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Big City Telecom Infrastructure is Often Ancient: Conduits 70+ Years Old, Wiring from 1960s-1980s

A panel electromechanical switch similar to those in use in New York until the 1970s.

A panel electromechanical switch similar to those in use in New York until the 1970s. They were installed in the 1920s.

As late as the 1970s, New York Telephone (today Verizon) was still maintaining electromechanical panel switches in its telephone exchanges that were developed in the middle of World War I and installed in Manhattan between 1922-1930. Reliance on infrastructure 40-50 years old is nothing new for telephone companies across North America. A Verizon technician in New York City is just as likely to descend into tunnels constructed well before they were born as is a Bell technician in Toronto.

Slightly marring last week’s ambitious announcement Bell (Canada) was going to commence an upgrade to fiber to the home service across the Greater Toronto Area came word from a frank Bell technician in attendance who predicted Bell’s plans were likely to run into problems as workers deal with aging copper infrastructure originally installed by their fathers and grandfathers decades earlier.

The technician said some of the underground conduits he was working in just weeks earlier in Toronto’s downtown core were “easily 60-70 years old” and the existing optical fiber cables running through some of them were installed in the mid-1980s.

At least that conduit contained fiber. In many other cities, copper infrastructure from the 1960s-1980s is still in service, performing unevenly in some cases and not much at all in others.

Earlier this year, several hundred Verizon customers were without telephone service for weeks because of water intrusion into copper telephone cables, possibly amplified by the corrosive road salt dumped on New York streets to combat a severe winter. Verizon’s copper was down and out while its fiber optic network was unaffected. On the west coast, AT&T deals with similar outages caused by flooding. If that doesn’t affect service, copper theft might.

munifiber

Fiber optic cable

Telephone companies fight to get their money’s worth from infrastructure, no matter how old it is. Western Electric first envisioned the panel switches used in New York City telephone exchanges until the end of the Carter Administration back in 1916. It was all a part of AT&T’s revolutionary plan to move to subscriber-dialed calls, ending an era of asking an operator to connect you to another customer.

AT&T engineer W.G. Blauvelt wrote the plan that moved New York to fully automatic dialing. By 1930, every telephone exchange in Manhattan was served by a panel switch that allowed customers to dial numbers by themselves. But Blauvelt could not have envisioned that equipment would still be in use fifty years later.

As demand for telephones grew, the phone company did not expand its network of panel switches, which were huge – occupying entire buildings – loud, and very costly to maintain. It did not replace them either. Instead, newer exchanges got the latest equipment, starting with more modern Crossbar #1 switches in 1938. In the 1950s, Crossbar #5 arrived and it became a hit worldwide. Crossbar #5 switches usually stood alone or worked alongside older switching equipment in fast growing exchanges. It occupied less space, worked well without obsessive maintenance, and was reliable.

It was not until the 1970s that the Bell System decided to completely scrap their electromechanical switches in favor of newer electronic technology. The advantages were obvious — the newer equipment occupied a fraction of the space and had considerably more capacity than older switches. That became critical in New York starting in the late 1960s when customer demand for additional phone lines exploded. New York Telephone simply could not keep up with and waiting lists often grew to weeks as technicians looked for spare capacity. The Bell System’s answer to this growth was a new generation of electronic switches.

The #1 ESS was an analog electronic switch first introduced in New Jersey in 1965. Although it worked fine in smaller and medium-sized communities, the switch’s software bugs were notorious when traffic on the exchange reached peak loads. It was clear to New York Telephone the #1 ESS was not ready for Manhattan until the bugs were squashed.

Bell companies, along with some independent phone companies that depended on the same equipment, moved cautiously to begin upgrades. It would take North American phone companies until August 2001 to retire what was reportedly the last electromechanical switch, serving the small community of Nantes, Quebec.

ATT-New-York-central-office-fire-300x349

A notorious 1975 fire destroyed a phone exchange serving lower Manhattan. That was one way to guarantee an upgrade from New York Telephone.

On rare occasions, phone companies didn’t have much of a choice. The most notorious example of this was the Feb. 27, 1975 fire in the telephone exchange located at 204 Second Avenue and East 13th Street in New York. The five alarm fire destroyed the switching equipment and knocked out telephone service for 173,000 customers before 700 firefighters from 72 fire units managed to put the fire out more than 16 hours later. That fire is still memorialized today by New York firefighters because it injured nearly 300 of them. But the fire’s legacy continued for decades as long-term health effects, including cancer, from the toxic smoke would haunt those who fought it.

The New York Telephone building still stands and today also houses a street level Verizon Wireless retail store.

New York Telephone engineers initially rescued a decommissioned #1 Crossbar switch waiting to be melted down for scrap. It came from the West 18th Street office and was cleaned and repaired and put into emergency service until a #1 ESS switch originally destined for another central office was diverted. This part of Manhattan got its upgrade earlier for all the wrong reasons.

Throughout the Bell System in the 1970s and 80s, older switches were gradually replaced in favor of all electronic switches, especially the #5 ESS, introduced in 1982 and still widely in service today, serving about 50% of all landlines in the United States. Canadian telephone companies often favored telephone switches manufactured by Northern Telecom (Nortel), based in Mississauga, Ontario. They generally worked equally well as the American counterpart and are also in service in parts of the United States.

The legacy of more than 100 years of telephone service has made running old and new technology side by side nothing unusual for telephone companies. It has worked for them before, as has their belief in incremental upgrades. So Bell’s announcement it would completely blanket Toronto with all-fiber service is a departure from standard practice.

For Bell in Toronto, the gigabit upgrade will begin by pushing fiber cables through existing conduits that are also home to copper and fiber wiring still in service. If a conduit is blocked or lacks enough room to get new fiber cables through, the Bell technician predicted delays. It is very likely that sometime after fiber service is up and running, copper wire decommissioning will begin in Toronto. Whether those cables remain dormant underground and on phone poles for cost reasons or torn out and sold for scrap will largely depend on scrap copper prices, Bell’s budget, and possible regulator intervention.

But Bell’s upgrade will clearly be as important, if not more so, than the retirement of mechanical phone switches a few decades earlier. For the same reasons — decreased maintenance costs, increased capacity, better reliability, and the possibility to market new services for revenue generation make fiber just as good of an investment for Bell as electronic switches were in the 1970s and 1980s.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/ATT Reconnecting 170000 Phone Customers in NYC After a Major Fire 1975.mp4

AT&T produced this documentary in the mid-1970s about how New York Telephone recovered from a fire that destroyed a phone exchange in lower Manhattan and wiped out service for 173,000 customers in 1975. The phone company managed to get service restored after an unprecedented three weeks. It gives viewers a look at the enormous size of old electromechanical switching equipment and masses of phone wiring. (22:40) 

More than 25 Companies Rushing Fiber to the Home Service Across South Africa

TelkomSAMore than two dozen independent broadband providers are busily wiring parts of the Republic of South Africa with fiber to the home service in a rush to relegate telephone company giant Telkom’s DSL offerings into the dustbin of irrelevance.

The pace of fiber broadband expansion is happening so rapidly, Telkom CEO Sipho Maseko has had to warn investors the phone company’s continued dependence on its copper infrastructure could threaten the company’s future. Consumers and businesses are demanding better broadband in a country that has languished under Telkom’s insistence on sticking with copper infrastructure that has delivered slow Internet speeds and stingy data caps for more than a decade.

The Sunday Times notes South Africa’s fiber revolution is delivering speeds up to 1,000Mbps on a network that literally sells itself. Fiber providers deliver speeds 250 times faster than ADSL and are helping make usage caps and usage-based billing a part of South Africa’s past. New fiber builds are announced in neighborhoods, towns, and cities almost weekly, many driven by residents in neighborhoods pooling together to attract competition. Independent contractors are winning a large share of the broadband deployment business, able to string fiber cables less expensively than Telkom and its bureaucracy.

VUMA is a fiber service provider in South Africa, following Google Fiber's "fiberhood" example to expand service.

VUMA is a fiber service provider in South Africa, following Google Fiber’s “fiberhood” example to expand service.

“The rate at which con­sumers are turn­ing to al­ter­na­tives to Telkom to build these net­works is re­mark­able,” the Times editorial states. “Un­til a year ago, [Telkom’s] ab­so­lute dom­i­nance over the ‘last mile’ into homes and busi­nesses seemed set to last for years. No more. Telkom’s core busi­ness is sud­denly threat­ened.”

Maseko

Maseko

The projects are large and small. Sea Point in Capetown, Blair­gowrie in Jo­han­nes­burg, Kloof and Hill­crest in Dur­ban are all working with start-up providers instead of Telkom. Many are convinced Telkom management is either incompetent or has been more interested in the welfare of its executives than its customers, and more than a few are voting with their feet.

The most aggressive stampede to fiber broadband is occurring in rich suburbs and gated communities prevalent in affluent areas. These are the customers Telkom cannot afford to lose and many are unlikely to ever return to what used to be the state-owned telephone company. The Times argues the longer Telkom pretends it still has a monopoly, the worse things are going to be for a company in for a rude shock.

“For the first time, the lum­ber­ing in­cum­bent, which once held an ab­so­lute mo­nop­oly over fixed lines, is hav­ing to com­pete for con­sumers’ at­ten­tion with a range of nim­ble start-ups that prom­ise su­perb broad­band at de­cent prices, and of­ten on an ‘open ac­cess’ ba­sis — mean­ing con­sumers are free to choose Internet Service Providers, and ser­vice providers can get di­rect ac­cess to the infrastructure,” the newspaper writes.

The newspaper scoffed at Telkom’s wasted opportunities and poor management decisions that now threaten its future viability.

Among Telkom’s biggest failures was a $815 million investment beginning in 2007 on an “ill-fated adventure” in the Nigerian wireless marketplace. Telkom said it was “misled” by several Nigerian businessmen into bleeding billions of South African Rand into a wireless company that used CDMA technology in a country dominated by cheap GSM providers. A shaky network of cellular dealers incapable of attracting new customers only made things worse. The venture’s losses were so huge, it attracted the attention of South African legislators who questioned the wisdom of Telkom investing in Nigeria while allowing South African broadband to stagnate from inadequate investment.

When two dozen fiber to the home competitors began installing fiber to the home service in South Africa, Telkom grudgingly has started to compete with fiber builds of their own.

When two dozen fiber to the home competitors began installing fiber to the home service in South Africa, Telkom grudgingly has started to compete with fiber builds of their own. They are likely to face two new national fiber competitors, in addition to the independents, within months.

A year earlier, Telkom also proved less than competent when it entered South Africa’s pay television business. In 2006, Telkom earmarked more than $600 million to be spent on a venture unlikely to win enough customers from dominant MultiChoice to be sustainable. By 2009, Telkom decided to sell most of its stake in the venture at fire sale prices and still found few interested buyers.

Telkom’s management has been accused of gross incompetence, particularly for spending resources on poorly researched business ventures where it lacked experience. The Times asked readers to ponder what South African telecommunications would look like today if Telkom instead spent its almost $2 billion dollars in Nigerian and pay television losses on fiber broadband upgrades inside the country. Since 2006, Telkom preferred to spend as little as possible on network upgrades while trying to convince South Africans to stick with copper-delivered DSL and its variant VDSL, available only in very limited areas. Telkom’s business decisions today still leave most of its customers with no better than 4Mbps DSL.

The question South African business observers are asking is whether Telkom’s new interest in fiber is too little, too late. Mobile operators Vodacom and MTN are planning to build their own competing national fiber to the home networks to compete with Telkom as well.

Gigabit Fever Hits Toronto: Bell Introducing Gigabit Fiber Internet Across Entire GTA

bellBell Canada will invest $1.14 billion to bring gigabit fiber to the home service to more than one million homes and apartments in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) over the next three years.

It will be the largest fiber build ever attempted in North America, and will serve every home and business in the GTA, beginning with 50,000 homes and businesses that will be upgraded to all-fiber service this summer.

“This is something that quite frankly none of us could have imagined just a few years ago,” Bell Canada president and CEO George Cope said at a press conference this morning. “This will be 20 times faster (than average Internet speeds) and it really is building for the consumer what large, large enterprise would have had just a few years ago for their corporations.”

gtaToronto will be the fastest broadband city in North, Central, and South America when Bell is finished laying 9,000 kilometers of fiber underground and on 80,000 Bell and Toronto Hydro utility poles. At least 27 Bell telephone exchanges will be fully upgraded to 100% fiber service, eliminating huge swaths of older copper wiring. At least 2,400 new jobs will be created, but Bell and Toronto city officials are convinced an all-fiber optic network will attract even more jobs and help broaden Toronto’s digital economy.

Bell’s project in Toronto will be vastly larger than AT&T U-verse with GigaPower, Comcast’s 2Gbps fiber service, and Google Fiber because:

  • It will actually exist, unlike fiber to the press release announcements of phantom fiber upgrades from Comcast and AT&T that serve only a miniscule number of customers;
  • Will not rely on “fiberhoods” and will deliver fiber service to every home and business and every neighborhood across the entire GTA.

No pricing has yet been announced but Bell promised it would be competitive with other gigabit broadband projects in North America. That likely means Toronto residents will pay between $70-100 a month for gigabit service. No details about usage caps or allowances were included in the announcement.

Bell is already upgrading some of its existing Fibe network in other cities to deliver gigabit speeds on a more limited basis in Atlantic Canada (Bell Aliant) and in select cities in Ontario and Quebec as part of a $20 billion network upgrade.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CP24 Bell Gigabit Announcement 6-25-15.flv

CP24 carried this morning’s press conference introducing Bell Gigabit Internet across Toronto. (19:51)

Switzerland Moving Into World’s Top 10: Competition Forces Major Broadband Upgrades

upc_cablecom_logoJohn Malone’s cable systems in Europe share little in common with what Americans get from their local cable company. In Switzerland, Liberty-owned UPC Cablecom charges $95 a month for 250/15Mbps service — a speed Charter Communications customers cannot buy at any price. Liberty is Charter’s biggest investor/partner. Later this month, Swiss cable customers will be able to buy 500Mbps from UPC. When implemented, that is expected to push Switzerland’s broadband speed rankings into the global top-10. Currently Switzerland is rated #11. The United States is #28 and Canada is ranked #34.

UPC’s primary competitor  — telephone company Swisscom — is aggressively upgrading its facilities with its eye on offering G.fast, the latest version of DSL capable of delivering up to 500Mbps across 200-300 meters of old copper phone wiring, making it suitable for fiber to the neighborhood deployments similar to AT&T U-verse or Bell’s Fibe. Swisscom is also expanding fiber to the home service on a more limited basis, offering customers 1,000/1,000Mbps service on that network.

Tveter

Tveter

Why all the upgrades? Competition in the Swiss broadband marketplace.

If Swisscom can offer gigabit broadband speeds, then so can UPC Cablecom, claims its CEO Eric Tveter.

“We can offer every customer across the country the same speeds,” Tveter told the Schweiz am Sonntag newspaper. “At the end of June, we will introduce new Internet speeds of 500Mbps. Demand for [fiber’s] symmetrical speeds is still very low among residential customers, but if demand increases we will offer them.”

Customers looking for gigabit speed would likely have to sign up as a commercial customer of UPC for now. But the company is preparing to introduce DOCSIS 3.1 which will allow the existing cable network to easily deliver gigabit speeds to residential customers. In fact, Tveter is looking at introducing 10Gbps speeds in Switzerland in the coming years.

Tveter aggressively criticized some of his biggest competitors for using marketing-speak to promote “new” products UPC already offers.

swisscom_logo_detailSome providers have promoted “cloud-based” on-demand access to video that Tveter says has been available from the cable company for several years.

This year, UPC Swisscom has been reassuring customers it does not allow America’s National Security Agency to spy on its customers and has taken measures to keep Chinese intelligence agents and hackers out of its network. The Swiss courts have made it clear they want nothing to do with NSA spying and permit operators to take any and all steps to keep unauthorized American and Chinese agencies from penetrating Swiss telecommunications.

Tveter points out all Swiss networks use equipment manufactured by U.S. and Chinese companies, but there are no indications either government has forced manufacturers to give back-door access to that equipment for surveillance or espionage purposes.

UPC Cablecom also voluntarily adheres to Net Neutrality principles for its Swiss customers.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Swisscom fibre optic network 2014.mp4

Swisscom shows the advantages of its fiber to the home network. (1:54)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At present, Empire Access provides service in:

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

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

Free Speed Upgrade: 600/600Mbps for $22.45/Mo from Lithuania’s Teo

Phillip Dampier June 9, 2015 Broadband Speed, Competition, Consumer News No Comments

teoCustomers of Lithuania’s Teo are getting a free speed upgrade — from 500Mbps before to 600Mbps now — on the company’s fiber to the home network. They are also paying less than half the price of what you pay for 15Mbps.

“Internet bandwidth is constantly increasing and high-speed becomes a market norm,” said Teo’s Nerijus Ivanauskas. “Therefore, we see that the added value that customers receive from purchasing a basic service becomes an increasingly important factor when choosing a service provider.”

Lithuanians have several choices for broadband service and price competition has kept broadband speeds faster than what North Americans typically receive, at a fraction of the price. Fiber to the home service is increasingly common in populated areas and is very affordable. Budget-minded customers happy with 100/100Mbps Internet access can get it from Teo for less than $13.50 a month.

Teo’s fiber network passes 837,000 households as of the first quarter of this year. That represents almost 70% of Lithuania. Lithuania was already well ahead of the United States and Canada, with an average broadband speed of 45.11Mbps — 4th place in the European Union and 9th fastest country in the world. Teo also leads the world in fast Wi-Fi. More than 3,000 Teo hotspots serve up speeds averaging 15.4Mbps to every connected client.

As broadband speeds continue to soar in Lithuania, Internet Service Providers have been forced to offer extras to customers to compete. Teo offers 300GB of free cloud storage space, free anti-virus protection, and special parental controls to help protect children from adult content.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Teo Internet Speed Lithuania 6-2015.mp4

A Teo advertisement showing off its fiber broadband speeds, ubiquitous free Wi-Fi network, anti-virus and child protection features. (0:45)

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

Verizon's FiOS expansion is still dead.

Verizon’s FiOS expansion is over.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christie

Christie

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

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

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

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

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

(Image relies on information provided by the Inquirer)

(Image relies on information provided by the Inquirer)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

fiber wiredwest

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

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

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

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

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

New Salem isn’t alone.

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

Phillip "There are no broadband magic ponies" Dampier

Phillip “There are no broadband magic ponies” Dampier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the expenses don’t stop there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After Seeing Broadband-a-Plenty in Longmont, Fort Collins, Colorado Wants Public Broadband Too

nextlightIt’s an acute case of broadband envy.

Residents of Fort Collins, Colo., that have an excuse to take an hour’s drive south on U.S. Route 87 to visit Longmont and experience the Internet over the community’s public broadband service can’t believe their eyes. It’s so fast… and cheap. Back home it is a choice between Comcast and CenturyLink, and neither will win any popularity contests. While large parts of Colorado have gotten some upgrades out of Comcast, Fort Collins is one of the communities that typically gets the cable company’s attention last.

The city of Longmont took control of its digital destiny after years of anemic and expensive service from Comcast and CenturyLink. Longmont Power & Communications’ NextLight Internet service delivers gigabit fiber to the home service to the community of 90,000. The service was funded with a $40.3 million bond the city issued in 2014, to be paid back by NextLight customers, not taxpayers, over time. It remains a work in progress, but is expected to start construction to reach the last parts of Longmont by next spring.

chart memberNextLight delivers a mortal blow to competitors by charging a fair price for fast service. Instead of spending to upgrade their networks to compete, the incumbents demagogued the public project and Comcast spent $300,000 of its subscribers’ money in a campaign to kill the service before it even got started. Perhaps they had a right to be worried considering NextLight customers pay $49.95 a month for unlimited 1,000/1,000Mbps service. NextLight offers 20 times the download speed and 100 times the upload speed of Comcast’s Blast! package for nearly $30 less a month.

 

After NextLight was rated America’s fastest performing Internet service by Ookla in May, residents in Fort Collins began to wonder why they were still putting up with poor service from Comcast and lousy DSL from CenturyLink.

Fort Collins is about a one hour and fifteen minute drive north of Denver.

Fort Collins is about a one hour, fifteen minute drive north of Denver.

At the same time, city officials were doing their best to leverage some modest improvements from Comcast in return for a renewed franchise agreement. All they got was a vague commitment permitting the city to monitor Comcast’s notorious customer service and two HD channels set aside for Public, Educational, and Government use, along with a $20,000 grant to help the public access channel with online streaming.

The Coloradoan urged Fort Collins officials to think big and establish public fiber optic broadband in the city.

To manage this, they will have to overcome a 2005 state law backed by Comcast and Qwest (now CenturyLink) that bans municipal telecommunications services. A local vote or federal waiver can sidestep a law that was always designed to restrict competition and make life easier for the two telecom giants.

The newspaper opines that Fort Collins is in no way ready for the digital economy of the 21st century relying on Comcast and CenturyLink.

The cable company’s attention is focused on bigger cities in the state and CenturyLink remains hobbled by its copper legacy infrastructure. While some upgrades have been forthcoming, both Comcast and CenturyLink are also testing usage caps or usage-based billing — just another way to raise the price of the service. And speaking of service, neither Comcast or CenturyLink are answerable to the communities they serve – a community owned broadband alternative would be.

As the Coloradoan writes:

We’ve got to lay the groundwork now. Society took huge steps forward when automobiles replaced the horse and carriage. And no, installing municipal broadband isn’t adopting a new mode of transportation, but it is symbolic of laying an entirely new road.

Look at it another way. The city provides needed services such as water and electricity. Internet access is a needed service.

One thing Fort Collins doesn’t absolutely need Comcast or CenturyLink. But nobody is asking them to leave. They have a choice to use their massive buying power and resources to upgrade their networks to compete. But Fort Collins residents should not have to wait for that day to come when there is a better alternative in their grasp today: public broadband.

 

Competition Works: América Móvil Plans $50 Billion Fiber to the Home Network in Mexico

infinitum-telmexWith AT&T’s arrival in the Mexican wireless marketplace with its purchase of Iusacell and Nextel, América Móvil is responding with plans to build a new state-of-the-art $50 billion fiber-to-the-home network for Mexican consumers.

According to El Economista, América Móvil has a five-year plan to construct a 311,000 mile fiber network that will offer phone, broadband, and television service. The move comes in response to media reports AT&T is exploring delivering a video package over its acquired wireless networks within the next two years. The network will support broadband speeds that are faster than what most Americans along the border with Mexico can receive from AT&T and CenturyLink’s prevalent DSL services.

In comparison, U.S. phone companies like Verizon have stopped expanding its FiOS fiber to the home network and AT&T largely relies on a less-capable hybrid fiber/copper network for its U-verse service.

Competition in Mexico has forced providers to upgrade their networks to compete for customers while those in the United States tend to match each other’s prices or advocate for industry consolidation to maximize revenue and keep their costs as low as possible.

América Móvil’s broadband service Infinitum Telmex has already attracted 22.3 million broadband customers — a number likely to rise once it can enhance its online video streaming service Clarovideo.

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