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Google Fiber Testing New Landline Phone Service: Google Fiber Phone

Phillip Dampier February 1, 2016 Competition, Consumer News, Google Fiber & Wireless No Comments

Google-Fiber-Rabbit-logoDespite predictions Google Fiber had no interest in offering customers landline telephone service, Google has quietly begun testing a new residential voice service called Google Fiber Phone that appeared to be powered by its Google Voice service.

Google hoped to keep the trial confidential, but one of its subscribers shared their invitation with the Washington Post:

We are always looking to provide new offerings to members of our Fiber Trusted Tester program which gives you early access to confidential products and features.

Our latest offering is Google Fiber Phone, which gives you the chance to add home phone service to your current Fiber service plan and offers several advanced features:

  • A phone number that lives in the cloud. With Fiber Phone you can use the right phone for your needs whether it’s your mobile device on the go or your landline at home. No more worrying about cell reception or your battery life when your home.
  • Voicemail the way it should be. Get your messages transcribed delivered directly to your email.
  • Get only the calls you want when you want. Spam filtering, call screening, and do not disturb make sure the right people can get in touch with you at the right time.

With Fiber Phone you have the option to get a new number or transfer an existing landline or cell number. If you’re interested in testing this product please fill out this form within one week.

Please be aware that testing Google Fiber Phone will require a service visit in which a Fiber team member will come to your home to install a piece of equipment. If you’re selected for this Trusted Tester group, we will be actively seeking your feedback – both good and bad – so that we can improve Fiber Phone once we launch it to all of our customers.

Please remember that the Trusted Tester Program gives you early access to features which are not yet available to the public, so please help us keep this confidential.

Thanks,

The Google Fiber Team

Google-voiceThe feature set sounds almost identical to Google Voice, which offers free phone service. For the first time, Google is prepared to allow customers to port existing landline numbers to its phone service. Previously, Google Voice customers could only port a cell phone number or select a new number to start the service.

Google Fiber has only sold single or double-play packages of Internet and/or television service. Customers looking for telephone service had to select a third-party provider like Vonage or Ooma or be technically proficient to get Google Voice service up and running with Voice over IP equipment. Including Google Fiber Phone would allow Google to sell a triple-play package.

The technician visit required is likely to involve wiring Google Fiber’s beta test phone line into a home’s existing telephone wiring, which will let customers use their current home and cordless phones.

Google has not announced a price for the service, but there is every chance it could come free with Google Fiber, which starts at $70 a month for 1 gigabit broadband service.

Despite the increasing frequency of announcements promoting new Google Fiber cities, Google’s currently operating fiber network remains modest. In October 2015, Bernstein Research estimated Google Fiber passed about 427,000 homes and 96,000 business locations, primarily in Kansas City and Provo, Utah, according to Multichannel News. Bernstein estimated Google Fiber has about 120,000 paid customers nationwide.

West Virginia Lawmakers Battle Slow Broadband; Propose to Fine ISPs for False Speed Claims

frontier speedFrontier Communications is the obvious target of an effort by members of West Virginia’s House of Delegates to embarrass the company into providing at least 10Mbps broadband service or face steep penalties if it does not stop advertising slow speed DSL as “High-Speed Internet.”

State lawmakers continue to be flooded with complaints about the poor performance of Frontier Communications’ DSL service, which customers claim delivers slow speeds, unreliable service, or no service at all.

Although Frontier frequently advertises broadband speeds of 10Mbps or faster, customers often do not receive the advertised speeds, and the service can be so slow it will not work reliably with online video services.

West Virginia’s broadband problems remain so pervasive, the state legislature this year will entertain several broadband improvement measures, including a proposal to spend $72 million to build a publicly owned middle mile fiber optic network. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Chris Walters (R-Putnam) claims the new fiber network would boost Internet speeds, improve service, and force down broadband pricing.

With cable broadband available only in major communities, much of West Virginia is dependent on DSL service from Frontier Communications, the telephone company serving most of the state. That is a unique situation for Frontier, which typically serves smaller and medium-sized cities in-between other communities serviced by larger providers like Verizon, AT&T, and Qwest/CenturyLink. Frontier’s problems meeting customer expectations have been well heard in Charleston, the state capitol, if only because most members of the state legislature have Frontier customers in their districts.

Legislators have found they have little recourse over a business that operates largely without regulation or government oversight, as Delegate John Shott (R-Mercer) told the Charleston Gazette. Shott heads the House Judiciary Committee and gets plenty of complaints from his constituents.

“[Customers] feel they never get the speed the Internet providers represent,” said Shott. “There doesn’t seem to be any recourse or regulatory body that has any ability to cause that to change.”

In the absence of regulation or direct oversight, a class action lawsuit on behalf of Frontier DSL customers in the state is still working its way through court. In December 2015, a separate action by West Virginia Attorney General Pat Morrisey resulted in a settlement agreement with Frontier. The company agreed to guarantee at least 6Mbps speeds for around 28,000 customers, or give them a substantial monthly discount off their broadband bill.

frontier wvShott’s bill, HB 2551, targets “unfair or deceptive acts or practices” of Internet Service Providers that advertise fast speeds but never deliver them. The bill would expose a violating ISP to damages up to $3,000 per customer, a $5,000 state fine, and allow customers to walk away from any outstanding balance or contract:

It is an unfair or deceptive act or practice and a violation of this article for any seller or Internet service provider to advertise or offer to provide “high speed Internet service” that is not at least ten megabytes per second.

If a seller or Internet service provider violates […] this section, the consumer has a cause of action to recover actual damages and, in addition, a right to recover from the violator a penalty in an amount, to be determined by the court, of not less than $100 nor more than $3,000. No action brought pursuant to this subsection may be brought more than two years after the date upon which the violation occurred or the due date of the last scheduled payment of the agreement, whichever is later.

If a seller or Internet service provider violates […] this section, any sale or contract for service is void and the consumer is not obligated to pay either the amount due, the amount paid or any late payment charge. If the consumer has paid any part of a bill or invoice, or of a late payment fee, he or she has a right to recover the payments from the violator or from any [collection agency] who undertakes direct collection of payments or enforcement of rights arising from the alleged debt.

The Attorney General of this state shall investigate all complaints alleging violations […] and has a right to recover from the violator a penalty in an amount, to be determined by the court, of not less than $500 nor more than $5,000 per violation, with each advertisement or contract to sell or provide “high speed Internet” being a separate violation. The Attorney General also has the power to seek injunctive relief.

As of today, the bill counts Delegates J. Nelson, Border, Kessinger, Arvon, Moffatt, A. Evans, Wagner, Cadle, and D. Evans as sponsors.

Delegate Shott

Delegate Shott

“The list of sponsors of this bill [HB 2551] are from a broad geographic area,” Shott told the newspaper. “They’ve identified this as a problem in their areas.”

Some legislators believe West Virginia should enforce the FCC’s latest minimum definition of broadband – 25Mbps, but the Gazette reports that kind of robust speed definition could be difficult for a DSL provider to achieve without significant additional investment. Some worry companies like Frontier could have difficulty justifying further rural broadband expansion in a state traditionally challenged by its number of rural areas and difficult terrain.

Despite those difficulties, incumbent providers like Frontier, Suddenlink, and Comcast have not appreciated efforts to help expand public broadband networks in the state, including the proposal outlined in Sen. Chris Walters’ SB 315, which would authorize about $72 million to build a public middle mile fiber network that would be offered to ISPs at wholesale rates.

Frontier strongly objects to the project because it would use public dollars to compete with private businesses like Frontier. The phone company’s opposition raised eyebrows among some in Charleston, who note Frontier had no objections to accepting $42 million in state dollars in 2010 to construct and install a fiber network it now operates for hundreds of public facilities across the state and $283 million in federal dollars to expand rural broadband. The 2010 fiber project was rife with accusations of waste, fraud, and abuse. Critics allege Frontier overcharged the state, installing service for $57,800 per mile despite other providers routinely charging about $30,000 a mile in West Virginia.

The West Virginia Cable Television Association, representing cable operators in the state, called the project a money-waster, noting it would not result in a single new hookup for broadband service. Middle mile networks do not reach individual homes and businesses and the bill does not authorize the state to get into the ISP business.

Sen. Walters

Sen. Walters

Much of the support for the public network comes from smaller ISPs like Citynet, which predominately serves commercial customers, and equipment vendors like Alpha Technologies. Walters believes if West Virginia builds the network, broadband providers will come to use it. The state’s dominant cable and phone companies vehemently disagree. The cable association has launched an all-out PR war, hoping to attract opposition from conservative lawmakers with claims the project will mandate state and local governments to buy Internet connectivity exclusively from the state-owned network and would trample on corporate rights by using eminent domain to seize parts of the cable industry’s fiber networks to complete the state network.

Walters brushed away the accusations, telling the Gazette there is no mandate that state agencies use the network and there are no plans for the government to take any fiber away from a private company.

Cable operators prefer an alternative measure also introduced in the West Virginia Senate. SB 16 would grant tax credits of up to $500 per address for any phone or cable company that agrees to wire a previously unserved rural address. The bill would limit total tax credits to $1 million.

The difference between the two measures? Walters’ bill would use public money to build a public broadband network owned by the public and answerable to the state. The cable industry-backed proposal would use public money in the form of tax offsets to wire homes and businesses to broadband owned by private businesses answerable to shareholders.

AT&T Announces 38 New Markets for Gigabit U-verse, Omits Availability Numbers

Phillip Dampier December 8, 2015 AT&T, Broadband Speed, Competition, Consumer News 6 Comments

uverse gigapowerOn Monday, AT&T announced 38 additional cities that will eventually have access to its gigabit broadband offering – AT&T U-verse with GigaPower, but the company remains coy about the number of customers that can actually order the service today across the 56 metro areas that will eventually be served by AT&T’s fiber to the home network.

“Nearly two years ago, we successfully launched the first AT&T GigaPower metro in Austin, Tex.,” AT&T wrote in its press release. “This launch led to a major expansion in multiple metros beginning in 2014. Recently we marked a major milestone deploying the AT&T GigaPower network to more than 1 million locations, and we expect to more than double availability by the end of 2016.”

Stop the Cap! asked AT&T for information about its claim of offering service to more than “one million locations” and received a response that this number may not reflect strict availability of the gigabit service, but rather the likely number of potential customers served by a central office/exchange where GigaPower was enabled. In reality, not every customer within a central office immediately qualifies for U-verse service, as many customers have complained.

At the current rollout rate of about one million customers per year, it will take AT&T at least 12 years to achieve its goal of more than 14 million residential and commercial locations, probably in the year 2027.

The 38 metro areas that AT&T will be entering, starting with the launch of service in parts of the Los Angeles and West Palm Beach metros today, are:

  • Alabama: Birmingham, Huntsville, Mobile and Montgomery
  • Arkansas: Fort Smith/Northwest Arkansas and Little Rock
  • California: Bakersfield, Fresno, Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco and San Jose
  • Florida: Pensacola and West Palm Beach
  • Georgia: Augusta
  • Indiana: Indianapolis
  • Kansas: Wichita
  • Kentucky: Louisville
  • Louisiana: Baton Rouge, ShreveportBossier, Jefferson Parish region and the Northshore
  • Mississippi: Jackson
  • Missouri: St. Louis
  • Michigan: Detroit
  • Nevada: Reno
  • North Carolina: Asheville
  • Ohio: Cleveland and Columbus
  • Oklahoma: Oklahoma City and Tulsa
  • South Carolina: Charleston, Columbia and Greenville
  • Tennessee: Memphis
  • Texas: El Paso and Lubbock
  • Wisconsin: Milwaukee

For more information on where the AT&T GigaPower network is and will become available, visit att.com/gigapowermap.

Verizon: Ignore Our Adamant Denials of Not Being Interested in Selling Our Wired Networks

carForSaleDespite denials Verizon Communications was interested in selling off more of its wireline network to companies like Frontier Communications, the company’s chief financial officer reminded investors Verizon is willing to sell just about anything if it will return value to its shareholders.

In September, rumors Verizon planned to sell more of its wireline network where the company has not invested in widespread FiOS fiber-to-the-home expansion grew loud enough to draw a response from Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam at the Goldman Sachs 24th annual Communicopia Conference.

“When people ask me, and I know there’s some speculation that we might be interested in selling the wireline properties, I don’t see it in the near-term,” McAdam said.

Today, Shammo seemed to clarify McAdam’s pessimistic attitude about another Verizon landline sell off in the near future.

“We’re extremely happy with the asset portfolio we have right now, but as we always say we continue to look at all things,” Shammo said. “Just like the towers, we said we would not sell the towers and then we got to a great financial position and we sold our towers. If something makes sense [and] we can return value to our shareholders and it’s not a strategic fit we’ll obviously look at that.”

Shammo

Shammo

For most of 2014, Verizon denied any interest in selling its portfolio of company-owned wireless cell towers. In February 2015 the company announced it would sell acquisition rights to most of its cell towers to American Tower Corporation for $5.056 billion in cash.

Some analysts believe the early indicators that suggest Verizon is ready to sell include its lack of upgrades in non-FiOS service areas and Verizon’s willingness to walk away from up to $144 million from the second phase of the FCC’s Connect America Fund to expand Internet access to more of Verizon’s rural landline customers.

Verizon’s decision to take a pass on broadband improvement funds infuriated four southern New Jersey counties that claim Verizon has neglected its copper network in the state. As a result of allegedly decreasing investment and interest by Verizon, customers in these areas do not get the same level of phone and broadband service that Verizon customers receive in the northern half of New Jersey.

More than a dozen communities have signed a joint petition sent to the Board of Public Utilities, New Jersey’s telecom regulator, insisting the BPU take whatever measures are needed to preserve the availability of telecommunications services in southern New Jersey. The towns also want the BPU to consider funding sources to help improve broadband service that public officials claim is woefully inadequate. Outside of Verizon FiOS service areas, Verizon offers customers traditional DSL service for Internet access.

Verizon-logoThe communities:

  • Atlantic County: Estell Manor and Weymouth Township.
  • Gloucester County: South Harrison Township.
  • Salem County: Alloway Township, Lower Alloways Creek, Mannington Township, Township of Pilesgrove, and Upper Pittsgrove Township.
  • Cumberland County: Commercial Township, Downe Township, Hopewell Township, Lawrence Township, Maurice River Township, City of Millville, Upper Deerfield Township, and Fairfield Township.

Officials claim Verizon has pushed its wireless alternatives to customers in the region, including its wireless landline replacement. But officials suggest Verizon’s wireless coverage and the quality of its service is not an adequate substitute for wireline service.

Verizon's Home Phone Connect base station

Verizon’s Home Phone Connect base station

Verizon has proposed decommissioning parts of its wireline network in rural service areas and substitute wireless service in the alternative. At issue are the costs to maintain a vast wireline network that reaches a dwindling number of customers. Verizon reminds regulators it has lost large numbers of residential landline customers who have switched to wireless service, making the costs to maintain service for a dwindling number of customers that much greater.

But for many communities, the focus is increasingly on broadband, especially in areas that receive little or no cable service. Telephone companies serving rural communities are surviving landline disconnects by providing broadband service.

For companies like Frontier Communications, CenturyLink, and Windstream, investments in providing broadband service are among their top spending priorities. At larger phone companies like Verizon and AT&T, highly profitable wireless divisions get the most attention and are top spending priorities.

Speaking this morning at the UBS 43rd Annual Global Media and Communications Conference, Shammo told investors Verizon will continue to allocate the majority of its capital allocation around Verizon Wireless to help densify its wireless network. Verizon, Shammo noted, plans further spending cuts for its wired networks next year as FiOS network buildouts start to taper off.

This will make expansion and improvement of Verizon DSL unlikely, and may put further cost pressure on maintaining Verizon’s wireline networks, which could further motivate a sale.

Verizon’s chief financial officer Fran Shammo is likely looking at three alternatives for the future:

  1. Increase investment in Verizon Communications to further expand FiOS fiber optics;
  2. Look at cost savings opportunities to improve the books at Verizon Communications, including decommissioning rural landline networks (if Verizon can win regulator approval);
  3. Consider selling Verizon’s non-core wireline assets in areas where the company has not made a substantial investment in FiOS and refocus attention on serving the dense corridor of customers along the Atlantic seaboard between Washington, D.C. and Boston.

Britain Adopting American Broadband Business Model: Less Competition, More Rate Hikes

british poundA decision by Great Britain’s broadband industry to follow America’s lead consolidating the number of competitors to “improve efficiency” and wring “cost savings” out of the business resulted in few service improvements and a much bigger bill for consumers.

A Guardian Money investigation examining British broadband pricing over the past four years found customers paying 25-30 percent more for essentially the same service they received before, with loyal customers facing the steepest rate increases.

It’s a dramatic fall for a market long recognized as one of the most competitive in the world. In 2006, TalkTalk — a major British ISP — even gave away broadband service for free in a promotion to consumers willing to cover BT’s telephone line rental charges.

But pressure from shareholders and investment bankers to deliver American-sized profits have spurred a wave of consolidation among providers in the United Kingdom, similar to the mergers of cable companies in the United States. Well known ISPs like Blueyonder, Tiscali, AOL, BE, Tesco, O2, and others in the United Kingdom have all been swallowed up by bigger rivals – often TalkTalk. As of last year, just four major competitors remain – BT, Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin, which together hold 88% of the market. If regulators allow BT’s takeover of EE, that percentage will rise to 92%.

talktalk-logo-370x229As consumers find fewer and fewer options for broadband, they are also discovering a larger bill, fueled by runaway rate increases well in excess of inflation. While consolidated markets in the United States and Great Britain increasingly lack enough competition to temper rate increases, heavy competition on the European continent has resulted in flat or even lower prices for broadband along with significant service upgrades. British consumers now pay up to 50% more for broadband than many of their European counterparts in Germany, France, the Benelux countries, and beyond.

Also familiar to Americans, the best prices for service only go to new customers. Existing, loyal customers pay the highest prices, while those flipping between providers (or threatening to do so) get much lower “retention” or “new customer” pricing. But only those willing to fight for a better deal get one.

In October, TalkTalk, responsible for much of the consolidation wave, raised broadband prices yet again — the second major price hike this year. Customers are reeling over the rate increases, despite the fact they still seem inexpensive by American standards. Landline rental charges are increasing from $25.40 to $26.91 a month, and are a necessary prerequisite to buying Internet access from TalkTalk. Its Simply Broadband entry-level package is jumping another £2.50 a month just four months after the last rate hike. That means instead of paying an extra $7.60 a month for broadband, customers will now pay $11.40. The average British consumer now pays an average of $57.79 a month for a phone line with enhanced DSL broadband service.

btIn France, competition is forcing providers to move towards fiber optic broadband and scrap DSL service. But French consumers are not paying a premium for upgrades necessitated by competition on the ground. While British households pay close to $60 a month, a comparable package in France from Orange known as L’essentiel d’internet à la maison costs only $36.50 a month, including a TV package and unlimited calling to other landlines. But the deal gets even better if you shop around. Free, a major French competitor, offers a near-identical package for just $32.19 a month. In the United States, packages of this type can cost $130 or more if you do not receive a promotion, $99 a month if you do.

In France, providers rarely claim they need to cap Internet usage or raise prices to cover the cost of investing in their networks. That is considered the cost of doing business in a fiercely competitive marketplace, and it forces French providers to deliver good value and service for money. Providers like Patrick Drahi/Altice’s SFR-Numericable attempted to reap more profits out of its cable business by cutting costs, discontinuing most promotions and marketing, and offshoring customer support to North African call centers. At least one million customers left for better service elsewhere in 2015.

logo_freeIn Britain, there are fewer options for customers to seek a better deal, and the remaining providers know it. As a result, marketplace conditions and an increasing lack of competition have made conditions right for rate increases. BT, Sky, Virgin, and Plusnet (controlled by BT) have all taken advantage and hiked prices once again this year between 6-10%, on top of other large rises.

Ewan Taylor-Gibson, broadband expert at uSwitch.com, told the Guardian, “it’s the existing customers that have borne the brunt of the increase in landline and package costs over recent years.”

Many British consumers are afraid of disrupting their Internet access going through the process of changing providers in a search for a better deal. Some report it can take a few days to a week to process a provider change that should take minutes (because most providers rely entirely on BT’s DSL network over which they offer service). Those willing to make a change are about the only ones still getting a good deal from British providers. Customers are starting to learn that when their new customer promotion ends, asking for an extension or signing up with another company is the only way to prevent a massive bill spike that Taylor-Gibson estimates now averages 89%.

BT spent $1.36 billion dollars securing an agreement with Champions League football.

BT spent $1.36 billion dollars securing an agreement with Champions League football.

Providers with the largest increases use the same excuses as their American counterparts to defend them. BT claims a reduction in income from providing landline service is forcing it to raise prices to make up the shortfall. Critics suggest those increases are also helping BT recoup the $1.36 billion it controversially paid for the rights to carry Champions League football — money it could have invested in network upgrades instead.

The current government seems predisposed to permit the marketplace to resolve pricing on its own, either through competition among the remaining players or allowing skyrocketing prices to reach a level deemed attractive by potential new entrants into the market. The usually protective British regulator Ofcom also seems content taking a light hand to British ISPs, enforcing price disclosures as a solution to increasingly costly Internet service and making it easier for consumers to bounce between the remaining providers many think are overcharging for service.

Things could be worse. British consumers could face the marketplace duopoly or monopoly most customers in the United States and Canada live with, along with even higher prices charged for service. The Guardian surveyed telecom services across several European countries and found that, like in the UK, most customers are required to bundle a landline rental charge and broadband package together to get Internet access, but they are still paying less overall than North Americans do.

Here is what other countries pay for service:

United Kingdom: Basic BT home phone service with unlimited “up to 17Mbps” DSL broadband costs $31.12 per month, plus a monthly landline charge of $27.35 including free weekend calls. An unlimited calling plan with no dialing charges costs an extra $12 a month. Competitor TalkTalk charges $11.40 for unlimited broadband on its entry-level Simply Broadband offer, plus $26.91 for the monthly landline rental charge.

France: Many Orange customers sign up for the popular L’essentiel d’internet à la maison plan, which bundles broadband, a phone line with unlimited calling to other landlines, and a TV package available in many areas for $36.50 a month. Competitor Free.fr charges $32.19 for essentially the same package.

Germany: Deutsche Telekom offers its cheapest home phone/broadband package for $37.75 after a less expensive promotional offer expires. One of its largest competitors, 1&1, offers the same package for $33.29 a month after the teaser rate has ended.

Spain: Telefónica, Spain’s largest phone company, offers service under its Movistar brand combining an unlimited calling landline and up to 30Mbps Internet access for $46.21 a month. Its rival Tele2 offers a comparable package for a dramatically lower price: $29.11 a month.

Ireland: National telecom company Eircomis is overseeing Ireland’s telecom makeover, replacing a lot of copper phone lines with fiber optics. Basic broadband starts with 100Mbps service on the fiber network with a promotional rate of $26.82 for the first four months. After that, things get expensive under European standards. That 100Mbps service carries a regular price of $66.51 a month, deemed “hefty” by the Guardian, although cheaper that what North Americans pay cable companies for 100Mbps download speeds after their promotion ends. For that price, Irish customers also get unlimited calling to other Irish landlines and mobiles. If that is too much, rival Sky offers a basic phone and broadband deal for $32.18 with a one-year contract.

Comcast, Frontier: It’s Too ‘Hilly and Woodsy’ to Bring Broadband to Rural Connecticut

no signalAn aversion of open, hilly landscapes and trees is apparently responsible for keeping residents of rural Connecticut from getting broadband service from the state’s two dominant providers — Comcast and Frontier Communications.

In the Litchfield Hills of northwestern Connecticut, you can visit some of the state’s finest antique shops and Revolutionary War-era inns, tour vineyards and even establish roots in the Upper Naugatuck Valley in towns like Barkhamsted, Colebrook, Goshen, Hartland, Harwinton, Litchfield, Morris, New Hartford, Norfolk, Torrington, and Winchester. Just leave your cellphone, tablet, and personal computer behind because chances are good you will find yourself in a wireless dead spot and Internet-free zone.

Obtaining even a smidgen of cell phone service often means leaning out a second story window or worse, climbing the nearest church steeple. The wealthiest residents, often second-homeowners from New York or California, can afford to spend several thousand dollars to entice the cable company to extend a coaxial cable their way or buy commercial broadband service at eye-popping prices from Frontier Communications, which acquired AT&T’s wireline network in the state. But for many, dial-up Internet remains the only affordable or available option.

Despite the area’s significant number of high income residents ready and willing to pay for service, Comcast and Frontier blame hilly terrain and dense woods for staying away. Those excuses get little regard from residents who suggest it is all about the money, not the landscape.

Northwest Connecticut region is shown in green and the Litchfield Hills region in blue.

Broadband-challenged areas in northwest Connecticut are shown in green and the often “No signal” and “No Internet” Litchfield Hills region is shown in blue.

Despite the need for service, deregulation largely allows cable and phone companies to decide where to offer broadband service, and arguments about fulfilling a public need and performing a community service don’t get far with Wall Street and shareholders that constantly pressure companies to deliver profits, not expensive investments that may never pay off.

State Rep. Roberta Willis (D-Salisbury) told the Register Citizen News the status quo is not acceptable — telecommunications companies are not doing enough to build out their networks.

“You just can’t say it’s the topography and walk away,” she told the newspaper. “If electricity companies were deregulated like this there would be no electricity in my district.”

Comcast spokeswoman Laura Brubaker Crisco claims the company extended cable service nearly 62 miles in northwest Connecticut since 2005 (ten years ago) and completed nearly 100 projects extending fiber more than 10 miles in the past two years. But many of those projects overhauled Comcast’s existing middle-mile network and extended cable service to profitable new markets serving commercial customers, especially office parks and commercial storefronts. Comcast’s other priority was to reach new high-income residential developments being built as the area continues to grow. Rural customers who could not meet Comcast’s Return On Investment formula in 2005 are still unlikely to have service in 2015 unless population density increases in their immediate area.

Connecticut's effort to extend gigabit fiber statewide is dismissed as a waste of money by incumbent cable operators.

Connecticut’s effort to extend gigabit fiber statewide is dismissed as a waste of money by incumbent cable operators.

Crisco admits Comcast does not wire low density areas and isn’t surprised other providers won’t either.

Frontier prefers to blame the area’s topography for keeping broadband out.

David Snyder, vice president for engineering for the east region of Frontier Communications, told the newspaper “it’s just natural the investment and the time become more challenging.”

Frontier does say it has expanded broadband to 40,000 additional households in Connecticut since taking over for AT&T a year ago. But nobody seems to know exactly who can get broadband in the state and who cannot. The have-nots are the most likely to complain, and those businesses that serve visitors are in peril of losing business without offering reasonable Wi-Fi or Internet access. Rural families with school-age children are also at risk from having their kids fall behind those that can get broadband.

Wireless Internet Service Providers, which offer long-range wireless broadband in rural areas, complain the federal government is wasting money on studies instead of helping to underwrite solutions that can quickly bring Internet access to the rural masses.

Others believe talking to Frontier and Comcast is futile. They prefer to follow the lead of western Massachusetts, where 24 small communities across the region have joined forces to build a public fiber to the home broadband network. One estimate suggests 22 Connecticut towns covering 200,000 residents could be reached with a bond-financed fiber network completed by 2018. That network would likely reach more unserved customers than Frontier or Comcast will elect to serve over the next three years combined.

A separate effort to establish gigabit fiber broadband across the state — the CT Gig Project — promptly ran into a buzzsaw of opposition, primarily from incumbent telecommunications companies that refuse to offer that service now. With a threat to current profitable business models, it was not unexpected to hear opposition from Paul Cianelli, CEO of the New England Cable & Telecom Association — a cable company lobbying group.

He called public broadband unnecessary and “potentially disastrous.” He wants assurances no government subsidies or loan guarantees are given to the project. He also said providing gigabit service was unnecessary and faster Internet speeds were not important to the majority of customers in the state. Public broadband proponents respond Cianelli should tell that to the residents of Litchfield Hills and other unserved and underserved communities.

Frontier Plans to Finance Acquisition of Verizon Lines With $6.6 Billion in Junk Bonds

frontier-fast-buffalo-large-2To complete an acquisition of landline assets in California, Florida, and Texas from Verizon Communications, Frontier Communications is hoping to raise $6.6 billion in “speculative-grade debt” to finance the deal.

Frontier will begin selling the securities better known as “junk bonds” starting today with a target date of Sept. 15 or 16 to complete the sale, according to Bloomberg News.

Wall Street raised its eyebrows at the amount of the transaction — the second largest junk-rated deal since Valeant Pharmaceuticals sold almost $10 billion in junk bonds in March.

Frontier plans to offer a high yield to attract investors, some already favoring the company’s stock for its reliable shareholder dividend payout. Frontier has been a popular choice for investors relying on dividend income — money Frontier distributes to shareholders — that critics contend limit Frontier’s ability to improve its network of largely rural landlines.

analysisCalifornian consumers are among those most concerned about a Frontier takeover of landline and FiOS service. Verizon ventured far beyond its original service area extending from Maine to Virginia after it acquired independent telephone networks operated by General Telephone (GTE) and Continental Telephone (Contel) in 2000. In 2015, the company wants to return to its core landline service area in the northeast.

junk1David Lazarus, a consumer reporter for the Los Angeles Times, wonders how ratepayers will benefit from a Frontier takeover.

“Financial analysts are generally upbeat about the deal, but that reflects the projected benefits to the corporate players, not consumers,” Lazarus wrote.

Verizon’s claims the sale will help refocus the company on its “core markets” in the east and Frontier’s suggestion the Verizon acquisition will enhance Frontier’s footprint with “rich fiber-based assets” didn’t seem to excite Lazarus.

“I honestly wonder if corporate leaders know how ridiculous they sound when they spout such gobbledygook,” he added.

Lazarus suspects Verizon is worried the Obama Administration may eventually extend universal service obligations to broadband, which would force phone companies to deliver broadband to any telephone customer that wants the service, regardless of how much it costs to offer it. Universal Service remains an important legacy of wireline landline telephone service. Your landline survives under a regulatory framework not applicable to the wireless business, where both AT&T and Verizon Wireless now make the bulk of their profits.

junk2As AT&T and Verizon ponder ditching high-cost landline customers, so long as there are companies like Frontier willing to buy, the deal works for both. Verizon gets a tax-free transaction that benefits both executives and shareholders. An already debt-laden Frontier satisfies shareholders by growing the business, which usually makes the balance sheet look good each quarter.

Even as Frontier takes on a massive new tranche of debt, in the short-term the more landlines Frontier acquires, the happier shareholders will be. More customers equal more revenue — revenue that can assuage fears of Frontier’s eye-popping debt load. That added revenue often also means a nice dividend payout to shareholders, unless that money has to be diverted to debt payments or network improvements.

Unfortunately, like a Ponzi scheme, Frontier will have to continue acquiring new landline customers from other companies indefinitely to make it all work. If it can’t, or if customers continue to flee Frontier for more capable providers, revenue numbers will worsen, only making the company’s large debt obligations look even more ominous. Some shareholders think Frontier’s days of paying very high dividends are already behind them as the company takes on even more debt. The value of Frontier stock has dropped 35% in the last six months. In the second quarter of 2015, Frontier reported losses of $28 million. Last year at the same time, Frontier reported $38 million in profits.

junk3Those losses have to be reflected somewhere, and customers complain they are paying the highest price. West Virginians are among those that regularly accuse Frontier of chronically under-investing in broadband service in the state. Many rural communities obtaining broadband for the first time initially appreciated Frontier’s efforts, but have since grown critical of the performance of Frontier’s DSL service, which can slow to 1Mbps or less during the evenings because Frontier has oversold its network and not kept up with usage demands.

Frontier’s deal with Verizon allows it to acquire a large state of the art FiOS fiber to the home network Frontier has never been willing to build itself. Keeping an existing fiber network up and running is considerably less expensive than building one from scratch. That explains why Frontier customers in ex-Verizon FiOS areas enjoy relatively good service while legacy customers still connected to copper phone lines that were installed in the 1960s (or earlier) are stuck with uneven and slow-performing DSL that rarely meets the FCC’s minimum definition of broadband — 25Mbps. Where customers have a choice between Frontier DSL and another wired provider, most choose fiber or coaxial-based Internet service. Frontier’s rural service focus protects the company by limiting the effects of that kind of competition.

In the near term, Frontier’s biggest threat could eventually come from wireless 4G LTE broadband from AT&T and Verizon Wireless, if the companies can deliver an affordable service for rural residents without a punishing low usage allowance. That remains a big “if.”

(Illustrations by Chris Serra.)

North Carolina, Where Fiber Begets More Fiber; Ting Explores Wiring Cities Google Forgot

Ting-truck-closedNorth Carolina residents bypassed by Google Fiber and impatient waiting for AT&T U-verse with GigaPower may still have a chance to get gigabit fiber Internet.

Ting, a Toronto-based wireless provider, is exploring building fiber broadband networks in as many as a half-dozen cities in 2016, and some of them may be in North Carolina.

Elliot Noss, CEO of Ting’s parent company, told the Triangle Business Journal he is impressed with the enthusiasm for fiber optic broadband in the state. He recognized Greenlight, Wilson’s community-owned fiber network, as a fiber pioneer that helped fuel demand for better Internet in the state. He added North Carolina is one of the leaders in fiber to the home service in the country, and that makes it a very suitable place to bring even more fiber to the state.

The Triangle region of North Carolina is receiving network upgrades from Time Warner Cable and AT&T, and Google Fiber is coming to Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham, but there remains a number of Triangle communities including Clayton, Dunn, Henderson, Louisburg, Norlina, Oxford, Pittsboro, Rocky Mount, Roxboro, Sanford, Selma, Siler City, Smithfield, Tarboro and Wake Forest where fiber networks would be welcomed.

Ting workers installing fiber optics in Charlottesville, Va.

Ting workers installing fiber optics in Charlottesville, Va.

Noss believes fiber begets even more fiber, which may explain why some states are getting huge investments in competing fiber optic projects while others struggle with little or no fiber at all. As soon as a fiber provider enters a region, it creates a higher level of awareness that better Internet service exists when you look beyond “good enough” broadband from phone and cable companies. The resulting “broadband envy” fuels demand for network upgrades.

Noss believes smaller, outlying metros bypassed for fiber upgrades now want them more than ever because they are at a competitive disadvantage without better Internet access.

“North Carolina might be the first state in the union that has moved from where cities and towns are looking at fiber as a way to differentiate and to lead,” Noss told the newspaper. “(North Carolina) is seeing it almost defensively: We need it for our survival because we’re surrounded by it.”

So what makes a community ripe for fiber broadband? A community already sold on fiber and willing to make things happen quickly and smoothly.

“The first thing we look for when we’re engaging with a city or town is an understanding that this is something they deeply want to do,” Noss says. “We don’t take meetings with cities who want to hear about why they should have fiber or gigabit connectivity.”

That attitude is shared by Google, which has taken to issuing a checklist for city officials interested in attracting Google Fiber to their community. In short, it means developing a working relationship between zoning/permitting officials and Google’s engineers to cut the “red tape.”

In the past, politicians often treated cable franchise contracts as valuable enough to ask providers for concessions in return for an agreement. Many cities treated Verizon the same way when it sought franchise agreements to offer cable television over its FiOS fiber to the home network. Some city officials sought compensation for PEG services – Public Access, Educational, and Government channels. Others sought funding for technology and educational programs, community centers, or free service for public and government-owned buildings.

Google has turned that formula upside down. Today, communities offer concessions to Google competing to be the next fiber city. Other providers entering the fiber market with promises of better Internet are getting a similar reception from eager communities.

Charlottesville, Va. and Westminster, Md., neither a likely prospect for Google Fiber or Verizon FiOS did not need any convincing. Ting now provides gigabit fiber service in both communities for $89 a month or a cheaper 5/5Mbps budget option for $19 a month — both with a $399 installation fee. Customers cannot wait to sign up for service, often to say goodbye to companies like Comcast or Verizon’s DSL offering.

Ting is owned by Tucows, Inc., a provider of network access, domain names, and other Internet services.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Ting What gigabit fiber means for Westminster 2015.mp4

Ting produced this video about what gigabit fiber broadband will mean for a community like Westminster, Md. (2:07)

Comcast Finds Excuses to Avoid Installing Gigabit Pro Fiber; Construction Costs Seem to Matter

qualifiedComcast is rejecting some requests for its new 2Gbps fiber to the home service, claiming construction costs to provide the service to some homes are too high, even for customers living 0.15 of a mile from Comcast’s nearest fiber optic connection point.

Stop the Cap! reader Thomas, who wishes to withhold his last name, was excited at the prospect of signing up for Comcast’s 2Gbps broadband service for his home-based Internet business, despite the steep $1,000 installation fee and $159/mo promotional price he saw in the media.

“For the average person just looking for a faster connection at home, 2Gbps is absolute overkill, but if you run a home-based business that depends on a fast Internet connection, Comcast’s prices are a lot more reasonable than a Metro Ethernet or fiber solution from AT&T,” Thomas said.

Thomas is a Comcast customer in the Chicago area and knew he’d qualify for the service because he watched Comcast crews install/upgrade fiber cables close to his home. Comcast requires customers to live within one-third of a mile of the nearest company-owned fiber connection point to get 2Gbps service. Thomas lives far closer than that and Comcast’s online qualification tool also seemed to show the service would be available to him.

“I assumed it would be easy to order service, but it has not turned out that way at all,” Thomas complained.

Comcast’s regular customer service agents were hit or miss for Thomas. Some are acquainted with Comcast’s Gigabit Pro offering, many others are not. It took three calls for him to find a representative aware of the product, but even then the representative informed him someone would have to call him back to take his order. Two days later, he did receive a call from a Comcast regional office that explained the lengthy ordering and installation procedure. If everything worked as it should, it would take up to three months for Comcast to complete the fiber installation. But Thomas warned there were potential deal-breakers along the way.

Equipment Costs

Comcast will supply some, but not all, of the necessary equipment. A router provided by Comcast adds $19.99/mo to the price, and could be worthwhile to customers wanting to limit their out-of-pocket up front costs. But there are other equipment requirements to consider as well:

  • Desktop PC with available PCIe expansion slot
  • 1 10G PCIe network interface controller with SFP+ cage ($200-400)
  • 1 10G enhanced small form factor pluggable SFP+ transceiver (850nm MMF) ($200-350)
  • 1 MMF LC patch cable ($25-30)

To connect multiple devices to the fiber handoff, a compatible and very expensive 10Gbps Layer 3 switch or router is also required, which can run well into the thousands of dollars.

Pricing Gotchas

Installation is $500 and activation costs another $500. There is an early termination fee of $1,100 if you disconnect service before the end of your term contract. On a three-year contract, the amount of the fee is reduced by $100 every three months you keep the service. That $159 promotional price quoted in the press turned out to be another issue. Comcast informed him that offer is only good in the cities of Nashville (a future Google Fiber city also designated for GigaPower U-verse from AT&T) and Chattanooga, Tenn. (which already has gigabit service from EPB). It would cost him $299.95 a month, not $159.

Service Qualification Procedure

slow noComcast implies any customer within 1/3rd of a mile of their nearest fiber cable is qualified to get Gigabit Pro service, but Thomas tells us that just isn’t true.

“Comcast treats these installations the same way they would running cable into virgin territories like an unserved neighborhood or office park,” Thomas said. “Once you commit to an order, I am convinced they do a Return On Investment (ROI) and cost analysis to decide if it makes financial sense to actually bring fiber to you.”

It begins with an in-office map survey that reviews Comcast’s existing network and verifies a path from Comcast’s existing fiber network to the customer’s home. This process takes up to 14 days, according to Thomas, and makes certain the customer is within the qualified distance for service.

“But I can say it goes beyond this, because Comcast was also looking at proposed routes to get fiber to me, and the representative was concerned about whether Comcast’s cables in my area were on telephone poles or underground in conduit,” reported Thomas. “There was also an issue with a pedestal and I was informed a site survey was required to check whether existing infrastructure in my neighborhood could support the service.”

Comcast said a visit from a technician would be required — another two-week process, and about then he was told “there was indeed a problem with their existing pedestal and they also ran into a conduit issue,” Thomas said. “At that point, I was informed my order could not go ahead because Comcast would have to spend about $17,000 to correct these issues and cover my installation and that evidently failed their ROI and cost analysis.”

Had Thomas passed all the qualification tests, he would have waited up to 13 weeks (more than three months) from the time he ordered service before he could actually use it. Now, he will wait at least a year for Comcast’s suggested alternative — the arrival of DOCSIS 3.1, which is expected to support gigabit speeds over Comcast’s existing coax cable network.

“I honestly felt mislead by Comcast’s press releases that suggested service was just a matter of where you lived without telling customers they will deny service if it costs Comcast over a certain dollar amount, no matter how close you live to their existing fiber,” Thomas added. “Promoting a service and actually providing it are two very different things and it seems Comcast just isn’t providing it, at least to me.”

Have you explored Comcast Gigabit Pro? If so, share your experiences in the comment section. We’d love to hear from you if you actually have the service installed.

VP Biden Announces Broadband-Challenged Rochester, N.Y. Home to National Photonics Institute

Vice president Biden

Vice President Biden in Rochester, N.Y.

Vice President Joe Biden and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo today announced Rochester, N.Y., a city notorious for its slow broadband, will be the home of the $600 million Integrated Photonics Institute for Manufacturing Innovation, a hub supporting the development of photonics — technology that powers everything from fiber optic broadband to laser surgery.

Rochester, the home of dramatically downsized household names like Eastman Kodak, Xerox, and Bausch and Lomb, could see thousands of new high technology jobs created in the western New York city to develop new products and services that depend on light waves.

“The innovation and jobs this institute will create will be a game changer for Rochester and the entire state,” said U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter, (D-Rochester). “This is a huge win that will shape our region’s economy for decades to come.”

Slaughter reportedly spent three years working to bring the center to Rochester and helped secure $110 million from the Defense Department and another $500 million in state and private sector funding to finance its development. The project could prove transformational for a community ravaged by downsizing, most dramatically exemplified by Eastman Kodak, which had 62,000 workers in Rochester during the 1980s but employs fewer than 2,500 today.

Today, Rochester’s largest employers are no longer manufacturers. Health care service providers now lead the way, including the University of Rochester Medical Center/Strong Health (#1) and the Rochester General Health System (#3). Upscale grocery chain Wegmans calls Rochester home and is the community’s second largest employer. The bureaucracies that power the Rochester City School District and Monroe County Government are also among the area’s top-10 employers.

rochesterDespite the job shifts, the fact 24,000 workers in the region are already employed in photonics-related jobs may have been a deciding factor in selecting Rochester for the center.

“The photonics center we are now bringing to Rochester will harness the power of the Defense Department and the prowess of Rochester’s 24,000 employee-strong photonics industry and focus it like a laser beam to launch new industries, technologies and jobs,” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement.

Employers, small business start-ups and workers moving into the region are likely to be considerably less impressed by Rochester’s incumbent telecommunications service providers. Although institutional and large commercial fiber networks are available to those with deep pockets, with the exception of Greenlight Networks, a local fiber to the home retail overbuilder providing fast gigabit fiber Internet to a tiny percentage of local residents, the area’s fiber future remains bleak.

Time Warner Cable, by far the largest Internet provider in the region, has left Rochester off its Maxx upgrade list, leaving the city with a maximum of 50/5Mbps Internet speed. Frontier Communications still relies on 1990s era DSL service and the anemic speeds it delivers, evident from the company’s poor average speed ranking — 11.47Mbps — less than half the minimum 25Mbps the FCC considers broadband.

Rochester is hardly a broadband speed leader in New York State, only managing to score in 332nd place. (Image: Ookla)

Rochester is hardly a broadband speed leader in New York State, only managing to score in 332nd place. (Image: Ookla)

The performance of the two providers has dragged Rochester’s broadband speed ranking to an embarrassingly low #336 compared with other communities in New York. Suburban towns in downstate New York enjoy more than twice the speed upstate residents get, largely thanks to major upgrades from Verizon (FiOS) and Time Warner Cable (Maxx). But even compared with other upstate communities, Rochester still scores poorly, beaten by small communities like Watertown, Massena, and Waterloo. Suburban Buffalo, Syracuse, and Albany also outperform Rochester.

In contrast, in Raleigh, N.C., home to the Power America Institute — another federal manufacturing center — broadband life is better:

  • Raleigh is a Google Fiber city and will receive 1,000/1,000Mbps service for $70 a month, around $20 more than what Time Warner charges for 50/5Mbps with a promotion;
  • Raleigh is a Time Warner Cable Maxx city with free broadband speed upgrades ranging from 15Mbps before/50Mbps after to 50Mbps before/300Mbps after;
  • Raleigh is an AT&T U-verse with GigaPower city with 1,000/1,000Mbps service for $120 70 a month.

This article was updated to correct the pricing of AT&T U-verse with GigaPower in Raleigh, N.C., with thanks to reader Darrin Evans for the corrected information.

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