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A Tale of Two Territories: Frontier Plans Upgrades for Newly Ex-Verizon/AT&T Customers While Legacy Areas Suffer

frontier-fast-buffalo-large-2The new CEO of Frontier Communications is promising more fiber to the home service and advanced ADSL2+ and VDSL2 service to dramatically boost Internet speeds… if you happen to live in a Verizon territory Frontier is planning to acquire in Texas, California, or Florida. For Connecticut customers that used to belong to AT&T, Frontier also plans to spend money to further build out AT&T’s U-verse platform to reach more suburban customers not deemed profitable enough to service by AT&T.

For legacy Frontier customers in other states? Frontier plans nothing beyond what it already provides — usually dismally slow DSL.

Speaking to investors during the JP Morgan Global Technology, Media and Telecom Conference, Frontier CEO Daniel McCarthy said upgrades offer the company new earnings opportunities, but a closer analysis reveals those benefits will only reach customers in areas where Verizon and AT&T already did most of the work and spent the money required to build advanced network infrastructure.

Verizon has spent millions upgrading customers in Texas to its FiOS service and has a significant fiber to the home presence in California and Florida. Because fiber infrastructure is already largely in place, Frontier will not have to spend huge sums to build a new network. Instead, it will spend incrementally to expand service to nearby service areas.

Mediocre broadband in upstate New York.

Mediocre broadband in upstate New York.

“The FiOS penetration is much higher, specifically in Texas, but we think there’s a lot of opportunity to drive FiOS penetration in Florida and California,” McCarthy said. “We see that as a big opportunity.”

Fierce Telecom notes Frontier won’t have to make a large investment outside of installing new DSLAMs in remote terminals or local Central Offices to deliver higher speeds over copper. Frontier will likely depend on VDSL2 technology on short copper line lengths in suburban areas and ADSL2+ in rural locations.

“I think in this case it might be replacing some electronics, but it’s not a heavy lift from a construction perspective,” McCarthy said. “By putting in a shelf and next-generation capabilities, whether it’s VDSL, ADSL2+, or all the different flavors you can use to serve the different loop lengths in a market you achieve the ability to bring a fresh product set into an area at a fairly low cost.”

While Frontier is willing to invest money in areas that are easy to upgrade, it has proven itself reluctant to consider major upgrades in its legacy service areas where it acquired traditional copper-based landline networks.

“The new states will clearly have new growth opportunities,” McCarthy said. “In Florida there has been a revival of housing in certain areas and subdivision growth in Texas and California.”

In Connecticut, Frontier will build on the acquired AT&T fiber/copper network with a modest expansion of U-verse.

frontier u-verse“We actually see growth opportunity in Connecticut,” McCarthy said. “As we go through and look at the Connecticut property, one of the things that have been a recent development from a technology perspective allows us to serve lower density parts of the state of Connecticut with U-verse product that was limited by densities and loop lengths in the past.”

Although the company often touts millions in upgrade investments, most legacy service areas see only modest service improvements, while the company continues to score very poor in customer satisfaction, especially in states like West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. With Frontier’s ongoing focus on newly acquired service areas, long-standing customers in other states are feeling neglected.

In upstate New York, the prevalence of Frontier Communications’ low speed DSL on the company’s legacy copper network has dragged down overall broadband speed ratings to some of the lowest in the country. Frontier territory Rochester, N.Y., in particular, is now among the worst cities in the northeast for overall broadband speed performance, now rated at just 21.42Mbps. The national average is 36.22Mbps. In comparison, Buffalo scores 24.31Mbps, Cleveland: 22.57Mbps, and NYC 55.56Mbps.

Fla. Utility Says Negotiations With Verizon Make It Clear Verizon Will Exit the Wireline Business Within 10 Years

FPL_logo_PMS2925A Florida utility company has told federal regulators it is certain Verizon has a plan to exit its landline and wired broadband businesses within the next ten years to become an all-wireless service provider.

Florida Power & Light argued in a regulatory filing with the Federal Communications Commission it was clear Verizon had plans to exit its wireline business after the phone company suddenly informed regulated utilities like FP&L it no longer seemed interested in fighting over pole attachment fees and pole ownership and use issues. FP&L suggests that is a radical change of heart for a company that has fought tooth and nail over issues like pole attachment fees for years.

“Verizon has made it clear it intends to be out of the wireline business within the next ten years, conveying this clear intent to regulated utilities in negotiations over joint use issues and explaining that Verizon no longer wants to be a pole owner,” FP&L wrote to federal regulators. “Indeed, the current proposed [$10.54 billion sale of Verizon facilities in Florida, Texas and California] proves this point.”

Verizon has fought repeatedly with the Florida power company over the fees it pays FP&L to attach copper and fiber cables to the power company’s poles. Verizon Florida has repeatedly accused FP&L of charging unjust fees and at one point withheld payments to the utility worth millions.

In February, the FCC dismissed Verizon’s complaint for lack of evidence in the first-ever decision in a pole attachment complaint case involving an incumbent telephone company under a joint use agreement with an electric utility. The power company accused Verizon of lying when it promised concrete benefits to consumers if the FCC reduced joint use pole attachment rates. Suddenly, Verizon no longer seems to be interested in the issue.

verizon“Verizon has not increased its efforts to deploy wireline broadband in the last three years; and there is no evidence that Verizon has used the capital saved on joint use rates for the expansion of wireline broadband,” FP&L officials write. “Indeed, all of the evidence shows that Verizon is abandoning its efforts to build out wireline broadband.”

The power company is not about to just wave goodbye to Verizon. It filed remarks opposing the sale, claiming the benefits will end up in the pockets of executives and shareholders while customers get little or nothing. FP&L wants the FCC to enforce concrete conditions that guarantee Frontier will invest in upgrades to Verizon’s network, especially in non-FiOS service areas.

FP&L added it supports forward technological progress for the benefit of consumers, but the price of that progress should not be the abandonment of wireline customers, contractual obligations, and past promises to the FCC. The utility wrote it is not opposed to Verizon becoming a fully wireless company, but it should only be allowed to do so after it ensures that “its wireline house is in order.”

As things stand today, the utility argues Verizon is looking to abdicate on its obligation to deliver universal service and is no longer interested in maintaining its wired networks. FP&L points to Verizon’s efforts in 2013 to discard damaged wired facilities in favor of Voice Link, Verizon’s wireless landline replacement, in states including New York, New Jersey, and Florida.

“There should be no doubt that Verizon’s strategy to abandon wireline service in favor of wireless service extends beyond New York and Florida and beyond storm damaged and rural areas,” argues FP&L.

The utility points to Verizon’s successful effort to relieve itself of obligations to build a statewide fiber network in New Jersey that was supposed to be complete by 2010.

“Verizon, quite simply, has failed to build out wireline broadband in New Jersey because Verizon has no interest in doing so,” said FP&L. “As the sale of wireline facilities in Florida, Texas, and California […] clearly demonstrates, Verizon obviously is no longer interested in the wireline broadband business and sees its financial future in the wireless industry.”

Cablevision to Loyal Customers: Thanks for Paying Higher Prices for Cable Service When You Didn’t Have To

take the moneyIf you are a long time Optimum customer, the CEO, management, and shareholders of Cablevision would like to thank you for driving average monthly cable revenue per customer 4.8% higher from a year ago to $155.34 a month.

A few years ago, Cablevision developed a Stalinist approach to repeat customer promotions and retentions: nyet.

Despite mounting competition from Verizon FiOS, AT&T U-verse, Comcast and Time Warner Cable, Cablevision has held the line on repeatedly discounting its service for customers who complain their rates are too high.

“Our disciplined approach to pricing, promotional eligibility and customer credit policies has not wavered,” Kristin Dolan, chief operating officer, told investors on a morning conference call.

As a result, the average customer staying with Cablevision paid almost five percent more for service than they did a year earlier — more than $155 a month.

optimum“The main drivers of our increased revenue per customer came from a combination of rate increases, but also lower proportion of subscribers on promotion,” said Brian G. Sweeney, chief financial officer. “We had a number of fixed rate increases January 1 of this year related to cable box fees, an increase in our sports and broadcast TV surcharge, as well as the pass-through of PEG fees to certain customers.”

Cablevision elected to stop competing on price in 2013, telling customers they are entitled to one customer retention deal and that is all. As a result, Cablevision has been losing customers even as it gains revenue. Although it managed to pick up 7,000 net new broadband customers during the quarter, Cablevison lost 6,000 customer relationships, 28,000 video customers — double the number from a year ago, and 14,000 voice customers. That represents 11 consecutive quarters of video subscriber losses.

The customers that remain are meeting Cablevision’s earnings expectations as others leave for better deals elsewhere.

Kristin and James Dolan

Kristin and James Dolan

Cablevision admits many of its subscriber losses come from customers willing to shop around for a better deal. They usually find one. Although Verizon has tightened customer retention deals itself in response to Cablevision’s retention policies, Frontier U-verse in Connecticut continues to compete for new business on price, at least initially as part of new customer promotions.

Kristen Dolan argues Cablevision’s quality of service keeps customers loyal and brings many ex-customers back.

“We do a significant amount of [customer] win-backs every year and we really focus on why people are coming back and it’s not just about price,” Dolan said.

But some customers believe it is more about the price than Cablevision might think.

“The only reason I left Cablevision was because they wouldn’t negotiate and match a better deal Verizon offered me,” said Rob Hastings of Syosset, N.Y., who canceled service in 2013. “When Cablevision wouldn’t cut their price I left.”

Many of the customers coming back to Cablevision this year are, in fact, their old customers dealing with a rate reset from Verizon as promotions expire.

“When my Verizon FiOS rate shot up, I went back to Cablevision as a ‘new customer’ on a promotion,” said Hastings. “When that expires, I’ll bounce back to Verizon. Whoever gives me the best price gets my business as I am sure not going to pay extra to stay a loyal customer.”

cablevision service areaTo further combat promotion-bouncing, Cablevision is embracing its broadband product line and marketing new cord-cutting packages to customers that offer reduced-size cable television packages and free over the air antennas for local stations. The cable company also recently announced it would offer cable customers Hulu subscriptions. Jim Dolan, Cablevision CEO, believes broadband is where the money is and customers are willing to pay higher prices to get Internet access even when video package pricing has its limits.

“You’re seeing the video product begin to lose margin and not just among the little operators like us, but even some of the big operators,” said Dolan. “Our philosophy is we think of video as akin to the eggs and the milk in a convenience store. You have to have it, but you don’t make a lot of money on it. Now connectivity is a whole other basket. It’s more like the soda and chips aisle, and if you provide great connectivity, because it provides great value to the consumer, you can differentiate yourself and you can charge more and the margins are good on it.”

Dolan doesn’t think much of his competitor’s slimmed down cable packages either.

“Verizon’s known to embellish [and] use misleading messaging in their marketing to get the phones to ring,” said Dolan. “I think that’s partially how we view these packages. I can tell you that the packages that we’re offering provide a lot more flexibility.”

To further differentiate it from its competitors, Cablevision continues to emphasize its Wi-Fi network of hotspots across metro New York City. The company also recently became the first major U.S. cable operator to launch a mobile phone service that uses its network of Wi-Fi hot spots. Although not willing to divulge customer numbers, Kristin Dolan did say unique weekly visits increased 16% on average to Cablevision’s website, presumably to explore the Freewheel Wi-Fi calling product.

Cablevision’s highlights for the first three months of 2015:

  • Fiber to the Press Release: Cablevision was the first cable company to introduce 1-gigabyte residential service in the tri-state area. The service launched to a single new multi-tenant building in Weehawken, N.J. No further expansion is planned at this time;
  • Discounted Internet for the Cord Cutter on a Budget: Cablevision expanded the availability of $34.90/mo Internet Basics (5/1Mbps) across its entire service area. It includes an over-the-air antenna.
  • Third Party Set-Top Boxes: Cablevision is interested in providing a less expensive, open standard, set-top box platform in the future to customers that don’t want to pay for a large cable box.

That Was Fast: ESPN Sues Verizon Over Slimmed Down FiOS TV Packages

ESPN Red Logo largeESPN today filed a lawsuit against Verizon Communications, claiming FiOS TV’s new slimmed-down television packages violate ESPN’s contract provisions that forbid placing the network in an optional add-on “sports tier.”

Verizon’s new packages represent its efforts to control the cost of cable television. Custom TV offers a base package of networks for $55 with optional add-on channel bouquets covering genres like sports, lifestyle and family programming.

ESPN’s lawsuit, filed in New York Supreme Court, claims Verizon has no right to offer its networks as part of a theme-based package of optional channels.

A Verizon spokesperson shot back, “It looks like they are suing consumers to force them into a one-size-fits-all bundle.”

“Consumers have spoken loud and clear that they want choice, and the industry should be focused on giving consumers what they want,” Verizon said in a statement. ” We are well within our rights under our agreements to offer our customers these choices.”

Our Long Nightmare is Over At Last: Stop the Cap! Ponders the Failed Comcast-Time Warner Cable Merger

Phillip "Victory is Ours" Dampier

Phillip “Victory is Ours” Dampier

It has been 14 months since we heard for the first time Comcast was planning to acquire Time Warner Cable. It was the night of February 12, 2014. I still remember where I was the moment I first learned the news.

Stop the Cap! has maintained a civil relationship with Time Warner Cable for the most part over our seven-year struggle fighting usage caps, lousy broadband, and high prices. We fought one major battle with the company in April of 2009, when Time Warner executives planned a compulsory usage cap experiment on customers in Rochester, N.Y., Austin and San Antonio, Tex., and Greensboro, N.C.

Just as we had done with Frontier Communications a year earlier, we successfully beat down their efforts to impose usage allowances on customers already paying a significant chunk of money for broadband Internet access. After that battle ended, Time Warner Cable changed their position on usage caps and stated emphatically that customers should always have the option of unmetered/unlimited access. They have kept their word. In fact, their optional usage cap experiments have been a spectacular flop, attracting less than 1% of their customer base and delivering the message we’ve tried to get across the industry for years: customer hate usage caps, usage-based billing, and speed throttles.

Comcast is a company that long ago stopped listening to their customers. It applied an arbitrary usage cap on all their customers in retaliation for a FCC decision that disallowed them from running hidden speed throttles on peer-to-peer Internet traffic. Comcast lied about throttling traffic, paid homeless people to stack a hearing on the issue to keep company critics out of the room, and slapped the caps on in the fall of 2008 with the flimsy excuse it represented “fairness” to customers. Only later, we would learn usage caps were never about “fairness” or good traffic management. It’s just a way to deter customers from spending too much time on the Internet, especially if that time is spent watching online videos. Too much time spent watching Netflix might convince you your cable TV package isn’t necessary any longer.

comcast twcComcast customer service horror stories reached a level unparalleled by other cable companies when a Comcast predator-installer was convicted of raping and strangling to death 23-year old Comcast customer Urszula Sakowska,  whose lifeless body was found in a bathtub inside her Chicago-area home back in 2006. But Triplett’s violent service calls didn’t stop there. He also faced charges in the death of 39-year old Janice Ordidge, a Comcast customer in Hyde Park. Those two Comcast customers lost their lives. In 2009, another Comcast installer set a Pennsylvania customer’s house on fire. Other installers stole jewelry right out of customers’ homes. Others have exposed themselves in front of female customers or fallen asleep on their couches.

Billing errors are the stuff of legend at Comcast. Offshore call centers with language barriers, inept customer service, and long, long, long lines at cable stores with windows only partially manned by agents sitting behind bullet-proof glass also helped cultivate a customer relationship that can best be described as “perp and victim.”

Comcast isn’t just a bad cable company, it’s a menace. We didn’t have to spend hours proving our case. Fortunately, Comcast’s appalling reputation preceded it. Outside of two executive suites in Philadelphia and New York, nobody was for supersizing Comcast. Just to make sure our regulators knew this, we traveled to Buffalo in June of last year to testify at a Public Service Commission hearing on the subject of the merger. We didn’t mince words.

Sure, there were non-profit groups like the Boys & Girls Club that absolutely sullied their reputation pushing for the merger (Comcast wrote large checks to the organization so you need not give the group a single penny of your money in the future). “Civil Rights” organizations like the Urban League, NAACP, and others that used to defend minority rights now concern themselves with defending the interests of giant cable companies, just as long as they get a nice check in the mail with Comcast’s name on it. Among the worst of all – Shakedown Al Sharpton who will either be your merger deal’s best friend or will go away and leave victims of racism in peace, if you cut his organization a big fat check. (Now that the merger has collapsed, perhaps Comcast-owned MSNBC will end the thinly veiled quid-pro-quo arrangement it has with the man that gives him an hour a night to perform a talent train wreck.)

My own state assemblyman, Joe Morelle, who served as New York’s interim assembly speaker for about five minutes literally plagiarized his letter in support of the Comcast merger (after cashing their check) almost word-for-word from Comcast press releases and congressional testimony. Say it ain’t so, Joe!

morelleN.Y. State Assembly Leader Joe Morelle: “The combination of Comcast and Time Warner Cable will create a world-class communications, media and technology company to help meet the increasing consumer demand for advanced digital services on multiple devices in homes, workplaces and on-the-go.”

 

cohenDavid Cohen, executive vice-president, Comcast: “The combination of Comcast and TWC will create a world-class communications, media, and technology company to help meet the insatiable consumer demand for advanced digital services on multiple devices in homes, workplaces, and on-the-go.”

 

There was not a doubt in my mind that replacing Time Warner Cable with Comcast would be a disaster for Time Warner Cable customers. Despite promises Comcast would upgrade Time Warner’s network, it would also upgrade customer bills, resorting in higher priced service, higher modem fees, and lousy customer service. Comcast vice president David Cohen also made it clear usage caps would be a part of our life within five years. No amount of protesting or rational argument would stop Comcast from being Comcast. Don’t like it? Just try to cancel.

Time Warner Cable can be bad but it is no Comcast.

Malone: Waiting in the wings?

Malone: Waiting in the wings?

Life will be just fine without Comcast, but danger lurks on the horizon. Still interested in the possibility of taking over Time Warner Cable is the smaller Charter Communications, now effectively controlled by cable magnate John Malone (he owns his own castles). Malone has a long history of enriching himself at the expense of customers with no other choices for cable/broadband service. He used to control Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI), a cable company that literally threatened city officials who didn’t do what TCI wanted.

We remain unsure exactly what will happen next. Charter could bid aggressively to buy Time Warner Cable, Time Warner Cable could go it alone, or Time Warner Cable could start buying other cable companies (like Charter).

What we hope will happen is Time Warner Cable will refocus its energy on expanding its Maxx upgrade program as quickly as possible to reach all Time Warner Cable markets with faster broadband and a better cable TV experience. We also hope the company will stand by its word that compulsory usage caps are off the table.

I’d like to thank all of our readers who took the time to get involved in the fight and helped make a difference. Wall Street and Washington, as well as Comcast CEO Brian Roberts are all shocked the merger deal collapsed after a torrent of criticism from consumers. It also left state regulators cautious about how to proceed. New York’s Public Service Commission delayed making a decision eight times, recognizing the merger as a hot potato.

Our experience demonstrates that ordinary citizens can wield considerable power when unified and involved. We’ve proved that with multiple victories on the usage cap front as well as the AT&T/T-Mobile merger and Net Neutrality.

Let the fight for better broadband continue!

N.Y. Broadband Improvement Fund to Public Broadband Networks: Don’t Call Us, We’ll Never Call You

A $500 million New York State broadband improvement fund is effectively off-limits for would-be community-owned broadband networks trying to deliver broadband service in areas for-profit providers have deemed unprofitable.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s ambitious plan to revolutionize Internet access for New Yorkers depends almost exclusively on for-profit providers and the state’s largest cable operator, Time Warner Cable – the company that has so far received the largest share of state funds earmarked for better broadband.

Cuomo wants all of New York wired for 100Mbps service no later than 2018. His goal is ambitious because the overwhelming majority of upstate New York barely now receives a maximum of 50Mbps from Time Warner Cable, the only significant cable operator in the region.

The broadband map from N.Y. State shows 100Mbps service is available to most New Yorkers from Verizon FiOS, Cablevision, and a handful of municipal/co-op operators. Time Warner Cable only provides a maximum of 50Mbps service across upstate New York.

The broadband map from N.Y. State shows 100Mbps service is available only from Verizon FiOS, Cablevision, and a handful of municipal/co-op operators. Time Warner Cable only provides a maximum of 50Mbps service across upstate New York. Cablevision and FiOS compete on Long Island, Time Warner Cable Maxx competes with Verizon in New York City, and most of upstate New York is served by Verizon or Frontier DSL competing with Time Warner Cable.

Six months after the program was announced, Capital magazine reports the “New NY Broadband” plan is languishing with no defined guidelines, rules, or any clear sense about how the program will be implemented and the money spent.

Salway

Salway

In fact, one of the only clear statements coming from David Salway, a former telecommunications consultant who now administers the program, is that local governments should not bother applying because he doesn’t want them competing with Time Warner Cable, Verizon, and Frontier. It’s private enterprise only:

“The primary focus of our program is that we’re not going to be in the building business,” Salway said. He emphasized that municipal governments won’t be specifically precluded from receiving funds under the program, but said that the state is “wary” of “the government building and competing with the private sector. We see this as a provider partnership process where an incumbent provider or maybe a new entrant comes in.”

Local government leaders can read between the lines and most will not bother applying for funding if Salway’s vision guides the grant-making process. Instead, Salway wants to funnel money that effectively belongs to New York taxpayers into the pockets of for-profit providers like Verizon, Frontier, Windstream, Time Warner Cable and other providers that have consistently refused to expand their networks into rural areas on their own dime. The money earmarked for broadband is part of a $6 billion legal settlement the New York Attorney General’s office negotiated with Wall Street and commercial banks that helped plunge the country into The Great Recession.

statewide availability 1

statewide availability 2

statewide availability 3

Broadband advocates across the political spectrum are slamming the broadband program for different reasons. Christopher Mitchell from the Institute for Local Self Reliance predicts providers will deliver bait and switch broadband on the taxpayer’s dime and send the proceeds out of the area.

“When you subsidize the private sector, you don’t really know what kind of services they’re going to provide in the future,” Mitchell said. “There’s a fair number that basically rip off consumers,” and they “basically extract resources from the community they serve.”

Mitchell

Mitchell

“The only clear beneficiaries of this program will be cable and Internet providers, who will have a new state subsidy to expand their footprints into areas in which their competitors have demonstrated an inability to operate profitably,” said Ken Girardin of the conservative Empire Center for Public Policy, in a scathing review of the New NY plan.

So far, Verizon has shown no interest in the program. It’s eventual intent is to decommission rural landline service and push existing customers to wireless service, so applying for wired broadband expansion funding isn’t a priority. The most likely applicants include Windstream, which serves a small percentage of rural New York telephone exchanges, Frontier Communications, which dominates Rochester and parts of the Finger Lakes region, and Time Warner Cable, which used earlier funding to connect two rural communities to its cable service. But all three companies are waiting for the program and its grant terms to be better defined.

With incumbent cable and phone companies reluctant to take part, there are several wired and wireless broadband initiatives in rural areas around New York starved of resources to expand their networks. The “white space” wireless broadband project in Thurman, for example, will be seeking funding to expand its wireless high-speed network into other parts of the community. Other initiatives could allow existing middle mile fiber networks in the Southern Tier and Finger Lakes region to explore building out “last mile” service to homes and businesses that now receive only DSL or no Internet access at all.

Salway promises he’ll consider funding networks that deliver the best broadband speeds for the lowest relative price in similarly sized communities. But all the money in the world won’t help if an existing phone or cable company shows no interest in serving unprofitable rural areas even after the state defrays the initial cost of placing the infrastructure to provide the service.

Mitchell believes local communities are best positioned to know what their residents want and many support publicly funded fiber technology rollouts. He points to Longmont, Col., a community that fought off propaganda mailers and a $300,000 marketing effort by CenturyLink and Comcast to defeat public fiber broadband in the city. The residents voted in favor of building their own network to move beyond the “good enough for you” broadband coming from the phone and cable company.

“The Longmonts of the country can decide to wait until these private sector companies decide its in their interest to finally build these fiber networks out, or they can say, ‘You know, we’re always going to be behind the greater technological curve of the nation,’ and do it themselves,” Tom Roiniotis, Longmont’s general manager, told Capital.

Thurman, N.Y.’s Rural ‘White Space’ Wireless Network Debuts; Speed, Capacity Blows DSL and Satellite Away

The national map of available white space channels show plenty are available in rural areas, but designing an urban network might prove challenging because open channels just don't exist.

The national map of available white space channels show plenty are available in rural areas, but designing an urban network might prove challenging because open channels often just don’t exist. In a medium-sized city like Rochester, only 11 UHF channels are available, a number likely to dwindle to close to zero if the FCC successfully reallocates much of the UHF band to wireless providers like AT&T and Verizon.

A dozen homes in the middle of the Adirondacks now have access to Internet speeds far faster than what Verizon and Frontier DSL can deliver and without the usage caps or speed throttling common with satellite Internet access.

Thurman, N.Y.’s public-private “white space” wireless network survived months of political wrangling, debate, and even intentional signal interference created by someone intent on disrupting the project. For a community that some maps depict with zero residents, the 1,200 people of Thurman are now more known than ever, winning national attention for one of the first next generation rural wireless networks to use unused space on the UHF dial to provide Internet access.

A dozen homes are the first to receive the service, with nearly 80 more on the way during phase one of the project. A $200,000 New York state broadband grant helped get the project off the ground and defray the cost of equipment installed in each subscriber’s home. But the initial cost isn’t cheap, even with the grant. New customers pay an upfront equipment fee of $292 for a receiver that costs the project up to $600. The monthly service charge is $50. Despite the price, it’s worth it to a lot of subscribers.

“The white space service is truly amazing,” said John Schroeter of Kenyontown, noting he uses the Internet for genealogical research and relied on dial-up access for the last 15 years. “I can go from one web page to another without waiting forever.”

Schroeter told Denton Publications that web pages often failed to load with dial-up, even after hours of waiting. Now he can manage to complete days of research in about an hour, without having to drive 15 miles to the nearest Wi-Fi hotspot.

Despite the fact Verizon and Frontier Communications both run their own fiber cables on the same utility poles in the region, at least 75% of the 400 homes in Thurman have no access to broadband Internet, living out of reach of even basic DSL. Many end up in the parking lot of the town hall to use Wi-Fi. Others depend on prohibitively expensive satellite access. None of the existing options were ideal. Sheila Flanagan, proprietor of Nettle Meadow Farm complained it took her hours to prepare even a small number of shipping labels to send her cheese products across the country with UPS. Speeds were so slow, she was forced to drop Williams-Sonoma as a client.

thurmanThe concept of white space wireless Internet access has already taken hold in Europe but has dragged in the United States as existing UHF television stations, wireless carriers, wireless microphone manufacturers and others who use the same frequencies white space data services also depend on defend their turf. Since white space services are unlicensed and intended for two-way communications, fears that Internet users would degrade wireless microphones or TV reception meant special care had to be taken to lower the potential for interference.

Since rural areas lack a crowded television dial, are often outside of the coverage areas of wireless carriers, and are unlikely to host many wireless mics, white space broadband would seem like the natural solution.

The project in Thurman faced a number of obstacles to overcome anyway. There were philosophical objections from tea party conservatives who objected to tax dollars paying for the “luxury” of Internet access when satellite service is available. Some residents wanted a fiber to the home solution, one that was likely financially out of reach for the small community. Still others wanted the money spent on a fiber link between the town and Time Warner Cable, that might then be enticed to wire homes in the rural community. In the end, the community decided to go ahead with an advanced wireless network, citing a number of factors familiar to many living in rural areas:

  1. thurman-nySince the town is located entirely within the Adirondack Park, there are prohibitions on placing communications towers on nearby peaks or other high spots that could spoil the view;
  2. The heavily forested and mountainous area made a traditional Wireless ISP project difficult because those networks need line of sight communications. White space wireless signals easily penetrate through trees and can stay intact across hilly terrain;
  3. Although not as bandwidth capable as fiber optics, white space networks are capable of delivering 10Mbps broadband per UHF channel. Most networks bond multiple UHF channels together to support even faster speeds and expand capacity;
  4. The chances of creating interference for other spectrum users was low in Thurman, which is a four-hour drive from New York and far enough north of Albany to avoid interfering with signals from the state capital. Even wireless carriers hug their cell towers along I-87, a respectable distance away;
  5. The network has redundant backhaul access to fiber from both Verizon and Frontier, neither of which show the slightest interest in expanding services into the community on their own;
  6. The grant was limited in scope and white space broadband qualified so it proved the most economical choice for a community that was no stranger to fights over money, engaging in political battles over issues like the cost of building a salt shed and auditing the on-hand count of trash bags.
The Thurman white space broadband project hides base station antennas in the tree canopy.

The Thurman white space broadband project hides base station antennas in the tree canopy.

Tests provided the project managers with an idea where to place needed wireless antennas, often hidden within tree canopies. But at least one disgruntled resident made a point of creating intentional interference on the channels the project managers were testing, committing a federal offense along the way. That was quickly overcome and the equipment has been placed and will soon be joined by installations in nearby neighborhoods, broadening the reach of the service.

Recent advancements in white space technology have also allowed speed and capacity to improve dramatically. Equipment now transmits its exact GPS-identified location to a national database which sends back an authorized list of “white space” channels each transmitter can use to provide the service. If a new licensed broadcaster takes to the airwaves, a database update will lock out that channel in the area, preventing interference.

Although exact speed data was not available at press time, Sally Feihel demonstrated she could successfully stream an episode of a classic Andy Griffith Show on her iPod at the same time a videoconference was underway and someone else was downloading a movie, all without skipping a beat. In fact, there is so much speed and capacity built into the system, its managers say speed throttles and usage caps are completely unnecessary.

Most users agreed the wireless network far outpaced satellite and DSL and some believed it was even faster than Time Warner Cable Internet access they experienced elsewhere. (Time Warner Cable doesn’t come near the community today.)

Constructing the network only took several months, but the politics that often surrounds public-private initiatives and the need for grant funding in income-challenged rural America can tie up projects much longer than that. The need for decent and affordable Internet access often will cross party lines, especially in rural communities.

New York’s state broadband expansion fund could help expand similar projects to other bypassed areas of the state. That investment may actually save taxpayers from paying high broadband bills indefinitely.

Residents are eagerly waiting for the next expansion to begin down Valley, Garnet Lake and Glen-Athol Roads. Moving beyond that may take more grant funding.

“White space is saving us $90 per month, and it’s far faster than satellite ever was,” another resident said.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/MetroFocus A New way to Bring Broadband to Rural Towns in Upstate New York 2014.mp4

MetroFocus showed the initial planning and testing phases of Thurman’s new white space wireless network, including interviews with town officials and a tour of the community. (4:23)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Dynamic Spectrum in Action How TV White Space Devices Work.mp4

TV white space wireless broadband networks are designed to avoid interference with other licensed spectrum users. See how the technology works in this short video. (2:27)

Greenlight Networks Cuts Price of Gigabit Broadband to $100/Month

greenlightGreenlight Networks, a fiber overbuilder serving select neighborhoods in the greater Rochester, N.Y. area, today announced it was cutting the price of its gigabit broadband offering by 60 percent.

The new $100/mo price takes effect immediately and will increase competition for local incumbents Time Warner Cable and Frontier Communications. Time Warner currently sells up to 50/5Mbps service and most Frontier Communications customers qualify for DSL at speeds of 10Mbps or less.

Greenlight also announced it is waiving its usual $100 installation fee for customers signing up for gigabit service.

Greenlight president Mark Murphy said he wants Rochester to be considered America’s next “Gig City,” and emphasized Greenlight does not charge hidden fees or surcharges and has no usage caps. The company also sells a less expensive 100/20Mbps tier for $50 a month and recently introduced a 500/50Mbps tier for $75 a month. The upload speed for the gigabit tier is 100Mbps.

Greenlight currently offers service in a few neighborhoods in Brighton, East Rochester, Henrietta, Irondequoit, Pittsford and Rochester where enough customer demand can be demonstrated. Potential customers sign up on the company’s website (temporarily disabled) and are notified when service becomes available.

Greenlight now only sells broadband service and has stayed out of the cable television and telephone business.

Comcast: Bill First, Ask Questions Later (or Never); Attorney Pelted With Collection Letters/Calls for Non-Service

comcast collectionsA Pennsylvania attorney that didn’t pay his $215 Comcast bill was hounded by Comcast’s collections crew despite never getting cable service at his new address.

Wayne resident Edmond Tiryak would seem like a poor target for cable company harassment. He’s a lawyer after all. But even he withered after a month of unrelenting phone calls and letters demanding he pay his bill for non-service.

Tiryak had a peaceful 25-year relationship with Comcast until he moved last October. After three weeks of no-show appointments, waits on hold of up to 40 minutes and lots of excuses, Comcast never bothered to hook up service at his new address. But that didn’t stop the cable company from billing Tiryak $215 for his first month, in advance.

Calling Comcast to the debate the veracity of the bill turned out to be an exercise in futility. Comcast’s offshore call center insists they know best — Tiryak has cable service because the computer says he does. The fact Tiryak lives at the address and claims he doesn’t is beside the point. The only important matter is how Tiryak would like to pay – Visa, Mastercard, Discover? The fact he still doesn’t have service is, well, incidental.

A reasonable person would refuse to pay and insist on an investigation by a supervisor to verify Comcast is MIA at the Tiryak residence. But Comcast has a collections department that could wear down Vladimir Putin and they know how to use it.

Two months later, the attorney pleaded with Inquirer business columnist Jeff Gelles to help get Comcast off his back.

“By the time he contacted me in January, Tiryak had given up in frustration and was just fighting to get the $215 bill erased,” Gelles wrote. “Even four letters to Comcast’s president hadn’t done the trick.”

Some quick media attention is an excellent way to get Comcast’s attention, at least for a little while, and Tiryak was initially pleased to report the charges had been zeroed out.

Phillip "Comcast channels Genghis Khan" Dampier

Phillip “Comcast channels Genghis Khan” Dampier

But then Comcast’s collections department changed their mind after dreaming about that $215 in lost revenue, and started calling Tiryak again.

Gelles forwarded on the complaint about the resumed harassment collection calls to Comcast and received yet another promise all would be made right.

“It’s astonishing to me that they would take a really good customer, who’s been with them 25 years, and basically just treat me as if I’m nothing – as if I’m useless to them,” Tiryak told Gelles.

A long-standing pattern of Comcast customer complaints suggests Tiryak should not be surprised.

Gelles gently reminded readers in Comcast’s hometown that the free market works best when customers have an alternative when stuck in an abusive relationship with the cable company. But deregulated capitalism hands out gold stars for monopoly building consolidation. Tiryak, like so many others, landed on Comcast’s Park Place and now they have to pay.

The solution to the chronic dyspepsia resulting from repeated exposure to Comcast isn’t Verizon, which has capitulated on further expansion of its competing FiOS fiber to the home service to focus on counting Verizon Wireless coin. Instead of phantom competition that never arrives, the FCC’s recent decision to provide checks and balances for cocky, deregulated behemoth cable companies like Comcast might be the best answer for now.

Despite industry claims that an apocalypse would result from applying any “utility-style” regulation like that used to keep AT&T in check during its monopoly years, consumer advocates suggest Comcast’s passive-aggressive behavior could be managed with one phone call to a state regulator.

Geldes asked the former director of consumer services for the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission about how the agency would handle Tiryak’s complaint, if it were empowered to do so:

Under PUC rules, he says, after a utility investigates a dispute, it has to ask whether the consumer is satisfied. “If the customer says no, the company is required to give the PUC’s number for making an informal complaint,” he says. That is usually enough to solve most issues, he says. The agency also monitors nagging problems like long hold times for calls and occasionally intervenes.

Telephone companies used to dread the prospect of dealing with a customer complaint escalated to the New York Public Service Commission. Repair crews were often dispatched within an hour and generous service credits and apologies were routine. But the impact lived on for years after that. Customer service agents looking up account information on a customer who previously complained to the PSC about anything would find their computer terminal lit up like a Christmas tree, alerting them they were dealing with a customer that doesn’t play.

Recalling that era makes one wonder if regulating the biggest bad boys on the block — cable companies running wild — might not be such a bad idea after all.

Nothing else has worked.

When Fiber Competition Arrives, Time Warner Cable Slashes Prices As Customers Call to Cancel

david-and-goliathThe day had finally arrived. After months watching construction crews work their way towards the house she and her boyfriend rent in Rochester, N.Y., Brenda Ververs called Time Warner Cable to cancel service. She thought it would take five minutes to dispense with a barely-tolerated relationship she has maintained with the cable company for nearly 20 years. Instead, she got a retention offer too good to dismiss out of hand.

Greenlight Networks, an East Rochester-based fiber overbuilder has been slowly expanding its footprint into a handful of neighborhoods in Rochester and its suburbs, providing 100/20Mbps service for $50 or 1,000/100Mbps for $250 a month. But only a fraction of area residents have heard of the company and even fewer qualify to sign up for their service.

“When the neighbors first saw their construction crews and we found out it was a company called Greenlight, we thought they were there to install red light traffic enforcement cameras,” Ververs said.

Greenlight uses a similar approach to Google Fiber, informally recruiting “fiberhoods” of potential customers. Once enough interest is shown, the company schedules fiber construction in the neighborhood.

But the process remains largely a mystery to many, because unlike Google, Greenlight does not update its website with neighborhood rankings or a detailed service map.

Time Warner Cable, Greenlight’s chief competitor, is well-aware of its fiber competition but considers it too minor to warrant any attention, at least until customers like Ververs call to cancel service.

Time Warner Cable’s national customer retention centers often confuse Greenlight Networks in Rochester, N.Y. with Greenlight, the larger municipally owned fiber to the home network in Wilson, N.C.

“They thought I was moving to North Carolina and was canceling service to start a new account down there, but they finally found Rochester’s Greenlight Networks in their system and went into a script about how Time Warner Cable was an established company and Greenlight was basically a fly-by-night operation that could fail any day,” said Ververs.

Other customers have told Stop the Cap! Time Warner alternates between recognizing Greenlight as a legitimate competitor worth their respect and one that cannot be trusted with your business. But the customer retention effort eventually ends up in the same place — offering customers drastic rate cuts to stay with the cable company.

Not what competition fans want to see: Greenlight's "Expansion Plans" web page is blank.

Not what competition fans want to see: Greenlight’s “Expansion Plans” web page is blank.

“They asked me why I would consider switching to Greenlight for $50 for 100Mbps broadband-only service when for $69 they will give me 50/5Mbps service, cable television, and phone service for two years,” Ververs said. “They emphasized it was less than $20 more for all three services from Time Warner vs. $50 for Internet-only service from Greenlight. They even promised a free upgrade to 100Mbps when it arrives in Rochester sometime this year.”

Some departing customers are also being offered modem fee waivers and free extras, like premium movie channels and expanded international free long distance calling.

Greenlight does not charge modem or franchise fees or hidden surcharges like regulatory recovery fees.

Behind the scenes, Time Warner Cable is also making an effort to lock up the most likely places a fiber overbuilder would want to expand service – multi-dwelling units that are less expensive to wire than single family homes.

Cable operators aggressively recruit apartment managers and neighborhood associations to sign contracts that include discounted service for every home, apartment or condo in a complex, usually offered as “included in the rent or neighborhood association fee.” Many contracts of this type give the cable company exclusive access to existing wiring, discouraging would-be competitors by requiring them to pay considerably higher construction costs to independently wire multi-dwelling units.

Readers also tell us Time Warner is offering departing customers the service improvement many wish they had all along, including a commitment to check and rewire customer homes for free if service quality is among the reasons a customer plans to cancel service. Some customers are also offered specialized customer service contact numbers normally available only to premium-class Signature Home customers. Still others are being given substantial bill credits or rebates if they agree to stay with the cable company.

Ververs hates Time Warner Cable service and the constant rate increases, but the $69 retention offer, apparently only available to customers in competitive areas, has kept them from making a final decision to switch to Greenlight.

“Greenlight doesn’t offer a video or telephone package — just broadband, and we cannot ignore the fact we used to pay Time Warner $160 and can now get three services and free HBO for almost $100 less than we were paying, less than $20 a month more than we would pay Greenlight, and Time Warner plans to match Greenlight’s 100Mbps speeds this year,” said Ververs.

Downtown Rochester, N.Y.

Downtown Rochester, N.Y.

But broadband-only customers are less impressed with Time Warner’s retention efforts in a community than has yet to see cable broadband speeds increase beyond 50Mbps.

Stop the Cap! reader Joseph Corriea writes his friend just signed up for Greenlight in the Highland Park area of Rochester and Time Warner immediately countered with an offer of Extreme Internet (30/5Mbps) for $39 a month. The deal breaker may have been the modem fee Time Warner didn’t offer to waive. Corriea’s friend left Time Warner for Greenlight and is happy with their flat $50 a month bill with no hidden gotcha fees.

Corriea wonders exactly how much bandwidth Time Warner Cable is withholding from barely competitive markets like Rochester.

The answer is plenty. Frontier Communications continues to lose an already meager broadband market share in areas of western New York wired for cable. The majority of its DSL customers only qualify for slowband speeds of 12Mbps or less and although the company recently claimed to have spent $9 million on upgrades in the area, many wonder where the money went.

“Frontier is a joke, they have always been a joke, and the only people doing business with them don’t know any better,” said Riga resident David Sobcek. “DSL is a dinosaur and although they claim faster speeds are available, it is very hit or miss to qualify for them and when the weather is bad, it’s a miss even if you did qualify. They locked my speed at a fraction of what they were selling and gave me nothing but excuses. Time Warner Cable has a monopoly for 99% of this area.”

Western New York is not on Time Warner Cable’s Maxx upgrade list for 2015, which boosts speeds up to 300Mbps. Google has intentionally avoided fiber projects in the northeastern United States because Verizon (and its limited deployment of FiOS fiber) dominates the region, and Frontier Communications has no plans to upgrade cities like Rochester to fiber to the neighborhood service similar to AT&T U-verse.

For the foreseeable future, that leaves Rochester with David vs. Goliath competition – a multi-billion dollar cable company vs. a fiber upstart. But with Time Warner Cable carrying more customer dissatisfaction baggage than American Airlines, nobody should count Greenlight Networks out, especially when the biggest complaint about Greenlight is why it is taking so long to expand their service area.

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