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West Virginia Legislature Won’t Consider Any Bill That Could Offend Frontier, GOP Delegate Claims

frontier loveThe Republican leadership of West Virginia’s House of Delegates is alleged to have quietly placed a ban on considering any bill that could potentially offend Frontier Communications, frustrating state lawmakers attempting to introduce broadband improvement and consumer protection measures.

In a press release posted to his Facebook page, Delegate Randy Smith (R-Preston) complained that the House GOP leadership told him his two broadband-related bills waiting for consideration would “go nowhere because it would hurt Frontier.”

“Frontier has its hands in the state Capitol,” Smith said in the release obtained by the Charleston Gazette. “The company knows how to play hardball with the legislative process.”

When asked to name names of those obstructing his broadband-related measures, Smith declined, at least for now.

“It was one individual,” Smith said. “He said leadership wouldn’t support this because they feel like it’s targeting Frontier. If it comes to the point I have to, I’ll give names. I know you’re wanting names.”

Last December, Smith’s frustration with Frontier boiled over.

Smith

Smith

“For too long, West Virginia has lagged behind other states when it comes to accessible computer technology and infrastructure,” Smith said. “We’ve been offered excuses about our state being too mountainous for improving conditions here. But it’s not the state’s rugged terrain holding us back. Although a few areas of the state have a choice of service providers, most are stuck with whatever Frontier decides is enough. And not only do I receive complaints about their service, there are multiple grievances about how they bill their customers. We can, and must, do more to create competition to drive the quality of services up and drive costs down.”

“This is not a Republican or Democrat issue. This is a West Virginia issue,” Smith said. “And we need to catch up to other states in the 21st century.”

For the first time in 80 years, Republicans won a majority in the House of Delegates, pledging to transform West Virginia into a “business friendly state.” But even Smith, an assistant majority whip for the new Republican leadership, seemed stunned by the willingness to grant Frontier de facto veto power over telecom-related legislation.

Last week he learned his two broadband bills were essentially dead on arrival, because they would not be supported by Frontier.

  • HB2551, co-sponsored by 10 GOP delegates, would prohibit Internet providers from advertising broadband service as “high-speed Internet” unless the company offered a download speed of 10Mbps or higher. The majority of West Virginia experiences real world speeds far slower than that from Frontier;
  • HB2552, intended to address chronic billing problems by Frontier, would allow Internet customers to take billing disputes to Attorney General Patrick Morrisey’s office, if the state Public Service Commission refuses to review their complaints.
Speed tests on Frontier's "High-Speed Max" Internet service aren't high speed at all.

Speed tests on Frontier’s “High-Speed Max” Internet service aren’t high speed at all.

When Smith’s accusations went public in the pages of the Gazette, Republican leaders scrambled to deny his allegations.

House Majority Leader Daryl Cowles (R-Berkeley) told the Gazette House Republicans have no “blanket position” against bills that Frontier opposes.

“There’s no policy by leadership that these bills should move or shouldn’t move based on who’s supporting them or who doesn’t,” Cowles said. “It sounds like Randy is frustrated. He, like many out there, are frustrated by their Internet speeds and service.”

“I was told Friday that there’s no way those bills were going to run,” Smith countered.

Frontier won’t deny its disapproval of Smith’s bills.

“We’re the only provider that chooses to serve much of rural West Virginia, and we see the legislation as having a negative effect on further development of rural broadband services,” said Frontier spokesman Dan Page.

Frontier customers in West Virginia are among the company’s most vocal critics nationwide, complaining about unavailability of DSL, billing errors, poor service, and most common of all: selling service and speed the company cannot consistently deliver. A statewide class action lawsuit against Frontier for failing to provide advertised speeds has attracted hundreds of Frontier customers. The suit maintains Frontier has engaged in “false advertising,” a violation of the state’s Consumer Credit and Protection Act.

Smith introduced the two broadband measures partly out of his own frustration with the company.

Cowles

Cowles

“I regularly conduct speed tests on my Internet connection and the results are laughable,” Smith told his mostly rural constituents. “I’ve had download speeds of around 0.20Mbps. No wonder they’re called Frontier. Those are the kinds of speeds you’d expect on the American frontier in the 17th century.”

Smith recognized some members of his own party will take Frontier’s side over his.

“Of course, my bills don’t go over well with some members of my own party,” Smith said. “But right is right and wrong is wrong.”

On cue, Cowles rushed to Frontier’s defense.

“Frontier has been trying to spend money to upgrade service, but it hasn’t been easy for those guys,” Cowles said. “We’re trying to expand broadband and improve the speeds everywhere we can. We try to nudge Frontier when we can, push them when we can, while we respect their investment.”

A considerable part of that “investment” came at the cost of U.S. taxpayers. Last fall, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s inspector general announced an investigation into how Frontier spent a $42 million federal stimulus grant in the state. The inspector general is reviewing thousands of pages of documents turned over by the company. Critics contend Frontier spent the stimulus funds to defray the cost of a statewide fiber network Frontier now owns and controls.

Cowles told the Gazette that despite the media attention on the issue, he remained unsure if Smith’s bills would ever reach the House floor for consideration.

At least three House members — two Republicans and one Democrat — work for Frontier.

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.

Frontier’s Acquisition of Verizon Landline/FiOS Properties in Calif., Tex., and Fla. Called “Insane”

Frontier Communications today announced a $10.54 billion all-cash acquisition of Verizon’s wired networks, including landline and FiOS properties, in the states of Florida, California, and Texas.

Frontier will acquire Verizon’s wireline operations that offer services to residential, commercial and wholesale customers numbering 3.7 million voice connections, 2.2 million broadband connections, and 1.2 million FiOS video connections. The acquired territory is 54 percent served by FiOS fiber to the home service.

frontier expanded improvement

“This transaction marks a natural evolution for our company and leverages our proven skills and established track record from previous integrations,” said Maggie Wilderotter, Frontier Communications chairman and chief executive officer. “These properties are a great fit for Frontier and will strengthen our presence in competitive suburban markets and accelerate our recent market share gains. We look forward to realizing the benefits this transaction will bring to our shareholders, customers and employees.”

Dan McCarthy, Frontier’s president and chief operating officer, commented, “This transaction is an exciting opportunity for Frontier. We are well-positioned to maximize value for our shareholders and create a great experience for new customers. We have four FiOS markets today from our 2010 transaction with Verizon, and a high level of familiarity with the systems underlying these properties. We plan to flash-cut convert these properties to Frontier’s systems as we did in states including West Virginia and Connecticut.”

frontierBut Frontier’s “flash cut” conversions in West Virginia and Connecticut led to months of serious service and billing problems leading to two state-level investigations into Frontier’s performance. Problems are still ongoing in parts of Connecticut several months after Frontier transferred Connecticut territories from AT&T. Customers in West Virginia continue to criticize Frontier Communications for its underwhelming broadband performance.

Saibus Research, a Wall Street analyst, said they were “stunned” Frontier was repeating the same mistake it made back in 2010 when it acquired other former GTE service areas from Verizon.

“We remembered that its $8.7 billion wireline purchase in 2010 did not work out so well for it,” wrote the analyst. “When we consider that Frontier’s share price declined by nearly 60% from 2010-2012 after the deal closed before recovering those losses since 2012, we were shocked that Frontier’s share price increased by 10.6% in response to its announcement that it was buying assets from Verizon. Frontier’s pro forma revenue has declined by 30% since 2009, its residential consumer base declined by 33%, its operating income declined by 34% and its dividend declined by 60% since then.”

“Albert Einstein said that insanity is doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result and we think that Frontier’s CEO Maggie Wilderotter has come down with a serious case of insanity for her willingness to buy whatever Verizon is selling,” said Saibus Research. “As such, we think income-oriented telecom investors should consider accumulating shares of Verizon, and selling or shorting Frontier.”

Frontier will accumulate billions in new debt to fund the transaction, bad news for legacy Frontier customers still served by the company’s copper wire networks. Frontier hoped to realize $500 million in cost reductions from its 2010 acquisition of Verizon territories in the Pacific Northwest, West Virginia, and several midwestern states. Instead of savings, it ended up spending millions to rehabilitate deteriorating landlines Verizon underinvested in for years. The new unsecured debt load will likely cut into available funds to upgrade older networks, particularly in the northeast and inside New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Frontier will get marginal improvements in programming costs from the greater volume discounts its larger customer base qualifies to receive. But outside of Connecticut (Frontier U-verse) and Washington, Oregon, Indiana and South Carolina (Frontier FiOS), the rest of Frontier’s customers will continue to be offered Dish Network satellite service and various flavors of DSL.

If approved by regulators, the transaction will be finalized in 2016.

FCC Now Defines Minimum Broadband Speed at 25Mbps; Everything Less Is Now “Slowband”

speedThe Federal Communications Commission, over loud objections from America’s largest cable and phone companies, has raised the minimum speed necessary to qualify as “broadband” from 4/1Mbps to 25/3Mbps.

Broadband deployment in the United States – especially in rural areas – is failing to keep pace with today’s advanced, high-quality voice, data, graphics and video offerings, according to the 2015 Broadband Progress Report adopted by the Federal Communications Commission.

Reflecting advances in technology, market offerings by broadband providers and consumer demand, the FCC updated its broadband benchmark speeds to 25 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads. The 4 Mbps/1 Mbps standard set in 2010 is dated and inadequate for evaluating whether advanced broadband is being deployed to all Americans in a timely way, the FCC found.

Wheeler

Wheeler

Using this updated service benchmark, the 2015 report finds that 55 million Americans – 17 percent of the population – lack access to advanced broadband. Moreover, a significant digital divide remains between urban and rural America: Over half of all rural Americans lack access to 25 Mbps/3 Mbps service.

“The FCC doesn’t just have a statutory obligation to report on the status of broadband deployment; we have a duty to take immediate action if we assess that the goal of deployment to all Americans is not being met,” said FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler. “And act we have.”

The 3-2 party line vote left the FCC’s two Republican commissioners Ajit Pay and Michael O’Rielly siding with the telecom industry.

Commissioner Pai even accused the FCC of aiding and abetting the Obama Administration’s larger plan to regulate the Internet.

“The ultimate goal is to seize new, virtually limitless authority to regulate the broadband marketplace,” Pai wrote in his dissent. “Under its interpretation of section 706 of the Telecommunications Act, the FCC can do that only by determining that broadband is not ‘being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion’ or, more colloquially, by ignoring the consistent progress in Internet connectivity that’s obvious to anyone with a digital connection and an analog pulse.”

Pai

Pai

Pai called the FCC decision “Kafkaesque,” claiming the agency’s recent activist approach on issues like broadband speed, Net Neutrality, and managing wireless spectrum to guarantee robust competition will result in cuts in broadband investment, raise the cost of deployment, and deter competition.

Pai believes the FCC is erecting barriers that will delay or even stop Verizon and AT&T’s plans to ditch rural landline service through a proposed transition to IP-based phone service in urban communities and wireless-only service in rural areas. He also complained about efforts by the FCC to regulate the Internet like a public utility, claiming “that is not what the American consumer wants or deserves.”

But Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel countered maintaining the status quo and allowing the marketplace to set the agenda risks our digital future.

“I, for one, am tired of dreaming small; It’s time to dream big,” Rosenworcel said. “This is the country that put a man on the moon. We invented the Internet. We can do audacious things—if we set big goals. I think our new threshold should be 100Mbps. I think anything short of that shortchanges our children, our future, and our digital economy. I don’t think reaching a benchmark like this is easy—but nothing worthwhile ever is. Still, the history of technological innovation is rife with examples of the great depths of American known-how. It is time to put that know-how to work and use it to bring really big broadband everywhere.”

The FCC’s changed definition of what constitutes broadband could also have an impact on the current merger deal involving Comcast and Time Warner Cable now before the FCC and state regulators.

COMCAST-MILLIONAIREWith the new definition in place, Comcast’s monopoly control of broadband service becomes more clear as fewer phone companies are able to meet the minimum speed standard to qualify as broadband competitors. Comcast will now control about 50% of all broadband homes in the country, a percentage that could reach even higher if Comcast revamps Time Warner Cable’s broadband tiers.

The report also highlights a growing digital divide on Tribal lands, in U.S. territories, and in schools. At least two-thirds of residents lack access to broadband on Native American reservations and in U.S. possessions including Puerto Rico, Guam, the Northern Marianas, U. S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa. More than one-third of all schools in the United States lack access to fiber broadband connections.

Key findings include the following:

  • 17 percent of all Americans (55 million people) lack access to 25/3 Mbps service;
  • 53 percent of rural Americans (22 million people) lack access to 25/3 Mbps;
  • By contrast, only 8 percent of urban Americans lack access to 25/3 Mbps broadband;
  • Rural America continues to be underserved at all speeds: 20 percent lack access even to service at 4/1 Mbps, down only 1 percent from 2011, and 31 percent lack access to 10/1 Mbps, down only 4 percent from 2011;
  • 63 percent of Americans living on Tribal lands (2.5 million people) lack access to 25/3 Mbps broadband;
  • 85 percent living in rural areas of Tribal lands (1.7 million people) lack access;
  • 63 percent of Americans living in U.S. territories (2.6 million people) lack access to 25/3Mbps broadband;
  • 79 percent of those living in rural territorial areas (880,000 people) lack access;
  • Overall, the gap in availability of broadband at 25/3Mbps closed by only 3 percentage points last year, from 20% lacking access in 2012 to 17% in 2013.

Time Warner Cable’s Hullabaloo About Nothing: Its ‘Top Secret’ Rural Expansion Plan is a Yawn

Phillip "I Want My Money Back" Dampier

Phillip “I Want My Money Back” Dampier

For months, Time Warner Cable has deployed its legal team to prevent public interest groups from gaining access to the company’s exhibit of rural broadband buildout plans it had for New York, sent confidentially to the Public Service Commission as part of its proposal to merge with Comcast.

“This information would be difficult and costly for a competitor to compile, such that disclosure would significantly harm Time Warner Cable’s competitive advantage,” Time Warner Cable’s lawyers complained to regulators handling the case. “To allow competitors to have access to this information before Time Warner Cable has had a chance to market customers for which it speculatively built the line would not only negate any competitive advantage, it would allow its competitors to reap the benefits of Time Warner Cable’s investment, causing substantial competitive and financial injury to Time Warner Cable.”

“The compilation of information on all the Time Warner Cable New York deployments, distances, and passings into one document would be of enormous value to a competitor,” the lawyers added. “This information could not be developed independently by competitors, and any estimates developed through publicly available data or data from third-party sources, if possible at all, would be expensive and burdensome to assemble, and less accurate than the data provided in Exhibit 46. […] Therefore, disclosure of the compilation of information on the New York Rural Builds would cause substantial competitive injury to Time Warner Cable, and should be granted exception from disclosure.”

One might expect the mighty Exhibit 46 to contain all of Time Warner’s deepest secrets — secrets that if made public would hand the “competition” the keys to the cable kingdom.

Despite the haughty demands that such information was not to be shared with the public, Stop the Cap! secured our copy of the “top-secret” Exhibit 46 (and here is a copy for you as well).

After reviewing it, it quickly became clear the only thing Time Warner Cable intended to keep secret is how little expansion (and money) the company is devoting to rural New York. The nine-page spreadsheet shows Time Warner spent $5.3 million of New York’s money to expand service to, at most, 5,320 homes or businesses that had no access to cable before. The largest beneficiary of this expansion was the rural (and more affluent than its neighbors) town of Grafton, in Rensselaer County, where 1,152 homes now have access to Time Warner Cable if they want it. An additional 875 homes in Carlisle, Schoharie County now have access as well. Despite dire warnings from Time Warner, “competitors” are hardly rushing to the scene to engage in hand-to-hand combat with the cable company, which is the only provider of broadband service for many of these residents.

As for the rest of upstate New York, Exhibit 46 offers about as much relevance to “competitors” as it does to the rural residents still being bypassed by the cable company. Most of the entries show Time Warner’s expansion projects reached fewer than 10 homes in any particular area. In a large number of those instances, the expansion ended up serving just one additional home or business.

Some examples:

  • Town of Clarence, Erie County – 4 homes or businesses
  • Town of Henrietta, Monroe County – 1
  • Town of East Bloomfield, Ontario County – 22
  • Town of Paris, Oneida County – 1
  • Town of Manheim, Herkimer County – 1
  • Town of Kirkwood, Broome County – 7
  • Town of Tupper Lake, Franklin – 116
  • Town of Gouverneur, St. Lawrence County – 29
  • Town of Brookfield, Madison County – 139
  • Town of Jefferson, Schoharie County – 3
  • Town of Big Flats, Chemung County – (either 2 or 4 – the entry is duplicated)
  • Town of Pompey, Onondaga County – 1

Of the 5,320 homes or businesses now provided access to Time Warner service, 4,104 were subsidized up to 75 percent by the State of New York. Just 1,216 locations were apparently reached exclusively at Time Warner Cable’s own expense.

New Yorkers paid most of the bill because Time Warner Cable couldn’t find $5.3 million in their company coffers to bring broadband to rural residents. But Time Warner Cable could find $80 million to cover the golden parachute compensation package available to just one employee – CEO Robert Marcus, if the company is successfully sold to Comcast for around $45 billion.

Priorities.

No wonder Time Warner Cable’s attorneys fought so hard to keep the “expansion” effort a secret.

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