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Verizon Accuses AT&T of “Rigging the Game to Stifle True Competition”

It is rare for AT&T and Verizon to feud in public, even rarer for one company to accuse the other of being anti-competitive, but that is precisely what happened last week in California as the two companies sparred over building a next generation wireless network for first responders.

The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) is a government program to provide emergency responders with priority access to the first nationwide, high-speed wireless broadband network dedicated to public safety. AT&T won an extremely lucrative contract to build, operate and maintain the network in states that “opt in” to AT&T/FirstNet’s proposal. But AT&T is not building a separate wireless network apart from its existing wireless infrastructure. It is using $6.5 billion in public taxpayer dollars and free access to an extremely valuable segment of nationwide 700MHz spectrum, known as Band 14, to improve its existing wireless network for individual customers and the first responders that will get priority access in the event of an emergency.

For AT&T to benefit the most financially, it has to convince each of 56 states and territories to “opt in” to its FirstNet deployment plan or do nothing at all, which will result in that state or territory automatically being enrolled in AT&T’s plan. If a state elects to opt out of AT&T’s plan, the wireless company cannot get free access to Band 14 or collect the taxpayer dollars designated for that area.

FirstNet is one of AT&T’s most lucrative contracts in years, and the phone company is doing everything possible to win over state officials in hopes they will embrace the FirstNet plan. It has been a successful effort with more than 30 states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands purposely opting in, and more than a dozen still studying AT&T’s offer. To date, no state has opted out.

Verizon, which did not bid on the original FirstNet contract, has not walked away from providing public safety communications and has spent a considerable amount of its advertising budget to promote Verizon’s own services to first responders, designed to assure they get first priority to clogged cellular networks in the event of an emergency. In August, Verizon announced it will privately finance its own “private network core” to directly serve police, fire, ambulance, and related agencies. Verizon’s first responder network will be separate from Verizon’s public network, but the company has also promised full priority access to its public LTE 4G network across the country.

Verizon’s counteroffer comes without taxpayer financing, yet will offer many of the same services as AT&T FirstNet, without costing the country more than $6 billion. Among the services Verizon will give away for free: priority/preemption access, which means in an emergency, first priority will go to emergency officials even if it means dropping your cell phone call or data session. Verizon is also bolstering its Push-to-Talk Plus service, which works with existing land mobile radio networks. This will allow first responders to use the “walkie talkie”-type features already a familiar part of their radio equipment.

Verizon’s offer would seem to be a good deal for consumers and governments in states like New York and California that have yet to opt in to AT&T FirstNet, and in California, Verizon was invited to bid to create an alternative network in a potential “opt out” scenario. Verizon’s director of public-safety solutions group – David Wiederecht, promised the state Verizon would submit its bid by the state deadline, which was last Wednesday. By Friday, California officials leaked word Verizon had reneged on that commitment and did not participate, a fact Verizon later confirmed.

Verizon accused AT&T and FirstNet of colluding to rig the “Request for Proposals” process in California with requirements that were impossible for anyone except AT&T to meet.

“Vigorous competition that allows the industry and the marketplace to continue to grow and innovate is in the best interest of public safety and should be everyone’s shared goal,” Verizon said in a written statement. “Instead, we believe FirstNet and its corporate partner are rigging the game in order to stifle true competition.”

Urgent Communications reported that the among the most onerous requirements imposed by AT&T and FirstNet is that all emergency communications in an “opt out” state must be sent to the FirstNet LTE core network operated by AT&T. That would mean that regardless of who builds and operates the network, AT&T still remains at the core of FirstNet.

“We’re not prepared to have our public safety customers run on a network where we can’t control their ability to connect or their customer experience,” according to the Verizon spokesperson.

Verizon suggests the reason for 36 states to have opted-in to AT&T’s proposal may not be the result of love for AT&T, but rather the punishments the states and territories risk if they don’t sign on with AT&T.

Don Brittingham, Verizon’s vice president of public safety, testified at a Pennsylvania hearing regarding FirstNet and warned states could be effectively stuck with AT&T indefinitely.

“States should not be required to use the network core deployed by (AT&T) FirstNet, as such a requirement would put the state in the untenable position of being driven by the interests and decisions of FirstNet’s commercial partner—a condition that would be unattractive to any prospective state commercial partner,” Brittingham said.

AT&T has also borrowed from its customer preservation policies on the retail side with terms and conditions that could be financially devastating to states that decide to look elsewhere.

Because any competing provider is required to use AT&T’s network core to be a part of FirstNet, AT&T can set whatever price it chooses for third party access. But most onerous of all is the penalty imposed if a state opts out of AT&T FirstNet and chooses a vendor that does not meet every FirstNet guideline. In that case, a state would be required to come hat in hand back to AT&T/FirstNet for service that does meet the guidelines AT&T/FirstNet wrote. In California, that penalty fee would amount to as much as $15 billion, more than twice the amount taxpayers are paying AT&T to build out FirstNet in at least 36 states and territories.

Taken from a FirstNet fact sheet.

AT&T defended the amount of the penalty fee, claiming it has to build or enhance its network to provide public safety communications for at least 25 years, but critics contend the penalty is so risky, most states will opt for the path of least resistance and legal exposure and sign on with AT&T/FirstNet.

Verizon’s complaints about the bidding process received a strong rebuke from AT&T.

“Building a state-of-the art network that meets the needs of first responders is hard. Clearly, AT&T is up for the task,” Chris Sambar, AT&T’s senior vice president for FirstNet, said in a statement provided to Urgent Communications. “We’re noticing a pattern: Verizon says they have public safety’s back, but when it comes to the heavy lifting, they are nowhere to be found.”

But then, neither are any competing providers.

Wall Street Uneasy About Future 5G Broadband Competition; Ponders Idea of 5G Monopolies

Super monopoly?

Some Wall Street analysts are pondering ideas on how to limit forthcoming 5G wireless home broadband, suggesting providers might want to set up local monopolies, keeping competition to a minimum and profits to a maximum.

Verizon’s presentation at its annual Analyst Day meeting drew little praise from analysts and investors in attendance, “landing like a thud” to quote one person at the event.

The issue concerning Wall Street is what impact 5G wireless broadband will have on the internet access marketplace, which is currently a comfortable monopoly or duopoly in most American cities. That may radically change if the country’s four wireless companies each launch their own 5G services, designed to replace wired home broadband services from the cable and phone companies.

This week Verizon formally announced Sacramento would be the first city in the country to get its forthcoming 5G service, with an additional four of five unnamed cities to follow sometime next year.

Verizon will advertise 1,000Mbps service that will be “priced competitively” with current internet providers in the market. But Verizon intends to market itself as “a premium provider,” which means pricing is likely to be higher than one might expect. Verizon claims they intend to roll out 5G service to 30 million households — 25-30% of the country, making Verizon a prominent provider of fixed wireless home broadband service.

But analysts panned Verizon’s presentation for raising more questions than the company was prepared to answer. Barron’s shared the views of several analysts who were underwhelmed.

Notably, Craig Moffett from Moffett-Nathanson was particularly concerned about how to rate 5G service for his investor clients, and more importantly to them, how to forecast revenue and profit.

Moffett

The biggest problem for Moffett is the prospect of additional competition, and what that will do to each current (and future) provider’s share of customers and its revenue. If every major wireless carrier enters the 5G home broadband business, that will raise the prospective number of ISPs available to consumers to six or more — four wireless carriers competing with the phone and cable company. That is potentially very dangerous to big profits, especially if a competitive price war emerges.

“Let’s assume that AT&T is just as aggressive about this opportunity as Verizon,” Moffett told his investor clients. “Will they enter the same markets as Verizon, or different ones? […] If multiple players enter each market, all targeting the same 25-30% [where 5G service will be sold]. Well, what then? Let’s suppose the 30% market share estimate is right. Wouldn’t it be now shared among two, three, or even four [5G fixed wireless broadband] providers?”

Moffett gently proposes a concept where this profit-bruising competition can be abated by following the cable television model — companies agree to stay out of each others’ markets, giving consumers a choice of just one 5G provider in each city instead of four.

“There’s a completely different future where each operator targets different markets […] Let’s say that AT&T decides to skip Sacramento. After all, Verizon will have gotten there first,” Moffett suggests. “If the required share of the [fixed wireless] market is close to Verizon’s estimated 30%, then there is only room for one provider. So AT&T decides to do Stockton, about 40 miles to the south. Verizon would then skip Stockton, but might do Modesto, twenty miles further south… and then AT&T would then skip Modesto and instead target Fresno… unless Sprint or T-Mobile got there first.”

But Moffett is thinking even further ahead, by suggesting wireless carriers might be able to stop spending billions on building and expanding their competing 4G LTE networks when they could all share a single provider’s network in each city. That idea could work if providers agreed to creating local monopolies.

“That would create a truly bizarre market dynamic that is almost unimaginable today, where each operator ‘owned’ different cities, not just for [5G] but also for 4G LTE. If this kind of patchwork were to come to pass, the only viable solution might then be for companies to reciprocally wholesale their networks. You can use mine in Modesto if I can use yours in Fresno. To state the obvious, there is almost no imaginable path to that kind of an outcome today.”

The reason providers have not attempted this kind of “one provider” model in the past is because former FCC commissioners would have never supported the idea of retiring wireless competition and creating a cable monopoly-like model for wireless service. But things have changed dramatically with the advent of Chairman Ajit Pai, who potentially could be sold on the idea of granting local monopolies on the theory it will “speed 5G deployment” to a large number of different cities. Just as independent wireless providers lease access on the four largest carriers today (MVNO agreements), AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint could sell wholesale access to their networks to each other, allowing massive cost savings, which may or may not be passed on to customers.

But it would also bring an end to network redundancy, create capacity problems, and require every carrier to be certain their networks were interoperable with other wireless companies. The federal government’s emergency first responder program also increasingly depends on a wireless network AT&T is building that would give them first priority access to wireless services. How that would work in a city “designated” to get service from Verizon is unclear.

Restricting competition would protect profits and sharing networks would slash expenses. But such prospects were not enough to assuage Wall Street’s insatiable hunger for maximum profits. That is why analysts were unimpressed with Verizon’s presentation, which “lacked the financials” — precise numbers that explain how much the network will cost, how quickly it will be paid off, and how much revenue it can earn for investors.

A small cell attached to a light pole.

Verizon did sell investors on the idea 5G will put an end to having to wire fiber optics to every home. The service will also keep costs to a minimum by selling retail activation kits customers will install themselves — avoiding expensive truck rolls. Billing and account activation will also be self-service.

Verizon also announced a new compact 4G/5G combined antenna, which means 5G service can be supplied through existing macro/small cell 4G equipment. Verizon will be able to supplement that network by adding new 5G nodes where it becomes necessary.

Investor expectations are that 5G will cost substantially less than fiber to the home service, will not cost massive amounts of new investment dollars to deploy in addition to maintaining existing 4G services, will not substantially undercut existing providers, and will allow Verizon to market 21st century broadband speeds to its customers bypassed for FiOS fiber service. It will also threaten rural phone companies, where customers could easily replace slow speed DSL in favor of what Verizon claims will be “gigabit wireless.”

Despite that, Instinet’s Jeffrey Kvaal was not wowed by Verizon’s look to the future.

“Verizon’s initial fixed wireless implementation seems clunky and it withheld its pricing strategy,” Kvaal told his clients. He believes fixed wireless broadband will cost Verizon an enormous amount of money he feels would be better spent on Verizon’s mobile network. “Verizon glossed over 5-10x LTE upgrades that are already offering ~100Mbps of fully mobile service at current prices to current phones without line of sight. A better 5G story might be to free up sufficient LTE capacity to boost the unlimited cap from 25GB to 100GB for, say, a $25 premium. The ‘cut the cord’ concept was successful in voice, in video, and should be in broadband.”

Defenders of FCC’s Ajit Pai Miss the Point on Cutting Broadband Speed Standards

Defenders of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai are rushing to defend the Republican majority’s likely support for an initiative to roll back the FCC’s 25/3Mbps speed standard embraced by his predecessor, Thomas Wheeler.

Johnny Kampis, writing for Watchdog.org, claims that broadband speed standard has had an adverse affect on solving America’s rural broadband gap.

After raising that standard, suddenly those areas with speeds below 10 mbps were lumped into the same group with those who could access speeds of 10-25 mbps, resulting in diminished focus on those areas where the broadband gap cut the deepest.

Raising the standard meant, too, that fans of big government could point to the suddenly higher percentage of the population that was “underserved” on internet speeds and call for more taxpayer money to solve that “problem.”

Kampis is relying on the talking points from the broadband industry, which also happens to support the same ideological interests of Watchdog.org’s benefactor, the corporate/foundation-funded Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity. The argument suggests that if you raise broadband standards, that opens the door to more communities to claim they too are presently underserved, which then would qualify them for government-funded broadband improvements.

Kampis’ piece, like many of those published on Watchdog.org, distorts reality with suggestions that communities with 50Mbps broadband service will now be ripe for government handouts. He depends on an unnamed source from an article written on Townhall.com and also quotes the CEO of Freedom Foundation of Minnesota, which is closely associated with the same Franklin Center that hosts Watchdog.org. Kampis’ piece relies on sourcing that is directly tied to the organization hosting his article.

In reality, rural broadband funding has several mechanisms in place which heavily favor unserved, rural areas, not communities that already have 50Mbps internet access. ISPs also routinely object to projects proposed within their existing service areas, declaring them already served, and much of the funding doled out by the Connect America Fund (CAF) Kampis suggests is a government handout are being given to telephone companies, not municipalities.

Kampis

Kampis is satisfied free market capitalism will eventually solve the rural broadband problem, despite two decades of lackluster or non-existent service in areas deemed unprofitable to serve.

“So while Pai’s critics denigrate him because his FCC is considering lowering that broadband standard, he’s just correcting an earlier mistake, with the realization that the free market, not big government, will solve the rural broadband gap if given enough time,” Kampis writes. “And returning to the old standards will help ensure that the focus will be placed squarely on the areas that need the most help.”

Kampis suggests that free market solution might be 5G wireless broadband, which can potentially serve rural populations less expensively than traditional wired broadband service. Communities only need wait another 5-10 years for that to materialize, if it does at all.

Kampis claims to be an investigative reporter, but he didn’t venture too far beyond regurgitating press releases and talking points from big phone companies and opponents of municipal broadband. If he had spent time reviewing correspondence sent to the FCC in response to the question of easing broadband speed standards, he would have discovered the biggest advocates for that are large phone companies and wireless carriers that stand to benefit the most from the change.

Following the money usually delivers a clearer, more fact-based explanation for what motivates players in the broadband industry. In this case, the 25Mbps speed standard has regularly been attacked by phone and wireless companies hoping to tap into government funds to build out their networks. Traditional phone companies are upset that the 25Mbps requirement means their typical rural broadband solution – DSL, usually won’t cut it. Wireless companies have also had a hard time assuring the FCC of consistent 25Mbps speeds, making it difficult for them to qualify for grants. AT&T wasn’t happy with a 10Mbps standard for wireless service either.

Incidentally, these are the same companies that have failed to solve the rural broadband gap all along. Most will continue not serving rural areas unless the government covers part of their costs. AT&T illustrates that with its own fixed wireless rural broadband solution, which came about grudgingly with the availability of CAF funding.

The dark money ATM network hides corporate contributions funneled into advocacy groups.

The free market broadband solution is rooted in meeting Return On Investment metrics. In short, if a home costs more to serve that a company can recoup in a short amount of time, that home will not be served unless either the homeowner or someone else covers the costs of providing the service. By wiping out the Obama Administration’s FCC speed standard, more ratepayer dollars will be directed to phone and wireless companies that will build less expensive and less-capable DSL and wireless networks instead of investing in more modern technology like fiber optics.

Mr. Kampis, and others, through their advocacy, claim their motive is a reduction in government waste. But in reality, and not by coincidence, their brand of journalism hoodwinks readers into advocating against their best interests of getting fast, future-proofed broadband, and instead hand more money to companies like AT&T. The Franklin Center refuses to reveal its donor list, of course, but SourceWatch reported the Center is heavily dependent on funding from DonorsTrust, which cloaks the identity of its corporate donors. Mother Jones went further and called it “a dark money ATM.”

Companies like AT&T didn’t end up this lucky by accident. It donates to dark money groups that fund various sock puppet and astroturf operations that avoid revealing where the money comes from, while the groups get to claim they are advocating for taxpayers. By no coincidence, these groups frequently don’t attack corporate welfare, especially if the recipient is also a donor.

New York’s rural broadband initiative is on track to deliver near 100% broadband coverage to all New York homes and has speed requirements and a ban on hard data caps.

Raising speed standards does not harm rural broadband expansion. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s broadband expansion campaign is on track to reach the remaining 150,000 homes still without broadband access by sometime next year. His program relies on broadband expansion funding that comes with requirements that insist providers offer internet access capable of at least 25Mbps (with a preference for 100Mbps) for $60 or less and a ban on hard usage caps. Kampis claims the 25Mbps speed standard hampers progress, yet New York is the first state in the nation moving towards 100% broadband availability for its residents at that speed or better.

Chairman Pai’s solution is little more than a gift to the country’s largest phone and wireless companies that would like to capture more CAF money for themselves while delivering the least amount of service possible (and keep money out of the hands of municipalities that want to build their own more capable networks). The evidence is quite clear — relying on the same companies that have allowed the rural broadband crisis to continue for more than 20 years is a stupendously bad idea that only sounds brilliant after some corporation writes a large check.

Telecom Companies Prepare for Hurricane Irma

AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint, and T-Mobile are sending technicians to hundreds of cell sites across Florida to top off fuel generators, test back up batteries, and protect facilities from Hurricane Irma’s anticipated storm surge and associated flooding.

“Customers rely on us, especially during major storms,” said Joe York, AT&T Florida president. “That’s why we practice readiness drills and simulations throughout the year. We do all we can to have our networks prepared when severe weather strikes. We’ve worked for the past few days to position equipment and crews to respond to the storm. We’re closely linked with Florida public officials in their storm response efforts. With a storm of this size, we may have some outages. But if service goes down, we’ll do all we can to get it back up as fast as possible.”

With landfall possible along the Florida coast or inland, Verizon pointed out that in Florida, since last hurricane season, it has densified its network with 4G, fortified coverage along evacuation routes, put cell sites equipment on stilts and installed new systems in hospitals, government and emergency facilities, and high-traffic public areas.

“The country is only beginning to wrestle with recovery efforts from Harvey, and already, residents of Florida and the Caribbean are bracing for another potentially devastating storm in Hurricane Irma,” said Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure. “During times like these, the cost of staying connected to friends and loved ones should be the last thing on anyone’s mind, and we want to do what we can to support our customers across impacted areas.”

Hurricane Irma’s impact on Puerto Rico.

AT&T and Verizon Wireless are positioning portable cell tower trailers just outside of areas anticipated to take the brunt of the hurricane. AT&T in particular has a lot to prove as its network now includes FirstNet — a public private wireless broadband network for emergency responders that also depends on AT&T’s wireless networks. States are still in the process of opting in to AT&T’s FirstNet. The company has more than 700 pieces of emergency cellular equipment, including Cell on Wheels, Cell on Light Trucks, portable trailers and generators, and even the possibility of deploying Cells on Wings — airborne cell towers that can restore cell service in areas where roads are inaccessible because of floods.

Wireline companies are also positioning repair crews in the region to bring service back online. Other technicians are checking on emergency generator and battery backup power, particularly for maintaining landline service.

“Our team is working to prepare for extreme weather and will be there for our business and residential customers to quickly and safely restore any affected network services,” reports Frontier Communications, which provides service in former Verizon landline service areas.

The phone company is reminding landline customers that not all phones will operate during a power outage, but that does not mean Frontier’s landline network is down.

“Customers who rely on cordless phones should consider plugging a traditional corded phone directly into the wall. In the event of a commercial power outage, corded phones on the copper network will still operate; cordless ones will not,” the company says. “If commercial power is unavailable, generators and batteries in Frontier’s central offices serve as a backup. Phone lines generally will have enough power in them to use a corded phone. For customers using FiOS phone services, the battery backup will supply voice service for up to eight hours.”

The company also warns customers to watch out for damaged utility lines after the storm is over.

“Stay far away from any downed cables or power lines. Contact Frontier at 800-921-8102 (business) or 800-921-8101 (residential) to report any fallen telephone poles or cables.”

Some companies are offering customers a break on their bills:

  • Verizon: Landline customers will not pay any long distance charges for calls to Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Haiti, and the Turks and Caicos Islands from Sept. 6-9. Taxes and any government surcharges applicable will still apply. Verizon Wireless customers inside the U.S. will not be charged for texts or calls originating in the U.S. to those same countries and territories for the same period.
  • T-Mobile and MetroPCS customers in affected areas of Puerto Rico:  Will get calls, texts, and unlimited data free from Sept. 6th through Sept. 8th. This free service will be available to customers in the 787 and 939 area codes.
  • Sprint: Effective today through Sept. 9, 2017, Sprint will waive call, text and data overage fees for its Sprint, Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile customers in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. For Sprint, Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile customers in the U.S., the company will also waive all international call and text overage fees to the following: Anguilla, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Turks and Caicos, and British Virgin Islands. For the same period, Sprint will also waive roaming voice and text overage fees for its customers in those locations. Fees will be waived during the time specified.
  • Comcast: Opening more than 137,000 XFINITY Wi-Fi hotspots throughout Florida to anyone who needs them, including non-XFINITY customers, for free. For a map of XFINITY Wi-Fi hotspots, which are located both indoors and outdoors in places such as shopping districts, parks and businesses, visit Xfinity.com/wifi. Once in range of a hotspot, select the “xfinitywifi” network name in the list of available hotspots and then launch a browser. Comcast internet customers can sign in with their usernames and passwords and they will be automatically connected to XFINITY Wi-Fi hotspots in the future. Non-Comcast internet subscribers should visit the “Not an Xfinity Internet Customer” section on the sign-in page to get started. Non-customers will be able to renew their complimentary sessions every 2 hours through Sept. 15, 2017.

AT&T Offers These Customer Tips:

  • Keep your mobile phone battery charged. In case of a power outage, have another way to charge your phone like an extra battery, car charger or device-charging accessory. Applicable sales tax holidays are a great time to stock up on cell phone accessories.
  • Keep your mobile devices dry. The biggest threat to your device during a hurricane is water.  Keep it safe from the elements by storing it in a baggie or some other type of protective covering, like an Otterbox phone cover.
  • Have a family communications plan. Choose someone out of the area as a central contact.   Make sure all family members know who to contact if they get separated. Most importantly, practice your emergency plan in advance.
  • Program all of your emergency contact numbers and e-mail addresses into your mobile phone. Numbers should include the police department, fire station and hospital, as well as your family members.
  • Forward your home number to your mobile number in the event of an evacuation. Call forwarding is based out of the telephone central office. This means you will get calls from your landline phone even if your local telephone service is disrupted. If the central office is not operational, services such as voicemail and call forwarding may be useful.
  • Track the storm and access weather information on your mobile device. Many homes lose power during severe weather. You can stay up to speed as a DIRECTV customer, by streaming local weather channels using the DIRECTV application on your smartphone. If you subscribe to mobile DVR, you can also stream every channel directly to your phone.
  • Camera phones provide assistance. If you have a camera phone, take, store and send photos and video clips of damage to your insurance company.
  • Use location-based technology.  Services like AT&T Navigator and AT&T FamilyMap can help you find evacuation routes or avoid traffic from downed trees or power lines. They can also track a family member’s wireless device if you get separated.
  • Limit social media activity. Keep social media activity to a minimum during and after a storm to limit network congestion and allow for emergency communications to go through.

Business Tips:

  • Set up a call-forwarding service to a backup location. Set up a single or multiple hotline number(s) for employees, their families, customers and partners so they all know about the business situation and emergency plan.
  • Back up data to the Cloud. Routinely back up files to an off-site location.
  • Outline detailed plans for evacuation and shelter-in-place. Practice these plans (employee training, etc.). Establish a backup location for your business and meeting place for all employees.
  • Assemble a crisis-management team. Coordinate efforts with neighboring businesses and building management. Disasters that affect your suppliers also affect your business. Outline a plan for supply chain continuity for business needs.

Keeping the lines open for emergencies:

During evacuations, the storm event and its aftermath, network resources will likely be taxed. To help ensure that emergency personnel have open lines, keep these tips in mind:

  • Text messaging. During an emergency situation, text messages may go through more quickly than voice calls because they require fewer network resources. Depending on your text or data plan, additional charges may apply.
  • Be prepared for high call volume. During an emergency, many people are trying to use their phones at the same time. The increased calling volume may create network congestion, leading to “fast busy” signals on your wireless phone or a slow dial tone on your landline phone. If this happens, hang up, wait several seconds and then try the call again. This allows your original call data to clear the network before you try again.
  • Keep non-emergency calls to a minimum, and limit your calls to the most important ones. If there is severe weather, chances are many people will be attempting to place calls to loved ones, friends and business associates.

Additional information and tips for disaster preparedness can be found at www.att.com/vitalconnections.

Telcos Intentionally Cut Rural Broadband Investments Hoping for Taxpayer Subsidies

AT&T: Using taxpayer and ratepayer dollars to subsidize 4G LTE upgrades for its customers.

With taxpayer subsidies on the horizon, phone companies cut back investing their own money on rural broadband expansion hoping taxpayers would cover funding themselves.

That is the conclusion of Dave Burstein, a long-standing and well-respected industry observer and publisher of Net Policy News. Burstein is concerned the unintentional consequence of Obama and Trump Administration rural broadband funding programs has been fewer homes connected than what some carriers would have managed on their own without government subsidies.

“Since 2009, carrier investment in broadband in rural areas has gone down drastically,” Burstein wrote.

As a result, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced plans to spend $4.53 billion from a public-financed Mobility Fund over the next decade to advance 4G LTE service, primarily in rural areas that would not be served in the absence of government support. Burstein suspects much of that money could end up being unnecessarily wasted.

“Under current plans, most of the money is likely to go where telcos would build [4G] without a subsidy, [or will be used to] buy obsolete technology, or give the telcos two or three times what the job should cost,” Burstein wrote. “Any spending on wireless except where towers or backhaul is unavailable should be assumed wasteful until proven otherwise.  Realistic costs need to be developed and subsidies allocated on that basis.”

AT&T’s rural fixed wireless expansion program, funded substantially by U.S. taxpayers and ratepayers, is a case in point. AT&T is receiving almost $428 million a year in public funds to extend wireless access to 1.1 million customers in 18 states, the FCC says. Much of that investment is claimed to be spent retrofitting and upgrading existing cell towers to support 4G LTE service. But AT&T claims 98% of its customers already have access to 4G LTE service — more than any other carrier in the country, so AT&T is actually spending the money to bolster its existing 4G LTE network, something more likely to benefit its cell customers, not a few thousand fixed wireless customers.

(Source: AT&T)

“An AT&T exec in California said communities didn’t need to worry about the impact of the CAF-funded project, since it was almost all going to be on existing towers,” Burstein wrote, allaying fears among members of the public that money would be spent on lots of new cell towers. “I don’t know what loophole AT&T is using to get the money, but it’s a pretty safe guess they would have upgraded most of them without the government paying. 4G service now reaches all but 3-5 million of the 110-126 million U.S. households. Probably half [of the less than five million] targeted would soon be served without a subsidy – if the telcos knew no subsidy was likely. Before spending a penny on subsidies, the FCC needs to do a thorough assessment of what would be built without government money.”

Burstein

Wireless executives were delighted when the U.S. government in 2009 committed to spending $7 billion in taxpayer funds on broadband stimulus funding as part of a full-scale economic stimulus program to combat the Great Recession.

“Both George Bush in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008 had promised to bring affordable broadband to all Americans,” Burstein noted. “The clamor to reach these last few million was so loud, telcos became confident the government would pay for it if they just stopped their own investment. They aren’t stupid and refused to spend their own money. Before 2009 and the expected huge stimulus program, most telcos expanded their networks each year, based on available capital funds.”

Burstein believes some phone companies became better experts at milking government money to pay for needed network upgrades than frugally spending public funds on rural broadband expansion. As a result, after eight years and massive spending, Burstein notes fewer than two million of the “unserved” six million homes were reached by wireline or wireless broadband service when the funding ran out.

Under Chairman Pai’s latest round of rural broadband funding, Burstein believes much of this new money is also at risk of being wasted.

“[Pai] needs to dig into the details of what he’s proposing,” Burstein wrote. “Nearly all cells with decent backhaul will be upgraded to 4G; Verizon and AT&T have already reached 98% of homes. Government money should go to building towers and backhaul where that’s missing, not filling in network holes the carriers would likely cover.”

Rural advocacy groups have been frustrated for years watching rural telephone companies deliver piecemeal upgrades and service expansion, often to only a few hundred customers at any one time. When they learn how much was spent to extend broadband service to a relatively few number of customers, they are confused because companies often spend much less when they budget and pay for projects on their own without government subsidies.

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

Burstein is currently suspicious about the $200 million approved in subsidy funding to extend rural broadband in parts of upstate New York. Burstein notes Pai is factually wrong about his claim that the hundreds of millions set aside for New York would be spent on “unserved areas of rural New York.”

“Most of that money will not go to unserved areas,” Burstein reports. “Some grants are going to politically connected groups. I’ve read the rules and the approved proposals. The amounts look excessive based on the limited public details.”

Telephone companies have become skilled negotiators when it comes to wiring their rural service areas. Most want more money than the government has previously been willing to offer to help them meet their Return On Investment expectations. Burstein noted that under normal circumstances, a government program offering a 25% subsidy to extend rural broadband into areas considered unprofitable to serve would be enough in most cases to get approval from rural phone companies like CenturyLink and Frontier Communications. But many phone companies, including AT&T, Verizon, and Qwest (now a part of CenturyLink) did not even file applications to participate in early funding rounds. Qwest’s lack of interest was especially problematic, because the former Baby Bell served the Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountain regions where some of the worst broadband accessibility problems persisted.

Burstein claims Jonathan Adelstein, then Rural Utilities Administrator, had to double his subsidy offer to get Qwest’s attention with a 50% subsidy.

Rural backhaul connectivity is often provided by fiber optic cabling.

“Qwest refused, demanding 75%,” Burstein noted. “That was probably twice the amount necessary and Adelstein rightly refused. They knew the government had few ways to reach those unserved without paying whatever the telcos demanded. A few years later, Qwest is part of Centurylink. Many of those lines are now upgrading under [public] Connect America Funds with what amounts to a greater than 100% subsidy.”

Net Neutrality appeared to have no impact on telephone company investment decisions, even in rural areas. The investment cuts followed a trend that began even before President Barack Obama took office. Wireless carriers slash investments in rural areas when management is confident the government is motivated to step in and offer taxpayer dollars to expand rural broadband service. When those funds do become available, a significant percentage of the money isn’t spent on constructing new infrastructure to extend the reach of wired and wireless networks into unserved rural areas. Instead, it pays for expanding existing infrastructure that may coincidentally reach some rural customers, but is still primarily used by existing cellular customers.

“In many extreme rural areas, only the local telco has the ability to deliver broadband at a reasonable cost,” noted Burstein. “You need to have affordable backhaul and a local staff for repairs. Because the ‘unserved’ are in very small clusters, often less than 100 homes, it’s usually impractical for a new entrant to bring in a backhaul connection.”

Instead, AT&T is attempting to fill some of the gaps with fixed wireless service from existing cell towers. While good news for customers without access to cable or DSL broadband but do have adequate cellular coverage to subscribe to AT&T’s Fixed Wireless service, that is not much help for those in deeply rural areas where AT&T isn’t investing in additional cell towers to extend coverage. In effect, AT&T enjoys a win-win for itself — adding taxpayer-funded capacity to their existing 4G LTE networks at the same time it markets data-cap free access to its bandwidth-heavy online video services like DirecTV Now. That frees up capital and reduces costs for AT&T’s investors. But it also alienates AT&T’s competitors that recognize the additional network capacity available to AT&T also allows it to offer steep discounts on its DirecTV Now service exclusively for its own wireless customers.

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