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Spring 2016: An Update and Progress Report for Our Members

stcDear Members,

We have had a very busy winter and spring here at Stop the Cap! and we thought it important to update you on our efforts.

You may have noticed a drop in new content online over the last few months, and we’ve had some inquiries about it. The primary reason for this is the additional time and energy being spent to directly connect with legislators and regulators about the issues we are concerned about. Someone recently asked me why we spend a lot of time and energy writing exposés to an audience that almost certainly already agrees with us. If supporters were the only readers here, they would have a point. Stop the Cap! is followed regularly by legislators, regulators, public policy lobbyists, consumer groups, telecom executives, and members of the media. Our content is regularly cited in books, articles, regulatory filings, and in media reports. That is why we spend a lot of time and energy documenting our positions about data caps, usage billing, Net Neutrality, and the state of broadband in the United States and Canada.

A lengthy piece appearing here can easily take more than eight hours (sometimes longer) to put together from research to final publication. We feel it is critical to make sure this information gets into the hands of those that can help make a difference, whether they visit us on the web or not. So we have made an extra effort to inform, educate, and persuade decision-makers and reporters towards our point of view, helping to counter the well-funded propaganda campaigns of Big Telecom companies that regularly distort the issues and defend the indefensible.

Four issues have gotten most of our attention over the last six months:

  1. The Charter/Time Warner Cable/Bright House merger;
  2. Data cap traps and trials (especially those from Comcast, Blue Ridge, Cox, and Suddenlink);
  3. Cablevision/Altice merger;
  4. Frontier’s acquisition of Verizon landlines and that phone company’s upgrade plans for existing customers.

We’ve been successful raising important issues about the scarcity of benefits from telecom company mergers. In short, there are none of significance, unless you happen to be a Wall Street banker, a shareholder, or a company executive. The last thing an already-concentrated marketplace needs is more telecom mergers. We’re also continuing to expose just how nonsensical data caps and usage-based billing is for 21st century broadband providers. Despite claims of “fairness,” data caps are nothing more than cable-TV protectionism and the further exploitation of a broadband duopoly that makes it easy for Wall Street analysts to argue “there is room for broadband rate hikes” in North America. Stop the Cap! will continue to coordinate with other consumer groups to fight this issue, and we’ve successfully convinced at least some at the FCC that the excuses offered for data caps don’t hold water.

Dampier

Dampier

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler’s broadening of Charter’s voluntary three-year moratorium on data caps to a compulsory term as long as seven years sent a clear message to broadband providers that the jig is up — data caps are a direct threat to the emerging online video marketplace that might finally deliver serious competition to the current bloated and overpriced cable television package.

Wheeler’s actions were directly responsible for Comcast’s sudden generosity in more than tripling the usage allowance it has imposed on several markets across the south and midwest. But we won’t be happy until those compulsory data caps are gone for good.

More than 10,000 Comcast customers have already told the FCC in customer complaints that Comcast’s data caps are egregious and unfair. Considering how unresponsive Comcast has been towards its own customers that despise data caps of any kind, Comcast obviously doesn’t care what their customers think. But they care very much about what the FCC thinks about regulatory issues like data caps and set-top box monopolies. How do we know this? Because Comcast’s chief financial officer this week told the audience attending the JPMorgan Technology, Media and Telecom Broker Conference Comcast always pays attention to regulator headwinds.

“I think it’s our job to make sure we pivot and react accordingly and make sure the company thrives whatever the outcome is on some of the regulatory proposals that are out there,” said Comcast’s Mike Cavanagh. We suspect if Chairman Wheeler goes just one step further and calls on ISPs to permanently ditch data caps and usage billing, many would. We will continue to press him to do exactly that.

Stop the Cap! supports municipal and community-owned broadband providers.

Stop the Cap! supports municipal and community-owned broadband providers.

Other companies are also still making bad decisions for their customers. Besides Comcast’s ongoing abusive data cap experiment, Cox’s ongoing data cap trial in Cleveland, Ohio is completely unacceptable and has no justification. The usage allowances provided are also unacceptably stingy. Suddenlink, now owned by Altice, should not even attempt to alienate their customers, particularly as the cable conglomerate seeks new acquisition opportunities in the United States in the future. We find it telling that Altice feels justified retaining usage caps on customers in smaller communities served by Suddenlink while denying they would even think of doing the same in Cablevision territory in suburban New York City. Both Suddenlink and Cablevision have upgraded their networks to deliver faster speed service. What is Altice’s excuse about why it treats its urban and rural customers so differently? It frankly doesn’t have one. We’ll be working to convince Altice it is time for Suddenlink’s data caps to be retired for good.

We will also be turning more attention back on the issue of community broadband, which continues to be the only competitive alternative to the phone and cable companies most Americans will likely ever see. The dollar-a-holler lobbyists are still writing editorials and articles claiming “government-owned networks” are risky and/or a failure, without bothering to disclose the authors have a direct financial relationship to the phone and cable companies that don’t want the competition. We will be pressing state lawmakers to ditch municipal broadband bans and not to enact any new ones.

We will also continue to watch AT&T and Verizon — two large phone companies that continue to seek opportunities to neglect or ditch their wired services either by decommissioning rural landlines or selling parts of their service areas to companies like Frontier. AT&T specializes in bait-n-switch bills in state legislatures that promise “upgrades” in return for further deregulation and permission to switch off rural service in favor of wireless alternatives. That’s great for AT&T, but a potential life-threatening disaster for rural America.

We continue to abide by our mandate: fighting data caps and consumption billing and promoting better broadband, regardless of what company or community supplies it.

As always, thank you so much for your financial support (the donate button that sustains us entirely is to your right) and for your engagement in the fight against unfair broadband pricing and policies. Broadband is not just a nice thing to have. It is an essential utility just as important as clean water, electricity, natural gas, and telephone service.

Phillip M. Dampier
Founder & President, Stop the Cap!

TDS Gets Tedious With 250GB Usage Cap

tds cap

TDS DSL customers have a 250GB data cap in their future.

Arch, a Stop the Cap! reader in eastern Kentucky, just received a notification letter informing him his Internet access is about to be rationed, and unless he buys additional usage before June 1, TDS is likely to charge him penalty overlimit rates.

tds cap optionsLike some data caps of the past, TDS is giving customers a small break by remaining unlimited during the overnight hours, but for many customers, it won’t be enough to prevent a higher broadband bill.

“We are writing to you inform you TDS s implementing data-usage allowance plans in your area,” reads TDS’ letter. “Beginning with the June billing period, data usage will be measured during peak time (6am-midnight CST). Data usage during non-peak time will be unlimited. In June and thereafter, if your monthly data usage exceeds the 250GB allowance you will be assessed a $20 overage fee for every 250GB exceeded (up to $60).”

TDS advises Arch that based on his prior usage, he’s very likely to exceed his cap and face overlimit fees.

“My mother got a similar [letter],” writes Arch. “Mine states I am likely to be affected by the cap and my mother’s letter says she will likely not be affected.”

Of course, customers can make the usage cap less of an issue by agreeing to buy more usage up front:

  • a 500GB Data Allowance runs $10 extra a month;
  • 750GB costs an extra $20 a month;
  • 1TB (1,000GB) is priced at an additional $30 a month.

TDS does not offer any justification for their data caps, but it doesn’t have a lot to fear imposing them.

“TDS has no competition at all in my area except for fraudband satellite,” Arch reminds us.

That is also likely true across many other TDS service areas, where the company’s 1.2 million customers live in more than 150 different communities, many rural or suburban.

AT&T Ghostwritten Bill Would Allow End of Rural Landline/DSL Service in California

att californiaIn California, AT&T’s money and influence has the power to bend reality for some members of the California legislature.

This spring, AT&T is lobbying hard for a bill it largely wrote itself that vaguely promises 21st century technology upgrades if the state’s politicians agree to near-total deregulation and permission to scrap landline service and DSL for rural residents.

Assembly Bill 2395, introduced by Assemblyman Evan Low (D-Silicon Valley), allows AT&T to decommission wired service across the state, so long as the company replaces it with any alternative capable of connecting customers to 911. Smoke signals might qualify, but most suspect AT&T’s true agenda is to replace its legacy wireline network with wireless service in areas where it has no interest upgrading its facilities to offer U-verse.

Members of the Assembly’s Utilities & Commerce Committee were easily swayed to believe the company’s claims this will represent a massive upgrade for California telecommunications. At least that is what the company is saying in their lobbying pamphlets. In April, committee chairman Michael Gatto (D-Los Angeles), one of the bill’s strongest advocates, told his fellow committee members it was safe to trust AT&T’s assurances it was not using the bill to kill rural landline telephone service.

“We have a very, very good perspective on history in this committee and you can rest assured that nobody will tear up any copper line infrastructure,” said Gatto, who gradually became less sure of himself as he pondered the impact of AT&T scrapping the one option many rural Californians have to connect to the outside world. “The cost of it, to tear up every street in the United States and take out the copper is not going to happen. At least, I don’t think it’ll happen…. This committee will not let it happen.”

Low

Low

Despite that less-than-rousing endorsement, and the fact the bill’s language would allow AT&T to do exactly that, the bill sailed to approval in the committee. It was also endorsed by a range of non-profit and business groups, including the Boys & Girls Club, Black Chamber of Commerce, Do It Yourself Girls, The Latino Council, NAACP-Los Angeles, San Jose Police Officers’ Association, and the United Women’s Organization — almost all regular recipients of “contributions” from AT&T.

Consumer groups are largely opposed to the measure, because it gives AT&T near carte blanche to disconnect rural residents and leave them with inferior and more expensive wireless alternatives. It also scraps most oversight over AT&T’s business practices in the state, which are not stellar. Those living in rural areas are opposed even more.

The Rural County Representatives of California, representing the interests of local leaders in 35 rural counties across the state, came out strongly against AB 2395, pointing out earlier deregulation efforts and a largely hands-off California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) helped create the digital divide problem that already exists in the state, and AT&T’s bill proposes to make it worse.

S

Frentzen

“While AB 2395 offers the promise of a more modern communications system for California, the bill devises a scheme that minimizes consumer protections and provides avenues for telecommunication providers to abandon their current subscribers from ever experiencing these modern telecommunications options,” said the group. “RCRC would have far more comfort with relinquishment proposals if California’s telecommunications stakeholders, including the CPUC, had met their obligations in providing near universal access. And that access included quality, demand-functions found in other areas of the state. Unfortunately, much of California has either no connectivity (unserved) or inferior connectivity (under-served). Until this digital divide is eliminated, we cannot support changes in the regulatory and statutory environment which furthers this gulf between who gets access and who does not.”

While AT&T continues to deny it will do anything to disconnect rural California, the company vehemently opposes efforts to drop language from the bill that would grant them the right to retire landline service. AT&T’s lobbyists insist the legislature can still trust the company, an idea that failed to impress Shiva Frentzen, the supervisor of El Dorado:

Trust is something that you earn. It’s built over time. We have a rural county each constituent, all your consumers, pay into the infrastructure, but we don’t see the high-speed coming to the rural parts of the county because it does not pencil out. For larger companies to bring the service in those areas – the infrastructure costs a lot and the monthly service does not pay for it. So that is the experience we’ve had with larger providers like yourself. We have not had the trust and the positive experience for our rural county, so that’s why we are where we are.

Editor’s Note: My apologies to Steve Blum, who didn’t get full credit for gathering most of the quotes noted in this piece. We’ve linked above (in bold) to several of his articles that have followed the AT&T lobbying saga, and we’ve added his blog to our permanent list of websites we can recommend.

Oman: Broadband for All By Any Means Necessary

omanOman has declared an all-out war on the digital divide, with the country’s broadband provider pledging every citizen will have broadband access within four years, using any means necessary.

With around 50% of the population living in Muscat, the capital of the Arabian Gulf nation, Oman has a pervasive rural broadband problem. The country is hurrying to rid itself of aging copper wire phone infrastructure, replacing it largely with fiber optics, which will reach 80% of the population by 2020. The absolute monarchy that rules Oman has made it clear it considers broadband service an essential utility, as important as electricity and clean water.

Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said, who has led the nation since 1970, decreed Oman must gradually create a knowledge-based economy, particularly as dependence on fossil fuel revenue is expected to diminish during the 21st century. Sultan Qaboos has presided over the Vision 2020 plan, which seeks to cultivate Oman’s information and communication technology economy.

oman broadband coTo accomplish this, every inch of the sultinate must have access to fast broadband speeds.

Talib Al Rashadi, business relations manager at Oman Broadband, made it clear he intends to bring Internet access through fiber optics, wireless service, and even satellite to the remotest sections of the country.

“The speed that we used to have one year ago was not more than 20 or 25Mbps,” said Al Rashidi. “Today, we have speeds of 100 to 150Mbps and even gigabit speeds. This is a very high speed, which enables some other applications, such as smart cities, smart governance and others.”

But that is just the beginning. By 2018, all major population centers of other governorates outside of Muscat will be covered with fiber to the home service. Oman is widely expected to pass the United States and Canada in broadband performance and coverage within the next four years. But it will need to do something about the cost of service to be recognized as a true world leader. An unlimited 60Mbps broadband line costs the equivalent of $156 a month. Although many Omanis’ enjoy a high standard of living, broadband at that price remains expensive.

Tennessee Waltz: State Legislature + Big Telecom Lobbyists = No Rural Broadband Expansion

lobbyist-cashEntrenched telecom industry lobbyists and a legislature enriched by their campaign contributions chose the interests of AT&T, Comcast, and Charter Communications over the broadband needs of rural Tennessee, killing a municipal broadband expansion bill already scaled down to little more than a demonstration project.

The Tennessee House Business and Utilities Subcommittee voted 5-3 Tuesday to end efforts to bring much-needed Internet access to rural Hamilton and Bradley counties, long ignored or underserved by the state’s dominant telecom companies. Rep. Kevin Brooks’ (R-Cleveland) original bill would have allowed Chattanooga-based EPB and other publicly owned utility services to expand fiber broadband and television service to other electric co-ops around the state.

Realizing his bill would be voted up or down by members of a committee that included one former AT&T executive and others receiving substantial campaign contributions from some of Tennessee’s largest phone and cable companies, he reduced the scale of his own bill to a simple demonstration project serving a limited number of customers.

The bill failed anyway, in a vote that took less than a minute.

The Chattanooga Times Free Press described the scene:

Rep. Marc Gravitt (R-East Ridge) voted for Brooks’ amendment and Rep. Patsy Hazlewood (R-Signal Mountain), a one-time AT&T executive, voting against it.

As Rep. Kent Calfee (R-Kingston), the subcommittee’s chairman, prepared to move on to the next bill, he suddenly realized the original bill remained before the panel.

“I’m sorry,” Calfee, who voted against the amendment, told Brooks as the Cleveland lawmaker turned to leave. “It’s the amendment [that failed]. Is there any need to vote on the bill?”

Brooks replied, “The amendment makes the bill. I’d love a vote on the bill.”

“Sorry about that,” Calfee said.

And that was that.

Residents and business people alike in northern Hamilton and portions of Bradley counties say they either have no service, lousy service or wireless service that makes it very expensive to upload and download documents for work and school.

EPB provides municipal power, broadband, television, and telephone service for residents in Chattanooga, Tennessee

EPB provides municipal power, broadband, television, and telephone service for residents in Chattanooga, Tenn.

“It’s a testament to the power of lobbying against this bill and not listening to our electorate,” Brooks told reporters. “The voice of the people today was not heard. And that’s unfortunate.”

Brooks’ bill did attract considerable interest – from telecom industry lobbyists who flooded the state legislative offices with a mission of killing it. The Tennessee newspaper said a “platoon of lobbyists and executives, including AT&T Tennessee President Joelle Phillips,” poured into the House hearing room or watched on nearby video screens to scrutinize the vote.

“I heard they hired 27 lawyers to fight,” Brooks said.

Rural Tennessee Republicans were disappointed by the outcome, which leaves substantial parts of their districts unwired for broadband.

“[This] was the perfect opportunity for EPB to be a pilot and to prove they can do what they say they can do,” said Rep. Dan Howell (R-Georgetown). “And if they can’t do it, it’s a perfect opportunity to put it to rest forever. They wouldn’t even let us do a pilot to prove that EPB can do what it claimed.”

Brooks

Brooks

Rep. Mike Carter (R-Ooltewah), also has a bill being held up in the legislature that would allow expansion of public broadband with the consent of citizen members of co-ops and elected leaders of the rural utilities.

Carter didn’t seem too surprised municipal broadband bills like his were being delayed or killed in the state legislature at the behest of AT&T and other companies.

“You just don’t go up against Goliath unless you have your sling and five stones. I just didn’t have my five stones today,” Carter said.

AT&T declared the bill was flawed, arguing in a statement it was not opposed to municipal broadband, so long as it was targeted only to customers unserved by any other provider. AT&T complained Brooks’ bill lacked language protecting them from unwanted competition.

“None of the bills considered … has any provision that would limit government expansion to unserved areas or even focus on those areas,” AT&T wrote.

Less than 24 hours after the vote ended Charter Communications had a special message for members of the legislature.

The cable operator sent invitations to Tennessee lawmakers giving them free airtime to star in their own “public service announcements” that will blanket the screens of Charter cable TV customers, giving the politicians free exposure.

Rep. Calfee's second largest contributor is AT&T.

Rep. Calfee’s second largest contributor is AT&T.

Charter’s director of government affairs for Tennessee was the executive extending the invitation.

“As a leading broadband communications provider and cable operator serving customers in Tennessee, Charter is committed to providing compelling public affairs programming and public service announcements,” said Nick Pavlis, Charter’s chief lobbyist in the state and a Knoxville city councilman. “We hope you will take advantage of this opportunity to speak directly to your constituents. Taping times are available on a first-come, first-served basis, so we encourage you to schedule yours as soon as possible.”

“Right now it would appear to those watching from the outside that big business won and big business is now reciprocating,” said Brooks.

Sen. Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga) called the invitation inappropriate.

“Charter has done everything they could possibly do to deny rural Bradley broadband, Internet/content service,” Gardenshire told the Times Free Press.

“Well, my first inclination is to say I’m surprised, coming the day after they killed the broadband bill in committee,” added Howell. “[It is] kind of ironic now that they’re asking people to come forward and make public service announcements about how good their service is. I’m kind of stunned.”

Unlimitedville: Affordable Unlimited Wireless Broadband Service via Sprint

unlimitedvilleFinding affordable wireless Internet access that isn’t speed throttled or usage capped is becoming rare, but Stop the Cap! has been exploring a provider that offers both.

Unlimitedville is the latest authorized reseller of Sprint that has managed to get permission to market an unlimited LTE 4G wireless data plan that comes without speed throttles. The service is priced at $42.99 a month (not including certain minor fees and surcharges) and includes a 30-day free trial to test the service. A $50 setup fee includes a mobile hotspot device (typically a Netgear Zing or Pocket Wifi) that is yours to keep once you commit to the required 2-year contract (after the free trial).

Customers we have communicated with give the service a universal thumbs-up for not limiting or throttling usage. Customers in suburban and semi-rural areas near highways and interstates report the best speeds from relatively uncongested Sprint cell towers. Those in very rural areas may have a lot of trouble finding Sprint service available, so potential customers should review Sprint’s coverage map carefully for data service coverage before considering Unlimitedville.

There are some peculiarities about doing business with this reseller, however.

First, Unlimitedville acts as a front line sales agent, but accounts are apparently provisioned by an another company named Impact Wireless, a “master agent” for Sprint. After service is established, all future communications, support and billing take place directly with Sprint.

sprint zingGetting service established is the first minor hurdle. Because the contract plan is intended for business use, customers will need to list a company name on the enrollment form. It is acceptable to consider yourself a consultant or use your current profession if you intend to use the service at anytime/for any reason for work or while travelling for work. No formal business registration is required. Some customers sign up using their last name, as in “Smith Consulting.” You do have to give them your Social Security number or business Taxpayer ID Number to run the usual required credit check. Most applicants are easily approved within 72 hours and Sprint will then call to help arrange for service. If you are not approved, you can agree to pay an upfront deposit and after 12 on-time monthly payments, the deposit will be returned to your account.

Second, some customers have recently reported they’ve been surprised to discover their account activation came with membership in a free loyalty program for a certain home improvement retail chain. With the recent demise of Karma’s Neverstop plan, disconnecting customers are banging at the doors of Unlimitedville to get in. Evidently this overflow is also affecting Impact Wireless, which evidently has some limitations on how many new customers it can enroll itself over a certain period of time. As a result, they may be looking for other entry points available to them to get customers activated as quickly as possible. Customers should be ready to be flexible. Getting unlimited wireless data from anyone these days increasingly requires creativity.

As Unlimitedville gains more visibility, there are also questions about how long it will last given carriers’ dislike of resellers that attract a lot of heavy users. The service has been around at least as long as Karma and is still welcoming new clients, so it is hard to say. It will probably last longer if customers respect the wireless network that powers it was not built to sustain customers running up a terabyte of usage a month. Being a responsible user of a limited resource is likely to help keep these kinds of unlimited services viable, an important consideration for customers who do not have the luxury of going to another provider if Unlimitedville folds.

Why Satellite Fraudband Still Sucks: Low Caps, Throttled Speeds, Almost-Useless Service

exedeDespite claims satellite broadband has improved, our readers respectfully disagree:

“Most people don’t know what data caps really are until they’ve had satellite based Internet service where the bandwidth is shared,” Scott S. reminds Stop the Cap! He’s a subscriber of Exede, a satellite broadband provider powered by the ViaSat satellite platform serving about 687,000 residential customers nationwide.

Online life can be a lot worse when you are stuck with satellite-based Internet access:

  • “I am only allowed to have 10GB per month total for everything and have a 12/3Mbps service. Anything over that and they either cap your flow or give you substantially lower bandwidth speed.
  • “You can’t go online with more than three devices (including your phones).
  • “You can forget Netflix or watching any shows online.
  • “You can forget playing ANY video games online.
  • “You can forget taking any college courses online without service interruptions (which I am).”

“And they still charge you as much as other ISPs do (at least $60/month) that provide no data caps and a MUCH faster speed,” Scott writes.

Exede offers most customers plans with 10, 18, or 30GB of usage per month. About one-third of the country, typically the most rural regions in the western U.S., can now choose faster plans at speeds nearing 25Mbps because those spot beams are underutilized. But most subscribers get considerably poorer service because about two-thirds of ViaSat’s residential satellite access beams are full. Despite that, Viasat still managed to find capacity to power in-flight Wi-Fi on JetBlue, Virgin America and some United Airlines aircraft.

Customers who have never had DSL or cable broadband tolerate the slow speeds and low caps better than those that move from an area served by a wired provider. Many of those customers call satellite broadband speed marketing claims “fraudulent” and complain low usage caps make it difficult to impossible to use the Internet to use multimedia content.

 

FCC Chairman Rejects Mobile Internet as Useful Competitor to Wired Broadband

Wheeler

Wheeler

FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler considers mobile broadband a poor substitute for fixed/wired Internet access. A fact sheet released by Wheeler’s office shows he is convinced America still has a broadband problem — speeds are too slow, competition is lacking, and 4G/LTE wireless broadband is so usage-capped or speed throttled, it is not a serious substitute for traditional wired broadband.

Wheeler claimed, “approximately 34 million Americans still lack access to fixed broadband at the FCC’s benchmark speed of 25Mbps for downloads, 3Mbps for uploads,” and has previously said those that do often find those speeds from only a single provider, typically a cable company.

Wheeler doesn’t dismiss the need for wireless Internet access, but he considers it an add-on for customers on the go. Other highlights from the fact sheet:

  • A persistent urban-rural digital divide has left 39 percent of the rural population without access to fixed broadband. By comparison, only 4 percent living in urban areas lack access;
  • 41 percent of Tribal Lands residents lack access;
  • 41 percent of schools have not met the Commission’s short-term goal of 100Mbps per 1,000 students/staff;
  • Only 9 percent of schools have fiber connections capable of meeting the FCC’s long-term goal of 1Gbps per 1,000 students.

Wheeler also said that U.S. broadband continues to lag behind other developed nations, only ranking 16th out of the top 34 countries.

Wheeler thinks wireless broadband is an essential service for many, but it should not be compared with wired broadband, as the two services are distinct from one-another:

  • Fixed broadband offers high-speed, high-capacity connections capable of supporting bandwidth-intensive uses, such as streaming video, by multiple users in a household. But fixed broadband can’t provide consumers with the mobile Internet access required to support myriad needs outside the home and while working remotely.
  • Mobile devices provide access to the web while on the go, and are especially useful for real-time two-way interactions, mapping applications, and social media. But consumers who rely solely on mobile broadband tend to perform a more limited range of tasks and are significantly more likely to incur additional usage fees or forego use of the Internet.

West Virginia Lawmakers Battle Slow Broadband; Propose to Fine ISPs for False Speed Claims

frontier speedFrontier Communications is the obvious target of an effort by members of West Virginia’s House of Delegates to embarrass the company into providing at least 10Mbps broadband service or face steep penalties if it does not stop advertising slow speed DSL as “High-Speed Internet.”

State lawmakers continue to be flooded with complaints about the poor performance of Frontier Communications’ DSL service, which customers claim delivers slow speeds, unreliable service, or no service at all.

Although Frontier frequently advertises broadband speeds of 10Mbps or faster, customers often do not receive the advertised speeds, and the service can be so slow it will not work reliably with online video services.

West Virginia’s broadband problems remain so pervasive, the state legislature this year will entertain several broadband improvement measures, including a proposal to spend $72 million to build a publicly owned middle mile fiber optic network. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Chris Walters (R-Putnam) claims the new fiber network would boost Internet speeds, improve service, and force down broadband pricing.

With cable broadband available only in major communities, much of West Virginia is dependent on DSL service from Frontier Communications, the telephone company serving most of the state. That is a unique situation for Frontier, which typically serves smaller and medium-sized cities in-between other communities serviced by larger providers like Verizon, AT&T, and Qwest/CenturyLink. Frontier’s problems meeting customer expectations have been well heard in Charleston, the state capitol, if only because most members of the state legislature have Frontier customers in their districts.

Legislators have found they have little recourse over a business that operates largely without regulation or government oversight, as Delegate John Shott (R-Mercer) told the Charleston Gazette. Shott heads the House Judiciary Committee and gets plenty of complaints from his constituents.

“[Customers] feel they never get the speed the Internet providers represent,” said Shott. “There doesn’t seem to be any recourse or regulatory body that has any ability to cause that to change.”

In the absence of regulation or direct oversight, a class action lawsuit on behalf of Frontier DSL customers in the state is still working its way through court. In December 2015, a separate action by West Virginia Attorney General Pat Morrisey resulted in a settlement agreement with Frontier. The company agreed to guarantee at least 6Mbps speeds for around 28,000 customers, or give them a substantial monthly discount off their broadband bill.

frontier wvShott’s bill, HB 2551, targets “unfair or deceptive acts or practices” of Internet Service Providers that advertise fast speeds but never deliver them. The bill would expose a violating ISP to damages up to $3,000 per customer, a $5,000 state fine, and allow customers to walk away from any outstanding balance or contract:

It is an unfair or deceptive act or practice and a violation of this article for any seller or Internet service provider to advertise or offer to provide “high speed Internet service” that is not at least ten megabytes per second.

If a seller or Internet service provider violates […] this section, the consumer has a cause of action to recover actual damages and, in addition, a right to recover from the violator a penalty in an amount, to be determined by the court, of not less than $100 nor more than $3,000. No action brought pursuant to this subsection may be brought more than two years after the date upon which the violation occurred or the due date of the last scheduled payment of the agreement, whichever is later.

If a seller or Internet service provider violates […] this section, any sale or contract for service is void and the consumer is not obligated to pay either the amount due, the amount paid or any late payment charge. If the consumer has paid any part of a bill or invoice, or of a late payment fee, he or she has a right to recover the payments from the violator or from any [collection agency] who undertakes direct collection of payments or enforcement of rights arising from the alleged debt.

The Attorney General of this state shall investigate all complaints alleging violations […] and has a right to recover from the violator a penalty in an amount, to be determined by the court, of not less than $500 nor more than $5,000 per violation, with each advertisement or contract to sell or provide “high speed Internet” being a separate violation. The Attorney General also has the power to seek injunctive relief.

As of today, the bill counts Delegates J. Nelson, Border, Kessinger, Arvon, Moffatt, A. Evans, Wagner, Cadle, and D. Evans as sponsors.

Delegate Shott

Delegate Shott

“The list of sponsors of this bill [HB 2551] are from a broad geographic area,” Shott told the newspaper. “They’ve identified this as a problem in their areas.”

Some legislators believe West Virginia should enforce the FCC’s latest minimum definition of broadband – 25Mbps, but the Gazette reports that kind of robust speed definition could be difficult for a DSL provider to achieve without significant additional investment. Some worry companies like Frontier could have difficulty justifying further rural broadband expansion in a state traditionally challenged by its number of rural areas and difficult terrain.

Despite those difficulties, incumbent providers like Frontier, Suddenlink, and Comcast have not appreciated efforts to help expand public broadband networks in the state, including the proposal outlined in Sen. Chris Walters’ SB 315, which would authorize about $72 million to build a public middle mile fiber network that would be offered to ISPs at wholesale rates.

Frontier strongly objects to the project because it would use public dollars to compete with private businesses like Frontier. The phone company’s opposition raised eyebrows among some in Charleston, who note Frontier had no objections to accepting $42 million in state dollars in 2010 to construct and install a fiber network it now operates for hundreds of public facilities across the state and $283 million in federal dollars to expand rural broadband. The 2010 fiber project was rife with accusations of waste, fraud, and abuse. Critics allege Frontier overcharged the state, installing service for $57,800 per mile despite other providers routinely charging about $30,000 a mile in West Virginia.

The West Virginia Cable Television Association, representing cable operators in the state, called the project a money-waster, noting it would not result in a single new hookup for broadband service. Middle mile networks do not reach individual homes and businesses and the bill does not authorize the state to get into the ISP business.

Sen. Walters

Sen. Walters

Much of the support for the public network comes from smaller ISPs like Citynet, which predominately serves commercial customers, and equipment vendors like Alpha Technologies. Walters believes if West Virginia builds the network, broadband providers will come to use it. The state’s dominant cable and phone companies vehemently disagree. The cable association has launched an all-out PR war, hoping to attract opposition from conservative lawmakers with claims the project will mandate state and local governments to buy Internet connectivity exclusively from the state-owned network and would trample on corporate rights by using eminent domain to seize parts of the cable industry’s fiber networks to complete the state network.

Walters brushed away the accusations, telling the Gazette there is no mandate that state agencies use the network and there are no plans for the government to take any fiber away from a private company.

Cable operators prefer an alternative measure also introduced in the West Virginia Senate. SB 16 would grant tax credits of up to $500 per address for any phone or cable company that agrees to wire a previously unserved rural address. The bill would limit total tax credits to $1 million.

The difference between the two measures? Walters’ bill would use public money to build a public broadband network owned by the public and answerable to the state. The cable industry-backed proposal would use public money in the form of tax offsets to wire homes and businesses to broadband owned by private businesses answerable to shareholders.

Frugal Sprint: Relocating Cell Towers to Public Land to Save $$$, Annoy Customers

Phillip Dampier January 18, 2016 Consumer News, Rural Broadband, Sprint, Wireless Broadband No Comments

sprint terribleSprint customers will once again have to endure service interruptions and disruptions and the possibility of degraded service after the cellular company quietly announced it was terminating leases with Crown Castle and American Tower — two of the largest owners of shared communications towers in the country, and relocating Sprint cell sites to government-owned property.

Sprint is aggressively pursuing a $2 billion cost-cutting program to stay competitive with T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon Wireless. Re/code reports much of this savings will come from rushing cellular antennas off shared-use cell towers and erecting antennas on public land instead, expected to cost much less. The move is “raising eyebrows” on Wall Street, as analysts grow concerned about Sprint’s exposure to early termination fees from the early end of multi-year contracts with at least two tower owners. Many are also concerned Sprint will end up placing towers in less than ideal areas, opening up coverage gaps and unanticipated negative coverage changes for customers.

Jennifer Fritzsche, senior analyst for Wells Fargo, predicts the move could “be a major step backwards on the recent progress [Sprint] has made” on its ‘brand repair’ efforts.

Sprint has been criticized for seemingly never-ending “network improvements” that have promised subscribers dramatically better service. Instead, many customers have defected to competitors like T-Mobile after their patience came to an end waiting for upgrades that never arrived. Sprint’s latest effort to save money could cost Sprint even more in additional customer defections if service deteriorates.

Penny wise, pound foolish,” is the conclusion of wireless expert Roger Entner, an analyst for Recon Analytics. “Customers don’t like surprises.”

Customers in the eastern United States and in large cities are likely to be at risk for signal degradation, if only because the government owns much less land in these areas available for Sprint’s use.

Sprint also intends to abandon much of its fiber backhaul network, now owned primarily by AT&T and Verizon. Instead, Sprint will transition to microwave backhaul service between cell towers and its network connection points, for a potential savings of $1 billion annually. The microwave approach was last taken by Clearwire, which Sprint acquired in 2012. Few, if any carriers, are expected to follow Sprint’s footsteps.

One person familiar with the initiative, dubbed the Next Generation Network, predicted another wave of network hiccups, Re/code reported. The plan is likely to result in reduced coverage in rural areas and a lot of problems for current customers as Sprint embarks on its massive tower relocation project.

“Getting there is going to be a nightmare,” said the source, who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak about the matter. “It’s going to be very, very disruptive.”

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