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Sellout: Biden’s Broadband Stimulus is a Shadow of Its Former Self

After weeks of tense negotiations to secure bipartisan support for the Biden Administration’s $1 trillion infrastructure stimulus measure, the White House appears to have largely capitulated to Republican efforts to water down funding to expand broadband service into a $65 billion package that will doubtless be a financial bonanza to the country’s largest phone and cable operators.

The Biden Administration’s original proposal for $100 billion in broadband funding was dedicated to wiring rural areas as well as focusing funding on new entrants like community-owned networks that could deliver internet access to unserved and underserved locations without having a profit motive. The original proposal also would have prioritized funding for future-capable fiber internet, with some advocating that networks be capable of delivering at least a gigabit of speed to customers to qualify for funding. The Administration also promoted the idea of affordable broadband, combatting the growing digital divide exacerbated by internet pricing out of reach of the working poor.

What emerged on Sunday as a “bipartisan agreement” with Republicans on infrastructure stimulus is almost a travesty — slashed almost by half and now effectively a veritable gift to Big Telecom. The industry spent hundreds of millions lobbying Congress and got almost everything it wanted. If passed in its current form, those same phone and cable companies will pocket much of the money for themselves.

Here is how consumers were sold out:

Reduced speed requirements are a dream come true for cable operators.

The bipartisan measure proposes to water down speed requirements to qualify for government stimulus funding to a underwhelming 100/20 Mbps. That speed is tailor made for cable operators, which traditionally offer upload speeds just a fraction of their download speeds. Gone is any condition requiring gigabit-capable networks, at a time when more providers than ever are marketing near-gigabit speeds. That could quickly lead to the emergence of a speed divide, with rural Americans stuck with slower broadband technology from companies that will have no financial incentive to upgrade in these areas.

Addressing affordability is now mostly wishful thinking.

The latest proposal’s idea of solving the broadband affordability issue is to admit there is a problem and declare the need for some kind of low-cost broadband option, but apparently does not specify pricing, who is qualified to get cheaper service, and who will oversee that such programs remain affordable. That allows providers to keep writing the rules of their own token, voluntary efforts to offer discounted internet, like those that disqualify current customers and requires enrollees to jump through various qualification hoops to sign up. The stimulus program will also spend billions of dollars effectively paying a portion of disadvantaged Americans’ internet bills, at the current high prices many ISP’s charge. That is a direct subsidy to big cable and phone companies that can continue charging whatever they please for access, knowing the government will now pay $30-50 of the bill.

Republicans have made sure there is not a whiff of rate regulation or consumer protection mandates in the measure. It also abandons establishing a fixed rate, affordable internet tier for as little as $10 a month. That original proposal would have given cable and phone companies as little as $10 a month from the federal government, much less than collecting up to $50 a month from the Emergency Broadband Benefit, which pays a portion of regular-priced service. The $14 billion being set aside to continue subsidizing Americans’ internet bills at Big Telecom’s monopoly or duopoly prices could be better spent building and expanding internet services where no service or competition exists now.

Digital redlining is A-OK

The watered down compromise measure chastises companies for only incrementally expanding fiber service, mostly to wealthy neighborhoods, but stops short of banning the practice. This wink and a nod to redlining primarily benefits phone companies like AT&T and Frontier, which can now cherry-pick rich neighborhoods for fiber upgrades most likely to return the biggest profits. Phone companies and fiber overbuilders will continue to skip over urban poor neighborhoods and the highest cost rural areas which have always been the hardest to reach.

Sky is the Limit pricing with onerous data caps are fine with us.

Nothing in the measure will give preference to providers willing to offer affordable, flat rate service without the hassle of data caps. Neither will it discourage applicants that plan to use public tax dollars to subsidize expanding service that comes at high prices and with paltry usage limits.

Light Reading reported Wall Street analysts were generally pleased with the outcome, noting the negotiations resulted in stripping out oversight and price regulation and the measure won’t fund potential competitors. It also noted Big Telecom and its associated trade organizations spent more than $234 million on lobbying. Comcast topped the list of spenders at more than $43 million, with AT&T coming in second at $36 million. Both the cable and wireless industry also spent tens of millions on lobbying. They got their money’s worth. Taxpayers won’t.

Cuomo Administration Capitulates on Affordable Broadband Law; State Laws Cannot Regulate Broadband Pricing

Cuomo

As expected, New York’s efforts to lower broadband pricing through a state mandate has been effectively killed in a Brooklyn federal court, putting an end to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s efforts to require providers to offer a $15 broadband tier to income-challenged state residents.

U.S. District Judge Denis R. Hurley, who signed a preliminary injunction preventing the mandate from taking effect on June 15, signaled the concept was likely unlawful in a memorandum attached to the injunction. Several telecom companies challenged the mandate in a lawsuit heard in Hurley’s courtroom, claiming states have no regulatory authority to set broadband terms or pricing. Hurley was clearly persuaded in their direction, and was pessimistic the state could ever show a legal way to regulate internet pricing, something currently reserved to the FCC. As a result, a settlement has been proposed dropping the affordable pricing mandate.

Hurley was also moved by arguments from several smaller New York providers that claimed the new mandate would force them to sell service below cost. Empire Access, a fiber to the home overbuilder based in Prattsburgh, filed a declaration with the court threatening to cancel a major expansion project to wire customers in Livingston and Broome counties, including the city of Binghamton, if the mandate was implemented, because it would likely lose federal funding.

Because of the state’s definition as to who would have qualified for the affordable broadband tier, many smaller companies in rural, economically challenged area of upstate New York claimed they would face substantial economic losses to their businesses. Empire claimed it would lose “approximately $2 million per year,” Heart of the Catskills claimed top-line revenue would decrease $1,364,000 annually, Delhi Telephone claimed it would lose at least $90,000 per month, and the Champlain Telephone Company notified the court that “nearly half (48%) of its existing broadband customers will qualify for discounted rates,” causing the company to lose money on each customer.

“While a telecommunications giant like Verizon may be able to absorb such a loss, others may not,” Judge Hurley wrote in his order.

Gov. Cuomo bristled after learning of the lawsuit, threatening to revoke the franchise of any company that refused to implement the  state’s affordable broadband program. But the governor has made empty threats before, including a promise in 2018 to revoke the merger of Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable because the company failed to live up to the deal commitments it made to state regulators. A settlement was eventually reached between the cable giant and the state, and it appears a settlement between the plaintiff telecom companies and the state will also end this dispute and lawsuit. It appears the state has capitulated and plans to walk away from the affordable broadband proposal, although it reserved the right to appeal the case.

Stop the Cap! predicts the state will work with larger providers to increase public knowledge of the companies’ existing affordable internet programs, which usually have similar qualifications to the affordable internet law Cuomo proposed. Cuomo Administration officials will also likely lobby the Biden Administration to toughen federal oversight of broadband service and suggest a possible federal mandate for an affordable service tier and a return to net neutrality under a regulatory framework that opens the door for future price and service regulation.

The court decision signals states the solution to broadband affordability will not be found in state laws or mandates that attempt to regulate broadband pricing, at least until the current federal law changes.

Frontier Fiber Expands Mostly in Connecticut and Texas In 2021

Frontier Communications will focus primarily on fiber upgrades in Connecticut and Texas in 2021, bringing fiber to the home service to more than 280,000 customers in Connecticut and at least 24,000 additional customers in the San Angelo area of Texas.

Company officials told shareholders it expected to bring fiber upgrades to 495,000 additional locations this year as part of a multi-year plan to scrap portions of its aging copper wire network and bring fiber to the home service to at least six million homes and businesses in its service area. The company previously announced it would focus its fiber upgrades primarily in its California, Texas, Florida, and Connecticut markets.

Frontier has a long way to go to make a dent in retiring its copper network, which currently still serves 11.8 million homes and businesses. Frontier has only committed to upgrade about half of those homes to fiber, leaving the rest stranded on copper or potentially eventually sold off to another provider.

The most noticeable construction activity this year has been in Connecticut, especially in Fairfield and New Haven counties. Customers in the area report Frontier selling 940/880 Mbps fiber service for $79.99 fixed price for three years. Customers can also choose 50/50 Mbps service for $49.99 or 500/500 Mbps service for $59.99 a month for up to one year. The two faster plans include a Ring video doorbell as a sign-up promotion. There are no data caps.

Frontier: Only the Customers With the Fastest Internet Speeds Get the Emergency Broadband Benefit

Some financially challenged customers subscribed to legacy DSL from Frontier Communications are finding they cannot qualify for the Biden Administration’s emergency internet discount program because their internet service is too slow.

WHEC-TV’s Jennifer Lewke heard from one Rochester, N.Y., area Frontier customer frustrated to discover the phone company refused to accept their application.

The discount comes from the Emergency Broadband Benefit, a temporary program offering financially distressed consumers $50 off their monthly internet bill until the funding for the program runs out.

The roadblock comes from Frontier, which created its own rule that only customers with 25 Mbps or faster internet service subscribed to select tiers of service can qualify for the discount. That eliminates many of Frontier’s most loyal DSL customers that have stayed with the company for over a decade, despite often getting internet speeds less than 10 Mbps.

News10NBC:

John Derycke of Rochester relies on the internet for a lot.

“My [Frontier] plan is $54.99 and then they tack on a $6.99 infrastructure charge,” he told News10NBC.

[…]

“I went to the site to verify eligibility, I qualify and that was on May 11, I called Frontier and I spoke to Monique and she told me everything’s great we’re good to go,” Derycke said.

But when his bill came the next month, there was no credit.

He didn’t like what he was told when he called.

“After being put on hold for 20 minutes, I finally got back with the woman and she immediately said you don’t qualify because you have 24 MB and you need 25,” Derycke said.

He says he then asked to talk with a supervisor who basically told him the same thing.

Derycke says he searched the EBB page and information and couldn’t find a requirement that a customer have a plan with a certain level of megabits to qualify.

Based on that phone call with Frontier, Derycke would have to switch to the dominant internet provider in western New York, Charter Spectrum, just to get the $50 monthly credit. Based on current promotions, that would likely leave Derycke paying nothing for internet service until the EBB program runs out of money, likely by the end of this year. After his Spectrum new customer promotion expires, Derycke would likely have a higher internet bill than he started with from Frontier. 

A Frontier spokesperson told News10NBC Frontier might find a solution sooner than that:

“While a limited number of customers have a grandfathered Frontier product that is not eligible for the Emergency Broadband benefit, we are committed to transitioning these customers to comparable eligible offerings so they can receive the financial benefits. Frontier is working closing with our customer to resolve the situation.”

Such limitations on the EBB program do not come from the federal government. Internet providers voluntarily participate in the EBB program, and can set whatever restrictions, terms, and conditions they would like to qualify.

WHEC-TV in Rochester, N.Y. reports some Frontier customers with legacy DSL internet service may find themselves locked out of the Biden Administration’s internet benefit program. (3:20)

The Magic of Broadband Competition: Sparklight Without Competition vs. Sparklight With Competition

America’s most costly large cable internet service provider is Sparklight, formerly known as Cable One. Its internet plans are usually data-capped and it barely offers new customers a pricing break before high regular prices apply. Sparklight primarily services small cities and towns, many income-challenged, in the middle of the country. Customers do not have much to rave about, because Sparklight puts its own profits far ahead of its customers. The cable operator was among the first to slap on data caps and was the nation’s most aggressive at getting rid of costly cable television channels.

About the only thing that does move Sparklight’s pricing is the presence of a formidable competitor. In Meridian and Garden City, Ida., TDS Fiber (formerly TDS Telecom) has been bringing gigabit fiber to the home service to area residents at prices low enough to motivate Sparklight customers to abandon the cable company. That motivated Sparklight to improve their plans and lower prices.

First, let’s examine the internet rate card for ordinary Sparklight customers typically stuck choosing either the cable company or DSL from Frontier, AT&T, or Windstream:

Sparklight regular pricing nationwide

Notice the entry-level internet plan (100/10 Mbps) costs $55 a month, does not mention the $10.50/mo modem rental fee (required if you choose the company’s Wi-Fi service), an internet service surcharge of $2.75/mo (not charged in all areas), and a stingy data cap of just 350 GB, which is at least 100 GB less than what the average U.S. broadband household now consumes each month. Internet overlimit fees are $10 for each additional block of 100GB of data in excess of your allowance, up to a maximum of $50 a month. Unlimited service costs an extra $40 a month.

When you add it all up: for an unlimited (100/10 Mbps) internet service plan with in-home Wi-Fi, Sparklight charges $108.25 a month.

If you happen to live in a competitive service area, such as Meridian and Garden City, Ida., speeds are faster, prices are lower, and data caps are nowhere to be found:

Pricing for Sparklight in Meridian and Garden City, Ida.

Customers still face a $10.50/mo charge to lease a cable modem, and that $2.75/mo internet surcharge fee might also apply.

The prospect of competition could cut dramatically into company profits, which is one reason telecom companies are fiercely lobbying the Biden Administration not to fund municipal broadband projects or supply funds to a new competitor as part of the 2021 Infrastructure Plan.

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