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

Western New York

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poloncarz

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

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

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

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

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

Rep. Collins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frontier Communications’ Broken Promises to Mountain Counties of North Carolina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Western North Carolina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Attorney General Joel Stein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Service Problems Plague Frontier Customers in West Virginia as Company Seeks Voluntary Layoffs

Phillip Dampier January 3, 2018 Consumer News, Frontier, Rural Broadband, Video 1 Comment

An undisclosed number of Frontier Communications customers in West Virginia were without phone service during the Christmas-New Year’s Day holidays because of copper thefts and slow repair crews that did not begin repairs for up to two weeks after the outages were reported.

Hardest hit was Mingo County, where multiple copper wire thefts caused significant service outages starting Dec. 20 in Matewan, Delbarton, and Varney. Many customers were without phone service over the Christmas holiday, and some are still without service two weeks later. One of them is Arlene Gartin at the two-month old Mudders restaurant, which depends on pickup and delivery orders.

“This has devastated us,” Gartin told WSAZ-TV. “Seventy-five percent of our business was our delivery and without the calls I’m hanging on by threads.”

In Iaeger in McDowell County, residents on Coonbranch Mountain report their Frontier phone and internet services have been out of service for two weeks. Carl Shrader told WVVA-TV that service went out on Dec. 23 and remained so throughout Christmas and New Year’s Day.

Mingo County, W.V., on the Kentucky border.

“We had a windstorm come through, and up here where the church is, at the top of my driveway, it blew the power line and the telephone line down,” said Shrader. “If you get a fire around your house, and the phone lines is down, how can you notify the fire department? If you have a burglar coming in on you, how can you phone and say, ‘9-1-1, I need help! There’s a burglar here.’ You can’t!”

Cell service in this part of West Virginia is spotty, making landline service very important for many West Virginia residents who live and work around the state’s notorious mountainous terrain.

Customers affected by service outages report long hold times calling Frontier and very little information or updates about outages. Many residents report Frontier’s outages are frequent and often take a long time to fix. Some have been told Frontier’s repair crews are short-staffed and busy elsewhere.

That comes as a surprise to officials at the Communications Workers of America who confirmed Frontier announced a “voluntary” reduction in force program on Dec. 20, seeking employees willing to accept a buyout offer. If enough workers do not take Frontier up on their offer, more than 50 Bluefield-based employees and about 30 in Ashburn, Va., are at risk of being laid off.

WSAZ-TV in Huntington, W.V. reports a significant number of residents in Mingo County have been without Frontier telephone and internet service because of copper wire thefts for the last two weeks. (1:49)

WVVA-TV in Bluefield/Beckley, W.V. reports some residents waited two weeks for Frontier repair crews to show up after a windstorm. (1:49)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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  • Chris: Im in Tri-Cities, WA and just caught wind of the upgrade. Charter said they'd be doing this at some point over the last year and it finally happened f...
  • 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...

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