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A Month After Maria Hammered Puerto Rico, Most Utilities Still Down

As Puerto Rico approaches the first month anniversary of Hurricane Maria, only small amounts of incremental progress have been made restoring the island’s telecommunications networks badly damaged by the storm.

Wireless Service

According to the Federal Communications Commission, 75.3% of Puerto Rico’s cell towers are still out of commission and many of those restored to service are functioning on generator backup, often using portable cell tower infrastructure that offers a fraction of the coverage area normal service used to provide. The majority of restored towers are in the immediate vicinity of San Juan, while many other parts of the island remain totally without service. Claro, a Mexican-owned cell company that used to offer the best coverage across Puerto Rico still remains the most reliable after the storm. All four wireless companies operating in Puerto Rico are offering free roaming to customers so as towers are restored to service, the companies can provide coverage to as many residents as possible.

Satellite Cells on Light Trucks (COLTs) have been deployed in Aguadilla, Arecibo, Cayey, Caomo Sur, Fajardo, Guayama, Manati, Mayaguez Mesa, San German, Vega Baja, and Yauco and Terrestrial Cells on Wheels (COWs)/COLTs in Humacao, Quebradillas, Rio Grande, and Utuado.

The FCC believes approximately 61% — one percent higher than last week — of the population can now get some cell signal. But that figure is slightly misleading because the largest percentage of the population lives around or in San Juan, the city with the best service restoration so far.

In contrast, most cell sites in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and the Florida Panhandle affected by two earlier hurricanes were restored to service within two weeks. Cellular providers point out the reason for the difference is the availability of commercial power and reliable backup generators, both not widely available in Puerto Rico even now.

The U.S. Virgin Islands, also devastated by Hurricane Marie, are also struggling with repair efforts. At least 55.4% of cell towers are out of service on those Caribbean islands, with 88.9% still down on St. John, the smallest of the three islands that make up the U.S. territory. Because repair efforts have been more effective on the other two islands, about 88% of the territory can now get a cell signal.

Electricity

NBC News reported today that 17.7% of Puerto Rico now has electricity, but it is very unreliable and there are daily outages that sometimes extend for hours. The Army Corps of Engineers hopes to have in place by next week — more than a month after Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico — two 25-megawatt generators at a plant in San Juan to help stabilize electricity there. The generators arrived Oct. 13, and a target date of Oct. 25 may be missed because of ongoing inclement weather. Once installed, the generators will extend electricity to about 30% of the island — mostly in the northeastern section around San Juan — and stabilize power for those who already have it.

The government is prioritizing electricity restoration for public safety and hospitals, public/government institutions including sewage and water treatment plants, schools, and then the island’s large pharmaceutical industry, which own several large drug manufacturing plants.

The order of priority the government is giving to service restoration is upsetting Claro, one of the island’s largest cell companies.

“Businesses and the government itself can hardly operate efficiently without an appropriate telecommunications structure,” said Claro representative Pedro Andrés. “For example, without telecommunication services the bank could not operate and that means that there would be no access to money for people, businesses could not handle electronic transactions, medical plans would not work and suppliers could not dispatch. That is, the country would be paralyzed.”

Andrés wants the power authority to make sure that electric service is restored to cell towers as soon as practical.

Residents are being told they can expect 95% electricity service restoration by Dec. 15.

Cable and Telephone

Liberty Cablevision of Puerto Rico is only working for about 1% of its customers, so it is focusing on offering free Wi-Fi hotspots for now.

Diesel generators are currently powering some of the island’s 911 service centers, which are now back up and running normally.

Cable service remains basically non-existent in Puerto Rico because of the lack of electricity. Liberty Cablevision of Puerto Rico has reported it has restored full service to about 1% of its customers, although a significantly higher number will have service back immediately after electricity is restored. Liberty promises automatic service credits for the duration of the outage and has told customers to ignore billing that was already in the mail when the storm hit. Liberty is currently focused on reaching and retaining the goodwill of its customers with a network of free Wi-Fi hotspots.

The island’s landline provider reports there are six central switching offices out of service on the island and there are problems connecting long distance calls.

Broadcast Media

The following TV stations are confirmed operational: WKAQ, WIPR, WIPN, WTIN, and WNJX, but these nine are still off the air: WAPA, WIPM, WTCV, WUJA, WELU, WECN, WRSV, WORO, and WRUA.

As of today, 44 AM radio stations are confirmed to be on-the-air: WA2XPA, WALO, WAPA, WBMJ, WBQN, WCMN, WCPR, WDEP, WENA, WEXS, WGDL, WI2XAC, WI2XSO, WI3XSO, WIAC, WIDA, WIPR, WISO, WJIT, WKAQ, WKFE, WKJB, WKUM, WKVM, WLEO, WLEY, WMDD, WMNT, WNEL, WNIK, WOIZ, WOLA, WPAB, WPPC, WPRA, WPRP, WQII, WSKN, WSOL, WTIL, WUKQ, WUNO, WVJP, and WXEW.

These 29 AM radio stations are confirmed out of service: WABA, WBSG, WBYM, WCGB, WCMA, WDNO, WEGA, WFAB, WGIT, WHOY, WIBS, WISA, WIVV, WLRP, WMIA, WMSW, WNVI, WOQI, WORA, WOSO, WQBS, WRRE, WRSJ, WRSS, WUPR, WVOZ, WYAC, WYEL, and WYKO.

There are 36 FM radio stations back on the air: WAEL-FM, WCMN-FM, WEGM, WERR, WFID, WIDA-FM, WIDI, WIOA, WIOA-FM1, WKAQ-FM, WLUZ, WMAA-LP, WMEG, WNVM, WODA, WORO, WOYE, WPRM-FM, WPUC-FM, WPUC-FM1, WQML, WRIO, WRRH, WRTU, WRXD. WTOK-FM, WUKQ-FM, WVDJ-LP. WVIS, WVJP-FM, WXLX, WXYX, WYQE, WZNT, WZNT-FM1, and WZOL.

But these 22 FM radio stations are still out of service: W227CV, WCAD, WCAD-FM2, WCRP, WELX, WFDT, WIOC, WIPR-FM, WJDZ, WMIO, WNRT, WNVE, WQBS-FM, WTPM, WVQR, WXHD, WYAS, WZAR, WZCA, WZET, WZMT, and WZOL-FM3.

Cable Operators Talk Broadband Capacity and Upgrades

With many cable operators reporting a need to double network capacity every 18-24 months to keep up with customer traffic demands, the industry is spending time and money contemplating how to meet future needs while also finding ways to cut costs and make networks more efficient.

Top technology executives from five major cable operators answered questions (sub. req’d.) from Multichannel News about their current broadband networks and their plans for the future. Some, like Mediacom, are aggressively adopting DOCSIS 3.1 cable broadband upgrades for their customers while companies like Cox and Comcast are deploying multiple solutions that use both traditional hybrid fiber-coax network technology and, on occasion, fiber-to-the-home to boost speed and performance. But at least one cable company — Charter Communications — thinks it can continue operating its existing DOCSIS 3 network without major upgrades for several years to come.

Cable Broadband Traffic Can Be Handled

“We’ve been on a pretty steady path of doubling our network capacity every 18-24 months for several years, and I don’t see anything that makes me think that will change,” said Tony Werner, president of technology and product at Comcast. “We’ve been strategically extending fiber further into our network to meet customer demand, and that effort, combined with our commitment to deploying DOCSIS 3.1 has given us a network that’s powerful, flexible, and ready for what’s next.”

J.R. Walden, senior vice president of technology at Mediacom was more aggressive.

“We have completed the removal of all the analog channels. That was the big step one,” Walden said. “Step two was to start transitioning high-speed data over to DOCSIS 3.1, so we’re not adding any more 3.0 channels, and reuse spectrum for 3.1, which is a bit more efficient. The whole company is 3.1, all the modems we’re buying since June have been 3.1, so we’ve begun that next transition.”

Walden added Mediacom is also trying to improve broadband performance by reducing the number of customers sharing the same connection.

“We average about 285 homes to 290 homes per node as an average,” he said.

Mediacom is also scrapping older technology on the TV side to open new bandwidth. The cable company is getting rid of MPEG-2-only set-top boxes so the company can transition its video lineup to MPEG-4. But even that won’t last long. Walden admits the company will then quickly start moving less-viewed channels and some premium networks to IP delivery.

Traditional cable broadband service relies on a hybrid fiber-coax network.

In its European markets, Liberty Global has adopted Converged Cable Access Platform (CCAP) equipment across its footprint. CCAP technology saves cable operators space and operates more efficiently, and supports future convergence of technologies that cable operators want to adopt in the future. CCAP has helped Liberty Global deal with its 45% traffic growth by making upgrades easier. The company is also using advanced features of CCAP to better balance how many customers are sharing a connection. The next step is adopting DOCSIS 3.1.

“Seventy to 80% of our plant will be DOCSIS 3.1 ready by the end of next year, giving us a path to even greater capacity expansion allowing us to continue to increase the available capacity across our access network, upstream and downstream,” said Dan Hennessy, chief architect of network architecture for Liberty.

Charter is prioritizing maximizing performance on the network it already has.

“Our priority is to constantly balance capacity against demand. It’s a never-ending quest,” said Jay Rolls, Charter’s chief technology officer. “We watch it very closely, and we’re very pragmatic about it — the volume of tools, metrics and ways to see what’s really happening, and invest accordingly, is really deepening in ways that matter.”

Is Fiber-to-the-Home in Your Future?

While some cable operators like Altice’s Cablevision are scrapping their existing hybrid fiber-coax networks in favor of fiber-to-the-home (FTTH), America’s largest cable operators are not in any hurry to follow Altice.

Comcast has expanded its fiber network closer to customers in the last few years, but sees no need to convert customers to FTTH service.

“I feel pretty strongly that the best path ahead is to leverage the existing coaxial network and DOCSIS resources to the fullest, then inch towards FTTH, over time Why? Because we can. We don’t have to build an entire network just to turn up one customer.”

The next generation of cable broadband service may depend on CCAP – technology that will cut operator costs and lay the foundation for changing the way video and other services are delivered to customers.

Cox has a 10-year Network 2.0 plan that will bring fiber closer to customers, but not directly to every home. More important to Cox is having the option to support symmetrical speeds, which means delivering upload speeds as fast as download speeds.

“We’re also thinking about the fiber investment and fiber deep as it relates to our wireless strategy, enabling some of our customers with a small cell strategy but also positioning ourselves to take advantage of that in the future, as well as thinking about fiber deep to benefit both residential and our commercial customers simultaneously,” said Kevin Hart, Cox’s executive vice president and chief product and technology officer.

Liberty/Virgin Media’s Project Lightning is bringing cable broadband and TV service to places in the UK that never had cable service before.

In Europe, Liberty Global’s “Project Lightning” network expansion initiative is building out traditional cable service in the United Kingdom. Most of the UK never adopted cable service, favoring small satellite dish service instead. Now Liberty Global is putting cable expansion on its priority list. But decades after most North Americans got cable service for the first time, today’s new buildouts are based largely on fiber optics — either fiber to the home or fiber to the neighborhood, where coaxial cable completes the journey to a customer’s home.

Charter admits the technology it will use in the future partly depends on what the competition is offering. Rolls says the company can eventually roll out DOCSIS 3.1, take fiber deeper, or offer symmetrical download/upload speeds presumably targeted towards its commercial customers. But he also suggested Charter’s existing network can continue to deliver acceptable levels of service without spending a lot on major upgrades.

“It’s a rational approach, where we’re trying to balance the needs, the available technologies, and the costs,” Rolls said. But he also suggested DOCSIS 3.1 isn’t always the answer to upgrades. “DOCSIS 3.1 has some pretty remarkable capabilities, but it’s not necessarily a hard-and-fast reason to not take fiber deeper, for instance [allowing for additional DOCSIS 3 node splits]. Different situations drive different capacity decisions.”

Walden agreed, and Mediacom customers should not expect more than DOCSIS 3.1 upgrades for the near future.

“[Fiber deep] is a bit further out, at least as a large-scale type of project,” Walden told Multichannel News. “I think fiber deep for multi-dwelling units, high-density areas and some planned higher end communities doing deeper fiber or fiber-to-the-home [is happening]. But as a wholesale [change] and going to node+0 kind of architecture, I don’t see that in the next two years.”

Are Symmetrical Speeds Important for Customers?

Verizon’s fiber to the home service FiOS uses symmetrical broadband speeds to its advantage in the marketplace.

Many fiber to the home networks offer customers identical upload and download speeds, but cable broadband was designed to favor downstream speeds over upstream. That decision was based on the premise the majority of users will receive much more traffic than they send. But as the internet evolves, some are wondering if cable broadband’s asymmetric design is now outdated and some competitors like Verizon’s FiOS fiber to the home service now use its symmetrical speed advantage as a selling point.

Cox Communications does not think most customers care, even though its network upgrades are laying the foundation to deliver symmetrical speeds.

“It’s a little but further out on the horizon,” said Hart. “The upstream growth rate is ticking up a couple of notches, but not to the tune that we would need significant additional capacity and/or a complementary need for symmetrical bandwidth. [A]t this stage, the symmetrical is a nice-to-have for residential and definitely will be a good option for our commercial customers.”

Rolls isn’t sure if symmetrical speeds are important to customers either and Charter has no specific plans to move towards upload speed upgrades.

“The world of applications and services continues to evolve, obviously, but so far we’ve been able to meet those needs with an asymmetrical topology,” Rolls said. “That said, things like real-time gaming, augmented and virtual reality, and the Internet of Things — some of those will likely drive more symmetry in the network. It remains to be seen.”

Germany Getting 400/20Mbps Unlimited Cable Broadband Starting at $40/Month

Phillip Dampier January 27, 2016 Broadband Speed, Competition, Consumer News, Liberty/UPC No Comments

unitymediaWhile Comcast, Cox, Suddenlink, and a handful of other cable companies play games with usage caps and expensive broadband, Germany is getting some massive broadband speed improvements with no data caps, speed throttling, or rate increases.

Unitymedia, owned by Liberty Global (related to Liberty Broadband, Charter’s largest single investor), is giving Germans a broadband upgrade you wish you had. Starting Feb. 1, 3.2 million cable homes in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia  will see their broadband speeds double to 400/20Mbps at prices starting at just $40 a month, which includes a flat-rate landline with unlimited free calls across the German landline network, and a free combination wireless/Wi-Fi router and cable modem.

200 germany

Unitymedia’s current offer is for 200/10Mbps. Starting Feb. 1, those speeds will double.

Unitymedia, which also serves customers in the German states of Hesse and Baden-Württemberg, will still be using DOCSIS 3.0 technology for the speed upgrade. DOCSIS 3.1 is expected to bring even faster speeds and better service beginning later in 2016. The company also offers subscribers access to more than 1,000 public Wi-Fi hotspots across all three states, helping give DSL service serious competition.

While U.S. cable operators have dragged their feet on upgrades while raising broadband prices, Unitymedia CEO Lutz Schüler said his company would make the necessary investments to drive network upgrades forward without delay. Schüler may not have much choice. Telephone company Internet providers have benefited from increased speeds of up to 100Mbps that come from deployment of vectoring technology, which can dramatically boost DSL speeds.

The investment also intends to send a message to the telecommunications marketplace that hybrid fiber-coaxial cable systems can deliver dramatically faster and affordable broadband speeds than they often do today, all without usage caps or usage billing.

John Malone Gets Puerto Rico Cable Monopoly: Liberty Global Takes Over Choice Cable

Phillip Dampier June 9, 2015 Competition, Consumer News, Liberty Cablevision (Puerto Rico), Liberty/UPC, Public Policy & Gov't Comments Off on John Malone Gets Puerto Rico Cable Monopoly: Liberty Global Takes Over Choice Cable

choice-300x169John Malone’s Liberty Global has bought out Puerto Rico’s second biggest cable television operator — Choice Cable TV — and will convert its customers to Liberty Cablevision of Puerto Rico.

Liberty joined Searchlight Capital Partners to close the $272.5 million purchase, which will make Liberty Puerto Rico’s largest cable company, passing more than one million homes and serving about 750,000 customers.

Liberty put $267.5 million of the purchase on its credit card, using debt borrowing from another Malone-controlled entity — Liberty Cablevision — to fund most of the deal. Liberty Global contributed just $10.2 million in equity and its partner Searchlight kicked in $6.8 million in equity.

The deal gives Malone’s company a total cable monopoly on the island. Choice Cable was the last standing cable operator not owned by Liberty, and served customers in western, southern, and central Puerto Rico. Choice itself consolidated several independent cable operators, including Cable TV Northwest (Aguadilla), Dom’s Cable TV (San Germán), Cablevision Mayaguez and TelePonce Cable TV. Now it has been consolidated itself.

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Choice Cable used to offer service in these Puerto Rican communities. Most of the rest of the island is served by Liberty Cablevision, which will now have a total cable monopoly across the unincorporated U.S. territory.

According to Liberty Global, the combined cable company will be expected to generate at least $390 million in annual revenue. If it doesn’t, rate increases could be on the way. Channel changes have already been introduced.

Liberty Puerto Rico added 18 new channels to the Choice Cable lineup at no extra cost. The Choice Pak package includes the new channels: AMC, AXS TV, beIN in Spanish and English, Cablevision, Disney Jr., Fox Sports 1, FX, Lifetime Real Women and PBS Kids. The Top Choice package will include: Crime & Investigation, DIY, Esquire, Fox Sports 2, History in Spanish, IFC, Military History and NBA TV.

But several other channels will be dropped: MTV, VH1 and Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, Spike, TV Land and Palladia HD. These Viacom-owned channels were discontinued last year by Liberty in a dispute over programming fees.

Liberty intends to offer up to 120/4Mbps Internet speeds, over 100 HD channels (352 channels total), and a “better balance of English and Spanish language networks” to current Choice customers.

American Broadband Ripoff: Compare Your Prices With Eight Competing Providers in Bratislava, Slovakia

bratislvaThe largest telecom companies in the United States, their trade associations, and Ajit Pai, one of two Republican commissioners serving at the Federal Communications Commission routinely claim America has the best broadband in the world. From the perspective of providers running to their respective banks to deposit your monthly payment, they might be right. But on virtually every other metric, the United States has some of the most expensive broadband in the world at speeds that would be a gouging embarrassment in other countries.

Slovakia – A Long, Tough History, But Better Broadband than the United States

Bratislava, the capital city of Slovakia, has existed since the year 907. From the 10th century until just after the end of World War 1, the city (then commonly known by its German name of Pressburg) was part of Hungary and the Austro-Hungarian empire. After the “War to End All Wars,” ethnic Czechs and Slovaks jointly formed a democratic Czechoslovak Republic in 1918 which existed peacefully until the Germans arrived in 1938 and renamed part of Czechoslovakia… Germany.

Unfortunately for the Czechs and Slovaks, life didn’t get much easier after the end of World War II. As Stalin sought to create a buffer zone between Germany (and western Europe) and the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, along with most of Eastern Europe, faded behind the Iron Curtain into the Soviet sphere of influence.

The city center of Bratislava

The city center of Bratislava

After decades of deterioration under autocratic rule, the Czechoslovak Velvet Revolution of 1989 restored multi-party democracy and Communism was was on its way to being fully extirpated across Europe.

By the time the June 1992 election results were announced, it was clear the country’s constituent Czechs and Slovaks had irreconcilable differences and were headed to national divorce court. On one side, the Czech-oriented Civic Democratic Party, headed by Václav Klaus. On the other, Vladimír Mečiar’s Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, whose aims were obvious based on its party name alone. With the writing on the wall, Klaus and Mečiar managed to work out an agreement on how to divide the country and on Jan. 1, 1993 the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic were born.

Since the separation, Slovakia has prospered, and is now recognized to have a high-income advanced economy with one of the fastest growth rates in both the European Union and the OECD. It joined the EU in 2004 and adopted the Euro as its currency in 2009. Slovakia had to bring its economy up to date after fifty years of Communism. The country had a functioning telecommunications infrastructure, albeit one highly dependent on dilapidated equipment produced in the German Democratic Republic (the former East Germany) and the Soviet Union.

After the Slovak Republic was born, Slovenské Telekomunikácie maintained a monopoly on Slovak telephone lines and telex circuits under the close watch of the Ministry of Transport, Posts and Telecommunications. It took until the year 2000 for economic reforms to allow for the privatization of telecommunications. As was the case in many other central and eastern European countries, Germany’s Deutsche Telekom (T-Mobile) won a majority ownership in the company, which is today still known as Slovak Telecom.

The Slovak Broadband Marketplace Today

Slovak-TelekomThe Slovak government insisted that telecommunications networks in the country be competitive and it maintains oversight to make sure monopolies do not develop. It rejected claims that total deregulation and competition alone would spur investment. Slovakia welcomes outside investment, but also makes certain monopoly pricing power cannot develop. As a result, most residents of Bratislava have a choice of up to eight different broadband providers — a mix of cable, telephone, wireless, and satellite providers that all fiercely compete in the consumer and business markets.

Many providers are foreign-owned entities. UPC, Slovakia’s cable operator, is owned by John Malone’s Liberty Global. Slovak Telecom is owned by Germany’s T-Mobile/Deutsche Telekom. Tooway is a French company.

300Prices are considerably lower than what American providers charge, although speeds remain somewhat lower than broadband services in Bulgaria, Romania, and the Baltic States. At one address on Kláštorská, a street of modest single family homes (some in disrepair), these companies were ready to install service:

  • RadioLAN offers 18/1.5Mbps unlimited wireless service for $21.85 a month;
  • UPC offers 300/20Mbps unlimited cable broadband for $30.63 a month;
  • Slovanet offers 10/1Mbps DSL with a 240GB usage cap for $18.56 a month;
  • Swan offers 10.2Mbps/512kbps unlimited DSL for $24.70 a month;
  • Slovak Telecom offers 10/1Mbps DSL with a 240GB usage cap for $21.96 a month;
  • Benestra offers 10/1Mbps DSL with a 4GB per day usage cap for $24.24 a month;
  • Satro offers 9Mbps/768kbps unlimited wireless service for $29.32 a month;
  • Tooway offers 22/6Mbps satellite Internet with a 25GB usage cap for $54.79 a month.

In other parts of the country, two providers are installing competing fiber broadband services. Slovak Telecom is slowly discarding its old copper wire infrastructure in favor of fiber optics, and is already providing 300Mbps service to some residents to better compete with UPC Cable. Some areas can get straight fiber service, others get VDSL, an advanced form of DSL offering higher speeds than traditional DSL. Orange, a provider not available in the immediate area of our sampled home, has already installed its own fiber service to over 100,000 fiber customers and is growing.

In comparison, Comcast sells 105Mbps service in Nashville, Tenn. for $114.95/mo (not including modem fee) with a 300GB monthly usage cap. That is one-third the speed of UPC Cable at nearly four times the cost… if you stay within your allowance. Prices only get higher after that.

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