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Updated: Arrest Made But Charges Dropped; Vandals Cut Charter’s Fiber Cables in Queens Again

A second fiber cut in two weeks left 30,000 Queens residents with no cable service for hours. (Image: CBS New York)

A second major cable outage in two weeks left 30,000 Queens customers of Charter Communications without phone, TV and internet service Tuesday, after vandals severed the company’s fiber optic cables.

A Long Island man was arrested Wednesday night at his Long Island home for allegedly causing the first outage, which wiped out service in the same area for almost 16 hours on June 26.

The NYPD issued a press release stating Michael Tolve (48) of Wantagh, N.Y. was charged with criminal mischief and is alleged to have cut fiber cables and removed a digital memory card from a nearby surveillance camera to avoid being detected. He was later identified from other surveillance camera footage.

Charter Communications claims Tolve is a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Union 3, one of the unions that has been involved in a strike against Charter for several months. He worked as a fiber technician for both Charter Communications and its predecessor Time Warner Cable for 14 years. The cable company puts the damage estimate for the first cable cut in June at $67,000. Charter claims it has experienced 106 malicious cable cuts in its New York-area network since unionized cable technicians went on strike on March 28. The company has filed police reports on all of them.

“It’s disappointing that one of our employees would unlawfully sabotage the infrastructure we all work so hard to maintain and inconvenience our customers in this way,” Charter spokesman John Bonomo said in an email. “We intend to support the prosecution of these crimes to the fullest extent of the law, as they put our customers’ well-being in jeopardy, cause local businesses to suffer, and are a general inconvenience for all.”

Both fiber cuts strategically affected the largest possible number of customers with the least amount of effort. Charter officials said they detected the fiber cuts and dispatched repair crews immediately, but restoring service was “a gradual process” that took several hours.

Update (7/17): The Queens district attorney’s office has declined to press charges against Tolve, and all charges against him have been dropped pending an additional investigation.

 

Microsoft’s TV White Space Rural Broadband Solution Expands in America

Microsoft is indirectly getting into the internet access business with its support for white-space wireless internet access for two million rural Americans by 2022.

The project will involve a partnership putting Microsoft’s financing together with rural telecommunications companies that want a rural broadband solution for their customers.

Microsoft has spent at least a decade promoting “white space” wireless broadband, which works over unused UHF TV channels. An internet provider markets the service as a next generation Wi-Fi network, capable of serving customers over a much larger distance than traditional in-home or business Wi-Fi. The service transmits from strategically placed antenna towers that are capable of delivering internet access to dozens of families in an immediate area.

Pilot projects not associated with Microsoft are already up and running in selected rural areas with mixed results. None of the projects have lived up to their pre-launch hype, but most have been a significant improvement over satellite internet access. Speed variability and capacity has proven difficult technical challenges, and finding ongoing financial resources to maintain the wireless network once constructed has also been a challenge.

Rural community politics is never too far away. Thurman, N.Y.’s white space broadband project Stop the Cap! wrote about two years ago has turned into a political football. Only about three dozen residents subscribe to the white space internet service and vocal opponents of the project and controversy over other spending initiatives caused the town’s CEO and one board member to resign. Town meetings have deteriorated into shouting matches as recriminations are fired back and forth. One of the project designers resigned after the town refused to honor an invoice for a cost overrun. The white space project was funded with a grant that required local matching funds. With only a few dozen customers using the service, some taxpayers object to underwriting its expenses.

The technology has not been a runaway success in the U.S., but Microsoft has had better luck funding internet access to 185,000 people in 20 wireless projects, many in the developing world.

Microsoft president and chief legal officer Brad Smith today introduced Microsoft’s plan to expand white space internet in the U.S., pointing to a white paper laying out Microsoft’s rural broadband strategy, which will leverage several wireless technologies.

A combination of technologies can substantially reduce the total cost of extending broadband coverage. Specifically, a technology model that uses a combination of the TV white spaces spectrum, fixed wireless, and satellite coverage can reduce the initial capital and operating costs by roughly 80 percent compared with the cost of using fiber cables alone, and by approximately 50 percent compared with the cost of current LTE fixed wireless technology.

One key to deploying this strategy successfully is to use the right technology in the right places. TV white spaces is expected to provide the best approach to reach approximately 80 percent of this underserved rural population, particularly in areas with a population density between two and 200 people per square mile. […] Satellite coverage is expected to be the most cost-effective solution for most areas with a population density of less than two people per square mile, and LTE fixed wireless for most areas with a density greater than 200 people per square mile. This mixed model for expanding broadband coverage will likely bring the total national cost of closing the rural broadband gap to roughly $10 billion.

To cover the costs, Microsoft has agreed to front its own money and recover it later. The Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities Corp. received $250,000 from Microsoft. Another $500,000 originated with the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission and another $250,000 came from the telecom company. Mid-Atlantic hopes to expand white space internet access to 1,000 local customers by the end of the year.

Mid-Atlantic today offers residents in Charlotte and Halifax counties, two rural regions in southern Virginia, free internet access to a limited number of education-related sites with speeds of 3-4Mbps. Customers can pay to access the entire web at those speeds for about $10 a month. A premium tier raises speeds to 8-10Mbps for $40 a month. About 90% of subscribers have chosen the free service, an alarming percentage for any company trying to sell internet access and recoup its investment. It currently costs around $1,000 to hook up each customer, a number local officials hope to reduce to $100 eventually.

Microsoft argues the technology is still cheaper than the alternatives – 80 percent less costly than fiber to the home service and half the price of 4G LTE wireless.

To guarantee the technology will work, Microsoft wants to preserve unlicensed frequencies not currently in use by licensed television stations for “white space” broadband.

“The Incentive Auction reduced the number of available channels that can be used for TV white spaces technologies,” Microsoft noted in its white paper. The company is referring to the FCC’s auction of UHF TV licenses, freeing up channels to be repurposed for wireless data expansion by the country’s mobile phone operators. “To make the significant investments necessary to reach economies of scale, potential TV white spaces network operators and device and chip manufacturers have converged on the need for a minimum of three usable TV white spaces channels in every market, with additional TV white spaces available in smaller markets.”

In other words, Microsoft wants the FCC to ensure at least three unused UHF channels in each city in the country are kept available for unlicensed spectrum users, like white space internet. That brought a scathing response from the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) who called Microsoft’s request “nonsense on its face”:

The proposal is either unnecessary, because there will be plenty of spectrum, or it is harmful, because there will not be enough. If you were playing musical chairs with someone and he told you, “you must reserve that chair for me, but don’t worry, there are plenty of chairs for everyone,” you would rightly be suspicious. The post-auction repack is essentially a game of musical chairs for displaced low power stations. Microsoft is telling the Commission: (1) it needs to have a chair reserved for unlicensed use, but that (2) there will be no effect from that reservation on anyone else. One of those assertions is untrue.

Microsoft also claims that only the reservation of spectrum can provide the regulatory certainty that Microsoft needs to increase investment in white space technology. But the truth is the Commission just held a lengthy auction of the very spectrum Microsoft claims it so urgently desires. If Microsoft were interested in increasing investment, it had an unprecedented opportunity to get guaranteed access to 600MHz spectrum with a nationwide footprint. Instead, Microsoft is trying to convince the Commission to give Microsoft a backdoor frequency allocation with exclusive access to that spectrum for free, and on better terms than winning auction bidders received.

Certain parts of the northeastern U.S. are signal-crowded, with no available white space channels.

The NAB objects to Microsoft requesting spectrum without directly paying for it, but Microsoft’s actual request is that those frequencies be reserved for unlicensed users of all kinds, not just for white space internet. The NAB accuses Microsoft of potentially increasing interference for licensed TV stations on a newly crowded, repacked UHF dial, a theory that seems unlikely in the most rural parts of the country where over the air television reception is problematic or non-existent. There are urban areas of the country, particularly in the Boston-New York-Washington corridor where open channel space is either not available or severely limited, but white space internet was designed to resolve rural broadband problems, not urban ones.

To find out what is true and what is theoretical Microsoft announced 12 new white space pilot projects in 12 U.S. states, including Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, New York, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin that will be up and running over the next year. Few details are available about the specific communities involved or the types of access to be offered. Microsoft only said if it gets its way, it could be providing internet access to two million more Americans by July 4, 2022.

Most customers are likely not going to get the FCC’s definition of broadband (25Mbps) from the current generation of white space broadband technology. Speeds are often comparable to DSL and just as variable, depending on reception conditions. The NAB questions whether this technology will really make much difference.

“Microsoft has been making promises about white spaces technology for well over a decade,” the NAB wrote on a blog post, noting it estimates fewer than 300 customers are getting white space internet access in the U.S. “There remain few tangible consumer benefits associated with white spaces deployments across the U.S.”

For states like New York, embarked on their own efforts to achieve 100% broadband penetration, Microsoft’s project may be too little, too late. Governor Andrew M. Cuomo launched the final phase of the New NY Broadband Program in March, seeking to deliver a final round of funding to secure access to high-speed internet for all New Yorkers by the end of 2018, four years sooner than Microsoft’s target date for its project. New York’s rural broadband expansion program relies primarily on incumbent providers and helps subsidize expansion of their networks to reach customers deemed too expensive to serve without supplemental funding.

Vandalism Wiped Out Charter/Spectrum Service for 60,000 in Queens, Brooklyn

Phillip Dampier June 27, 2017 Charter Spectrum, Consumer News, Video No Comments

More than 60,000 Charter/Spectrum customers were without broadband, television, and phone service for more than 24 hours after vandals sliced through fiber optic cables at four major service hubs at around 2AM Monday morning.

The service outage idled workers in offices, telecommuters, and shoppers at corner stores. ATM withdrawals and credit card transactions were impossible in some neighborhoods.

Police sources told WCBS they believe striking Spectrum union workers are behind the vandalism, owing to the specialized equipment the vandals needed to successfully cut through the fiber cable’s protective sheath. Those responsible also had to know the exact location of the fiber cables and what cutting them would mean for Charter customers across two boroughs.

“We would never condone that, we would never do that,” on-strike Spectrum technician Ray Reyes told WCBS. IBEW Local 3 made it clear it does not condone the destruction of property, despite a strike that has gone on for months with no end in sight.

This is the second major vandalism incident experienced by Charter in metropolitan New York this year. The first, in April, left 30,000 customers without service for hours. Police have no leads in either incident and no one is likely to be prosecuted.

Affected customers will need to contact Charter/Spectrum and ask for a service credit for the outage. No automatic credits are likely to be given.

Area shop owners are upset because they lose money when credit card and ATM transactions are not available. Mike Patel told WCBS his customers were mad about the outage and he lost at least $500 in credit card transactions, forcing him to turn business away.

WCBS-TV in New York reports Charter’s outage in Brooklyn and Queens affected more than 60,000 customers. (1:35)

Charter Forced to Set Aside $13 Million for Failing to Meet Merger Commitments to New York State

The New York State Department of Public Service today announced it had reached a potential settlement with Charter Communications after the company failed to meet its rural broadband expansion obligation outlined in last year’s approval of its acquisition of Time Warner Cable.

“The [Public Service] Commission conditioned its approval of the merger on Charter’s agreement to undertake several types of investments and other activities,” said Department interim CEO Gregg C. Sayre. “While Charter is delivering on many of them, it failed to expand the reach of its network to un-served and under-served communities and commercial customers in the time allotted.”

While Charter’s merger with Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks won rubber-stamp approval in almost every state where it operates, New York regulators required the merger to directly benefit the state’s consumers. The company must upgrade customers to 100Mbps service by the end of 2018 and offer at least 300Mbps statewide by the end of 2019. But it must also expand its cable network to reach 145,000 unserved and underserved homes and businesses within the next four years. The merger approval agreement set a schedule to begin network expansion as quickly as possible.

Charter failed to achieve its obligations, only reaching 15,164 of the 36,250 customers it was required to reach one year after the merger deal was approved.

As a result, regulators have penalized Charter, requiring it to pay an extra $1 million in grants for computer equipment and internet access targeting low-income New York residents and set aside $12 million in escrow as a security pledge to meet all of its network expansion commitments going forward. The company now agrees it will complete its build out obligation in six increments of 21,646 customers through May 18, 2020. Charter will forfeit a portion of the $12 million each time it misses a deadline. The amount lost will depend on the percentage of the target missed and whether the company demonstrates it has completed necessary tasks to expand service. If the company manages to meet its deadlines going forward, it has the right to earn back some or all of its security pledge.

Charter has also agreed to develop a communications plan within 60 days of the settlement’s execution to inform New Yorkers whether they are part of the build-out plan.

The settlement offer will issued for public comment, and will require final Commission approval to take effect.

Charter’s “Spectrum Internet Assist” is Cable-Style “Charity” With Tricks and Traps

Warren (center) pictured with representatives of Charter Communications and PowerMyLearning (Photo courtesy of: PowerMyLearning)

The incumbent mayor of Rochester, N.Y., currently up for re-election, has decided to take indirect credit for a low-cost internet program loaded with tricks and traps from a cable company that is worsening the affordable internet problem in the United States.

Mayor Lovely Warren made the head-slapping mistake of teaming up with Charter Communications, already on track to being even more universally despised by its customers than its immediate predecessor Time Warner Cable. Casting political instincts to the wind, Warren decided to team up with an unpopular cable company that is gouging its regular customers while offering a token “low-cost” internet program designed to protect Charter’s internet profits more than offering low-income customers a break.

WHAM-TV:

New low-cost, high-speed broadband Internet service is being launched in Rochester, Mayor Lovely Warren announced Thursday.

PowerMyLearning and Charter Communications announced Spectrum Internet Assist (SIA) would offer the service to eligible low-income household customers in Rochester.

Broadband speeds of 30/4 Mbps are being offered for $14.99 per month by SIA, according to Mayor Warren.

“Lowering the cost barrier to Internet access for families is essential if we are to close the digital divide and help them rise out of poverty,” said Mayor Warren. “Internet access is increasingly essential for students to do homework, for jobs seekers to research and apply for jobs, pay bills and remain connected with society.”

We agree with the mayor that lowering the cost barrier is critical to making essential internet service available to every resident. Unfortunately, Charter Communications is making the problem worse, not better. Charter’s idea of charity doesn’t seem so magnanimous when you read the fine print.

Charter’s solution for affordable internet: Charge most customers more while a select few jump through hoops for a discount.

First, Spectrum Internet Assist is highly discriminatory and only available to families with school age children that qualify for the National School Lunch Program. Don’t have kids? Tough luck. When they leave school, no more affordable internet for you!

Second, if you are a senior citizen on a fixed income, you probably already have 20+ years under your belt dealing with relentless rate increases from the local cable company. Unless you are 65 or over and receive SSI benefits, you’ll keep on paying those rate increases because the only thing Charter has on offer for you is a bigger bill.

Third, and the most egregious insult of all to the most vulnerable members of our society is Charter’s cynical fear its fat internet profits will be cannibalized if they simply lowered the bills of customers that would otherwise qualify for this program. Spectrum Internet Assist is for new customers only (and if you are still on a Time Warner Cable plan, you aren’t a new customer).

Charter refuses to relent on its policy requiring current customers to disconnect internet service for a month before they can qualify for Charter’s “charity.” The company is worried it will lose money from customers downgrading to Spectrum Internet Assist who will pay a lot less for internet access. To prevent that, Charter makes the process of enrolling as difficult and inconvenient as possible. Imagine if RG&E or National Grid demanded poor residents go without heat for 30 days before qualifying for heating assistance or if your elderly grandparents had to disconnect telephone service for a month before qualifying for Lifeline.

While obsessing about whether its poorest customers are taking ‘unfair’ advantage of a money-saving deal, Charter has no problem splurging on fat bonuses and compensation packages for its top executives. In fact, the highest paid CEO in the United States in 2016 was Thomas Rutledge, top dog at Charter Communications, rewarded with a splendid $98.5 million compensation package for finding new ways to charge consumers even more for cable service. Charter can certainly afford to lighten up on its customers. Instead, it seeks to live up to the cable industry’s usual reputation of a modern-day reboot of Oliver Twist, this time starring Rutledge as Fagin. Since Warren wholeheartedly endorses Charter’s paltry efforts for the poor, perhaps residents can call her up and ask why they should be forced off the internet for a month just to qualify for Charter’s “charity.” Or maybe not, considering the fact she had nothing to do with Spectrum Internet Assist beyond having her picture taken at a press event.

As is too often the case, uninformed politicians are quick to take credit for programs they don’t understand and are nowhere to be found when the real problem-solving and hard work needs to be done. How can we say that? Because we were a registered and very involved party in the New York Public Service Commission’s review of the Charter-Time Warner Cable merger deal. Mayor Warren wasn’t. We fought for pro-consumer benefits if such a deal was to be approved. Mayor Warren didn’t. We understood from long experience the cynicism that separates the cable industry’s lofty words from its fine print. She doesn’t.

Spectrum Internet Assist does very little to resolve the problem of internet affordability. The program is a close cousin of Comcast’s much-criticized Internet Essentials program, which has similar eligibility requirements and has proven cumbersome to sign up for and leaves too many eligible families behind because of its onerous signup requirements. In 2016, Comcast itself admitted that since 2011 it has only enrolled 750,000 low-income households in its discounted internet program, although more than 2.6 million families were eligible to sign-up but never did.

Charter makes internet affordability worse.

Our research shows that Charter’s token efforts for the few are more than canceled out by the rate increases and reduced options made available to the rest of its customers.

Time Warner Cable used to offer lower-cost internet plans.

Time Warner Cable used to sell six different internet plans ranging from $14.99 to $64.99 for new customers (and practically anyone who ever complained about their cable bill) or $14.99 to $109.99 if you were in the tiny minority of customers who didn’t either bundle service or ask for a promotion. Charter Communications argues it is “better” for consumers to simplify Time Warner’s “complicated” plans and pricing with a one-size-fits-all alternative — 60Mbps for what sells today for $64.99 a month (they raised the price $5 a month back in February). But at least you won’t pay that modem rental fee (if you didn’t bother to avoid it by buying your own cable modem that would have paid for itself long ago.)

So which company makes internet affordability a bigger problem — Time Warner Cable, which sold less expensive internet service at prices of $14.99, $29.99, and $34.99, or Charter Communications which advertises only one internet plan on its website for much of western New York – 60Mbps for $64.99 ($44.99 if you are new to Charter and not a previous Time Warner Cable customer that still has cable service). Spectrum’s plan is more than four times more expensive than Time Warner Cable’s previously well-advertised $14.99 plan.

Regular TWC broadband-only pricing in 2016.

No organization worked harder than Stop the Cap! to keep Time Warner Cable’s $14.99 Everyday Low Price Internet tier as a condition of the merger. While not fast, it is affordable and available to every customer, not just the small percentage that will eventually manage to qualify for Spectrum Internet Assist. Fortunately, New York’s Public Service Commission agreed with us and insisted that option remain available in New York State for the next several years. But Charter has subsequently made that plan almost invisible, removing all mention of it from its website, telling some customers it was not available, and leaving a distinct impression they don’t want customers to sign up.

Charter’s one-size-fits all plan got more expensive in February.

The reason is simple. Revenue cannibalization. Thomas Rutledge has repeatedly stressed to Wall Street investors he intended to end the “Turkish bazaar” of Time Warner Cable’s former cavalcade of plans and promotions. When a customer called Time Warner to complain about their bill, there was always room for negotiation and a better deal. Customers calling Charter looking for a break are hitting a brick wall with “take it or leave it” pricing, and tens of thousands of customers are “leaving it” and Charter behind. In this area, we don’t have that luxury because the alternative is usually Frontier Communications’ dreadful DSL service, which almost never meets the FCC’s definition of broadband — at least 25Mbps.

To give you an idea of just how rapacious Charter’s broadband pricing is, consider local upstart competitor Greenlight, which offers fiber to the home service to a very small number of neighborhoods predominately on the east side of the Genesee River. It charges a no-nonsense $50 a month for 100Mbps internet — $15 less than what Charter charges for 60Mbps. If you want gigabit speed, Greenlight will sell you 1,000Mbps for $100 a month, which is $5 less than Charter’s unadvertised 100Mbps offer ($104.95/mo with a mandatory $199 setup fee). Ten times the speed for less. No wonder their Facebook page is filled with people begging them to expand.

Rochester, like other cities in the upstate region, continues to fall behind with inadequate and costly internet service, insufficient competition, and no sign of gigabit speeds arriving anytime soon, unless you are lucky enough to live in a Greenlight service area. Those kinds of 21st century internet speeds are years away if we continue to depend on the local cable and phone company.

Phillip Dampier: We can afford to do without Charter’s “charity.”

In the local mayor’s race, one candidate seems to understand this problem and has a credible solution that fixes it. Rachel Barnhart has a long history of advocating for a citywide public fiber broadband network that would wire every home in the city for an estimated $70 million. The costs would be shared by city residents, the Rochester City School District, and at least one private vendor that would likely be responsible for administering day-to-day operations.

“About forty percent of homes in the city – 35,000 households —  don’t have high-speed internet via cable or DSL,” Barnhart said. “Some of those households can only access the internet via smartphones. The Rochester City School District has estimated half of its students don’t have broadband at home.”

City taxpayers have already paid for a underutilized institutional dark fiber network. Barnhart proposes putting that network to work for the community, selling competitively priced gigabit service for residential and business customers that would effectively subsidize free, slower-speed service for the less-fortunate. Is it expensive? Perhaps. But is it out of line when one considers in one local suburb this year, taxpayers will spend $1 million dollars on a single traffic light and minor road widening project to better manage traffic. Considering how many communities need digital highway traffic improvements, this kind of investment is hardly audacious and isn’t just about giving people fast internet. Managing the local digital economy with the right infrastructure is essential in a community that has seen the loss of tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs and has been economically challenged for years. The alternative is what we have now — watching a mayor impotently smile at a manufactured press event declaring victory while the near-cable monopoly local residents have for broadband service throws *-laden scraps at the public and calls it a day.

Rochester, and other communities that are enduring a cable company that is rapidly turning out to be worse than Time Warner Cable, cannot afford Charter’s “generosity.”

Politicians would do well to remember the sage advice we’ve given consumers since 2008. When a cable company claims they have a better deal for you, watch your wallet. For Mayor Warren, she will have to learn the same lesson we taught city councilman Adam McFadden and Assemblyman Joe Morelle. With friends like Charter/Spectrum or Comcast, you don’t need any enemies.

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  • Lori Palmer: I just called time warner/spectrum and was specifically told $69.99 is the lowest tier package available. I live in NYS. They did confirm you only nee...
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  • Shaun: I think it is more like, "Are they going to expand Fios?" Here, they just plainly flat out refused to do it, so, velocity said, if they won't, we will...
  • Phillip Dampier: From the looks of it, they vastly oversell their broadband service and lack adequate capacity to support their advertised speeds. So you buy 150Mbps w...
  • Phillip Dampier: Can you imagine an outage like this lasting nearly three weeks in the 70s or 80s. Yes you can... if you lived in Ghana....

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