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New York Governor’s Boast About Near-100% Broadband Coverage Backfires

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

When New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo boasted in 2015 that anyone who wanted broadband service in the state would have access to it, he could not have realized that claim would come back to haunt him five years later.

New York’s Broadband for All program claimed to be the “largest and most ambitious state broadband investment in the nation,” with $500 million set aside “to achieve statewide broadband access by 2018,” with “99.9% of New Yorkers” getting access to broadband service.

In 2020, that goal remains elusive, with over 80,000 New Yorkers relegated to heavily data-capped satellite internet access and potentially tens of thousands more left behind by erroneous broadband availability maps that could leave many with no access at all. Now it appears the federal government will not be coming to the rescue, potentially stranding some rural residents as a permanent, unconnected underclass.

The Republican-majority at the Federal Communications Commission has decided to take the Democratic governor at his word and exclude additional rural broadband funding for New York State. The FCC’s recently approved Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) is the most ambitious rural broadband funding initiative to date, with a budget of $20.4 billion. As it stands, not a penny of those funds will ever be paid to support additional broadband projects in the Empire State.

“Back in 2016, the governor of New York represented to this agency that allocating the full $170 million in Connect America Fund II support to the state broadband program would allow full broadband buildout throughout the Empire State, when combined with the state’s own funding,” said FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly.

That $170 million was originally designated for Verizon to spend in upstate and western New York in areas without high-speed broadband. When Verizon declined to accept the funding, the rules for the program required the money to be made available for other qualified projects in other states, or left forfeit, unspent. An appeal from New York’s Senate delegation to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to award that $170 million to New York’s Broadband for All program was successful, allowing other phone, cable, and wireless providers to construct new rural broadband projects around the state. That decision was met with criticism, especially by the Wireless Industry Service Providers Association (WISPA), which represents the interests of mostly rural, fixed wireless providers around the country.

O’Rielly

“After robust opportunity for public input, last year the FCC adopted a CAF-II framework that was truly technology-neutral and designed to harness the power of competition to deliver the most broadband to the most Americans, at the lowest overall price,” said Steve Coran, counsel for WISPA, in a statement. “Unfortunately, today’s action appears to deviate from this approach by providing disproportionate support to one state at the expense of others, which will now be competing for even less federal support.”

That criticism was partially echoed by Commissioner O’Rielly, who appreciated the dilemma of rural New Yorkers without access to high speed internet, but felt the FCC was showing favoritism to New York, which he worried was getting a disproportionate share of federal funding.

“These are federal [Universal Service Fund] dollars taken from ratepayers nationwide. They are not New York State funds, and we have the burden of deciding how best to allocate these scarce dollars, as well as the right to demand that they be spent wisely,” O’Rielly said. “At the same time, I am concerned that the funding will not be used as efficiently as possible. It should not be lost on everyone that New York is one of the states that diverts 9-1-1 fees collected to other non-related purposes, as is noted in the Commission’s recent report on the subject. We should have received assurances that New York would cease this disgraceful practice.”

O’Rielly added that offering even more generous funding in New York could lead to overpaying providers to service rural New York communities at the expense of other, cheaper rural broadband projects in other states.

Recently O’Rielly claimed that allowing New York to receive funding under the new RDOF program would almost guarantee dollars would be spent on duplicative, overlapping broadband projects, noting that Gov. Cuomo already considers New York almost entirely served by high speed providers. In fact, he claimed any additional funding sent to New York would be “beyond foolish and incredibly wasteful” and would undermine the rural broadband program’s objective to avoid funding projects in areas already served by an existing provider.

In other words, since Gov. Cuomo has claimed that virtually the entire state is now served with high speed internet access, O’Reilly believes there is no reason to award any further money to the state.

Except the claim that ‘nearly the entire state already has broadband access’ is untrue, and O’Rielly’s arguments against sending any additional money to New York seem more political than rational.

The FCC’s broadband availability map shows significant portions of New York in yellow, which designates no provider delivering the FCC’s minimum of 25/3 Mbps broadband service.

First, the FCC’s own flawed broadband availability maps, criticized for over counting the number of Americans with access to broadband, still shows large sections of upstate and western New York unserved by any suitable provider. Parts of western New York between Buffalo and Rochester, significant portions of the Finger Lakes, Southern Tier, and North Country are all still without access. An even larger portion of upstate New York has either no access or very slow access through DSL. The number of residents without service is significant. The FCC uses census blocks to measure broadband availability, but this methodology is flawed because if even one home within that block has broadband while dozens of others do not, the FCC still counts every home as served. This has angered many New Yorkers stuck without service while a local cable or phone company offers high-speed internet access to neighbors just up the road. Many of these rural residents are not even designated to receive satellite service, Broadband for All’s last catchall option for areas where no wired provider bid to provide service.

Second, long-standing rules in broadband funding programs already deny funding to areas where another suitable provider already offers service. So it would be impossible for RDOF to award “wasted” funding to projects where service already exists.

While Gov. Cuomo’s boastful claims about broadband availability opened the door for discriminatory rules against the state, the FCC itself wrote the rules, and it appears the goal was one part payback for securing earlier broadband funding over the objections of Commission O’Reilly, and one part sticking it to a state that has given the Trump Administration plenty of heartburn since the president took office.

FCC Considering New 5.9 GHz Wi-Fi Band

Pai

Pai

After significant lobbying by the cable industry, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai made a decision to propose splitting up the 5.9 GHz so-called Vehicle-to-Vehicle (V2V) band to open up 45 MHz for unlicensed Wi-Fi services and leave 30 MHz reserved for emerging crash avoidance technology that will allow cars to communicate with each other to reduce accidents.

Pai has been frustrated by the slow development of intelligent vehicle communications, especially as different competing technologies appear to have delayed deployment as carmakers ponder a technology shift. Pai’s proposal would allow auto manufacturers to debate what kind of spectrum division might be appropriate within the remaining band if different technologies are eventually deployed. But Pai would also quickly move to open up much of the rest of the band for cable industry and consumer Wi-Fi services.

“My proposal would do far more for both automotive safety and Wi-Fi than the status quo,” Pai said, noting he was adding his proposal for FCC consideration at a meeting on Dec. 12.

The cable industry, through its national lobbying group NCTA-The Internet & Television Association, quickly applauded Pai’s proposal, which nearly mirrors the plan recommended by the nation’s biggest cable companies.

“We applaud Chairman Pai’s announcement today that the Commission intends to move forward in considering a new plan for 5.9 GHz spectrum band that will chart a constructive path forward in putting these frequencies to better use for consumers,” said NCTA President Michael Powell. “The Chairman’s proposal will enable the fastest gigabit Wi-Fi speeds in America, ensuring that Wi-Fi can keep pace with growing consumer demand and the deployment of next-generation wireless broadband technologies. We also thank Commissioners O’Rielly and Rosenworcel for their tireless efforts in support of unlicensed spectrum, especially enabling Wi-Fi in the 5.9 GHz band.”

Cable operators including Charter and Comcast want to deploy a large network of Wi-Fi hotspots in the new band to support their growing mobile service operations. Both stand to save substantially by offloading network traffic to their own wireless networks instead of relying on Verizon Wireless, which is contracted to provide 4G LTE service.

Consumers will eventually also be able to purchase in-home routers that will support the new 5.9 GHz band, if Pai’s proposal is approved. The new Wi-Fi band, located between 5.85-5.895 GHz is adjacent to the existing 5.9 GHz Wi-Fi band in the United States (5.725-5.850 GHz)

Expanding available Wi-Fi spectrum may help consumers get faster wireless connections, especially in areas where signal congestion from other users is significant. Some proponents suggest that the new band could allow consumers to experience near-gigabit Wi-Fi speeds, but that will largely be dependent on the equipment used, one’s distance from a Wi-Fi hotspot, and any prevailing wireless traffic congestion.

Wall Street Journal Says Faster Internet Not Worth It, But They Ignore Bottlenecks and Data Caps

The Wall Street Journal believes the majority of Americans are paying for internet speed they never use or need, but their investigation largely ignores the question of traffic bottlenecks and data caps that require many customers to upgrade to premium tiers to avoid punitive overlimit fees.

The newspaper’s examination was an attempt to test the marketing messages of large cable and phone companies that claim premium speeds of 250, 500, or 1,000 Mbps will enhance video streaming. A total of 53 journalists across the country performed video streaming tests over a period of months, working with researchers at Princeton University and the University of Chicago to determine how much of their available bandwidth was used while streaming videos from Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube and other popular streaming services.

Unsurprisingly, the newspaper found most only need a fraction of their available internet speed — often less than 10 Mbps — to watch high quality HD streaming video, even with up to seven video streams running concurrently. That is because video streaming services are designed to produce good results even with lower speed connections. Video resolution and buffering are dynamically adjusted by the streaming video player depending on the quality of one’s internet connection, with good results likely for anyone with a basic broadband connection of 10-25 Mbps. As 4K streams become more common, customers will probably get better performance with faster tiers, assuming the customer has an unshaped connection that does not throttle video streaming speeds as many mobile connections do and the streaming service offers a subscription tier offering 4K video. Netflix, for example, charges more for 4K streams. Some other services do not offer this option at all.

Image: WSJ

WSJ:

For most modern televisions, the highest picture clarity is the “full” high-definition standard, 1080p, followed by the slightly lower HD standard, 720p, then “standard resolution,” 480p. The Journal study found a household’s percentage of 1080p viewing had little to do with the speed it was paying for. In some cases, streaming services intentionally transmit in lower resolution to accommodate a device such as a mobile phone.

When all HD viewing is considered—1080p and 720p—there were some benefits to paying for the very highest broadband tiers, those 250 Mbps and above.

Streaming services compress their streams in smart ways, so they don’t require much bandwidth. We took a closer look at specific services by gathering data on our households’ viewing over a period of months. Unlike the “stress test,” this was regular viewing of shows and movies, one at a time.

Netflix streamed at under 4 Mbps, on average, over the course of a show or movie, with not much difference in the experience of someone who was paying for a 15 Mbps connection and someone with a one gigabit (1,000 Mbps) connection. The findings were similar for the other services.

There is a brief speed spike when a stream begins. Netflix reached the highest max speeds of the services we tested, but even those were a fraction of the available bandwidth.

Users watching YouTube might launch a video slightly faster than those watching Netflix, and at lower resolution, but this is a function of how those services work, not your broadband speed, the researchers said.

Whereas Netflix tries to load “nice high quality video” when you press play and hence has higher spikes, YouTube appears to “want to start as fast as possible,” said Paul Schmitt, one of the researchers.

A spokeswoman for Alphabet Inc.’s YouTube said the service chooses playback quality based on factors including type of device, network speed, user preferences and the resolution of the originally uploaded video. A Netflix Inc. spokeswoman said the company aims to deliver quality video with the least possible bandwidth. Amazon.com Inc. had no comment.

The Journal finds little advantage for consumers subscribing to premium speed tiers, if they did so hoping for improved streaming video. The unanswered question is why customers believe they need faster internet speeds to get those improvements in the first place.

The answer often lies in the quality of the connection between the streaming provider and the customer. There are multiple potential bottlenecks that can make a YouTube video stutter and buffer on even the fastest internet connection. Large providers have had high profile disputes with large streaming companies over interconnection agreements that bring Netflix and YouTube traffic to those internet service providers’ customers. Some ISPs want compensation to handle the increasing amount of incoming video traffic and have intentionally not allowed adequate upgrades to keep up with growing subscriber demand. This creates a traffic bottleneck, usually most noticeable at night, when even a small YouTube video can get stuck buffering. Other streaming videos can suffer from repeated pauses or deteriorate into lower resolution video quality, regardless of the speed of your connection.

Another common bottleneck comes from oversold service providers that have too much traffic and not enough capacity to manage it. DSL and satellite internet customers often complain about dramatic slowdowns in performance during peak usage times in the evenings and on weekends. In many cases, too many customers in a neighborhood are sharing the connection back to the phone company. Satellite customers only have a finite amount of bandwidth to work with and once used, all speeds slow. Some other providers do not pay for a large enough pipeline to the internet backbone, making some traffic slow to a crawl when that connection is full.

Customers are sold on speed upgrades by providers that tell them faster speeds will accommodate more video traffic, which is true but not the whole answer. No amount of speed will overcome intentional traffic shaping, an inadequate connection to the video streaming service, or an oversold network. Too bad the Journal did not investigate these conditions, which are more common than many people think.

Finally, some customers feel compelled to upgrade to premium tiers because their provider enforces data caps, and premium tiers offer larger usage allowances. Cable One, Suddenlink, and Mediacom customers, among others, get a larger usage allowance upgrading. Other providers offer a fixed cap, often 1 TB, which does not go away unless a customer pays an additional monthly fee or bundles video service.

Data caps are a concern for video streaming customers because the amount of data that can be consumed in a month is substantial. As video quality improves, data consumption increases. The Journal article does not address data caps.

Finally, the Journal investigation confined itself to video streaming, but internet users are also increasingly using other high traffic services, especially cloud backup and downloading, especially for extremely large video game updates. The next generation of high bandwidth internet applications will only be developed if high speed internet service is pervasive, so having fast internet speed is not a bad thing. In fact, providers have learned it is relatively cheap to increase customer speeds and use that as a justification to raise broadband prices. Other providers, like Charter Spectrum, have dropped lower speed budget plans to sell customers 100 or 200 Mbps service, with a relatively inexpensive upgrade to 400 Mbps also gaining in popularity.

Does the average consumer need a premium speed tier for their home internet connection? Probably not. But they do need affordable unlimited internet service free of bottlenecks and artificial slowdowns, especially at the prices providers charge these days. That is an investigation the Journal should conduct next.

What’s Eating Your Comcast Data Cap?

Comcast has put its proverbial finger to the wind to define an “appropriate” data cap it declares “generous,” regardless of how subjectively random that cap happens to be. Although 1,000 GB — a terabyte — usage allowance represents a lot of internet traffic, more and more customers are finding they are flirting with exceeding that cap, and Comcast has never been proactive about regularly adjusting it to reflect the reality of rapidly growing internet traffic. That means customers must protect themselves by checking their usage and take steps if they are nearing the 1 TB limit.

If you do exceed your allowance, Comcast will provide two “grace periods” that will protect you from overlimit fees, currently $10 for each extra 50 GB allotment of data you use. Another alternative Comcast will happily sell you is an insurance policy to prevent any risk of overlimit fees. For an extra $50 a month, they will take the cap off your internet plan allowing unlimited usage. But $50 a month is close to paying for your internet service twice and is indefensible considering how little Comcast pays for its customers’ internet traffic. It is just one more way Comcast can pick up extra revenue without doing much of anything.

Customers that do regularly break through the 1 TB data cap often have a guilt complex, believing they have no right to complain about data caps and should pay more because they must cost Comcast a lot more money to service. In fact, Time Warner Cable executives broadly considered internet traffic expenses as little more than a “rounding error” to their bottom line, according to internal emails obtained by the New York Attorney General’s office. Managing customers’ data usage is far less costly than network plant upkeep, the regularly increasing costs of video content, and expenses related to expanding service to new locations.

One VentureBeat reader investigated what chewed through Comcast’s data allowance the most, and it wasn’t easy:

Xfinity pretends to make this easier for you, but that’s a load of horsesh*t. Its X-Fi app claims to give you usage stats for your connected devices — only nothing appears up-to-date. The phone I was using to look at the X-Fi app doesn’t even appear on the connected-devices list. You also have to look at each device individually. I saw no way to sort a list of devices by data usage, which would obviously help a lot.

Some of the biggest data users are connected households, where multiple family members use a range of devices, often at the same time. Customers with multiple internet-connected computers, video game consoles, and streaming devices are most at risk of exceeding their cap.

Video Games Consoles/PCs

The biggest data consumption does not come from gameplay itself. It comes from frequent software updates, some exceeding 50 GB. If you play a number of games, updates can come frequently. In the case of the VentureBeat author, 17% of daily usage came from the home’s primary desktop PC. Another 12% was traced to the family’s Xbox One. An in-home media server that also runs Steam and auto-updates frequently was also suspect.

Streaming Devices

If you are not into video games and do not depend on cloud storage or large file transfers to move data back and forth, streaming set-top boxes and devices are almost certainly going to be the primary source of your biggest monthly data usage. Video resolution can make a difference in how much data is consumed. If you are regularly approaching or exceeding your monthly cap, consider locking down maximum video resolution for streaming on large televisions to 720p, and 480p for smartphones. Some streaming services offer customized resolution options in their settings menu.

Autoplay, also known as the ‘binge’ option can also consume a lot of video when a service automatically starts playback of the next episode in a series. Some people switch off their televisions without stopping video playback, which can mean you watched one episode but actually streamed six or more. Check the streaming software for an option to not autoplay videos.

Remember that cable TV replacements like DirecTV Now and YouTube TV will continue streaming live broadcasts until you stop them. Do not just switch off the television. Many live/linear TV apps will prompt you every few hours if you have not changed channels to make sure there is someone still watching. If you do not respond, streaming will stop automatically.

Cloud Storage Backups

When customers report staggering data usage during a month, cloud storage backup software is often the culprit. If you are new to cloud storage backup services like Dropbox or Carbonite, your PC may be uploading a significant part of your hard drive to create a full backup of your computer. This alone can consume terabytes of data. Fortunately, most backup services throttle uploads and do not automatically assume you need to backup your entire hard drive. Many offer options to limit upload speed, the total amount of data that can be uploaded each month, and options to selectively backup certain files and folders. 

Your Wi-Fi Network is Insecure

In areas where data caps are pervasive, those who want to use a lot more data and do not want to pay for it may quietly hop on your home Wi-Fi network and effectively bill that usage to you. This is most common in large multi-dwelling units where lots of neighbors are within range of your home Wi-Fi. The best way to reduce the risk of a Wi-Fi intrusion is to create a password that is exceptionally difficult to guess, using a mixture of special characters (!, ^, %, etc.) and mixed case random letters and numbers. Although this can be inconvenient for guests, it will probably keep intruders out and prevent them from running up your bill.

It is unfortunate customers have to jump through these kinds of hoops and compromise their online experience. But where cable and phone companies lack competition, they can charge a small fortune for internet access and still feel it is appropriate to cap usage and ask for even more money when customers “use too much.”

Republican FCC Overrides San Francisco Pro-Competition Wiring Ordinance

It’s a good day to be AT&T or Comcast in San Francisco. The Republican majority on the FCC today voted to protect their monopoly control of existing building wiring, claiming it would inspire competitors to wire buildings separately..

In a 3-2 Republican majority vote, the FCC today decided to pre-empt a San Francisco city ordinance that required multi-dwelling apartment, condo, and office space owners to allow competing service providers to share building-owned wiring if a customer sought to change providers.

“Required sharing of in-use wiring deters broadband deployment, undercuts the Commission’s rules regarding control of cable wiring in residential [multi-dwelling units], and threatens the Commission’s framework to protect the technical integrity of cable systems for the benefit of viewers,” according a news release issued by the FCC.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai was joined by the two other Republicans on the Commission to block the San Francisco ordinance, which will allow dominant cable and phone companies like AT&T and Comcast to continue reserving exclusive use of building wiring, forcing would-be competitors to place costly redundant wiring in each building before offering service.

Pai said the city’s ordinance chilled competition because it encouraged competitors to re-use existing wiring instead of providing their own. That could harm the business plans of incumbent monopoly providers that depend on deterring or locking out would-be competitors by prohibiting them from using existing building wiring to reach customers. Pai called the ordinance an “outlier” and declared the city went beyond its legal authority by allowing a competitor to re-use building-owned wiring used by one provider to switch a customer to another. Pai added he had no objection to sharing unused wiring.

“By taking steps to ensure competitive access for broadband providers to [multi-dwelling homes and shared offices] while at the same time cracking down on local laws that go beyond the bounds of federal rules, our decision can help bring affordable and reliable broadband to more consumers,” echoed Republican FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr.

But critics contend the FCC’s decision to disallow required shared use of wiring will likely deter new competitors from entering existing buildings, because of the cost of installing redundant wiring. Others object to the FCC regulating the use of wiring owned and installed independently by building owners, not telecom companies. FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat who voted against the pre-emption, was unimpressed.

“We stop efforts in California designed to encourage competition in multi-tenant environments,” Rosenworcel told her fellow commissioners. “Specifically, we say to the city of San Francisco—where more than half of the population rents their housing, often in multi-tenant units—that they cannot encourage broadband competition. This is crazy.”

The FCC press release trumpeting the Republican majority vote to prohibit the shared use of existing building wiring was sympathetic to incumbent telecom giants AT&T and Comcast, which now dominate as service providers in multi-tenant buildings:

Nearly 30% of the U.S. population lives in condominiums and apartments, and millions more work in office buildings. The FCC must address the needs of those living and working in these buildings to close the digital divide for all Americans. However, broadband deployment in [multi-tenant buildings or ‘MTEs’] poses unique challenges. To provide service, broadband providers must have access to potential customers in the building. But when broadband providers know that they will have to share the communications facilities that they deploy with their competitors, they are less likely to invest in deployment in the first place. For decades, Congress and the FCC have encouraged facilities-based competition by broadly promoting access to customers and infrastructure—including MTEs and their tenants—while avoiding overly burdensome sharing mandates that reduce incentives to invest.

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