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Erie County Executive Blasts Bad Internet Access for Harming Western N.Y. Economy

Western New York

In a recent survey of 2,000 residents living in Erie County (Buffalo), N.Y., it was clear almost nobody trusts their internet service provider, and 71% were dissatisfied with their internet service.

Seventeen years after many western New York residents heard the word “broadband” for the first time at a 2000 CNN town hall at the University of Buffalo, where then U.S. Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton called for increased federal funding for high-speed internet, many upstate residents are still waiting for faster access.

The Buffalo News featured two stories about the current state of the internet in western New York and found it lacking.

Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz blames internet service providers for serving up mediocre broadband, and no service at all in some parts of the county he represents.

“It’s been put in the hands of the private sector, and the private sector has, for whatever reason, elected to not expand into particular areas or not increase speeds in particular areas, putting those areas behind the eight ball,” he said.

Poloncarz effectively fingers the three dominant internet providers serving upstate New York – phone companies Verizon and Frontier and cable company Charter/Spectrum. He argues that companies will not even consider locating operations in areas lacking the most modern high-speed broadband. The digital economy is essential to help the recovery of western New York cities affected by the loss of manufacturing jobs and the ongoing departure of residents to other states.

Poloncarz

An important part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s statewide broadband improvement initiative is prodding Charter Communications and its predecessor Time Warner Cable to do a better job offering faster internet speeds and more rural broadband expansion. The New York Public Service Commission, as part of its approval of Charter’s acquisition of Time Warner Cable, extracted more concessions from the cable giant than any other state. Among them is a commitment to expand the cable company’s footprint into adjacent unserved areas by 2020 to reach at least 145,000 homes and businesses now outside of Charter’s service area.

Last week, the cable company told the PSC it was ahead of schedule on its expansion commitment, now reaching 42,889 additional households and businesses, which is above its goal of 36,771. It has two years left to add at least another 102,111 buildings.

Charter also recently increased broadband speeds to 100 Mbps for 99% of its customers in New York and has committed to boosting those speeds to 300 Mbps by the end of next year.

But where Charter does not provide service, broadband problems come courtesy of western New York’s biggest phone companies – Verizon and Frontier. In Erie County, a broadband census found a lack of service in parts of South Buffalo, the far West Side and East Side of Buffalo, as well as in parts of every town in the county except in the prosperous communities of West Seneca and Orchard Park. Verizon FiOS can be found in a handful of well-to-do Buffalo suburban towns, but not in the city itself or in rural parts of the region.

Verizon spokesman Chris McCann said the company had no further plans to expand FiOS service in upstate New York, and stopped announcing additional expansions in 2010. In the rest of its service area, Verizon supplies DSL service as an afterthought, and has made no significant investments to improve or expand service. Frontier Communications, which is the dominant phone company in the greater Rochester region, also provides service in some other rural western New York communities, but its DSL service rarely meets the FCC’s minimum speed definition to qualify as  broadband.

Rep. Collins

Both phone companies have no plans for significant fiber optic upgrades that would boost internet speeds. There is little pressure on either company to begin costly upgrades. In rural communities, both companies lack cable competition and in more urban areas, both have written off their ongoing customer losses to their cable competitor. That leaves towns like North Collins in a real dilemma. Poloncarz told the newspaper residents frequently park in the town library parking lot at night to connect to the library’s Wi-Fi service, because they lack internet service at home.

A political divide has opened up between area Democrats and Republican officials on how to solve the rural broadband problem. Democrats like Poloncarz are exploring solving the rural internet problem with a county-owned fiber network that would be open to all private ISPs to assist them in expanding service. He is joined by Erie County legislator Patrick Burke, who thinks it is time to spend the estimated $16.3 million it will take to build an “open access network” across Erie County.

“There are literally geographic dead zones, and it’s unnecessary,” said Burke, a Buffalo Democrat. “There’s no excuse.”

Poloncarz is more cautious and told the newspaper he will only propose the idea if he is convinced it will solve the problem, but is willing to continue studying it.

Republicans from the western New York congressional delegation believe deregulation and other incentives may give private companies enough reasons to begin upgrades and expansion.

Rep. Chris Collins, a Clarence-area congressman with close ties to the Trump White House, defended FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s recent decision to eliminate net neutrality. Pai was born in Buffalo.

Collins argues net neutrality only raised the cost of business for ISPs, and being rid of it would inspire cable and phone companies to boost investment in 105 exurban and rural towns in his district, which covers eight counties and extends from the Buffalo suburbs east to Canandaigua, 80 miles away. More than 65% of those areas are under-served because DSL is often the only choice, and at least 3.3% had no internet options at all.

Rep. Tom Reed (R-Corning) has just as many internet dead zones in his district, if not more. Reed represents the Southern Tier region of western New York in a district that runs along the Pennsylvania border from the westernmost part of New York east nearly to Binghamton. Much of recent broadband development in this part of New York comes as a result of Gov. Cuomo’s state-funded broadband expansion initiative, not private investment.

Reed has a record in Congress that is better at explaining the rural broadband dilemma than solving it.

“In a rural district, there are areas that are just physically difficult to serve,” Reed shrugged.

Collins’ hope that the banishment of net neutrality will inspire Frontier, Verizon, and Charter to use their own money to expand into the frontiers of western New York seems unlikely. Gov. Cuomo’s plan, which uses public funds to help subsidize mostly private companies to expand into areas where Return On Investment fails to meet their metrics has had more success.

But the rural broadband debate has been accompanied by a fierce pushback among upstate New Yorkers against the Republican-controlled FCC and elected officials like Collins who support the recent gutting of net neutrality. A backlash has developed in his district, and some have accused Collins of aiding and abetting a corporate takeover of the internet.

“The hysteria and narrative that this will kill the internet is blatantly false,” responded Collins. “Internet service providers have said they do not increase speeds for certain websites over others, and I have signed onto legislation that would make such a practice illegal.”

Goodbye FairPoint, New Owner Rebrands as Consolidated Communications

Just shy of 10 years after FairPoint Communications acquired Verizon’s landline properties in the northern New England states of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, both the company and its name are disappearing forever.

Consolidated Communications, which announced it would acquire FairPoint in December 2016, intends to put FairPoint’s name and reputation behind it, and is rebranding the phone company as Consolidated Communications with plans for significant broadband upgrades for its customers.

FairPoint bought the assets of Verizon’s landline network in the three northern New England states in 2007 for $2.4 billion. The transition from Verizon to FairPoint did not go well, and the company stumbled for years trying to keep up with billing and service problems and the need to continually expand broadband service to stay competitive, all while also trying to pay off the debts it incurred in the acquisition. The company failed on all accounts and declared bankruptcy in 2009, eventually emerging with a new business plan in 2011.

FairPoint’s performance post-bankruptcy has relied on cautious spending, cost-cutting measures and benefits cutbacks for its employees, which triggered a 131-day strike in 2014 among FairPoint’s union workforce — the longest walkout of any company that year. Replacement workers sent in to handle service calls and network maintenance were criticized by customers and lacked experience to manage New England’s rough winters.

By early 2016, executives claimed their “turnaround” plan for FairPoint had made significant strides. By that summer, activist shareholders were demanding FairPoint be put up for sale, in part to allow them to quickly recoup their investments in company debt that could not be monetized unless another company acquired FairPoint and assumed those debts.

In late 2016, Consolidated Communications did exactly that, acquiring FairPoint’s assets in northern New England and many other states where it operates small phone companies for $1.5 billion — a significant drop in value for assets that sold for nearly $1 billion more nine years earlier.

Rob Koester, Consolidated Communications vice president for consumer products clearly wants to put FairPoint behind him.

“It is a new beginning,” he said. “It’s a new chapter for us. It’s a re-dedication to our customers.”

Some of the biggest planned changes appear to be more job cuts. Consolidated recently eliminated FairPoint’s state president positions in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont and will depend on regional management instead. The phone company will also once again face negotiations with unions that represent much of its workforce later this year. Most expect the unions will not be friendly to anticipated company efforts to further consolidate and reduce benefits.

Promised broadband upgrades from speed increases come with few details, except a broad commitment to raise speeds for 300,000 internet customers over the course of this year — which represents about 30% of FairPoint customers. Spokeswoman Angelynne Amores claims there will be no price hikes for faster internet speeds.

But Consolidated will also be under the watchful eye of Wall Street, which does not want the company to invest too much in broadband upgrades until shareholders are comfortable with the company’s financial future. There are few business successes in wireline acquisitions and mergers these days, as Frontier Communications can attest from its purchase of Verizon’s network in Florida, California, and Texas.

Any upgrades cannot come soon enough for FairPoint customers forced to endure its DSL service as their only internet access option.

Michael Charter, a FairPoint customer in Jericho, Vt., lives just outside the state’s largest city, Burlington, where there are several internet service providers. But in his part of Jericho, FairPoint is the only broadband provider available, and it does not come close to offering actual broadband speeds.

Charter told the Associated Press his current solution is to buy two DSL accounts from FairPoint and divide up the load from his family’s streaming, internet browsing, downloading and telecommuting across two different accounts. His television and computers share one FairPoint DSL account hooked up to one router while other internet usage is confined to a second router connected to a second account. FairPoint is unable to bond the two connections together to increase speed, so two slow DSL lines is the best option for him for now.

Consolidated isn’t likely to make a lot of money taking over FairPoint’s residential and business landlines or DSL accounts. But it could earn substantial revenue from FairPoint’s extensive fiber network laid across the three northern New England states it serves. Companies and public institutions rely on fiber connectivity, as do cell towers — including the future swarm of 5G small cells expected to eventually be placed across the phone company’s footprint.

The phone company’s biggest rival is Comcast, which has some cable coverage in the region, but large sections of all three states are bypassed by Comcast and Charter Communications, which has a substantial presence in eastern Maine.

Frontier Communications’ Broken Promises to Mountain Counties of North Carolina

Frontier Communications customers in the mountainous western counties of North Carolina have run out of patience waiting for web pages to load and upgrades to arrive, despite repeated promises from the phone company that its aging copper-wire DSL service would improve over time.

Stop the Cap! readers in the region pointed us to a special investigative report by WLOS-TV, Asheville’s ABC affiliate, which reports Frontier service is so bad, speeds under 1 Mbps are common. The station saw examples of Frontier unable to supply even modest speeds of just 3 Mbps.

“I’d rather stab myself than rely on Frontier’s fake internet access,” says our reader Darrell, who lives near Brasstown. “The only thing high-speed at Frontier is how fast they hang up on you when you call to complain.”

Frontier sold him “up to 10 Mbps” speed and instead struggles to deliver 1 Mbps, despite repeated service calls and promises of improvements.

“They keep telling us the federal government has to come up with money to help upgrade the area, and I keep wondering why a private company needs our tax dollars to build a network they will profit from for years,” Dan said. “If they cannot do the job, maybe the town should because they at least answer to us.”

Aiden Davis, who lives near Asheville, said he’d rather have the government give money to the cable company to extend broadband to his home, which is located about 1/4th a mile away from the nearest cable connection.

“At least the cable company can give me speeds DSL never will,” he told us.

Reporters at WLOS visited Murphy, N.C., a community of 1,600 people in Cherokee — the westernmost county of the state.

Craig Marble escaped Washington, D.C. to live in the picturesque community nestled in the mountains. But his efforts to telecommute to his IT employer are frustrated by Frontier’s DSL service, which is supposed to provide up to 3 Mbps to Marble and his neighbors. But Frontier delivers far less than it advertises.

Western North Carolina

“It’s just a comedy of errors except that it’s not funny. It takes five minutes to load a single webpage,” Marble said. “This should be 3.0, not .3 [Mbps],” Marble said while showing reporters various speed tests for his service, resulting in .3 and .5, and .6 Mbps at various times throughout the morning and afternoon.

More than 50 similar complaints have been filed with the North Carolina Attorney General, some about internet speed, others about service, outages, and billing problems.

“If there are companies out there making representations to consumers that they can not back up and we hear from consumers, we will absolutely take action on their behalf,” Attorney General Josh Stein told the station. “If we determine that Frontier is not complying with the law, we’ll hold them accountable, but there’s a lot of work we still need to do.”

But residents contend Stein does not seem to be in a hurry to chase down Frontier, and may not have the resources to follow through even if he wanted. After the Democrat won the North Carolina Attorney General race and took office in 2017, the Republican-controlled legislature slashed $10 million from his budget, forcing layoffs of dozens of staff attorneys and limiting his office’s ability to act.

Stein told the TV station he wrote to Frontier about internet speed issues in North Carolina, but hasn’t received a response.

Frontier responded to WLOS with a statement, reading in part:

“Copper-based internet service is difficult to represent consistently as it is subject to distance limitations. That is why it is sold as offering ‘up to’ a specified speed. Not all customers will have the same DSL service.”

But some customers report speeds are consistently better at times when most people are unlikely to be online, suggesting Frontier may be overselling its DSL service — forcing too many customers to share a limited bandwidth connection.

“When it is 2:30 in the morning, we always have the best speeds,” Davis reported. “They always drop as soon as the kids get home from school and keep dropping into the evening. During recent winter storms, speeds dropped to the point where the internet was unusable.”

Attorney General Joel Stein

“It’s not a technical problem, it’s a ‘reluctance to spend money to fix it’ problem,” he added.

Frontier frequently responds to speed complaints with press releases touting recent internet service improvements made possible through the federal government’s Connect America Fund, without always disclosing many of these projects pay to extend internet access into areas where it did not exist before, not improve service for customers that already have it.

Frontier’s willingness to spend its own money on broadband improvements is often challenged by Wall Street’s demands for a dividend payout to shareholders, sending a significant portion of Frontier’s incoming revenue to investors. The company has reduced its dividend during difficult times to invest in limited upgrades. But critics claim Frontier’s devotion to a robust upgrade program comes second to shareholders and depends mostly on federal government handouts.

“The company struggles to spend $14.4 million on upgrades through 2020, but had no problem spending more than $10 billion to buyout Verizon in Florida, California, and Texas,” complained Darrell. “When you ask them specific questions, you learn that upgrade spending is window dressing that won’t address their speed problems across this part of the state.”

Marble tells WLOS that seems to be his impression as well, noting Frontier representatives didn’t give him much hope.

“They said — several of them said, ‘There are no plans for upgrades in your area, period’,” Marble said.

The TV station sent Frontier a detailed questionnaire, to which the company responded, taking care to disclaim some of the upgrade benefits many of Frontier’s own press releases seem to imply:

Question: How many customers does Frontier service in the following counties: Buncombe, Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Henderson, Jackson, Macon, Madison, Mitchell, McDowell, Polk, Rutherford, Swain, Transylvania, Yancey? Answer: I’m not familiar enough with cities in counties etc. We have customers in the following towns: Andrews, Bryson City, Buncombe, Cashiers, Cherokee, Cullowhee, Fontana, Franklin, Garden City, Glenwood, Hayesville, Highlands, Madison, McDowell, Mitchell, Murphy, Robbinsville, Suit, Sylva, Weaverville and Yancey. Of those we serve, some are only telephone customers, some internet only customers and still others both phone and internet customers. While we do not provide market specific customer counts in any of our operating areas for competitive reasons, it is fair to say that our customer count in the areas I referenced is in the tens of thousands.

Question: How is Frontier using the Connect America Funds in western North Carolina? What’s being done to upgrade or add service? How is the money being spent? Answer: Frontier is installing fiber into network support buildings or units in western North Carolina to enable more capacity over our existing copper network.

Question: How many new customers has Frontier been able to provide service to, as a result of Connect America funds? Are the funds being used more for acquiring new customers or is it more upgrading service for existing customers and in that case, what have the service improvements been like? Answer: It starts with upgrading the network to provide a minimum of 10 Mbps service identified as CAF households to meet the requirements of the CAF Fund as established by the FCC. Customers along the path of these improvements, both existing and those who are currently not customers, can take advantage of new broadband upgrades though not necessarily at the 10 Mbps threshold. However, it is not designed to extend the network to different operating areas.

Question: How much funding has Frontier received in Connect America funds for upgrades to broadband service in those western North Carolina counties? Answer: As of 2016, Frontier began receiving approximately $3.6 million a year from the CAF to expand and upgrade the company’s network to more than 11,000 locations in North Carolina by the end of 2020, to include areas in western NC. In total, Frontier has accepted the FCC’s CAF II offer of over $330 million annually across 29 states during the six-year program, and must meet annual benchmarks for each state beginning in 2017 for passing a specified percentage of designated households.

Question: In which counties has Frontier received funds and is using them to improve or add service? Answer: We have previously used CAF II funds in Macon, Clay, Jackson and Swain counties.

Question: What projects/upgrades have been completed to date, since Frontier started receiving Connect America funds? Answer: In addition to the counties referenced above, representative counties in this latest round in 2017 included households in Cashiers, Cherokee, Franklin and Hayesville. By the of this phase of CAF II funding the intention is to have touched all of the counties we serve in Western NC, barring anything unexpected.

Question: Has Frontier over-promised service in areas in any of the above mentioned counties? If service has been over-promised, what problems is that creating and what is the remedy for solving that problem? Answer: I’m not sure what this question is asking. I would say that copper-based internet service is difficult to represent consistently as it is subject to distance limitations. That is why it is sold as offering “up to” a specified speed. However, CAF funding should have a positive impact on the end user experience.

Question: What is the best way customers who feel they’re being underserved or not getting the service that they’ve paid for can reach out to report a problem? Answer: They should call 1-800-921-8101.

Question: Has the state of North Carolina, through the state’s Attorney General office or Consumer Protection Division reached out to Frontier over service issues, failing to deliver on service promises made by the company and if so, what’s been the response back to the state? Answer: We receive individual customer complaints from these agencies, usually revolving around availability of service or insufficient internet speeds. Our marketing for internet service and our terms of service recognize that some customers may not have the same experience as others, largely because of the distance limitations of DSL service or congestion in the network. We are attempting to address both of these issues through a combination of normal capital budgets and the additional CAF II funding.

Question: What are some of the issues Frontier runs into in expanding or improving broadband service or internet access and speed issues in western North Carolina? Answer: Mostly there are geographic challenges. However, customer density is also a challenge, or lack thereof. Balancing the significant cost of expanding broadband availability in rural areas versus the potential return on that investment is always a challenge. However, we are grateful for the Connect America Fund to help spur some of that investment and know that those customers who have been impacted by the expanded capacity appreciate the service.

Question: Anything you would like to add about the Connect America funds? Answer: We are fortunate to be a participant in the CAF funding process and grateful to the FCC for making it possible. Our hope is that customers in Western NC will have better internet connectivity experiences as we move along toward the culmination of this funding in 2020.

If you live in North Carolina and want to file a complaint about your internet service with the Attorney General’s Office click here.

WLOS-TV in Asheville, N.C. aired this special investigative report about Frontier Communications’ performance problems in western North Carolina. (5:03)

Finding The Truth About West Virginia’s Bad Broadband; Here’s How You Can Help

If advertised claims of lightning fast DSL internet don’t match reality, it never hurts to bring evidence to the table if you want to prove your state’s biggest telecom company is lying through its teeth.

West Virginia’s Broadband Council wants to understand just how awful broadband is in the state, despite glowing rhetoric from cable and phone companies that promise fast connections that rarely deliver to beleaguered broadband users. The Council has created its own Speed Test Portal for the state’s broadband users to test their internet speed. The results will also provide data about real world broadband performance to generate a new statewide broadband map that will clearly identify where broadband performs, where it doesn’t, and where it doesn’t exist.

“The speed test is really important,” Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher said. “This is one of those things where before you know where you’re going to go, you have to know where you are. So we’re trying to identify what type of broadband service we have. That’s what the speed tests do for us. We want people to take the speed test, send it in and from there, we will create a map of where we are in the state of West Virginia and identify where our priorities should be. From that, we can identify where we are strong and where we are weak. We can identify where to prioritize areas to put funding and resources to generate broadband connectivity.”

The Council wants residents to test early, test often, and test on every computer they can find to make the data as meaningful as possible.

“With this information, the Broadband Council will work with local governments to help bring affordable broadband service to underserved and unserved areas of the state,” Council Chairman Robert Hinton said in a recent Department of Commerce news release.

One of the responsibilities of the Council is determining whether providers are delivering the speeds they advertise to state residents. West Virginia is ranked 48th worst out of the 50 states for the percentage of residents without access to broadband service. The state’s incumbent phone company, Frontier Communications, controls virtually all the state’s telephone lines. Its DSL service is not well regarded by customers and its poor performance led to a $150 million settlement with West Virginia’s Attorney General Patrick Morrisey in 2015 for deceptive claims about its DSL service.

Behind the scenes, the Broadband Council is also attempting to build an evidentiary record of “discrepancies between the service the incumbent has claimed to provide and the service the incumbent has actually provided.” If the Council can show Frontier is failing to meet its service requirements, it is hoping the FCC will open broadband funding to other providers in unserved and underserved areas in the state, some potentially offering fiber optic broadband. That would, they argue, be a better use of limited Connect America Fund resources than funding further expansion of Frontier’s DSL service.

In a filing with the FCC in response, Frontier said the Council’s solution is “misplaced and inappropriate.” It asked the FCC to reject the proposal and instead increase funding available to Frontier for rural broadband expansion in West Virginia. For Frontier, the metric that matters the most is that the company “well ahead of schedule” to meet the federal program’s requirements.

“Because Frontier is often alone in undertaking the challenge of providing any landline internet service to the most rural and remote areas in the state, Frontier is often the brunt of dissatisfaction, as expressed in the Council’s letter, with the available speeds and technologies in those areas,” Frontier said.

In October, Frontier waived away a demand to return $4.7 million in funds an inspector general claimed were the result of padded invoices with phony extra charges and improper reimbursements for “unreasonable and unallowable” fees.

In a letter to West Virginia Chief Technology Officer John Dunlap, Frontier made it clear that West Virginia taxpayers were effectively on the hook for the money, noting any funds the state might return to the federal government “are, of course, not recoverable from Frontier.”

Frontier: Nothing to See Here; 3rd Quarter Results Cause Share Price to Plummet to New Low

Phillip Dampier November 1, 2017 Broadband Speed, Competition, Consumer News, Frontier No Comments

Frontier’s stock has reached the lowest level of the year after another disappointing earnings report.

Frontier Communications turned in lackluster numbers for the third quarter of 2017, resulting in a wide selloff of Frontier’s stock, driving it to the lowest level it has seen in a year.

Investors are reacting to news the company missed earnings estimates once again, and many are losing confidence in Frontier’s CEO Daniel McCarthy, who has promised better results for more than a year. Frontier is rare among broadband providers, losing customers in virtually every segment of its business, including in its acquired FiOS service areas.

Frontier’s stock has lost more than 80% of its marketplace value so far this year — a stunning decline for a company selling broadband service in many areas where it maintains a monopoly.

McCarthy once again made a commitment his efforts will “stabilize” customer losses, but spent most of his time trying to reassure investors on a Tuesday conference call that those stabilization efforts will primarily target areas where Frontier sells FiOS fiber to the home service. Customer churn continues to be a problem, with many customers leaving either because the company alienated them or dramatically raised their rates after a discounted promotion expires. Either way, many of those customers switch back to a cable provider. McCarthy claimed Frontier plans to adjust promotional pricing to soften the blow of a steep rate hike after a promotion expires.

McCarthy said almost nothing about Frontier’s legacy service areas, where Frontier still sells copper-based DSL service. Some of the company’s biggest losses have been in areas where it cannot compete effectively with cable broadband. McCarthy offered to enhance customer retention efforts and increase marketing to reduce losses, but there are no indications Frontier plans to spend significantly on major network upgrades in these areas anytime soon.

Frontier declared an unexpected dividend of $0.60 a share, which some analysts consider excessive and represents a “red flag atop this toxic value destroyer.”

One analyst remarked, “I’m not buying it; Frontier is a business in free fall.”

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