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Thurman, N.Y.’s Rural ‘White Space’ Wireless Network Debuts; Speed, Capacity Blows DSL and Satellite Away

The national map of available white space channels show plenty are available in rural areas, but designing an urban network might prove challenging because open channels just don't exist.

The national map of available white space channels show plenty are available in rural areas, but designing an urban network might prove challenging because open channels often just don’t exist. In a medium-sized city like Rochester, only 11 UHF channels are available, a number likely to dwindle to close to zero if the FCC successfully reallocates much of the UHF band to wireless providers like AT&T and Verizon.

A dozen homes in the middle of the Adirondacks now have access to Internet speeds far faster than what Verizon and Frontier DSL can deliver and without the usage caps or speed throttling common with satellite Internet access.

Thurman, N.Y.’s public-private “white space” wireless network survived months of political wrangling, debate, and even intentional signal interference created by someone intent on disrupting the project. For a community that some maps depict with zero residents, the 1,200 people of Thurman are now more known than ever, winning national attention for one of the first next generation rural wireless networks to use unused space on the UHF dial to provide Internet access.

A dozen homes are the first to receive the service, with nearly 80 more on the way during phase one of the project. A $200,000 New York state broadband grant helped get the project off the ground and defray the cost of equipment installed in each subscriber’s home. But the initial cost isn’t cheap, even with the grant. New customers pay an upfront equipment fee of $292 for a receiver that costs the project up to $600. The monthly service charge is $50. Despite the price, it’s worth it to a lot of subscribers.

“The white space service is truly amazing,” said John Schroeter of Kenyontown, noting he uses the Internet for genealogical research and relied on dial-up access for the last 15 years. “I can go from one web page to another without waiting forever.”

Schroeter told Denton Publications that web pages often failed to load with dial-up, even after hours of waiting. Now he can manage to complete days of research in about an hour, without having to drive 15 miles to the nearest Wi-Fi hotspot.

Despite the fact Verizon and Frontier Communications both run their own fiber cables on the same utility poles in the region, at least 75% of the 400 homes in Thurman have no access to broadband Internet, living out of reach of even basic DSL. Many end up in the parking lot of the town hall to use Wi-Fi. Others depend on prohibitively expensive satellite access. None of the existing options were ideal. Sheila Flanagan, proprietor of Nettle Meadow Farm complained it took her hours to prepare even a small number of shipping labels to send her cheese products across the country with UPS. Speeds were so slow, she was forced to drop Williams-Sonoma as a client.

thurmanThe concept of white space wireless Internet access has already taken hold in Europe but has dragged in the United States as existing UHF television stations, wireless carriers, wireless microphone manufacturers and others who use the same frequencies white space data services also depend on defend their turf. Since white space services are unlicensed and intended for two-way communications, fears that Internet users would degrade wireless microphones or TV reception meant special care had to be taken to lower the potential for interference.

Since rural areas lack a crowded television dial, are often outside of the coverage areas of wireless carriers, and are unlikely to host many wireless mics, white space broadband would seem like the natural solution.

The project in Thurman faced a number of obstacles to overcome anyway. There were philosophical objections from tea party conservatives who objected to tax dollars paying for the “luxury” of Internet access when satellite service is available. Some residents wanted a fiber to the home solution, one that was likely financially out of reach for the small community. Still others wanted the money spent on a fiber link between the town and Time Warner Cable, that might then be enticed to wire homes in the rural community. In the end, the community decided to go ahead with an advanced wireless network, citing a number of factors familiar to many living in rural areas:

  1. thurman-nySince the town is located entirely within the Adirondack Park, there are prohibitions on placing communications towers on nearby peaks or other high spots that could spoil the view;
  2. The heavily forested and mountainous area made a traditional Wireless ISP project difficult because those networks need line of sight communications. White space wireless signals easily penetrate through trees and can stay intact across hilly terrain;
  3. Although not as bandwidth capable as fiber optics, white space networks are capable of delivering 10Mbps broadband per UHF channel. Most networks bond multiple UHF channels together to support even faster speeds and expand capacity;
  4. The chances of creating interference for other spectrum users was low in Thurman, which is a four-hour drive from New York and far enough north of Albany to avoid interfering with signals from the state capital. Even wireless carriers hug their cell towers along I-87, a respectable distance away;
  5. The network has redundant backhaul access to fiber from both Verizon and Frontier, neither of which show the slightest interest in expanding services into the community on their own;
  6. The grant was limited in scope and white space broadband qualified so it proved the most economical choice for a community that was no stranger to fights over money, engaging in political battles over issues like the cost of building a salt shed and auditing the on-hand count of trash bags.
The Thurman white space broadband project hides base station antennas in the tree canopy.

The Thurman white space broadband project hides base station antennas in the tree canopy.

Tests provided the project managers with an idea where to place needed wireless antennas, often hidden within tree canopies. But at least one disgruntled resident made a point of creating intentional interference on the channels the project managers were testing, committing a federal offense along the way. That was quickly overcome and the equipment has been placed and will soon be joined by installations in nearby neighborhoods, broadening the reach of the service.

Recent advancements in white space technology have also allowed speed and capacity to improve dramatically. Equipment now transmits its exact GPS-identified location to a national database which sends back an authorized list of “white space” channels each transmitter can use to provide the service. If a new licensed broadcaster takes to the airwaves, a database update will lock out that channel in the area, preventing interference.

Although exact speed data was not available at press time, Sally Feihel demonstrated she could successfully stream an episode of a classic Andy Griffith Show on her iPod at the same time a videoconference was underway and someone else was downloading a movie, all without skipping a beat. In fact, there is so much speed and capacity built into the system, its managers say speed throttles and usage caps are completely unnecessary.

Most users agreed the wireless network far outpaced satellite and DSL and some believed it was even faster than Time Warner Cable Internet access they experienced elsewhere. (Time Warner Cable doesn’t come near the community today.)

Constructing the network only took several months, but the politics that often surrounds public-private initiatives and the need for grant funding in income-challenged rural America can tie up projects much longer than that. The need for decent and affordable Internet access often will cross party lines, especially in rural communities.

New York’s state broadband expansion fund could help expand similar projects to other bypassed areas of the state. That investment may actually save taxpayers from paying high broadband bills indefinitely.

Residents are eagerly waiting for the next expansion to begin down Valley, Garnet Lake and Glen-Athol Roads. Moving beyond that may take more grant funding.

“White space is saving us $90 per month, and it’s far faster than satellite ever was,” another resident said.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/MetroFocus A New way to Bring Broadband to Rural Towns in Upstate New York 2014.mp4

MetroFocus showed the initial planning and testing phases of Thurman’s new white space wireless network, including interviews with town officials and a tour of the community. (4:23)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Dynamic Spectrum in Action How TV White Space Devices Work.mp4

TV white space wireless broadband networks are designed to avoid interference with other licensed spectrum users. See how the technology works in this short video. (2:27)

CRTC Orders Northwestel to Cut Rates for DSL Service in the Northern Territories by 10-30%

northwestelMore than three years after Canadian regulators required Bell Canada’s northern subsidiary, Northwestel, to undertake a $233 million modernization and upgrade plan, the CRTC has ruled the company is overcharging consumers for Internet access and has ordered rate cuts.

Customers in Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and Yukon pay some of the highest prices in the world for DSL Internet access, more than three times higher than what comparable broadband costs in southern Canada. The CRTC has found those prices unjustifiable, especially after its 2011 finding that Northwestel enjoyed strong financial performance while chronically underinvesting in its network.

The CRTC decision requires the company to cut prices for its DSL Internet 5 (5Mbps/512kbps) and DSL Internet 16 (16Mbps/768kbps) in N.W.T. and Yukon by 30% this May. Northwestel’s budget plans DSL Internet Lite (768/128kbps) and DSL Internet 2 (2.5Mbps/384kbps) will be reduced in price by 10 percent.

Customers of Northwestel’s most popular DSL plans pay between $65-90 a month for 2.5 or 5Mbps service with usage caps of 40 and 125GB per month, respectively.

Customers will also no longer face a $20/month broadband-only surcharge if they don’t want landline service and Northwestel’s overlimit fee, now $2-3/GB in the Northwest Territories, will be cut by at least $0.50/GB.

“Although we recognize the exceptional situation that exists in Northwestel’s territory, we must not let these challenges hinder the development and affordability of telecommunications services in the North,” said Jean-Pierre Blais, the CRTC’s chairman, in a March 4 release. “Access to reasonably priced Internet services plays an essential role in the North’s economic and social development. With this decision, we are reducing the gap between what consumers pay for Internet services in the northern and southern parts of Canada.”

Because of the company’s past pricing practices, Northwestel will not be permitted to increase residential Internet rates until the end of 2017 at the earliest, and will need CRTC approval for any other rate increases.

northwestel-operating-map

Northwestel’s operating service area includes the Yukon, Northwest Territories, northern British Columbia and Nunavut.

 

Residents in the northwestern and north-central regions of Canada have complained for years about poor service and high prices charged by Northwestel for Internet access.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CBC North Northwestel gets slammed in Whitehorse 6-20-13.flv

Back in the summer of 2013, Northwestel was the subject of a CRTC public hearing that got heated after customers and competitors complained the company had a de facto monopoly. (2:53)

At a 2013 hearing, Blais heard from a number of angry residents upset about Northwestel’s performance.

“I know you are frustrated; we heard it from the interveners, but we’ve pushed things considerably,” Blais said at the time.

kfn logo“The DSL package that I pay for out at Lake Lebarge is absolutely ridiculous in comparison to high-speed in town,” said Jeremy Jones. “[Northwestel charges] $90 for [5Mbps DSL with a usage cap of] 125GB. The only way to increase it would be to put in another phone line and second modem and that would have ended up being another $100+ per month. We’ve decided it is cheaper just to go over it if we need to.”

Customers are also frustrated by the fact the company receives over $20 million annually in federal subsidies, but those benefiting the most from Northwestel’s finances are its shareholders.

Native communities in isolated areas of northern Canada have learned it is better to build their own networks than wait for promises from Northwestel to be fulfilled.

The K’atl’Odeeche First Nation built its own fiber network on its reserve in Hay River, N.W.T. after Northwestel reneged on an agreement to improve existing DSL service. Today, the native community gets better Internet access than the rest of Hay River, and the community is willing to share their enhanced Internet connectivity with Northwestel for the benefit of others nearby if the company would agree to connect to it.

“We saved them millions of dollars in infrastructure upgrades and I think it’s only fair that they lease a small portion of that infrastructure for them to meet their CRTC mandate,” said Lyle Fabian, the IT manager for the First Nation.

Fabian believes other First Nations should strive for broadband self-sufficiency by also building their own networks to take control of their digital future. In almost every case, Fabian said, those networks will deliver better service than what is on offer from Northwestel.

While the CRTC-ordered rate cuts will help customers in the Yukon and Northwest Territories almost immediately, Internet access in satellite-based Nunavut will continue to be exorbitantly expensive until the CRTC completes a review of those rates. Nunavut residents pay $179.95 a month for 5Mbps/512kbps service with a 30GB usage cap.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/First Mile -- First Mile Community Stories Tour Katlodeeche First Nation Community Network 5-23-12.mp4

Henry Tambour from K’atl’odeeche First Nation in the Northwest Territories of Canada gives a 2012 tour of the first phase of the locally owned and operated fiber network. The community of 300 elected to take control of their broadband future back from Northwestel. (4:12)

CNBC (Comcast)’s Magic Box of Tricks and Traps: The Hit on Tumblr Founder David Karp Debunked

Uh oh... deer in headlights moment for Tumblr founder David Karp.

Uh oh… deer in headlights moment for Tumblr founder David Karp.

Net Neutrality opponents today made hay about an underwhelming, sometimes stumbling debate performance by Tumblr founder David Karp, who was inexplicably CNBC’s go-to-guy to explain the inner machinations of the multi-billion dollar high-speed Internet connectivity business.

TechFreedom, an industry-funded libertarian-leaning group spent much of the day hounding Karp about his “painful, babbling CNBC interview.”

“Those pushing #TitleII have NO FREAKING CLUE what it means,” tweeted TechFreedom’s Berin Szoka.

BTIG Research devoted a whole page to the eight minute performance, where Karp faced interrogation by two CNBC hosts openly hostile to Net Neutrality and another that expressed profound concern the Obama Administration would over-enforce Net Neutrality under Title II regulations. CNBC is owned by Comcast, a fierce opponent of mandatory Net Neutrality.

“Given the importance of Net Neutrality and the central role played by Tumblr’s Karp in getting us to this point, we thought it was very important for everyone to watch his interview earlier today on CNBC in its entirety,” wrote Rich Greenfield, noting the “best parts” (where Karp appeared like a deer frozen by oncoming headlights) were encapsulated into an extra video clip.

Greenfield referred to a Wall Street Journal piece in February that suggested access means everything when it comes to D.C. politics:

“In a lucky coincidence, Tumblr Chief Executive David Karp, who attended the meeting in New York, found himself seated next to Mr. Obama at a fundraiser the following day hosted by investment manager Deven Parekh.

Mr. Karp told Mr. Obama about his concerns with the net-neutrality plan backed by Mr. Wheeler, according to people familiar with the conversation. Those objections were relayed to the White House aides secretly working on an alternative.”

That was sufficient for some to imply Karp was a powerful influence over the president’s sudden pronouncement last November that strong, all-encompassing Net Neutrality was the was to go.

CNBC’s hosts grilled Karp, asking him to prove a negative, set up false premises for Karp to defend, and repeatedly cut his answers off. At the same time, Karp was clearly unprepared and often did not have his facts in order.

Stop the Cap! sorts it all out.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CNBC Tumblr Net Neutrality 2-24-15.flv

Nobody’s shining moment on the Net Neutrality debate on CNBC featuring an unprepared David Karp, founder of Tumblr vs. the B-team at CNBC – lackeys with an agenda who can’t wait to interrupt. Truth comes in last place. (8:18)

CNBC Claim: “If you talk to AT&T’s Randall Stephenson, he will say right now they have more capital expenditures than any company in America … and if you turn it into a utility it will not be profitable to continue investing like that.”

Fact: AT&T does invest heavily in its network but also enjoys very healthy returns on that investment. In 2014, AT&T was expected to end the year spending about $21 billion, primarily on its highly profitable wireless network. Last week, USA Today published a list of the top 12 companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 that boosted capital spending by 40% or more in the past 12 months and spent at least 15% of revenue on capital expenditures. AT&T was not on it. Outside of claims from telecom companies and their lobbyists, there are no plans by the FCC to turn broadband into a regulated utility.

Karp Claim: “There is a tremendous amount of throttling going on right now.”

CNBC Question from Alternate Universe of Fair, Balanced Journalism:

CNBC Question from Alternate Universe of Fair, Balanced Journalism: “In general, do you think heavy-handed government regulation is a good thing or a bad thing for an industry?”

Fact: “Throttling” is not well-defined here. There is intentional throttling among certain wireless companies, usually under the guise of “fair access policies” and usage caps, and there is throttling as a side effect of congestion in two areas: backbone connectivity among certain ISPs and wholesale traffic handlers and last mile congestion among providers, especially those offering DSL in rural areas, where multiple customers share access to a limited capacity middle mile network. There is no evidence that any significant wired providers are intentionally throttling the speeds of services except as part of a fair access policy or a purposeful lack of investment in network upgrades.

CNBC Claim: “You have a monopoly because it is really expensive to build the pipes so you have not had multiple people who will build pipes to the door.”

Fact: The capital cost required to offer wired broadband service to each home is a clear deterrent for many providers, but not an insurmountable one as Google and community-owned providers have demonstrated. The cable industry won early protection from competition in exclusive franchise agreements that calmed investor fears that the enormous cost of wiring communities for cable might not be repaid if a competition war broke out. AT&T later fought for and won statewide franchising agreements and considerable deregulation in many states where it provides U-verse, arguing regulatory burden reduction would enhance competition. But the same large cable and phone companies that achieved deregulation for themselves have lobbied heavily to regulate and banish community-owned providers from getting off the ground by encouraging the passage of restrictive state laws making such competition nearly impossible.

CNBC Question: “In general, do you think heavy-handed government regulation is a good thing or a bad thing for an industry?”

Our reply: Really?

Karp: I think a bright line rule that sort of spells out these foundational principles that we believe in… I think the Bill of Rights is a good thing… even without getting into the weeds, spelling out something like the First Amendment that says this is a truth that we believe… (cut off).

CNBC: I don’t see how that is an answer at all comparing this to the Bill of… I understand the Bill of Rights but… has there been a problem up to this point where you feel that people… that Net Neutrality has been violated.

Karp: We’ve had instances where companies like Comcast have tried to block whole protocols and shut off consumers access to new innovative parts of the Internet.

Traffic congestion problems on many major ISPs were limited to Netflix traffic, until Netflix began paying for peering connections with problem ISPs.

Traffic congestion problems on many major ISPs were limited to Netflix traffic, until Netflix began paying for peering connections with problem ISPs.

Fact: In 2007, Comcast installed new software or equipment on its networks that began selectively interfering with some of Comcast’s customers’ TCP/IP connections. The most widely discussed interference was with certain BitTorrent peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing communications, but other protocols were also affected. The case led to an effort by the FCC to introduce open Internet traffic rules in 2010 which Comcast later defeated in court. At no time did Comcast completely block access – it simply impeded it, reducing customer speeds only while using those services.

A CNBC host then challenged Karp to prove a negative on AT&T’s plans to pull back investment in its network expansion.

“How has it been disproven that he’s not actually going to pull in on his buildout of more infrastructure?”

Fact: On Nov 7, 2014 – a week before President Obama unveiled his support for strong Net Neutrality policies – AT&T announced at least $3 billion in capex reduction (or “pull in” to quote CNBC) for 2015 in a press release on its acquisition of Mexico Wireless Provider Iusacell:

AT&T’s VIP-related capital investment levels will peak in 2014, as the company has said previously. As a result, AT&T expects its 2015 capital expenditure budget for its existing businesses to be in the $18 billion range. This will bring the company’s capital spending as a percent of total revenues to the mid-teens level — consistent with its historical capital spending levels.

Even after AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson was announcing cutbacks in capex, his office was releasing press releases claiming a major expansion of AT&T’s gigabit fiber upgrades for U-verse, claims Stop the Cap! have found to be grossly exaggerated.

Stephenson made the mistake of putting the cart in front of the broadband horse, making it impossible to credibly claim he was reducing his capex budget because of a Net Neutrality policy that had not even been announced yet.

CNBC Claim: “It doesn’t mean someone will pay for it if they are losing money as a result.”

Fact: None of the providers mentioned by CNBC have lost any money provisioning broadband service. In fact, broadband is becoming the new profit center of the industry, netting higher revenue after adjustments for cost than any other part of the cable package.

Another exchange:

CNBC: “If you look at Netflix traffic, sometimes it is 80 percent of the network’s nighttime load.”

Karp: “The consumers are paying for it and Netflix is already paying for it.”

CNBC: “I am not a Netflix user and it ticks me off I have to subsidize everybody that is doing that. Why do I have to pay for that?”

Fact: The CNBC host is being disingenuous and inaccurate. Although Netflix traffic can constitute 80% of the evening traffic load, the customers accessing Netflix paid both Netflix and their ISP for that traffic. Whether or not the CNBC host uses Netflix or not is irrelevant. Assuming she is a Comcast or Time Warner Cable customer, last mile congestion that could impact her enjoyment of the Internet was never an issue under DOCSIS 2, has been rendered a non-issue under the current DOCSIS 3 standard, and will remain a non issue going forward.

The traffic dispute between Comcast and Netflix only affected Netflix viewing. The CNBC host need not subsidize Netflix or anyone else. Netflix offers free peering services and equipment to any ISP that wants it. Comcast refused to take part, demanding financial compensation instead. It then raised rates on customers anyway. Her beef is with Comcast, not Netflix.

CenturyLink Threatens to Pull Plug on Idaho Schools Broadband Network, Cutting Off High Schools Statewide

Broadband... by Boss Hogg.

Broadband… by Boss Hogg.

CenturyLink has given the state of Idaho until Sunday to come up with as much as $4.2 million or it will cut off Internet access to more than 200 Idaho public high schools, potentially leaving some without Internet access for the rest of the school year.

State officials in Boise warned school officials they are on their own if the statewide Idaho Education Network (IEN) goes dark on Sunday, leaving administrators scrambling for alternative Internet Service Providers in a state dominated by CenturyLink.

Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill told nearly 200 Idaho public school trustees Monday that the state’s broadband project will go dark Feb. 22. Districts will need to carry out their own emergency plan immediately if they want broadband access for the rest of the school year.

“This is terrible. We apologize,” said Senate president pro tem Brent Hill, speaking to nearly 200 public school trustees on Monday.

“You need to have a plan in case Internet is shut off on Sunday,” added Will Goodman, technology chief for the state Department of Education. “You need to be prepared if that plan goes into place for the rest of the school year.”

Syringa Networks sued Idaho in late 2009, arguing the state illegally blocked it from the $60 million broadband contract to favor the politically connected Education Networks of America and CenturyLink. Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s administration made certain the request for bids was tailored towards the ultimate winners — close friends of Otter and Idaho’s political class. The cronyism did not extend into the courtroom, however, and after several years of legal back and forth, a judge affirmed what many suspected: the contract was illegal and declared void.

followthemoneyState law prohibits using taxpayer dollars to pay for illegal contracts, and CenturyLink has kept the network running without payment in hopes their friends in the state legislature will bail IEN out. But after months of inaction, CenturyLink announced that without immediate payment, it will cut off the network this weekend.

The prospect of hundreds of high schools losing all Internet connectivity led to seething editorials in some state newspapers.

“Students were faux poster-children on what turned out to be just another example of putting the well-connected on the public dole, while simultaneously lauding the result,” wrote the editors of the Twin Falls Times-Union. “Contracting is broken in Idaho. Corruption is too easily accepted as day-to-day business.”

The newspaper advocates writing off IEN and starting over by giving control of broadband connectivity back to local communities across Idaho, where corruption does not predominate:

The IEN is a pile of rubble. It can’t be salvaged. Only a total rebuild will suffice.

Tell the districts that rely on IEN to go find a provider. Take that $4 million sitting in the bank, targeted for the providers, and start a reimbursement fund for schools. Let local officials run it. The courts will figure out what the providers are owed for the past service. Idaho has failed and, with its culture of corruption, can’t be trusted.

As of this afternoon, it seems the state legislature is preparing to force taxpayers to cover the costs of schools switching to alternative providers. Idaho officials have approved a nearly $3.6 million stopgap measure to maintain broadband connectivity for the rest of the school year by using other providers, assuming they can be found.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KTVB Boise Idaho lawmakers approve 3-6M for broadband access 2-17-15.flv

KTVB in Boise reports Idaho taxpayers will be on the hook to cover public school Internet costs after CenturyLink pulls the plug on a statewide educational broadband network this weekend. (2:28)

Enjoy Better: Maine Lawmakers Slumming in the Off-Season at Maine Resort, Sponsored by Time Warner Cable

inn by the sea

Welcome to Inn by the Sea, where relaxed coastal luxury comes naturally.

Come for the unpretentious elegance, but don’t stay for the broadband.

Time Warner Cable’s war on competitive broadband in the state of Maine tastes delicious, if you are a lawmaker who enjoys a $26 herb marinated skirt steak with roasted mushrooms, chimichurri, piquillo aioli, and herbed hand cut steak fries in the dining room of the Cape Elizabeth seaside resort Inn by the Sea. Time Warner Cable (and you) picked up the tab, and for those lawmakers too full to drive, the cable company was ready with complimentary rooms at the Inn that retail off-season for $205-355 a night.

twcWelcome to the 2015 Time Warner Cable Winter Policy Conference, held Jan 22-23 at the remodeled resort and spa where a stay during the summer can cost $500 a day.

Thursday night’s dinner was followed by an all-day information lobbying event Friday — a workday when Maine lawmakers would normally be expected to serve the public interest, but served Time Warner Cable’s instead.

The overall theme of the conference: Defending Time Warner Cable’s performance in Maine and why letting community-owned providers compete with them is a really bad idea.

While lawmakers enjoyed complimentary access to the Inn by Sea’s high-speed Wi-Fi connection, Internet service around the rest of Cape Elizabeth is considerably less sublime, with Angie’s List reporting only 23 percent of the locals consider their broadband provider reliable. Maine itself is ranked 49th out of 50 states for quality of service and availability and no steak dinner will convince honest lawmakers the state is prepared with robust broadband required for the 21st century digital economy. Several members have introduced various measures to aid communities trying to move beyond DSL provided by FairPoint Communications and up to 50Mbps broadband from Time Warner Cable.

SWFIMG_080723_15590228_5EG1FThe thought of competition is enough to give any cable lobbyist indigestion, especially if the new entrant provides fiber to the home service, something almost unknown among commercial providers in Maine.

Lawmakers caught attending the shindig claimed they attended the “educational forum” to become informed.

But a review of the presenter list suggests this was hardly a 60 Minutes/Edward R. Murrow moment. Lawmakers may not have been aware the presentations were about as balanced as a program length commercial:

  • Moderator (Session 1): Jadz Janucik, National Cable & Telecommunication Association – The NCTA is the nation’s largest cable industry lobbying group;
  • Dave Thomas, Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP: A corporate attorney representing cable companies, particularly when they face competitive threats;
  • Lisa Schoenthaler, National Cable & Telecommunication Association;
  • Moderator (Session 2): Charlie Williams, Time Warner Cable;
  • Charles Davidson and Michael Santorelli from the Advanced Communications Law and Policy Institute at New York Law School. Both have received direct compensation from Time Warner Cable for their  “research” reports and are very active and frequent defenders of Time Warner Cable’s public policy agenda;
  • Joe Gillan, Gillan Associates – an economist working under paid contract with the cable industry;
  • Moderator (Session 3): Tom Federle, Federle Law: Chief lobbyist for Time Warner Cable in Maine for over seven years;
  • Robin Casey, Enockever LLP: Casey is one of the nation’s pre-eminent cable industry lawyers, called by the Texas Cable Association “the authority on the telecom industry;”
  • Mary Ellen Fitzgerald, Critical Insights: A Maine pollster hired by Time Warner Cable to carry out the company’s carefully worded survey on broadband issues;
  • Moderator (Session 5): Melinda Poore, senior vice president of governmental relations, Time Warner Cable Maine.

spa lobby“If we want good public policy, there’s reason for all of us to be worried,” utilities expert Gordon Weil, the state’s first Public Advocate, who represented the interests of ratepayers before regulators, told the Maine Center for Public Integrity. Such treatment of legislators is “obviously intended to persuade them by more than the validity of the arguments; it’s intended to persuade by the reception they’re given.”

That sentiment was echoed in a glowing review from a Time Warner colleague given to Tom Federle, the company’s top lobbyist.

“Tom has been the primary lobbyist for Time Warner Cable’s Maine operations for the past seven years,” said Melinda Poole, an executive vice president for governmental relations at Time Warner Cable. “He has a real knack for distilling complex issues for policy makers, has always been able to advance our positions effectively, and consistently has outperformed for us. Tom is well respected by legislators on both sides of the aisle.”

Lawmakers contacted by the Maine Center for Public Integrity seemed to sidestep or downplay the ethical issues of attending the company-sponsored event.

“I think this idea of meals and conversations is how Augusta functions on some level,” said Rep. Mark Dion (D-Portland), who attended the event in Cape Elizabeth, did not stay overnight but was provided dinner and breakfast by Time Warner.

Sen. Andre Cushing (R-Hampden), for whom Time Warner paid the cost of meals and the room, said he thought “about a dozen” legislators attended the Thursday night dinner. Dion said “30 or 35″ attended the second day’s sessions.

Partying-ExecsScott Pryzwansky, Time Warner Cable’s director of public relations for the eastern U.S., declined to answer any specific questions but replied by email: “As one of Maine’s leading employers and telecommunications companies, we designed this second biannual educational forum to help policymakers and others better understand some of the complex telecommunications issues confronting Maine and the nation.”

Critics contend such “educational” meetings held at posh locations where company lobbyists hand out free meals and room keys do more to obfuscate than clarify issues for lawmakers, who are likely to remember the accommodations and who provided them more than the seminar.

“I would have said, ‘Fine, if you want to meet with me, come meet on state facilities, no steak dinner,’ said Weil. “If steak dinners didn’t work, they wouldn’t give them steak dinners.”

Time Warner Cable’s two-day event included a packet of handouts, obtained by Stop the Cap!, that illustrate exactly how one-sided the affair was:

  • sock puppetA highly slanted (refuted here) presentation opposing “Government Operated Networks” (or GONs – a favorite acronym used by industry-funded think tanks to oppose municipal broadband) produced by the Advanced Communications Law and Policy Institute;
  • an NCTA-produced sheet opposing taxes on Internet access;
  • a Time Warner Cable-written summary of recent Maine Public Utility Commission conclusions about the availability of affordable telephone service;
  • a guest letter to the editor from Fred Campbell, who has a long history running industry-funded groups that are supposed to advocate for competition, except when an industry friend’s merger deal is on the line;
  • and a blog post from the Koch Brothers-funded corporate-friendly Reason.com.

The slanted push-poll part of the presentation was also unsurprisingly predictable.

“Do you approve or disapprove of the current practice of Maine’s government using tax dollars and fees on consumers to subsidize public entities to compete with private businesses?” asked one question.

Another asked if residents would favor “using taxpayer supported debt to build government-owned broadband networks,” ignoring the fact many projects are covered by bonds that carry little or no risk to taxpayers. Some profitable projects could even return money to local communities.

At least one lawmaker was quickly skeptical of the veracity of the company-sponsored poll.

State Rep. Sarah Gideon (D- Freeport) said some of the questions were “leading.”

“Nobody’s going to say ‘Yes, I want my state to incur debt,’” said Gideon. “We see lots of surveys as policymakers and we have to be smart enough to look at what questions are asked.”

Since 2008, Time Warner has donated more than $240,000 to Maine politicians: $127,360 to Democrats and Democratic PACs, and $113,250 to Republicans and Republican PACs. Most of the minor improvements in the state’s broadband rankings since 2013 come from community providers providing a quantum speed leap over traditional DSL and cable broadband services most Maine residents receive.

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