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C Spire Partners With Entergy to Bring Fiber Service, Smart Grid to Rural Mississippi

Phillip Dampier February 13, 2018 Broadband Speed, C Spire, Consumer News, Rural Broadband No Comments

C Spire, an independent wireless company providing service in the southern United States is partnering with electric utility Entergy to jointly construct a new fiber optic network in remote sections of Mississippi to manage an electric smart grid and fiber broadband service.

C Spire will own and build the network, with Entergy contributing construction costs, according to C Spire vice president of government relations Ben Moncrief. The partnership grants Entergy leasing rights to use the fiber optic network to develop smart grid technology for rural Mississippi electric customers. Five individual fiber routes will be build, each with a capacity of 144 or more strands of fiber. Entergy will have exclusive use of its own fiber strands, but C Spire will get most of the capacity to power its backhaul facilities, including its network of cell towers, and eventually deploy the network for commercial and institutional users, with the possibility of expanding service to home and small businesses customers if there is adequate demand.

The fiber network will be uncharacteristically placed in some of the most rural parts of the state’s push to redevelop its rural economy to support digital businesses. C Spire itself has been in transition over the last five years, diversifying its core cellular business into fiber to the home broadband, phone, and television service targeting underserved, smaller communities across the state.

“A robust broadband infrastructure is critical to the success of our efforts to move Mississippi forward by growing the economy, fostering innovation, creating job opportunities and improving the quality of life for all our residents,” said Hu Meena, CEO of C Spire.

C Spire/Entergy Mississippi’s new fiber project

The construction project will involve placing fiber optic cable along five separate routes:

  • Delta: 92 miles of fiber through Sunflower, Humphreys, Madison and Hinds counties and near the cities of Indianola, Inverness, Isola, Belzoni, Silver City, Yazoo City, Bentonia, Flora and Jackson.
  • North: 51 miles in Attala, Leake and Madison counties, including the communities of McAdams, Kosciusko and Canton.
  • Central: 33 miles in Madison, Rankin and Scott counties and near the towns of Canton, Sand Hill and Morton.
  • South: 77 miles passing through Simpson, Jefferson Davis, Lawrence and Walthall counties and near the towns of Magee, Prentiss, Silver Creek, Monticello and Tylertown.
  • Southwest: 49 miles in Franklin and Adams counties near Bude, Meadville, Roxie, Natchez and Eddiceton.

C Spire got the idea to collaborate with the electric utility after the Mississippi Public Service Commission inquired if Entergy’s plans to build a fiber optic smart grid network could also be used to develop improved broadband service for rural Mississippi. Entergy and C Spire decided to collaborate on the project to deliver both services over the same network.

Charter Seeks Favorable Licensing Terms for New Mobile/Rural Wireless Broadband Service

There are three tiers of Citizens Broadband Radio Service users – incumbent users (usually military) that get top priority access and protection from interference, a mid-class Priority Access License group of users that win limits on potential interference from other users, and unlicensed users that have to share the spectrum, and interference, if any.

Charter Communications wants to license a portion of the 3.5 GHz Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) band to launch a new wireless broadband service for its future mobile customers and potentially also offer its own rural broadband solution.

The CBRS band has sat largely unused except by the U.S. military since it was created, but now the Federal Communications Commission is exploring opening up the very high frequencies to attract wireless broadband services with Priority Access Licenses that will assure minimal interference.

One of the most enthusiastic supporters of CBRS is Charter/Spectrum, which has been testing a 3.5 GHz wireless broadband service using CBRS spectrum in Centennial and Englewood, Col., Bakersfield, Calif., Coldwater, Mich., and Charlotte, N.C. Those tests, according to Charter, reveal the cable company “can provide speeds of at least 25/3 Mbps at significant distances,” which it believes could become a rural broadband solution for customers outside of the reach of its wired cable network.

But Charter’s interest in CBRS extends well beyond its potential use to reach rural areas. Charter’s primary goal is to offer wireless connectivity in neighborhoods for its forthcoming mobile phone service. Charter plans to enter the wireless business this year, selling smartphones and other wireless devices that will depend on in-home Wi-Fi, CBRS, and a contract with Verizon Wireless to provide coverage everywhere else.

Charter wants to keep as much data usage on its own networks as possible to reduce costs. It has no interest in building a costly, competing LTE 4G or 5G wireless network to compete with AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile. But it is interested in the prospect of using LTE technology on CBRS frequencies, which are likely to be licensed at much lower costs than traditional mobile spectrum.

Primary Economic Areas

There are several proposals on the table on how to license this spectrum. Large wireless companies want Priority Access Licenses (PALs) based on Partial Economic Areas (PEAs) — 416 wireless service areas the FCC established as part of its spectrum auctions. PEAs are roughly equivalent to metropolitan areas and typically cover multiple counties surrounding a major city. Major wireless carriers are already familiar with PEAs and their networks cover large portions of them.

Charter is proposing to license PALs based on county lines, not PEAs, which will likely reduce the costs of licensing and, in Charter’s view, will “attract interest and investment from new entrants to small and large providers.” If Charter’s proposal is adopted, its costs deploying small cell technology used with CBRS will be much lower, because it will not have to serve larger geographic areas.

The FCC envisioned licensing PALs based on census tract boundaries, which would result in licenses for areas as small as portions of neighborhoods. That proposal has not won favor with like wireless companies or cable operators. The wireless giants would prefer licenses based on PEAs, but companies like AT&T seem also amenable to the cable industry proposal.

Charter’s proposed CBRS network would likely allow the cable company to offload a lot of its mobile data traffic away from Verizon Wireless, reducing the company’s data costs. Charter’s deployment costs are relatively low as well, because the backhaul fiber network used to power small cells is already present throughout Charter’s service areas.

Just how far into rural unserved areas Charter’s CBRS network can reach isn’t publicly known, but it would likely not extend into the most difficult-to-serve areas far away from Charter’s current infrastructure. But if the FCC establishes county boundaries and a requirement that those companies obtaining priority licenses actually serve those areas, it could help resolve some rural broadband problems.

New Law Would Tax ISPs and Websites Serving Kansas to Solve Rural Broadband Woes

Kansas House Bill 2563 would require content providers that sell products and services in Kansas to pay into the state’s rural broadband fund.

ISPs and any website that generates at least $500,000 in revenue from Kansas residents would be required to pay into a state fund to subsidize rural broadband, if a bill introduced by a Lawrence Republican becomes law.

Rep. Thomas Sloan’s House Bill 2563 — a bill requiring broadband and content providers to pay into the Kansas Universal Service Fund (KUSF), drew immediate fire from cable and telephone companies across the state, and Sprint Corp. told state officials the bill was illegal.

“Rural residents lack the same broadband opportunities as urban residents because of the high cost to serve low-population density areas,” Sloan said. “We have a classic case of rising customer expectations for capabilities delivered through a broadband communications system and a fiscally stressed telecommunications provider network’s ability to serve high-cost rural customers.”

As in many rural states, finding the funding to solve the rural broadband problem gets more difficult as those hardest to serve are also the most expensive to reach. Kansas currently spends about $40 million annually to reach homes and businesses that are still using dial-up or forced to invest in satellite internet service. Most KUSF money is given to incumbent rural telephone, wireless or cable providers to subsidize expansion, keeping costs in line with each company’s Return On Investment expectations.

But as demand for faster and more robust broadband accelerates, and as the definition of broadband itself has evolved, rural providers are increasingly challenged reaching both unserved customers and those now considered underserved because older technologies like DSL often do not meet the current FCC definition of broadband: 25/3 Mbps service.

Sloan said his bill is designed to address both problems by wiring unserved areas and improving access to reliable, high-speed internet service where only slower alternatives now exist. The bill would provide funding to more than 90 Kansas counties with a population density of less than 100 people per square mile (excepting the county seat). In an agricultural state like Kansas, that would directly inject cash for upgrades into large sections of the state. Sloan says his law would cover at least 40% of a provider’s wiring and upgrade costs.

Rep. Sloan

House Bill 2563 would fund a rural broadband project that:

  • is capable of minimum download speeds of 25 Mbps and minimum upload speeds of three megabits per second;
  • provides an average latency of less than 100 milliseconds to enable the use of real time communications; and
  • provides subscribers with a minimum monthly data allowance of 150 gigabytes per month.

“Poor connectivity to the internet undermines operation of businesses, filing of government documents, school research projects, viewing of entertainment and other day-to-day activities,” Sloan said.

ISPs would likely pass along the costs of the new broadband universal service fund charge to subscribers, which means urban Kansans will be contributing a portion of their monthly internet bill to benefit their rural neighbors.

Sloan’s bill would also take the unprecedented step of taxing internet content companies and for-profit websites that generate at least $500,000 in revenue attributable to Kansas customers and use the money for rural broadband expansion as well. Websites like Amazon.com, Netflix, and Hulu would certainly be liable, but so would thousands of other smaller website ventures, including porn websites and online publishers like newspapers.

Telecom industry lobbyists quickly descended on state lawmakers in Topeka to encourage them to kill Sloan’s bill:

  • Catherine Moyer, chief executive officer of Pioneer Communications in Ulysses, represents the interests of the State Independent Telephone Association for Kansas and the Kansas Rural Independent Telecommunications Coalition. She is strongly opposed to the bill because she claims it would weaken the current Kansas Universal Service Fund (KUSF) model that has given rural companies confidence and certainty their rural expansion investments will be backed with adequate state subsidies. Under Sloan’s bill, the disbursement formula and the areas entitled to receive state support would be expanded, potentially reducing funds that were payable to projects under the old KUSF subsidy system.
  • Patrick Fucik, national director of legislative affairs for Sprint Corp. in Overland Park, is concerned about broadening the universal service fund to tax content providers and other websites, claiming the state lacks the legal authority under federal law to impose such taxes.
  • John Idoux, a lobbyist with CenturyLink, which serves more than 100 Kansas communities with fewer than 1,000 residents, said the bill would likely make lawyers rich from the “prolonged” and inevitable legal challenges that will begin if the bill becomes law, “all while creating false hope of rural broadband availability.” Idoux also wants to make sure none of the KUSF money will be spent in areas already served by a fixed broadband provider (like CenturyLink). He does not want to see public money competing with private investment, even if it results in better service.

An audio-only hearing of the Committee on Energy, Utilities and Telecommunications of the Kansas State Legislature on HB2563, held Feb. 5, 2018. (35:53)

What New York Counties Will Get State-Subsidized Fiber Broadband from Verizon?

New York’s Broadband for All Program yesterday announced the third and final round of grant winners to expand rural internet access across the state.

Verizon Communications was the top grant recipient, winning a total of $106,642,787 in combined state, federal, and private dollars to expand internet access to 15,515 residential homes, businesses, and institutions primarily in the Capital Region, Central New York, and the North Country.

Stop the Cap! has learned these funds will be spent on fiber internet expansion, which could mean direct fiber to the home (FTTH) connections or a combination of fiber and existing copper telephone wiring (FTTN). To meet the state’s requirements, Verizon will likely have to use optical fiber as much as possible, although some advanced forms of DSL are capable of meeting minimum speed requirements.

But where exactly will Verizon start building out its network? The state’s grant program includes census block data on the exact areas where Verizon will commence upgrades or bring internet service for the first time.

By far the biggest winner of Verizon upgrades is New York’s North Country where over 1,000 Census Blocks will be wired for service.

Here is a general breakdown on where Verizon will begin working on rural broadband expansion:

Capital Region

  • 78 Census Blocks in Rensselaer County
  • 59 Census Blocks in Schenectady County
  • 132 Census Blocks in Washington County

Central New York Region

  • 196 Census Blocks in Cayuga County
  • 47 Census Blocks in Cortland County
  • 5 Census Blocks in Onondaga County

Mohawk Valley Region

  • 1 Census Block in Montgomery County

North Country Region

  • 686 Census Blocks in Clinton County
  • 203 Census Blocks in Jefferson County
  • 279 Census Blocks in St. Lawrence County

Southern Tier Region

  • 5 Census Blocks in Tompkins County

We are not well-schooled on mapping applications or integrating the data into a searchable tool or larger map (if you can, we’d love to hear from you). So for now, readers will have to search the database manually. Here are two ways to search:

Identify your Census Block ID and see if broadband improvements are coming to your area

  1. Visit this website and enter your street address.
  2. From the resulting list, click the  icon adjacent to the “Block” Geography Type, which will bring up a pop-up table containing additional information.
  3. Find the “Code” line which will show a long number like this: 1000000US300500197056002. If you Copy everything to the right of “US”, in this example 300500197056002, that represents your Census Block ID. Omit everything else (including the ‘US’).
  4. You can compare your Census Block ID number with the master list (click to download – .xlsx spreadsheet format) of New York’s third round census block winners. Just use the Search function and enter your Census Block ID number. If it matches with anything in that spreadsheet, your address is almost certainly to be serviced by Verizon (or another telecom company, as specified in the spreadsheet.)

To view coverage maps of winning Census Block IDs

  1. Download the master list (click to download – .xlsx spreadsheet format) of New York’s third round census block winners.
  2. Copy any Census Block ID listed, visit Melissa Data and paste the ID into the search box.
  3. A map of the Census Block will appear. Not all Census Blocks have homes or businesses within them and will appear undeveloped. In many cases, this means a grant winner is being given funds to develop their network to pass through one Census Block to reach other areas nearby where customers live and work.

N.Y. Governor Reneges on 100% Broadband Promise, Offers Satellite to 72k New Yorkers Instead

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announcing rural broadband initiatives in New York.

It was called “Broadband for All” — New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s commitment to bring high-speed internet service to every New York State resident. But it now appears the governor will break that promise and leave more than 72,000 rural New York residents with satellite-delivered internet that does not come close to meeting the broadband speed standard and is infamous for customer frustration, slow speeds, and low data caps.

Ensuring High-Speed Internet Access for Every New Yorker

In today’s world, internet connectivity is no longer a luxury—it is a necessity. Broadband is as vital a resource as running water and electricity to New York’s communities and is absolutely critical to the future of our economy, education, and safety.

In 2015, Governor Cuomo made the largest and most ambitious state broadband investment in the nation, $500 million, to achieve statewide broadband access by 2018. 

The New NY Broadband Program sets as its goal access to speeds of 100 Mbps for all New Yorkers, with 25 Mbps acceptable in the most remote and rural areas. The cost must not exceed $60 and there is a general prohibition of data caps. This goal exceeds requirements of the FCC’s Connect America Fund program and requires that projects be completed on a more accelerated timeline.

Today, the governor announced the state grant winners to split $209.7 million in the third and final round of awards to offer 122,285 additional homes, businesses, and institutions broadband internet service.

“These latest awards through Round III of the New NY Broadband Program will close the final gap and bring high-speed broadband to all New Yorkers in every corner of the state,” the governor’s office claimed.

Except it won’t.

Tucked in among the grant award winners is a $14,889,249 grant to Hughes Network Systems, LLC, targeting 72,163 rural New Yorkers, more than half of the total number of customers to be reached in the third round. Hughes operates the HughesNet satellite internet service, a technology derisively known as “satellite fraudband” for routinely failing to meet its advertised speed claims. It’s also known as “last resort internet” because it is slow, expensive, and heavily data capped.

Complaints about HughesNet are common on websites like Consumer Affairs:

“Extreme false advertising. Over the first 30 days with HughesNet Gen5, I averaged 3 Mbps download when advertised 25 Mbps. I canceled when they couldn’t answer why I used 20 GB of data in less than 24 hours. I am a 55 year old average internet user. No streaming. No music. No videos (YouTube). DO NOT GET THIS SERVICE EVEN IF NO OTHERS ARE AVAILABLE.” — Dennis, Tazewell, Tenn. (1/25/2018)

HughesNet claims high speed internet in our region. Clearly not available here, 3 service calls, with exchange of equipment, 50 calls – recorded leaves us no choice, we demand that this contract be null/void without stealing $399 cancellation. A despicable Company, uninformed customer service, average speeds with a video; upload speed 0.62 Mbps, the download speed is 1.28 Mbps. Help!!!” — Jeffrey, Kerhonkson, NY (1/21/2018)

“Promised speeds of no less than 25 Mbps. Actual speed received was 5-9 Mbps. Unable to stream anything. Computer programs did not operate and did not update as required. We have cancelled HughesNet at great cost to us. Worst internet service ever.” — Jennifer, Hartsville, SC (1/12/2018)

Pat (last name withheld) lives 1.3 miles from the nearest Charter Communications customer in Niagara County, near Niagara Falls and is very disappointed with recent developments. Charter has quoted an installation fee of $50,000 to extend their cable service and Verizon has refused to provide DSL service, leaving Pat resorting to using an AT&T mobile data plan, which is expensive and gets throttled after using more than ~22 GB a month.

“This was a scam from Jump Street,” Pat said. “Phase 3 has 70,000 out of 120,000 homes getting satellite internet, a technology that was already available. It also gives $70 million to Verizon who declined funds in first place. Five years and $675 million later and still no internet for my kids.”

“This is a huge disappointment for us,” Pat added. “We were counting on this happening. Told numerous times it would. Now we have to debate moving, we can’t continue not having internet. My oldest son just graduated high school never having internet at home.”

“I have written and spoke with New York Broadband Program Office and it was clear to me from the beginning they didn’t understand the problems they faced, namely infrastructure costs,” said Pat. “They didn’t want to hear it. They wrongly assumed that telecoms would bid and everyone would have internet. I knew when announcements were delayed that the bids for last mile didn’t come in. Tragic really. I think they made a mistake accepting that money from the FCC. Satellite was never on the table until that happened.”

Stop the Cap! readers have told us satellite internet is the worst possible option for internet access, and many have reported better results relying on their mobile phone’s data plan. But New York’s solution for more than 70,000 of its rural citizens — many that believed the governor’s commitment of 100% coverage — is to saddle them with satellite internet access starting at $49.99 a month for a paltry 10 GB of usage per month. The top plan on offer costs $99.99 a month and is capped at 50 GB a month before a speed throttle kicks in and reduces speeds to dial-up levels. A 24-month contract is required with a very steep early cancellation penalty.

Another surprising winner is Verizon Communications, a company that originally refused to participate in rural broadband expansion efforts. Verizon will accept more than $70 million to expand its broadband service to 15,515 homes, businesses, and institutions in the Capital Region, central New York, the North Country, and Southern Tier. At press time, it is not known if Verizon will bring FiOS or DSL to these customers.

Because New York State relied on private companies to bid to cover unserved residents, it seems clear HughesNet is the default choice for those New Yorkers stranded without a telecom company bidder. Although that will allow Gov. Cuomo to claim his program reaches 99.99% of New Yorkers, the rural broadband problem remains unresolved for those who were depending the most on New York to help bring broadband to rural farms, homes in the smallest communities, and those simply unlucky enough to live in small neighborhoods deemed unprofitable to serve.

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