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New York’s Rural Broadband Program Betrays Tens of Thousands of Rural Residents

For 76,783 homes and businesses in upstate New York, the future of internet access will be a satellite dish and as little as a 20 GB data allowance per month, courtesy of the New York State Broadband Program Office’s decision to partner with HughesNet, a satellite internet provider, instead of finding a provider willing to extend wired internet access to every New Yorker.

HughesNet Satellite “Fraudband”

For town supervisors and village mayors up and down the state, relying on HughesNet is nothing short of breaking Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s promise to bring broadband service to every New York resident.

Lewis town supervisor James Monty called HughesNet and other satellite internet providers “a dead end.”

“HughesNet is not broadband,” Monty said. “I just think it’s a gross waste of public funds to use something that isn’t going to work.”

Rural residents strongly agree, if only because many of them have directly experienced the pain and frustration of satellite internet in the past.

Bethel resident Susan Harte has two words to describe the kind of service HughesNet has provided since it launched its first satellite: “it stinks.”

She isn’t pleased the governor is walking away from rural New Yorkers.

“Definitely broken promises there,” Harte says.

In the North Country, Willsboro town supervisor Shaun Gillilland believes the issue is personal between the governor and his constituents.

“The state made a promise and you’re all here expecting them to carry through on that promise, and I think what we’re finding is that that promise is falling very short,” Gillilland said.

Further west, some residents in Niagara County, near Niagara Falls, are preparing to abandon their homes and move out of state to find internet service and a state government less beholden to corporate interests.

One resident of Middleport tells Stop the Cap! “I’m in a state of disbelief that we are going to actually pull the kids from school and move. We don’t have anymore years to wait. We need internet.”

This particular resident has called out state and elected officials for months on social media to draw attention to the reality rural New Yorkers are going to be stuck with awful internet access for years, while Gov. Cuomo takes credit for a program he will claim is a success story.

A 20 GB Data Cap

HughesNet plans for New York customers at designated addresses for New York’s rural broadband program top out with a 20 GB data cap.

HughesNet appears to be ready to take $15,620,785 from New York and $13,720,697 in private and federal funds and leave residents with internet service even worse than they offer many of their regular customers.

“I’ve already been told by an insider [the only significant benefit New York is getting] is $200 off installation,” the Middleport resident tells us. “The service is exactly the same as ordinary HughesNet except NY Broadband Program Office recipients will have a 20 GB data cap instead of the 50 GB data cap offered elsewhere.”

Susan Potter, who lacks internet access to her home near Watertown, thinks there is a scam afoot.

“Why is New York giving HughesNet $15 million dollars for internet service that any New York resident could order themselves today?” she asked Stop the Cap! “Where is the money going and how exactly will it benefit New York residents? Except for a much smaller and completely inadequate data cap, I cannot find a single thing HughesNet is doing for New York except taking the government’s money for substandard internet access and giving us a break on a satellite dish that can already be discounted from promotions.”

HughesNet’s own website tells an interesting story. Residents who enter an address designated to receive satellite internet by New York are offered just two plans — 10 GB and 20 GB per month (with a 24-month term commitment). Outside of those areas, HughesNet offers up to four plans — 10, 20, 30 and 50 GB allowances per month (with the same two-year term commitment). HughesNet promises “up to 25 Mbps” but disclaims any responsibility if it fails to meet that speed.

“NYBPO officials cannot seem to understand that the technology has limitations and that they can’t offer unlimited data,” the Middleport resident and Stop the Cap! reader added.

Few Albany residents working for the state government have to contend with no internet options, and wired internet plans in New York remain uncapped with no data allowances, which may mean some public officials have yet to grasp the implications of a 20GB data cap, less than what wireless phone companies offer state residents with unlimited data plans. The average home broadband user now consumes an average of 190 GB of data per month, which means HughesNet’s offer is for strictly rationed internet access.

HughesNet plans in parts of North Carolina offer up to 50GB of access.

Back in Lewis, Michael Hopmeier, president of Unconventional Concepts, which provides engineering consultancy services, told the Adirondack Daily Enterprise he openly fears New York’s broadband future has been left in the hands of unqualified bureaucrats running the state’s broadband office:

“I found as an engineer and a person with a background in communications and testing evaluation, that the information that they were providing was completely unrefined,” Hopmeier said. “We were getting broad, vague numbers like ‘99 percent coverage.’”

He said he compiled a list of questions: 99 percent coverage of what? What exactly did they mean by “broadband?” Why were the contracts issued to the companies that they were? Then he and the supervisors filed a Freedom of Information Law request to the state for answers.

“The gist of the responses we received was either no answer, ‘We won’t answer that,’ or the answers made very little sense,” Hopmeier said.

With tens of millions of state taxpayer dollars on the table, Hopmeier worries the state is going to waste a huge amount of money on an unworkable solution for rural New Yorkers.

“My concerns boil down to: one, ‘How are they measuring what they are doing? Two, is there an audit going on? Is there an attempt to review and determine whether those standards and goals are actually being met? And then three, what actions will actually be taken to correct any problems if we can find them,” Hopmeier said.

He has experience using HughesNet himself, and as a result of what he calls “totally technically unacceptable” internet service, he is now sending work out of state to Virginia and Florida, where broadband service is better.

Two hours north of New York City, it is not difficult to find a broadband desert. Steve Israel, writing for the Times Herald-Record, notes Sullivan County communities like Bethel, Callicoon and Delaware, along with Ulster County towns like Marbletown and Rochester are going to be stuck with fixed wireless at 2 Mbps, HughesNet at 15 Mbps (assuming it isn’t congested that day) or for a precious few — Charter Spectrum, which is rebuilding its rural cable systems to support faster internet speeds. For others, DSL from Verizon claims to offer up to 15 Mbps, but few admit to getting service anywhere close to that speed. All of these rosy speed predictions come from the state, but residents on the ground know better.

“Thousands of folks will be left without the high-speed internet Cuomo promised,” Israel wrote.

Frontier’s Internet Nightmares – “They Talk a Lot and Don’t Accomplish Much”

HughesNet isn’t the only provider attracting crowds armed with pitchforks and torches. Frontier Communications, which was recently awarded $9.7 million to extend DSL service to 2,735 more rural customers in the Finger Lakes, Southern Tier and North Country, attracts scorn from its existing customers.

“There is a special place in hell reserved for Frontier’s despicable DSL service,” scowled Lillian Weber.

“Disgustingly inadequate,” fumed Wilmington resident Bob Rose, who has been at war with Frontier for months about slow or intermittent service.

“It’s like not having internet access at all — dial-up used to be faster,” added John Schneider, another unsatisfied customer.

Weber holds the record among her neighbors for the longest delay for a Frontier repair crew to show up — eight weeks, resulting from three “missed” appointments.

“They rarely bother to show up and once claimed they were here but nobody answered the door, despite the fact we spent all day on the porch staring at the driveway,” Weber. “They are even bad at lying.”

Last winter, Wilmington residents found several examples of neglected Frontier lines under pressure from overgrown tree limbs and branches. (Image courtesy: The Sun)

Rose is never sure if Frontier’s repair crews will turn up at his home either when his internet service fails, which is often.

“If I’m lucky, we have an internet connection 60 percent of the time,” Rose told The Sun. “We’ve been frustrated as hell over here, a lot of calls. We might have 1 in 10 days where we have internet all day.”

Frontier says Rose lives in a troubled, “high volume area.” Rose says his entire neighborhood has three or four homes. He now never leaves home without his Wi-Fi hotspot, because it is often the only way to stay connected.

Rose can point to at least one visible problem he saw last winter around his neighborhood. Frontier is simply not taking care of its network.

“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “Tree limbs, heavy with snow, laying right on the cable. They need to trim those trees.”

Local government officials also hear often about Frontier. Essex County Board of Supervisors chairman Randy Preston is one of them.

“Every other week, I get a complaint about Frontier,” he said. He has personally filed a complaint with the state’s attorney general and is sending a call-out to all Frontier customers dissatisfied with their internet service to do the same. He does not believe Frontier deserves a penny of state money, and the company should return what it has already received.

Essex County Board of Supervisors chairman Randy Prestonon Frontier: “They talk a lot and don’t accomplish much.”

“As far as I’m concerned, they haven’t met their commitment,” Preston told The Sun. “The grants should be pulled from them, and they should be fined. They aren’t living up to their commitment, and I don’t think that should be allowed.”

After years of dealing with Frontier, Preston has a saying about the phone company: “They talk a lot and don’t accomplish much.”

The requirements of the current round of broadband funding require participants to offer customers 100 Mbps of service, something a Frontier spokesperson confirmed.

“In general, the program requires projects to have speed capability of 100 Mbps. The Frontier projects will satisfy this requirement of the program,” the spokesperson said.

That will likely require the phone company to bring fiber to the home service to the 2,735 customers to be served. Current customers will believe it when they see it. It is also clear that existing customers will not be so lucky. When asked directly if Frontier will upgrade to fiber-fast internet speeds elsewhere in New York, Frontier Communications manager Andy Malinoski kept his answer to The Sun vague.

“Frontier is constantly investing in, expanding and improving our network as we continue to improve our customer experience in New York and across the United States,” Malinoski said. “The NY Broadband Program is one tactic we are implementing in certain communities to achieve those goals.”

The NY Public Service Commission urges New Yorkers with Frontier DSL problems to complain directly to them.

“If it were to receive a consumer complaint, PSC staff would work to resolve the issue, including bringing in other agencies if necessary,” said James Denn, a spokesman. “Going forward, all upstate New Yorkers will see dramatic improvements in service quality and availability as a result of Gov. Cuomo’s nation-leading investment program. As part of this effort, PSC staff will work closely with the NYBPO to ensure that companies receiving awards, including Frontier, provide good customer service.”

“That’s a hoot,” responded Weber. “They should spend a week with us and after that, if they are smart, they will throw Frontier out of New York right behind Charter.”

N.Y. PSC’s Diane Burman Objects to Special Session Voting Charter/Spectrum Out of New York

Phillip Dampier September 12, 2018 Charter Spectrum, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, Video No Comments

Burman

New York State Public Service Commissioner Diane Burman today voted against motions to give Charter Communications more time to develop its six month exit plan to leave New York and a motion to get more time to file a rehearing request about Charter’s alleged violations of merger conditions governing its behavior in the state.

Burman’s opposition was rooted in her irritation over PSC Chairman John Rhodes’ decision to hold an unscheduled special session of the Commission on July 27 (which Burman did not attend because of a scheduled family vacation) where the three remaining commissioners all voted to cancel approval of the Merger Order allowing Charter Communications to acquire Time Warner Cable in New York State.

“I believe it was wrong to have that special session and I don’t believe that the rationale for it is the right one,” Burman told her fellow commissioners this morning at a regularly scheduled Commission Session. “I think it is a slippery slope that there was a special session without me present and that is concerning.”

Burman argued the Commission’s recent approval of time extensions in the Charter case could set a precedent that could take the regulatory agency down a road where companies like Charter and other utilities could delay proceedings by having informal private talks with Commission staff. As a result, Charter has effectively stopped the Commission’s clock on pre-determined deadlines like a 30-day limit to file a petition asking the Commission for a rehearing.

“The message that I fear we are sending is if there is an order that someone disagrees with and they are going to file a petition for rehearing […] if they are engaged in ‘productive’ dialogue, whatever that term may be, between the staff, we can wait for the petition for rehearing to be filed past the 30 days,” Burman argued. “For me, the impactful piece of it is that by saying ‘don’t file now’ we are blocking the [regulatory and public notice] process and the opportunity to start that clock so that people have the opportunity to comment on what we may be doing, which may be helpful.”

Because the Commission has approved delays allowing Charter company officials and the Commission to continue privately discussing matters, none of those conversations are on the public record and no groups, including Stop the Cap!, can scrutinize the discussions and file comments about those conversations, Commission decisions that may result from those talks, or suggest alternative corrective measures to consider.

The PSC’s counsel this morning admitted the Commission and Charter were engaged in active settlement discussions, but it isn’t known if those talks relate to overturning the Commission’s decision to banish Charter from the state or are about more procedural matters such as how Charter plans to hand over cable service to another entity.

“I think there are lessons to be learned from having the special session without me there and I do think that going forward, we need to be more cognizant of taking into consideration what the perception is by not having the full Commission body, minus one because there is a vacancy, [vote together on matters of great consequence like this] regardless of whether counsel believes there is an appropriate quorum or not,” Burman added.

The final vote on both measures extending deadlines in Charter’s favor was 3-1. Both measures passed.

N.Y. PSC Commissioner Diane Burman opposed the extension of the deadline for Charter Communications to file its plans to leave New York State and to request a rehearing of a July decision revoking their merger with Time Warner Cable in New York. (29:26)

Altice Launches Optimum Fiber on Long Island; Gigabit Service $79.99/Month

Phillip Dampier September 11, 2018 Altice USA, Broadband Speed, Competition, Consumer News No Comments

Altice USA this week launched symmetrical gigabit broadband over its new fiber-to-the-home network in parts of Long Island.

The cable company, which acquired Cablevision a few years ago, is gradually mothballing its part-copper wire network and going all-fiber across its footprint in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. The fiber buildout will allow Altice to increase internet speeds and have more flexibility providing television, broadband, and phone service.

Where the fiber network has been switched on, customers are being offered 940/940 Mbps (near-gigabit) internet-only service at a price of $79.99 a month. Stop the Cap! has confirmed with our readers that parts of Central Islip now have gigabit fiber service available.

“Altice USA is focused on offering the best network and connectivity experience, and the activation of our full-fiber network with smart Wi-Fi, the most advanced of its kind in the nation, demonstrates our commitment to creating converged customer experiences,” said Hakim Boubazine, Altice USA co-president and chief operating officer. “Delivering our symmetrical Altice Gigabit fiber service is just the start as we continue to scale our fiber network to bring our customers up to 10 gigabit internet speeds to support the explosive growth of data usage while laying the groundwork for the future of the connected universe.”

The company is keeping its precise fiber rollout schedule a closely guarded secret, as it competes with Verizon FiOS across much of its service area. Because the fiber upgrade project will take five years to complete, existing customers still served by Optimum’s older HFC network will not have to wait to get speed increases thanks to DOCSIS 3.0. The company is introducing 400 Mbps speeds this year with gigabit service anticipated in early 2019. Altice will not deploy DOCSIS 3.1, preferring fiber to the home service as a better choice.

Charter, New York Officials in “Productive Dialogue” to Resolve Disputes

An attorney for Charter Communications revealed that company officials and New York telecom regulators were engaged in a “productive dialogue” over how to resolve the state’s dispute with the cable operator.

In written requests to extend the deadlines for a rehearing of the decision to revoke Charter’s merger with Time Warner Cable and file an “exit plan” to leave New York State, Helmer revealed the two sides were engaged in substantial talks to resolve their differences.

“Good cause exists to further extend the deadlines [….],” wrote Maureen O. Helmer, counsel for Charter Communications. “Charter and the Department [of Public Service] have been involved over the past few weeks in productive dialogue regarding the July Orders as well as the related special proceeding initiated by the Commission in the Supreme Court.”

Helmer added that Charter has been “assembling additional information” about its criticized rural broadband expansion program for review by the Public Service Commission, which decided in late July to evict Charter/Spectrum from New York for consistently failing to meet its merger obligations with the state.

Charter’s lawyer suggests it is in the Commission’s best interest to accept additional delays in the deadlines to file a rehearing appeal of the July eviction order (requesting an extension until Oct. 10, 2018) and to file an orderly exit plan (requesting an extension until Nov. 8, 2018).

“A further extension would allow additional time for discussions between Charter and the Department before the initiation by Charter of additional Commission or court proceedings. Additional proceedings before the Commission and/or the courts would have the potential to divert the resources of both Charter and the Department from discussions regarding both orders, and could have the effect of making it more difficult to resolve the issues raised by the orders without litigation,” Helmer wrote.

There is an increasing likelihood the Public Service Commission’s July order effectively throwing Charter Communications out of New York State was actually a hardball, last-ditch negotiating tactic, potentially to extract additional conditions and more rigid compliance with the orders of the Public Service Commission.

Charter officials originally claimed the July eviction order was an example of election year politics by the governor and a striking union. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has repeatedly slammed Charter/Spectrum for its performance in New York, is running for re-election. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) also continues to strike Charter in the New York City area, attracting support from local politicians.

A Commission that is amenable to Charter’s request for a second delay in meeting its deadlines to file paperwork would send a clear signal the PSC is no longer intent on throwing the cable operator out of the state.

The PSC’s July order rescinding the approval of Charter’s acquisition of Time Warner Cable was based ironically, in part, on Charter’s frequent failure to meet the state’s deadlines.

Dolan Family Suing Altice USA Over Layoffs at Cablevision’s News 12 Operation

Phillip Dampier September 5, 2018 Altice USA, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

The founding family of Cablevision is suing Altice USA, the company that acquired the suburban New York cable operator in 2016, for violating terms of the merger and committing fraud after laying off staff at Optimum’s News 12 operation.

This week the Dolan family — the founders and original owners of the suburban New York City cable system, filed a lawsuit in Delaware Chancery Court after learning the notorious budget-slashing executives at Altice laid off dozens of workers, with plans to cut many more, despite a merger commitment to maintain at least 462 workers at the news operation and accept financial losses of up to $60 million until 2020.

News 12 is unique in the downstate New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut area where Cablevision provides cable service, delivering “hyper-local” coverage of news events across individually programmed regional news stations, each targeting a different service area. News 12 was among the first cable operator-created local news operations, founded in 1986 by Cablevision founder Charles Dolan.

Over the next three decades, News 12 launched several unique channels to serve customers:

  • News 12 The Bronx/Brooklyn (shared studios/talent, but branded individually to each borough)
  • News 12 Connecticut
  • News 12 Hudson Valley
  • News 12 Long Island
  • News 12 New Jersey
  • News 12 Traffic and Weather
  • News 12 Westchester

Originally exclusive to Cablevision, News 12 has since been licensed for viewing by cable customers of Charter Spectrum, Comcast, and Service Electric across the Tri-State area. Altogether, News 12 reaches about three million viewers in the region.

The lawsuit is an effort to preserve the legacy of News 12 in light of Altice’s legendary reputation for layoffs and budget cuts.

Charles Dolan

“Unfortunately for the employees of News 12, Altice has disregarded its solemn promise to operate News 12” as promised, the lawsuit claims. “The purpose of today’s lawsuit is to enforce Altice’s contractual commitment to stand by the employees of News 12. The Dolan family intends to hold Altice accountable for commitments Altice made at the time of the sale and to protect the quality programming News 12 provides the community.”

The lawsuit alleges Altice USA already laid off 70 News 12 employees in 2017 and notified the Dolans last month it would begin laying off additional workers beginning this week, including popular News 12 anchor Colleen McVey. McVey is a co-plaintiff in the lawsuit.

The fate of News 12 was a key issue for the Dolan family during merger talks with Altice. At one point, the family demanded News 12 be spun off as an independent entity not controlled by Altice because of fears the company’s cost-cutters would decimate the news operation. Ultimately, the merger agreement contained language forbidding Altice from laying off News 12 staff except in certain circumstances. The Dolan family claims there is no justification for the layoffs. Altice disagrees, claiming the suit has no merit.

“Altice USA remains committed to offering meaningful news coverage, enhancing our news product for our local communities, and growing our audience,” an Altice USA statement said. “Under Altice USA’s leadership, News 12 remains the most viewed TV network in Optimum households. This achievement reflects the uniqueness of News 12’s hyperlocal content and the high value viewers place on news that is tailored to their neighborhoods. Local news has never been more important, and we’re proud that News 12 continues to be a trusted source of news and information in the communities we serve.”

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