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Windstream Teaches AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, Others How to Avoid Federal Income Taxes

A gift from the American taxpayer, willing to make up the difference.

Another corporate tax cut

Wall Street rallied around big telecommunications company stocks this week as news spread that Windstream has found a way to avoid paying federal income tax by converting its copper and fiber networks and other property assets into a tax-exempt trust.

Windstream says it has already won Internal Revenue Service approval to convert all of its network assets into a publicly traded “real estate investment trust.” REIT’s pay no federal income taxes, and if other large telecom companies follow Windstream’s lead, taxpayers will have to make up the estimated $12 billion in lost tax revenue annually.

Investors are excited by the prospect of a major reduction in tax exposure for some of America’s richest telecommunications companies. Windstream was rewarded the most with a 12 percent boost in its share price – a two-year high for the largely rural phone company. But AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and Cablevision also saw stock prices rising over the possibility of major increases in dividend payouts to shareholders from the proceeds of the tax savings.

REIT conversions are just the latest trick in the book corporations have used to cut, if not eliminate most of their tax liabilities. REITs are exempt from federal taxes as long as they distribute 90 percent of taxable earnings back to shareholders. Democrats in Congress have been busy fighting their Republican colleagues offer efforts to drop the practice of inversion — allowing companies to cut taxes by relocating offshore. Robert Williams, an independent corporate tax consultant, told Bloomberg News the Democrats have their hands full with that this year and are unlikely to be able to also devote resources to closing the REIT tax loophole.

“Management teams will surely look closely at emulating Windstream because the tax savings are potentially so significant,” said Craig Moffett, an analyst at MoffettNathanson LLC, in a note. “For a company like AT&T, where free cash flow has been under pressure and management has been willing to push hard to save on taxes, the appeal must surely be great.”

staxIf a high-profile phone or cable company moves to enact an REIT, that might be enough to provoke Congress to act, warned Moffett.

“The biggest hurdle in this process is getting the private letter ruling from the IRS, and we’ve got that,” David Avery, a spokesman for Windstream, told Bloomberg. The deal doesn’t need the consent of the Federal Communications Commission, Avery added.

Windstream’s tax savings will cut company debt by around $3.2 billion and produce about $115 million annually in free cash flow. Although Windstream chief financial officer Tony Thomas vaguely promised to use some of the money to invest in broadband upgrades, he was more specific about the benefits Windstream’s REIT will have on the company’s growth agenda. It can use the savings to “acquire other network assets to grow,” — business jargon meaning more merger and acquisition deals, this time fueled by Windstream’s slashed tax bill.

Wall Street investment banks paid to advise on Windstream’s REIT conversion are promoting the concept to other telecom companies as easy to replicate and profoundly profitable. But who should share in the new found wealth?

“People are asking the question if these tax benefits should be passed on to the end user — you and I when we pay our phone or cable bill — versus going to the corporation,” said Phil Owens, vice president at Green Street Advisors, a real estate research firm in Newport Beach, California, that has counseled companies like Equinix on REIT conversions.

Don’t count on it.

Windstream Pays $600,000 to Settle False Broadband Speed Claims in Georgia

Phillip Dampier February 26, 2014 Video, Windstream 2 Comments
Windstream delivers turtle slow Internet speeds to customers paying for fast connections.

Windstream delivers turtle slow Internet speeds to customers paying for fast connections.

Windstream broadband customers in Georgia were not imagining their turtle-slow DSL Internet speeds after all. After a year-long investigation, the Governor’s Office of Consumer Protection (GOCP) this week announced a $600,000 settlement with the rural telephone company over claims it was ripping off customers by falsely advertising broadband speeds it was in no position to deliver.

“This is essentially a truth in advertising case,” says John Sours, administrator of the Governor’s Office of Consumer Protection.  “What consumers thought they were getting from a major company was significantly different from what they allegedly received. People need to be able to make informed choices about buying the services they need to communicate and do business. We are confident that this settlement will ensure that will now occur here.”

A GOCP investigation found substantial evidence Windstream routinely advertised and sold certain Internet speeds to customers it should have known it could not provide and/or guarantee, especially over its deteriorating copper landline network. Customers complained they should have been sold cheaper broadband packages with Internet speeds Windstream could actually deliver.

windstreamlogoCustomers who called to complain about the poor performance of their connection received empty promises from Windstream representatives that misrepresented the time frame within which broadband speeds would improve. In some cases, customers were not told their speed issues would likely never be resolved. In rural Georgia communities, DSL broadband is often the only available option.

The GOCP also found that some of Windstream’s “Lifetime Price Guarantee bundle” advertisements falsely implied that the advertised offer included high-speed Internet packages with speeds of “up to 12 Mbps”.

Windstream was also criticized for advertising a free 6-month “Hulu Plus” subscription but did not clearly disclose that consumers who failed to cancel the subscription at or before the 6-month period would be charged membership fees every month afterwards, until the membership was cancelled.

To resolve these allegations, Windstream will pay a total of $600,000, which includes a $175,000 civil penalty, $175,000 in administrative fees and expenses, and $250,000 in cy pres restitution to be used to buy new computer equipment for the Technical College System of Georgia. Customers will receive no compensation from the settlement, but Stop the Cap! strongly recommends that affected customers insist on compensation by appealing directly to Windstream for service credits and/or a penalty-free exit from any service commitments.

gocp“Windstream … has cooperated fully throughout the inquiry by the Governor’s Office of Consumer Protection,” wrote a company spokesperson in a statement. “Windstream is pleased to resolve this inquiry by entering an assurance of voluntary compliance with all applicable advertising laws. That agreement includes no finding or admission of violation by the company.”

Windstream has represented to the Governor’s Office of Consumer Protection that it is in the process of investing about $14 million to upgrade its fiber-supported areas in Georgia.  The company says that 90% or more of these upgrades were completed by the end of 2013, with the remaining upgrades slated for completion by mid-2014. The company expects the upgrades to address systemic download speed issues in the areas undergoing the upgrades. It is also seeking federal funding as well as exploring other options for upgrading the Internet service for consumers who are served by network equipment supported by copper-fed wires.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WGCL Atlanta Windstream Settles False Advertising Suit 2-25-14.mp4

WGCL in Atlanta reports Windstream has agreed to settle charges they falsely advertised broadband speeds customers could never receive. The state gets $600,000, customers get nothing. (1:56)

Major Outage in Southeast, Turkey Buzzard Poo in Nebraska Challenging Windstream

Phillip Dampier April 29, 2013 Consumer News, Rural Broadband, Windstream 1 Comment
Circling...

Circling…

While tens of thousands of customers in the southeastern United States might describe the quality of Windstream service as something to avoid stepping in, turkey buzzards are generating plenty of the real thing in Nebraska, creating two major headaches for the independent telecom company.

As of this afternoon, at least 30,000 Windstream customers in the southeast U.S. cannot make or receive long distance or toll-free calls without encountering a fast busy signal or an intercept recording. In case callers forget what a regular busy signal sounds like, one can be heard by dialing Windstream’s national customer support number, which is overwhelmed with complaint calls from annoyed customers.

“Windstream’s network operations and engineering teams are working a widespread outage affecting long-distance and toll-free call processing,” Windstream customer support acknowledged this afternoon. “This has also affected inbound calling to our support centers. An estimated time for restoral is not known.”

That is not good enough for Windstream customer Megan Short. Anyone calling her business number is likely to hear a Windstream recording telling callers: “The number you have reached is not in service, disconnected, or has been changed.”

“I am trying to run a business here, and this issue needs to be resolved ASAP,” she wrote on the company’s Facebook page. “This is your job, you know. You have ONE JOB.”

Other customers are complaining the outage is affecting local calls as well.

Veterinary Ophthalmology Services near Nashville is having a very quiet Monday with “few calls in or out, so it can’t be just long distance numbers. The majority of our clients are local.”

The employees of Don Meyler Inspections had plenty of free time to inspect the morning newspaper, afternoon lunch, and their frustration level, because the phones simply are not ringing in south Florida either.

“We’re severely impacted for inbound calls and outbound is sporadic,” the company writes on DownDetector.com. “It is the worst outage we’ve had in six years.”

Those tenacious enough to wait for customer support are not exactly getting total customer satisfaction:

“The big kicker was being on hold with the online chat for over an hour only to inform me there was ‘a high call volume’ and then the chat session ended,” said Chad Spaulding in Louisville, Ky. “You can’t even reach the corporate office for support. This is the fourth outage in our area in two months.”

With outages like this, some might thing the buzzards would be circling, and in Beatrice, Neb. they literally are, according to the Omaha Herald-World, fouling Windstream-provisioned Verizon Wireless cell towers where the federally protected birds favor building their nests.

Windstream’s John Dageford presented the company’s solution to the annual poo-problem from the birds: shoot them.

Dageford thinks if someone kills a handful of the large birds, the rest will flee in terror.

The Beatrice council reserved its decision on how to proceed for now, although a number of Windstream customers affected by today’s outage may not.

Special Report: Georgia’s ‘Men From A.L.E.C.': Who Do Your Legislators Really Represent?

alec exposedThe corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) took a hit in the Georgia legislature last week as the clock ran out on several initiatives backed by its members and supporters on behalf of the group’s corporate clients.

While H.B. 282, a municipal broadband ban introduced by Rep. Mark Hamilton (R-Cumming) was soundly defeated in an unusual, bipartisan 94-70 vote, two other measures supported by Hamilton never came up for votes, including one that would have placed restrictions on city employees speaking out against corporate-ghostwritten bills like the public broadband ban he introduced.

Hamilton is no stranger at ALEC. He received $3,527.80 in ALEC “scholarships” in 2008 alone, according to the Center for Media and Democracy. Those payments covered certain travel expenses, wining and dining, and entertainment for state lawmakers (and often their families) bought and paid for by ALEC’s corporate members which include large telecom companies. After 2008, ALEC no longer had to disclose their scholarships and neither do many politicians who receive them.

In the last cycle, Hamilton cashed checks well into the thousands of dollars from AT&T, Charter Communications, Comcast and Verizon. That doesn’t include $1,000 from the Georgia Cable TV Association.

special reportRep. Don Parsons, another bill supporter, happens to be an active member of the ALEC Telecommunications and Information Technology Task Force. He has received $5,735.48 during his first three years in that role.

ALEC’s principle role is to get corporate-backed legislative ideas written into state laws. The group maintains a large database of pre-approved legislation ready-made for introduction in any statehouse. Simply change a few words here and there and suddenly it isn’t AT&T, Verizon, Time Warner Cable or Comcast introducing the bills they helped draft, it is Reps. Hamilton and Parsons.

In 2013, these two representatives went over the top for their corporate friends at ALEC.

Mark Hamilton’s H.B. 228: The “Keep Your Mouth Shut Else or Else” Act

Hamilton

Hamilton

Among the most overreaching bills introduced in the 2013 session was Rep. Hamilton’s H.B. 228 – an untitled bill that would prohibit local government employees from using government computers, fax machines or email to promote or oppose legislation by the General Assembly. It would also prohibit employees from contacting members of the General Assembly or the governor to discuss the impact of pending legislation on local governments, unless the employee is registered as a lobbyist or information is requested directly by a member of the General Assembly.

The greatest wish-come-true of ALEC is introducing legislation supported by unshackled corporate interests while muzzling local governments from objecting to the legislation.

In the community broadband battle, large cable and phone companies have limitless budgets to spend opposing public broadband with scare mailers, push polling, newspaper, radio and even television ads. Local officials fighting to defend their interests in better broadband do not. Hamilton’s bill would have taken this imbalance even further, making it a crime for any agencies, authorities, bureaus, departments, offices, and commissions of the state or any political subdivision of the state to provide members of the General Assembly with information about their broadband problems. Communities could not correct misinformation, explain a bill’s unintended consequences, or request changes to the bill.

“HB 228 is utterly ridiculous,” said Conyers City Manager Tony Lucas. “When did a local government, contacting one of our representatives or our governor, become professional lobbying? It’s respective governments conducting business for or on behalf of our citizens.”

Don Parsons’ H.B. 176: AT&T’s “Put Your Cell Tower Wherever You Want” Act

Rep. Parsons had trouble coming up with a good name for his latest legislative gift to AT&T. Originally entitled the “Advanced Broadband Colocation Act,” that title was eventually scrapped because it was not snappy enough. In its place, the “Mobile Broadband Infrastructure Leads to Development (BILD) Act” was suddenly born.

Parsons

Parsons

But after reading both it and a substitute amendment, we call it the “Put It Anywhere Act,” because the bill’s real intent is to largely strip away cell tower location authority from Georgia’s local governments.

Parsons does not host an AT&T cell tower in his backyard in Marietta, but other Georgian homeowners might had the bill passed.

H.B. 176 allowed cell towers to be placed anywhere a wireless company wanted with very limited local input. Companies were under no obligation to prove that the new towers were needed. Local governments could no longer veto their choices, much less limit additions to existing towers or suggest more suitable alternative locations.  Parsons’ bill even removed authority from local governments to insist that companies remove abandoned towers before constructing new ones.

Parsons went all-out for AT&T. Knowing that resource-strapped local governments often have bigger priorities, he set a deadline on cell tower applications at 90 days for existing towers, five months for new ones. Unless the community rejects a proposal showing good cause, it would be deemed automatically approved.

Amy Henderson, director of communications for the Georgia Municipal Association, scoffed at claims the bill was designed to streamline the cell tower application process.

“Dictatorship is just streamlined government,” she told the Rockdale Citizen. “It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s in the best interest of the public.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Youtube -- Rep Parsons on HB176 3-2-13.flv

Rep. Parsons’ rambling YouTube video featuring a laundry list of AT&T talking points about the need for cell companies to throw up cell towers wherever they please because it is good for business (even if it isn’t so good for you or your neighbors). Parsons’ video then launches into a hissyfit directed at the Georgia Municipal Association, unhappy with Parsons’ sweeping transfer of authority away from local communities in favor of AT&T and others. Al Gore never sighed this much. It garnered a whopping 41 views on YouTube to date and in the spirit of open dialogue, Parsons disabled comments on the video.  (17 minutes)

Private vs. Public: A Phone-y Debate

handoutAt the heart of most of ALEC’s legislative initiatives is a sense that public institutions are somehow hampering private enterprise. Community broadband is considered an especially dangerous threat because incumbent providers claim public broadband represents unfair competition.

But as ALEC itself demonstrates, corporate welfare is alive and well in the statehouses of even the reddest states. The idea that taxpayers should not be footing the bill for things the private sector can do without costing taxpayers a nickel just doesn’t fly with reality.

As Free Press reports, phone and cable companies have been on federal welfare since their inception. A 2011 Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy study shows AT&T and Verizon receiving more than $26 billion in tax subsidies from 2008–2010.

The FCC’s 2012 report on Universal Service Fund subsidies shows nearly $3 billion in federal payments to AT&T, Verizon and Windstream. In 2010, Windstream — a telecommunications company with services across the South — applied for $238 million in federal stimulus grants to improve its service in 16 states. More than 16 million taxpayer dollars went to upgrade the company’s services in Georgia.

“Phone and cable companies would not be recording the soaring profit margins that they do, if there were truly a free market,’” said Free Press Research Director S. Derek Turner. “They have created an unlevel playing field that gives them massive first-mover advantages. The real-dollar benefits of that can’t be quantified.”

Windstream Exposed: Provider Under Investigation in Georgia for Ripping Off Broadband Customers

windstreamWindstream Communications is under investigation by the Governor’s Office of Consumer Protection because of allegations the company is advertising broadband speeds and performance the company simply cannot deliver its customers in Georgia.

A Windstream employee in a company retail office in Dawsonville told an undercover CBS Atlanta photographer that the company can offer Internet speeds up to 24Mbps. He guaranteed service no slower than 6 to 12Mbps. But Mark Creekmore, who lives in Dawsonville, reports his speeds sometimes barely reach 1Mbps during the afternoons.

Duane Hartness, a Windstream customer, says Windstream has oversubscribed their service by continuing to sell broadband on a network that is overcrowded as-is, which slows speeds for every customer.

“Every customer they add to their oversubscribed DSLAM increases their revenue while further degrading your bandwidth,” Hartness said. “Lacking competition, they can ignore any and all complaints.”

Creekmore wants every Windstream customer in Georgia that is dissatisfied with their broadband service to file complaints with the state agency.

“The more complaints, the more likely the Office of Consumer Protection is to take action,” Creekmore said. “Please make sure to include that you are not getting what you are paying for and any other personal detail that would help them understand what you have gone through. If you have had multiple communications with Windstream, please include those details as well. In short, the more detail the better.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WGCL Atlanta Windstream Exposed for Not Providing Speeds Promised 3-7-13.mp4

WGCL — CBS Atlanta reports there are new developments in Georgia regarding Windstream: It is under investigation by the governor’s office for misleading subscribers with broadband speeds the company cannot actually deliver.  (3 minutes)

The FCC finds Windstream is the worst of the worst DSL providers, only giving customers advertised speeds 81 percent of the time.

The FCC finds Windstream is the worst of the worst among DSL providers, only giving customers advertised speeds 81 percent of the time. AT&T, Georgia’s largest phone company, doesn’t do much better.

Windstream is the worst-performing DSL provider in the country according to the Federal Communications Commission, with just 81 percent of customers getting the broadband speeds marketed.

After complaints about the company helped derail H.B. 282 — a bill Windstream heavily lobbied for that would have eliminated possible competition from community-owned providers — Windstream representatives quickly began promising upgrades.

“We’re asking our customers to be patient with us because we’re on it. We understand that they have issues and we’re working to upgrade their network,” Bettye Willis, a regional vice president at Windstream, told the CBS station in Atlanta.

Willis added Windstream was committed to solving its Internet speed problems, but not for everyone.

The company released this map showing planned service upgrades for "two-thirds of the communities it serves" in Georgia. But the company warned not everyone would receive improved service. For the remaining one-third, "take it or leave it" broadband service will continue.

The company released this map showing planned service upgrades for “two-thirds of the communities it serves” in Georgia. But the company warned not everyone would receive improved service. For the remaining one-third, “take it or leave it” broadband service will continue.

Time Warner Cable’s $5.26 Million Grant from NY Taxpayers Ruins Their Rhetoric

corporate-welfare-piggy-bank

Time Warner Cable objects to publicly-owned broadband networks because they represent “unfair” publicly-funded “competition,” despite the fact TWC is also on the public dole.

The next time a cable operator or phone company claims community-owned broadband providers deliver unfair competition because they are government-funded, remind them that quite often that phone or cable company also happens to be on the public dole.

Take Time Warner Cable, which this week won a $5,266,979 grant courtesy of New York State taxpayers to extend their cable system to 4,114 homes in rural parts of upstate New York just outside of the cable company’s current service areas. That equals $1,280.26 in state tax dollars per household. For that public investment, Time Warner will reap private profits for shareholders from selling broadband, cable-TV, phone, and home security services to its newest customers indefinitely.

Now unlike some of my conservative friends, I am not opposed to the state spending money to wire rural New York. It is obvious cable and phone companies will simply never wire these areas on their own so long as Return on Investment conditions fail in these places. What does annoy me are the endless arguments we hear in opposition to public broadband from these same companies, claiming with a straight face that community-owned networks represent “unfair competition” because they are publicly funded. Time Warner Cable is no stranger to public taxpayer benefits itself, having won millions in tax abatements and credits in North Carolina, Ohio and a cool $5 million courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. N.Y. Taxpayer.

Many of the nation’s private telecommunications companies have plenty of love for federal, state, and local officials who have passed favorable tax laws and policies at their behest:

So let us end the silly rhetoric about public vs. private broadband being a question of fairness. This is really a question about who controls your broadband future,  your community or big telecom corporations.

In states like Georgia, elected politicians like Rep. Mark Hamilton want those decisions made by Comcast (Pennsylvania), Windstream (Arkansas) and AT&T (Texas). His bill would make it next to impossible for a local community to do anything but beg and plead the phone company to deliver something, anything that resembles broadband service. For a good part of rural Georgia (and elsewhere), the answer has always been a resounding “no,” at least until the federal government steps up and kicks in your money to help defray the costs of extending Windstream or AT&T’s sub par DSL service that slows to a crawl once the kids are out of school.

Windstream waited for the federal government to kick in $7.28 million in taxpayer dollars before it would agree to extend its DSL service to customers in its own home state of Arkansas.

Windstream waited for the federal government to kick in $7.28 million in taxpayer dollars before it would agree to extend its DSL service to rural customers in its own home state of Arkansas.

You have to wonder about the Republicans in Georgia these days who used to fight for local and state control over almost everything. It should be instinctive for any conservative to want out-of-state pointyheads out of their business, but Rep. Mark Hamilton, himself a business owner, seems content forfeiting those rights to companies headquartered hundreds of miles away. If it was the federal government telling Georgia what kind of broadband service it deserves, do you think Mr. Hamilton would be so amenable? Unfortunately, should Hamilton have his way, for the foreseeable future, residents and business owners in Gray, Sparta, or Eatonton to count just a few will have broadband just the way the state’s phone companies want it — super slow DSL, dial-up or satellite fraudband.

Tech Companies, Consumers, Communities Push Back Against Georgia Anti-Broadband Bill

Mayor Guest

Mayor Guest

Despite protests from major technology companies, consumers, and local communities across Georgia, the House Energy, Utilities and Telecommunications Committee passed a slightly-revised HB 282, a bill that would largely ban communities from building their own networks to deliver 21st century broadband service. The bill has been moved out of the Rules Committee and will be debated on the House floor Thursday. Readers can find and contact their state representative (preferably leaving a phone message opposing HB 282) through this website. Do it this afternoon!

Last Thursday, community leaders appeared in Atlanta to oppose the corporate welfare protectionism that HB 282 represents.

“Let’s talk about economic development,” said Elberton Mayor Larry Guest. “Georgia should be promoting a pro-business, inclusive approach to broadband deployment, especially in rural areas of the state,” he said. “Competition ensures market-based pricing and faster delivery of state-of-the-art services. We have to do everything we can to attract jobs. If we don’t do that, business will not select rural Georgia. High speed access is essential to us.”

Mark Creekmore depends on his Internet connection in his Dawsonville home as part of his job and Windstream has let him down for at least three years. He pays for 12Mbps service and regularly receives around 600kbps service after 3pm because Windstream has hopelessly oversold its DSL service.

“No one should have to pay for Internet speeds they are not receiving and be told that because they live in a rural area, getting them fixed is just not a priority,” Creekmore complains. “That’s like saying: ‘Because you live in the sticks, you do not deserve what the city folks deserve despite the fact that you pay the same money for service that they do.'”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WGCL Atlanta New Bill Hinders Broadband 2-26-13.mp4

WGCL, the CBS station in Atlanta, is asking tough questions about HB 282 and exactly who it will benefit. Some suspect the bill will protect Windstream from having to upgrade its broadband services, something essential to Dawsonville resident Mark Creekmore, who has to turn customers away because Windstream’s DSL service is so poor in his area.  (3 minutes)

Creekmore is incensed Windstream is behind a push to pass HB 282, which bill supporters claim will “stimulate investment in rural broadband,” at the same time the phone company leaves him and others with substandard speeds and service.

windstream performance“I do not think it is ethical for companies like Windstream, already benefiting from taxpayer dollars, to back a bill that will keep municipalities from offering their residents something better,” said Creekmore.

Creekmore opposes government waste, but is not opposed to local communities stepping up when telecommunications companies have let their customers down.

Despite claims HB 282 will promote rural broadband expansion, Windstream’s CEO Jeff Gardner told investors the opposite Feb. 19 in a conference call.

“We will finish most of our broadband stimulus initiatives which expands our addressability to roughly 75,000 new households,” said Gardner. “As we exit 2013, we will see capital spending related to these projects decrease substantially.”

Windstream’s broadband problems are not limited to rural Georgia. In rural Missouri, Windstream’s DSL service has performed so poorly in certain communities local businesses have had to shut down operations for the day when kids are out on “snow days” because service deteriorates to the point it becomes unusable.

Thomasville, Ga., public fiber to the home network delivers the speeds it advertises.

Thomasville, Ga., runs a public fiber to the home network that delivers the speeds it advertises.

“Windstream has made it clear that they have no plans to invest in areas where they don’t feel they can be profitable,” said Piedmont Area Chamber of Commerce president Scott Combs.

Because rural broadband problems remain so pervasive, a group of technology companies including Google and Alcatel-Lucent sent a letter to the chairman of the Georgia House Energy, Utilities and Telecommunications Committee protesting the bill:

The private sector alone cannot enable the United States to take full advantage of the opportunities that advanced communications networks can create in virtually every area of life. As a result, federal and state efforts are taking place across the Nation, including Georgia, to deploy both private and public broadband infrastructure to stimulate and support economic development and job creation, especially in economically distressed areas. HB 282 would prevent public broadband providers from building the sorely needed advanced broadband infrastructure that will stimulate local businesses development, foster work force retraining, and boost employment in economically underachieving areas.

Thus far, the only response has been to slightly ease the language in the bill, now defining suitable broadband at 3Mbps service, up from 1.5Mbps. Communities with municipally owned utilities would also be exempt from the prohibition on selling telecom services. But that is hardly enough.

“Three megabits is not adequate to do functions in a modern telecommunications world,” said Thomasville mayor Max Beverly.

Thomasville has its own public broadband network and the difference between it and providers like Windstream are quickly apparent.

While Windstream sells rural Georgians service at 12Mbps but actually delivers less than 1Mbps, Thomasville residents are excited about forthcoming upgrades to 20Mbps service that actually means 20Mbps service. Thomasville’s fiber network has proved so financially successful, the community eliminated its local property tax. If HB 282 passes, other communities will find constructing such networks nearly impossible.

Democracy Now! featured Chris Mitchell and Catharine Rice on March 4, who talked about how large telecom companies are lobbying to ban community-owned broadband networks, including those in Georgia. AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and others are having success in the southeastern United States with the help of Republican state lawmakers and conservative groups with ties to the Koch Brothers. (10 minutes)

Windstream’s Lousy Performance in Georgia Sparks Facebook Protest Group, Media Scrutiny

windstream-logoWhile Windstream continues to heavily lobby the Georgia legislature for a bill that would ban competition from publicly owned broadband providers, the company is doing little to address the growing concerns of its own broadband customers getting poor service.

Mark Wyatt, a Windstream customer fed up with not getting the broadband speeds he pays for, launched a Facebook group in January to collect evidence and attempt to leverage the company to fix its problems. Wyatt, like many other customers in rural Georgia, has only one option for broadband service — Windstream.

Now the growing Facebook group has gotten attention from an Atlanta reporter who wants customers to record videos detailing their broadband problems with Windstream for an upcoming news report.

Jeff Chirico at WGCL-TV, the Atlanta CBS affiliate, has a call out for videos due by March 6:

I’m a reporter for CBS Atlanta News. I want to hear from Windstream customers in Georgia about their experiences with the company’s Internet service. Please shoot a video (30 seconds or less) explaining the speed of Windstream’s service and how it impacts you, your family or your business. Please include your name and city and download it to our dropbox account. http://dropbox.yousendit.com/JamesEstes539379

Also, feel free to follow me on Twitter @CBSATLChirico or find me on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/JeffChiricoCbsAtlanta

windstream speedtestThe horror stories are already clear all over Windstream’s service areas:

Don Jackson, who lives outside Milledgeville pays Windstream for 6/1Mbps service. On a good day, he gets 750kbps after 4pm every day, and speeds do not improve until the early morning hours.

“I talked with a local manager and he said that there is no solution anytime soon,” Jackson reported. “I have screen shots of speed tests from different sites for months to demonstrate that this is not a fluke but a fact. I have complaints on file with the FCC and BBB of Arkansas, [which handles complaints regarding Windstream].”

Adam Ridley qualified and pays for 3Mbps broadband service from Windstream, but that is not the speed he actually receives.

“It’s 9:40pm and I’m rocking my 210kbps connection — 7% of the speed I pay for,” he reported last night.

Rodney Gray pays Windstream a premium for 12Mbps service, but the phone company does not come close to delivering those speeds. His service actually ranges from 580kbps-1.4Mbps.

“My upload speed is faster than my download,” Gray complains.

A representative answering Windstream’s Complaint Line threatens a customer in Odum,. Ga. with legal action for “harassment” in June, 2012 after he complaints about Windstream’s mailers advertising DSL Internet service that is actually “not available to him this year.” (2 minutes)
You must remain on this page to hear the clip, or you can download the clip and listen later.

Kimberly Brown’s broadband problems with Windstream are so pervasive, even the company admits there is a problem, and they have given her service credits.

“Our primary problem is dropped connections — constantly,” Brown says. “They sent a technician out because surely it must be in our lines. He told us that there is something going on in one of the main hubs or whatever, and that it should be months (if ever) that it’s fixed. Then, customer service was suddenly able to look into our account and see that we had hundreds of dropped connections in just a few days. Hundreds. To their credit, they did give us a smallish break on our monthly bill because of the aggravation.”

broke windstreamA typical day for the Brown family is to wake up, reset the modem, send an e-mail or two, reset the modem, try to go to a web page, reset the modem.

“It’s crazy and extremely frustrating,” says Brown. “I work from home and rely heavily on the Internet to get my job done, so this problem affects us in many ways, not just casual web surfing.”

Things are worse for Mark B. Watson, who lost his service entirely for two days.

“The bad thing is that mine and my wife’s business is located in our house,” says Watson. “Being without Internet means we are not making an income for two days. It is getting old.”

While Windstream’s broadband service is suffering, company executives are celebrating a planned major reduction in extra investment in its broadband service, telling Wall Street its broadband expansion and fiber-for-cell-tower projects are nearing completion. That could leave rural Georgia broadband customers without improved service indefinitely.

At the same time, Windstream is reportedly the primary proponent of legislation that would make sure rural Georgians have no alternatives to choose from. The company’s support for HB 282, now working through the Georgia legislature, would prohibit communities from launching their own broadband services to improve connectivity and speeds.

Windstream’s Plans for 2013: We’re Nearly Done Expanding Broadband, Time to Cash In

windstreamlogoWindstream has announced the increased broadband investments that expanded DSL service to about 75,000 more homes and businesses and brought fiber connections to cell towers are nearly complete and the company intends to dramatically cut spending on further enhancements by the end of 2013.

Jeff Gardner, Windstream’s CEO, told investors on a conference call last week the company’s highest priority in 2013 is preserving its current dividend to create value for shareholders. Not on the priority list: improving broadband infrastructure to support video streaming services, further expanding broadband in areas it now bypasses, and boosting the quality of service it delivers to current customers.

Gardner called the company’s increased investment in 2011 and 2012 a result of “finite opportunities that provide[d] attractive investment returns.”

But most of that spending will come to an end next year.

gardner“We expect to substantially complete our capital investments related to fiber to the tower projects, reaching 4,500 towers by the end of 2013,” said Gardner. “In addition, we will finish most of our broadband stimulus initiatives […] to roughly 75,000 new households. As we exit 2013, we will see capital spending related to these projects decrease substantially.”

That could be bad news for communities in places like Wayne County, Mo., which suffers with inadequate broadband from the company. In some areas when local broadband traffic reduces DSL speeds to a crawl, area businesses are occasionally forced to shut down for the day.

Broadband and business services now account for 70% of Windstream’s revenue, but it has come with a price: increased investment, that Wall Street considers negative to the company’s value. To satisfy analysts and shareholders, Gardner made it clear improving the balance sheet is a major priority. He said he will continue to direct excess free cash flow first to preserve the company’s shareholder dividend, and then direct much of the rest to debt repayment.

That does not mean Windstream will end all investments in its business. The company now spends 12.4% on ongoing capital investments and will continue to do so, but much of the spending will cover network upkeep and supporting more profitable business services.

“Over the last four years, our acquisitions have been very targeted on businesses that are growing in the strategic growth areas that we’re focused on, and we’ve really changed the mix very significantly here, away from the consumer business toward the enterprise space, and I think that puts us in a very different position with respect to the stability of our revenue and OIBDA over time,” Gardner added.

Windstream plans to bring back its "price for life" promotion this year.

Windstream plans to bring back its “price for life” promotion this year.

Gardner noted Windstream is well-positioned to take advantage of the fact it has few competitors, which reduces pressure to invest and improve its networks to stay competitive.

“Our residential customers remain concentrated in very rural areas where there is less competition, which has contributed to a more stable consumer business,” Gardner admitted.

He added that those rural customers will have to rely on the company’s satellite partner Dish Networks for video services. Windstream will not build a “capital-intensive facilities based technology” to support online video. In contrast, CenturyLink has invested in Prism, a fiber-to-the-neighborhood service in several of its larger markets, to offer triple play packages of broadband, phone, and cable TV. Windstream has no plans to follow.

Despite investments in 2011 and 2012 to improve broadband service and speeds, Windstream’s DSL services have not kept up with its cable competitors.

During the last quarter, Windstream lost 2,000 broadband customers and 23,000 consumer voice lines (a 4.5% decline year over year).

To stem the tide of customers moving away from the phone company, Windstream is trying to sell value-added Internet support services, online backup, and faster speeds to maximize profitability. It will also add new customers made possible from federally funded broadband stimulus projects.

Windstream customers can expect to see increased promotional activity this year to win or keep their business:

  • Covering the costs of switching from another provider to Windstream;
  • A return to the “price for life” promotion, which promises stable rates as long as a customer stays with the company;
  • A substantial introductory discount on satellite TV when bundled with Windstream’s own services.

Georgia’s Rural Towns Up in Arms Over Anti-Community Broadband Bill Pushed by Windstream

Windstream is reportedly behind the latest effort to ban community broadband networks in Georgia.

Rural communities across Georgia are upset about a new piece of legislation ghost-written by Windstream Communications that would keep broadband a strictly private affair in the Peach State.

House Bill 282, introduced by Rep. Mark Hamilton (R-Cumming) would prohibit publicly owned broadband networks from being built anywhere an incumbent provider delivers at least 1.5Mbps “broadband” in the state.

Sources familiar with the legislation say Windstream, a phone company primarily serving smaller communities, is the primary force behind the bill now before a legislative committee. When news of the bill came to light earlier this week, consumers and local communities began to push back with state legislators. A planned hearing on the bill has been temporarily pushed back until next week.

The legislation would effectively tie the hands of municipalities that have waited more than a decade for AT&T, Windstream, CenturyLink and other phone companies to bring DSL broadband to rural Georgia.

While not proposing a total ban on public broadband, the bill’s requirement that service be denied to a customer in a “census block” where at least one home can receive slow speed DSL makes building such networks nearly impossible.

gamuniThe Georgia Municipal Association notes local governments in small towns and cities, already strapped for resources, would have to prove to the Georgia Public Service Commission that each census block a community wants to serve has no existing broadband service (census blocks are the smallest geographic area the Census Bureau uses for data collection.)

There are 291,086 census blocks in Georgia, making such a review difficult at best.

For communities that have already built public broadband networks, the bill brings more bad news. Under its terms, existing networks would not be allowed to expand anywhere any other provider delivers even a modicum of “high speed” 1.5Mbps Internet access. With many community networks built out in stages to minimize initial financial outlays, H.B. 282 could ruin the economic cost recovery models under which existing networks were financed and built, potentially risking bondholders.

Rep. Hamilton does not seem to care about them or whether rural Georgia gets Internet access or not. He answers to a higher calling: Windstream’s lobbyists.

gacompThe final report of Gov. Nathan Deal’s Competitive Initiative found rural Georgia at a disadvantage simply because many communities cannot get broadband service. Several regions in Georgia called on Deal’s office to help improve inadequate broadband infrastructure.

Instead, Hamilton’s bill would turn over Georgia’s broadband needs to phone company “Return on Investment” formulas that guarantee large sections of rural Georgia will remain unserved, with other areas left underserved. The bill itself defines suitable broadband at just 1.5Mbps, deemed inadequate by the Federal Communications Commission for today’s broadband user.

The bill’s defenders told The Telegraph the bill was designed to “close off an opportunity for government waste.” The bill also closes off an opportunity for better broadband and competition in Georgia.

“The fundamental question is rather simple: does Georgia want local leaders to determine the economic and investment strategies for their communities or do we want those decisions to be made solely on the business plans of companies based outside of the state,” asked the Georgia Municipal Association.

Georgia residents can contact the House Energy, Utilities & Telecommunications Subcommittee members and tell them to reject H.B. 282. Local municipalities seeking further information about this legislation should contact the Institute for Local Self-Reliance for additional information and guidance.

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