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Time Warner Cable’s Hullabaloo About Nothing: Its ‘Top Secret’ Rural Expansion Plan is a Yawn

Phillip "I Want My Money Back" Dampier

Phillip “I Want My Money Back” Dampier

For months, Time Warner Cable has deployed its legal team to prevent public interest groups from gaining access to the company’s exhibit of rural broadband buildout plans it had for New York, sent confidentially to the Public Service Commission as part of its proposal to merge with Comcast.

“This information would be difficult and costly for a competitor to compile, such that disclosure would significantly harm Time Warner Cable’s competitive advantage,” Time Warner Cable’s lawyers complained to regulators handling the case. “To allow competitors to have access to this information before Time Warner Cable has had a chance to market customers for which it speculatively built the line would not only negate any competitive advantage, it would allow its competitors to reap the benefits of Time Warner Cable’s investment, causing substantial competitive and financial injury to Time Warner Cable.”

“The compilation of information on all the Time Warner Cable New York deployments, distances, and passings into one document would be of enormous value to a competitor,” the lawyers added. “This information could not be developed independently by competitors, and any estimates developed through publicly available data or data from third-party sources, if possible at all, would be expensive and burdensome to assemble, and less accurate than the data provided in Exhibit 46. […] Therefore, disclosure of the compilation of information on the New York Rural Builds would cause substantial competitive injury to Time Warner Cable, and should be granted exception from disclosure.”

One might expect the mighty Exhibit 46 to contain all of Time Warner’s deepest secrets — secrets that if made public would hand the “competition” the keys to the cable kingdom.

Despite the haughty demands that such information was not to be shared with the public, Stop the Cap! secured our copy of the “top-secret” Exhibit 46 (and here is a copy for you as well).

After reviewing it, it quickly became clear the only thing Time Warner Cable intended to keep secret is how little expansion (and money) the company is devoting to rural New York. The nine-page spreadsheet shows Time Warner spent $5.3 million of New York’s money to expand service to, at most, 5,320 homes or businesses that had no access to cable before. The largest beneficiary of this expansion was the rural (and more affluent than its neighbors) town of Grafton, in Rensselaer County, where 1,152 homes now have access to Time Warner Cable if they want it. An additional 875 homes in Carlisle, Schoharie County now have access as well. Despite dire warnings from Time Warner, “competitors” are hardly rushing to the scene to engage in hand-to-hand combat with the cable company, which is the only provider of broadband service for many of these residents.

As for the rest of upstate New York, Exhibit 46 offers about as much relevance to “competitors” as it does to the rural residents still being bypassed by the cable company. Most of the entries show Time Warner’s expansion projects reached fewer than 10 homes in any particular area. In a large number of those instances, the expansion ended up serving just one additional home or business.

Some examples:

  • Town of Clarence, Erie County – 4 homes or businesses
  • Town of Henrietta, Monroe County – 1
  • Town of East Bloomfield, Ontario County – 22
  • Town of Paris, Oneida County – 1
  • Town of Manheim, Herkimer County – 1
  • Town of Kirkwood, Broome County – 7
  • Town of Tupper Lake, Franklin – 116
  • Town of Gouverneur, St. Lawrence County – 29
  • Town of Brookfield, Madison County – 139
  • Town of Jefferson, Schoharie County – 3
  • Town of Big Flats, Chemung County – (either 2 or 4 – the entry is duplicated)
  • Town of Pompey, Onondaga County – 1

Of the 5,320 homes or businesses now provided access to Time Warner service, 4,104 were subsidized up to 75 percent by the State of New York. Just 1,216 locations were apparently reached exclusively at Time Warner Cable’s own expense.

New Yorkers paid most of the bill because Time Warner Cable couldn’t find $5.3 million in their company coffers to bring broadband to rural residents. But Time Warner Cable could find $80 million to cover the golden parachute compensation package available to just one employee – CEO Robert Marcus, if the company is successfully sold to Comcast for around $45 billion.

Priorities.

No wonder Time Warner Cable’s attorneys fought so hard to keep the “expansion” effort a secret.

President Obama Calls for an End to State Bans on Community Broadband; Public Networks Save $

Obama

President Barack Obama

President Barack Obama will be in Cedar Falls, Iowa today to announce steps his administration plans to take to improve broadband in the United States, including a call to end laws that restrict community broadband development that limits competition.

“Today, too few Americans have affordable and competitive broadband choices, but some communities around the country are choosing to change that dynamic,” says a statement issued by the White House. “As a result – as outlined in a new report being issued today – cities like Lafayette, Chattanooga, and Kansas City, have broadband that is nearly one hundred times faster than the national average, yet still available at a competitive price. By welcoming new competition or building next-generation networks, these communities are pioneers in broadband that works, and today in Cedar Falls, Iowa, the President is highlighting their remarkable success stories and providing municipal leadership and entrepreneurs new tools to help replicate this success across the nation.

The report, produced by the National Economic Council and Council of Economic Advisers, finds no evidence to support industry contentions that community-owned broadband duplicates existing broadband services and wastes taxpayer dollars. It also challenges cable and phone industry-backed groups claiming publicly owned broadband networks are business failures.

It cites the success of Chattanooga’s EPB Fiber service, operated by the local municipal utility. Not only is EPB successful financially, but it has introduced Chattanooga residents to the kind of competition sorely lacking in most cities for telecom services.

cedar falls“EPB’s efforts have encouraged other telecom firms to improve their own service,” states the report. “In 2008, for example, Comcast responded to the threat of EPB’s entrance into the market by investing $15 million in the area to launch the Xfinity service – offering the service in Chattanooga before it was available in Atlanta. More recently, Comcast has started offering low-cost introductory offers and gift cards to consumers to incentivize service switching. Despite these improvements, on an equivalent service basis, EPB’s costs remain significantly lower.”

In Wilson, N.C., Time Warner Cable customers pay significantly less for cable and broadband service than other North Carolina customers because of the presence of Greenlight, the community-owned fiber to the home provider. TWC customers in Wilson pay stabilized prices for service while residents in the nearby Research Triangle pay as much as 52 percent more for basic Internet service, according to the report. Greenlight’s competition has brought gigabit broadband to the community as well as lower prices for customers who decide to remain with Time Warner. The combined savings is estimated at more than $1 million annually for Wilson residents.

EPB is the municipal utility in Chattanooga, Tenn.

EPB is the municipal utility in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Those who believe municipal broadband is a waste of taxpayer dollars should consider the story of Lafayette, La.’s LUS Fiber. In addition to bringing superior broadband service to a city dominated by a cable operator that used to treat the market as an afterthought, the presence of LUS’ fiber to the home network has forced Cox Cable to improve service, offer significant customer retention deals to departing customers and defer rate increases. The investment in community broadband has saved residents an estimated $4 million from rate hikes that went ahead in other Cox cities, with an estimated total savings of between $90 and $100 million for Lafayette-area broadband customers over LUS’ first 10 years of service.

Taxpayer-supported institutions like local government, law enforcement, and schools have also seen dramatic savings by switching to municipal solutions. In Scott County, Minn. the local government’s annual bond payment for constructing their own broadband network is $35,000 less than what the county used to pay private companies for a much slower network. Area schools that formerly paid private sector telecom companies $58 per megabit of Internet speed now pay $6.83 — a savings of nearly 90 percent. Schools also received dramatic speed increases from 100 to 300Mbps. They paid less for more service — from $5,800 a month before to $2,049 a month today. Those payments go straight back to the county government instead of into the hands of out-of-state investment bankers and shareholders. On the state level, Minnesota’s public institutional network is saving taxpayers almost $1 million a year.

With the broadband profit gravy train for big cable and phone companies grinding to a halt in competitive areas, several of these companies have spent millions lobbying state governments to outlaw public broadband services. They have succeeded in 19 states, primarily with the assistance of the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which appeals to primarily Republican lawmakers with claims government broadband is unfairly competing with the private sector. In fact, private providers have not been driven out of communities where they face municipal competition, but they have been forced to lower prices and improve service for customers.

Today the president will call for a new effort to support local self-determination for broadband by strongly opposing industry-backed, anti-competitive deterrents and bans on community-owned networks. The president will also sign a letter addressed to FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler encouraging him to move forward with a federal ban on state broadband laws that restrict broadband development.

He will also announce additional funding for rural broadband expansion and take steps to bring local leaders together to explore how the development of community broadband initiatives in their cities and towns can make a major difference in the 21st century digital economy. The president recognizes that most Americans lack sufficiently competitive choices for broadband service and often have just one choice — the cable company — for broadband speeds greater than 25Mbps. That means many Americans are seeing their broadband speeds lag while their monthly bills continue to grow.

Community-owned broadband may be the only alternative many cities have for better broadband as would-be competitors are scared off by high construction costs and an inability to secure cable television programming at competitive prices for their customers.

Missouri Representative Introduces Community Broadband Ban Bill to Protect AT&T, CenturyLink

Rep. Rocky Miller (R-Lake Ozark)

Rep. Rocky Miller (R-Lake Ozark)

A Missouri state representative with a track record of supporting AT&T and other telecommunications companies has introduced a bill that would effectively prohibit community broadband competition in a bid to protect incumbent phone and cable companies.

Rep. Rocky Miller’s (R-Lake Ozark) House Bill 437 would strictly prohibit the construction of public broadband networks in any part of Missouri served by a private provider, regardless of the quality of service available or its cost, without a referendum that includes a mandated question observers consider slanted in favor of existing providers.

HB437 would banish community broadband networks as early as September unless services were already up and running. The bill would effectively stop any public broadband network intending to compete against an existing phone or cable company within the boundaries of a city, town, or village offering any level of broadband service. It would also require communities to schedule a referendum on any project budgeted above $100,000, and includes ballot language that implies public broadband projects would duplicate existing services, even if a private provider offers substantially slower broadband at a considerably higher price. (Emphasis below is ours):

“Shall [Anytown] offer [broadband], despite such service being currently offered within Anytown by x private businesses at an estimated cost of (insert cost estimate) to Anytown over the following five-year period?”

Miller’s proposal would also require voters to approve a specific and detailed “revenue stream” for public broadband projects and if the referendum fails to garner majority support, would prohibit the idea from coming up for a second vote until after two years have passed, allowing cable and phone companies to plan future countermeasures.

yay attThe proposed bill also carefully protects existing providers from pressure to upgrade their networks.

Miller’s bill defines “substantially similar” in a way that would treat DSL service as functionally equivalent to gigabit broadband as both could be “used for the same purpose as the good or service it is being compared to, irrespective of how the good or service is delivered.”

In other words, if you can reach Rep. Miller’s campaign website on a CenturyLink 1.5Mbps DSL connection and over a co-op gigabit fiber to the home connection, that means they are functionally equivalent in the eyes of Miller’s bill. Residents voting in a referendum would be asked if it is worthwhile constructing fiber to the home service when CenturyLink is offering substantially similar DSL.

Among the telecom companies that had no trouble connecting to Rep. Miller to hand him campaign contributions: AT&T, CenturyLink, Comcast, and Charter Communications

The Coalition for Local Internet Choice was unhappy to see yet another state bill introduced designed to limit competition and take away the right of local communities to plan their own broadband future.

“The state of Missouri is the latest legislature to attempt to erect barriers to the deployment of broadband networks that are critical to the future of its local economies and the nation, via House Bill 437,” said a statement released by the group. “High-bandwidth communications networks are the electricity of the 21st century and no community should be stymied or hampered in its efforts to deploy new future-proof communications infrastructure for its citizens – either by itself or with willing private partners.”

cell_towerThe group urged the Missouri legislature to reject the bill.

In 2013, Miller hit the ground running in his freshman year to achieve his campaign pledge of “getting the government out of the way of economic development.” In the Missouri state legislature, Miller strongly supported AT&T’s other state legislative priority: deregulation of cell tower placement. Miller traveled around Missouri promoting HB650, an AT&T inspired bill that would strip away local oversight powers of cell sites.

The issue became a hot topic, particularly in rural and scenic areas of Missouri, where local officials complained the bill would allow haphazard placement of cell towers within their communities.

“[The] bill inhibits a city’s ability to regulate cell towers as we have in the past,” Osage Beach city attorney Ed Rucker said. “The process we have in place has worked, and has worked well.”

Had HB650 become law, Osage Beach residents would today be surrounded by six new cell towers around the city, with little say in where they ended up. The bill Miller supported would have also eliminated a requirement that providers repair, replace, or remove damaged or abandoned cell towers, potentially leaving local taxpayers to pick up the tab.

Miller claimed the legislation would allow expansion of wireless broadband across rural Missouri and remove objectionable fees. HB650 would limit municipal fees to $500 for co-locating an antenna on a pre-existing tower and $1,500 for an application to build a new tower. Local communities complained those limits were below their costs to research the impact and placement of cell towers.

“That cost is an inhibitor to broadband,” Miller countered. “It’s beginning to look like the fees are an impediment to the expansion of broadband.”

Miller did not mention AT&T’s interest in cell tower expansion is also connected to its plan to retire rural landline service in favor of its wireless network, saving the company billions while earning billions more in new revenue from selling wireless landline replacement service over its more costly wireless network. The cell tower bill was eventually caught up in a legal dispute after a court ruled the broader bill that included the cell tower deregulation language was unconstitutional on a procedural matter.

Illinois’ ‘Free AT&T from Regulation and Responsibility’ Bill Returns in 2015

Nobody raises phone rates after deregulation like AT&T.

Nobody raises phone rates after deregulation like AT&T.

AT&T’s bill to maximize profits and minimize responsibility to its customers is back for consideration in the Illinois state legislature.

The Illinois Telecom Act is up for review in the spring and AT&T’s team of lobbyists are gearing up to advocate killing off AT&T’s legal obligation to provide low-cost, reliable landline service to any resident that wants service. AT&T says the measure is a reasonable response to the ongoing decline in its landline customer base, but rural and fixed-income residents fear the phone company will walk away from areas deemed unprofitable to serve and force customers to expensive wireless phone alternatives.

Areas in central and southern Illinois are served by a variety of rural phone companies including AT&T and Frontier Communications. Northeast Illinois is the home of metropolitan Chicago, where businesses depend on reliable phone service and the urban poor and senior residents depend on predictably affordable basic landline service.

The state still has as least 1.3 million residential landline customers paying rates starting at $3 a month for basic “Lifeline” service in Chicago to $9.50 a month for rural flat rate service with a limited local calling area. Cell service costs several times more than AT&T’s basic landline rates and signal quality is often challenged in rural areas. In large sections of Illinois where AT&T has elected not to bring its U-verse fiber to the neighborhood service, customers with basic voice calling and DSL broadband service could find themselves eventually disconnected and forced to switch to AT&T’s wireless residential service.

fat cat attAT&T’s Wireless Home Internet plan charges $60/month for 10GB of Internet use, $90/month for 20GB, and $120/month for 30GB. The overlimit fee is $10 per gigabyte. Telephone service is extra.

Customers will need smartphones or hotspot equipment to reach AT&T’s wireless services. Although often discounted or free for those who sign two-year contracts, credit-challenged customers will be required to pay a steep deposit or buy equipment outright.

“Smartphones are wonderful technology but they don’t come cheap and anybody who has traveled across Illinois knows they’re not always reliable,” David Kolata, executive director of Citizens Utility Board, said at a recent news conference. “Traditional home phone service is the most affordable, reliable option for millions of people and we shouldn’t take away that choice.”

The Federal Communications Commission is currently allowing AT&T to experiment with discontinuing landline service in parts of Alabama and Florida. Customers in urban areas are switched to AT&T’s U-verse service, those in rural areas are switched to cell service. Both services are unregulated. If AT&T can sell the Illinois legislature on abandoning its need to serve as a “carrier of last resort,” the company will have the unilateral right to disconnect service, set rates at will, and be under few, if any, customer service obligations.

In states where AT&T won the near-total deregulation it now seeks in Illinois, phone rates quickly soared. In California, AT&T flat rate calling shot up 115% between 2006 and 2013 — from $10.69 to $23 a month. AT&T also raised prices on calling features and other services.

In earlier trials run by Verizon, similar wireless landline replacement devices lacked support for home medical and security alarm monitoring, did not handle faxes or credit card authorizations, and often lacked precision in locating customers calling 911 in an emergency. The equipment also failed during power outages if the customer lacked battery backup equipment.

Verizon Wireless Arrives in Alaska; Helps Drive Alaska Communications Out of the Wireless Business

acs logoWhen Verizon Wireless finally fired up its network in Alaska in September of 2014, the writing was on the wall for at least one of Alaska’s homegrown wireless competitors.

Faced with competing against Verizon’s $115 million, state-of-the-art advanced LTE network that already supports new features like Voice over LTE (far ahead of what many customers in the lower 48 states get) Alaska Communications System Group, Inc., decided it was time to sell.

An ACS and GCI-shared cell tower. (Photo: Rosemarie Alexander)

An ACS and GCI-shared cell tower. (Photo: Rosemarie Alexander)

ACS’ 109,000 wireless customers won’t be going far. The buyer, General Communications, Inc., (GCI) is a co-investor in the Alaska Wireless Network that ACS also relies on to offer wireless service. Besides billing and rate plans, most ACS customers won’t notice much of a change after the $300 million sale is complete during the first quarter of this year. GCI will end up with about 253,000 customers after the transaction is finished, which represents about one-third of the Alaskan wireless marketplace. The sale will mean most Alaskans will have a practical choice of three major wireless carriers — AT&T, Verizon Wireless, and GCI.

ACS, weighed down by debt, wanted out of the wireless business because it has proven expensive to support a network serving a high-cost, low margin state like Alaska, where small communities are often far apart. Serving cities like Fairbanks and Juneau is one thing. Serving hundreds of settlements like Meyers Chuck (pop. 21) or towns like Unalakleet (pop. 688) is another.

Like many traditional rural or independent telephone companies, ACS sees gold in its future focusing on selling lucrative broadband service to residential and business customers, where profit margins often exceed 50 percent. There is plenty of room to grow if ACS invests in network upgrades. ACS currently only has a 20 percent share of Alaska’s broadband market, primarily selling DSL service. GCI, which sells cable broadband, has managed a speed advantage.

Both companies have reassured Wall Street that despite ACS’ renewed focus on broadband, there will be no fierce competition, no price wars, or lower prices for consumers. ACS will devote considerable resources into bolstering its business broadband marketing and has already secured contracts with the state government and a regional health consortium.

Despite the $300 million windfall, ACS plans to turn most of that money towards paying off its debts and possibly reinstating a dividend payout program for shareholders. The company is expected to only spend $35 million to $40 million annually on capital investment projects and executives promise they will only open their wallet for projects that guarantee a high return on that investment. As a result, ACS will likely not spend much on rural broadband expansion.

Time Warner Cable Using Tax Dollars to Expand Broadband for Benefit of Wealthy Rural New Yorkers

broadband yes

Broadband Yes

Time Warner Cable is spending taxpayer dollars received from New Yorkers to expand cable service in rural areas of the state, but primarily for the benefit of affluent residents — some that have sought cable and broadband service for their rural estates and vacation homes for years.

An analysis of publicly-available data by the New York Public Utility Law Project (PULP) from an earlier $5.3 million state rural broadband expansion grant paid to Time Warner Cable found that 73 percent of the money was spent extending cable service in zip codes where median incomes are significantly higher than surrounding areas that remain unserved. Time Warner Cable is relying on New York taxpayers to cover about 75% of the construction costs.

PULP’s Gerald Norlander has spent months seeking more information about how Time Warner Cable and its presumptive new owner Comcast collectively plan to address rural broadband issues in the state, but Time Warner Cable has fought to keep most of its plans secret, including projects funded in part by taxpayers.

Broadband No

Broadband No

Norlander’s current research included an analysis of 53 rural expansion projects that were included in the last round of broadband grant awards. He found Time Warner interested in expanding in affluent communities like Grafton in Rensselaer County. The part of the community targeted for expansion has a 10% higher median income than the rest of the county.

In a letter to the state’s Public Service Commission, Norlander argues Time Warner Cable’s desire to keep its rural broadband plans a secret may run contrary to New York’s universal broadband service goal to bring broadband to every customer that wants the service.

Targeting service on more affluent areas can result in higher revenue as wealthy customers are more likely to choose deluxe packages of services and are unlikely to fall behind paying their bills. But such decisions can also become politically untenable when a seasonal resident can access cable service for their six bedroom summer home while middle-income residents with school children up the road cannot.

Time Warner Cable Wants to Keep Its Taxpayer Subsidized Rural Broadband Expansion a Secret

rural cableTime Warner Cable has appealed to the Secretary of the New York Department of Public Service to keep information about taxpayer-subsidized broadband expansion projects in New York a secret.

The case is part of a series of ongoing requests for disclosure of information about the proposed merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable under New York’s Freedom of Information Law.

Several public interest groups are requesting copies of documents submitted to the state Public Service Commission that the two cable operators have repeatedly asserted should remain confidential. Gerald Norlander from the Public Utility Law Project has been seeking details about how the two companies plan to address New York’s rural broadband dilemma before any decision about the merger is made by state regulators. Norlander requested copies of documents that include details about Time Warner’s taxpayer-subsidized rural broadband expansion under the auspices of Gov. Cuomo’s Connect NY program. Time Warner wants to keep the information confidential, citing competitive concerns.

New York Administrative Law Judge David L. Prestemon ruled earlier this month that while Time Warner could maintain secrecy in the early stages of its proposed expansion efforts, once the company disclosed details about a project in a public filing with state or local officials, confidentiality should be lifted.

shhPrestemon rejected efforts by Time Warner Cable to maintain confidentiality even after news of one broadband expansion project was reported by Albany-area media outlets. Prestemon added that public regulatory filings submitted by the company as a project commences effectively places information about it in the public domain.

Counsel for Time Warner Cable rejected that assertion, claiming information found in certain regulatory filings or in a newspaper article lacks the granularity sought by Time Warner’s competitors.

“Simply because physical construction begins on a project does not mean that the public or competitors would be aware of who is completing the project, the geographic extent of the project, the number of passings, or the estimated completion date,” argued Maureen O. Helmer and Laura L. Mona in an appeal filed by Time Warner’s legal team at Hiscock & Barclay, LLP. “This information would be difficult and costly for a competitor to compile, such that disclosure would significantly harm Time Warner Cable’s competitive advantage.”

The attorneys revealed Time Warner Cable’s use of subcontractors is already helping shield the company from having expansion projects become public knowledge:

Time Warner Cable typically uses subcontractors to complete the physical construction. Therefore, the vehicles used to construct the build-out are often not Time Warner Cable owned vehicles. While Time Warner Cable generally requires contractors to display signs stating “Contractor for Time Warner Cable,” the existence of construction vehicles on the side of a road would not convey to an average member of the public or a competitor that Time Warner Cable was engaged in construction of new facilities, as opposed to repair, maintenance, or some other activity. In similar fashion, if a Time Warner Cable vehicle was present on the side of a road, it would not mean that a new build-out was being constructed as the vehicle could be performing any number of tasks that would not be known to the public.

Norlander’s group is concerned Comcast intends to combine Time Warner Cable’s systems in New York and could focus entirely on large urban markets while potentially abandoning rural customers to maximize revenue.

This is the third time Time Warner Cable has appealed one of Judge Prestemon’s rulings on this subject.

Cuomo: 100% of New York State Should Have Access to 100Mbps Broadband by 2018

ny broadbandNew York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has set a goal that every resident of New York State should have access to at least 100Mbps broadband no later than 2018.

The governor will kick off his latest broadband expansion effort with the launch of his $500 million broadband expansion program, dubbed the New New York Broadband Fund, a follow-up to the state’s $70 million public-private effort to expand broadband that began in 2012.

Much of the money awarded in the 2012 broadband expansion effort went to Wireless Internet Service Providers, institutional broadband networks, middle-mile fiber projects not accessible to the public, and emergency service network upgrades. Another $5.2 million was awarded to Time Warner Cable to expand broadband service to 4,114 households in the Capital, Central, Finger Lakes, Mid-Hudson, Mohawk Valley, NYC, North Country, Southern Tier and Western regions of New York State. In June, many of the top funding recipients also received honors from the governor’s office in the first annual New York State Broadband Champion Awards.

Gov. Cuomo

Gov. Cuomo

Despite the money, the 2012 effort did not make a significant dent in the pervasive problem of broadband availability in upstate New York.

While Gov. Cuomo is committed to a target speed of 100Mbps within the next four years, more than one million New York households still cannot access broadband that achieves the state minimum — 6.5Mbps. That includes 113,000 businesses.

The governor’s solution is to subsidize private businesses with more tax dollars to resolve the broadband problem, with a significant part of the next round of funding likely to reach more institutional and public safety networks off-limits to the public, middle mile network expansion that can build state-of-the-art fiber rings that do not connect to end users, and an even bigger amount handed to Time Warner Cable (or Comcast if the state approves a merger with Time Warner Cable) and rural phone companies like Frontier Communications. Much of the money awarded to last mile providers like cable and phone companies will placate those that have stubbornly refused to expand further into rural areas unless taxpayers pick up some of the expense.

“In some of these areas, there’s just not a business case for these [service] providers to build out,” said David Salway, director of the New York State Broadband Program office. “The cost far exceeds what the revenue might be for that area.”

An unintended consequence of the broadband funding effort could be taxpayers subsidizing the establishment of for-profit monopolies in rural corners of the state. Although Salway told Capital NY he wanted to make sure New Yorkers had a choice, he clarified he was referring to a choice in technology, not service providers.

twcGreenThat must come as a relief for Verizon. The state’s largest phone company has petitioned state officials in the past for a gradual mothballing of New York’s rural landline network in favor of switching customers to wireless voice and broadband over Verizon’s cellular network. Theoretically, taxpayers could end up subsidizing the demise of rural New York landlines and DSL if Verizon seeks money from the rural broadband fund to expand its wireless tower network in rural New York. Time Warner Cable almost certainly will also seek more funding, probably in excess of the average $1,264 paid to the cable company for each of the 4,114 additional connections it agreed to complete during an earlier round of funding.

While rural broadband remains an important issue in New York, the merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable is on the front burner and Salway, like the governor, had little to say. But Salway did offer that he did not believe the merger “would reduce [access] as much as further our goal” for expansion.

Guidelines for grant recipients are expected to become available just after the governor’s State of the State presentation in January, with ground-breaking on projects likely to start by mid-summer of 2015.

Fiber Games: AT&T (Slightly) Backtracks on Fiber Suspension After Embarrassed by FCC

HissyfitwatchAT&T CEO Randall Stephenson’s public hissy fit against the Obama Administration’s sudden backbone on Net Neutrality may complicate AT&T’s plans to win approval of its merger with DirecTV. forcing AT&T to retract threats to suspend fiber buildouts if the administration moves forward with its efforts to ban Internet fast lanes.

Hours after Stephenson told investors AT&T wouldn’t continue with plans to bring U-verse with GigaPower fiber broadband to more cities as long as Net Neutrality was on the agenda, the FCC requested clarification about exactly what AT&T and its CEO was planning. More importantly, it noted responses would become part of the record in its consideration of AT&T’s proposed acquisition of the satellite television provider. The regulator could not send a clearer message that Stephenson’s statements could affect the company’s $48.5 billion merger deal.

AT&T responded – four days after the FCC’s deadline – in a three-page letter with a heavily redacted attachment that basically told the Commission it misunderstood AT&T’s true intentions:

The premise of the Commission’s November 14 Letter is incorrect. AT&T is not limiting our FTTP deployment to 2 million homes. To the contrary, AT&T still plans to complete the major initiative we announced in April to expand our ultra-fast GigaPower fiber network in 25 major metropolitan areas nationwide, including 21 new major metropolitan areas. In addition, as AT&T has described to the Commission in this proceeding, the synergies created by our DIRECTV transaction will allow us to extend our GigaPower service to at least 2 million additional customer locations, beyond those announced in April, within four years after close.

Although AT&T is willing to say it will deliver improved broadband to at least “15 million customer locations, mostly in rural areas,” it is also continuing its fiber shell game with the FCC by not specifying exactly how many of those customers will receive fiber broadband, how many will receive an incremental speed upgrade to their existing U-verse fiber/copper service, or not get fiber at all. AT&T routinely promises upgrades using a mix of technologies “such as” fiber to the home and fixed wireless, part of AT&T’s broader agenda to abandon its rural landline service and force customers to a much costlier and less reliable wireless data connection. It isn’t willing to tell the public who will win fiber upgrades and who will be forced off DSL in favor of AT&T’s enormously profitable wireless service.

Your right to know... undelivered.

Your right to know… undelivered. AT&T redacted information about its specific fiber plans.

Fun Fact: AT&T is cutting its investment in network upgrades by $3 billion in 2015 and plans a budget of $18 billion for capex investments across the entire company in 2015 — almost three times less than what AT&T is ready to spend just to acquire DirecTV.

The FCC was provided a market-by-market breakdown of how many customers currently get U-verse over AT&T’s fiber/copper “fiber to the neighborhood” network and those already getting fiber straight to the home. But this does not tell the FCC how many homes and businesses AT&T intends to wire for GigaPower — its gigabit speed network that requires fiber to the premises. Indeed, AT&T would only disclose how many homes and businesses it plans to provide with traditional U-verse using a combination of fiber and copper wiring — an inferior technology not capable of the speeds AT&T repeatedly touts in its press releases.

That has all the makings of an AT&T Fiber Snow Job only Buffalo could love.

AT&T also complained about the Obama Administration’s efforts to spoil AT&T’s fast lane Money Party:

At the same time, President Obama’s proposal in early November to regulate the entire Internet under rules from the 1930s injects significant uncertainty into the economics underlying our investment decisions. While we have reiterated that we will stand by the commitments described above, this uncertainty makes it prudent to pause consideration of any further investments – beyond those discussed above – to bring advanced broadband networks to even more customer locations, including additional upgrades of existing DSL and IPDSL lines, that might be feasible in the future under a more stable and predictable regulatory regime. To be clear, AT&T has not stated that the President’s proposal would render all of these locations unprofitable. Rather, AT&T simply cannot evaluate additional investment beyond its existing commitments until the regulatory treatment of broadband service is clarified.

AT&T’s too-cute-by-half ‘1930s era regulation’ talking point, also echoed by its financially tethered minions in the dollar-a-holler sock-puppet sector, suggests the Obama Administration is seeking to regulate AT&T as a monopoly provider. Except the Obama Administration is proposing nothing of the sort. The FCC should give AT&T’s comments the same weight it should give its fiber commitments — treat them as suspect at best. As we’ve written repeatedly, AT&T’s fabulous fiber future looks splendid on paper, but without evidence of spending sufficient to pay for it, AT&T’s piece of work should be filed under fiction.

Frontier Faces Lawsuit in West Virginia Alleging False Advertising, Undisclosed DSL Speed Throttling

The slow lane

The slow lane

Frontier Communications customers in West Virginia are part of a filed class-action lawsuit alleging the phone company has violated the state’s Consumer Credit and Protection Act for failing to deliver the high-speed Internet service it promises.

The lawsuit, filed in Lincoln County Circuit Court, claims Frontier is advertising fast Internet speeds up to 12Mbps, but often delivers far less than that, especially in rural areas where the company is accused of throttling broadband speeds to less than 1Mbps. The suit also alleges Frontier’s broadband service is highly unreliable.

“The Internet service provided by Frontier does not come anywhere close to the speeds advertised,” wrote Benjamin Sheridan, the Hurricane lawyer filing the lawsuit on behalf of three Frontier customers. The attorney is seeking to have the case designated a class action lawsuit that would cover Frontier customers across the state.

“Although we cannot guarantee Internet speeds due to numerous factors, such as traffic on the Internet and the capabilities of a customer’s computer, Frontier tested each plaintiff’s line and found that in all cases the service met or exceeded the ‘up to’ broadband speeds to which they subscribed,” Frontier spokesperson Dan Page told the Charleston Gazette. “Nonetheless, the plaintiffs filed their case in Lincoln County, where none of them lives. If necessary, we are prepared to defend ourselves in court and bring the facts to light.”

Frontier’s general manager in West Virginia, Dana Waldo, may have helped the plaintiffs when he seemed to admit Frontier was purposely throttling the Internet speeds of its customers, a move Sheridan claims saves Frontier “a fortune” in connectivity costs with wholesale broadband providers like Sprint and AT&T.

Sheridan

Sheridan

“If as you suggest, we ‘opened up the throttle’ for every served customer, it could create congestion problems resulting in degradation of speed for all customers,” according to Waldo as part of an email exchange with one of the class members cited in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit also cites a state report issued over the summer that found just 12 percent of Frontier customers receive Internet speeds that actually qualify as “broadband” under federal and state standards. Frontier’s speed ranking is the slowest of any provider in the state. That is especially significant because Frontier is the largest ISP in West Virginia, and is often the only choice rural residents have for broadband service.

Frontier dismissed the state’s report claiming it was based on voluntary speed tests performed by disgruntled customers.

“As we’ve said before, the speed tests are the result of self-selected, self-reported samples,” Page said. “People who take speed tests tend to be those with speed problems or low speeds.”

“Even if that were true, it doesn’t account for Frontier’s poor performance,” said Frontier customer William Henley. “If every person that ran a speed test in West Virginia was annoyed with their provider, Frontier still came in last place.”

Frontier’s competitors scored better:

  • lincoln countyComcast: 88% of customers met or exceeded state and federal standards;
  • Suddenlink Communications: 80%
  • Time Warner Cable: 77%
  • Shentel: 71%
  • Armstrong Cable: 67%
  • LUMOS Networks: 44%

“…Frontier’s practice of overcharging and failing to provide the high-speed, broadband-level of service it advertises has created high profits for Frontier but left Internet users in the digital Dark Age,” Sheridan wrote. “As a result, students are prevented from being able to do their homework, and rural consumers are unable to utilize the Internet in a way that gives them equal footing with those in an urban environment.”

Sheridan also accused Frontier of delivering its fastest speeds only in areas where it faces competition. Where there is none, Frontier can afford to go slow.

But slow speed is not the only issue. One plaintiff — April Morgan in Marion County — says she has to reset her modem up to 10 times a day to stay connected to the Internet. Her modem has been replaced several times by Frontier, but that has done little to solve her problem.

Frontier customers who check the company’s terms of service agreement may question whether Sheridan can get very far suing the company. A clause in the contract states customers must settle disputes only through binding arbitration or small claims court. Individual lawsuits, jury trials, and class-action cases are prohibited.

Sheridan points out customers have to go online to read the agreement – it is not provided to customers signing up for Internet service. A contract that forces customers to agree to its terms without getting informed consent may turn out not very binding under West Virginia law.

Lincoln County Judge Jay Hoke, assigned to hear the case, will likely face that matter in pre-trial motions.

West Virginia residents interested in the class action case can register here for updates.

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