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Mother Of All Service Outages: Liberty Cable Promises Puerto Rico Full Restoration in Mid-2018

Liberty Cablevision of Puerto Rico has estimated it will take as long as June of this year to fully restore cable and broadband service to Puerto Rico.

It has been over 100 days since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. At least 45% of Puerto Rico remains without any electricity, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates it will take until May to fully restore power — eight months after the hurricane hit.

The island’s well-publicized power scandal with a politically-connected contractor also involves a decrepit utility, likely corruption in contract awards, incompetent management, and political interference from conservative groups who want to privatize the island’s utility and sell off its assets to corporate interests and entrepreneurs competing to turn the island into an experimental laboratory for renewable energy sources. All contribute to a slowdown in power recovery because no plan has adequate backing and sufficient resources to quickly bring power back online. Instead, mutual aid assistance from U.S. utilities is gradually rebuilding and strengthening the island’s existing power grid.

Liberty Cable’s original service area.

Liberty Cablevision claims many of its outages are power-related. When power is restored, their service will return as well. But many of their former customers will not. More than 140,000 Puerto Ricans have left since the storm hit Sept. 20 and some experts estimate more than 300,000 more could leave in the next two years. That’s on top of a similar number that have already left over the last decade as a result of the perpetual economic crisis on the U.S. island territory of 3.4 million.

Liberty is rebuilding significant parts of their network, spending millions to replace damaged coaxial cable with fiber optics, especially in areas closest to the eye of the hurricane where damage was greatest.

Liberty Global, controlled in part by cable magnate John Malone, this week completed spinning off Liberty Cablevision of Puerto Rico to Liberty Latin America, a new independent, publicly traded company. Included in the spinoff are Cable & Wireless Communications, a familiar telecom company serving Caribbean islands, parts of Latin America and the African island nation of the Seychelles, and VTR – Chile’s largest cable company.

A portable cell site

Cellular/Cable/Telephone

As of Dec. 29, 11.0% of Puerto Rico’s cell sites remain out of service. One county, Vieques, has greater than 50% of its cell sites out of service.

Satellite Cells on Light Trucks (COLTs) have been deployed in Aguadilla, Arecibo, Cayey, Coamo Sur, Fajardo, Guayama, Manati, Mayaguez Mesa, San German, Vega Baja, and Yauco and Terrestrial Cells on Wheels (COWs)/COLTs in Humacao, Quebradillas, Rio Grande, and Utuado.

U.S. Virgin Islands: Overall, 20.5% of cell sites are out of service. 50% of cell sites in St. John are out of service.

The FCC has received reports that large percentages of consumers are without either cable services or wireline service. While the companies have been actively restoring service, the majority of their customers do not have service because commercial power is not yet available in their respective areas. In Puerto Rico, there are no major telecom switches still affected.

Broadcast Stations

When broadcast stations are listed as “suspected to be out of service,” the statement is based on field scanning of relevant bands. Stations listed may be operating on reduced power or on a reduced schedule.

Television

Puerto Rico

  • 5 TV stations are confirmed operational (WKAQ, WIPR, WNJX, WTIN, WORO)
  • 2 TV stations are suspected to be out of service (WIPM, WELU)
  • 70 TV stations have been issued Special Temporary Authority to be offline
  • 30 TV stations have unconfirmed status

U.S. Virgin Islands

  • 14 TV stations have been issued Special Temporary Authority to be offline
  • 2 TV stations have unconfirmed status

AM Radio

Puerto Rico

  • 42 AM radio stations are confirmed operational (WA2X, WABA, WALO, WAPA, WBMJ, WCMN, WCGB, WCPR, WDEP, WENA, WEXS, WGDL, WI2X, WI2X, WI3X, WIAC, WIPR, WISO, WKAQ, WKFE, WKJB, WKUM, WLEO, WLEY, WMDD, WMNT, WMSW, WOIZ, WOQI, WORA, WPAB, WPPC, WPRA, WPRP, WSKN, WSOL, WTIL, WUNO, WUPR, WVJP, WXEW, WYEL)
  • 8 AM radio stations are suspected to be out of service (W227, WJDZ, WNVE, WVQR, WYAS, WZCA, WZMT, WZOL)
  • 21 AM radio stations are confirmed out of service by the Puerto Rican Broadcast Association (WBQN, WCMA, WDNO, WEGA, WFAB, WGIT, WHOY, WIBS, WIDA, WISA, WIVV, WJIT, WKVM, WLRP, WNEL, WNIK, WOLA, WOSO, WQBS, WRSJ, WUKQ)
  • 1 AM radio station has unconfirmed status
  • 2 AM radio stations have been issued Special Temporary Authority to be offline

U.S. Virgin Islands

  • 2 AM radio stations are confirmed operational (WSTA, WUVI)
  • 2 AM radio stations are suspected to be out of service (WDHP, WSTX)
  • 1 AM radio station has unconfirmed status

FM Radio

Puerto Rico

  • 55 FM radio stations are confirmed operational (WAEL-FM, WCAD, WCMN-FM, WCMNFM3, WCMN-FM6, WEGM, WERR, WERR-FM1, WERR-FM2, WERR-FM3, WFDT, WFID, WIDI, WIRI, WIVA-FM, WKAQ-FM, WKAQ-FM1, WKAQ-FM2, WLUZ, WMAA-LP, WMEG, WMIO, WNNV, WNRT, WNRT-FM1, WNRT-FM2, WNVM, WODA, WORO, WOYE, WPRM-FM, WPUC-FM, WPUC-FM1, WQML, WRIO, WRRH, WRTU, WRXD, WTOK-FM, WTOKFM2, WTPM, WTPM-FM1, WVDJ-LP, WVIE, WVIS, WVJP-FM, WVJP-FM2, WXYX, WXYXFM1, WXYX-FM2, WZAR, WZIN, WZNT, WZNT-FM1, WZOL)
  • 8 FM radio stations are suspected to be out of service (W227CV, WJDZ, WNVE, WVQR, WYAS, WZCA, WZMT, WZOL-FM3)
  • 17 FM radio stations are confirmed out of service by the Puerto Rican Broadcast Association (WCAD-FM1, WCAD-FM2, WCRP, WELX, WIDA-FM, WIOA, WIOA-FM1, WIOC, WNIK-FM, WQBS-FM, WQBS-FM1, WUKQ-FM, WUKQ-FM1, WXHD, WXLX, WYQE, WZET)
  • 3 FM stations have been issued Special Temporary Authority to be offline
  • 28 FM radio stations have unconfirmed status

U.S. Virgin Islands

  • 2 FM radio stations are confirmed operational (WVIE, WZIN)
  • 1 FM radio station is suspected to be out of service (WVIZ)
  • 1 FM radio station has been issued Special Temporary Authority to be offline
  • 19 FM radio stations have unconfirmed status

Altice Abandons Fiber to the Home Network Upgrade in France as Major Cost Cuts Loom

In a sign that could spell trouble for Altice’s ambitious plans to scrap Cablevision’s coaxial cable network in favor of fiber to the home service, Altice has announced it is ending its plan to build its own fiber to the home network by 2025 across France.

Instead of building its own network, Alain Weill, head of Altice’s SFR Group said the company would lease space on the government’s own public fiber network now under construction instead.

“With Patrick Drahi… we’ve recently decided to go for a more traditional model… and a collaboration with local authorities,” Weill told surprised French officials.

France considers its forthcoming national fiber network a national priority to help the country achieve the ability to fully compete in the 21st century digital economy. France is treating fiber broadband like roads and bridges — a public infrastructure project necessary to maintain the country’s standing in the global economy. France had relied on private providers like Altice to construct telecommunications networks and as a result fell to the bottom of EU rankings for superfast broadband.

President Emmanuel Macron said relying on the private free market to stimulate France’s digital economy was inadequate because the companies answered to shareholders, not the country. The European Union is on track to bump North America to third place behind Asia and Europe in fiber speed broadband.

Charter Spectrum Hurrying Out 100 Mbps Speed Upgrades Before Year’s End

Updated 12/15: The speed upgrades for several regions including upstate New York have now launched. You may need to reset your modem to get the new speeds. You should see at least 100/10 Mbps. If that does not work, call or chat with Spectrum and have them reauthorize your modem. If you are on a legacy Bright House or Time Warner Cable plan, you will not get these upgrades until you change to a Spectrum plan. We will have a report up on the home page shortly about additional gigabit speed upgrades likely to launch next week later tonight. — PMD

“By the end of the year, Charter’s flagship speed will be an industry leading 100 megabits per second (Mbps) in virtually every market we serve. In the last year, we increased that speed 66% – from 60 Mbps to an even faster 100 Mbps – at no extra cost to our customers. Additionally, in a growing number of markets, we have begun upgrading that flagship speed to 200 Mbps.” — Charter Communications blog post for Nov. 30, 2017

Charter Communications is hurrying out 100 Mbps speed upgrades to “virtually all” its markets, whether customers were originally serviced by Charter or were acquired from Bright House Networks or Time Warner Cable.

The company has been on a publicity drive to suggest its merger/buyout of BH and TWC was consumer-friendly. Charter also wants to reassure shareholders concerned about the ongoing trend of cord-cutting and customer backlash over rising internet prices that the value of Spectrum’s faster internet service has improved.

Unfortunately, its publicity campaign also flies in the face of an industry push to convince Americans the Obama Administration’s Net Neutrality policies have neutered investments in broadband upgrades, which is exactly what did not happen with the second largest cable company in the country.

“Since 2014, Charter has invested more than $21 billion in [upgrades] including video delivery, more efficient bandwidth management and advanced compression technologies,” Charter wrote. “This investment has enabled us to improve the quality of our video while reducing the bandwidth needed for its delivery. The bandwidth that is made available can then be dedicated to significantly increasing our broadband speeds.”

Several legacy Time Warner Cable markets, particularly in upstate New York, New England, and some markets in the deep south and Rockies are still waiting for the digital television conversion that will free up bandwidth for internet speed upgrades. Albany, N.Y. is nearly complete and Rochester, N.Y. is next on the list.

Sources suggest Charter may find a way to boost speeds in almost all of its markets, regardless of whether digital TV conversions are complete. That would mean communities in these areas would see standard internet speeds rise from 60 Mbps to 100 Mbps at no extra charge. Those who agreed to pay Charter’s $199 upgrade fee for “Ultra” 100 Mbps service would see their speeds rise to as high as 300 Mbps.

A quick check showed no speed changes in the Rochester market as of this afternoon, but that could change before Christmas. Customers can check if they received an upgrade by briefly unplugging their cable modem and resetting it. A speed test will verify whether your areas has received an upgrade. Customers still holding onto a legacy Bright House or Time Warner Cable plan will see no speed changes. This is part of Charter’s effort to convince customers to abandon older plans and switch to Spectrum plans and pricing.

If speed upgrades are not in place by the end of 2017, they will be coming for the remaining Time Warner Cable markets in early 2018.

Meanwhile on Oahu, in Hawaii, Spectrum internet customers are welcoming gigabit internet (introductory price $104.99/mo). Those who don’t want to pay that much also received a free speed upgrade. What was 60 Mbps in the summer increased to 100 Mbps in the fall and as of Dec. 1 is now 200 Mbps. Similar speed increases will be coming to the cities that get gigabit upgrades from Charter. We anticipate all of those cities designated for gigabit service from Spectrum already have substantial competition from gigabit speed fiber to the home service from AT&T or Verizon.

Lexington, Ky. Has a Solution for Its Charter/Spectrum Problems: A New Fiber Competitor

An Indiana company will spend between $70 and $100 million building a fiber-to-the-home network delivering gigabit broadband speed in Lexington, Ky., partly in response to months of consumer dissatisfaction with Charter Communications’ Spectrum service.

MetroNet could make Lexington the largest gigabit city in the country, according to the city’s mayor Jim Gray.

“Santa Claus is coming to town,” Gray said.

Headquartered in Evansville, Ind., MetroNet provides internet, phone and television service across a 100% fiber optic network in 35 communities in the midwest —  mostly in Indiana and the western suburbs of Chicago. The company started operations in 2005, wiring the community of Greencastle, Ind. Since then, it has grown with the financial support of billionaire investors including Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Nike’s Phil Knight. Oak Hill Equity Partners, a private equity firm, has a financial interest in MetroNet, along with investments in WOW!, Atlantic Broadband, Wave Broadband, and Cincinnati Bell.

MetroNet may have selected Lexington because it has a poorly received cable operator — Spectrum, and Windstream, a competitively inadequate phone company. Windstream does not provide the kind of service AT&T’s U-verse and AT&T Fiber offers in other Kentucky cities.

All of Lexington’s residents could get service from MetroNet is as little as three or four years, because the company has agreed to wire the entire urban service area, a departure from the “fiberhood” concept introduced by Google, wiring individual neighborhoods only after a sufficient number of customers pre-register for service and pay a deposit. The project is likely to win a quick approval from the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council, allowing construction to begin in January. Because MetroNet sells television service, it will have to apply for and receive a franchise from the city.

“This means three things,” Gray said. “First, a fiber-optic network will provide gigabit speeds to homes and businesses. Second, it will bring a new cable provider to Lexington, which will bring competition to Spectrum and Windstream. MetroNet will have Kentucky basketball. Third, MetroNet has a great record of customer service.”

Prices and packaging:

  • 100/25Mbps $49.95
  • 200/75Mbps $59.95
  • 500/100Mbps $69.95
  • 1,000/250Mbps $89.95
  • Television packages range from $18-79 a month
  • Digital Phone service is $9.95 a month
  • Discounts of $10-20 a month are available for customers selecting a two year “price lock” agreement
  • a $9.95/mo “technology fee” also applies.

Although most welcome the competition, some noticed MetroNet does not intend to sell service at fire sale prices.

“I checked their rates in Lafayette, Ind. and they weren’t that cheap,” commented James Wood. “100Mbps internet + Standard tier TV+ phone was $146/mo for two years.”

MetroNet uniquely charges exactly the prices it pays for cable television networks, with no mark-up. (1:39)

Unfair Tax Policies Disadvantage New Fiber Competitors, Harm Broadband Expansion

Providers attempting to wire rural communities to offer broadband service or a competitive alternative to cable and phone companies face unfair tax and pole attachment fees that often give the advantage to existing companies and deter would-be competitors.

Those differences have a meaningful impact on rural broadband providers in states like New York, where wiring rural upstate communities is being made difficult by bureaucratic pole attachment fee policies and wide differences in property taxation that give an edge to existing cable giants like Charter Communications while hampering small start-ups with costly and confusing tax policies that slow down broadband rollouts.

The Watertown Daily Times recently published an in-depth special report on the broadband challenges impacting northern New York, where fast internet access has evaded some communities for more than two decades. That lack of access is becoming a critical problem for a growing number of employers who are now considering exiting those communities because companies like Verizon, Frontier Communications and Charter/Spectrum are refusing to provide 21st century broadband service in rural upstate communities.

One example is Tupper Lake Hardware in Tupper Lake, N.Y., which wanted to expand, but considered exiting the area instead after being stuck using satellite internet access because no phone or cable company offered broadband service in the area.

“It came to the point where if you are going to make a $1 million investment, we actually talked about this, we said ‘do we put our money into this place or do we just pick up and move?’” general manager Chris Dewyea told the newspaper. “It is real. It sounds dramatic, but that is the way it goes. The connectivity speed that we had with satellite internet was not good enough, so that is when we started on our journey to get high-speed here.”

Calling Verizon, Frontier, or Spectrum was fruitless, so the company picked up the phone and called… the Empire State Forest Products Association, a group that has tangled with internet connectivity problems in upstate New York before. The group pointed the company to Slic Network Solutions, owned by the independent Nicholville Telephone Company, which has spent the last several years slowly expanding the reach of its fiber optic network in the north country. Slic currently provides service to about 10,000 homes in small communities like Belmont, Lake Placid, Schroon Lake, and Titus Mountain.

Like many fiber overbuilders operating in New York, Slic has to plan its network expansion carefully, as it lacks the financial resources and staff of a company like Verizon or Charter. Slic’s fiber service is in very high demand, because the alternatives are almost always satellite internet access or appallingly slow DSL service from Verizon or Frontier, neither of which have shown much interest in delivering the FCC’s 25Mbps definition of broadband. Charter’s Spectrum service is available only in larger concentrated communities that can meet the cable company’s return on investment property density test. Many rural upstate communities don’t.

“In most of the places, there really was the option of satellite. Some places had DSL but it was usually pretty marginal,” said Kevin Lynch, vice president of technical operations & chief operations officer of Slic Network Solutions. “There are a few areas, but very limited, that might have had Spectrum.”

Slic is one of several small fiber providers operating in New York, each trying to cover territories larger phone and cable companies have ignored for years. Cooperation in commonplace among some companies operating in similar regional areas to keep construction and operating costs down. Some providers share their networks to extend their reach. Most target commercial or institutional users but will lease out their networks for residential providers. Some of the state’s middle mile fiber networks were built with economic stimulus money or through other grant or government programs. Others are privately funded. Many are underutilized but lack the funds to expand.

Westelcom, based in Watertown, counts Slic as one of its partners. Westelcom currently limits its business to commercial accounts in its six county service area, which includes Watertown, Malone, Clayton, Elizabethtown, Ticonderoga and Plattsburgh. But it is willing to provide wholesale access to third-party companies that want to serve residential customers.

One of the biggest and most surprising impediments to serving “last-mile” residential customers isn’t the cost of construction or the return on investment. It’s New York’s tax laws. Current tax policy requires fiber providers to pay taxes on the value of the infrastructure being used, regardless of revenue. At present, that tax rate can cost between $25,000 and $30,000 per fiber route mile. If it takes five miles of fiber to reach only a half-dozen homes, the provider would owe New York over $100,000 in taxes alone, making it impossible to recoup costs and drain the provider’s finances.

The National Conference of State Legislatures, a bi-partisan group, published Property Taxation on Communications Providers: A Primer for State Legislatures in 2015, outlining a legacy of inconsistent and often outdated state and local taxation policies across the United States that treat communications providers differently on issues like property tax. The group points out New York’s tax authorities treat cable and phone companies very differently than upstart fiber providers. Mobile phone companies are taxed differently as well:

The taxation of communications property varies widely in New York. There are several types of property taxes that are applied in varying ways to the communications sector. While New York does not generally tax tangible personal property, the state considers lines, wires, poles, electrical conductors, fiber optic equipment, and related equipment to be real property. Landline companies and cable companies are subject to a real property tax on “Special Franchise” property which is centrally administered and assessed using the reproduction cost method by the Office of Real Property Tax Services (ORPTS). The Special Franchise property tax applies to equipment located on public property. In addition, Nassau County and New York City have a “split roll” which  requires higher taxes on the “utility” class which includes landline telephone companies. Wireless companies and cable companies are assessed locally for their real property (land and buildings,  e.g., towers)

In plainer English, Lynch points out Slic is taxed about $465 per mile per year in St. Lawrence County, which is “significantly higher” than what cable companies like Charter pay, because they are taxed differently.

In the college town of Potsdam, Slic pays more than double the school and property taxes paid by Charter Communications, even though it serves fewer customers and earns much less. That disparity forces providers to target their networks in more dense areas like inside towns and villages, which means more customers per fiber route mile, reducing the bite of the tax man.

“Broadband infrastructure is considered real property, so it is taxed just like a house when it is in the right of way. So when we attach to these poles which are in the public right-of-way, we pay taxes on it and it is based on construction costs,” Lynch added. “There are a certain number of customers we have just to break even on those two operational costs and that does not include any of the other overhead and the content, the electronics and all that.”

After paying New York, Slic then faces the bureaucratic challenge of pole attachment permitting and fees. Every pole on which Slic attaches its fiber wiring is owned by someone else, typically utility companies like National Grid, Verizon, or Frontier. Some poles are jointly owned and maintained by the phone and electric company in the area. Fees and procedures vary in different parts of the state. There is generally a very costly pole attachment application fee and ongoing pole rental fees, which in this part of New York can run $400 a mile, per year.

Lynch said the costs of pole attachment fees alone can account for up to 40 percent of Slic’s expansion budget, and those initial fees can run between $10,000-14,000 per mile. This is why fiber overbuilders frequently decide on coverage areas based on customer commitments to sign up for service if it becomes available. This allows companies like Slic to secure the financing required to provision the service. But money alone doesn’t buy instant access.

“We apply to National Grid or whoever the pole owner is and say, ‘We would like to attach to these 30 poles on this road,’ and do a pole application and pay a fee,” Mr. Lynch explained to the newspaper. “They come out, they look at each pole and they determine if there is space on the pole, do they need to rearrange the electrical wires so they are in compliance with the electrical code, do they need to move down the phone lines. A lot of times these poles are jointly owned. It will be National Grid and Verizon, so they have to coordinate and then there might be a section that has Spectrum on it, so you have three or four companies that have to coordinate this effort.”

The state adds its own layer of bureaucracy with different Department of Transportation regions, regional economic regions, and Department of Environmental Conservation regions, each with its own rules and procedures. It is common for fiber projects to cross from one region into another, requiring additional paperwork and likely delays. If a project has to cross into the Adirondack Park, the rules and permits required to manage that are byzantine.

The result of all this is usually a significant delay in getting started, but once the paperwork is complete and fees are paid, the work can go faster than many realize.

“In these areas where we are constructing right now, Schroon Lake and Belmont and Lyon Mountain, we are building three to five miles of fiber per week. Our next group of projects that has been funded by New York state is 300-plus miles of fiber,” Lynch said. “And when I say three to five miles per week, that is per area.”

Fiber providers would like to see tax fairness and a lot less bureaucracy. The rules in states like New York may eventually leave fiber to the home service at a distinct disadvantage, because wireless networks don’t face pole attachment complications and pay lower taxes because their real property is generally a cell tower and the fiber line that connects to it. As it stands, some internet providers may gravitate towards wireless internet solutions in rural areas instead of fiber just to avoid excessive taxes and the pole attachment bureaucracy. Most homes and businesses prefer fiber optic service when given a choice, but without some changes to tax laws and a more centralized, less bureaucratic approach to pole attachments, fiber optics may never make financial sense in rural upstate New York.

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Recent Comments:

  • JayS: It will be interesting to see how companies in Utility-Monopoly like markets (Cable Tv, Electric, Wired Internet) treat the "tax rate windfall". Then...
  • Adam Bryant: Please give us any updates you have on this! I received an approval letter on 11/29/2017 12:16 PM sayign they would be sending a check within 10 busin...
  • jgbbmodelrailroad: New York State has a weird law that means Internet Service Providers pay they same taxes on infrastructure regardless of how many customers it serves,...
  • nanaki: If your on a 100mbit card you will not see a full 100 mbit but do to over head will see between 70 and 85 90 if your computer and network are brand ne...
  • Jose: I can strongly relate to your frustration. My elderly neighbors were having issues with their Spectrum phone line always going down. It took about 6...
  • Jose: I believe there is some truth to the price of the cable box. Before my next door neighbors switched over to a Spectrum plan, they were paying about $...
  • Phillip Dampier: Charter has not fully converted former Time Warner Cable customers to its legacy Charter website and support platform, which is why TWC customers ente...
  • Phillip Dampier: Folks, I should have been more clear that this list is for approved CUSTOMER-OWNED modems for Charter/Spectrum customers. It does not include modems s...
  • Curious George: use this list too the ubee is on this list under Modems offered by Spectrum https://www.timewarnercable.com/en/support/internet/topics/modems.html#/...
  • Josh: sigh Capitalism, whee!...
  • EJ: Yep, yep they have essentially created another way to profit off of their shotty lower up time network. Give the guy that thought of this a big fat ra...
  • John Becker: I concur with Nick that there's no way in that this is the list of all approved modems. In fact, when I click on the link provided in Mr. Dampier's or...

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