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Zimbabwe: Fast Broadband is a “Basic Human Right”; Victoria Falls Going Fiber-to-the-Home: 100Mbps Service

zol-logo-newThe two largest telecom companies in Zimbabwe believe broadband access isn’t just an essential utility — it’s a basic human right and they are responding with major upgrade projects that will deliver speedier broadband, sometimes even faster than what most customers in North America can access.

Anything less than fiber-to-the-home service won’t do, according to Tom Tudor, chief marketing officer at Liquid Telecom. The company is expanding its fiber project in Zimbabwe with popular tourist destination Victoria Falls getting a major upgrade. Liquid Telecom believes data caps are incompatible with the concept of bringing the Internet to more people to “participate in, and benefit from, the digital revolution.” Liquid Telecom’s fiber service – Fibroniks, doesn’t have usage limits or hidden gotcha fees.

“Every day we lay new fiber which enables us to deliver what we refer to as ‘The Real Internet’, a superfast service which transforms how people access and share information,” Tudor said.

superfast-fibreAt the outset in Victoria Falls, Fibroniks will offer unlimited use packages up to 100Mbps, with a commitment customers can access whatever they want, whenever they want, at a guaranteed fixed monthly price. Liquid Telecom already supplies fiber service in the capital city of Harare, but Tudor believes getting into smaller communities in the country is essential.

“We believe that internet connectivity is a basic human right and so it is our mission to provide quality broadband to every person and business in Africa,” said Tudor.

It will bring a broadband revolution to Victoria Falls, a community of over 35,000 that has languished with ADSL and last generation wireless services like WiMAX and 3G, which offer speeds typically no higher than 512kbps.

Fibroniks also includes telephone service, which will cost a fraction of what Tel•One, Zimbabwe’s sole fixed landline provider, charges for service. Tel•One has focused most of its investment improving and expanding ADSL service over its existing landline network. Although Tel•One may end up reaching more Zimbabwe citizens faster that Liquid Telecom, the speeds Tel•One provides will be much slower than Liquid Telecom’s Fibroniks.

Liquid Telecom’s other fiber to the home projects are in Zambia, with plans to expand to Kenya, Rwanda, and two other African countries yet to be announced.

Windstream Introduces Kinetic IPTV Triple Play in Lincoln, Neb.; Includes Wireless Set-Top Boxes, Whole House DVR

kinetic logoWindstream this week introduced its fiber to the neighborhood service Kinetic – its attempt to bring a competitive triple-play package of broadband, home phone, and television service to about 50,000 homes initially in Lincoln, Neb.

“We’re extremely excited to launch Kinetic in Lincoln,” said David Redmond, president of small business and consumer at Windstream. “Over the last year, we have heard loudly and clearly that this community is excited and eager for an alternative TV service. Windstream is confident that residents that sign up for Kinetic will find a highly interactive experience and a smarter way to watch TV than cable or satellite.”

The project in Lincoln will test consumer reaction and help the company plan if or how it plans to expand the service across many of its other service areas across the country.

Powered by the Ericsson Mediaroom platform, Kinetic is Windstream’s effort to squeeze about as much use of its existing copper wire infrastructure as possible. Like AT&T U-verse, Kinetic requires a fiber connection part of the way to customers, but continues to rely on existing copper telephone wiring already in the subscriber’s neighborhood. In effect, it’s an enhanced DSL platform that will split available bandwidth between television, Internet access and home phone service.

One unique aspect of Kinetic is its use of a next generation, compact whole home DVR that can record four shows at the same time, supplemented with wireless set-top boxes ($7/mo each), that allow subscribers to take the service to any television in the home without wiring. A subscriber can even move a television out into the yard and not lose service.

Remarkably, Windstream — an independent telephone company — completely de-emphasizes its own phone service in its up front promotions. Unless customers dig deeper into the Kinetic website, they will find prominently featured double play packages of television and Internet service starting at $59.98 a month. Telephone service is offered (and priced) almost as an afterthought, bundled into various packages for $5 extra a month. Phone customers get unlimited nationwide local and long distance calling.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Windstream Kinetic TV 4-2015.flv

Windstream produced this introductory video to its new Kinetic TV service, offered initially to 50,000 homes in Lincoln, Neb. (1:20)

kinetic

We added the pricing details for Home Phone service.

The biggest limitation Windstream faces marketing the service is its legacy network of copper wires. Customers can only qualify for the service if the connection between their home and Windstream’s central office is good enough to sustain the speeds required to handle all three services at the same time. The company is focusing Kinetic squarely on customers looking for a cable television alternative to Lincoln’s only other provider — Time Warner Cable. That may be because Kinetic remains disadvantaged in the broadband department.

The highest Internet speed a Kinetic customer can buy is 15Mbps, which is the speed Time Warner Cable offers in its “Standard” package. Time Warner currently sells up to 50/5Mbps in Lincoln — more than three times faster than Windstream’s Kinetic. Many Windstream DSL customers have complained they don’t come close to the speeds they are paying for, particularly during peak usage periods. A Facebook group with over 500 customers exists to discuss exactly that issue. Whether it will be different for Kinetic customers is not yet known, but the company’s lawyers are prepared for that possibility.

Windstream's Whole House DVR is only about the length of its remote control.

Windstream’s Whole House DVR is only about the length of its remote control.

“Windstream cannot guarantee speeds or uninterrupted, error-free service,” the company says in its terms and conditions. “Internet speed claims represent maximum network service capability speeds.  Actual customer speeds may vary based on factors including simultaneous use of multiple devices, use of other Windstream services, customer device capabilities, Internet and Network congestion, website traffic, content provider service capacity, customer location, network conditions, and bandwidth devoted to carriage or protocol and network information.”

At least there are no usage caps.

Kinetic subscribers are also warned that just like DSL broadband, line quality will impact the kind of television service received.

“Kinetic TV includes digital channels (including local channels), one receiver and up to four standard direct video streams to the customer residence,” Windstream notes. “Of the four standard direct video streams per residence, customer’s location will determine both high definition (“HD”) availability and the maximum number of HD video streams (between one and four) a customer can view and record in HD at any one time, regardless of the number of receivers in the residence.  The remaining streams will be standard definition.”

Kinetic’s channel lineup is comparable to that of Time Warner Cable, with some minor exceptions. Time Warner imports some regional over the air channels from adjacent cities, Windstream does not. Certain channels like Turner Classic Movies are available on Kinetic, but only for customers subscribing to the most expensive tier. Time Warner offers that channel on its less expensive Standard tier.

Limited bandwidth may limit your broadband speeds and the number of HD channels you can watch at any one time.

Limited bandwidth may limit your broadband speeds and the number of HD channels you can watch at any one time.

Time Warner Cable spokesman Mike Hogan took indirect shots at both the City of Lincoln and Windstream in response to the introduction of Kinetic.

“Lincoln residents can count on the fact that Time Warner Cable will offer the best choices for TV, Internet, home phone and home security to the entire city — in sharp contrast to competitors who only serve select areas, or won’t even say where they will or won’t serve,” Hogan said in an email to the Journal-Star.

That’s a reference to Windstream’s refusal to specify exactly where in Lincoln Kinetic is available.

Stop the Cap! surveyed more than 100 Lincoln-area addresses this morning and found Kinetic available primarily in wealthy and newer neighborhoods south and southeast of the city center, including zip codes such as 68516. A review of real estate transactions across the city of Lincoln showed home prices in this area are well above other parts of the city. That suggests Windstream is targeting the service to higher-income neighborhoods during its initial rollout, which plans to reach up to 45 percent of city households.

Although Windstream officials expect to bring Kinetic to about 80% of Lincoln, the city has given the company 15 years to complete the project. Further expansion may also depend on how customers respond to Kinetic.

With plenty of time, Windstream may choose to turn its attention elsewhere, eventually introducing the service in other cities across its 18-state service area of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Texas, before it gets around to wiring urban poor neighborhoods in Lincoln.

Cable industry defenders believe Time Warner Cable and Windstream are being treated differently by city officials. Hogan notes the cable company is required to serve the entire metropolitan area, unlike Windstream that critics contend may be interested only in cherry-picking the low-hanging fruit.

Windstream’s announcement leaves just two significant independent telephone companies without IPTV offerings: FairPoint and Frontier Communications.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KLKN Lincoln New television service in Lincoln 4-16-15.mp4

KLKN in Lincoln covered the Windstream event introducing Kinetic TV to Lincoln and talked with company officials about what the new service offers Lincoln and how much it costs in comparison to Time Warner Cable, the area’s incumbent cable company. (2:29)

Singapore’s Internet Essentials (For the Poor): $4.37/Month for 100Mbps Fiber to the Home + Free Tablet

ida-logoWhile Comcast charges $9.95 a month for 5/1Mbps Internet access for the poor with school-age children, a Singapore ISP charges less than half that amount for 100/100Mbps fiber to the home broadband that includes a free tablet for the income-challenged.

Asia One reports the Home Access Programme was developed to fill a gap created by another program targeting homes with school children. While the NEU PC Bundle Programme provides poor homes with school age children a brand new computer, free software, and free Internet service for three years, the Home Access Programme provides affordable Internet access for childless households earning less than $1383US a month.

Qualifying customers will receive M1’s 100Mbps fiber broadband service, a free Internet router and a 7-inch Alcatel tablet for $4.37US/mo over a two-year contract.

“In Singapore, no one should be left behind by the march of technology,” said Jacqueline Poh, Managing Director of the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore. “IT usage often begins at home, so the Home Access programme will help lower-income households without Internet access to get connected to high-speed fibre broadband. Whether it is for video conferencing, surfing the Internet or simply maintaining contact with family and friends on social media, these Digital Inclusion initiatives are designed to help all groups to live, learn, play and feel included in a digitally connected Smart Nation.”

Net Neutrality Rule Changes At FCC May Open the Door to New Surcharge on Broadband Service

fccAs a consequence of reclassifying broadband as a utility service to protect Net Neutrality, the FCC may have unintentionally opened the door for a Universal Service Fund surcharge on broadband service.

Telephone customers have been accustomed to paying “USF” fees as part of their monthly phone bill since 1997. The average household pays just under $3 a month into the fund, which subsidizes four key programs:

  • Connect America Fund: Originally designed to subsidize telephone service in high cost rural areas, the program has increasingly shifted towards subsidizing broadband expansion in remote areas where private telephone companies won’t expand service without monetary assistance from the fund. In 2013, $4.17 billion was paid in the form of subsidies to mostly rural and independent telephone companies;
  • Lifeline: The Lifeline program pays up to $10 a month to a participating telephone or wireless company to subsidize basic telephone service for Americans living below 135% of the poverty line. More than 17 million households take part, most getting basic landline service for around $1 a month;
  • Rural Telemedicine: By subsidizing video conferencing and high-speed Internet access, rural doctors can consult with specialists in larger urban areas to help treat rural patients without the cost and risk of transporting the sick or injured to distant hospitals;
  • E-Rate: A needs-based subsidy program for schools and libraries seeking telecom services and Internet access. The subsidies help defray the cost of the services on a sliding scale, with rural and urban poor areas getting the largest subsidies.

feesThe fund has increasingly shifted towards Internet connectivity and service, but only telephone customers now pay a USF surcharge on their bill.

Net Neutrality critics warned that reclassifying broadband under Title II as a telecommunications service would open the door for new fees on broadband bills, some predicting as much as $11 billion a year in new fees. But because the FCC caps the amount of the fund each year, FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler predicted even if broadband customers are asked to contribute to the USF fund, the amount would be split between phone and broadband service, resulting in no additional out-of-pocket costs. Under that scenario, a phone customer currently paying $3 a month in USF charges would see that amount reduced to $1.50 a month on their phone bill, with a new $1.50 charge on broadband. The end amount is the same.

At least for now.

The FCC has been gradually increasing the size of the fund over the years, up 47% since 2004. Last year the FCC increased the fund by $1.5 billion to raise $8.8 billion from ratepayers nationwide. Most of the increase went to rural broadband deployment.

Industry-funded Net Neutrality critics are pushing a Los Angeles Times story about the potential for new fees, calling them ‘runaway government spending.’ But in perspective, the FCC’s $8.8 billion dollar effort to improve broadband accessibility is a fraction of the amount spent on highly controversial military projects. The F-35 Lightning II aircraft, for example, will cost taxpayers $1.5 trillion, and the Republican Congress approved $500 billion in extra funding this year for the project, funds above and beyond what the Pentagon requested. If that extra funding was spent on broadband improvements, every home in America could be wired for fiber optic Internet access. For $1.5 trillion, every home in the western hemisphere could be guaranteed broadband.

If USF fees are applied to broadband service, it is safe to expect your provider will pass along the fee as a new line item on your bill.

Telecom Italia Rolling Out Fiber to the Home Service to 40 Italian Cities by 2017

telecom italiaItaly is preparing to leap ahead of the United States and Canada by deploying a minimum of 100Mbps broadband to 85 percent of Italy by 2020 and a guarantee that everyone else will be able to access at least 30Mbps service by that time as well.

Telecom Italia will primarily use its own financial resources to lay fiber to the home service to 40 of Italy’s biggest cities over the next two years. The government has pushed for major improvements in Italian broadband to catch up with the rest of Europe and beat the U.S. and Canada. It will spend $6.5 billion dollars to accelerate the development of a nationwide fiber network and the government has also extended a range of incentives to persuade operators to boost Internet speeds without boosting prices for Italian consumers.

Once the fiber network is complete, Telecom Italia can further increase speeds to 1Gbps or more.

AT&T Barely Launches GigaPower U-verse in Houston… Another Fiber to the Press Release Irritates Locals

gigapower-600x315Houston residents excited by this week’s launch of AT&T U-verse with GigaPower have been quickly disappointed after learning the service is available practically nowhere in Houston and likely won’t be for some time.

The upgrade, offering up to 1,000/1,000Mbps broadband, was launched Monday with an announcement “select residents” in Bellaire, Pasadena, and northwest Harris County, Tex. will be the first to get the service.

Bellaire, known as the “City of Homes,” is a primarily residential community of 6,000 houses surrounded by the city of Houston. AT&T’s Houston headquarters are located in Bellaire, and the company maintains good relations with the local government. Larry Evans, AT&T’s vice president and general manager for South Texas told the Houston Chronicle that is a key factor for getting GigaPower upgrades. Evans said Bellaire, Pasadena and northwest Harris County have been very cooperative in clearing red tape and letting AT&T install fiber infrastructure for GigaPower with a minimum of fuss from permitting and zoning authorities.

Bellaire is a mostly residential community surrounded by Houston.

Bellaire is a mostly residential community surrounded by Houston.

The larger city of Pasadena, with a population approaching 150,000 is another case where close cooperation with the city government made the difference. The city council contracts with AT&T to supply telecom services to the local government as well.

As in other AT&T service areas, actual availability of GigaPower is extremely limited. A search of prospective addresses in Pasadena found service available in only a few neighborhoods. In Bellaire, only a few streets now qualify for service. We were unable to find a single address in “northwest Harris County” that qualified for U-verse with GigaPower, but AT&T claims that “surrounding communities” would also have access, without disclosing the names of any of them. That makes it extremely difficult to accurately use AT&T’s service qualification tool to verify coverage.

Jim Cale found he pre-qualified on the website for U-verse with GigaPower service, but his hopes were dashed when a representative informed him his order was canceled because, in fact, GigaPower was not actually available on his street.

“My neighborhood was wired with fiber to the home when it [was built] a few years ago,” shared “Ed From Texas.” “AT&T is the provider and that was one of its advertised features. Who do I need to harass at AT&T to get Gigapower turned on for us?”

Gene R. is in a similar predicament:

“I can’t even get U-Verse and I am two blocks from loop 610,” he said. “AT&T says they don’t know when it will be available. I suspect…never.”

Richard dumped AT&T in the past for not meeting the speeds U-verse advertises, but is hopeful an all-fiber network might finally bring better speeds.

pasadena“I dropped AT&T’s MaxPlus because I never got anything approaching the 18Mbps speed I was being billed for,” he wrote.

AT&T will sell several U-verse with GigaPower plans in Houston. The packages below include waivers of equipment, installation and activation fees, if you agree to allow AT&T to monitor your browsing activity:

  • U-verse High Speed Internet Premier: Internet speeds up to 1Gbps starting as low as $110 a month, or speeds at 300Mbps as low as $80 a month, with a one year price guarantee;
  • U-verse High Speed Internet Premier + TV: Internet speeds up to 1Gbps and qualifying TV service starting as low as $150 a month, or speeds at 300Mbps and qualifying TV service as low as $120 a month, with a one year price guarantee;
  • U-verse High Speed Internet Premier + TV + Voice: Internet speeds up to 1Gbps with qualifying TV service and Unlimited U-verse Voice starting as low as $180 a month, or speeds at 300Mbps with qualifying TV service and Unlimited U-verse Voice as low as $150 a month, with a two-year price guarantee.

These offers all include a provision in the service agreement allowing AT&T to spy on your browsing habits ostensibly to supply “targeted advertising.” But the terms and conditions do not limit AT&T from broadening its monitoring of your usage for other purposes. If you opt out, the price goes up to $109 monthly for 300Mbps service and $139 monthly for 1Gbps broadband and you will pay installation and activation fees.

AT&T says the monitoring is done purely to power its targeted ads. Some examples:

  • If you search for concert tickets, you may receive offers and ads related to restaurants near the concert venue;
  • After you browse hotels in Miami, you may be offered discounts for rental cars there;
  • If you search for a car online, you may receive an email notifying you of a local dealership’s sale;
  • If you are exploring a new home appliance at one retailer, you may be presented with similar appliance options from other retailers.

“You might receive these offers or ads online, via email or through direct mail,” says AT&T on their Internet Preferences page.

The “price guarantee” provision is actually a contract obligating you to stay with U-verse for 1-2 years or face an early termination fee of $180. AT&T also warns your Internet speeds will deteriorate “if two or more HD shows [are] viewed at same time.” Usage caps apply, as usual. GigaPower customers signed up for the fastest speeds receive 1 terabyte, or 1,000 gigabytes, of data per month. Customers will get warnings if they exceed the cap twice. The third time, and going forward after that, they’ll pay a $10 fee for each 50GB over the cap.

UK Regulator: Don’t Call Your Wireless Service Unlimited and Then Throttle Heavy Users to Death

virgin-media-union-logo“Unlimited data” must mean exactly that in the United Kingdom if you hope to survive a challenge with British regulators over advertising and tariff claims.

Virgin Media thought itself clever offering “VIP” mobile customers two choices for service: £15 for a package that included 3GB of mobile data or £20 for “unlimited” data. Unlimited sounds like a great deal. For just $7.41 more, a customer could turn their stingy 3GB plan into unlimited data paradise. Or so one would think until navigating a nearly impenetrable thicket of fine print that suggested “you should expect speeds delivered up to 384kbps (3G). Actual speeds experienced may be higher or lower and will vary by device and location.”

Seven complainants discovered something interesting about their “unlimited data plan.” It sped along at an average speed of 6Mbps until they hit 3.5GB of usage during any billing cycle. After that, speeds were consistently reduced to 384kbps. They quickly learned Virgin had a secret throttling plan in place for their unlimited customers, couched in vague and misleading fine print that suggested customers should treat anything over 384kbps as a veritable gift from the mobile gods.

Why hide the fact Virgin has a “fair use policy” similar to many other wireless carriers that promise unlimited data only to throttle speeds after customers reach a certain amount of usage? Look again at Virgin’s pricing.

A customer could choose a £15 plan that included 3GB of usage or spend an extra £5 for what actually turns out to be just 500MB of regular speed data. If customers realized that, they would likely keep the £5 in their wallet. Instead, it went straight into Virgin’s bank account.

Virgin’s response is familiar to any customer who thought they bought an unlimited plan only to discover it cannot reasonably be used once an arbitrary limit is reached. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) summarized Virgin’s reply:

They said within all of their advertising, whenever they referred to “unlimited data” in connection with their mobile tariffs, they included an explanation within the small print that customers should expect speeds of up to 384kbit/s.  They said the restriction imposed on customers was moderate in respect of the service being advertised.

They noted that the body copy of the ad did not make any reference to internet speeds, and said that Virgin Mobile customers were never prevented from accessing the internet, no matter how much data they used.  They therefore maintained that access to data for any customer was entirely unlimited.  They said, where a customer exceeded 3.5GB in any 30-day period, they would still be able to use the internet on their device at 3G speeds.  They said that 2% of Virgin Media customers ever reached the limit in a 30-day period, which they considered was a tiny minority. They said that the customers using more than 3.5GB of data each month would be those customers who would be more aware of the advertised expected speed, and that the average consumer would therefore not have been misled.

asaThat last sentence in particular did not amuse the regulators. In the United Kingdom, making a claim of “unlimited service” means that any limitations imposed on that service affecting speed or usability must be at most moderate and clearly disclosed. Virgin failed on both.

Average 3G speeds in Britain are now 6.1Mbps and that speed does not vary much between providers. The ASA ruled that slashing speeds to a fraction of 6Mbps went way beyond the rules.

“Given the speeds we understood consumers were likely to achieve before the [throttle], we considered that they were likely to notice the drop in speeds once the restriction was applied, as had a number of the complainants,” wrote the ASA. “We considered that a reduction in speed from an average we understood to be approximately 6 Mbit/s to 384 kbit/s once the limit was reached, was more than a moderate reduction. Because we considered the limitation imposed on speeds to be more than moderate, we concluded that the claim ‘unlimited data’ was misleading.”

As a result, Virgin Media was told not to claim that a service was ‘unlimited’ if the limitations that affected the speed or usage of the service were more than moderate.

Stop the Cap! Calls on Comcast to End Its Usage Caps/Usage Billing Trials, Restore Unlimited Service

Phillip "Comcast lost its case for usage caps" Dampier

Phillip “Comcast lost its case for usage caps” Dampier

With today’s announcement Comcast intends to bring unlimited 2Gbps broadband to as many as 18 million homes across its service area, one thing is clear — if Comcast is not worried about the impact of that many potential customers consuming 2Gbps of bandwidth, there is absolutely no justification to impose usage caps and allowances on any Comcast customer.

A frequent justification for usage caps and usage billing is to guarantee fair access for all customers on a shared, congested network. Another is to help defray the cost of broadband expansion. But Comcast’s new super-speed tier will have no usage cap and customers are invited to use it as much as they like for a fixed price. Clearly, a customer maxing out a 2Gbps connection to upload and download enormous amounts of content, say on a peer-to-peer network, will have a far greater impact on Comcast’s infrastructure than a user with a basic 25Mbps Internet connection. Yet today in Atlanta, Comcast is asking its 25Mbps customers to stay within a 300GB usage allowance, if they want to avoid an overlimit penalty of $10 for each 50GB block of additional usage.

Comcast does not like Stop the Cap! calling Comcast’s “data usage trials” what we believe them to be: “usage caps.”

In response to our testimony before the New York Public Service Commission last year regarding its application to acquire Time Warner Cable, Comcast objected to our claim it was placing usage allowances or limits on its broadband customers.

“Comcast does not have ‘data caps’ today,” Comcast told the PSC in its filing. “Comcast announced almost two years ago that it was suspending enforcement of its prior 250GB excessive usage cap and that it would instead be trialing different pricing and packaging options to evaluate options for subscribers—options that reflect evolving Internet usage and that are based on the desire to provide flexible consumption plans, including a plan that enables customers who want to use more data the option to pay more to do so as well as a plan for those who use less data the option to save some money.”

Yet Comcast’s desire to offer “flexible” usage plans becomes very inflexible when customers ask for unlimited service. Comcast has refused to offer such an option in several trial markets where usage caps are once again being tested.

courtesy-notice-640x259Last May, Comcast vice president David Cohen emphatically stated usage caps and usage-based billing were all about “fairness,” telling investors: “People who use more should pay more, and people who use less should pay less.”

Those signing up for 2Gbps service will be in a position to use far more bandwidth and data than any other Comcast customer subscribing to a lower speed broadband tier, yet will not be asked to pay more for using more or pay less for using less. They will be signing up for a simple to understand unlimited usage plan most Comcast customers want that will carry no billing surprises. At the moment, that is the only unlimited tier residential plan a Comcast customer in Atlanta will be able to buy.

Also turned on its head is the idea that customers who use the most bandwidth or cost Comcast the most should be contributing more to help Comcast pay for network upgrades, but once again this will not be the case for 2Gbps customers in Atlanta. They will cost Comcast a fortune as the company rips out its existing HFC (coaxial cable) infrastructure and replaces it with fiber to the home service. Yet the 25Mbps customer still using decades-old coaxial cable is effectively being asked to limit their Internet usage to avoid additional charges while the 2Gbps modern fiber customer is not.

It clearly makes no sense, but will rake in dollars for Comcast as usage continues to grow.

If Comcast’s network can sustain up to 18 million 2Gbps users with no usage cap, it has more than enough capacity to take the limits off every Comcast broadband customer. Comcast must shelve its usage billing trials immediately and remove all usage allowances from residential broadband customers in various test markets where they have been in place for more than a year. Google, Verizon, Time Warner Cable, Cablevision, Charter, and many other broadband providers have found no defensible reason to slap usage limits on their broadband customers. If they can provide comparable speeds and service without a cap, so can Comcast.

Comcast should clearly state it is in the business of providing the best possible customer experience using 21st century infrastructure more than robust enough to sustain usage demands, and compulsory usage caps and consumption billing are incompatible with the company’s goal to provide top-quality, worry-free Internet access.

If Comcast wants to test voluntary discount programs for light users, we have no objection. But customers should always have access to an affordable unlimited option without having to watch usage meters or worry about bill shock.

Comcast needs to do the right thing today and end all compulsory data usage trials across the country and commit to providing unlimited, allowance-free broadband service.

Thurman, N.Y.’s Rural ‘White Space’ Wireless Network Debuts; Speed, Capacity Blows DSL and Satellite Away

The national map of available white space channels show plenty are available in rural areas, but designing an urban network might prove challenging because open channels just don't exist.

The national map of available white space channels show plenty are available in rural areas, but designing an urban network might prove challenging because open channels often just don’t exist. In a medium-sized city like Rochester, only 11 UHF channels are available, a number likely to dwindle to close to zero if the FCC successfully reallocates much of the UHF band to wireless providers like AT&T and Verizon.

A dozen homes in the middle of the Adirondacks now have access to Internet speeds far faster than what Verizon and Frontier DSL can deliver and without the usage caps or speed throttling common with satellite Internet access.

Thurman, N.Y.’s public-private “white space” wireless network survived months of political wrangling, debate, and even intentional signal interference created by someone intent on disrupting the project. For a community that some maps depict with zero residents, the 1,200 people of Thurman are now more known than ever, winning national attention for one of the first next generation rural wireless networks to use unused space on the UHF dial to provide Internet access.

A dozen homes are the first to receive the service, with nearly 80 more on the way during phase one of the project. A $200,000 New York state broadband grant helped get the project off the ground and defray the cost of equipment installed in each subscriber’s home. But the initial cost isn’t cheap, even with the grant. New customers pay an upfront equipment fee of $292 for a receiver that costs the project up to $600. The monthly service charge is $50. Despite the price, it’s worth it to a lot of subscribers.

“The white space service is truly amazing,” said John Schroeter of Kenyontown, noting he uses the Internet for genealogical research and relied on dial-up access for the last 15 years. “I can go from one web page to another without waiting forever.”

Schroeter told Denton Publications that web pages often failed to load with dial-up, even after hours of waiting. Now he can manage to complete days of research in about an hour, without having to drive 15 miles to the nearest Wi-Fi hotspot.

Despite the fact Verizon and Frontier Communications both run their own fiber cables on the same utility poles in the region, at least 75% of the 400 homes in Thurman have no access to broadband Internet, living out of reach of even basic DSL. Many end up in the parking lot of the town hall to use Wi-Fi. Others depend on prohibitively expensive satellite access. None of the existing options were ideal. Sheila Flanagan, proprietor of Nettle Meadow Farm complained it took her hours to prepare even a small number of shipping labels to send her cheese products across the country with UPS. Speeds were so slow, she was forced to drop Williams-Sonoma as a client.

thurmanThe concept of white space wireless Internet access has already taken hold in Europe but has dragged in the United States as existing UHF television stations, wireless carriers, wireless microphone manufacturers and others who use the same frequencies white space data services also depend on defend their turf. Since white space services are unlicensed and intended for two-way communications, fears that Internet users would degrade wireless microphones or TV reception meant special care had to be taken to lower the potential for interference.

Since rural areas lack a crowded television dial, are often outside of the coverage areas of wireless carriers, and are unlikely to host many wireless mics, white space broadband would seem like the natural solution.

The project in Thurman faced a number of obstacles to overcome anyway. There were philosophical objections from tea party conservatives who objected to tax dollars paying for the “luxury” of Internet access when satellite service is available. Some residents wanted a fiber to the home solution, one that was likely financially out of reach for the small community. Still others wanted the money spent on a fiber link between the town and Time Warner Cable, that might then be enticed to wire homes in the rural community. In the end, the community decided to go ahead with an advanced wireless network, citing a number of factors familiar to many living in rural areas:

  1. thurman-nySince the town is located entirely within the Adirondack Park, there are prohibitions on placing communications towers on nearby peaks or other high spots that could spoil the view;
  2. The heavily forested and mountainous area made a traditional Wireless ISP project difficult because those networks need line of sight communications. White space wireless signals easily penetrate through trees and can stay intact across hilly terrain;
  3. Although not as bandwidth capable as fiber optics, white space networks are capable of delivering 10Mbps broadband per UHF channel. Most networks bond multiple UHF channels together to support even faster speeds and expand capacity;
  4. The chances of creating interference for other spectrum users was low in Thurman, which is a four-hour drive from New York and far enough north of Albany to avoid interfering with signals from the state capital. Even wireless carriers hug their cell towers along I-87, a respectable distance away;
  5. The network has redundant backhaul access to fiber from both Verizon and Frontier, neither of which show the slightest interest in expanding services into the community on their own;
  6. The grant was limited in scope and white space broadband qualified so it proved the most economical choice for a community that was no stranger to fights over money, engaging in political battles over issues like the cost of building a salt shed and auditing the on-hand count of trash bags.
The Thurman white space broadband project hides base station antennas in the tree canopy.

The Thurman white space broadband project hides base station antennas in the tree canopy.

Tests provided the project managers with an idea where to place needed wireless antennas, often hidden within tree canopies. But at least one disgruntled resident made a point of creating intentional interference on the channels the project managers were testing, committing a federal offense along the way. That was quickly overcome and the equipment has been placed and will soon be joined by installations in nearby neighborhoods, broadening the reach of the service.

Recent advancements in white space technology have also allowed speed and capacity to improve dramatically. Equipment now transmits its exact GPS-identified location to a national database which sends back an authorized list of “white space” channels each transmitter can use to provide the service. If a new licensed broadcaster takes to the airwaves, a database update will lock out that channel in the area, preventing interference.

Although exact speed data was not available at press time, Sally Feihel demonstrated she could successfully stream an episode of a classic Andy Griffith Show on her iPod at the same time a videoconference was underway and someone else was downloading a movie, all without skipping a beat. In fact, there is so much speed and capacity built into the system, its managers say speed throttles and usage caps are completely unnecessary.

Most users agreed the wireless network far outpaced satellite and DSL and some believed it was even faster than Time Warner Cable Internet access they experienced elsewhere. (Time Warner Cable doesn’t come near the community today.)

Constructing the network only took several months, but the politics that often surrounds public-private initiatives and the need for grant funding in income-challenged rural America can tie up projects much longer than that. The need for decent and affordable Internet access often will cross party lines, especially in rural communities.

New York’s state broadband expansion fund could help expand similar projects to other bypassed areas of the state. That investment may actually save taxpayers from paying high broadband bills indefinitely.

Residents are eagerly waiting for the next expansion to begin down Valley, Garnet Lake and Glen-Athol Roads. Moving beyond that may take more grant funding.

“White space is saving us $90 per month, and it’s far faster than satellite ever was,” another resident said.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/MetroFocus A New way to Bring Broadband to Rural Towns in Upstate New York 2014.mp4

MetroFocus showed the initial planning and testing phases of Thurman’s new white space wireless network, including interviews with town officials and a tour of the community. (4:23)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Dynamic Spectrum in Action How TV White Space Devices Work.mp4

TV white space wireless broadband networks are designed to avoid interference with other licensed spectrum users. See how the technology works in this short video. (2:27)

Comcast Screw Up Forces Washington Man to Sell His New Home; Quoted Him $60,000 Installation Fee

MasterMap_Oct2012A Washington state man who just moved into his new home is now being forced to consider selling it to somebody else because Comcast repeatedly misled him about its ability to provide service.

Seth told his extensive story to The Consumerist, which detailed his repeated attempts to get Comcast broadband service after multiple missed or unfinished service appointments. More importantly, Seth is representative of many Americans who have been told broadband is a fiercely competitive industry, yet they cannot sign up for service at a reasonable price from any provider.

For Seth, having reliable broadband service is not just a convenience — it is essential if he wants to stay employed. Before even considering making an offer on his new home in Kitsap County, Seth did his homework verifying Comcast provided service in the neighborhood. Comcast repeatedly assured him it did, and one sales rep confirmed a former resident at the same address had Comcast service. Seth was satisfied, bought the home and called to get Comcast service installed. But when a Comcast crew arrived Jan. 31, they quickly discovered there was no cable line strung to Seth’s property. That isn’t typically a deal-breaker and the techs completed a “drop bury request” that would normally result in the arrival of a Comcast cable burial crew to bring service from a nearby utility pole. Not this time.

Comcast determined the same home that its own sales rep promised used to have Comcast service was now suddenly too far away from Comcast’s infrastructure. If it decided to offer Seth service, the company quoted an installation fee approaching $60,000.

Seth consulted the FCC’s Broadband Map which depicted Kitsap County a veritable paradise of competition, with at least 10 providers fighting for his business. But Seth quickly realized the FCC’s map was misleading and inaccurate.

comcast whoppersFour of his options were wireless carriers that don’t provide a strong signal to his home or charge obscenely high prices for usage capped Internet access. ViaSat was on the list promising up to 25Mbps, but ViaSat satellite customers can testify the actual speeds received are much slower, and do not reliably support the VPN access Seth required.

Neither Comcast or CenturyLink offer broadband service to Seth, despite the fact both told the FCC they did for the purpose of its map. StarTouch uses microwave signals to reach its customers, but not in Seth’s part of Kitsap County. It seems someone put up a large building in between StarTouch’s transmission facilities and Seth’s home, blocking the service for a significant part of the county.

XO Communications does provide reliable T1 service to businesses at speeds from 1.544Mbps – 6Mbps. The biggest downside is its cost — $600 a month. Finally, Seth’s only other alternative is a gigabit fiber network run by the Kitsap Public Utility District. But cable companies like Comcast effectively lobbied to guarantee those types of networks would never be a competitor by pushing for laws that forbid retail service to individual homes or businesses. In Washington, the law only allows the utility district to sell wholesale access to its network to companies like… Comcast.

In the end, Comcast decided it wasn’t interested in serving Seth even if he found the $60,000 to cover the installation fee. CenturyLink shrugged its shoulders over why it isn’t offering DSL in Seth’s neighborhood. Seth is preparing to put his home back on the market. It’s a perfect choice for Luddites everywhere.

The moral of the story?

  • Comcast is not always forthcoming and honest when signing up customers and led Seth through two months of missed appointments and misinformation;
  • The accuracy of the FCC’s broadband availability map is questionable.

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