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“50 Shades of Grey” Community Broadband Ban Bill Ties the Hands of Missouri Communities

Emery

It’s 2017 and a lot of Missouri residents are still tortured by the lack of access to basic broadband service, and if a community broadband ban bill becomes state law it will remain that way for years to come.

SB 186 is essentially a copy of last year’s community broadband ban that eventually died in the legislature. Just like last year, many of the sponsors and promoters of the latest attempt to impose a municipal broadband ban have close ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and receive copious amounts of money from Missouri’s largest telecom companies. Some even win awards from the state’s biggest telecom lobbyists.

State Sen. Ed Emery (R-Lamar) loves the headlines he attracts from throwing ideological bombs into the public debate (he called homosexuality a mental illness, compared public education to slavery and a pathway to prison, and questioned whether former president Barack Obama was actually an American citizen). But he is not in touch with the rural residents in his state who have had their pleas for broadband service ignored by AT&T and other telecom companies for years.

Emery is a big fan of ALEC and serves as a Missouri state chairman. In 2015 he told an audience at an ALEC event he found the group’s efforts inspiring and helpful. ALEC acts as a giant clearinghouse for corporate-inspired legislation that ends up in the hands of friendly state legislators. ALEC’s model bills, including one banning municipal broadband, win passage in part because state legislatures do not get the kind of media attention and public scrutiny seen in Washington. SB 186, its predecessor, and other similar bills introduced in other states are frequently ghostwritten by telecom company lawyers and lobbyists and are designed to stop municipal broadband networks before they can get started.

Emery’s current bill is designed to apply a “scorched earth” response to communities trying to find ways to get rural broadband service up and running after a decade of being ignored by private telecom companies. It’s corporate protectionism and welfare at its finest, with a thicket of language that would force public providers into price and speed regulation. Emery’s bill would interfere with the types of loan agreements communities could contemplate to provide the service, and the language required for a mandatory referendum is heavily slanted to suggest such service is redundant and unnecessary. Emery’s bill also offers assurances his business friends could get gigabit speeds from community-owned providers, but not necessarily consumers.

Like the failed broadband hit bill introduced in Virginia, SB 186 is an ironic piece of legislation, heavy-handed with regulation and micromanagement and anchored with bureaucratic requirements designed to guarantee disappointment and costly failure. Emery’s career in public life has been spent railing against costly and unnecessary overregulation, yet his bill exemplifies both in action.

SB 186 also protects the status quo for broadband in Missouri, which is dreadful outside of major cities. It would assure incumbent telecom companies won’t face any service-improving competition and keep municipalities off their turf. For example, Columbia Water and Light has a “dark fiber” institutional fiber network at its disposal that is woefully underutilized. In addition to helping provide some connectivity for local government functions, the city-owned network also leases connections to hospitals and other public buildings, as well as some businesses. But the utility does not sell internet service itself.

The city believes much of the fiber network’s capacity is sitting un-utilized and could prove a valuable asset to the local connectivity economy. With the fiber already in place, expanding the network could be a cost-effective/common sense way to reach city residents that want better internet service than what incumbents are offering, and the city is more than willing to open the network up to those incumbents as well. SB 186 could eliminate that option in Missouri, just to protect the same private companies that have delivered underwhelming service for years.

In cities like Centralia, now exploring enhanced smart grid technology to improve the area’s electricity infrastructure, SB 186 would make the upgrade much more costly. Smart grid technology relies on fiber optic technology, often laid deep into neighborhoods and office parks. Only a tiny portion of that capacity is used to monitor utility infrastructure. The rest of the bandwidth on the fiber optic cable — already in place, could easily offer gigabit broadband service to every resident and business, especially if the city wires fiber to or near individual utility meters. That wouldn’t be allowed under SB 186 either, so communities like Centralia could not recoup some of the cost of the fiber optic technology by selling broadband service. That’s great news for companies like AT&T, CenturyLink, and Charter Communications. It’s also a relief for the phone companies who need not invest in their networks to offer something better than 20th century DSL.

Rural America: not a broadband-a-plenty

Emery offers two contradictory defenses for his bill:

  1. It is necessary to protect taxpayers from municipal broadband which Emery calls “unsuccessful, leaving ratepayers to cover debt costs.” But when asked by local media for any examples of a Missouri public broadband project that has failed, he could not.
  2. “We need more private-sector opportunities and not drive them out or hinder offerings coming into a community.”

In other words, Emery believes all public broadband networks are failures -and- they represent a major threat to private telecom companies that will be discouraged from investing in broadband expansion because a publicly owned competitor could be ready to “drive them out.”

Of course, neither is true. In rural Missouri there is no line of eager telecom companies seeking to expand broadband service into unprofitable rural communities and where only one broadband provider exists, there is no pressure to improve service quality or speed. In the first instance, there is no investment by private companies to discourage and in the second, the presence of a new provider encourages upgrades and investment. It’s a concept called “competition.” Sen. Emery would have a difficult time providing the name(s) of telecom companies that exited a community because of the presence of a municipal broadband alternative.

Rural farms are among the least likely places to get adequate internet service.

Sen. Emery’s family has a feed and grain business background, and those businesses (as well as Missouri’s farmers) are among the hardest hit economically by the lack of suitable broadband. But Emery is now far away from the business his father and grandfather ran. These days, he harvests big dollar contributions from some of the country’s largest corporations and much of his last campaign was financed by just two families — one with a vendetta against unions and the other — Rex Sinquefield — bucking to be Missouri’s own version of the Koch Brothers, who has his own private agenda he’d like enacted into law. Sinquefield has close ties to the Grow Missouri PAC, that also has close ties to the Club for Growth, ALEC, and the Koch Brothers’ backed Americans for Prosperity. Birds of a feather flock together.

Missouri’s biggest telecom companies are also generous contributors to Sen. Emery, which isn’t a surprise considering his bill and voting record directly benefits their businesses in the state. That may explain why the Missouri Cable Telecommunications Association — the state’s top cable lobbying group — gave Emery its Legislator of the Year award. Not to be outdone, the phone companies’ Missouri Telecommunications Industry Association gave Emery its own Leadership Award. Anyone who can introduce a bill that eliminates the best prospect of competition in suburban and rural Missouri for years is probably worthy of both.

In return for favors like that, some familiar names appear at the top of Emery’s list of campaign contributors:

  • AT&T ($6,000)
  • Comcast ($4,000)
  • Verizon Communications ($4,000)
  • CenturyLink ($3,500)
  • Charter ($2,000)
  • Time Warner Cable ($1,500)
  • Charter Communications ($1,325)
  • Sprint ($1,000)

Emery clearly listens to their interests more than average Missouri consumers still searching for broadband service.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported last summer that there are significant gaps in broadband coverage even in St. Louis County, where one million residents live. “Fringe suburban spots” too costly to meet Return On Investment requirements guarantee no service, indefinitely. In St. Clair County, 5,000 homes are without broadband for the same reason. In large parts of the state, what constitutes broadband no longer meets that definition — 25Mbps, as established by the FCC. Every telephone ratepayer pays a “universal service fee” on their phone bill, in part to extend broadband into rural areas. But that extension has been spotty because not every phone company accepts the money and the conditions that come with it to broaden their reach. That leaves many rural Missourians with <1Mbps DSL service. That’s the case in Wildwood, where streaming media is out of the question because internet speeds are too low.

The Broadband Berlin Wall: Wildwood, Mo. — Broadband service is easily available to the east of Highway 109. But to the west, service is spotty to non-existent.

Wildwood — in western St. Louis County, is living in “Third World conditions,” even though “we’re not in rural Timbuktu,” according to resident Marilyn Gilbert. It’s also comparable to Cold War-era Berlin, except in reverse. Eastern Wildwood offers residents broadband options from both Charter and AT&T. But the Broadband Berlin Wall dividing the community — Highway 109, separates the broadband haves’ from the have-nots’. The larger part of Wildwood to the west, now growing with new housing and businesses, is a broadband swamp with few, if any choices for local residents.

Gilbert “enjoys” AT&T DSL and speeds that never come close to 1Mbps. It is her only option.

“I tried to download my Windows update and it timed out,” she said. “The amount of time you waste waiting for things to open up or download!”

Remember, this is in St. Louis County, the old home for the headquarters of Charter Communications, which dominates the city of St. Louis.

Despite earning billions every year from the broadband business, Charter has refused to extend its lines of service into the western half of Wildwood, despite efforts to attract the company that date back six years. Residents report broadband availability is among their top concerns taken to local officials, who have in turn sought help from Charter, AT&T, and the state legislature.

The city of Wildwood’s efforts were met with a demand by Charter to pay the cable company $3 million in taxpayer funds to extend service. The city said no.

“The comment we hear constantly is that kids need high-speed (internet) in order to access their school work,” said Wildwood councilman Larry McGowen. “These days, internet is just like another utility. It has become every bit as important in people’s lives as electricity.”

But it apparently is not important enough to allow Wildwood and other communities the option of constructing their own local broadband solutions for residents if Emery’s bill becomes law.

Ironically, the same companies that refuse to extend their service into rural Missouri are also vehemently opposed to letting local governments do it in their absence.

The stalemate has caused some residents to sell their homes and move, just to get internet access. David Norell left town because he couldn’t survive with satellite internet service, which costs $80 a month and offers spotty service with a low data allowance.

That makes Emery’s bill, and others like it, a travesty. Banning local communities from doing the job large for-profit companies won’t seems nothing short of corporate protectionism. After all, as critics of Emery’s bill charge, how can a local government unfairly compete with a company that doesn’t compete at all? Also of concern is the fact those residents that do get token DSL service from AT&T may be trapped using it forever if Emery’s bill keeps better and faster service from co-ops and other public broadband options off the table.

If it seems like Sen. Emery is putting the interests of big telecom companies – many dues-paying members of ALEC – above those of his constituents, perhaps he is. Consider the fact Emery is a state chairman at ALEC, an organization that included this loyalty pledge in its draft state chair agreement:

I will act with care and loyalty and put the interests of the organization (ALEC) first.

Emery has taken heat for his ongoing love affair with ALEC before, including an ethics complaint about a $3,000 meal at the Dallas Chop House where Emery ate. ALEC’s corporate members picked up the tab. That kind of unethical conflict of interest, along with the aforementioned loyalty pledge, infuriated the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

Mr. Emery and his ilk can believe what they want, but they should play no part in allowing corporations to hide their agendas, and their lobbying expenses, by pretending to be something they are not. The proof is in ALEC’s actions, which as Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank outlined, hid itself behind closed doors in a meeting last week in the nation’s capital, pushing reporters away while claiming they had nothing to hide.

No, ALEC exists solely to hide. To hide money. To hide agendas. To hide its hijacking of democracy.

Lawmakers who care about the constitution and their commitment to voters should be fleeing faster than the corporations who realize ALEC is simply a bad investment.

Emery at a 2015 ALEC event.

It was not an isolated incident. Ed and his wife Rebecca Emery also enjoyed a $141.10 meal paid for by the Missouri Telecommunications Association. It’s safe to assume nobody had just a small salad. Other meals and drinks were courtesy of AT&T and CenturyLink. (Peabody Energy footed the bill for the Emerys’ taxi rides back and forth.)

When the wining and dining ended, the lobbyists were back with campaign contribution checks in hand.

These kinds of municipal broadband bans are toxic to economic development for rural communities that already face built-in economic and infrastructure disadvantages. The 21st century digital knowledge economy has the potential to make rural America equally competitive, assuming there is adequate infrastructure in place to participate.

Relying on private investment alone can work in urban areas where broadband profits are easy because the essential infrastructure to provide the service was constructed and paid for decades ago, originally to deliver telephone and television service. Rural areas suffer from deteriorated wireline infrastructure some phone companies want to abandon altogether and no cable broadband service at all.

Charter and AT&T first answer to shareholders. Local governments answer to their residents. Legislators are supposed to do the same. For Mr. Emery, loyalty to the interests of ALEC and the state’s telecommunications companies seems clear. It’s too bad his bill suggests a lot less loyalty to the voters in his district that need internet access or better broadband are will assuredly not get it if this bill ever becomes state law.

New York Awards $212 Million to 26 Telecom Companies for Rural Broadband Expansion

New York State taxpayers will contribute $212 million to expand broadband to reach 89,514 homes and institutions in mostly in rural upstate communities that either lack internet access or have to endure very slow speed DSL service from the phone company. All recipients have agreed, as a condition of receiving the money, not to impose data caps on their customers.

This week, New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo announced the latest winning projects that will receive grants from a second round of funding from the New NY Broadband Program, part of the governor’s effort to achieve 100% broadband penetration in the Empire State.

Gov. Cuomo

Twenty six cable and phone companies, mostly for-profit businesses, will share awards ranging from $226,184 for Cable Communications of Willsboro to reach 558 homes in the Essex County communities of Willsboro and Essex, on the border of Lake Champlain and the state of Vermont to $47,770,970 for Armstrong Telecommunications to reach 16,545 homes in Allegany, Cattaraugus, Erie, Livingston, Steuben, and Wyoming counties in the Finger Lakes Region and Southern Tier.

“Broadband is today what electricity was nearly a century ago – essential to creating economic opportunity, driving innovation and an absolute necessity for our way of life,” Governor Cuomo said. “These awards will provide homes and businesses with access to the high-speed internet required to participate and succeed in the modern economy, and are a major step toward broadband for all in New York.”

Grant recipients provided $56,253,037 in private matching funds, with New York taxpayers picking up the remaining 75% of the total expansion cost — about $2,366 per home or business.

A separate agreement with the New York State Public Service Commission obligates Charter Communications (formerly Time Warner Cable) to embark on its own company-funded expansion program to expand service to approximately 145,000 unserved and underserved premises. Charter has identified Columbia, Erie, Jefferson, Onondaga, Oswego, and Sullivan as “Year One Priority Counties” where most upgrades will be taking place in 2017, including expansion to reach 100Mbps speeds during the first six months of this year.

The winning providers had to guarantee they would upgrade speeds to at least 100Mbps except in the “most remote areas” where 25Mbps is acceptable. Although the state targeted 50% private sector co-investment, providers ultimately came closer to the absolute minimum of 20% in matching funds. They must also guarantee that broadband service will be available to customers for no more than $60 a month to qualify for the grant. Cable Communications of Willsboro, for example, now offers 8/1Mbps for $59.95 a month. Presumably it will have to boost speeds as part of its grant award.

The grant program was also designed to favor applicants offering fiber-to-the-home or hybrid fiber/cable (HFC) technology currently favored by cable operators. DSL and fixed wireless applicants had to give evidence the governor’s need for speed would be delivered using those technologies. All applicants must also agree not to impose data caps of any kind for New York residents.

New York is a rare exception to rural broadband expansion in states that mostly rely on politicians begging and pleading with providers to expand their service areas. At best, this has delivered modest results without access to supplemental funding to achieve Return On Investment requirements private companies demand.

As New York progresses through multiple rounds of bidding, each new round becomes more challenging because of the increasing expense to reach each remaining unwired rural home, business, and farm. In the current round, the costs to wire a single home are at least four times more than what Verizon spent to extend its FiOS service to a new home or business in downstate New York.

To meet 100% penetration, some properties will require a $20,000 or more investment to extend service. Gov. Cuomo has decided that broadband should be treated as a necessary utility, not a convenience. In effect, New York wants universal service standards to be applied to broadband, regardless of cost.

All projects must be finished by the end of 2018. The Broadband Program Office is currently finalizing a Request for Proposals for the Program’s upcoming Round III, which will launch within 30 days. This round will seek to complete the goal of bringing high-speed internet access to New York’s remaining unserved and underserved communities. Round III will be paid for by the $170 million in Connect America Funds Verizon forfeit because of their lack of interest in expanding rural broadband service. New York officials successfully petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to reallocate those funds to the state to disburse to reach the remaining rural areas still without suitable internet access.

Phase 2 Awardees

Awardee Projects Census Blocks Total Units State Grant Total Private Match Total Project Cost
TOTALS
54
10,378
89,514
$211,798,593
$56,253,037
$268,051,631
Altice 1 25 346 $867,281 $216,821 $1,084,102
Armstrong Telecommunications 4 1,678 16,545 $47,770,970 $12,472,577 $60,243,547
Cable Communications of Willsboro 1 11 558 $226,184 $56,546 $282,730
Castle Cable TV Television, Inc. 1 14 129 $632,559 $158,140 $790,699
Champlain Telephone Company 1 58 334 $1,362,901 $340,726 $1,703,627
Chazy and Westport Telephone Corporation 2 222 530 $2,821,185 $705,297 $3,526,482
Citizens of Hammond 1 40 382 $1,395,688 $348,923 $1,744,611
Delhi Telephone Company 1 284 818 $3,392,373 $848,094 $4,240,467
DFT Local Service Corporation 1 212 973 $4,274,536 $1,068,634 $5,343,170
DTC Cable Inc. 1 413 1,524 $4,432,209 $1,899,518 $6,331,727
Empire Telephone Corporation 3 277 1,692 $3,236,891 $809,226 $4,046,117
Fairpoint 3 2,015 10,321 $36,668,472 $9,301,930 $45,970,402
Frontier Communications 11 1,189 12,003 $29,901,354 $7,475,354 $37,376,708
Gtel Teleconnections 2 442 2,450 $5,259,217 $1,314,806 $6,574,023
Haefele TV Inc. 2 386 3,407 $5,022,332 $1,255,751 $6,278,083
Mid-Hudson Data Corp. 1 449 18,771 $849,818 $212,455 $1,062,273
Middleburgh Telephone Company (MIDTEL) 1 228 1,599 $6,831,856 $1,707,964 $8,539,820
Mohawk Networks, LLC 1 754 3,623 $6,391,157 $1,597,792 $7,988,949
MTC Cable 4 183 2,982 $6,529,775 $2,391,035 $8,920,810
New Visions Communications 1 266 3,906 $11,310,921 $2,827,731 $14,138,652
Newport Telephone Company 1 255 1,919 $9,348,940 $2,337,237 $11,686,177
Oneida County Rural Telephone 1 210 588 $3,285,885 $821,474 $4,107,359
Otsego Electric Cooperative 2 122 714 $3,935,949 $1,145,065 $5,081,014
Pattersonville Telephone Company 1 93 170 $1,188,748 $297,187 $1,485,936
Slic Network Solutions 2 121 891 $3,746,744 $937,871 $4,684,615
TDS Telecom 4 431 2,339 $11,114,648 $3,704,883 $14,819,531

Interested in Learning If Broadband is Expanding in Your Area? A complete list of community expansion projects follows:

… Continue Reading

FCC’s Ajit Pai on Mission to Sabotage Charter-Bright House-Time Warner Cable Deal Conditions

Pai

As a result of the multibillion dollar cable merger between Charter Communications, Bright House Networks, and Time Warner Cable, the three companies involved freely admitted: your cable bill was unlikely to decrease, you won’t have any new competitive options, there was no guarantee your service would improve, or that you would get faster broadband service than what Time Warner Cable Maxx was already delivering to about half its customer base.

While shareholders and Wall Street bankers made substantial gains, top Time Warner Cable executives walked away with multimillion dollar golden parachute packages, and Charter took control of what is now the country’s supersized, second most powerful cable operator, regulators also required the dealmakers share at least a tiny portion of the spoils with customers.

Then President Donald Trump’s FCC chairman — Ajit Pai — took leadership of the telecom regulator. Now all bets are off.

Pai is reconsidering the settled deal conditions imposed by the FCC under the last administration, and wants to give Charter Communications a free pass to let them out of their commitment to compete. Last week, Pai circulated a petition among his fellow commissioners to roll back the commitment Charter acknowledged to expand its service area to at least one million new homes that already get broadband service from another cable or telephone company.

Former FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler sought the competition requirement to prove that cable operators can successfully run their businesses in direct competition with each other, potentially inspiring other cable companies to face off with incumbent operators outside of their own territories. A paradigm shift worked for Google, which inspired ISPs to boost speeds in light of its gigabit Google Fiber service, which reset customer expectations.

The FCC order approving the merger deal was hardly onerous, requiring Charter to compete head-to-head for customers in places the company can choose itself. Lawmakers eliminated exclusive cable franchise agreements years ago, but established major cable operators like Charter have gone out of their way to avoid competing in areas that already receive cable service. While Wheeler may have hoped some of that competition would be directed against fellow cable companies, Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge quickly made clear to investors and the FCC Charter would continue to avoid direct cable competition, instead promising to expand service into non-cable areas that already get DSL service from the phone company or no broadband at all.

“When I talked to the FCC, I said I can’t overbuild another cable company, because then I could never buy it, because you always block those,” Rutledge said. “It’s really about overbuilding telephone companies.”

Charter’s CEO believes most phone companies are not competing on the same level as cable operators and are unwilling to make the necessary investments to upgrade their aging wired infrastructure to offer faster internet speeds. That makes competing with telephone companies like Windstream, Frontier, and Verizon’s DSL-only service areas a much better proposition than trying to compete head-to-head with Comcast, Cox, or Cablevision.

Rutledge’s clear views about Charter’s expansion plans apparently never made it to the American Cable Association, a cable industry lobbying group that defends the interests of independent and smaller cable operators. Despite Rutledge’s public statements, the ACA and its members are afraid Charter could expand on their turf anyway, potentially forcing small cable operators to compete with the same level of service Charter offers. The horror.

The ACA’s arguments found a sympathetic audience in Mr. Pai and now he wants to let Charter off the hook, at the expense of competition and better service for consumers.

Under the proposal circulated by Pai, Charter would still be required to expand its cable broadband service by at least one million new homes, but those homes would no longer have to be in areas outside of Charter’s existing service footprint. In practical terms, this would mean Charter would focus on wiring areas not far from where it provides service today — ‘DSL or nothing’-country. Charter would also be able to fritter away the number of expansions required by counting newly constructed neighborhood developments it would have likely wired anyway, as well as upgrading its remaining shoddy legacy cable systems — some still incapable of offering broadband or phone service.

The ACA’s talking points prefer to emphasize the David vs. Goliath scenario of a big bully of a cable company like Charter being forced to compete (and likely obliterate) existing small cable operators:

“The overbuild condition imposed by the FCC on Charter is stunningly bad and inexplicable government policy,” said ACA president and CEO Matthew Polka, in a statement. “On the one hand, the FCC found that Charter will be too big and therefore it imposed a series of conditions to ensure it does not exercise any additional market power. At the same time, the FCC, out of the blue, is forcing Charter to get even bigger.”

The real goal here is to minimize direct competition at all costs. The FCC’s deal conditions already included the need for more rural broadband expansion. Wheeler’s second goal was to introduce a new model — cable company competing against cable company — fighting for new customers by offering consumers better service and pricing. The existence of such competition would belie the industry’s claim that cable overbuilds and head-to-head competition is uneconomical. Wildly profitable, perhaps not, but certainly possible. Historically, the traditional way cable operators dealt with the few instances of direct cable competition was to buy them out to put them out of business. Rutledge was certainly thinking along those lines when he complained that the FCC’s order to compete did not include permission to eventually devour its competitor, effectively making competition go away.

Had Charter chosen to compete with cable companies not afraid to spend money to upgrade service above and beyond the anemic broadband speeds Charter offers, it would likely find few takers for its maximum 300Mbps broadband service that comes with a $200 install fee.

“Why would we go where we could get killed?” Rutledge admitted.

Industry claims that the cable business is already fiercely competitive are also countered by Rutledge’s own statements making clear direct competition with brethren cable companies on the cusp of speed-boosting DOCSIS 3.1 upgrades was bad for business. Instead, he would focus on competing with inferior phone companies, which he characterized as mired in debt, still skeptical about the financial wisdom of fiber optic upgrades, and the only competitor where dismal 3-10Mbps DSL service presented a ripe opportunity to steal customers away.

Clyburn – A likely “no” vote.

Charter’s merger approval and its conditions are a sealed deal that was acceptable to Charter and its shareholders and at least offered small token treats to ordinary consumers. Mr. Pai’s willingness to reopen and undo those commitments is just one reason we’ve referred to his regulatory philosophy as irresponsible, nakedly anti-consumer, and anti-competitive. Mr. Pai’s willingness to embrace things as they are comes at the same time most consumers are paying the highest broadband bills ever while also facing an epidemic of usage caps, usage billing, and increasing service and equipment fees. Mr. Pai’s other actions, including ending an effort to introduce competition into the set-top box market, curtailing customer privacy, ending inquiries on usage caps/zero rating, threatening to eliminate Net Neutrality, and reducing the FCC’s already anemic focus on consumer protection makes it clear Mr. Pai is a company man, on a mission to defend the interests of Big Telecom companies and their lobbyists (that also have a history of hiring friendly regulators for high-paying positions once their government job ends.)

That conclusion seems apt considering what Mr. Pai said about Chairman Wheeler’s vision of improving broadband: “one more step down the path of micromanaging where, when, and how ISPs deploy infrastructure.” Missing from his statement are consumers who have spent the last 20 years watching ISPs govern themselves while waiting… waiting… waiting for broadband service that never comes.

Mr. Pai’s proposal needs just one additional vote to win passage. That extra vote is unlikely until President Trump appoints another Republican commissioner. Pai’s proposal isn’t likely to win support from the sole remaining Democrat commissioner still at the FCC — Mignon Clyburn.

Ajit Pai Starts FCC Chairmanship by Clear-Cutting Pro-Consumer Policies, Cheap Internet for the Poor

Pai

Like President Donald Trump, Ajit Pai is a busy man. He’s spent his first month as FCC chairman gutting his predecessor’s legacy, reversing pro-consumer policies, ending forays into set-top box competition, fair pricing for inmate phone calls, cheap internet access for the poor, ending reviews of data caps and zero rating practices, and threatening to terminate Net Neutrality with extreme prejudice.

No wonder Bob Quinn, AT&T senior executive vice president of external & legislative affairs applauded President Trump’s appointment of Pai, proclaiming he will “quickly and decisively put back in place the commonsense regulatory framework necessary to support the President’s agenda for job creation, innovation and investment. We look forward to working with him and his team and the FCC to support President Trump’s growth agenda.”

AT&T’s only growth agenda is sending customers ever-increasing bills, and with Mr. Pai at the helm of the FCC, they are sure to get their wish.

Over their terms at the FCC under the Obama Administration, Republican Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly frequently complained their minority voices on the Commission were ignored and newly proposed regulations or policies would come before the FCC so quickly, there was inadequate time for public review. But since Pai teamed up with O’Rielly to abolish many of the most important achievements of his predecessor, Chairman Thomas Wheeler, they have reportedly all but ignored the sole remaining Democrat currently serving on the Commission — Mignon Clyburn.

Last Friday, Clyburn accused Pai of hypocrisy for complaining about policies being rushed for a vote without explanation before doing the same thing himself late last week.

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn

Clyburn

“Today is apparently ‘take out the trash day.’ In an eponymous episode of the West Wing, White House Chief of Staff Josh Lyman stated: ‘Any stories we have to give the press that we’re not wild about, we give all in a lump on Friday . . . Because no one reads the paper on Saturday,'” Clyburn said in a statement. “Today multiple Bureaus retract—without a shred of explanation—several items released under the previous administration that focus on competition, consumer protection, cybersecurity and other issues core to the FCC’s mission. In the past, then-Commissioner Pai was critical of the agency majority for not providing sufficient reasoning behind its decisions.”

Clyburn’s office asked for more than the allotted two days to review a dozen items that suddenly appeared on the FCC’s agenda.

“We were rebuffed,” Clyburn wrote.

Clyburn then accused Pai of violating the Administrative Procedure Act, which requires adequate public notice and a comment period for public input. When she asked the chairman to comply with the “reasoned decision-making requirements of the APA,” she was told ‘No deal.’

Mr. Pai’s regulatory rollback agenda has moved with breathtaking speed, according to some FCC observers. Consumer group Free Press today called Pai’s progress “Orwellian.” Over less than a month, Pai — with the help of Commissioner O’Rielly — has:

  • Announced the formation of a Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee that is expected to be stacked with industry stakeholders that will recommend reform the FCC’s pole attachment rules, identify “unreasonable” regulatory barriers to broadband deployment, encourage local governments to adopt “deployment-friendly” policies, and develop a “model code” for local franchising, zoning, permitting, and rights-of-way regulations for telecom infrastructure like cell towers. Few expect the eventual “model code” to stray far from Big Telecom companies’ wish lists;
  • Near-unilaterally loosened rules allowing AM radio stations to continue making their presence felt on the overcrowded FM band through the use of low-power FM “translator” stations that rebroadcast the AM station’s programming;
  • Changed FCC policies to give broader notice of upcoming agenda items and policy proposals, ostensibly to improve public access to FCC rulemaking procedures. But observers suggest the change will primarily benefit industry lobbyists who will have advance detailed notice about the FCC’s upcoming agenda items, allowing them time to lobby for or against the proposals, or suggest changes;
  • Rescinded “Improving the Nation’s Digital Infrastructure,” a policy paper promoting rural broadband deployment and other broadband improvements released just prior to the inauguration of President Trump. On Feb. 3, the FCC set “aside and rescinds the Digital Infrastructure Paper, and any and all guidance, determinations, recommendations, and conclusions contained therein. The Digital Infrastructure Paper will have no legal or other effect or meaning going forward.”
  • Rescinded “in its entirety and effective immediately, earlier guidance provided in a March 12, 2014, public notice, DA 14-330, “Processing of Broadcast Television Applications Proposing Sharing Arrangements and Contingent Interests,” which attempted to limit ongoing media consolidation controversies including allowing one TV station to effectively operate and provide content for so-called ‘competing’ stations in a local area.
  • Closed the FCC’s investigation into wireless carriers’ zero-rating policies, which allow subscribers free access to “preferred provider content” without it counting against their data plan. Critics call zero rating an end run around Net Neutrality, because providers treat their own content as “preferred.” AT&T charges other content providers to participate in its zero rating program.
  • Instructed the FCC’s legal team to stop defending court challenges to its authority to ensure fair and reasonable telephone rates for incarcerated prisoners held captive to using a single carrier to make phone calls at prices much higher than what the public pays. Those rates were as high as $5.70 for a 15-minute in-state collect call placed from an incarceration facility in Kentucky. In that state alone, consumers effectively paid $2.79 million in kickbacks to state prison systems or a county jail. In contrast, a similar 15-minute call placed from a West Virginia jail or prison would cost $0.48. As a result of Pai’s actions, companies like Global Tel*Link, Securus, and Telmate “can continue the practice of price gouging prisoners and their families,” according to Prison Phone Justice;
  • Ended former FCC Chairman Wheeler’s attempt to force competition in the cable set-top box marketplace, allowing consumers to take a bite out of the $20 billion cable companies make in rental fees annually. At least 99% of subscribers now pay an average of $231 a year to lease the boxes, even after the company has fully recouped their original cost. Customers in Canada can buy their own set-top boxes and DVRs.
  • Killed an expansion of the FCC’s Lifeline program to offer discounted internet access to the poor. Pai reversed approvals made to nine providers — none accused of waste, fraud, or abuse — including Kajeet, Spot On, Boomerang Wireless, KonaTel, FreedomPop, Applied Research Designs, Liberty Cablevision of Puerto Rico, Northland Cable Television and Wabash Independent Networks. Pai later defended the move claiming his predecessor rushed through approval of the providers and he was rescinding those “midnight rules” as current chairman. Many Republicans are seeking a complete elimination of the Lifeline program.
  • Rescinded the latest progress report on modernizing the Universal Service Fund’s E-Rate program, which is designed to subsidize telecom services for schools and libraries. It could be the first step in eliminating or dramatically reforming the Fund;
  • Gave two violators of the FCC’s rules on properly collecting and reporting information about the source of political advertising aired on stations air a free pass.
  • Threw out a white paper from the FCC’s own Homeland Security Bureau advising the agency on cybersecurity issues. Pai doesn’t think the FCC should be involved in cybersecurity, so anything contrary to his agenda of reducing the role of the FCC is likely destined for the nearest wastepaper basket.

FCC letter to AT&T’s Bob Quinn letting him know the company is off the hook with the FCC on zero rating.

“Ajit Pai has been on the wrong side of just about every major issue that has come before the FCC during his tenure,” said Craig Aaron, president of Free Press. “He’s never met a mega-merger he didn’t like or a public safeguard he didn’t try to undermine. He’s been an inveterate opponent of Net Neutrality, expanded broadband access for low-income families, broadband privacy, prison-phone justice, media diversity and more. If Trump really wanted an FCC chairman who’d stand up against the runaway media consolidation that he himself decried in the AT&T/Time Warner deal, Pai would have been his last choice — though corporate lobbyists across the capital are probably thrilled.”

How State Politics Screwed Up a Solid Broadband Plan for Western Massachusetts

While rural western Massachusetts is stuck in a rural broadband swamp of Verizon’s making, politics in the state capital and governor’s office are risking Yankee ingenuity for another “free market” broadband solution that won’t solve the problem.

The dedicated locals that created WiredWest, the grassroots-envisioned regional broadband solution for more than two dozen towns suffering with inadequate or non-existent broadband service, have toiled for nearly a decade to accomplish what Verizon (or a cable operator) has never managed to do – provide consistently available internet access. WiredWest spent years carefully listening and learning the needs and challenges of each of their member towns. Communities affected by broadband deficiencies in this part of Massachusetts range from the most prosperous areas of the Berkshires to those financially struggling with a range of economic challenges.

On August 13th, 2011, The WiredWest Cooperative in western Massachusetts was officially formed by charter member towns. The project has gained some town, lost some others as the region works towards faster broadband.

WiredWest’s original plan would have brought fiber broadband to practically everyone in the region in just a few years, with more prosperous and populous towns helping subsidize network construction costs for their more budget-challenged rural neighbors. The goal was to avoid the patchwork of broadband have’s and have not’s that many private providers have created across rural America.

Establishing a regional network instead of trying to launch dozens of smaller community-owned providers would help streamline costs, avoid duplicating services, and deliver continuity of service. The concept made plenty of sense to two dozen town leaders and the participating communities, most voting to support the regional approach. But it apparently didn’t seem to make a lot of sense to a bureaucratic state agency called the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) that suddenly questioned the project’s operating plan and has avoided releasing tens of millions of dollars stashed in its bank account designated for rural broadband network construction.

MBI’s detractors call the agency a “concern troll” and some question whether MBI’s objections are the result of the usual friction between out-of-touch state bureaucrats and the rural communities they are supposed to help, or something more insidious. Others are content stating MBI’s position simply does not make any sense.

MBI spent more than a million dollars of taxpayer funds on lawyers and a Bangalore, India-based consultancy to produce and defend a dubious hit piece “analysis” about WiredWest rife with misconceptions and factual errors. The MBI-sponsored report concluded WiredWest would simply never work. What works better for MBI is handing out $4 million in taxpayer dollars to Comcast, with tens of millions more to be spent on funding private rural broadband projects in the future.

Crawford

Earlier this month, broadcast activist Susan Crawford shared her blistering conclusions about the usefulness of MBI:

For an agency that has produced virtually nothing so far, MBI is a high-priced operation. As far as I can tell, last year MBI spent $1 million of those state funds on consultants, lawyers, and administrative costs in order to hand $4 million to Comcast to provide its usual service to about a thousand homes in those nine Massachusetts towns that already had some cable service. What’s odd is that MBI told the public it chose Comcast because the company had vast experience and could get the work done without involving MBI—so it cost $1 million in oversight expenses to choose a company that doesn’t need oversight.

Despite protests from many residents across WiredWest’s would-be service area, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker sided with his bureaucrats and stalled rural broadband deployment further with a temporary hold, which some claimed gave MBI and community broadband opponents additional time to further undermine WiredWest’s efforts.

Most recently, the same agency that wrung its hands worrying about the efficacy of WiredWest had no problem offering a quick $20 million in grants to private companies for rural broadband solutions. Few in broadband-challenged western Massachusetts are likely to be happy about the results of the latest machinations of MBI’s “free market solution with public taxpayer funds.” Last week, the public got its first look at the submitted applications, largely underwhelming in scope and specifics. None come close to offering the kind of ubiquitous and affordable broadband WiredWest proposed.

MBI also tailored their request for proposals to arbitrarily limit applicants, declaring only companies with $100 million in yearly revenue and at least five years experience building, operating, and maintaining residential broadband networks need apply. Had Google Fiber proposed to wire the entire region with fiber optics in an application, MBI would have turned Google down for lack of experience. (Google Fiber launched service in late 2012.) In fact, no startup or municipal project of any kind could realistically apply. Comcast and Charter could, and both did.

MBI claims each town will make their own final decision, but many communities have already done that by choosing WiredWest. Some towns are frustrated by the state’s interminable delays and politics and are discouraged with the potential spectacle of MBI continuing to throw up roadblocks for political reasons. Those communities are planning their own alternative projects if WiredWest can never get off the ground. The only current alternative is hoping a private company will step up and deliver service. Six applicants responded to MBI’s request for proposals from private providers. Only two showed any willingness to offer service across all of broadband-challenged western and central Massachusetts. Two others were cable operators that have neglected expanding service on their own because it was not profitable to do so. Another two applicants only wanted to serve a handful of communities. Here is an overview of the proposals:

Crocker Communications: Short on specifics, Crocker’s proposal claims an interest in wiring almost 40 unserved communities for $59.15 million, including $18.33 million in taxpayer funds, split into individual grants for each community. But even Crocker, among the most ambitious and detailed applicants, cannot meet MBI’s revenue qualifications, so it attempts to claim a vendor relationship with Fujitsu Network Communications of Japan, which supplies network infrastructure. How Fujitsu would be financially involved in the project to minimize the chances of Crocker running into financial problems while building out its proposed network is not adequately explained. Crocker only specifies $5 million of its own assets will be on the line.

Crocker’s website promotes the company’s desire to have a bigger presence in the state thanks to its cooperation with MBI. Crocker currently provides internet service to customers of a Leverett-based community broadband project. Coincidentally, Peter d’Errico of Leverett’s Broadband Committee was one of the contributors to MBI’s sponsored report slamming the WiredWest project as unrealistic and underfunded. We’re not sure what d’Errico thinks about Crocker Communications’ proposal, which asks for grants as little as $150,000 to help wire one community — New Ashford.

In an aspirational executive summary, Matthew Crocker, president of Crocker Communications, offers an admission there are “inherent challenges in fulfilling the Request For Proposals.” His conclusion: “If this were easy, it would be well underway.”

Crocker’s proposal won’t be easy for roughly 30% of those living in the nearly 40 communities his company proposes to serve. That’s because his company won’t be serving them. Crocker’s proposal only suggests he will deliver service to about 70% of the service area. MBI wanted proposals that would reach 96% of the population. But there will be plenty of time to contemplate these points. Crocker’s proposal warns residents may have to wait until 2021 before they can get service. That will give would-be customers four years to save enough money to pay Crocker’s proposed installation fees: “under $2,000 for 70% of homes passed” or “$3,000 for 96% of homes passed.” Ouch.

Whip City Fiber: Even more murky than Crocker Communications’ proposal, Westfield Gas & Electric’s “Whip City” fiber service submitted a plan offering to serve any of the 40 communities MBI identifies as underserved, but the details aren’t there, except to describe the service the company already provides to its own customers. The actual number of towns to be served and the schedule to launch service are all: TBD = To Be Determined.

Mid-Hudson Data: The most modest of proposals from this Catskill, N.Y. based company seeks $260,000 to offer 279 homes fiber service and wireless for another 20 in the community of Tyringham. Customers would pay an installation fee of $150. While potentially good news for customer living near George Cannon Road, it isn’t much help to the rest of the region.

Fiber Connect, LLC: Another modest proposal from this regionally based ISP offers to provide broadband service for Alford, Becket, New Marlborough, Otis, Tolland and Tyringham. The proposal notes the company is already running a pilot broadband program in Monterey and Egremont. One potential stumbling block is a poorly explained installation fee ranging from $0 if municipalities agree to a “fixed average cost” that could be included in grant funding or a municipally guaranteed lease-to-own payment to $299 if a customers apply for a mysterious promotion or rebate, or $999 which is defined as the basic “initial installation cost.”

Charter Communications: Formerly Time Warner Cable, Charter is hunting for taxpayer-funded grants to expand broadband service to Egremont, Hancock, Monterey, New Salem, Princeton and Shutesbury. All of those communities are near existing Charter/Time Warner Cable systems and the company spared no time in their application promoting their existing close ties with MBI to bring broadband to Hinsdale, Lanesborough, and West Stockbridge. Charter claims it can expand its cable service into the nearby communities in a “reasonable amount of time” but does not get more specific than that.

Comcast: Boils down its application to “we’re doing you a favor, but you pay” language reminding MBI the communities Comcast now proposes to serve: Goshen, Montgomery, Princeton and Shutesbury don’t come close to Comcast’s demand for return on its investment. But since taxpayers are helping to foot the bill….

The one noticeable difference Comcast has over all the rest of the applicants is a page-and-a-half of details about the various regulator-imposed fines and penalties it has had to pay recently for being an ongoing menace to its own customers. Is it arrogance for a company to assume such a vast number of damaging disclosures would not lead a responsible grantor to put the application in the circular file, or is it something else? After all, Comcast was already awarded up to $4 million in taxpayer funds in Massachusetts as a gushing press release reported in August, 2016:

WESTBOROUGH – The Massachusetts Broadband Institute at MassTech (MBI) and Comcast have reached an agreement that will extend broadband access in nine municipalities in Western and North Central Massachusetts, a project which is estimated to deliver broadband connectivity to 1,089 new residences and businesses, and will bring the overall coverage level in each town to 96% or above. The grant will provide up to $4 million in state funds to reimburse partial project costs for Comcast, which has existing networks in each of the towns, to construct broadband internet extensions to additional homes and businesses.

“This agreement further demonstrates our administration’s commitment to tackling broadband connectivity challenges for unserved residents and businesses,” said Governor Charlie Baker. “This public-private partnership will deliver sustainable, reliable, and cost-effective broadband connectivity to nine rural communities that previously faced significant coverage gaps, allowing nearly 1,100 households and businesses to participate more fully in the digital economy.”

“Our results-oriented approach to bridging broadband access gaps is connecting thousands of rural residents to the modern internet,” said Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito. “We will continue to employ a dynamic, flexible approach to the Last Mile project, and seek solutions that meet the unique needs of communities and residents unserved by broadband access.”

The construction of the broadband extensions in Buckland, Conway, Chester, Hardwick, Huntington, Montague, Northfield, Pelham, and Shelburne is estimated to be completed within two years from the start of the project. The public-private partnership will extend high-speed internet service to unserved residents at speeds that meet or exceed the FCC’s definition of broadband service, through a hybrid fiber/coaxial-cable network.

Wired West Responds With a New Plan

Faced with insurmountable political obstacles, the folks behind WiredWest have bowed to the reality of the current political landscape and reintroduced themselves and their newest plan to get western Massachusetts wired for fiber optic broadband while trying to avoid any further encounters with MBI’s speed bumps and obstacles.

If WiredWest made one mistake, it was forgetting to establish the one connection that apparently matters more than anything else in Massachusetts: a political connection with state lawmakers. But the indefatigable group has not given up, and if the MBI is being honest about being an impartial partner in improving rural broadband in Massachusetts, there is still a better option available to communities than the six proposals recently submitted to MBI. That option is WiredWest.

In its latest proposal WiredWest would continue to play a significant role in the network after being built, with proven service plans that will deliver real broadband service to residents at rates comparable to what private companies charge. But the project will rely on member towns to construct their own fiber networks using private contractors and state and local funding. That puts more responsibility and network ownership in the hands of each individual town, an idea some towns originally rejected as too expensive and cumbersome. But MBI holds the money and has apparently rewritten the rules, so what MBI wants is what MBI will get.

The added cost to the project and the communities involved is significant: there will be some towns that cannot afford or manage the responsibility of constructing their own fiber networks and will likely drop out of the project. The new network plan will also increase costs WiredWest originally hoped to avoid. The group’s financial model also effectively subsidized some of the costs for the smallest and least able communities — a model that could be gone for good.

Each participating town network that does eventually get built will be connected in a ring topology to MassBroadband123, the state’s “middle mile” fiber network that is run privately by Axia Networks. At this point, it appears 14 communities are still on board with WiredWest, seven are “considering” the new WiredWest plan, and another 16 are “pursuing other options” but have not ruled out staying with WiredWest.

It is our recommendation that communities do everything possible to stay loyal to WiredWest, which has a proven track record of being responsive and accessible to communities across the region. Bucking the state’s inexcusable political interference by remaining united sends a strong message that local communities know best what they need, not a high-priced consultant, Springfield-based lawyers and bureaucrats, or the governor. None of those people have to live with the consequences of inferior or non-existent broadband and none have given the problem the kind of serious attention WiredWest has. The biggest challenge to WiredWest isn’t its financial sustainability, it is politics, and that needs to stop.

We’ve reviewed the submissions from MBI’s latest round of grant funding for private projects and they are all inadequate. While many of the companies involved are well-meaning and we believe could play a role in improving rural broadband, most of the applications seem to have been rushed and many lack specifics.

The region should not accept any plan offering only 70% broadband coverage, much less a proposal that will force another four-year wait for broadband (we credit Crocker Communications for at least including a specific timetable, something many of the other proposals did not.) Installation fees up to $3,000 are also unaffordable, with or without a financing plan.

Some analysts still worry if WiredWest can attract enough customers to be sustainable. If it isn’t, most of the private projects MBI has received applications for certainly are not either. Assuming customers can afford a few thousand dollars for installation — a major impediment to getting new customers, there is no guarantee which homes will get service and when. Competitively speaking, considering the only available alternative in most cases is spotty 1-6Mbps DSL from Verizon — a service the company has lost interest in improving or expanding — Verizon is likely to receive the same treatment it gets in other communities where better alternatives exist — a mass exodus of customers cutting Verizon’s cord for good. In fact, Verizon may ultimately sell its landline network in western Massachusetts to another company as it continues to disengage from its wireline businesses. It is highly unlikely any competitor of WiredWest will guarantee access to at least 25Mbps broadband.

WiredWest proposes to charge $59 for 25Mbps or $75 for 1,000Mbps broadband. Digital phone service is $19 a month. An installation fee of $99 will also apply. That is not out of line with what cable companies and other gigabit providers have charged, and they have won a comfortable market share. Private cable and phone companies also continue to raise rates on broadband, if only because they can, providing additional competitive insulation.

MBI’s grants should also not be the end of the story. New York last week rescued up to $170 million from the FCC’s Connect America Fund (CAF) to expand broadband deployment in unserved rural areas of New York State — money Verizon forfeited by expressing no interest in rural broadband expansion. That precedent opens the door for other states to recapture similar federal grants, including those that could target western Massachusetts where Verizon has also declined to accept CAF money. That could ease some of the money worries about WiredWest’s construction costs as well.

At the end of the day, area residents have turned up repeatedly at various events across the region holding signs supporting their choice in local providers: WiredWest. Nobody was holding up a sign hoping Comcast or Charter would be the company that finally brings broadband to their communities. The irony of using taxpayer dollars to fund Comcast in particular is not lost on their customers — many that loathe the company and wish they had another choice. Handing $20 million to that cable giant to expand in western Massachusetts guarantees their newest customers won’t have a choice either. Isn’t it time to give these communities what they want? They clearly want WiredWest.

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