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Approval of AT&T-DirecTV Merger Expected Next Week

The headquarters building of U.S. satellite TV operator DirecTV is seen in Los Angeles, California May 18, 2014. REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn

The headquarters building of U.S. satellite TV operator DirecTV is seen in Los Angeles, California May 18, 2014. REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – AT&T Inc’s proposed $48.5 billion acquisition of DirecTV is expected to get U.S. regulatory approval as soon as next week, according to people familiar with the matter, a decision that will combine the country’s No. 2 wireless carrier with the largest satellite-TV provider.

The Department of Justice, which assesses whether deals violate antitrust law, has completed its review of the merger and is waiting on the Federal Communications Commission to wrap up its own, according to three people familiar with the matter.

The FCC, which reviews if deals are in public interest, is poised to approve the deal with conditions as early as next week, according to three other people familiar with the matter.

All the sources asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak with the media. An AT&T spokeswoman and FCC spokesman declined comment. Justice Department representatives were not immediately available for comment.

AT&T’s merger with DirecTV, announced in May 2014, would create the country’s largest pay-TV company, giving DirecTV a broadband product and AT&T new avenues of growth beyond the maturing and increasingly competitive wireless service.

The deal has been expected to pass regulatory muster in contrast with the rival mega-merger between cable and Internet providers Comcast and Time Warner Cable, which was rejected in April largely over the combined companies’ reach into the broadband market.

The FCC and AT&T have been in negotiations over conditions for the merger for several weeks, the people said, adding that none of the conditions are controversial enough to break the deal.

Those conditions are expected to include assurances that both middle-class and low-income Americans have access to affordable high-speed Internet, including an offering of broadband subscriptions as a standalone service without a TV bundle, according to two of the people.

AT&T has earlier committed to expand access to broadband service in rural areas and to offer standalone Internet service at speeds of at least 6 Megabits per second to ensure consumers can access rival video services online, such as Netflix.

FCC officials are also considering ways to ensure that the conditions are properly enforced in the future, possibly through a third-party monitor, according to the two sources.

The FCC is also weighing how to ensure the merged companies abide by the so-called net neutrality rules, which regulate how Internet service providers manage traffic on their networks.

AT&T has promised to abide by net neutrality principles such as no-blocking of traffic, but is challenging in court the FCC’s newest net neutrality regulations that have expanded the agency’s authority over various deals between Internet providers and content companies.

FCC reviewers are weighing what net neutrality-related conditions to apply to the merger and how to address the possibility that the court throws out the latest rules, the two sources said.

Reported by: Alina Selyukh and Diane Bartz

Charter Asks FCC to Approve Time Warner Cable/Bright House Merger; Stop the Cap! Urges Changes

charter twc bhCharter Communications last week filed its 362 page redacted Public Interest Statement laying out its case to win approval of its acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks, to be run under the Charter banner.

“Charter may not be a household name for all Americans, but it has developed into an industry leader by implementing customer and Internet-friendly business practices,” its statement reads.

The sprawling document is effectively a sales pitch to federal regulators to accept Charter’s contention the merger is in the public interest, and the company promises a range of voluntary and committed service upgrades it says will improve the customer experience for those becoming a part of what will be America’s second largest cable operator.

Charter’s proposed upgrades fall under several categories of direct interest to consumers:

Broadband: Charter will commit to upgrade customers to 60Mbps broadband within 30 months (about 2.5 years) after the deal is approved. That could mean some Time Warner Cable customers will still be serviced with standard speeds of 15Mbps as late as 2018. Time Warner Cable’s Maxx upgrade program will be effectively frozen in place and will continue in only those areas “consistent with Time Warner Cable’s existing deployment plans.” That will leave out a large sections of the country not on the upgrade list. Charter has committed to impose no data caps, usage-based pricing or modem fees, but only for three years, after which it will be free to change those policies at will.

Wi-Fi: Charter promises to build on Time Warner’s 100,000 Wi-Fi hotspots, most in just a few cities, and Bright House’s denser network of 45,000 hotspots with a commitment to build at least 300,000 new hotspots across Charter’s expanded service area within four years. Charter will also evaluate deploying cable modems that also act as public Wi-Fi hotspots. Comcast already offers over 500,000 hotspots with plans for many more, making Charter’s wireless commitment less ambitious than what Comcast today offers customers.

Cable-TV: Charter has committed to moving all Time Warner and Bright House systems to all-digital service within 30 months. Customers will need to lease set-top boxes designed to handle Charter’s encryption system for all cable connected televisions. Among those boxes includes Charter’s new, IP-capable Worldbox CPE and cloud-based Spectrum Guide user interface system.

Video on the Go: Charter will adopt Time Warner Cable’s streaming platform and apps to provide 300 streaming television channels to customers watching from inside their homes (a small fraction of those channels are available while outside of the home). Customers will not be able to watch on-demand recorded DVR shows from portable devices, but can program their DVRs from apps or the website.

Discount Internet for the Poor: Charter references the fact its minimum entry-level broadband speed is 60Mbps so that does not bode well for Time Warner Cable’s Everyday Low Priced Internet $14.99 slow-speed Internet plan. Instead Charter will build upon Bright House Networks’ mysterious broadband program for low-income consumers.

Based on Charter’s initial proposal, Stop the Cap! will urge state and federal regulators to require changes of these terms before approving any merger. Among them:

  1. All existing Time Warner Cable and Bright House service areas should be upgraded to meet or exceed the levels of service offered by Time Warner Cable’s Maxx program within 30 months. It is not acceptable to upgrade some customers while others are left with a much more modest upgrade program proposed by Charter;
  2. Charter must commit to Net Neutrality principles without an expiration date;
  3. Regardless of any usage-cap or usage-based pricing plans Charter may introduce after its three-year “no caps” commitment expires, Charter must permanently continue to offer unlimited, flat rate Internet service at a reasonable price as an alternative to usage-priced plans;
  4. Customers must be given the option of opting out of any leased/provided-modem Wi-Fi hotspot plan that offers a wireless connection to outside users without the customer’s consent;
  5. Charter must commit to a more specific Wi-Fi hotspot program that details towns and cities to be serviced and proposed pricing for non-customers;
  6. Charter must allow customers to use their own set-top equipment (eg. Roku, Apple TV, etc.) to receive cable television service without compulsory equipment/rental fees. The company must also commit to offering discount alternatives such as DTAs for secondary televisions and provide an option for income-challenged customers compelled to accept new equipment to continue receiving cable television service;
  7. Charter must retain Time Warner Cable’s Everyday Low Priced $14.99 Internet plan regardless of any other low-income discount program it offers. If it chooses to adopt Bright House’s program, it must broaden it to accept applications year-round, simplify the application process and eliminate any waiting periods;
  8. Charter must commit to independent verification of customer quality and service standards and adhere to any regulatory guidelines imposed by state or federal regulators as a condition of approval.
  9. Charter must commit to expansion of its cable network into a reasonable number of adjacent, unserved areas by committing a significant percentage (to be determined) of measurable financial benefits of the merger to the company or its executives towards this effort.

Stop the Cap! will closely monitor the proceedings and intends to participate on both the state (New York) and federal level to guarantee any merger provides consumers with an equitable share of the benefits. We will also be examining the impact of the merger on existing Time Warner Cable and Bright House employees and will promote merger conditions that protect jobs and limit outsourcing, especially overseas.

Gigabit Fiber Coming to Frontenac, Kansas for $70 a Month

craw-kan_logoOne of Kansas’ fastest and most innovative gigabit fiber broadband projects will be built in a community originally bypassed by AT&T.

Earlier this month the Frontenac City Council approved Craw-Kan Telephone Cooperative’s plan to build a fiber optic network in the city that will sell 1,000Mbps service for $70 a month.

frontenac“It’s just superior to anything out there,” said Craig Wilbert, general manager of Craw-Kan. “We’ve been doing fiber for several years. We have well over 2,000 customers, and I think we just finally asked ourselves why are we restricting the use of this fiber optic cable when it can do so much more than what most people are receiving?”

Craw-Kan Telephone Cooperative Association, Inc., began in March 1954 serving 14 subscribers in southeastern Kansas, very close to the borders of both Missouri and Oklahoma. After a series of acquisitions, the cooperative grew to more than 24 community exchanges, all bringing direct dialing to customers starting in the mid-1950s with plans to bring gigabit fiber to customers in the mid-2015s.

Construction of the network starts this summer with a completion date of next year.

Can’t Achieve Your National Broadband Plan’s Objectives? Change the Objectives

brazil internetBrazil’s plans to bring at least 25Mbps fiber broadband to 45 percent of Brazilian households by 2018 are on hold after private providers balked about spending the money.

The Ministry of Communications’ ambitious Broadband for All program is a public-private partnership. Public broadband expansion funding would be matched by generous tax credits to encourage private matching investments to improve Brazil’s telecommunications infrastructure. Telephone customers already pay a tax on their telecom bills to fund Brazil’s version of the Universal Service Fund, which helps subsidize expenses in high cost service areas.

The plan derailed after investment markets saw little opportunity for big profits from a fiber upgrade. Brazil’s president Dilma Vana Rousseff embarrassed her Minister of Communications Ricardo Berzoini, who had already publicly announced plans to get the upgrades started last month.

A source close to the president told Reuters the government has sided with commercial providers and is slowing the project down for now.

“We have to adjust the timing of investments to adapt to the appetite of the market and public finances,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

brazilA less ambitious expansion program is tentatively scheduled to start in mid-October, but is only likely to incrementally improve broadband in larger cities.

At least one company balked about poor revenue and profit opportunities serving economically challenged regions in Brazil. It argued the population lacked enough income to pay the prices they intended to charge for fiber service.

Community and broadband activists complain critics have demagogued the effort from the beginning with stories of wiring fiber across vast expanses of the Amazon Rain Forest that would ultimately serve few, if any customers. After years of sub-standard service, many believe broadband should be provided and regulated like an essential utility. Currently, only landline-based broadband is regulated in the public interest.

For the consumer protection agency PROTEST, fast broadband is essential to society and where private providers have dropped the ball, the Brazilian government should pick it up and build broadband networks itself, using the proceeds of the Universal Service Fund.

“This deference to big telecom companies to decide Brazil’s online future is a huge mistake,” complained Carlos Filho, an Internet user in Cuiabá, the capital city of the state of Moto Grosso. “I cannot even get 1Mbps DSL in my downtown apartment. You have to use wireless, which is very expensive, to get anything done. The government should be building broadband like it builds roads.”

This afternoon, officials from the Ministry of Communications will meet with Russian Deputy Communications Minister Rashid Ismailov in St. Petersburg to seek Russian investment in Brazil’s wireless and rural broadband ventures.

Canada’s Choice: Privatized MTS Enriches Itself, Publicly Owned SaskTel Enriches Customers

Truth or Consequences: Does privatizing a government-owned telephone company encourage innovation and efficiency or serve to enrich a handful of executives and shareholders at the cost of customer service? Two essentially equal telephone companies serving the Canadian prairie provinces offer some useful insights.

sasktelThe provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan are remarkably similar in their landscape and their sparse populations — 1.29 million in Manitoba and 1.13 million in Saskatchewan. Today, most are concentrated in or near a few large cities with many small agricultural towns scattered across great distances.

At the dawn of the 1900s, the “Sunny way” of Prime Minister Sir Henri Charles Wilfrid Laurier and his Liberal party was to push open the western frontiers and lay new railways across Canada. Part of the zeal for expansion came from a sense of growth and optimism, but there were also pervasive fears that without significant settlements in central Canada, the Americans could end up annexing huge swaths of empty Canadian agricultural lands for its own interests.

To prevent this and enhance its own national identity, Canada threw its doors open to immigration, especially to hard-working Americans from the midwest who were inundated with government-sponsored advertisements about a new life and opportunities that waited in the Canadian prairies.

The campaign worked. Between 1901 and 1906, the population of Saskatchewan surged from 91,279 to 257,763, 86.8% settled in rural farming areas. By 1911, the population almost doubled again to 492,432 with over 80% located away from the cities of Regina and Saskatoon. Next door in Manitoba, many new residents preferred areas south of Winnipeg, closer to the American border.

mtsServing this population boom depended heavily on Canadian railroads, which delivered settlers and laborers, medicine, farming equipment, and the latest news from Ottawa. The trains returned east with part of the harvest and various meats.

It was no surprise Canada’s telecommunications infrastructure (along with more than a few new towns) would grow up along its railway lines.

With Bell Canada preoccupied with its larger client base in Ontario and Quebec, both the governments of Manitoba and Saskatchewan established provincial, publicly owned, phone companies to take control of their telecommunications future. In 1908, the Manitoba Telephone System (MTS) was born, made up mostly of former Bell customers. In 1909, SaskTel was established as a publicly owned operation as well, again comprising former Bell customers in the province. Both MTS and SaskTel quickly bought out all the remaining private telephone companies still operating in their midst.

The Winnipeg Free Press notes both MTS and SaskTel successfully served their respective customers for nearly 90 years. In 1997, Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative premier Gary Filmon broke his pledge to keep hands off MTS and privatized the company, claiming it would be more innovative in private hands.

That move would not be repeated in Saskatchewan, where every political party in office usually treated SaskTel as sacrosanct to the province’s economic development. Even the conservative Saskatchewan Party, which held power in the province from 1982-1991, never got around to privatizing the phone company, and a pledge to privatize crown corporations in the near future was just one of several issues that led to the party’s downfall in the election of 1991.

w canadaFor the last 18 years, Canadians have been able to see which province made the wisest choice. The newspaper concluded after nearly two decades, there is strong evidence MTS’ main priorities are to satisfy shareholders and commercial business customers, while rewarding their executives with handsome pay packages.

“Meanwhile, SaskTel appears to focus on customer service and satisfaction, being a good employer and on providing returns to their public shareholder: the people of Saskatchewan,” the Winnipeg Free Press concluded.

Evidence of SaskTel’s service ethic could be found last week when SaskTel was acknowledged as western Canada’s most dependable wireless carrier, according to a new study by market researcher J.D. Power.

“SaskTel ranks highest in overall network quality and performs particularly well in call quality, messaging quality and data quality,” J.D. Power said in its report.

SaskTel has never been reserved about its own accomplishments, particularly its success delivering innovative new services to sparsely populated regions across Saskatchewan:

  • SaskTel was the first telecommunications company in Canada to complete its rural individual line service program, eliminating all party lines in 1990;
  • SaskTel was at the forefront of Internet provision as the first in Canada to remove the long distance charges on dial-up Internet and the first in North America to offer high-speed service on phone lines through DSL technology;
  • SaskTel was among the first commercial users of fiber-optics in the world, today offering customers competitive cable television, broadband, and phone service.
Filmon

Filmon

MTS has not turned out to be the innovator it was promised to be as a private company. While SaskTel was becoming a world leader in converged fiber optic networks, supplying voice, data and video across a strand of fiber, MTS was raising rates on landline customers.

Today, a basic landline in Saskatchewan costs around $8 a month — 27% less than the cheapest MTS home phone service. Everything at MTS usually costs more, which has turned out very well for shareholders and executives. While MTS earns roughly double the profit of SaskTel, almost all goes to major shareholders and top executives. SaskTel has returned $497 million over the last five years to the provincial government as well as customers through an annual dividend payment. Over in Manitoba, MTS has proved to be innovative in avoiding its tax bill — only paying corporate taxes once in 10 years — and that was just $1.2 million in 2010. Creative accounting at MTS has allowed the profitable company to pay “a big fat zero in federal and provincial corporate income taxes,” according to the newspaper, and MTS does not expect to owe a penny in income taxes until 2020 at the earliest.

So where do MTS profits go? Last year, MTS former CEO Pierre Blouin received $7.8 million in compensation, well above his five-year average of $4.8 million. Blouin’s salary was more than 10 times higher than what SaskTel’s CEO receives annually.

The newspaper adds MTS directors are paid more than 10 times what SaskTel’s directors are paid. But even more disturbing, the man who made the Money Party possible for MTS — former premier Gary Filmon — had a cozy, well-compensated home waiting for him on the MTS board after he lost his re-election bid. He has used his time at MTS to feather his own nest with more than $1.4 million in director fees and compensation over 10 years, along with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of shares.

“None of this is meant to suggest SaskTel is an ideal company, but it appears abundantly clear this publicly owned and operated company provides better service at lower costs to its customers than the privatized MTS, and it also provides much larger benefits to the people of the province from its profits,” writes economist Toby Sanger. “Despite all this, the Saskatchewan government may be laying the groundwork for privatization of SaskTel. If this is what we can expect from the privatizations of other public utilities — higher fees for the public, lower-quality service, much higher compensation for CEOs and executives, higher corporate profits but much lower returns for the provinces — we can see why Bay Street [Canada’s Wall Street] is so excited about the privatization of Hydro One — and why the people of Ontario should be very worried.”

Empire Access Expands Fiber to the Home Service Across Western N.Y./Southern Tier

empireA Prattsburgh, N.Y. family-owned company has picked up where Verizon left off and is busily wiring up small communities across western New York and the Southern Tier with fiber to the home service, giving both Verizon and Time Warner Cable some competitive headaches.

Empire Access is concentrating its service in areas where Verizon FiOS will never go and Time Warner Cable maxes out at 50/5Mbps. The company recently launched service in downtown Batavia in Genesee County and will be launching serving in Big Flats later this year.

Empire promises no data caps or usage-based billing and offers 100/20Mbps at introductory prices ranging from between $45-65/mo. Gigabit broadband speed is also available.

Where it has franchise agreements with local communities, Empire also offers cable television packages ranging from $31.45-73.40, with up to 130 channels. The packages are not as comprehensive as those from Time Warner Cable, but customers may not mind losing a dozen or two niche cable channels to save up to $30 a month off what Time Warner charges. Nationwide home phone service is also an option.

Empire relies heavily on two public/non-profit fiber backbone networks to deliver service. The Southern Tier Network comprises a 235-mile long fiber backbone that runs through Steuben, Chemung and Schuyler counties. Further north, Axcess Ontario provides backbone connectivity across its 200+ mile fiber ring around Ontario County.

fiber backboneWith the help of public and non-profit broadband infrastructure, residents in small communities across a region extending from Sayre, Pa., north to Batavia, N.Y., will have another choice besides Verizon or Frontier DSL, Comcast or Time Warner Cable.

Residents in some communities, like Hammondsport and Bath — south of Keuka Lake, love the fact they have a better choice than Time Warner Cable. Empire has reportedly signed up 70 percent of area businesses and has more than a 20% residential market share in both villages after a year doing business in the Finger Lakes communities.

Empire targets compact villages with a relatively affluent populations where no other fiber overbuilder is providing service. It doesn’t follow Google’s “fiberhood” approach where neighborhoods compete to be wired. Instead, it provides service across an entire village and then gradually expands to nearby towns from there.

Most western New York villages are already compact enough to attract the attention of cable companies, predominately Time Warner Cable, which has an effective broadband monopoly. Verizon and Frontier offer limited slowband DSL, but Verizon has stopped expanding the reach of its broadband service and will likely never bring FiOS fiber to the home service to any western N.Y. community outside of a handful of suburbs near Buffalo.

empire-access-truckThe arrival of Empire reminds some of the days when the first cable company arrived to wire their village. Word of mouth is often enough to attract new customers, but a handful of local sales agents are also on hand to handle customer signups. From there, one of the company’s 80+ employees in New York handle everything else.

Bryan Cummings, who shared the story of Empire Access with us, “is pretty stoked.”

“Bye, bye Time Warner Cable,” Cummings tells Stop the Cap!.

Time Warner has treated most of western New York about as well as its service areas in Ohio, often criticized for not keeping up with the times. With fiber overbuilders Empire Access in the Finger Lakes region and Southern Tier and Greenlight Networks in Rochester, the fastest Internet options are not coming from the local phone and cable company anymore.

WSKG in Binghamton explores fiber broadband developments in the Southern Tier of upstate New York. Empire Access is providing the fast fiber broadband Verizon, Frontier, and Time Warner Cable won’t. (3:54)

You must remain on this page to hear the clip, or you can download the clip and listen later.

At present, Empire Access provides service in:

  • Village of Arkport
  • City of Batavia
  • Village of Bath
  • Village of Canisteo
  • Village of Hammondsport
  • City of Hornell
  • Village of Montour Falls
  • Village of Naples
  • Village of North Hornell
  • Village of Watkins Glen
  • Village of Waverly (N.Y.)
  • Boroughs of Sayre, Athens, and South Waverly (Pa.)
  • Borough of Troy (Pa.)

Communities on Empire’s radar for future expansion include Urbana, Dansville, Wayland and Cohocton. Further out, there is some consideration of larger cities like Corning and Elmira, as well as other towns in far northern Pennsylvania. With Empire’s expansion into Naples, the company also has many options in affluent and growing communities in Ontario County, south of Rochester.

Verizon New Jersey: “It’s Good to Be King,” But Not So Good If You Are Without FiOS

Verizon's FiOS expansion is still dead.

Verizon’s FiOS expansion is over.

Some New Jersey residents and businesses are being notified by insurers they will have to invest in costly upgrades to their monitored fire prevention and security systems or lose insurance discounts because the equipment no longer reliably works over Verizon’s deteriorating landlines in the state.

It’s just one of many side effects of ongoing deregulation of New Jersey’s dominant phone company, Verizon, which has been able to walk away from service and upgrade commitments and oversight during the Christie Administration.

Most of the trouble is emerging in northwest and southeast New Jersey in less-populated communities that have been bypassed for FiOS upgrades or still have to use Verizon’s copper wire network for security, fire, or medical monitoring systems. As Verizon continues to slash spending on the upkeep of its legacy infrastructure, customers still relying on landlines are finding service is gradually degrading.

“The saving grace is that so many customers have dropped Verizon landlines, there are plenty of spare cables they can use to keep service up and running when a line serving our home fails,” said Leo Hancock, a Verizon landline customer for more than 50 years. “I need a landline for medical monitoring and besides cell phone service is pretty poor here.”

Hancock’s neighbor recently lost a discount on his homeowner’s insurance because his alarm system could no longer be monitored by the security company due to a poor quality landline Verizon still has not fixed. He spent several hundred dollars on a new wireless system instead.

Kelly Conklin, a founding member of the N.J. Main Street Alliance said he is required by his insurer and local fire department to have traditional landline service for his business’ sprinkler system, which automatically notifies the fire department if a fire starts when the business is closed. He has also noticed Verizon’s landlines are deteriorating, but he’s also concerned about Verizon’s prices, which the company will be free to set on its own five years from now, after an agreement with the state expires.

tangled_wires“The deal allows Verizon to raise basic landline phone rates 36 percent over the next five years and it allows them to raise business line rates over 20 percent over the next five years,” said Seth Hahn, a CWA staff representative. Beyond that, the sky is the limit.

Most of New Jersey wouldn’t mind the loss of traditional landlines so much if they had something better to replace them. Thanks to the state’s relatively small size, at least 2.2 million residents do. Verizon has managed to complete wiring its fiber to the home service FiOS to 358 towns in the state. Verizon hoped fiber optics, although initially expensive to install, would be infinitely more reliable and easily upgradable, unlike its aging copper-wire predecessor. Unfortunately, there are 494 towns in New Jersey, meaning 136 communities are either stuck using Verizon DSL or dial-up if they don’t or can’t receive service from Comcast.

So how did so many towns get left behind in the fiber revolution? Most of the blame is equally divided between Verizon and politicians and regulators in Trenton.

Verizon did not want to approach nearly 500 communities to secure franchise agreements from each of them, dismissed by then Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg as a “Mickey Mouse procedure.” Verizon wanted to cut a deal with New Jersey to create a statewide video franchise law allowing it to offer video service anywhere it wanted in the state.

A November 2005 compromise provided a way forward. In return for a statewide video franchise that stripped local authority over Verizon’s operations, Verizon would commit to aggressively building out its FiOS network to every home in the state where Verizon offered landline telephone service.

The entire state was to be wired by 2010. It wasn’t. Two events are responsible: The arrival of Gov. Chris Christie in 2010 and the retirement of Mr. Seidenberg the following summer.

Christie

Christie

Christie’s appointments to the Board of Public Utilities, which used to hold Verizon’s feet to the fire as the state’s telecommunications regulator, instead put the fire out.

“They were Christie’s cronies,” charged several unions representing Verizon employees in the state.

The then incoming president of the BPU was Dianne Solomon, wife of close Christie associate Lee Solomon. The BPU is a technocrat’s paradise with hearings and board documents filled with highly technical jargon and service quality reports. Solomon brought her only experience, as an official with the United States Tennis Association, to the table. Administration critics immediately accused the governor of using the BPU as a political patronage parking lot. When he was done making appointments, three of the four commissioners on the BPU were all politically connected to the governor and many were accused of lacking telecommunications expertise.

When communities bypassed by FiOS complained Verizon was not honoring its commitment, the governor and his allies at the BPU proposed letting Verizon off the hook. Instead of demanding Verizon finish the job it started, state authorities decided the company had done enough. So had Verizon’s then-incoming CEO Lowell McAdam, who has since shown almost no interest in any further expansion of fiber optics.

But the working-class residents of Laurel Springs, Somerdale, and Lindenwold are interested. But they have the misfortune of living in more income-challenged parts of Camden County. So while Cherry Hill, Camden itself, and Haddonfield have FiOS, many bypassed residents cannot even get DSL from Verizon.

(Image relies on information provided by the Inquirer)

(Image relies on information provided by the Inquirer)

The Inquirer recently offered readers a glimpse into the life of the FiOS-less — the digitally redlined — where the introduction of call waiting and three-way calling was the last significant telecommunications breakthrough from Verizon.

“All Verizon offers here is dial-up,” Dawn Amadio, the municipal clerk in Laurel Springs, said of the Internet service, expressing the frustration of many residents and local officials. “That’s why everybody has Comcast. What does Verizon want us to do? Live in the Dark Ages?”

Or move to a more populated or affluent area where Verizon’s Return on Investment requirements are met.

The state government could have followed Philadelphia, which demanded every city neighborhood be wired as part of its franchise agreement with Verizon in 2009. So far, Verizon is on track to meet that commitment with no complaints by next February.

Further out in the eastern Pennsylvania suburbs, Verizon got franchise agreements with the towns it really wanted to serve — largely affluent with residents packed relatively close to each other. Verizon signed 200 franchise agreements in Bucks, Delaware, Montgomery, and Chester Counties in Pennsylvania. It managed this without a statewide video franchise agreement. But at least 34 towns in those counties were left behind.

A deal between Verizon and Trenton officials was supposed to avoid any broadband backwaters emerging in New Jersey.

But state officials also allowed a requirement that mandated Verizon not skip any of 70 towns it sought guarantees would be upgraded for FiOS, mostly a mix of county seats, poor neighborhoods, and urban areas in the northern part of the state. Verizon could wire anywhere else at its discretion. Trenton politicians never thought that would be an issue because FiOS would sell itself and Verizon could not possibly ignore consumer demand for fiber optic upgrades.

But Verizon easily could after its current CEO found even bigger profits could be made from its prestigious wireless division. McAdam has shifted the bulk of Verizon’s spending out of its wireline and fiber optic networks straight into high profit Verizon Wireless. If he can manage it, he’d like to shift New Jersey’s rural customers to that wireless network as well, with wireless home phone replacements and wireless broadband. Only state oversight and regulatory agencies stand in the way of McAdam’s vision, and in New Jersey regulators have chosen to sit on the sidelines and watch.

That is very bad news for 99 New Jersey towns where FiOS is available to fewer than 60 percent of residents (Gloucester Township, Mount Laurel, Deptford, Pennsauken, and Voorhees, among others.)

Another 135 New Jersey towns, including a group of Delaware River municipalities along Route 130 in Burlington County and most of the Jersey Shore, have no FiOS at all. Other than in the county seats, Verizon has not extended FiOS to any other towns in Ocean, Atlantic and Cape May Counties, reports the newspaper.

Verizon never promised New Jersey 100% fiber, comes the response from Verizon spokesman Lee Gierczynski. Instead of future expansion, Verizon will step up its efforts to get customers away from the cable company in areas where Verizon offers FiOS service. The company says it spent $4 billion on FiOS in New Jersey and it is time to earn a return on that investment.

But local communities have already discovered Verizon earning fringe benefits by not offering fiber optic service.

verizonfiosIn Laurel Springs, customers have largely fled Verizon for Comcast, which is usually the only provider of broadband in the area. A package including broadband and phone service costs less than paying Verizon for a landline and Comcast for Internet access, so Verizon landline disconnects in the town are way up.

Mayor Thomas Barbera discovered that once Verizon serves fewer than 51% of phone customers in town, it can claim it is no longer competitive and devalue its infrastructure and assets to virtually zero and walk away from any business property tax obligations.

“Once they skip,” Barbera told the Inquirer, “we don’t get [Verizon’s] best product, and then they say we can’t compete and we don’t owe you our taxes. It’s good to be king.”

Correction: With our thanks to Verizon’s manager of media relations Lee Gierczynski for setting the record straight, we regrettably reported information that turned out to be in error. The amended Cable Act that brought statewide video franchising to New Jersey never required Verizon to build out its FiOS network to every home in New Jersey where it offered landline telephone service. Instead, the agreement required Verizon to fully build its fiber network to 70 so-called “must-build” municipalities

Gierczynski also offers the following rebuttal to other points raised in our piece:

No one is disputing the fact that Verizon is spending less on its wireline networks.  The spending is aligned with the number of wireline customers Verizon serves, which has declined by more than 50 percent over the last decade.  The implication that this decreased investment is leading to a deterioration of the copper network is what is wrong. Over the last several years, Verizon New Jersey has spent more than $5 million just on proactive copper maintenance initiatives that have led to significant decreases in service complaints. The BPU’s standard for measuring acceptable service quality is the monthly customer trouble report rate – which is the best overall indicator of network reliability.  The BPU’s standard is 2.3 troubles per 100 access lines.  Over the last several years, Verizon’s performance across the state has consistently been below that standard, even in places in northwest and southeast New Jersey primarily served by copper infrastructure.  The 2014 trouble rate for southeastern New Jersey towns like Hopewell (0.3 troubles per 100 lines) and Upper Deerfield (0.34 per 100 lines) are well below the BPU’s standard.

Verizon is on track to meet its build obligations in those municipalities by the end of this year as statutorily obligated to do (not 2010 as you wrote) and also has deployed its network to all or parts of 288 other communities across New Jersey.   Today Verizon offers its video service to more customers than any other single wireline provider in the state.

 

Hometown Newspaper of Charter Communications Warns Time Warner Deal Not in the Public Interest

Editor’s Note: This editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch is reprinted in its entirety. It comes from a newspaper that has covered Charter Communications since its inception. The Post-Dispatch reporters are also some of Charter’s subscribers — the cable company serves all of metropolitan St. Louis. Charter has never been received particularly well in St. Louis and in other cities where it provides generally mediocre service. Communities across Missouri that have endured poor cable and broadband service have recently taken a serious look at doing something about this by building their own public broadband networks as an alternative. But big money telecom interests, especially AT&T, have found it considerably less expensive to lobby to ban these networks from ever getting off the ground than spending the money to upgrade networks to compete.

charter twc bhOn May 15, the last day of this year’s session of the Missouri Legislature, House Bill 437 finally was assigned to a committee, where it promptly died. Given the power of the American Legislative Exchange Council, it may well be back next year.

HB 437, sponsored by Rep. Rocky Miller, R-Lake Ozark, was full of gobbledygook about “municipal competitive services,” but its effect would have been to condemn Missourians to ever-higher prices for broadband Internet service. Cities would have been forbidden from establishing their own broadband services to compete with private operators, thus holding down prices.

ALEC, which wines and dines state lawmakers and then gets them to pass pro-business “model legislation” in their states, had succeeded in getting restrictions on public Internet providers in 20 states. But in February, the Federal Communications Commission struck down North Carolina’s ALEC-inspired law, so the future of other such laws is uncertain.

About 22 percent of Missourians are still regarded as “underserved,” having no reliable access to broadband service of at least 25 megabits per second — what’s needed to stream video without lags. About 1 in 6 Missourians have only one wired access provider to choose from. More than 400,000 Missourians have no wired broadband at all.

Missouri is ranked 38th “most connected” in the nation by the federal-state Broadband Now initiative. In the 21st century, this is like being underserved by railroads in the 19th century or power lines in the early 20th. In parts of rural Missouri, it’s hard to do business, which helps explain why HB 437 died in committee.

Rep. Rocky Miller (R-Lake Ozark)

Rep. Rocky Miller (R-Lake Ozark)

The basic question is whether companies that invest in high-speed Internet infrastructure should be able to charge whatever they can get away with, or whether broadband service should be treated as a public utility. If it’s the latter, as the FCC determined in February, then government must make sure it’s affordable.

Which brings us to Charter Communications proposed $56 billion takeover of Time Warner Cable and its $10.4 billion acquisition of Bright House Networks. Both deals were announced May 26; both will need approval from the FCC and the Justice Department’s antitrust regulators.

In St. Louis, we have a love-hate relationship with Charter, a homegrown company built atop what was once Cencom Cable. It has dominated the cable TV market here almost as long as there’s been a cable market.

Charter customers endured years of poor service, its bankruptcy, its legal challenges, its ownership and management changes. Just when it got itself together, in 2012, the headquarters was moved from Des Peres to Stamford, Conn., though it retains a significant presence here.

Today our little Charter is a big fish; the Time Warner and Bright House deals would make it the nation’s second-largest cable company, with 24 million customers, behind only Philadelphia-based Comcast, with 27 million.

But cable TV no longer drives cable TV. Internet-based video services, like YouTube and Netflix, have revolutionized the way people, particularly younger people, watch TV. When cable companies first started connecting customers to the Internet through the same cables that delivered TV programming, it was regarded as a nice add-on business. Now broadband delivery is seen as a far bigger part of the future than providing TV programs.

missouriIndeed, when Comcast tried to acquire Time Warner last year, the dominance (nearly 60 percent of the market) that the combined company would have had over broadband service caused federal regulators to look askance. Comcast abandoned its bid in April.

By contrast, a Charter-Time Warner-Bright House combination (it will do business as Spectrum) will control 30 percent of the broadband market. Charter Spectrum will have 20 million broadband subscribers, compared with 22 million for Comcast.

So what can customers expect? Charter’s CEO Tom Rutledge has promised “faster Internet speeds, state-of-the-art video experiences and fully featured voice products, at highly competitive prices.”

This begs the question, competitive with whom? Comcast? Mom-and-pop operations that can’t afford the infrastructure? Municipal service providers who are being ALEC’d out of business?

Neither Charter nor Time Warner has particularly good customer service ratings (though to be fair, Charter is miles ahead of where it used to be, at least in St. Louis). Still, Charter will take on lots of debt to finance the deal, much of it in high-yield junk bonds. The broadband business provides leverage. As analyst Craig Moffett of MoffettNathanson told the Wall Street Journal: “Broadband pricing is almost an insurance policy for cable operators, in that if all else fails, you’ve always got the option to raise broadband rates.”

America wouldn’t let a private operator own 30 percent of its roads and highways. It wouldn’t allow two of them to control half the electricity. If broadband Internet service is a public utility, it must be regulated strictly.

The lesson is old as the hills: The free-marketeers who talk most passionately about competition are generally in the business of trying to eliminate it. Charter and Time Warner are both members of ALEC.

The Charter-Time Warner deal clearly is not in the public interest. The upside for shareholders is huge. The upside for Charter executives is even bigger. But it’s hard to see how Charter’s customers would see much benefit at all.

Broadband Excitement Continues in Western Mass.; Big Support for WiredWest

fiber wiredwest

WiredWest is a public co-op seeking to deliver fiber to the home broadband across western Massachusetts.

Despite the dreary drizzle, fog, and unseasonably cold weather that has plagued the northeast since last weekend, 191 residents of New Salem, Mass. crowded into a basement for the town’s annual meeting Monday night, largely with one issue in mind: better broadband.

A reporter from The Recorder noted Moderator Calvin Layton was surprised by the overwhelming vote for fiber broadband — 189 for and only one apparently against.

The town clerk for New Salem typically counts around 60 heads at such meetings, but this night was different because the community was voting to spend $1.5 million to bring broadband to a town completely ignored by Comcast and Verizon. That fact has hurt area property values and has challenged residents and business owners alike. The town is fed up with inaction by the state’s dominant phone and cable company, which has done nothing to expand access in western Massachusetts.

“Our goal is to make this broadband available to every house, not just the places that are easy to wire,” said MaryEllen Kennedy, the chair of the town’s Broadband Committee.

New Salem isn’t alone.

Monterey passed its own bond authorization with a vote of 130 to 19, becoming the 10th consecutive town to vote in favor of bringing 21st century broadband to the region. The community of Beckett followed a day later.

Phillip "There are no broadband magic ponies" Dampier

Phillip “There are no broadband magic ponies” Dampier

Residents in 16 of the 17 towns asked so far to authorize the borrowing necessary to cover their community’s share of the fiber to the home project have usually done so in overwhelming majorities. But it has not been all good news. The town of Montgomery in Hampden County voted down paying its share by just two votes. Supporters claim low voter turnout may have done the project in, at least for the time being. A call for a new vote is underway.

Perhaps the most contentious debate over WiredWest continues in the small community of Hawley, where one activist has organized opposition for the project based on its cost to the community of 347. Hawley is in the difficult position of being a small community spread out across a lot of hills and hollows.  The cost for Hawley to participate in the fiber to the home project would be around $1 million, a figure many residents decided was out of their price range. Participation in WiredWest was shot down in a recent vote and the repercussions continue to this day in the opinion pages of The Recorder as residents fire back and forth at each other, sometimes with strident personal comments.

While easy to vote down participation in WiredWest, finding an alternative for Hawley has proved difficult.

Kirby “Lark” Thwing, a member of both the town finance and communications committees, is trying to find the cheaper broadband solution advocated by Hussain Hamdan, who has led the charge against WiredWest’s fiber to the home service in Hawley.

Thwing has run headfirst into what Stop the Cap! feared he would find — the rosy budget-minded alternatives suggested as tantalizingly within reach simply are not and come at a higher price tag than one might think.

Installing a Wi-Fi tower to bring wireless Internet access to a resort park.

Installing a Wi-Fi tower to bring wireless Internet access to a resort park.

Thwing is looking at a hybrid fiber/wireless solution involving a fiber trunk line run down two well-populated roads that could support fiber service for about half the homes in Hawley and lead to at least two large wireless towers that would reach most of the rest of town. He’s also hoping Hawley would still qualify to receive its $520,000 share of broadband grant money from the Massachusetts Broadband Institute to help cover the alternative project’s costs.

If Hawley can use that money, Thwing predicts it will cover much of the construction cost of the fiber trunk line. After that, each homeowner would be expected to pay to bring fiber from the trunk line to their home, definitely not a do-it-yourself project that will cost at least several hundred dollars, not counting the cost of any inside wiring and a network interface device attached to each participating home. Residents should also expect to spend another $100 on indoor electronics including a receiver and optional router to connect broadband to their home computer and other devices.

But the expenses don’t stop there.

Thwing also has to consider the cost of the wireless towers and provisioning a wireless service to Hawley residents not immediately adjacent to the fiber trunk line. He will be asking residents if they are willing to pay an extra $25-50 a month ($300-600 a year) to pay down the debt service on the town’s two proposed wireless towers. It isn’t known if that fee would include the price of the Internet service or just the infrastructure itself.

As Thwing himself recognizes, if the total cost for the alternative approaches the $1 million the town already rejected spending on fiber to the home service for everyone, it leaves Hawley no better off.

As Stop the Cap! reported last month, we believe Hawley will soon discover the costs of the alternatives Mr. Hamdan has suggested are greater than he suspects and do not include the cost of service, billing and support. Fiber to the home remains the best solution for Hawley and the rest of a region broadband forgot. Other towns that want to believe a cheaper alternative is out there waiting to be discovered should realize if such a solution did exist, private companies would have already jumped in to offer the service. They haven’t.

At the same time, we cannot ignore there are small communities in western Massachusetts that will find it a real burden to pay the infrastructure costs of a fiber network when there are fewer residents across wide distances to share the costs.

That is why it is critical for the Federal Communications Commission to expand rural broadband funding opportunities to subsidize the cost of constructing rural broadband services in communities like Hawley.

At the very least, state officials should consider creative solutions that either spread the cost of network construction out over a longer term or further subsidizing difficult to reach areas.

There is strong evidence voters across western Massachusetts are not looking for a government handout and have more than stepped up to pay their fair share to guarantee their digital future, but some challenges can be insurmountable without the kind of help the FCC already gives to private phone companies that spend the money on delivering dismally slow DSL service. Western Massachusetts has demonstrated it can get a bigger bang for the buck with fiber to the home service — a far better use of Connect America Funds than spending millions to bring 3Mbps DSL to the rural masses.

AT&T’s Acquisition of DirecTV Will Likely Be Approved With a Number of Conditions

att directvWhile consumer groups were busy fighting the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger, AT&T’s $49 billion purchase of DirecTV has largely flown under the radar, with no comparable organized consumer opposition to the deal. But that does not mean the FCC will approve it as-is.

Negotiations with federal regulators and an exchange of regulatory filings and comments between AT&T, the FCC, and deal critics have apparently forced AT&T to agree to several concessions to make regulators amenable to approving the transaction.

The Washington Post reports that chief among those concessions is AT&T’s willingness to voluntarily abide by certain Net Neutrality rules regardless of any court challenges, including banning the slowing or blocking of websites and agreeing not to accept payments from website operators to speed up their content. AT&T has not said how long it intends to keep that commitment.

Deal opponents are also seeking other concessions from AT&T:

No paid interconnection deals: AT&T must route incoming content to customers without any fees charged to the companies originating the traffic. This became a hot button issue when Netflix felt it was forced to pay Comcast a fee to assure its streamed video content would reach Comcast customers without buffering or other errors. AT&T is expected to fiercely oppose this condition and says it should have the right to make private deals with content delivery firms.

AT&T must offer standalone broadband: With AT&T’s acquisition of DirecTV, more than ever it will have an incentive to sell customers a television bundle with Internet service. Regulators want AT&T to assure broadband-only service remains readily available. AT&T has offered 6Mbps DSL for $34.95 a month as its standalone option. Content delivery firms like Cogent want AT&T to offer 25Mbps service in all of AT&T’s markets for $29.95 a month for at least seven years. The FCC recently defined 25Mbps the minimum speed to qualify as broadband.

No end runs around Net Neutrality with data caps and exemptions: AT&T wants the right to exempt its preferred partners from its usage caps and claims that is beneficial to consumers. But cap opponents claim that is simply another way to collect money from content companies for preferential treatment — an end run around Net Neutrality rules. Opponents of these cap exemptions, known as “zero-rating” claim all content should be treated the same. AT&T could resolve this by removing data caps from its DSL and U-verse services altogether.

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