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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.”

N.Y. Approves Charter-Time Warner Merger; Stop the Cap!’s Impact on Deal Conditions

charter twc bhConditions recommended by Stop the Cap! to protect New York consumers after a merger of Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable are expected to cost the two cable companies almost one billion dollars and will guarantee statewide adoption of Time Warner Cable’s Maxx upgrade, guaranteeing all customers receive speed upgrades ranging from 60-300Mbps.

On Friday, the N.Y. Public Service Commission announced its conditional approval of the merger transaction, but only if Charter agrees to a series of wide-ranging conditions to guarantee that New York customers receive tangible benefits as a result of the merger:

The Commission agrees that in order for the proposed merger to be in the public interest, the Petitioners must agree to make concrete and enforceable commitments to modernize their cable system and services, expand access, address the digital divide and improve customer service. To this end, we find that with the acceptance by the Petitioners of the enforceable conditions, as discussed in the body of this Order and Appendix A, the proposed merger is in the public interest. These conditions are designed to help ensure a near ubiquitous world-class communications network that meets the needs of all New Yorkers. Absent acceptance of these conditions, the public interest standard cannot be met, and the petition for transaction approval is denied.

Stop the Cap! was quoted and footnoted extensively in the PSC order. We provided the PSC with insight beyond the public relations machine of Charter and Time Warner Cable. We exposed the fact Charter’s promised service improvements were actually more modest than what Time Warner Cable has undertaken on its own through its Maxx upgrade program. We educated regulators about the inadequacy of Charter’s initial commitment to offer low-cost Internet access for low-income families. We questioned the consumer benefits of certain upgrades that could actually increase costs for consumers because of additional equipment fees. We alerted the PSC that Charter would discontinue Time Warner’s affordable $14.99 Internet offer. We strongly recommended the PSC consider making rural broadband expansion a part of this transaction. We also sought additional protections from any future compulsory usage caps or usage-based billing.

special reportAlthough Stop the Cap! was opposed to the transaction from the outset, doubting it was in the public interest, we recognized the chances for approval were greater than the Comcast-TWC merger that was eventually withdrawn. Therefore, we made it a priority to outline multiple conditions we felt should be imposed on Charter if the deal was to be approved.

Our constituency is ordinary consumers and ratepayers. Too often these kinds of mergers are approved with token conditions that only benefit minority or special interests, favored non-profit or government entities, or those with vested business interests (programmers, equipment manufacturers, etc.) It was important to us that any approval bring something beyond free Internet service for schools or community centers, agreements to continue carrying certain cable networks, or a temporary discount or low value coupon that ends up in the mailboxes of customers a year or two from now.

We know what Time Warner Cable customers in New York want: better service, faster speeds, no data caps, no gotcha fees, affordable Internet options, and job protection.

It appears New York regulators understand that as well and intend to force Charter to offer customers a better deal.

Despite publicly saying little about the merger, just a few hours after the PSC’s decision, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office issued a press release taking credit for the merger conditions and unveiling the “tenth signature proposal of his 2016 agenda: dramatically expanding and improving access to high-speed Internet in communities statewide.” Once again, the governor will try to entice providers like Time Warner Cable, Frontier Communications, and Verizon to expand rural broadband in New York using public dollars.

Although lacking a catchy title, the “New New York Broadband Program” includes a $500 million solicitation for private sector partners to subsidize rural broadband expansion with state dollars. The key goals of the 2016 program include:

  • stcAccess to broadband at speeds of at least 100Mbps; 25Mbps in the most remote areas of the State.
  • Public-private partnerships with a required 50 percent match in private sector investment targeted across the program.
  • Priority for projects that improve broadband Internet access in unserved areas, libraries and educational opportunity centers.
  • Applications will be chosen through a “reverse-auction” process, which will award funding to bidders seeking the lowest State investment.
  • Auctions to be held within each Regional Economic Development Council region to ensure statewide allocations of funding.

Much of the funding from earlier years ended up going to Time Warner Cable for modest expansion of its cable service, especially in eastern upstate New York. Likely applicants in 2016 include Time Warner Cable, Frontier Communications, community-owned/co-op broadband providers and rural wireless ISPs. Verizon and Cablevision are unlikely to apply.

Despite the governor’s efforts, most New York homes and businesses will be more affected by the Charter-Time Warner Cable merger, if it wins federal approval.

Gov. Cuomo

Gov. Cuomo

The Public Service Commission took its role very seriously, issuing a 93-page decision that took recommendations from consumer groups including Stop the Cap! very seriously. It did not share the industry’s belief that telecommunications providers in New York are heavily competitive.

“Time Warner serves close to 50% of New York State and we have a legitimate interest in ensuring that, when a company of this size provides customers with a service so affected by the public interest, as is communications, that real benefits accrue to consumers as a result of a given transaction,” the PSC wrote.

The PSC had an easier time sorting through comments about this merger, which generated considerably less interest than Comcast’s failed attempt to buy Time Warner.

“Generally, comments supporting the proposed transaction assert that, among other things, the merger will create jobs and provide better products at more affordable rates,” the PSC concluded in its ruling. “Those opposing the transaction state that the merger will inevitably lead to higher rates and potential data caps on broadband services in the future.”

The PSC took a very skeptical approach to Charter’s promised benefits, often finding them vague, questionable, or likely to have occurred with or without Charter’s involvement.

new-yorkFor example, the PSC questioned Charter’s promised network investments and upgrades:

Petitioners, however, decline to specify where in the national footprint of Charter, TWC and BHN these investments will be made or to identify the decisional factors to be used to channel these capital resources to specific areas or customers. There is no analysis to indicate that a reasonable proportion of these investments will be to systems in New York or for the benefit of New York customers. Similarly, there is no proposal by the Petitioners to describe the specific commitments that are being made or the specific enforcement mechanisms that would be used in the event the Petitioners’ implementation fell short of their commitments. Further, in order for these investments to be characterized as part of a net public benefit, Staff concludes, and we agree, that Petitioners would have to establish that these investments would not have been made in the absence of the proposed merger.

In the absence of a demonstration that there is “a tangible commitment to make new investments or invest beyond Time Warner’s current capital investment budgets,” it is difficult to characterize these capital expenditures as a certain benefit to New York customers or a satisfaction of the public interest under the New York statutes.

One of Stop the Cap!’s core arguments in our comments to the PSC was that Charter’s upgrade commitments were not particularly meaningful because Time Warner Cable was gradually upgrading its own systems to a level of service superior to what Charter plans to offer. The PSC clearly understood this and our warning that Charter’s commitments lacked specificity:

Public Benefit Assessment Staff and several commenters suggest that the proposed merger, as described in the Joint Petition and Petitioners’ Reply Comments, does not have sufficient net benefits to warrant a finding that the transaction is in the public interest. We concur. Many of the asserted benefits from the proposed transaction are events triggered by actions taken independently from the merger, and others are likely to be undertaken by TWC in any event, should the merger not be approved. Further, many asserted benefits are only described on a national scale and there is no way to determine if the investments or expenditures will occur in New York. Similarly, many of the projected benefits are described in terms that are too indefinite to permit us to assume that the benefits will occur as described to make a meaningful contribution to the transaction’s net benefits.

Time Warner Cable Maxx speed improvements.

Time Warner Cable Maxx speed improvements.

As a result, the PSC has looked more closely at Time Warner Cable’s Maxx program to be the benchmark for New York, not Charter’s proposed upgrades. They have adopted our recommendation that every Time Warner Cable customer in New York get the same kind of service upgrade residents in New York City enjoy today.

Another argument made by Stop the Cap! dealt with affordable Internet access. Time Warner Cable’s Everyday Low Price Internet ($14.99/mo for 2Mbps) is not fast, but it is affordable and free of the kind of revenue-protecting pre-conditions usually placed on Internet access for the poor. Time Warner’s plan is available to every customer at any time with no restrictions or contracts. In contrast, Charter’s originally proposed affordable Internet program required participants have school-age children, enroll only in the late summer, not have current cable broadband service (or be willing to forego it for 60 days), and not have any prior balance. As with Comcast, pre-conditions like this limit participation. The PSC agreed and now customers will be able to keep their more affordable Internet plans without jumping through artificial hoops launched by Charter.

The days of rural New Yorkers being quoted $20,000 to install Time Warner Cable service are also going to be a thing of the past. In addition to a commitment to pay for line extensions reaching 145,000 unserved or underserved customers, Charter is now required to work with New York’s Broadband 4 All program to receive supplementary funding, as available, to complete service extensions to eventually reach every customer that lives within a franchise area and wants cable service.

There are several other benefits outlined below that make this a better (although not great) deal, at least for New Yorkers. If any other state regulator manages to get an even better deal for that state’s residents, New Yorkers will automatically benefit because of a “most favored state clause” in the PSC’s order, which requires Charter to share those benefits with New York residents.

ny pscAll in all, the New York State Public Service Commission has lived up to its reputation as a consumer-protective body that is responsive to the needs of the public. This is in great contrast to many other states where regulators seem themselves as a business facilitator (and occasionally come directly from the businesses being regulated). In these states, the merger won approval with few, in any, preconditions.

We were delighted to have been extensively quoted and footnoted in the PSC’s order, having proven our case the Charter-Time Warner deal didn’t offer very much for New York. But we’re not happy the PSC punted on data caps. While recognizing they are a concern, the PSC seemed satisfied a three-year guarantee of no data caps was adequate. We disagree. As an increasing number of Comcast customers can attest, data caps are anti-competitive, anti-consumer, and unnecessary. Whatever benefits faster speeds can deliver can be easily curtailed by a data cap. So can online video competition. With much of upstate New York totally dependent on a single provider – Time Warner or Charter – for broadband speeds above 10Mbps, there is plenty of room for mischief that would otherwise be controlled by competitive forces. The PSC saw fit to avoid using its power of approval to get creative on keeping flat rate Internet affordable and available. That is a mistake we predict will be back to haunt us in the future.

Here are the specific conditions, most advocated by Stop the Cap!, that Charter Communications must agree to as a condition of the deal’s approval in New York:

Rural Broadband Access [$355 Million Value]

In addition to the goals accomplished by Gov. Cuomo’s New New York Broadband Program, Charter must agree to unilaterally build-out its network to reach an additional 145,000 “unserved” and “underserved” homes and businesses within four years. This will be an easy target for Charter to reach because the PSC defines “underserved” as any home with less than 100Mbps service. That represents much of upstate New York bypassed by TWC Maxx, so a speed upgrade in just one upstate city will achieve this requirement.

However, the PSC also included a second condition. Subject to the final terms and conditions of the Broadband 4 All Program being comparable to the Connect New York Program, Charter will be required to bid for Broadband 4 All Program funding to offer line extensions to any remaining unserved and underserved home across its entire New York service territory, which means every New Yorker within a cable franchise service area that wants service will be able to get it without being quoted tens of thousands of dollars for construction costs.

This will finally help would-be customers like Stop the Cap! reader Jesse Walser in Jamesville who has tried to get wired broadband in his home for over a decade. Verizon won’t upgrade its network and Time Warner Cable quoted him between $5,900 and $26,000 for installation of a line extension to reach his home.

All Digital Cable System Upgrade

Charter must convert their existing New York systems to an all-digital network (including upgrading the Columbia County Charter cable system to enable broadband communications) capable of delivering faster broadband speeds.

In Columbia County, residents are currently better served by smaller local providers. Both Germantown Telephone and Mid-Hudson Cable offer high-speed access throughout their territories. Berkshire Telephone has almost 100% DSL coverage, and Taconic Telephone has expanded DSL service to much of their huge service territory. Frontier Communications offers some DSL in southern Columbia County. The biggest problem providers are Verizon, which has no plans for DSL service in the area, and Charter Cable, which still runs a basic cable television-only system in the county.

In New York, Charter now provides cable television and other communication services to a relatively small number of customers, from two cable system clusters in and around Plattsburgh (14,000 customers) and Columbia County (2,500 customers). Plattsburgh gets television, phone and broadband service from Charter, but Columbia County is still served by a now-ancient, cable television only system.

Network Modernization and Speed Increases [$305 Million Value]

Charter must convert all of its systems in New York to all-digital within 30 months of the closing of the merger transaction. Charter is also required to offer broadband speeds up to 100Mbps to all customers by the end 2018 and match TWC Maxx speeds of 300Mbps by the end of 2019.

Charter’s all digital upgrade in upstate New York will facilitate faster broadband service, but it will also mean a set-top box or other similar device for every cable connected television in the home.

Broadband Affordability [$250 Million Value]

Despite Charter’s simplified menu of options (two broadband speed tiers and one video package), the PSC has required Charter to allow customers to keep their current plans, at least for the next several years:

  • Charter is required to maintain and advance its commitment to an affordable standalone Internet offering through the continuation of the Time Warner Everyday Low Price $14.99
    service throughout the Time Warner New York territory for up to two years and allow existing customers to keep the service for three years.
  • Charter is required to offer its 60Mbps standalone broadband product throughout New York at uniform national pricing. [$125 million value]
  • Charter is required to allow existing Time Warner customers to retain, without material changes that have the intent to discourage, the standalone and bundled broadband services they subscribe to at the close of the transaction for three years from the date of the closing.
  • Charter is required to provide a low-income broadband offering to eligible customers throughout its New York footprint. The PSC-ordered plan will offer 30Mbps for $14.99 a month to any household eligible for the National School Lunch Program and senior citizens 65 years and older eligible for the federal Supplemental Security Income program. No credit check shall be required and conditions requiring current broadband customers to wait 60 days to qualify and cover any past due bills have been deleted.

Customer Service [$55 Million Value]

Within two years after the close of the proposed transaction, Charter shall invest a minimum of $50 million in service improvement programs.

Charter is required to show a 35% reduction in Time Warner Cable’s 2014 cable PSC Complaint Rate by the end of 2020, with a 17.5% reduction due by the end of 2018. If they don’t achieve that, Charter must invest an additional $2.5 million in its service for each failure.

Job Protection

For the next four years, Charter cannot cut the number of customer facing jobs in New York.

Time Warner Cable Quotes Rural Ky. Resident $410/Mo + 5 Yr. Contract for Broadband

green acresIf residents in rural Kentucky want Time Warner Cable to offer broadband service, they better be prepared to pay for it.

As Time Warner customers consider the company’s latest rate increases, which now include a $10 modem rental fee and an increasingly common $4.99 “Wi-Fi Fee” if you don’t use your own wireless router, there are other customers signing contracts for residential Internet service from Time Warner at prices as high as $410 a month.

Jack Prindle lives in the Big Bone community near Union, Ky., — close enough to Cincinnati to be a suburb, but rural enough to be bypassed for broadband. Two dozen of his neighbors live along a nine-tenths of a mile stretch of Big Bone Church Road, which isn’t exactly a priority for Time Warner Cable. The families have spent a decade trying to entice anyone to offer broadband Internet access. Insight Communications (Time Warner’s predecessor) and Cincinnati Bell have never shown much interest. Time Warner Cable, however, has been engaged in a type of cat and mouse game, offering service at ever-escalating prices only to change its mind at the last minute.

“Within the last year, I have signed contracts with Time Warner for Internet service starting at $300 a month, with a three-year contract, only to have them come back and raise it to $350 for five years, and then $410 a month with a commitment of five years,” Prindle wrote in the Community Recorder. “Then only to be told a month later they were not going to provide Internet. Others of the 24 have similar bizarre stories concerning Time Warner and Cincinnati Bell.”

“Prindle’s story is an example of what is wrong with rural broadband in the United States,” writes Cynthia Rawley, who shared the story with Stop the Cap! “Unchecked cable and phone companies get federal dollars and the benefit of a fake broadband map that has no relationship to reality, leaving many to believe there is no rural broadband problem to solve. But there is.”

Union, Ky.

Union, Ky.

Rawley points out the FCC’s official National Broadband Map shows the two dozen homes around Prindle are all provided 5-50Mbps broadband service by both Time Warner Cable and Cincinnati Bell, despite the fact neither offers any broadband service to anyone in the vicinity.

“Boone County Judge-executive Gary Moore wrote to inform the FCC of this error and failed to get a response,” Prindle noted. What bothers him even more is his tax dollars have paid to subsidize rural Internet service he cannot get at any price.

“Some basic research reveals that Time Warner has received millions of taxpayer dollars to provide broadband Internet in rural areas,” Prindle notes. “The commonwealth of Kentucky has given over $100 million to Internet providers alone to provide broadband Internet in rural areas alone. Opensecrets.org reports that Time Warner spent $4,950,000 in lobbying efforts of federal, state, and local governments in 2015. With this amount of money changing hands, the conspiracy theorists among us see a 20/20 episode coming.”

Prindle better have his rabbit ears ready to watch, because at the rate providers are not expanding rural broadband, he will have a long wait before being able to watch that 20/20 episode online.

Verizon: Ignore Our Adamant Denials of Not Being Interested in Selling Our Wired Networks

carForSaleDespite denials Verizon Communications was interested in selling off more of its wireline network to companies like Frontier Communications, the company’s chief financial officer reminded investors Verizon is willing to sell just about anything if it will return value to its shareholders.

In September, rumors Verizon planned to sell more of its wireline network where the company has not invested in widespread FiOS fiber-to-the-home expansion grew loud enough to draw a response from Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam at the Goldman Sachs 24th annual Communicopia Conference.

“When people ask me, and I know there’s some speculation that we might be interested in selling the wireline properties, I don’t see it in the near-term,” McAdam said.

Today, Shammo seemed to clarify McAdam’s pessimistic attitude about another Verizon landline sell off in the near future.

“We’re extremely happy with the asset portfolio we have right now, but as we always say we continue to look at all things,” Shammo said. “Just like the towers, we said we would not sell the towers and then we got to a great financial position and we sold our towers. If something makes sense [and] we can return value to our shareholders and it’s not a strategic fit we’ll obviously look at that.”

Shammo

Shammo

For most of 2014, Verizon denied any interest in selling its portfolio of company-owned wireless cell towers. In February 2015 the company announced it would sell acquisition rights to most of its cell towers to American Tower Corporation for $5.056 billion in cash.

Some analysts believe the early indicators that suggest Verizon is ready to sell include its lack of upgrades in non-FiOS service areas and Verizon’s willingness to walk away from up to $144 million from the second phase of the FCC’s Connect America Fund to expand Internet access to more of Verizon’s rural landline customers.

Verizon’s decision to take a pass on broadband improvement funds infuriated four southern New Jersey counties that claim Verizon has neglected its copper network in the state. As a result of allegedly decreasing investment and interest by Verizon, customers in these areas do not get the same level of phone and broadband service that Verizon customers receive in the northern half of New Jersey.

More than a dozen communities have signed a joint petition sent to the Board of Public Utilities, New Jersey’s telecom regulator, insisting the BPU take whatever measures are needed to preserve the availability of telecommunications services in southern New Jersey. The towns also want the BPU to consider funding sources to help improve broadband service that public officials claim is woefully inadequate. Outside of Verizon FiOS service areas, Verizon offers customers traditional DSL service for Internet access.

Verizon-logoThe communities:

  • Atlantic County: Estell Manor and Weymouth Township.
  • Gloucester County: South Harrison Township.
  • Salem County: Alloway Township, Lower Alloways Creek, Mannington Township, Township of Pilesgrove, and Upper Pittsgrove Township.
  • Cumberland County: Commercial Township, Downe Township, Hopewell Township, Lawrence Township, Maurice River Township, City of Millville, Upper Deerfield Township, and Fairfield Township.

Officials claim Verizon has pushed its wireless alternatives to customers in the region, including its wireless landline replacement. But officials suggest Verizon’s wireless coverage and the quality of its service is not an adequate substitute for wireline service.

Verizon's Home Phone Connect base station

Verizon’s Home Phone Connect base station

Verizon has proposed decommissioning parts of its wireline network in rural service areas and substitute wireless service in the alternative. At issue are the costs to maintain a vast wireline network that reaches a dwindling number of customers. Verizon reminds regulators it has lost large numbers of residential landline customers who have switched to wireless service, making the costs to maintain service for a dwindling number of customers that much greater.

But for many communities, the focus is increasingly on broadband, especially in areas that receive little or no cable service. Telephone companies serving rural communities are surviving landline disconnects by providing broadband service.

For companies like Frontier Communications, CenturyLink, and Windstream, investments in providing broadband service are among their top spending priorities. At larger phone companies like Verizon and AT&T, highly profitable wireless divisions get the most attention and are top spending priorities.

Speaking this morning at the UBS 43rd Annual Global Media and Communications Conference, Shammo told investors Verizon will continue to allocate the majority of its capital allocation around Verizon Wireless to help densify its wireless network. Verizon, Shammo noted, plans further spending cuts for its wired networks next year as FiOS network buildouts start to taper off.

This will make expansion and improvement of Verizon DSL unlikely, and may put further cost pressure on maintaining Verizon’s wireline networks, which could further motivate a sale.

Verizon’s chief financial officer Fran Shammo is likely looking at three alternatives for the future:

  1. Increase investment in Verizon Communications to further expand FiOS fiber optics;
  2. Look at cost savings opportunities to improve the books at Verizon Communications, including decommissioning rural landline networks (if Verizon can win regulator approval);
  3. Consider selling Verizon’s non-core wireline assets in areas where the company has not made a substantial investment in FiOS and refocus attention on serving the dense corridor of customers along the Atlantic seaboard between Washington, D.C. and Boston.

Bradford County, Pa. Complains About Poor Service, Frontier Sends ‘Cease & Desist’ Letter

The slow lane

The best way Frontier Communications believes it can resolve service problems in Pennsylvania is to threaten those complaining with a cease and desist letter that accuses the complainant of misrepresenting Frontier’s excellent service.

Bradford County, Pa. officials learned this first hand when Commissioner Darryl Miller wrote to Frontier alerting them that service outages in northeastern Pennsylvania are becoming a public safety issue. The company responded with a letter warning the commissioner to end the criticism or else.

“We’re simply looking for answers,” Commissioner Miller told WNEP-TV’s investigations reporter Dave Bohman. Miller adds he thinks it’s heavy-handed to use the words, “cease and desist.”

Miller isn’t the only one looking for answers. WNEP interviewed Susan Moore, who lives alone in the rural community of Orwell. Her phone service went out of service at least once a week over the summer.

“I’ve got a lot of health issues,” she told the TV station. The implications of not having landline service became all too clear to Moore in August when she needed to send for an ambulance.

Bradford County, Pa.

Bradford County, Pa.

Moore pressed her lifeline call alert button which relies on Frontier phone service to reach medical aid in case she falls and cannot get up or has a medical emergency. Nothing happened. Her phone service was out again.

“Without the phone service, my Life Alert doesn’t work,” Moore said. “That’s when I decided, as much pain as I was in, I got in a car and drove 20 miles to get to a hospital.”

Bradford County officials hear stories like Moore’s so often, they now eclipse complaints about potholes and taxes.

The problems affect both traditional landline dial tone service and DSL. If outages are not the subject of the complaint, slow and unresponsive Internet access usually is. Some customers were told Frontier oversold its DSL service in Bradford County and the company is waiting for federal broadband subsidies to improve service in the area.

Frontier Communications vice president Elena Kilpatrick said Frontier will spend part of a $2 million broadband improvement subsidy to deliver better service in Bradford County over the next six years. At the same time Frontier is tapping a ratepayer-funded subsidy to improve its existing service, the company is spending $10.5 billion of its own money to acquire Verizon landline infrastructure and customers in Florida, Texas, and California.

Despite the fact it will take up to six years to fully spend the subsidy, Kilpatrick claims the company has already upgraded phone and Internet service and fixed several problems reported by customers. She defended the company’s use of a threatening “cease and desist” letter sent to Commissioner Miller, claiming Frontier wanted the “misrepresentation of the facts” to stop.

Despite Kilpatrick’s claims, the complaints keep rolling in.

Randy, a Frontier customer in Bradford County reports he endures Frontier outages just about every Saturday since October, despite repeated service calls. Janise Groover wrote a Frontier technician tried to blame cobwebs for interfering with her Wi-Fi signals and poor DSL speeds — problems that are still unresolved — for which she pays Frontier $103 a month. Janice Bellinger complained her Frontier DSL connection drops “three or four times a day.” Customers in Monroe, Luzerne and Sullivan counties echoed Frontier service is dreadful in their areas as well.

Customers experiencing problems with their phone service in Pennsylvania can file an informal complaint with the state Public Utilities Commission and the FCC.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WNEP Scranton Frontier Service Problems 11-16-15.mp4

WNEP in Scranton reports Frontier’s solution to a county commissioner’s complaints about service was to send him a “cease and desist” letter. (3:16)

Frontier Makes Excuses for Customer Losses: People Moved Away

frontierFrontier Communications continues to face challenges keeping customers in its legacy copper wire service areas, where only modest investments in network upgrades have proved insufficient to stop customers shopping around for better service.

Company officials reported a loss of about 30,000 residential customers during the last quarter, a drop of nearly 1% of its total customer base. Nearly 2% of Frontier’s business customers also took their business elsewhere, leaving the company with 3.1 million remaining residential customers and 294,000 business customers.

Frontier CEO Dan McCarthy blamed many of the customer losses on customers moving.

“During the summer, we do tend to see an uptick in customer [losses] that might have double play and in some cases triple play, as they move or make their decisions about moving their homes to a different location,” McCarthy said, claiming that most of Frontier’s losses overall came from voice-only customers.

As Frontier expands rural broadband opportunities, the phone company is still adding Internet customers, picking up a net gain of 27,200 broadband accounts. The company depends heavily on broadband to replace revenue lost from landline disconnects.

“We continue to see more customers choose higher-speed broadband products,” McCarthy said on a conference call to investors earlier today. “In the third quarter, 47% of the broadband activity was above the basic speed tier of 6Mbps. More than 70% of our residential broadband customers are still utilizing our basic speed tier, so we have substantial opportunity to improve our average revenue per customer as they upgrade their service.”

McCarthy offered no statistics about how many of Frontier’s DSL customers can substantially upgrade their speeds using Frontier’s existing infrastructure. Many Frontier broadband customers have complained their speeds reflect the maximum capacity of Frontier’s network in the immediate area, and many claim they do not consistently receive the speed level Frontier advertises.

Service is appreciably better in areas upgraded before being acquired by Frontier. McCarthy said some areas of Connecticut, acquired from AT&T, are now able to get speed “in excess of 100Mbps over our copper infrastructure.”

“Over time, we will be expanding the technology we use for 100Mbps in Connecticut to more of our markets elsewhere,” McCarthy promised. “In our FiOS markets, we already offer speed up to one gigabit and we have seen the benefit of offering these higher speeds as customers choose speed tiers to match their lifestyle choices.”

Frontier also separately notified the Federal Communications Commission it has no immediate plans to slap usage caps or metered service on customers.

“Frontier does not apply usage-based pricing to any of its broadband offerings,” Frontier said in an FCC filing. “Frontier has no plans at this time to offer a metered broadband service. We continue to monitor the market and continue to consider a usage-based offering as an option.”

Frontier suggested several factors would be considered when discussing usage-based billing: “the FCC’s Open Internet rules, policies of other companies, consumer demand, network capacity, and cost, among other factors.”

AT&T Leveraging Its DirecTV Acquisition to Cut Customer Promotions, Raise Prices

yay attWith one less significant competitor in the marketplace, AT&T feels safe cutting back customer promotions to raise prices and profitability, even if it means losing customers.

AT&T’s original argument for acquiring DirecTV was to negotiate cost savings from cable programmers by qualifying for greater volume discounts available from combining 5.7 million U-verse TV customers with DirecTV’s roughly 20.3 million U.S. subscribers. But AT&T has now made it clear it is keeping those savings for itself.

“We have our target to get to $2.5 billion or more in savings,” said John J. Stephens, AT&T’s chief financial officer, in a conference call with investors. “We already are realizing some of that in our content and supplier relationships. We really like our momentum here, and we are confident we can continue to expand margins and cut costs, even with pressure from our international operations.”

At the same time AT&T is enjoying billions in savings, in recognition of the fact its customers now have fewer competitors with whom they can do business, the time is right to cut back on money-saving promotional plans, effectively raising prices for customers.

“Because of our focus on profitability, we really got away from promotional pricing, and those customers who were cost-sensitive just had a propensity to churn,” Stephens said, referring to an industry term that means customers canceled service either because it got too expensive or they found a better deal elsewhere.

Stephens

Stephens

Stephens told investors its new pricing strategy, as expected, brought reductions in the number of U-verse video subscribers during the latest quarter. The company is also pushing more customers towards DirecTV and away from U-verse because programming costs are lower on the satellite platform. The new focus on profits means fewer customers are choosing AT&T and many existing DSL customers are resisting efforts to force them on to the U-verse platform.

“Net adds dropped with fewer promotions and shifting our focus to the lower content cost DirecTV platform,” Stephens admitted. “We added 192,000 IP broadband customers in the quarter, as migrations from our DSL base continued to slow. U-verse video losses also put some pressure on broadband numbers due to our high attachment rates.”

Stephens noted the customer growth declines occurred at the same time pressure on AT&T’s costs are dropping significantly. In October, the company signed an agreement with Viacom for its cable programming networks Stephens says represents “best-in-industry pricing,” made possible from the enhanced volume discounts AT&T now receives.

DirecTV will also allow AT&T to curtail additional U-verse expansion into its more rural service areas.

att directv“They don’t have television in these areas, or I should say we didn’t have a video offering,” Stephens said of AT&T’s rural customer base, mostly still dependent on DSL. With its ownership of a satellite TV provider, there is less urgency to expand rural U-verse. “These were generally out of the U-verse footprint, but now we do. And now we’ll be able to provide them with a video offering through DirecTV, and we’re very pleased with that. So we are hopeful that now this nationwide video service will help us in improving our overall broadband positioning.”

AT&T’s deal with the government to win approval of its merger with DirecTV committed the company to expand high-speed fiber optic broadband to at least 12.5 million customer locations and offer discounts to low-income customers. AT&T’s interpretation of the agreement means it will expand broadband service mostly in urban areas while continuing to allow its rural DSL broadband networks to lose customers.

“Over the last few years, the real trend has been a migration from DSL to IP broadband [eg. U-verse],” Stephens said. “And that’s been something that we’ve encouraged ourselves, and we’re beginning to complete that process or near completion where the DSL customers we have left is a much lower percentage than [those with U-verse] broadband capabilities from us.”

att cricket“I’m going to tell you, I think on the consumer side we’re down into the two million range on total DSL customers,” Stephens said. “[…] I would suggest to you it has changed dramatically over the course of four or five years, where it used to be 90% plus of our broadband base and now it’s a much lower percentage. So we’ve gone through that migration not completely, but almost completely.”

AT&T’s commitment to aid low-income customers is not clear, as customers report AT&T less willing to offer or extend money-saving promotions. On the wireless side of AT&T’s business, the company is increasingly pushing price-sensitive customers out of its network.

“Our focus is to provide the best customer experience while increasing profitability and not just chase customer counts,” Stephens said. “Our third quarter results drive that point home. We had our highest ever wireless service [profit] margins at 49.4%.”

In particular, AT&T is sacrificing its low-revenue feature phone customers by cutting back on handset choices and trying to shift certain prepaid customers to the less venerable Cricket brand. AT&T acquired Cricket from Leap Wireless in the spring of 2014. It completed a nationwide shutdown of Cricket’s competitive CDMA wireless network this fall and has pushed Cricket’s current customer base onto AT&T’s GSM network, often at a higher cost to customers.

Stephens reported AT&T Cricket customers now pay nearly $10 more a month than departing AT&T customers that maintained postpaid feature phones until the end of their two-year contracts.

“On the churn, first and foremost, yes, the feature phone churn is hitting us and having an impact on us, and those are decisions we made not to chase those customers,” Stephens informed investors. “[We] can’t make the math work not only on the pricing for those customers but the impact throughout our base.”

Stephens claimed profits are now AT&T’s number one priority.

“We’re going to be focused on profitable growth, not just chasing customer counts or specific targets,” Stephens said. “We’re going to really be focused on just getting the most profits out of the business.”

Frontier: Less is More – Deregulate² and Stop Bugging Us About Broadband Speeds

frontier frankRequiring Frontier Communications to increase broadband speeds could make the service unaffordable for rural and poor Americans, the company is arguing before federal and state regulators.

In separate filings with the New York Public Service Commission and the Federal Communications Commission, Frontier has asked both for further deregulation and less oversight to ease everything from minimum broadband speed definitions to video franchising regulations.

Frontier’s market focus is primarily on rural communities where it delivers traditional DSL broadband service, typically up to 6Mbps, although many customers complain they get lower speeds than advertised. The FCC is working to modernize the Lifeline program, which offers substantial discounts on basic telephone service to low-income Americans. The Commission is studying the possibility of requiring providers to offer Lifeline Internet access for the first time. What worries Frontier is the Commission’s proposed requirement that providers offer Lifeline Internet speeds starting at 10/1Mbps, something Frontier strongly opposes.

frontier dslFrontier’s ability to deliver consistent 10Mbps service in rural areas is the issue.

“Certain rural consumers […] may not currently have access to 10/1Mbps fixed Internet speeds and would thus be prevented from choosing to use Lifeline for a fixed Internet service,” Frontier wrote in its filing with the Commission. “Even if higher speeds are available, a minimum speed standard may prevent a customer from opting for a lower speed plan that may better meet their budget.”

Frontier told the Commission that most subscribers are happy buying 6Mbps service from Frontier, coincidentally the same speed it advertises as widely available across its service areas. Frontier argues if it was required to consistently provide 10Mbps service, the cost of the service may become unaffordable to many.

While Frontier argues against speed standards that are difficult for its aging copper-based network to consistently provide, it is using that same copper network as an argument against further regulation and oversight in New York.

“Traditional telephone service providers like Frontier continue to be legitimate and viable competitors in the marketplace—a testament to our tenacity and the quality of our services,” Frontier wrote in comments to the Public Service Commission. “To ensure that this continues to be the case, in the near-term, an immediate no-cost investment that the State can make in the existing copper-based network is to eliminate the regulatory requirements that apply to [traditional phone companies] but that do not apply to other telecommunications providers.

Frontier added, “consumers have a multitude of communications channels available to them including wireline and wireless voice services and wireline, wireless, cable and satellite broadband services.”

Frontier did West Virginia few favors when it took over Verizon's landline business in the state.

Frontier did West Virginia few favors when it took over Verizon’s landline business in the state.

Ironically, Frontier argued New York’s allegedly robust and fast broadband networks (offered by its competitors but usually not itself) are reason enough to support a “light regulatory touch.”

“Today, every municipality in New York has access to one or more wired or wireless networks that can provide voice, video and data services to residents and businesses,” Frontier claimed. “Over 95% of the state has access to the FCC benchmark speed of 25/3 Mbps and 98% of the State has 200kbps speed in at least one direction. New York’s broadband speeds are significantly faster than the national average and other countries.”

But Frontier failed to mention it is incapable of providing consistent access at or above the FCC benchmark speed because it still relies on a antiquated copper-based network throughout most of its New York service areas. Despite Frontier’s claims of offering quality service, the J.D. Power U.S. Residential Telephone Service Provider Satisfaction Study (2015) ranks Frontier dead last among all significant providers in the eastern U.S. It dropped Frontier this year from consideration for its Internet Provider Satisfaction Study, but a year earlier rated Frontier the worst ISP in the eastern U.S.

Although Frontier suggests it faces “robust competition” from “over 100 different broadband providers, especially at lower speeds,” in most of its service areas in New York it faces Time Warner Cable or no competitor at all.

Frontier’s latest defense over why it has failed to significantly upgrade its network infrastructure to remain competitive with cable is ‘customers don’t want or need faster speeds.’ While advertising lightning fast service on its acquired Verizon FiOS and AT&T U-verse networks, Frontier argues New York regulators “must keep in mind the consumer demands on broadband speeds.”

Frontier points to two rural broadband projects in New York, one in Hamilton County and the other in Warren County to make its speed argument (emphasis ours):

“These projects are examples of the importance of collaboration and innovation—rather than dogmatic adherence to performance requirements that are largely aspirational for many NYS citizen—in bringing high quality and transformative broadband access to unserved and underserved communities. Flexibility with regard to technology and broadband speed will enhance an already robust marketplace and result in greater affordability and access.”

Frontier has also told New York officials it wants to eliminate local oversight of video franchising and move New York to a “statewide video franchising” system to “promote competition and to streamline competitive entry into the video market in the state.”

“This will provide enhanced consumer choice as well as additional investment in broadband and video services,” Frontier argued. “In other states that have followed this model, such as Connecticut, consumers have a rich array of video providers and services from which to choose at competitive prices.”

That “rich array of video providers” in Connecticut is primarily Cablevision and Frontier. Frontier acquired a pre-existing U-verse network originally owned and operated by AT&T in the state.

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