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FCC Now Defines Minimum Broadband Speed at 25Mbps; Everything Less Is Now “Slowband”

speedThe Federal Communications Commission, over loud objections from America’s largest cable and phone companies, has raised the minimum speed necessary to qualify as “broadband” from 4/1Mbps to 25/3Mbps.

Broadband deployment in the United States – especially in rural areas – is failing to keep pace with today’s advanced, high-quality voice, data, graphics and video offerings, according to the 2015 Broadband Progress Report adopted by the Federal Communications Commission.

Reflecting advances in technology, market offerings by broadband providers and consumer demand, the FCC updated its broadband benchmark speeds to 25 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads. The 4 Mbps/1 Mbps standard set in 2010 is dated and inadequate for evaluating whether advanced broadband is being deployed to all Americans in a timely way, the FCC found.

Wheeler

Wheeler

Using this updated service benchmark, the 2015 report finds that 55 million Americans – 17 percent of the population – lack access to advanced broadband. Moreover, a significant digital divide remains between urban and rural America: Over half of all rural Americans lack access to 25 Mbps/3 Mbps service.

“The FCC doesn’t just have a statutory obligation to report on the status of broadband deployment; we have a duty to take immediate action if we assess that the goal of deployment to all Americans is not being met,” said FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler. “And act we have.”

The 3-2 party line vote left the FCC’s two Republican commissioners Ajit Pay and Michael O’Rielly siding with the telecom industry.

Commissioner Pai even accused the FCC of aiding and abetting the Obama Administration’s larger plan to regulate the Internet.

“The ultimate goal is to seize new, virtually limitless authority to regulate the broadband marketplace,” Pai wrote in his dissent. “Under its interpretation of section 706 of the Telecommunications Act, the FCC can do that only by determining that broadband is not ‘being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion’ or, more colloquially, by ignoring the consistent progress in Internet connectivity that’s obvious to anyone with a digital connection and an analog pulse.”

Pai

Pai

Pai called the FCC decision “Kafkaesque,” claiming the agency’s recent activist approach on issues like broadband speed, Net Neutrality, and managing wireless spectrum to guarantee robust competition will result in cuts in broadband investment, raise the cost of deployment, and deter competition.

Pai believes the FCC is erecting barriers that will delay or even stop Verizon and AT&T’s plans to ditch rural landline service through a proposed transition to IP-based phone service in urban communities and wireless-only service in rural areas. He also complained about efforts by the FCC to regulate the Internet like a public utility, claiming “that is not what the American consumer wants or deserves.”

But Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel countered maintaining the status quo and allowing the marketplace to set the agenda risks our digital future.

“I, for one, am tired of dreaming small; It’s time to dream big,” Rosenworcel said. “This is the country that put a man on the moon. We invented the Internet. We can do audacious things—if we set big goals. I think our new threshold should be 100Mbps. I think anything short of that shortchanges our children, our future, and our digital economy. I don’t think reaching a benchmark like this is easy—but nothing worthwhile ever is. Still, the history of technological innovation is rife with examples of the great depths of American known-how. It is time to put that know-how to work and use it to bring really big broadband everywhere.”

The FCC’s changed definition of what constitutes broadband could also have an impact on the current merger deal involving Comcast and Time Warner Cable now before the FCC and state regulators.

COMCAST-MILLIONAIREWith the new definition in place, Comcast’s monopoly control of broadband service becomes more clear as fewer phone companies are able to meet the minimum speed standard to qualify as broadband competitors. Comcast will now control about 50% of all broadband homes in the country, a percentage that could reach even higher if Comcast revamps Time Warner Cable’s broadband tiers.

The report also highlights a growing digital divide on Tribal lands, in U.S. territories, and in schools. At least two-thirds of residents lack access to broadband on Native American reservations and in U.S. possessions including Puerto Rico, Guam, the Northern Marianas, U. S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa. More than one-third of all schools in the United States lack access to fiber broadband connections.

Key findings include the following:

  • 17 percent of all Americans (55 million people) lack access to 25/3 Mbps service;
  • 53 percent of rural Americans (22 million people) lack access to 25/3 Mbps;
  • By contrast, only 8 percent of urban Americans lack access to 25/3 Mbps broadband;
  • Rural America continues to be underserved at all speeds: 20 percent lack access even to service at 4/1 Mbps, down only 1 percent from 2011, and 31 percent lack access to 10/1 Mbps, down only 4 percent from 2011;
  • 63 percent of Americans living on Tribal lands (2.5 million people) lack access to 25/3 Mbps broadband;
  • 85 percent living in rural areas of Tribal lands (1.7 million people) lack access;
  • 63 percent of Americans living in U.S. territories (2.6 million people) lack access to 25/3Mbps broadband;
  • 79 percent of those living in rural territorial areas (880,000 people) lack access;
  • Overall, the gap in availability of broadband at 25/3Mbps closed by only 3 percentage points last year, from 20% lacking access in 2012 to 17% in 2013.

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.

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