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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.

CenturyLink Broadband in Former Qwest Country is a Mess: Slow Speeds, Customers Leaving

molassesOnly half of CenturyLink’s customers in well-populated areas formerly served by Qwest can buy broadband service at 40Mbps or higher, while rural customers fare considerably worse with less than 25% able to get High Speed Internet at those speeds.

Customers have noticed and at least 65,000 canceled their broadband service with the phone company in the second quarter of this year, most presumably switching to their area’s cable operator.

“CenturyLink is by far the most abysmal telephone company I’ve ever had to deal with and I’m 63 years old,” shares Glen Canby in Arizona. Canby is a retired telephone company engineer that spent 40 years with a larger phone company serving the midwestern U.S.  “Their reviews online echo my own experiences, which have ranged from being quoted one price while being billed another, being locked into a term contract you didn’t ask for, and getting only a fraction of the speed they claim to sell.”

Canby is counted as one of CenturyLink’s 40Mbps-qualified customers, yet he actually receives less than 6Mbps service.

But that isn’t what CenturyLink tells the Federal Communications Commission. In a semi-annual broadband deployment report, the company claimed 51 percent of their customers in urban and suburban former Qwest service areas can subscribe to 40Mbps DSL or higher. But whether a customer is “qualified” to buy 40Mbps service is not the same as actually getting the speeds the company markets.

CenturyLinkCenturyLink attempts to cover their claims with fine print attached to their FCC submission: “The numbers shown in this chart reflect the percentages of households served by DSLAMs that are capable of providing the specified broadband speeds.” (A DSLAM is a network device typically used to extend faster DSL speeds to customers by reducing the amount of copper wiring between the telephone company’s central office and the customer’s home. Customers in a neighborhood typically share space on a DSLAM, in effect sharing a single connection back to the phone company.)

“That’s clever of them, because of course the DSLAM is just one link in the chain that ends with the ‘last mile’ between that equipment and my home, and that is where CenturyLink’s phone plant is at its weakest,” Canby writes. “I spent 20 years at a phone company dealing with last-mile DSL speed issues, so they cannot fool me.”

Canby blames the condition of CenturyLink’s infrastructure between the DSLAM serving him and his home for the problems, as well as overselling DSL service by packing too many customers onto a single DSLAM.

“It might be 40Mbps service at the remote end, but it drops to around 6Mbps on a good day by the time it reaches my house,” Canby complains. “Once the sun goes down, the speed drops to 3Mbps, which is a classic case of overselling to me because too many people are trying to share one connection at the same time. It has been this way since 2008 according to my neighbors.”

Back then, phone service was provided by Qwest, the former Baby Bell providing service in 14 sparsely populated western U.S. states — Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. Qwest was acquired by CenturyLink in 2011.

centurylink report

CenturyLink has promised to improve broadband speeds for former Qwest customers, but much of what counts as progress has been in more urban areas, while rural customers continue to languish. The company admits just 21.9 percent of rural households can get 40Mbps service. Only 47.6% can buy 12Mbps, 61.3% can get 5Mbps, and 83% can subscribe to 1.5Mbps. That leaves 17% of former Qwest customers with no broadband options at all. CenturyLink did not break out the percentage of customers that meet the FCC’s 25Mbps minimum speed definition of broadband.

“This is why CenturyLink loses customers to cable operators who have no problems trying to deliver internet access over their network, because it was built to support more bandwidth,” Canby shares. “They can usually deliver the same internet speed to customers no matter how far out they live while phone companies deal with a network built for making phone calls, not data.”

Company officials recognize they could do better and have promised investors another 2.5 million customers will be able to reach 40Mbps by the end of 2017. By the end of the year after that, CenturyLink hopes to reach 85% of customers with VDSL2, bonding, and vectoring technology to achieve 40Mbps service for most customers in their top 25 markets. But rural customers are likely to left waiting longer because of the costs to upgrade Qwest’s copper-based network, especially in smaller states like Idaho, the Dakotas and Wyoming.

“The only answer is cable or fiber broadband, and if you live in a small community it could be years before CenturyLink gets around to you,” Canby writes. “If it’s the same story all over town, I’d start advocating for a community-owned fiber network and not sit around and wait for CenturyLink to act, especially if there is no cable company in town.”

America’s Worst Rated Companies: Charter, Time Warner, Cox, Cablevision, Verizon, Comcast…

charter downNine of the ten lowest ranked firms in America are cable and telephone companies, according to a new report from research firm Temkin Group.

A poll ranking customer service at 235 U.S. companies across 19 industries found cable companies dead last, quickly followed by Internet Service Providers (often those same cable operators).

Participants were asked to rate their satisfaction with different companies on a scale of “1” (very dissatisfied) to “7” (completely satisfied). Not very many participants gave high marks to their telecommunications service provider. Temkin’s resulting net satisfaction score found familiar names in the cable and telephone business scraping the bottom.

America’s worst provider? Charter Communications, which managed an embarrassing dead last 22 percent satisfaction score for television service. Time Warner Cable managed second worst for television at 25%, followed by Cox and Cablevision’s Optimum service (both 28%). Bottom rated Internet service came from Qwest (now CenturyLink), Verizon (presumably DSL), and Charter — all scoring just 31%.

Oddly, Temkin’s survey participants gave top marks to the long-irrelevant AOL for Internet service, which may mean those dial-up customers don’t know any better. Highest marks in television service went to Bright House Communications, which ironically depends on Time Warner Cable for most of its programming negotiations.

temkin bottom rated

Most suspect the ratings show long-term customer dissatisfaction with endless rate increases, poor customer service and reliability, and lack of choice in an increasingly expensive television lineup.

The Temkin Group gathered its data from an online survey of 10,000 consumers in the U.S. during January 2013, all asked to rate their experiences with companies over the past 60 days.

History Lesson: Qwest v. The City of Boulder – Helpful to Municipal Broadband Cause?

Phillip Dampier July 16, 2013 Astroturf, Community Networks, Competition, Editorial & Site News, History, Public Policy & Gov't, Qwest Comments Off on History Lesson: Qwest v. The City of Boulder – Helpful to Municipal Broadband Cause?
Phillip "It worked for Qwest so why not community broadband" Dampier

Phillip “It worked for Qwest so why not community broadband” Dampier

While doing research on another story, I recently uncovered a fascinating legal case that set an important precedent on whether it is right for a community to hold a referendum before authorizing a new telecommunications provider to offer service in a community.

Opponents of community-owned broadband networks routinely claim such services are “undemocratic” because they can exist without the majority support of the community they propose to serve. In 2001, Qwest (now CenturyLink) ran into just such a “majority-rules” provision in Boulder, Colo. that companies like AT&T and Time Warner Cable advocate should be a law everywhere.

A provision in Boulder’s Charter required that voters in a municipal election approve any cable franchise before it was granted by the city. Wishing to avoid the cost of such an election, Qwest sued the City of Boulder and asked for summary judgment to declare the policy unlawful. Chief Judge Lewis Babcock found Qwest’s argument compelling enough to invalidate the city’s mandatory referendum provision.

Qwest argues that the language in [U.S. Federal Law] 47 U.S.C. § 541 regulating franchising authorities is in direct conflict with [Boulder’s] § 108’s mandatory election provision. I agree.

First, the Act provides guidance to, and restrictions on, “franchising authorities.” Section 541’s requirements are directed toward franchising authorities. See 47 U.S.C. § 541(a)(1), (3), (4). Under the statute, a “franchise” is “an initial authorization, or renewal thereof,” issued by a franchising authority to construct or operate a cable system. 47 U.S.C. § 522(9). A “`franchising authority’ means any governmental entity empowered by Federal, State, or local law to grant a franchise.” 47 U.S.C. § 522(10) (emphasis added).

Here, Qwest approached City officials to seek franchise approval. The City granted a revocable permit to Qwest, and agreed to “grant a cable television franchise authorizing [Qwest] to provide cable television service within the City for a term of years” once an affirmative vote by the qualified taxpaying voters occurred. There is no evidence that the City negotiated the franchise in any manner, or put any additional restrictions or caveats on the franchise beyond voter approval. City officials follow the will of the voters with no additional scrutiny or decision-making. Thus, the City has abdicated franchising authority to the City’s voting citizens. These voters cannot, by the plain terms of the statute, be a “governmental entity empowered by Federal, State, or local law to grant a franchise.” 47 U.S.C. § 522(10). Therefore, direct conflict between the federal and local laws exist, as it is impossible for the franchise to be granted by a governmental entity as required by the Act, and simultaneously granted by the voters as required in § 108.

Second, § 541 imposes numerous and specific requirements on franchising authorities. The statute forbids exclusive franchises, see § 541(a)(1); unreasonable refusals to award additional competitive franchises, see id. at (a)(1); requirements that have the purpose or effect of prohibiting, limiting, restricting, or conditioning the provision of a telecommunications service by a cable operator, see id. at (b)(3)(B); ordering a cable operator or affiliate thereof to discontinue the provision of a telecommunications service, discontinuing the operation of a cable system by reason of the failure of a cable operator to obtain a franchise or franchise renewal, see id. at (b)(3)(C)(i)-(ii); or requiring a cable operator to provide any telecommunications service or facilities as a condition of the initial grant of a franchise. See Id. at (b)(3)(D).

A franchising authority has affirmative requirements as well. It must assure that access to cable service is not denied to any group of potential residential cable subscribers because of the income of the residents of the local area in which such group resides, see id. at (a)(3); and allow the applicant’s cable system a reasonable period of time to become capable of providing cable service to all households in the franchise area, see id. at (a)(4)(A).

However, by allowing voters unfettered and unreviewed discretion to grant or reject a franchise, § 108 is in conflict with virtually every provision in § 541. Because only WOWC has received a franchise, voters could effectively grant WOWC an exclusive franchise simply by refusing to vote affirmatively for a second operator. See id. at (a)(1). Voters could unreasonably refuse to award an additional competitive franchise, as they could deny a franchise for any reason or for no reason. See id. Qwest correctly argues that § 108 “provides voters with the unfettered and unreviewable discretion either to grant or deny a cable television franchise for any reason, or for no reason at all.”

Qwest (now CenturyLink), is Idaho's largest Internet Service Provider.In brief, the judge found cable franchises are granted or denied at the municipal level by local government, not through referendums. The City of Boulder was effectively abdicating its responsibility under federal law to manage the franchising process itself. There is no provision in federal law that allows citizens to directly vote a cable franchise agreement up or down, although voters can use the ballot box to remove local officials who do not represent the will of the majority.

More importantly, the judge recognized that turning the process over to local citizenry could unintentionally hand an incumbent provider a monopoly just by voting down any would-be competitor. Why would local citizens oppose competition? As we’ve seen in the fight for community broadband, incumbent providers will spend millions to keep would-be competitors out with a variety of scare tactics and propaganda. Providers have suggested community networks are guaranteed financial failures, will result in yards being torn up to install service, might result in local job losses, and will raise taxes whether residents want the service or not.

Judge Babcock also found that laws that could limit effective competition to incumbent cable companies are in direct conflict with the 1992 federal Cable Act:

The legislative history clearly supports the proposition that Congress was focused on fostering competition when passing the 1992 Act. The Senate Report regarding the Act states, “[I]t is clear that there are benefits from competition between two cable systems. Thus, the Committee believes that local franchising authorities should be encouraged to award second franchises.”

[…] Given the clear intent of Congress to employ § 541 as a vehicle for promoting vigorous competition, I conclude that § 108 is in conflict. Section 108 serves only to provide a significant hindrance to the competition that Congress clearly intended to foster. It forces the potential franchiser to spend money, time, advertising, and logistical support on an election. Thus, § 108 “stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress.”

Perhaps the time has come to raise similar challenges in states where legislatures have passed community broadband bans or placed various impediments on providing service. If Qwest can successfully argue that such rules are designed to limit competition, local communities can certainly argue the panoply of anti-competition laws that were written by and for incumbent cable and phone companies deserve the same scrutiny.

Referendums are an inappropriate way to approve the entry of new competitors.

Why Google Chose Provo as the Next Google Fiber City

google fiberTo many, Provo, Utah might seem an unusual choice to follow on the heels of Google’s earlier announcement its gigabit fiber network was headed to Austin, Tex.

Provo is only the third largest community in Utah — Salt Lake City and West Valley City are bigger — and the community already has a fiber network called iProvo. So why build another one?

Google won’t have to.

But first some background:

iProvo was envisioned a decade ago as a public-private partnership — a fiber to the home network owned by the public with private service providers using it to sell broadband and other services . iProvo taught an early lesson about municipal broadband — large cable and phone companies routinely boycott participation in any network they do not own and control themselves.

In 2003, the president of Qwest’s Utah division made clear their intentions: “Fiber optic’s capabilities are way more than what most consumers need in their homes. Why provide a Rolls Royce when a Chevrolet will do?”

Comcast, the dominant local cable operator, also “went ballistic” according to former mayor Lewis Billings.

iProvo can be yours for just $1.

iProvo can be yours for just $1.

“One hired a PR firm and a telemarketing company to make calls to citizens,” Billings recalled. “They also placed full-page ads and ultimately hired people to picket City Hall. It was a bruising fight.  My favorite picket sign had a piece of telephone wire taped to it and read that I and one of my key staff members were, ‘a Twisted Pair.’”

With both Qwest and Comcast wanting nothing to do with the project, smaller independent ISPs had to fill the gap. It was a difficult sell, particularly because Qwest and Comcast blanketed Provo residents with a misinformation campaign about the network and pitched highly aggressive retention offers to keep customers with the phone and cable company. iProvo has been in financial distress ever since.

Former Provo city councilwoman Cynthia Dayton remembers being on the council when iProvo was approved and believes the public-private network was a decade before its time.

“Ten years ago it was worth the vote on iProvo,” she told the Daily Herald. It was one of the most difficult decisions but it was for the future.”

More than a year ago, Google noticed the city of Provo issued a request for proposals on what to ultimately do with iProvo.

Google became interested because Provo is seen as a city with hundreds of technology start-up companies and maintains a vibrant tech hub. The city also ranked highly for the enormous value it places on connectivity and community — something the approval and construction of iProvo demonstrated.

Why Provo? Google considers the city’s rankings. (1 minute)

iprovo_logo.jpg.pagespeed.ce.grIF_VVvuACity officials and Google executives began quietly talking more than a year ago about Google buying the public-private network. A key selling point: the city was willing to let the operation go for a steal — just $1.00. In return, Google promised to invest in and upgrade the network to reach the two-thirds of Provo homes it does not reach. Google says iProvo will need technology upgrades in the office, but the existing fiber strands already running throughout the city are service-ready today.

Val Hale, President of the Utah Valley Chamber of Commerce, said a quick “back of the envelope” estimate put Google’s anticipated investment in iProvo network upgrades at $18 million, according to the Deseret News. Unfortunately, taxpayers will still need to pay off about $40 million in bonds the city accumulated for iProvo’s initial construction costs.

Curtis

Curtis

Current Mayor John Curtis says he has made the best out of a difficult situation.

“We have maximized what we have here today,” said Curtis. “It’s about maximizing what we have. I believe in the long-term it will pay dividends many times greater than what we paid into it, but it’s going to take a while to realize that dream.”

Google promised free gigabit Internet service to 25 local public institutions including schools, hospitals, and libraries. Residential customers will be expected to pay $70 a month for 1,000Mbps service or get 5Mbps broadband service for free up to seven years.

Google’s investment in Provo is anticipated to be far lower than in Austin and Kansas City — cities where it needs to build a considerable amount of fiber infrastructure from scratch. With existing fiber already in place in Provo, Google’s gigabit service will be available by the end of this year, at least six months faster than in Austin.

With reduced construction costs, Google will only ask new customers for a $30 activation fee, far less than the $300 Google will ask Austin and Kansas City residents to pay if they do not sign a multi-year service contract or only want basic 5Mbps service.

Google sees the opportunity to use its fiber network in an ongoing effort to embarrass other broadband providers into investing in speed upgrades.

KSL in Salt Lake City reports Google Fiber is coming to Provo. Last year Google began talking with the city to acquire its iProvo municipal fiber network.  (3 minutes)

KSTU in Salt Lake City reports taxpayers are still on the hook for around $40 million in bond payments to cover the construction costs of iProvo. But Google Fiber will stop other Internet providers from “cheating everyone” says one local Provo resident.  “[Other ISPs] give you the slowest connection possible and charge you a ridiculous amount for it,” said Haley Cano. (4 minutes)

KTVX in Salt Lake had some trouble navigating the difference between a gigabit and a gigabyte, and confused what Google services will be sold and which will be available for free in this report, but the ABC affiliate covered the unveiling with both city and Google company officials on hand.  (2 minutes)

This morning, KTVX did a better job in this interview with the mayor of Provo and Google’s Matt Dunne, who says Google believes speed matters and current ISPs simply don’t offer enough.  A key factor to attract Google’s interest is a close working relationship with the cities that want the service. (2 minutes)

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