open Mobile told a Reuters reporter while waiting outside the Claro store in Fajardo hoping to buy a phone.

Looking for a signal.

The FCC’s latest update on Tuesday reported about 88% of Puerto Rico is still without cell service, but the agency does not break down network repairs by carrier, and American providers have declared their specific restoration plans to be confidential.

While AT&T complained the lack of commercial power remained its biggest problem, Claro said it had pre-positioned generators, diesel fuel, battery backups, and vehicles 72 hours before the hurricane hit, which appears to have made all the difference in restoring service.

Sprint said late last week its towers were still standing and “largely intact” although it gave no specific information on when service might be restored. T-Mobile was more frank, reporting “it’s going to be a long road to recovery.”

Claro is not taking advantage of its position as the island’s most reliable post-hurricane carrier, allowing customers of other providers to roam on its network where a signal is available. That may be all the good publicity Claro needs to win over new customers after the hurricane damage is repaired.

Claro’s repair trucks.

Mercedes Saldana, a 54-year-old school cafeteria worker and Sprint customer is just one of many now searching shops for a Claro prepaid phone.

“I don’t have any service, none,” she said. “We don’t know when Sprint’s going to be connected again.”

Customers unwilling to switch carriers and won’t roam may have long travel times ahead of them to find a signal. Luis Pacheco, 64, was planning to drive with his wife to Canovanas — 30 to 40 minutes west — in hopes of finding a cell signal to text his daughter in California. That is the nearest community where AT&T has a signal at the moment.

Before the storm, AT&T dominated Puerto Rico with a 34% market share, followed by Claro Puerto Rico with a 26% share. T-Mobile was third with 19%, Open Mobile has 11% and Sprint 10%. Verizon Wireless has no network facilities in Puerto Rico, but travelers with Verizon phones are granted roaming access on Claro’s network.

AT&T Shifting More Customer Call Centers Offshore

Phillip Dampier October 4, 2017 AT&T, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't 1 Comment

Less than a decade ago, AT&T was one of El Paso’s largest private employers, with 2,400 employees. Next month, it will be a shadow of its former self with fewer than 500 local workers after a series of layoffs and call center closures.

AT&T is planning to close its East El Paso office in November, giving 278 employees the option of leaving or relocating to San Antonio, Missouri, or Florida to remain employed by AT&T.

AT&T used to employ thousands of workers in its El Paso call centers and technical facilities. But much of that work is now being shifted to third-party contractors and offshore call centers overseas.

Since 2011, AT&T has eliminated 12,000 call center jobs in the United States, closing and downsizing call centers across the country, according to the Communications Workers of America.

In 2006, AT&T closed a major call center in Massachusetts, despite receiving generous tax benefits from the local and state government, and offered to relocate those employees to the same call centers in El Paso it is closing now.

In 2015, AT&T demanded El Paso and the state of Texas triple their $50 million annual tax break or else they would shift spending elsewhere. It appears tax abatements ultimately had little effect on AT&T’s spending decisions in the western Texas city.

The union reports the annual salaries for those jobs ranged from $32,000 to $65,000 per year, plus commissions and health and retirement benefits. Offshore customer care centers pay a fraction of those salaries and many third-party contractors do not pay benefits because they designate many employees as part-time workers.

AT&T disputes it is increasing its offshore customer service workforce at the cost of American workers.

“It’s important to note that there is a job for every employee who is willing to relocate to the facilities where the work is being consolidated,” and they will get a relocation allowance if they have to move, Marty Richter, a spokesman for AT&T, told the El Paso Times.

“We’re adding people in many areas of our business where we’re seeing increased customer demand for products and services,” and reducing jobs in areas where work volumes are decreasing, “in part because of changing technology,” Richter added.

Most of the remaining 350 AT&T employees in El Paso will be staffing five retail stores in the area or working as technicians or back-office workers.

Few are expected to take AT&T’s offer to relocate to San Antonio, if only because there are signs AT&T will continue to cut back on its domestic call center operations and shift that work online or overseas.

Despite Net Neutrality, Providers Launch Fiber Spending Spree

Despite claims from some industry-backed researchers and former members of Congress that Net Neutrality has reduced investment in telecommunications, a new research note from Deutsche Bank shows America’s top telephone and cable companies are spending billions on fiber upgrades to power wireless, business, and consumer broadband.

“Telecoms have become much more public signaling their intent to increase fiber investment, with AT&T and Verizon leading the spending ramp,” reports Deutsche Bank Markets Research.

Verizon has been on a fiber spending spree in the northeastern United States, signing contracts with Corning and Prysmian worth $1.3 billion to guarantee a steady supply of 2.5 million miles of fiber optic cable Verizon plans to buy over the next three years. Much of that spending allows Verizon to lay a foundation for its future 5G wireless services, which will require fiber to the neighborhood networks. But in cities like Boston, Verizon is also once again expanding its FiOS fiber to the home service to consumers.

AT&T is committed to connecting 12.5 million homes to gigabit-ready fiber broadband by 2019 — part of a deal it made with the FCC to win approval of its acquisition of DirecTV. AT&T claims it has already connected 5.5 million homes to its gigabit AT&T Fiber network, expected to reach 7 million by the end of this year.

Deutsche Bank thinks providers’ future drive towards 5G service will also simultaneously benefit fiber to the home expansion, because the same fiber network can power both services.

“To support the upcoming innovations such as autonomous driving, IoT, smart cities, the US needs to densify its fiber network,” Deutsche Bank said. “The U.S. fiber penetration rate is 20% vs. 75% for leading OECD countries, which suggests a large gap needs to be closed.”

Altice founder Patrick Drahi (second from left) and Altice USA CEO Dexter Goei (center) visit a Cablevision fiber deployment on Long Island, N.Y.

The bank predicts companies will spend around $175 billion over the next 10 years building out their fiber networks, with most of the spending coming from the phone companies, who may see fiber buildouts as their best attempt to level the playing field with cable operators’ hybrid fiber-coaxial cable networks. As cable operators expand their networks to reach more business parks, they have been gradually stealing market share for phone and data services from phone companies. Consumer broadband is also increasingly dominated by cable operators in areas where phone companies still rely on selling DSL services.

FierceCable notes Comcast and Altice have stepped up aggressive spending on fiber networks for their consumer and business customers. Altice is planning to decommission Cablevision’s existing coaxial cable network and move customers to fiber-to-the-home service. Comcast is deploying fiber services while still selling traditional cable broadband upgraded to DOCSIS 3.1, which supports substantially faster broadband speeds. The two networks co-exist side-by-side. Customer need dictates which network Comcast will use to supply service.

Customers benefit differently in each state, depending on what type of service is available. Comcast’s large footprint in Pennsylvania, outside of Philadelphia, is usually served by traditional coaxial cable. Verizon still sells DSL in much of the state. In Massachusetts, Verizon is building out its FiOS network to serve metro Boston while Comcast will depend on DOCSIS 3.1 upgrades to speed up its internet service. In New Jersey, long a battleground for Verizon’s FiOS service the company stopped aggressively expanding several years ago, Comcast has announced DOCSIS 3.1 upgrades for the entire state.

Independent phone companies are also seeing a bleak future without fiber upgrades. Both CenturyLink and Windstream are planning moderately aggressive fiber expansion, particularly in urban service areas and where they face fierce cable competition. Frontier continues its more modest approach to fiber expansion, usually placing fiber in new housing developments and in places where its copper facilities have been severely damaged or have to be relocated because of infrastructure projects.

None of the companies have cited Net Neutrality as a factor in their future broadband expansion plans. In fact, fiber networks have opened the door to new business opportunities to the companies installing them, and the high-capacity networks are likely to further reduce traffic/transit costs, while boosting speeds. That undercuts the business model of selling digital slow and fast lanes.

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