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Still No Fiber for Southern N.J.: State Settles with Verizon Over Poor Service

South Jersey: The worst broadband problems are in the southernmost counties closest to Delaware.

Customers hoping New Jersey’s telecom regulator would compel Verizon to expand fiber to the home service across southern New Jersey are out of luck.

The New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (BPU) approved a settlement between Verizon New Jersey, Inc., Cumberland County, and 18 southern New Jersey towns that alleged Verizon failed to properly maintain its wireline network in areas where it has chosen not to deploy FiOS — its fiber to the home service. But the settlement will only compel Verizon to maintain its existing copper network and offer token DSL and FiOS expansion in some unserved rural communities.

“We have heard our customers’ concerns in South Jersey and are pleased to have reached an agreement with the approval of all 17 towns on a maintenance plan going forward,” said Ray McConville, a Verizon spokesman. “We look forward to staying in regular communication with the towns to ensure our customers continue to receive the level of service they expect and deserve.”

“While the Board was fully prepared to proceed on this matter, the parties were able to reach a negotiated settlement which takes into consideration the needs of each community,” said Richard S. Mroz, president, N.J. Board of Public Utilities.

But some residents of those communities beg to differ.

“It’s another example of Chris Christie’s hand-picked regulators letting Verizon off the hook and sticking us in a digital divide,” complained Jeff Franklin, a Verizon DSL customer in Cumberland County. “Verizon should not be allowed to offer one half of the state modern broadband while sticking the rest of us with its slow DSL service.”

Franklin is upset that communities bypassed by Verizon’s FiOS network appear to have little chance of getting it in the future, now that regulators have agreed to allow Verizon to fix its own copper network.

“All the Board did was force Verizon to do what it should have been doing all along, taking care of its own network,” Franklin complained to Stop the Cap! 

Verizon did agree to expand its fiber network into the communities of Estell Manor, Weymouth Township, Corbin City, and Lower Alloways Creek Township, but only because of a 2014 agreement with Verizon compelling them to offer broadband to residents who read and complete a “Bona Fide Retail Request” (BFRR) form which stipulates homes and businesses in Verizon’s New Jersey territory can get broadband if they don’t have it now as long as these criteria are met:

  • Have no access to broadband service from a cable provider or Verizon;
  • Have no access to 4G-based wireless service; and
  • Sign a contract for at least one (1) year of broadband service and pay a $100 deposit.

“BFRR is a joke because it requires potential customers have no access to 4G wireless service,” claimed Franklin. “You have to go to the government’s National Broadband Map to determine eligibility, which is very tough because — surprise, surprise — Verizon itself contributed its 4G wireless coverage information for that map and as far as Verizon is concerned, their 4G coverage in New Jersey is beautiful, even though it really isn’t.”

If a single provider submits map data that shows a home address is already covered by 4G wireless service, even if that isn’t accurate on the ground, that customer is ineligible under the terms of BFRR. Even if they were able to subscribe to 4G broadband, most plans are strictly data capped or throttled.

Under the settlement, Verizon gets to choose what technology to deploy. Outside of the four communities getting FiOS, the rest of South Jersey will have to continue relying on Verizon’s DSL service. Verizon has agreed to extend DSL to 2,000 new residences and businesses in Upper Pittsgrove, Downe, Commercial, Mannington, Pilesgrove, and South Harrison. It will also fix some of its DSL speed congestion problems and monitor for future ones as part of the settlement.

But DSL won’t work if Verizon’s wireline network stays in poor shape. The company has agreed to deploy its “Proactive Preventative Maintenance Tool” (PPMT) to scan its copper network to identify and repair or replace defective cables. Verizon has also agreed to daily inspections of outside facilities and fix any detected problems within 30 days, as well as regularly reporting back on the condition of its infrastructure inside the towns affected under the settlement.

This agreement took a year and a half to reach and will keep the two parties out of court, but many are not satisfied being left with Verizon’s DSL service.

“Unfortunately, the BPU continues to allow Verizon to pick and choose which residents will receive modern telecommunications at an affordable cost,” Greg Facemyer, a Hopewell Township committeeman in Cumberland County, told NewsWorks. “The state legislature needs to recognize these inequities and step in and level the playing field for South Jersey. Otherwise, our region will continue to fall even farther behind and be less competitive.”

New Report Attacking Municipal Broadband Thin on Facts, Heavy on Hypocrisy

When the multibillion dollar telecom industry wants to push its narrative about telecom public policy, it employs an army of secretly funded astroturf groups, corporate-backed “policy institutes,” professional lobbyists, and ex-regulators and politicians that help move their agenda forward.

One of the latest methods to win influence is finding researchers willing to produce scholarly reports offering “independent” analyses of regulatory policies or telecom company business practices. It has now become a cottage industry, with the same select few authors regularly writing papers that align perfectly with the interests of cable and telephone companies that sponsor the groups, think tanks, or schools that employ them.

The blurred line between academic independence and “research-for-hire” has become increasingly indefensible at the nation’s think tanks, where politically motivated individuals and corporate donors funnel millions in funding with the expectation the think tank, its leadership and researchers will fall in line with the political views of the donor and act accordingly. When they don’t, the checks stop coming or a donor-led coup d’état similar to what happened in April at the Heritage Foundation can follow.

The idea that a think tank represents an independent body of researchers tackling random issues of the day without bias is quaint and often a thing of the past. These days, some think tanks and policy institutes dependent on corporate and big donor contributions are little more than willing corporate tools in policy and regulatory debates. Last month, this reached a new level of absurdity with the announcement that the MGM Resorts — a Las Vegas casino, was starting its own policy institute co-chaired by retired Sen. Harry Reid and former House Speaker John Boehner. Neither will be working for free. The stated purpose of the MGM think tank is to “concentrate on comprehensive, authentic and relevant national and international policy issues that impact the travel, tourism, hospitality and gaming industries and the global communities in which they operate.”

In short, it’s another way for the casino industry to lobby while operating under a veneer of independence at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

If a researcher cannot find work at a policy institute or think tank, they can always produce research papers under the auspices of a university or business school that welcomes corporate funding. These institutions assume they are protecting their credibility and reputation with claims of a firewall between industry money and research, yet too often the reports that result from this arrangement are embarrassingly industry-aligned. Questions of conflict of interest are also increasingly common when a researcher turns up at hearings to deliver ostensibly independent testimony on issues like regulation or their views about multi-billion dollar mergers and acquisitions that are in perfect alignment with the companies that donate to that researcher’s employer.

Yoo

Researchers like Christopher Yoo at the University of Pennsylvania Law School in Philadelphia bristle at the notion corporate dollars play any role in his research or findings, despite the fact he was accused of a major conflict of interest testifying strongly in favor of Comcast’s attempted merger with Time Warner Cable in 2014. Yoo defended the Comcast deal at every turn, telling Congress the merger would have little impact on consumer prices or competition, despite the fact ample antitrust concerns ultimately torpedoed the deal.

Yoo avoided disclosing the fact he had ties to Comcast’s chief lobbyist David Cohen, who sat five seats to his right at the hearing. Cohen served as chairman of the board of trustees at the University of Pennsylvania and Comcast is an extremely generous financial donor of the university — two obvious conflicts of interest that observers expressed shock were not disclosed in advance. Yoo focused instead on delivering testimony we characterized back in 2014 as “a nod in Cohen’s direction with an affirming, ‘whatever he said.'”

When the media called him out on the subject, Yoo downplayed any connection or conflict.

“The views of any other person in the university administration do not have any impact on my academic views or any public statements I make,” Yoo told the Washington Post. He added the Center for Technology, Innovation, and Competition that he founded was only “a tiny little bit” funded by the cable industry. We’ll fact check that claim shortly.

Like Harry Reid and John Boehner, Christopher Yoo does not work for free. Despite his claims that as a tenured professor, his academic freedom is protected, Mr. Yoo’s recent written work has been so closely aligned with the interests of the nation’s cable and phone companies, he comes alarmingly close to being an academic version of a corporate sock puppet.

Yoo is hardly the only researcher that has an amazing record of producing studies that coincidentally line up in perfect unison with the public policy interests of giant cable companies. Daniel Lyons of Boston College Law School prodigiously writes papers defending the cable industry’s practice of data caps. He’s been hard at work since 2012 trying to convince anyone that would listen that data caps are good for consumers, competition, and innovation. Like Yoo, Lyons was also a big supporter of Comcast’s attempted purchase of Time Warner Cable, “spontaneously” and “independently” penning long letters to the editor to newspapers all around the country defending the deal.

So what causes researchers to suddenly decide to write about some topics but not others? Random chance or money?

Last month, Yoo unveiled his latest paper, “Municipal Fiber in the United States: An Empirical Assessment of Financial Performance,” co-authored by Timothy Pfenninger.

Yoo claimed in his executive summary that the “current emphasis on infrastructure projects in the United States has intensified the debate over municipal broadband.” That’s news to us. In fact, the high water mark of the municipal broadband debate occurred in the last administration when FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler sought to nullify corporate ghostwritten municipal broadband bans passed by several state legislatures.

Yoo decided he would be a “helper” for cities contemplating repeating the success of EPB, the municipal power company in Chattanooga, Tenn., that built a successful public gigabit fiber to the home broadband network for the city and nearby communities. The “widespread news coverage” of EPB that Yoo wrote about, without mentioning it was almost exclusively positive, has apparently inspired a number of other communities to contemplate repeating Chattanooga’s success story.

In what we like to call Yoo’s “Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt” opening, he warns “city leaders who turn to existing municipal fiber analyses for guidance will discover that these studies limit their focus to the supposed success stories instead of systematically analyzing these systems’ financial performance.”

So instead of those studies, Yoo offers his own, which he claims “fills the information gap” by creating a whole new systematic analysis, using Yoo’s own hand-crafted criteria, to judge the success or failure of municipal broadband.

He doesn’t waste any time hinting municipal broadband is a bad idea, puts cities at risk for defaults, bond rating reductions, and taxpayer bailouts. In fact, Yoo characterized municipal broadband as a mere distraction from more important priorities he claims communities have. And besides, there is evidence showing “little current need for [the] high broadband speeds” that community broadband networks offer that incumbent cable and phone companies won’t.

Yoo’s take is like bringing a boyfriend home to your parents who claim they support and love you no matter who you date but then spend the next two hours telling you why he’s all wrong for you.

Follow the Money

We thought it would be useful to look into Yoo’s claims and conclusions more carefully. As always, we focused on two things: fact-checking the evidence and following the money.

It took very little time to turn up more red flags than one would find at a May Day parade in Red Square.

Academics with conflicts of interest or uncomfortably close ties to the telecom industry and the reports they peddle often escape scrutiny, because their research can intimidate journalists unprepared to challenge their premise, research, or conclusions without a substantial investment of time and fact-checking. But as we’ve learned over the years, there are very clear warning signs when more investigation is necessary.

We’re not alone. This week National Public Radio updated its Ethics Handbook with “a cautionary tip sheet about relying on the work product of think tanks.

It is “our job to know about ‘experts’ conflicts of interest” and share that information with our audience (or not use experts whose conflicts are problematic).  As we’ve said, it’s not optional. Click here for related reading from JournalistsResource.org. It includes “some questions journalists should ask when researching think tanks.” Among them:

  • “Look at the think tank’s annual report. Who is on staff? On the board or advisory council? Search for these people. They have power over the think tank’s agenda; do they have conflicts of interest? Use OpenSecrets’ lobby search, a project of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, to see if any of these individuals are registered lobbyists and for whom.
  • “Does the organization focus on one issue alone? If so, look carefully at its funding.
  • “Does the organization clearly identify its political leanings or its neutrality?
  • “Does the annual report list donors and amounts? Are large donors anonymous? If the answer to the second question is yes, you should be concerned that big donors may be trying to hide their influence.
  • “Does it have a conflict of interest policy?”

The Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy is even more frank in its warning to journalists who rely on think tanks and industry-based research:

[…] Entrenched conflicts of interest across the political spectrum, and pandering to donors, often raise questions about their independence and integrity. A few years ago, think tanks were seen as places for wonky scholars and former officials to bang out solutions to critical policy problems. But today, as the Boston Globe has written, many “are pursuing fiercely partisan agendas and are funded by undisclosed corporations, wealthy individuals, or both.”

Something smells funny.

Unsurprisingly, Yoo’s research was immediately distributed and promoted by a range of groups critical of public broadband to build what they believe to be an authoritative record against municipal broadband initiatives. In effect, ‘it isn’t just us saying public broadband is a bad idea, look at this ”independent” research.’

But exactly how independent is the research produced by Mr. Yoo and his Center for Technology, Innovation and Competition (CTIC)? Unfortunately, Yoo does not follow the common practice of disclosing the funding sources for his research and report. If it was funded through the Center, that should be disclosed. If a corporate donor provided funding or a stipend, that should be disclosed. If part or all of Mr. Yoo’s compensation comes from a bank account replenished in part or whole by an outside company, that should be disclosed. If he wrote the report in this spare time for fun, that should be disclosed as well.

Since Mr. Yoo doesn’t talk about the money, we will.

The CTIC’s website spends some time predicting the obvious conflicts of interest questions raised by its extensive corporate donor base.

“The Center for Technology, Innovation & Competition (CTIC) receives financial support from corporations, foundations, and other organizations that is vital to our continued growth and success,” the website states, which means without that support, there probably would be no CTIC.

Which corporations donate money is important to consider. If a substantial amount of a researcher’s funding comes from telecom companies that are either on record opposing public broadband, or would be forced to compete with a municipal broadband provider, that would represent a very clear conflict of interest.

CTIC attempts to inoculate itself from accusations it has that inherent conflict of interest with this statement on its website:

“CTIC does not accept financial support that limits our ability to conduct independent research. This allows us to produce scholarship that is free from outside influence and consistent with Penn’s ethics and values. All corporate donors agree to provide funding free from restrictions and promised results or deliverables.”

But that is not adequate enough to protect readers from researcher bias introduced by the donor funding that CTIC admits is “vital” to their existence. Consider the example of the tobacco industry, one of the first to leverage researchers willing to write papers created to distort, downplay, or confuse the debate about the safety of tobacco products. There was no need for a tobacco company to limit researcher independence or demand a certain result. That allowed researchers to claim editorial independence, but they also understood that if their reports did not meet the expectations of the tobacco company that paid for them, they would never be made public and that researcher would never be used again.

A corporate donor is unlikely to continue funding an organization that issues reports it disagrees with or worse, publicly bolsters its competitors or criticizes its public policy agenda. Had Yoo concluded municipal broadband was an ideal solution for the rural broadband, internet speed, and competition problems in this country would AT&T, CTIA, Comcast, Charter/Time Warner Cable, NCTA and Verizon still send them checks?

While considering the veracity of Mr. Yoo’s research and conclusions, do you believe CTIC’s donors would be pleased or unhappy about the report? Here is the list of companies and groups that help keep the lights on at CTIC:

  • American Tower (owns cellular and broadcast transmission towers)
  • AT&T
  • Broadband for America (funded by the cable/telco industry)
  • Cellular Operators Association of India
  • Comcast-NBC Universal
  • CTIA (the cellular industry’s top lobbying trade association)
  • Facebook
  • Google
  • GSMA (Mobile industry trade association)
  • ICANN
  • Information Technology Industry Council
  • Intel
  • Internet Society
  • Microsoft
  • National Science Foundation
  • NCTA (cable industry’s top lobbying group)
  • New York Bar Foundation
  • Qualcomm
  • Time Warner Cable (now Charter Communications)
  • Verizon
  • Walt Disney Co.

It’s clear there are few friends of municipal broadband donating to the CTIC while we count about eight likely opponents.

Even the way Mr. Yoo introduced his municipal broadband report at a Wharton Business School “broadband breakfast discussion” opened the door to more questions. To suggest the panel was stacked against public broadband would be an understatement.

In addition to Mr. Yoo, the former mayor of Philadelphia and governor of Pennsylvania Ed Rendell — who was hired by Comcast-NBC Universal less than two months after coming out in strong support of the merger of Comcast and NBC-Universal, was tasked with keynote remarks. Joining both on the discussion panel was Frank Louthan, a Wall Street analyst for Raymond James who regularly covers big cable and telco companies for investors and wouldn’t appreciate giving the bad news to clients about municipal broadband’s profit-killing competition and Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the corporate dark money-backed American Action Forum who seemed enamored of all-things Comcast. In 2014, Holtz-Eakin went out of his way to write a long piece urging regulators to approve the Comcast-Time Warner Cable acquisition as soon as possible.

Anyone who wanted to hear a positive view of municipal broadband would have had to eat breakfast somewhere else.

Yoo’s “Evidence”

For the benefit of readers and local officials that want a more detailed refutation of Mr. Yoo’s study and his findings on the granular level, we point you to Community Broadband Networks’ excellent report debunking the obviously biased findings from Mr. Yoo, who appears to be working on behalf of some of America’s largest telecom companies. Mr. Yoo will claim those companies did not sponsor the study, but we remind readers that without the extensive donor support of Yoo’s group from the telecom industry, there would likely be no study.

But we found several red flags to share as well.

Red Flag #1: Changing the metrics.

Mr. Yoo hand-selects the metrics by which municipal network success or failure can be determined… by him. He relies on Net Present Value, a particularly complicated and not always accurate measurement of a network’s prospects for success or failure. Clearly, every municipal network will face some challenges. Many are in areas deemed unprofitable to serve by the commercial telecom industry. But then, municipal broadband is all about solving the problem of broadband accessibility that other ISPs won’t. These public networks don’t exist to make shareholders and executives rich, nor do they have to allocate money to pay shareholder dividends. Even commercial ISPs have their hands out looking for subsidies to wire rural areas they would otherwise never serve. There is more to the story of municipal broadband than profit and loss.

Red Flag #2: Financing concrete.

Mr. Yoo’s predictions that some networks may never pay off their debts or will take dozens of years or more doing so assumes almost nothing changes for those networks in the near or distant future. Broadband networks are constantly evolving, as are potential revenue sources. Imagine a cable company having to exclusively rely on cable TV revenue to pay down their debt. Then remember the day cable operators discovered they could use a portion of their existing network to sell something called “broadband” service for another $30 a month. Ancillary revenue from the introduction of innovative new products and services is precisely how the cable industry successfully boosted subscriber revenue even in mature markets where adding new customers was challenging. They followed the time-tested principle of selling more things to the customers they already have.

But then Mr. Yoo agreed with this concept himself… when he was talking about the some of the same telecom companies that write his group checks. Municipal networks are somehow… different, however:

The development of the Internet has greatly increased the value of the services that can be provided by last-mile networks. The rollout of convergent technologies, such as Internet telephony and packet video, will break down the barriers that previously limited the revenues generated by any particular transmission technology. Cable is already able to provide voice through its coaxial network, and it is just a matter of time before telephone companies are able to provide video. Application-based distinctions between transmission media will completely collapse once all applications become packetized.

He also downplays the tool of refinancing. Altice turns that concept into a weekend hobby. This European cable conglomerate’s business plan leverages debt like no other cable operator. It manages that debt by regularly repackaging and refinancing debt at lower rates as it also works to pay it down. These same options are available to municipal providers.

Red Flag #3: Municipal broadband is too expensive, or is it?

There are massive start-up costs to build broadband networks, costs that might put a community’s finances at risk, Yoo’s report concludes. That leaves the obvious impression communities should avoid going there. But that wasn’t the attitude he had in 2006, when network costs were even higher than they are today.

“The economics of the last mile have changed radically in recent years,” Yoo said. “The fixed costs of establishing last-mile networks have dropped through the floor. Switching equipment that used to take up an entire building can now be housed in a box roughly the size of a personal computer. Copper wires have been replaced by a series of innovations, including terrestrial microwave, satellites, and fiber optics, which have greatly reduced the costs of transmission.”

When he is talking about municipal broadband, he seems to tell an entirely different story. Why might that be?

Red Flag #4: Yoo misrepresents the problem.

Mr. Yoo has reflexively defended his donor base for several years across a myriad of broadband public policy issues — data caps/zero rating, Net Neutrality, mergers and acquisitions, network costs, and more. The hypocrisy emerges when his entirely different standards for municipal broadband become clear.

The toll from “personal turmoil and distraction” Yoo worries about with municipal broadband projects ignores the real problem — the lack of suitable broadband in a community with no solution in sight. Just ask families that drive their kids to a fast food restaurant to borrow a Wi-Fi connection to complete homework assignments, or the difficulty getting broadband in a neighborhood bypassed by DSL or cable. If a community defines broadband as an essential utility, it provides it even if it doesn’t turn a profit. Public infrastructure projects are not unusual. The amount of money spent by an industry worried about losing its duopoly or monopoly profits to oppose such projects could have been spent on improving and expanding service.

If a local community wants a municipal solution, it is Mr. Yoo’s donors that create most of the turmoil by ghostwriting municipal broadband bans into state law and filing groundless stall tactic lawsuits designed to protect their markets or run up costs.

Red Flag #5: There is “little current need” for high broadband speed (unless Comcast offers it).

One of the best clues that Mr. Yoo’s research isn’t as “independent” as he implies is the fact his conclusions seem to change depending on whether he is referring to a corporate ISP or a municipal provider. For example, Yoo’s study downplays the importance of gigabit fiber speeds. In one highlighted statement, Yoo declares, “The U.S. take-up rate of gigabit service remains very low, and media outlets report that consumers are questioning if gigabit service is really necessary.”

“The media” in this case is Multichannel News, a cable industry trade publication that has changed its tune about that subject recently and now publishes stories regularly about ISPs across the country moving towards gigabit speeds. In the article noted by Yoo, the story quotes a single CenturyLink executive who claims customers can live with the slower speeds CenturyLink often provides, but also admits his company is working to deploy, wait for it, gigabit-capable networks. As Stop the Cap! has explained to readers for a decade, the companies that always claim consumers don’t need a gigabit are the same ones that do not offer it to a large percentage (or any) of their customers. Yoo fails to explain why so many ISPs are preoccupied with offering fast internet speeds that he declares are unwanted, especially when a municipal provider plans to offer them.

Yoo’s allegiance to the current big cable and phone company provider paradigm is revealed when you scrutinize his reasons why community fiber is unnecessary. Take this example from his report:

“Wireless technologies—such as 5G—and legacy copper technologies—such as G.fast—are also exploring ways to provide gigabit speeds without incurring the cost associated with FTTH.”

“Exploring” is very different from “delivering.” Let’s also not forget he held a very different view when he wasn’t slamming municipal broadband:

“On the one hand, the Bell System created a telephone network that was the envy of the world and pioneered Nobel Prize-winning breakthroughs such as the transistor. On the other hand, it was extremely slow to deploy innovative technologies like DSL.”

It’s also important to note a large percentage of community broadband networks are based on fiber optics while commercial wireless companies like AT&T and Verizon are among the few willing to deploy 5G and incumbent telephone companies show only limited interest in G.fast.

And again, Yoo should take a bit of his own advice on picking or discouraging technology or municipal broadband provider winners and losers:

“At this point, it is impossible to foresee which architecture will ultimately represent the best approach. When it is impossible to tell whether a practice would promote or hinder competition, the accepted policy response is to permit the practice to go forward until actual harm to consumers can be proven. This restraint provides the room for experimentation upon which normal competitive processes depend. It also shows appropriate humility about our ability to predict the technological future.”

Red Flag #6: Innovation is in the eye of the beholder. (Subject to change on a whim).

Yoo also distorts a 2014 New York Times article by focusing on the lack of applications available to take advantage of gigabit speeds. But he ignores the fact that customers and entrepreneurs are delighted that speed is available, and offers the potential of significant innovation including very high quality video and enough bandwidth to power the explosion of connected devices in the home. Every major ISP in the country reports consumers are upgrading to faster internet packages, and some customers remain dissatisfied those speeds are still not fast enough.

Again, Yoo is suspiciously inconsistent. When major ISPs sought permission to develop faster traffic lanes for brand new services, Yoo was one of the biggest supporters of the innovation opportunities of that concept:

He hopes that the FCC’s easing restrictions on broadband providers’ ability to charge different prices for delivering different Internet content could spur innovation by allowing both established companies and startups to offer new online services tailored for the Internet “fast lane” delivery. For instance, Yoo pointed to the differentiation between standard U.S. first class postal service with overnight FedEx mail and noted how new businesses have grown around the overnight delivery option.

Apparently the distinction is that companies like Comcast have to be the mail carrier for that to be any good. If a community does it, that means it is unwanted, unnecessary, and bad.

We could go on and on, but we assume most readers get the point. Fixing facts around a narrative has been a part of the telecom industry’s cynical lobbying for decades. Let’s face facts. Yoo’s donors don’t want the competition and don’t want to be forced to invest in upgrades they should have completed long ago. Yoo’s report is part of the campaign to stop municipal broadband before it gets off the ground.

Where did we learn this? From Yoo himself, who wrote the best way to improve broadband is remove barriers that keep new providers, including municipal ones if he wants to be consistent, from launching service:

“Competition policy thus teaches us that any vertical chain of production will only be as efficient as its least competitive link. The proper focus of broadband policy is to identify the level of production that is the most concentrated and the most protected by entry barriers and to try to make it more competitive.”

“Furthermore, large, established players have more resources and experience with which to influence the regulatory process.”

Those are two things we can agree on.

D.C. Media Ignores Rural Broadband Dilemma While Taking Cheap Shots at Hillary Clinton

Any opportunity to paint Hillary Clinton as an out-of-touch politician rarely escapes the Beltway crowd and some of the media that covers it. Unfortunately, rural America’s broadband problems also get dismissed in the process.

After a 35-minute Hillary Clinton interview with Christiane Amanpour, one takeaway line about how the former presidential candidate felt about rural job creation was seized on by the folks inside-the-D.C. Beltway and used to mock and belittle her:

“If you don’t have access to high-speed, affordable broadband, which large parts of America do not, [large employers will overlook your town]. If you drive around in some of the places that beat the heck out of me, you cannot get cell coverage for miles. And so, even in towns — so, the president was in Harrisburg. I was in Harrisburg during the campaign, and I met with people afterward. One of the things they said to me is that there are places in central Pennsylvania where we don’t have access to affordable high-speed internet.”

As any reader of Stop the Cap! knows, those are very legitimate points. The video embedded below has several more. Available robust internet access at affordable prices attracts employers. Just ask the city of Chattanooga, Tenn.

Anyone who has traveled mountainous central Pennsylvania knows exactly what Mrs. Clinton is talking about. These communities are served by Frontier Communications and Verizon, and the best either company will offer, if you’re lucky, is basic DSL service. There are significant parts of Pennsylvania with no cable provider, and with terrain that often resembles West Virginia — another difficult-to-serve state — wireless is not so great either.

Long term rural Pennsylvanians decried the day the last analog cellular network was switched off. They routinely outperformed the digital network that replaced it in fringe reception zones. Many residents have to use indoor cell tower extenders provided by companies like Verizon Wireless and AT&T to get stable cellular reception, and many rural towns are either a total wireless dead zone or are filled with dead spots where reception evaporates.

Competition from Sprint and T-Mobile don’t mean much in rural Pennsylvania, because neither offer any reception in significant sections of the state, and AT&T and Verizon Wireless can be only nominally better in some areas.

Areas where at least 25Mbps broadband is available in Pennsylvania (Blue – Cable, Brown – Fiber) (Map courtesy of Pennsylvania Department of Community Economic Development)

So like much of the Appalachians, rural broadband is a very big problem in central Pennsylvania. Candidate Clinton proposed spending billions to augment rural broadband service, presumably by offering matching funds and grants to rural telephone companies. Although saddling rural areas with indefinite DSL service is not an ideal solution, it offers more than the Trump Administration’s apparent willingness to coddle incumbent providers with more deregulation and less oversight.

But the D.C. chattering class ignored the entire question of rural broadband problems in America and according to the Washington Post, selectively edited Mrs. Clinton’s statement into a whiny complaint she couldn’t get enough bars on her cell phone while campaigning in areas across the state where she ultimately lost:

Elliot is a reporter for Time magazine. If he can take her quote out of context on Twitter, is that a routine practice in Time magazine as well?

Zach Wolf manages @CNNPolitics for the cable news channel. That does not inspire confidence in CNN.

Clinton Soffer is a regional National Republican Senatorial Committee director, so his shot is at least politically predictable, but easy enough to identify as partisan.

Of course, nobody is talking about the real issue, which isn’t whether Hillary Clinton is a limousine liberal or not. It’s the bipartisan problem of downright lousy or non-existent rural broadband, a problem that incumbent providers won’t do much about unless the government arm-twists them into expansion when companies launch another merger or acquisition that needs government approval, or better yet for them, if taxpayer or ratepayer dollars help foot the bill.

At the same time this kerfuffle was going on, a private company selling VPN services decided to embark on a questionable survey asking whether Americans think broadband is a “human right” or simply a nice thing to have if you can get it.

Results of survey conducted by AnchorFree, which sells VPN services to consumers.

In April, AnchorFree surveyed an audience of over 2,000 consumers, ages 18+ about online privacy. This survey was completed online and was completely anonymous — two points that rendered it largely useless for actual opinion measurement. Online surveys are notoriously unreliable because they are heavily weighted toward those that found the survey on a website most Americans would not likely have visited, and AnchorFree offers no reliable evidence of an appropriate measurement of different demographic groups to get a properly mixed sample of opinions. In this case, we predict about 80-90% of respondents were young, male, and paranoid enough about online security to warrant shopping around for a VPN provider. But the survey does at least highlight the real issue of “not my problem” thinking that impacts on rural broadband public policy.

AnchorFree’s study asked these 2,000 visitors to its website whether they felt the internet was a “human right” or a privilege. That question was more weighted than a circus elephant, because it suggests Americans were entitled to a broadband account, presumably paid for by the government. Only one out of three respondents agreed it was “a human right.” The survey mentioned the language came from a United Nations declaration, without linking to it, which is another surefire way to get about the half the country riled up enough over the UN to stampede in the other direction.

Nobody responsible for the survey explained the premise for the UN declaration, which was first to declare broadband an extension of freedom of expression, so long as it was affordable, available, and uncensored.

It is easy to demagogue Lifeline phone service and affordable broadband as a type of welfare, as Drudge Report did in 2015.

“The Special Rapporteur underscores the unique and transformative nature of the Internet not only to enable individuals to exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression,” according to the report’s summary, “but also a range of other human rights, and to promote the progress of society as a whole.”

It did not say broadband should be free of charge, but at least it should be available. That means just as electricity and telephone service are available today to every American that wants either or both, so should broadband.

The very thought of someone effectively paying for someone else’s broadband service went down about as well as increasing welfare benefits with survey respondents. Some people also love to make decisions on behalf of others, which is why the survey also revealed a lot of broadband selfishness. Among those who told AnchorFree broadband was only a privilege, 64% exempted themselves, declaring it was essential to them, while only 18% said it might be essential for others. How nice.

This is why it can be easy to demagogue broadband expansion programs as an unnecessary luxury. AnchorFree’s study isn’t very useful or credible on its own because the questions asked and the responses given appear in context with AnchorFree’s own agenda of peddling its products and services. Its methodology is suspect, but the results are not completely surprising.

How the rural broadband problem is framed in language can make a significant difference in how the problem is tackled. If the survey asked if Americans were in favor of guaranteed universal access to quality broadband service, the results would likely have been more favorable. Hillary Clinton’s campaign had not pledged this and her broadband platform was based primarily on spending more money to cajole phone companies to expand their networks, perhaps alluding this alone might solve the problem. It won’t for at least the last 1-2% of unserved America, because those last users will be hellishly expensive to reach. But Mrs. Clinton, and rural America, deserved something more than cheap shots about cell phone reception as part of the media’s narrative she was out of touch with rural voters. On the issue of broadband, she put her finger precisely on the problem after just visiting the area. The locals have to live with it and there are no signs this will change anytime soon.

In an interview with Christiane Amanpour at a Women for Women International event, Hillary Clinton spoke about creating jobs and the importance of access to high-speed affordable broadband in rural towns. (Women for Women International) (1:12)

AT&T Uses Tax Dollars to Subsidize Expensive, Capped, and Slow Wireless Rural Broadband Solution

AT&T Fiber isn’t coming to rural communities and farms in the phone company’s service area anytime soon. Instead, AT&T grudgingly accepted $428 million in ratepayer-subsidized Connect America funds to build fixed wireless networks that do not meet the FCC’s minimum definition of broadband, come usage-capped, and will offer a price break only to customers who sign up for AT&T’s other services.

AT&T’s Fixed Wireless Internet service begins this week in Georgia, offering up to 10/1Mbps service with a monthly data cap of 160GB (additional 50GB increments cost $10 each). The monthly price is $70, or $60 with a one-year contract, or $50 if a customer has AT&T wireless phone service or DirecTV. The installation fee is $99, waived if you bundle with DirecTV. The fee covers the installation of an outdoor antenna and indoor residential gateway, which remains the property of AT&T. The service works over AT&T’s 4G LTE network. Credit approval is required, and those not approved may have to pay a refundable deposit to start service. These prices do not include taxes, federal and state universal service charges, regulatory cost recovery charges (up to $1.25), gross receipts surcharge, administrative fees and other assessments which are not government-required charges. See att.com/additionalcharges for details on fees & restrictions.

AT&T is using ratepayer funds to construct a sub-standard fixed wireless network that it will use to cross-sell its own products and services by offering customers a discount. The minimum speed to be considered “broadband” according to the FCC is not less than 25Mbps. But AT&T would have to spend considerably more to equip its wireless solution to work at those speeds, and the company has already admitted fixed wireless will be available in areas where it is “uneconomical to build wireline” networks, according to AT&T president of technology operations Bill Smith.

The new wireless network will be in service for 400,000 locations in Georgia by the end of this year, with 1.1 million locations up and running across 17 other states (Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin) by 2020.

The buildout is required to meet the terms of the FCC’s Connect America Fund, which AT&T committed to in 2015.

Fixed wireless fits nicely with AT&T’s long-term strategy of mothballing its wireline networks in rural service areas, in favor of wireless alternatives. The company has been behind bills in more than a dozen state legislatures where it offers landline service to permanently disconnect rural customers from wired landline and broadband services.

“We’re committed to utilizing available technologies to connect hard-to-reach locations,” said Eric Boyer, senior vice president, wireless and wired product marketing at AT&T. Just as long as that technology isn’t fiber optics.

Questions and Answers About AT&T’s Fixed Wireless Internet

What is AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet?

AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet provides qualified households and small businesses with high-speed internet service via an outdoor antenna and indoor Wi-Fi Gateway router. AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet includes:

  • High-speed internet with download speeds of at least 10Mbps.
  • 160GB of internet usage per month. If you exceed the amount of data in your plan, additional data will automatically be provided in increments of 50GB for $10, up to a maximum of 20 such increments or $200
  • Wi-Fi connections for multiple devices (e.g. laptops, tablets, smartphones, gaming consoles, etc.).
  • Wired Ethernet connections for up to 4 devices.

What speed does AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet provide?

AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet will provide speeds of at least 10Mbps for downloading and at least 1Mbps for uploading. However, data speeds can vary depending upon various factors:

  • Wi-Fi isn’t as fast as a wired connection. You get the best Wi-Fi signal closest to your gateway without obstructions. Use a wired (Ethernet) connection for the best results.
  • Devices have a maximum internet speed they can reach, and might not be as fast as your possible internet service level (especially older devices).
  • Multiple devices sharing your internet connection at the same time, whether wired or Wi-Fi, can reduce your internet speed.
  • Learn more at att.com/speed101 and att.com/broadbandinfo.

Can I add AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet to my AT&T Mobile Share Plan and is Rollover Data included?

No, AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet cannot be added to a Mobile Share plan, and Rollover Data is not included in the AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet data plan.

Is Wi-Fi included with AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet?

Yes, you can connect multiple Wi-Fi enabled devices like laptops, smartphones and tablets to the AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet Wi-Fi Gateway, and up to 4 Ethernet-connected devices. When you access your AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet over your Wi-Fi home network using any type of device (including smartphones and some home automation equipment), that counts as AT&T internet data usage. However, if you access the internet via a public or commercial Wi-Fi hotspot, that access does not count as usage.

How far does the AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet Wi-Fi signal reach?

The AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet Wi-Fi Gateway router enables wireless networking capabilities throughout your home or business and helps to minimize wireless dead spots. This smart technology allows you to:

  • Provide high-speed internet connections to multiple devices
  • Create safe and secure wireless networking

Does weather affect service?

AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet relies on a LTE signal from a cell tower. Many things can affect the availability and quality of your service, including network capacity, terrain, buildings, foliage, and weather. A professional installer will confirm sufficient signal strength at your location before installation.

What type of support is available for AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet service?

For AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet Customer Care, call 1-855-483-3063, available 6AM to midnight Central Time 7-days a week.

How long does it take to get AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet service?

AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet service is available for installation within 10 business days of ordering. Professional installation (required) usually takes about 3 hours.

If I move, can I take AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet with me?

If you are moving, please contact AT&T to find out if AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet or other AT&T services are available at your new address. Please do not attempt to move the AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet outdoor antenna.

Can I take AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet to my cottage or second home?

No, AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet is not movable or mobile. Please do not attempt to move the AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet outdoor antenna.  Please contact AT&T to find out if AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet or other AT&T services are available at your cottage or second home.

How is AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet different from AT&T Wireless Home Phone & Internet?

Both AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet and AT&T Wireless Home Phone & Internet provide internet access. AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet includes an outdoor antenna that is professionally mounted on or near the exterior of your home or business to provide a strong signal for better connectivity, while Wireless Home Phone & Internet uses a small desktop device that you can install yourself since there is no outdoor antenna. Stated another way, Wireless Home Phone & Internet is a mobile service, whereas AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet is not. AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet is only available in select (typically rural) areas, while Wireless Home Phone & Internet is available throughout the AT&T wireless footprint.  AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet provides internet download speeds of 10Mbps or over, while Wireless Home Phone & Internet provides the highest speed available to it, typically in the range of 5-12Mbps.

What service limitations apply to AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet?

Services like web hosting or hosted services such as camera, gaming server, peer-to-peer, etc., that require static IP address are not supported by AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet. AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet may not be compatible with DVR/Satellite systems; please check with your provider.

FCC Considering Making It Easier for Telcos to Kill Landline/DSL Service

The FCC has circulated a draft rulemaking that proposes to make it easier for phone companies to end landline and DSL service in areas they are no longer interested in maintaining existing infrastructure.

“We propose eliminating some or all of the changes to the copper retirement process adopted by the Commission in the 2015 Technology Transitions Order,” according to the draft, which would allow phone companies to end service “where alternative voice services are available to consumers in the affected service area.”

The proposed new policy would depart significantly from the one put in place during the Obama Administration because it would end assurances that competing providers would have reasonable and affordable access to wholesale broadband and voice services after phone companies mothball their copper wire networks in favor of wireless or fiber alternatives. If the FCC proposal passes, incumbent phone companies like Verizon and AT&T could end rural landline and DSL service and not make provisions for competitors to have access to the technology alternatives the phone companies would offer affected customers.

Verizon immediately praised the FCC proposal, saying it was “encouraged the FCC has set as a priority creating a regulatory environment that encourages investment in next-generation networks and clears away outdated and unnecessary regulations,” wrote Will Johnson, senior vice-president of federal regulatory and legal affairs at Verizon. “This action is forward-looking, productive and will lead to tangible consumer benefits.”

Previous attempts by Verizon to discontinue landline and DSL service did not lead to “tangible consumer benefits” as Verizon might have hoped. Instead, it led to a consumer backlash, particularly in areas affected by Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Verizon elected not to rebuild its copper wire infrastructure in affected coastal communities in New York and New Jersey. Instead, it introduced a wireless landline replacement called Voice Link that proved unpopular and caused a revolt among residents on Fire Island. The wireless replacement did not support data, health monitoring, credit card transaction processing, faxing, and was criticized for being unreliable. Verizon eventually relented and opted to expand its FiOS fiber to the home network on the island instead.

Verizon also attempted to market Voice Link to New York residents in certain urban and rural service areas affected by extended service outages in lieu of repairing its existing infrastructure. Under the proposed changes, the FCC would ease the rules governing the transition away from copper-based services, which include traditional landline service and DSL, in favor of wireless technology replacements and fiber optics.

Because telephone companies like AT&T and Verizon have made mothballing rural wireline infrastructure a priority, the FCC strengthened its rules in 2015 by doubling the notification window from 90 to 180 days, giving more time for affected customers to make other service arrangements or complain to regulators that there were no suitable alternatives. The FCC wants to roll back that provision to its earlier 90-day notification window in response to telephone company complaints that maintaining copper wire infrastructure is expensive and diverted investment away from next-generation networks.

AT&T has been lobbying for several years to win permission from state legislatures to abandon copper wireline infrastructure, mostly in rural areas, where the company has chosen not to upgrade to fiber optic networks. AT&T claims only about 10% of their original landline customer base still have that service.

Both Verizon and AT&T have shown an interest in moving rural consumers to more proprietary wireless networks, preferably their own, where consumers would get voice and data services. But consumer advocates complain customers could lose access to competitive alternatives, may not have a guarantee of reliable service because of variable wireless coverage, could pay substantially more for wireless alternatives, and may be forced to use technology that either does not support or works less reliably with home security systems, medical monitoring, faxing, and data-related transactions like credit card processing.

Other consumer groups like AARP and Public Knowledge have complained that shortening the window for a transition away from basic landline and DSL service to alternative technology could disproportionately affect the customers most likely to still depend on traditional wireline service — the elderly, poor, and those in rural areas.

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