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Verizon Wireless to Acquire Central California’s Golden State Cellular

golden_state_cellular_logo_2The cell phone provider serving Yosemite National Park and the surrounding California counties of Tuolumne, Calav­eras, Amador, Alpine and Mari­posa has been acquired by Verizon Wireless.

The independent Golden State Cellular provides cell service in rural areas of the Mother Lode and cen­tral Cal­i­for­nia, largely bypassed by larger carriers since 1989.

Verizon had maintained a minority interest in the cellular company for several years and provided roaming service for the company outside of its home areas.

GSC operates as a partnership between several regional independent telephone companies.

Verizon would provide funding for 4G LTE upgrades and potentially expand coverage in tourist areas around the region.

The acquisition is awaiting FCC approval.

 

 

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Surprise: Some Alabama Customers Unhappy About AT&T’s Experiment Ending Landline Service

att-logo-221x300AT&T customers in Carbon Hill, Ala. received an unwelcome surprise in their mailbox recently when AT&T informed them they will be part of an experiment ending traditional landline service in favor of a Voice over IP or wireless alternative.

Affected customers are involuntary participants in what AT&T calls an “exciting opportunity for our customers and for our company,” but many residents want no part of it.

The Wall Street Journal reports Carbon Hill city clerk Janice Pendley says some people in the former mining town are not pleased.

“Some of them like their landline, and they like it just the way it is,” she says.

AT&T’s experiment will force new and existing customers to switch to its more-expensive U-verse broadband platform, use a mobile phone, or a home landline replacement that works over AT&T’s cellular network. The FCC has granted AT&T permission to impose its experimental plan to end traditional landline service in two communities where regulatory protections for landline customers are weak to non-existent — Alabama’s Carbon Hill and Delray Beach, Fla.

Carbon Hill is a small town of around 880 households in extreme western Walker County. It is the kind of rural town AT&T would likely never consider for a U-verse upgrade. AT&T embarked on a second major push to extend U-verse into more communities last year, but also indicated it would strongly advocate for a wireless replacement for its landline network in the rest of its service areas. Because Carbon Hill is an experiment, AT&T will offer U-verse to at least part of the community regardless of the usual financial Return on Investment requirements AT&T usually imposes on its U-verse expansion efforts.

carbon hillAT&T is pushing forward despite the fact it  has no idea how it will offer service to at least 4% of isolated Carbon Hill residents not scheduled to be provided U-verse and not within an AT&T wireless coverage area. There are also no guarantees customers will be able to correctly reach 911, although AT&T says the technology “supports 911 functionality.” Serious questions among consumer advocates remain about whether the replacement technology will support burglar alarms, pacemakers and even systems used by air-traffic controllers.

The difficulties service Carbon Hill relate to its rural makeup and income profile. In Delray Beach, it is all about customer demographics. Half of the city is home to residents over 65 years old — the group most likely to prefer their existing landline service. Many are likely to be unhappy about a transition to new technology that will not work in the event of power interruptions, will require the installation of new equipment, or will be tied to a wireless platform that some say reduces the intelligibility of telephone conversations and often introduces audio artifacts like echo, background noise, and dropouts.

In both cities, customers only offered wireless-based service will no longer have access to DSL or wired broadband service of any kind. The wireless alternative from AT&T comes at a high cost and a low usage allowance.

The benefits to AT&T are unquestionable, however. The company will win almost universal deregulation as a Voice over IP or wireless telephone provider. Legacy regulations on customer service requirements, pricing, and obligations to provide affordable phone service to any customer that requests it are swept away by the new technologies. Competitors are also worried AT&T will be able to walk away from regulations governing open and fair access to AT&T’s network.

ip4carbon hillThe Wall Street Journal reports:

The all-Internet protocol “transition holds many promises for consumers, but losing access to affordable voice and broadband services cannot be part of that bargain,” wrote Angie Kronenberg, general counsel of Comptel, in a letter to the FCC last month on behalf of the small-carrier trade group, several companies and public-interest groups.

AARP said it believes AT&T’s plan has “numerous problems.” The technology might not be reliable enough or fail when calling 911 in an emergency, the advocacy group for seniors told regulators in its comment letter. The FCC is reviewing hundreds of comments received in response to AT&T’s request.

EarthLink piggybacks on the “incumbents as little as economically possible” and has laid nearly 30,000 miles of fiber-optic cables throughout the U.S. to help it reach more than a million customers, says Rolla Huff, a former EarthLink chief executive. Still, the company needs access to the connections built by AT&T and Verizon into buildings.

Telecom carriers such as Windstream in Little Rock, Ark., and sellers of broadband data services like EarthLink and XO Communications LLC, of Herndon, Va., have had the right to buy last-mile access at regulated prices since the last major overhaul of federal telecom laws in 1996.

tw telecomIf AT&T ends its traditional network, those competing service providers will have to negotiate with AT&T for access at whatever price AT&T elects to charge.

A preview of what is likely to happen has already been experienced by TW Telecom, an independent firm selling phone and Internet services to businesses over more than 30,000 miles of fiber lines. But that fiber network means nothing if a customer’s last mile connection is handled by a local phone company no longer subject to regulated pricing and access rules.

In Tampa, where Verizon has deployed FiOS as an unregulated replacement for its older, regulated copper-based network, TW Telecom learned first hand what this could ultimately mean:

Rochester Telephone Corporation was born in 1921 after a merger between the Rochester Telephonic Exchange, a branch of the Bell Company of Buffalo and locally-owned independent Rochester Telephone Company, which was not allowed to use Bell's long distance network.

Rochester Telephone Corporation was born in 1921 after a merger between the Rochester Telephonic Exchange, a branch of the Bell Company of Buffalo and locally owned independent Rochester Telephone Company, which was not allowed to use Bell’s long distance network.

TW Telecom approached Verizon in 2012 to seek last-mile access to a Tampa, Fla., building being converted into a bank from a restaurant. Verizon had installed only FiOS at the building.

Verizon said no, telling TW Telecom to build its own connection or pay Verizon thousands of dollars to do the job. TW Telecom declined to pay and lost the customer’s business.

“When it happens, it’s devastating,” says Kristie Ince, who oversees regulatory policy at TW Telecom. Similar snarls have cost the company at least six customers since then. Other carriers say they have had similar clashes.

In Illinois, Sprint’s business phone network has run into a barricade manned by AT&T. Sprint needs AT&T to interconnect calls placed on Sprint’s network intended for AT&T’s customers. The two companies cannot agree on an asking price under the deregulation scheme so Sprint converts its Voice over IP calls to older technology still subject to regulation just so calls will successfully reach AT&T’s customers. AT&T promptly converts those calls back to Voice over IP technology as it completes them.

AT&T said it has “no duty” to connect its Internet protocol traffic with Sprint’s.

If the FCC keeps IP-based traffic deregulated, if and when the old landline network is decommissioned, AT&T will have the last word on access, potentially putting competitors out of business.

Our great-great grandparents experienced similar problems in the early days of telephone service, when high rates from the local Bell telephone subsidiary provoked local competition. But Bell companies routinely refused to handle calls placed on competitors’ networks, forcing customers to maintain a telephone line with both companies to reach every subscriber. Additionally, only Bell-owned providers had access to the long distance network – a competitive disadvantage to competing startups.

Regulatory changes, a handful of mergers and the eventual establishment of the well-regulated Bell System eventually solved problems which threaten to return if AT&T has its way.

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Wireless Company Lobbyists Add Cell Tower Deregulation to Connect Every Iowan Act

Is a cell tower coming to your backyard?

Is a cell tower coming to your neighbor’s backyard?

Amended language in a bill that would expand broadband service to rural Iowa strips local communities from regulating where wireless companies can place their cell towers, potentially threatening its passage.

The “killer” amended language originated from wireless phone company lobbyists, most likely working for AT&T, and suddenly appeared in the Iowa House version of the bill.

AT&T has routinely proposed such language in several states, claiming the new regulations are designed to “streamline” the expansion of cellular networks often held up by ‘spurious objections’ from local citizens opposed to the unsightly towers in their immediate neighborhoods.

Local governments have also regularly weighed in on approving cell towers in areas where they pose an aesthetic threat or a potential safety risk and some, according to AT&T, have interminably delayed consideration of cell site proposals.

The language in the House bill introduces time limits on cell tower approvals, prohibits communities from rejecting tower placement except under limited circumstances, and denies communities access to cell site documentation deemed private, competitive information by wireless companies.

(Unless you want to put a cell tower here)

(Unless you want to put a cell tower here)

The cell tower language is included in the House version of the Connect Every Iowan Act, legislation considered a priority by Gov. Terry Branstad this year. Branstad wants to remove financial and regulatory impediments and offer tax credits to stimulate expansion of broadband into areas most providers have previously deemed uneconomical to serve.

AT&T sees wireless broadband as a sensible alternative and the company has publicly advocated using wireless 4G technology in rural areas. If the House measure is approved, AT&T and other wireless companies can affix microcells or other cellular antennas to utility poles, street signs, or water towers without seeking permission from local authorities.

Colleagues in the Iowa state Senate were concerned about the language in the House version of the bill.

“The language in the House bill, in my view, is pretty egregious,” Sen. Steve Sodders, (D-State Center), who is leading the effort on the Senate bill. He told the Associated Press, “It really took away all local control of cell tower siting.”

“The real angst there is that without local control on these towers, these things can be built right in your neighborhood,” said Sen. Matt McCoy, (D-Des Moines). “Nobody wants to come home and see that. Finding that balance is going to be key.”

att-logo-221x300Des Moines city attorney Jeff Lester noted the language in the bill cleverly favors cellular companies with a built-in guarantee of approval of their cell tower requests:

The bill does not require cellular companies to provide company and business plan information to local governments when applying for a new cell tower site. Should municipal authorities deny a request, and a cellular company then brings the case to federal court, local authorities wouldn’t have the evidence necessary to justify their denial.

Lester said under federal law, company information serves as evidence in these appeals. Without it, there is no basis for denial, he said, and the ruling would be in favor of the cellular company.

Rep. Peter Cownie, (R-West Des Moines), who spearheaded the effort in the House, said determining where towers can or cannot go is a difficult task, but that it’s not his intent to weaken anyone’s say in their placement.

“I do not want to take away the authority of local officials in terms of cell tower siting,” he told AP. “I don’t think anyone’s goal is to take that away.”

Subcommittees in both chambers plan to meet to discuss the legislation next week.

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New Jersey’s Fiber Ripoff: Verizon Walks Away from Fiber Upgrades Customers Already Paid For

Bait and switch broadband

Bait and switch broadband

Since 1991, Verizon telephone customers in New Jersey have paid at least $15 billion in surcharges for a promised high-speed broadband network that would reach every home in the state by 2010. But now critics charge Verizon diverted much of that money to shareholder dividend payouts and building infrastructure for its highly profitable wireless network, leaving almost half the state with slow speed DSL or no broadband at all.

In the early 1990s, Verizon’s predecessor — Bell Atlantic — launched “Opportunity New Jersey,” a plan promising the state it would have the first 100% fiber telecommunications network in the country. In return, the company enjoyed more than two decades of generous tax breaks and collected various surcharges from customers to finance network construction. But a review of Verizon’s promises vs. reality suggest the company has reneged on the deal it signed with the state back when Bill Clinton was beginning his first term as president.

Verizon promised at least 75 percent of New Jersey would have a fiber service by 1996 offering 384 television channels and 45/45Mbps broadband service for $40 a month. The network would be open to competitors and be deployed without regard to income or its potential customer base.

The state suspected trouble as far back as 1997, when the Division of the Ratepayer Advocate with the New Jersey Board of Regulatory Commissioners blasted the company’s progress five years into the project:

Bell Atlantic-New Jersey (BA-NJ) has over-earned, underspent and inequitably deployed advanced telecommunications technology to business customers, while largely neglecting schools and libraries, low-income and residential ratepayers and consumers in Urban Enterprise Zones as well as urban and rural areas.

Verizon's wired success story

By 2006, New Jersey was being introduced to FiOS, which some believed was part of Verizon’s commitment to the state. But a decade after Verizon’s target dates, customers were still waiting for FiOS video service, the maximum broadband speeds offered at that point were 30/5Mbps and the cost of the package ranged from $180-200 a month. Most of Verizon’s FiOS deployments were in the northern half of the state, leaving southern New Jersey with few, if any service improvements.

Despite Verizon’s repeated failures to meet its target dates, that same year New Jersey made life even easier for the phone company by passing a statewide video franchise law allowing Verizon to bypass negotiating with each town and city regarding its video services and instead run FiOS TV as it pleases anywhere in the state. The company argued a statewide video franchise would allow for more rapid deployment of Verizon’s fiber network. In reality, the company was falling further and further behind. By 2013, when Verizon sought renewal of its statewide franchise, Verizon only offered FiOS TV to 352 of the 526 communities hoping for service. At least 174 communities still waiting for FiOS are likely never going to get the fiber service, despite paying Verizon’s surcharges for more than 20 years. Verizon suspended its FiOS expansion project more than two years ago.

Bait and Switch Broadband

From promises of a cutting edge fiber future to good-enough DSL....

From promises of a cutting edge fiber future to good-enough DSL.

Despite early commitments of providing New Jersey with advanced fiber broadband speeds unheard of elsewhere in the country in the 1990s, Verizon changed its tune when it became clear the company wanted to prioritize investment in its more lucrative wireless network. Instead of a commitment of 45/45Mbps, providing basic DSL broadband at any speed was now seen as adequate. Verizon spokesman Lee Gierczynski told both Newsweek and the Inquirer the company never promised a statewide deployment of FiOS.

“Nobody knew what FiOS was 20 years ago,” Gierczynski said. “It wasn’t until 2004 when FiOS came on the scene.”

Forget about that commitment for 45/45Mbps speed as well.

“It didn’t say a minimum of 45mbps,” Gierczynski said, “it just says ‘up to’.”

That means DSL service will be a part of southern New Jersey for the near future. Customers unimpressed with the 5Mbps DSL service they get from Verizon can always pay substantially more for access to Verizon Wireless’ usage capped LTE 4G network that Gierczynski believes can be used to download movies.

In effect, ratepayers that wrote checks to pay artificially higher phone bills to help subsidize a promised 100% fiber optic future have instead funneled working capital to Verizon Wireless’ network expansion and helped enrich shareholders with generous dividend payouts.

Opportunity New Jersey Verizon: Christie Administration Proposes Letting Verizon Off the Hook Permanently

Gov. Christie

Gov. Christie

Most victims of costly bait and switch schemes get angry and demand justice. In New Jersey, the Christie Administration believes Verizon is the victim of unreasonable expectations and has proposed a sweetheart deal to both let the company off the hook and keep the surcharges it collected from New Jersey ratepayers for the last 21 years.

While the rest of the country clamors for better broadband, Governor Christie’s State Commission, his Attorney General’s Office and the state Consumer Rate Counsel believe that basic DSL is good enough, and making life difficult for Verizon by insisting it live up to its part of a mutual agreement just isn’t very nice.

All eyes were on incoming president of the Board of Public Utilities Dianne Solomon, wife of close Christie associate Lee Solomon. The BPU has direct authority over Verizon’s compliance with its promises to the state. But Dianne’s only apparent experience is as an official with the United States Tennis Association. Critics immediately pounced on the odd nomination, accusing the governor of using the BPU as a lucrative parking lot for political patronage. Three of the four current commissioners are all politically connected and their experience navigating telecommunications law is questionable.

Instead of demanding that Verizon be held to its commitment to the state, government officials are bending over backwards to let Verizon walk away from its promises forever.

A stipulation proposal would allow the company to shred its commitment to upgrade New Jersey with fiber optics. Instead, Verizon gets permission to discontinue service if you have any other option for service — including cable or wireless. Not only would this stipulation eliminate any hope bypassed communities have to eventually get Verizon FiOS, it would also let Verizon scrap its rural landline network and kill DSL, forcing customers to its lucrative wireless broadband product instead.

Solomon

Solomon

The agreement also eliminates any commitment Verizon had to deliver fiber-fast speeds. Instead, Verizon will be considered in good standing if it matches the slowest speed on offer from Verizon DSL.

“Broadband is defined as delivering any technology including Verizon’s 4G wireless, fiber, copper or cable, data transmission service at speeds no less than the minimum speed of Verizon New Jersey’s Digital Subscriber line (DSL) that is provided by Verizon New Jersey today.”

New Jersey customers can file comments about the proposed agreement until March 24, 2014 with the Board of Public Utilities.

We have found a good sample letter you should edit to make your own. You can e-mail the secretary directly and/or send your message to the general e-mail address: [email protected] (be sure to include “Verizon New Jersey, Docket No. TO12020155″ on the Subject line):

New Jersey Board of Public Utilities
Kristi Izzo, Secretary
44 South Clinton Avenue, 9th Floor
P.O. Box 350 Trenton, NJ 08625-0350

Email: [email protected]

Re: In the Matter of Verizon New Jersey, Inc. Docket# TO 12020155

Dear Secretary Izzo:

I want to alert you to an urgent matter pending before the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities. Pursuant to a 1993 law called Opportunity New Jersey, Verizon NJ was obligated to upgrade New Jersey’s “copper wire” network by 2010. To fund the Opportunity New Jersey expansion, Verizon NJ was permitted to collect excess charges from their customers and received lucrative tax breaks from the State. These charges and tax breaks began in the 1990s and are still being collected today.

Verizon failed to meet its timeframe requirements under the Opportunity New Jersey agreement to New Jersey residents. As a result of Verizon’s failures, on March 12, 2012, the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities initiated a legal action against Verizon NJ. The Board and Verizon NJ have now entered into a proposed settlement agreement which I believe is inadequate and not in the best interests of myself and other New Jersey residents who have paid for this service that was not fully delivered.

I oppose the Board’s proposed settlement agreement and demand that The Board of Public Utilities hold Verizon to the original Opportunity New Jersey agreement which requires Verizon to expand broadband services to every customer in the State. The proposed settlement has the potential of costing myself and other residents even more money than I have already paid for the last 21 years. The Board of Public Utilities should not allow Verizon to flagrantly disregard the stipulations which are the framework for the charges and tax breaks that Verizon has enjoyed for 21 years.

I am asking the Board of Public Utilities to be my advocate and investigate where our dollars were spent and to require Verizon to give me what I was originally promised under Opportunity New Jersey agreement of 1993.

Sincerely,

[Your Name, Address, Phone Number]

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Wireless ISP Fends Off Frontier’s DSL Expansion in Indiana; Telco Denied Expansion Money

onlyinternetA wireless Internet Service Provider serving rural northeastern Indiana has successfully challenged Frontier Communications’ application for federal funds to introduce DSL service in the region.

Great American Broadband (GAB) challenged Frontier’s request for funds from the Connect America Fund to wire homes in the Wells County community of Uniondale. It turns out the Bluffton-based wireless ISP already provides service to the community, making Frontier’s request redundant.

uniondaleGAB’s OnlyInternet serves around 3,000 customers in Adams, Allen, Blackford, Delaware, Elkhart, Grant, Howard, Huntington, Jay, LaGrange, Madison, Randolph, Tipton, Wabash, Wells and Whitley counties. Founded in 1995, the wireless ISP uses a network of towers to offer a high-speed service comparable to Wi-Fi to residents who generally cannot get broadband from any cable or telephone company.

The FCC found Uniondale was already sufficiently served by OnlyInternet and denied funds earmarked for Frontier’s proposed expansion into the community of about 300. Wireless ISPs have had a hard time successfully defending their turf from phone companies that can subsidize expansion of their DSL service with federal tax money or funds provided by other telephone ratepayers. Many wireless ISPs are family owned and financed by private bank loans and small investors. They do not appreciate subsidized competition, particularly from the Connect America Fund, which is generally only available to telephone companies.

Frontier“We have to look out for the interests of our members,” Rick Harnish, executive director of the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association in Ossian, told the Journal Gazette. The group alerted OnlyInternet of Frontier’s FCC filing for rural dollars. “The Connect America Fund is a subsidy program set up for phone companies, which is why wireless providers are left out. We continue lobbying for equitable treatment, but we’re a small voice compared to the bigger companies.”

Rural ISPs have taken about a $10 million chunk out of Frontier’s application for $71.5 million in Connect America Funds by successfully challenging the phone company’s applications around the country. In general, Connect America Funding for broadband expansion is available only to unserved areas where customers cannot get broadband service.

In northern Indiana, Frontier can use the federal money to offer services in parts of Huntington, Jay and Wells counties.

Frontier is still free to use its own funds to wire Uniondale for DSL service, and customers might welcome the competition.

OnlyInternet currently provides wireless service at speeds ranging from 512/128kbps ($24.95) to 3Mbps/768kbps ($64.95). Until last year, Frontier generally provided most rural communities with up to 3Mbps broadband, but has upgraded service to speeds ranging from 6-40Mbps. Most of the higher speeds are available only in urban areas.

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Read Between AT&T’s Landlines: What They Don’t Say Will Cost Kentucky, Other States

Phillip "Another year, another AT&T deregulation measure" Dampier

Phillip “Another year, another AT&T deregulation measure” Dampier

It’s back.

It seems that nearly every year, AT&T and its well-compensated fan base of state legislators trot out the same old deregulation proposals that would end oversight of basic telephone service and allow AT&T (and other phone companies in Kentucky) to pull the plug on landline service wherever they feel it is no longer profitable to deliver.

This year, it’s Senate Bill 99, introduced once again by Sen. Paul “AT&T Knows Best” Hornback (R-Shelbyville). Back in 2012, Hornback disclosed AT&T largely authors these deregulation measures and he introduces them on AT&T’s behalf. In fact, he’s proud to admit it, telling the press nobody knows better than AT&T what the company needs the legislature to do for it.

“You work with the authorities in any industry to figure out what they need to move that industry forward,” Hornback said. “It’s no conflict.”

While Hornback moves AT&T forward, “his” bill will move rural Kentucky’s best chances for broadband backwards.

AT&T always pulls out all the stops when lobbying for its deregulation bills. In Kentucky, AT&T has more than 30 legislative lobbyists, including a former PSC vice chairwoman and past chairs of the state Democratic and Republican parties working on their behalf. It has spent over $100,000 in state political donations since 2007.

The chief provisions of the bill would:

  • End almost all oversight of telephone service by the Public Service Commission anywhere there are more than 15,000 people living within a telephone exchange’s service area;
  • Give Kentucky phone companies the right to disconnect urban/suburban basic landline phone service and replace it with either wireless or Voice over IP service;
  • Allow rural customers to keep landline service for now, but also permits AT&T and other companies to effectively stop investing in their rural wired networks.

yay attThis year, AT&T apparently conceded it was just too tough to convince the legislature to let them disconnect hundreds of thousands of rural Kentucky phone customers at the company’s pleasure, so this time they have permitted rural wired service to continue, with some exceptions that make life easier for AT&T.

First, the end of oversight of telephone service means customers in larger communities in Kentucky will have no recourse if their phone service doesn’t work, is billed incorrectly, is disconnected during a billing dispute, or never installed at all. The PSC has traditionally served as a last resort for customers who do not get satisfaction dealing with the local phone company directly. PSC intervention is taken very seriously by most phone companies, but the state agency will be rendered almost toothless under this bill.

Second, although existing rural phone customers would be able to keep their basic landline service (for now) under this measure, nothing prevents AT&T from marketing alternative wireless phone service to customers experiencing problems with their existing service. Verizon has attempted that in portions of upstate New York, where telephone network deterioration has led to increased complaints. In some cases, Verizon has suggested customers switch to wireless service instead of waiting for phone line repairs which may or may not solve the problem. New rural customers face the possibility of only being offered wireless or alternative phone services.

Third, provisions in the bill give AT&T and other companies wide latitude to offer wireless or Voice over IP alternatives to landline service with little recourse for customers who only later discover these alternatives don’t support faxes, medical or security alarm monitoring, dial-up Internet, credit card processing, etc.

Fourth, the bill eliminates any requirement imposed upon broadband service in existence as of July 15, 2004. In fact, the measure specifically defines both phone and broadband service as “market-based and not subject to state administrative regulation.” That basically means service will be unregulated.

AT&T's wireless home phone replacement

AT&T’s wireless home phone replacement

Here are some real world examples of where S.B. 99 could trip up consumers:

  1. An elderly Louisville couple living the summer months in Louisville discover their phone service has been switched to the U-verse platform over the winter as AT&T seeks to decommission its deteriorating landline network in the neighborhood. S.B. 99 offers customers a 30-day opt out provision upon first notification, allowing a customer dissatisfied with the alternative service the right to switch back to their landline. But this couple was in Florida during the 30-day window, did not receive the notification to opt out in time to act, and are now stuck with U-verse. Unfortunately, the home medical monitoring equipment for his pacemaker does not work with Voice over IP phone service. This couple’s recourse: None.
  2. A customer moves into a new home currently served by AT&T’s wireless home phone replacement service. The customer doesn’t like the sound quality of the service and wants a traditional landline instead. Her recourse: None.
  3. A retired couple uninterested in broadband service or television from AT&T U-verse suddenly discovers AT&T wants to raise prices on landline phone service, but offers savings if the couple agrees to sign up for U-verse. Instead of paying a $25 monthly phone bill, the couple is now being asked, on a fixed income, to pay $100 a month for services they don’t want or need. Their recourse: They can appeal to keep their landline if they meet the aforementioned deadline, but they have no recourse if AT&T raises rates for basic phone service to make its discounted bundled service package seem more attractive.

Hood Harris, president of AT&T Kentucky, follows the same playback AT&T always uses when pushing these bills by framing its argument around landline telephone service regulation, which is an easy sell for cell phone-crazy customers who have not made a landline call in years:

Harris

Harris

Some of Kentucky’s laws that regulate our phones were written before cable television, cell phones, the Internet or email existed.

Because of these outdated laws, providers like AT&T must sink resources into outdated technology that could be invested in the modern broadband and wireless technology consumers want and need.

Every dollar invested in old technology is a dollar not being invested in speeding up the build out of new technology across the commonwealth.

It’s no longer the 19th century coming into your home over the old, voice-only phone network that was put in place under now-outdated laws. It’s the 21st century coming into your home over modern networks. While technology has changed dramatically for the better in just the past few years, our laws have not.

Despite what you may have heard, SB 99 will not remove landlines from rural homes or businesses.

Instead, this legislation puts those customers in charge of deciding which communications services they want and need. If you are a rural customer, for example, you may choose to join the nearly 40 percent of Kentuckians who already have moved on from landline home phones and gone only with a wireless phone, or you may choose a landline phone that’s provided over the Internet (known as Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP), or you may choose both a VoIP and a wireless service.

But you do not have to — you can keep your existing landline phone if you like. Under SB 99, the choice is yours.

It’s seems like a logical argument, until you read between the lines. Harris implies that those old-fashioned laws governing landlines you don’t have anymore are slowing down AT&T from bringing about a Broadband Renaissance for Kentucky. If AT&T only was freed from the responsibility of patching up its copper wire phone network, it could spend all of its time, money, and attention on improving cell phone service and bring broadband to everyone. Harris promises every resident will have a choice to get the service they want — wireless or wired — as long as you remember he is only talking about basic phone service, not broadband.

If your community isn't highlighted on this map, AT&T has a wireless-only future in store for you.

If your community isn’t highlighted on this map, AT&T has a wireless-only future in store for you.

Harris avoids disclosing AT&T’s true agenda. The company has freely admitted to shareholders it wants to scrap its rural wired network, now considered too costly to maintain for a diminishing number of customers. Unlike independent phone companies like Frontier, AT&T has been in no hurry to upgrade these rural customers for broadband service. AT&T has not even bothered to apply for federal broadband funding assistance to defray some of the costs of extending DSL to its rural customer base. With no possibility of buying broadband from AT&T, customers have little incentive to keep wired service if a cell phone will do. But decommissioning landline service in rural Kentucky guarantees these customers will probably never receive adequate broadband.

The "long term cost reduction" AT&T mentions above is for them, not for you.

The “long-term cost reduction” AT&T mentions above is for them, not for you.

AT&T claims it will invest the savings in a wireless broadband network for rural customers, but as any smartphone owner will attest, AT&T’s wireless service is much more expensive than traditional phone service and its data plans are stingy and very expensive. Customers who can buy DSL from AT&T pay as little as $14.99 a month for up to 150GB of usage. A wireless data plan with AT&T for a home computer or notebook starts at $50 a month and only provides 5GB of usage before customers face a $10 per gigabyte overlimit fee. Which would you prefer: paying $14.99 for 150GB of usage with AT&T DSL or $1,500 for the same amount of usage on AT&T’s wireless network?

AT&T’s claims it will expand broadband as a result of not having to spend money on its landline network are specious. In fact, regardless of whether Kentucky passes S.B. 99 or not, AT&T has already embarked on its last known U-verse expansion. Project Velocity IP (VIP) devotes $6 billion to expanding U-verse to 57 million homes, reaching 75% of customer locations by the end of 2015. For the remaining 25% of customers, mostly in rural areas, AT&T’s plan isn’t to spend more money on improved wired service. Instead, it will build out its wireless network to serve the remaining customers with its LTE wireless broadband service — the same one that costs you $1,500 a month if you use 150GB.

Wireless is a cash cow for AT&T, so even saddled with its landline network, the company still spends the bulk of its investments on the wireless side of the business. Project VIP could have devoted all its resources to bringing U-verse to a larger customer base, but it won’t. AT&T sees much fatter profits spending $14 billion now to expand its wireless 4G LTE network and collect a lot more money later from its rural Kentucky customers.

Kentucky residents who don’t have U-verse in their area by the end of 2015 are probably never going to get the service, with or without S.B. 99. So why support a measure that delivers all the benefits to AT&T and leaves you sorting through the fine print just to keep the service you have now at a reasonable price. In every other state where AT&T has won deregulation, it raises the rates with no corresponding improvement in service.

Just how bad can AT&T’s wireless home phone replacement be? Just look at their disclaimers:

AT&T Wireless Home Phone is not compatible with home security systems, fax machines, medical alert and monitoring services, credit card machines, IP/PBX Phone systems, or dial-up Internet service. AT&T’s fine print on its website.

“AT&T’s wireless services are not equivalent to wireline Internet.” Wireless Customer Agreement, Section 4.1.

“WE DO NOT GUARANTEE YOU UNINTERRUPTED SERVICE OR COVERAGE. WE CANNOT ASSURE YOU THAT IF YOU PLACE A 911 CALL YOU WILL BE FOUND.” (All caps in original). Section 4.1.

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MassBroadband123 Fiber Network Completed; Now the Challenge of Last-Mile Funding Begins

axiamassbroadband123The Massachusetts Broadband Institute has completed construction and testing of the massive 1,200 mile fiber optic network designed to bring 21st century Internet connectivity to rural western and central Massachusetts now largely left out of the broadband revolution.

After spending $89.7 million in state and federal funds, the fiber project that started construction in 2011 has delivered a robust middle-mile network that, for now, will largely target and serve 1,400 schools, libraries, and government buildings — institutional users that have access to government broadband funding programs to pay for hookups to the fiber network. Finding the money to connect the 333,500 households and 44,000 businesses MassBroadband123 wants to reach is more difficult.

Steve Nelson, the legal/governance chair of the WiredWest Executive Committee, likens it to seeing big water mains being laid along roadways with no way to connect pipes to your house. The media may proclaim the network is complete, but in reality, there is a lot of work that remains to extend broadband service to the residents and businesses that need it most.

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick recently announced funding to support some of the costs of the all-too-critical “last mile” — bringing a connection from the existing fiber network to a home or business. Out of a $900 million bond bill for technology projects, a set aside of $50 million has been reserved for broadband. The bill is waiting for action by the Senate Committee on Bonding, Capital Expenditures and State Assets. If it passes, Nelson believes it will cover about half of the estimated $100 million needed to finish the last mile and begin offering service.

open

As with many publicly funded, open access broadband networks, private providers are usually invited to participate, but in fact rarely do. Despite calls from Rep. “Smitty” Pignatelli (D-Berkshire 4th District) for Verizon and Comcast to get on board, there is no sign either company is prepared to do so. Nelson says waiting for either company to solve the last-mile problem in areas where they’ve never shown much interest before is like “Waiting for Godot.”

wiredwest“It’s time to stop talking and waiting for Comcast or Verizon,” Nelson writes. “We the people of Western Mass. have the power to solve the last mile problem ourselves. Forty-two towns have formed WiredWest, a cooperative dedicated to bringing broadband home to our citizens.”

WiredWest is seeking federal rural broadband funding designated to support rural broadband projects like the one in western Massachusetts. The co-op may even issue a bond backed by participating communities that would allow WiredWest to borrow the needed funds to wire up customers.

Nelson is calling on fellow residents to support the project’s viability by signing up for service when it becomes available. He also urges participating communities to stay united under the WiredWest regional partnership.

“The regional solution WiredWest represents is the only way to achieve the economies of scale, operational efficiencies and cost-effectiveness to make such a network feasible and sustainable,” said Nelson. “It requires a large-enough base of customers and the support from many towns joining forces. A small town going it alone and building its own network is not a viable approach to the big challenge of building and operating such complex and costly infrastructure. It’s running a sled race with just one dog.”

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Windstream Pays $600,000 to Settle False Broadband Speed Claims in Georgia

Phillip Dampier February 26, 2014 Video, Windstream 1 Comment
Windstream delivers turtle slow Internet speeds to customers paying for fast connections.

Windstream delivers turtle slow Internet speeds to customers paying for fast connections.

Windstream broadband customers in Georgia were not imagining their turtle-slow DSL Internet speeds after all. After a year-long investigation, the Governor’s Office of Consumer Protection (GOCP) this week announced a $600,000 settlement with the rural telephone company over claims it was ripping off customers by falsely advertising broadband speeds it was in no position to deliver.

“This is essentially a truth in advertising case,” says John Sours, administrator of the Governor’s Office of Consumer Protection.  “What consumers thought they were getting from a major company was significantly different from what they allegedly received. People need to be able to make informed choices about buying the services they need to communicate and do business. We are confident that this settlement will ensure that will now occur here.”

A GOCP investigation found substantial evidence Windstream routinely advertised and sold certain Internet speeds to customers it should have known it could not provide and/or guarantee, especially over its deteriorating copper landline network. Customers complained they should have been sold cheaper broadband packages with Internet speeds Windstream could actually deliver.

windstreamlogoCustomers who called to complain about the poor performance of their connection received empty promises from Windstream representatives that misrepresented the time frame within which broadband speeds would improve. In some cases, customers were not told their speed issues would likely never be resolved. In rural Georgia communities, DSL broadband is often the only available option.

The GOCP also found that some of Windstream’s “Lifetime Price Guarantee bundle” advertisements falsely implied that the advertised offer included high-speed Internet packages with speeds of “up to 12 Mbps”.

Windstream was also criticized for advertising a free 6-month “Hulu Plus” subscription but did not clearly disclose that consumers who failed to cancel the subscription at or before the 6-month period would be charged membership fees every month afterwards, until the membership was cancelled.

To resolve these allegations, Windstream will pay a total of $600,000, which includes a $175,000 civil penalty, $175,000 in administrative fees and expenses, and $250,000 in cy pres restitution to be used to buy new computer equipment for the Technical College System of Georgia. Customers will receive no compensation from the settlement, but Stop the Cap! strongly recommends that affected customers insist on compensation by appealing directly to Windstream for service credits and/or a penalty-free exit from any service commitments.

gocp“Windstream … has cooperated fully throughout the inquiry by the Governor’s Office of Consumer Protection,” wrote a company spokesperson in a statement. “Windstream is pleased to resolve this inquiry by entering an assurance of voluntary compliance with all applicable advertising laws. That agreement includes no finding or admission of violation by the company.”

Windstream has represented to the Governor’s Office of Consumer Protection that it is in the process of investing about $14 million to upgrade its fiber-supported areas in Georgia.  The company says that 90% or more of these upgrades were completed by the end of 2013, with the remaining upgrades slated for completion by mid-2014. The company expects the upgrades to address systemic download speed issues in the areas undergoing the upgrades. It is also seeking federal funding as well as exploring other options for upgrading the Internet service for consumers who are served by network equipment supported by copper-fed wires.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WGCL Atlanta Windstream Settles False Advertising Suit 2-25-14.mp4

WGCL in Atlanta reports Windstream has agreed to settle charges they falsely advertised broadband speeds customers could never receive. The state gets $600,000, customers get nothing. (1:56)

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More Hackery on Broadband Regulation from the AT&T-Funded Progressive Policy Institute

Phillip "Follow the Money" Dampier

Phillip “Follow the Money” Dampier

“In the 1990s, U.S. policymakers faced critical choices about who should build the Internet, how it should be governed, and to what extent it should be regulated and taxed. For the most part, they chose wisely to open a regulated telecommunications market to competition, stimulate private investment in broadband and digital technologies, and democratize access.” — Will Marshall, guest columnist

Is competition in Internet access robust enough for you? Has your provider been sufficiently stimulated to invest in the latest broadband technologies to keep America at the top of broadband speed and availability rankings? Is Net Neutrality the law of the land or the latest victim of a Verizon lawsuit to overturn the concept of democratizing access to online content?

I’m not certain what country Will Marshall lives in, but for most Americans, Internet access is provided by a duopoly of providers that must be dragged kicking and screaming to upgrade their networks without jacking up prices and limiting usage.

Marshall is president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute, a so-called “third way” group inspired by centrist Democrats led by President Bill Clinton in the 1990s. Unlike traditional liberals suspicious of corporate agendas, these Democrats were friendly to big business and welcomed the largess of corporate cash to keep them competitive in election races. It was under this atmosphere that Clinton signed the bought-and-paid-for 1996 Telecom Act, ghostwritten by lobbyists for big broadcasters, phone and cable companies, and other big media interests. Long on rhetoric about self-governing, free market competition but short on specifics, the ’96 law transformed the media landscape in ways that still impact us today.

ppiMedia ownership laws were relaxed, allowing massive buyouts of radio stations under a handful of giant corporations like Clear Channel, which promptly dispensed with large numbers of employees that provided locally produced programming. In their place, we now get cookie-cutter radio that sounds the same from Maine to Oregon. Television stations eagerly began lobbying for a similar framework for relaxing ownership limits in their business. Phone companies won their own freedoms from regulation, including largely toothless broadband regulations that allowed Internet providers to declare victory regardless of how good or bad broadband has gotten in the United States.

Marshall’s views appeared in a guest column this week in The Orlando Sentinel, which is open to publishing opinion pieces from writers hailing from Washington, D.C., without bothering to offer readers with some full disclosure.

Marshall

Marshall

While Marshall’s opinions may be his own, readers should be aware that PPI would likely not exist without its corporate sponsors — among them AT&T, hardly a disinterested player in the telecommunications policy debate.

Marshall’s column suggests competition is doing a great job at keeping prices low and allows you – the consumer – to decide which technologies and services thrive. There must be another reason my Time Warner Cable bill keeps increasing and my choice for broadband technology — fiber optics — is nowhere in sight. I don’t have a choice of Verizon FiOS, in part because phone and cable companies maintain fiefdoms where other phone and cable companies don’t dare to tread. That leaves me with one other option: Frontier Communications, which is still encouraging me to sign up for their 3.1Mbps DSL.

“The broadband Internet also is a powerful magnet for private investment,” Marshall writes. “In 2013, telecom and tech companies topped PPI’s ranking of the companies investing the most in the U.S. economy. And America is moving at warp speed toward the ‘Internet of Everything,’ which promises to spread the productivity-raising potential of digital technology across the entire economy.”

Nothing about AT&T or the cable companies is about “warp speed.” In reality, AT&T and Verizon plan to pour their enormous profits into corporate set-asides to repurchase their own stock, pay dividends to shareholders, and continue to richly compensate their executives. It’s good to know that PPI offers rankings that place telecom companies on top. Unfortunately, those without a financial connection to AT&T are less optimistic. The U.S. continues its long slide away from broadband leadership as even developing countries in the former Eastern Bloc race ahead of us. Verizon’s biggest single investment of 2013 wasn’t in the U.S. economy — it was to spend $130 billion to buyout U.K.-based Vodafone’s 45% ownership interest in Verizon Wireless. Verizon’s customers get stalled FiOS expansion, Cadillac-priced wireless service, and a plan to ditch rural landlines and push those customers to cell service instead.

AT&T financially supports the Progressive Policy Institute

AT&T financially supports the Progressive Policy Institute

“A recent federal court decision regarding the FCC’s Open Internet Order has prompted pro-regulatory advocates from the ’90s to demand a rewrite of the legal framework that allowed today’s Internet to flourish,” Marshall writes in a section that also includes insidious NSA wiretapping and Internet censorship in Russia and China.

Marshall’s AT&T public policy agenda is showing.

Net Neutrality proponents don’t advocate an open Internet for no reason. It was AT&T’s former CEO Ed Whitacre that threw down the gauntlet declaring Google and other content providers would not be allowed to use AT&T’s pipes for free. AT&T has since patented technology that will allow it to discriminate in favor of preferred web traffic while artificially slowing down content it doesn’t like on its network.

“Pro-regulatory advocates” are not the ones advocating change — it is AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast, among others, that want to monetize Internet usage and web traffic for even higher profits. Net Neutrality as law protects the Internet experience Marshall celebrates. He just can’t see past AT&T’s money to realize that.

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Anti-Community Broadband Bill Introduced in Kansas; Legislating Incumbent Protection

What company is behind the effort to ban municipal broadband in kansas.

AT&T is a frequent backer of anti-community broadband initiatives, as are some of the nation’s biggest cable companies.

The Kansas Senate’s Commerce Committee has introduced a bill that would make it next to impossible to build publicly owned community broadband networks that could potentially compete against the state’s largest cable and phone companies.

Senate Bill 304 is the latest in a series of measures introduced in state legislatures across the country to limit or prohibit local communities from building better broadband networks that large commercial providers refuse to offer.

SB 304 is among the most protectionist around, going well beyond the model bill produced by the corporate-backed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). At its heart, the bill bans just about any would-be competitor that works with, is run by, or backed by a local municipality:

Sec. 4. Except with regard to unserved areas, a municipality may not, directly or indirectly offer or provide to one or more subscribers, video, telecommunications or broadband service; or purchase, lease, construct, maintain or operate any facility for the purpose of enabling a private business or entity to offer, provide, carry, or deliver video, telecommunications or broadband service to one or more subscribers.

For purposes of this act, a municipality offers or provides video, telecommunications or broadband service if the municipality offers or provides the service:

  • Directly or indirectly, including through an authority or instrumentality:
  • Acting on behalf of the municipality; or for the benefit of the municipality;
  • by itself;
  • through a partnership, joint venture or other entity in which the municipality participates; or
  • by contract, resale or otherwise.
Tribune, Kansas is the county seat of Greeley County.

Tribune, Kansas is the county seat of Greeley County.

This language effectively prohibits just about everything from municipally owned broadband networks, public-private partnerships, buying an existing cable or phone company to improve service, allowing municipal utilities to establish broadband through an independent authority, or even contracting with a private company to offer service where none exists.

The proposed legislation falls far short of its intended goals to:

  • Ensure that video, telecommunications and broadband services are provided through fair competition;
  • Provide the widest possible diversity of sources of information, news and entertainment to the general public;
  • Encourage the development and widespread use of technological advances in providing video, telecommunications and broadband services at competitive rates and,
  • Ensure that video, telecommunications and broadband services are each provided within a consistent, comprehensive and nondiscriminatory federal, state and local government framework.

Proponents claim the bill is open to allowing municipalities to build broadband services in “unserved areas.” But upon closer inspection, the bill’s definition of “unserved” is practically impossible to meet anywhere in Kansas:

“Unserved area” means one or more contiguous census blocks within the legal boundaries of a municipality seeking to provide the unserved area with video, telecommunications or broadband service, where at least nine out of 10 households lack access to facilities-based, terrestrial broadband service, either fixed or mobile, or satellite broadband service, at the minimum broadband transmission speed as defined by the FCC.

Even the FCC does not consider satellite broadband service when it draws maps where broadband is unavailable. But this Big Telecom-backed bill does. Even worse, it requires would-be providers to prove that 90 percent of customers within a “census block” don’t have access to either mobile or satellite broadband. Since satellite Internet access is available to anyone with a view of the southern sky, and the most likely unserved customers would be in rural areas, it would be next to impossible for any part of the notoriously flat and wide open state to qualify as “unserved.”

Each rectangle represents one census block within one census tract that partially covers Greeley County. Under the proposed legislation, a community provider would have to visit every census block to verify whether a private company is capable of providing service, including satellite Internet access.

Each rectangle represents one “census block” within a larger “census tract” that partially covers Greeley County. Under the proposed legislation, a community provider would have to visit each census block to verify whether a private company is capable of providing broadband service, including satellite Internet access.

To illustrate, Stop the Cap! looked at Greeley County in western Kansas. The county’s total population? 1,247 — the smallest in the state. Assume Greeley County Broadband, a fictional municipal provider, wanted to launch fiber broadband service in the area. Under the proposed bill, the largest potential customer base is 1,247 — too small for most private providers. Still, if a private company decided to wire up the county, it could with few impediments, assuming investors were willing to wait for a return on their investment in the rural county. If SB 304 became law, a publicly owned broadband network would have to do much more before a single cable could be installed on a utility pole.

Census Block 958100-1-075, in downtown Tribune, has a population of 10.

Census Block 958100-1-075, in downtown Tribune, has a population of 10.

To open for business, Greeley County Broadband would have to spend tens of thousands of dollars to independently verify its intended service area — the county — is unserved by any existing broadband technology, including satellite and mobile broadband. The authors of the bill intentionally make that difficult. Just one census tract in Greeley County (#9561), encompassing the county seat town of Tribune (pop. 741) has dozens of census blocks. Some are populated, others are not.

Greeley County Broadband now has several big problems. Under the language in the bill, a municipal provider must first define its service area entirely within its borders — in this case Greeley County — and base it on contiguous census blocks. That means if pockets of qualifying potential customers exist in a census block surrounded by non-qualifying census blocks, Greeley County Broadband cannot include them in its service area.

Census Block 958100-1-075 — essentially at the intersection of Broadway Ave. and West Harper St., right next to City Hall — has a population of 10. AT&T Mobility’s coverage maps show Tribune is covered by its 3G wireless data network (but not 4G). That census block, along with every other in the area, would be disqualified from getting municipal broadband the moment AT&T upgrades to 4G service, whether reception is great or not. It doesn’t matter that customers will have to pay around $60 for a handful of gigabytes a month.

But wait, Verizon Wireless declares it already provides 4G LTE service across Greeley County (and almost all Kansas). So Greeley County Broadband, among other would-be providers, are out of business before even launching. Assuming there was no 4G service, if just two of those ten residents had a clear view to any satellite broadband provider, Greeley County Broadband would not be permitted to provide anyone in the census block with service under the proposed law. Under these restrictions, no municipal provider could write a tenable business plan, starved of potential customers.

Kansans need to consider whether that is “fair competition” or corporate protectionism. Is it a level playing field to restrict one provider without restricting others? If competition promotes investment in technologically challenged rural Kansas, would not more competition from municipal providers force private companies to finally upgrade their networks to compete?

In fact, the bill introduced this week protects incumbent cable and phone companies from competition and upgrades by keeping out the only likely competition most Kansans will ever see beyond AT&T, Comcast, or CenturyLink’s comfortable duopoly – a municipal or community-owned broadband alternative. Providing the widest possible diversity is impossible in a bill that features the widest possible definition of conditions that will keep new entrants out of the market. Community-owned networks usually offer superior technology (often fiber optics) in communities that are usually trapped with the most basic, outdated services. While the Kansas legislature coddles AT&T, that same company wants to mothball its rural landline network pushing broadband-starved customers to prohibitively expensive, usage capped wireless broadband service indefinitely.

verizon 4g

Seeing Big Red? The areas colored dark red represent the claimed coverage of Verizon Wireless’ 4G LTE network in Kansas. Under SB 304, these areas would be prohibited from having a community-owned broadband alternative.

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