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Georgia’s Rural Internet Expansion Runs Into Telecom Industry Lobbyist Buzzsaw

Gooch

A bill in the Georgia legislature that would divert a portion of a state fund that currently subsidizes rural landlines towards rural internet expansion ran into trouble last week after lobbyists representing AT&T and several small rural telephone companies announced opposition to the measure.

Sen. Steve Gooch (R-Dahlonega), the chief sponsor of Senate Bill 65, is seeking to boost subsidy funds to expand high-speed internet in unserved areas of the state. His bill would designate up to $35 million annually towards construction of new broadband connections. Without the measure, state residents would instead see a reduction in Universal Access Fund (UAF) fees on their monthly phone bills beginning later this year. But if the bill passes, modest UAF charges would continue at 2020 levels for an additional nine years, expiring June 30, 2030.

Georgia’s Senate Regulated Industries Committee reviewed the current state of rural broadband funding in a meeting held last Thursday in Atlanta. Gooch noted Gov. Brian Kemp already set aside $20 million for rural broadband in the 2021 state budget, but he felt more needed to be done.

“Twenty million dollars […] is a good start,” Gooch said. “But we need to put more money into this year after year until the problem is fixed.”

Gooch’s measure has attracted 20 co-sponsors in the legislature so far:

Georgia’s cable and phone companies appear much less supportive of Gooch’s effort. Leading the charge against Gooch’s bill was AT&T Georgia. Kevin Curtin, AT&T’s assistant vice president of legislative affairs in Georgia, said diverting money from the UAF Fund to rural broadband expansion was unnecessary.

“There are many federal government programs doling out substantial amounts of funding to spread broadband,” Curtin said. AT&T has regularly pointed to the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) as the best source of rural broadband funding. The 10-year, $9.2 billion program has already designated $326.5 million for rural broadband expansion in Georgia. But it will take years for RDOF to dispense its available funds.

The state’s largest lobbying group for the cable industry does not care for the bill either.

“We want to continue to try to bring broadband to every Georgia citizen,” said Hunter Hopkins, interim executive director of the Georgia Cable Association. “Let’s just put more money in the general fund versus tinkering with the UAF.”

Rural Georgians are usually left waiting indefinitely for private industry investment to expand rural internet access. Instead, rural utility cooperatives are now stepping up to solve the rural broadband problem in parts of the state, often without waiting for government subsides.

Last week, Conexon, a fiber overbuilder and internet service provider teamed up with two member-owned utility co-ops with a plan to bring high-speed gigabit internet to 80,000 homes and businesses in 18 rural Middle Georgia counties.

The partnership will combine utility co-op investments of $135 million from Central Georgia EMC and $53 million from Southern Rivers Energy with $21.5 million from Conexon to build a new, 6,890 mile fiber to the home broadband network over the next four years that will serve residents in Bibb, Butts, Clayton, Coweta, Crawford, Fayette, Henry, Jasper, Jones, Lamar, Meriwether, Monroe, Morgan, Newton, Pike, Putnam, Spalding, and Upson counties. Monroe County has also offered $1.3 million to incentivize the partnership to break ground in that county as quickly as possible.

Customers in rural Georgia have given up waiting for companies like AT&T and Windstream to expand high-speed internet service.

“The majority of members in our service area have no access to the quality, high-speed internet service they so desperately need. That changes today,” said Southern Rivers Energy President and CEO Michael McMillan. “We know electric cooperatives play a critical role in connecting underserved areas and we are proud to partner with Conexon to help bridge the digital divide for our communities. This partnership will enable thousands of rural Georgians to finally access the same online connections as those in more urban areas, while allowing us to maintain focus on our core mission – providing reliable, affordable electricity to our members.”

Spectrum Lowers the Gigabit Service Installation Fee… for Some

Spectrum is offering certain new customers a discount on the usually high installation fee for its gigabit service tier.

Normally, Spectrum expects new gigabit customers to pay a compulsory installation fee of $199.99 and $109.99 a month for internet only service. But customers living in areas where significant competition exists are now finding far more generous promotions, including 24 months of gigabit service for $89.99 a month with an installation fee of $49.99.

Spectrum prices can vary wildly depending on how much competition is around. A new customer in an uncompetitive area can expect to pay around $310 for the first month of gigabit service and installation fees. In competitive areas, customers will pay half as much — around $140 — for the exact same service. In both cases, in-home Wi-Fi is included at no extra charge.

The best way to check where you stand is to visit the Spectrum website and enter a specific street address to verify exact pricing.

This is pricing representative of a competitive service area.

If Spectrum is your only option for high-speed internet, you are likely to encounter these prices.

Spectrum Boosting Speeds in Parts of Western N.Y., Finger Lakes Region and Central Florida

Phillip Dampier December 15, 2020 Broadband Speed, Charter Spectrum, Consumer News 5 Comments

Spectrum customers still stuck with 100/10 Mbps Standard Internet speed may want to reboot their modems and check if they have gotten a free speed increase this week.

Stop the Cap! has heard from customers in the following areas, all reporting their Standard Internet speed has doubled to 200/10 Mbps:

  • Rochester, N.Y. and surrounding Finger Lakes region
  • Buffalo, N.Y., and parts of Western New York
  • Central Florida, including Winter Springs

Charter Communications has already upgraded just over half of their Standard Internet customers nationwide to 200/10 Mbps. Upgrading the remaining 40% of customers has taken over a year and is still a work in progress. Charter may have delivered these recent speed hikes in part to placate customers notified this month their broadband service was increasing an additional $5 a month.

Spectrum’s other speed tiers remain unchanged.

Frontier Announces “Holistic Transformation” Starting With Another New CEO; 2.9 Million Fiber Builds Over 10 Years

Phillip Dampier December 15, 2020 Broadband Speed, Consumer News, Frontier, Rural Broadband 8 Comments


Nick Jeffery will be appointed president and CEO of Frontier Communications effective March 1, 2021, succeeding Bernie Han.

Frontier Communications today announced a “holistic transformation” of its business from a copper-based landline company to a fiber to the home internet service provider, with plans to eventually offer fiber to the home service to nearly six million residential customers, approximately three million already served by fiber networks acquired from Verizon and AT&T.

As part of that transformation, Frontier today announced yet another new CEO, Nick Jeffery, will take over from current CEO Bernie Han in March 2021. Jeffery was CEO of Vodafone UK, one of Great Britain’s largest mobile operators. Jeffery agreed to replace Han, who became CEO and president only a year ago, in return for a $3.75 million signing bonus, a $1.3 million annual salary, and eligibility for more than $8 million in annual bonuses and equity awards.

“I am honored to be appointed Frontier’s next CEO, and I am excited to lead the company in its next phase,” Jeffery said in a statement. “Frontier owns a unique set of assets and maintains a competitive market position. My immediate focus will be on serving our customers as we enhance the network through investments in our existing footprint and in adjacent markets while building operational excellence across the organization.”

Frontier has been in Chapter 11 bankruptcy since April 2020 and is being reorganized to eliminate about $10 billion in debt and another billion annually in debt-servicing interest payments. Frontier’s bankruptcy plan will give four investment firms — Elliott Management, Franklin Mutual, Golden Tree Asset Management, and HG Vora, effective control over Frontier. The four are reportedly behind the decision to install Jeffery as Frontier’s new CEO to protect their financial interests. He has a reputation of repairing damaged customer relationships and improving sales, while also being willing to cut costs and simplify services sold to customers. Jeffery will also be joined by former Verizon executive John Stratton, who has accepted a position of executive chairman of the board. Jeffery is expected to lead the company out of bankruptcy sometime in early 2021.

Frontier has repeatedly promised to retire significant parts of its copper wire network and expand fiber to the home service, but over the last decade most of Frontier’s fiber footprint has been acquired from other phone companies, notably Verizon and AT&T. Most of Frontier’s own fiber expansion has come from installing service in new housing developments and in rural areas where it received taxpayer or ratepayer-funded subsidies to expand service to unserved areas.

In a conference call held earlier today, Frontier executives signaled the company will not hurry to deliver fiber upgrades to Frontier customers. In some of the most opaque language ever uttered in a Frontier conference call, company officials warned some Frontier customers may actually find themselves sold to another service provider. The company plans to divide its copper customers into two categories: those destined to be a part of Frontier’s fiber future and those left stuck on copper or sold off after Frontier “strategically reevaluates individual state operating performance employing a virtual separation framework” — all to “optimize our returns on invested capital.”

Frontier emphasizes its planned total of “nearly 6 million fiber-enabled households” will come to fruition “over the long term.” In 2020, the company plans to bring fiber service to approximately 60,000 new households in six states, many in new housing developments Frontier was already expected to serve.

Frontier’s modernization plan will likely sell unprofitable service areas and selectively upgrade many customers over a ten-year period to fiber optics. (Source: Frontier Communications)

“We have completed construction of about 60% of our target locations and continue to ramp quickly and remain on target to reach our year-end goals,” said Han. “Although, it is still very early in the process, our offer is very appealing to customers. While we are successfully converting existing copper customers to fiber, most of our early gains are coming from winning net new customers. Early penetration and ARPUs are performing at or above targets.”

In 2021, the company announced it had “planning and engineering” underway for unspecified fiber to the home service upgrades in copper service areas “in select regions.” But most of Frontier’s fiber upgrades will take place over the next decade. Specifically, Frontier plans to wire up to 2.9 million homes with fiber using a combination of its own money and subsidy funds provided by the FCC. Frontier’s new owners have signaled they will not go out on a limb to finance rapid fiber upgrades, and you better live in a state where fiber upgrades are being given priority.

“Of the 2.9 million new fiber homes passed for the modernization plan, roughly 2.6 million of them are in […] California, Texas, Florida and Connecticut and […] West Virginia, Illinois, New York and Ohio,” Han noted.

“The modernization plan is expected to be completely self-funding […] and has been developed with strict return on capital hurdles, allowing for very attractive returns,” said Robert A. Schriesheim, chairman of the Frontier’s Finance Committee of the Board. “The expected shift in the subscriber base from the modernization plan will increase the percent of fiber subs from 45% today to 87% over the plan horizon and will drive a transformation of business mix that is expected to result in 75% of revenue coming from fiber products in the long-term as compared to about one-third today.”

Increased Investment and Fierce Competition Brings 1.5 Gbps Internet to Western Canada

Phillip Dampier November 12, 2020 Broadband Speed, Canada, Competition, Consumer News, Shaw, Telus No Comments

Shaw is western Canada’s dominant cable operator.

While American cable companies have cut back investing in their high-speed broadband services as competition languishes, a price and service war has erupted between western Canada’s biggest cable and phone companies, with consumers winning the benefits of increased investment and fierce competition.

Shaw Communications, the largest cable company west of Ontario, has just upped the ante with the introduction of 1,500/100 Mbps unlimited internet service for $127 (all prices in $US) a month. The new speed tier, known as Fibre+ Gig 1.5,  is delivered over Shaw’s existing DOCSIS 3.1 cable broadband network, and is already available in Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, and Victoria, and is gradually expanding outwards to smaller cities, including Banff in Alberta, and Burnaby and Dawson’s Creek in British Columbia. Shaw also offers a traditional gigabit unlimited plan in most of its service area, offering 940/25 Mbps for $88/month. Both high-speed plans include a two-year contract.

“The hard work and investments we’ve made in building, upgrading and expanding our Fibre+ and Fast LTE networks and services — nearly $22.8 billion over the past seven years — allow us to deliver these ultrafast speeds to western Canadians over our existing infrastructure,” said Zoran Stakic, chief operating officer and chief technology officer. “These ongoing investments are the foundation to providing our customers service beyond one gigabit today and ultrafast speeds to more places in the future.”

“We know that there’s a growing segment of people — including heavy gamers, content creators and super streamers — who need access to ultrafast internet services, and that need has only increased during the pandemic as many of our customers manage the reality of having multiple people working from home and sharing bandwidth,” said Paul Deverell, president of Consumer, Shaw Communications. “With the launch of our Fibre+ Gig 1.5 product, we are delivering the speeds and capacity needed by today’s super users and data-heavy customers, while confirming Shaw’s position as the western Canadian leader in gigabit speed deployment.”

Telus is western Canada’s largest phone company.

Shaw’s increased investment is designed to fend off its chief competitor, Telus. In 2020, Shaw discovered a growing number of its broadband customers defecting in favor of Telus, the region’s telephone company. Telus is expanding its own high-speed offering, which relies on fiber to the home service. In some areas, Telus offers 940/940 Mbps service on a two-year contract for $76 a month and a 1,500/940 Mbps plan for $127 a month — which matches Shaw’s price but vastly exceeds Shaw in upload speed. To further sweeten the deal, Shaw gives its premium-speed internet customers discounts on Shaw Mobile services — including the exclusive rate of $25 per month on Unlimited Data wireless plans for Shaw Fibre+ Gig 1.5 and Fibre+ Gig internet subscribers.

Shaw claims its infrastructure has made it possible to offer gigabit service to at least one million more western Canadians than Telus. Telus has been gradually scrapping its legacy copper wire network in favor of fiber optics, but will likely take over a decade to complete the transition in significantly populated communities.

While Canadian cable companies are pushing DOCSIS 3.1 to the limit, American cable companies have taken it easy this year, reducing estimated budgets for network investment, returning to data caps, and putting further upgrades to next generation DOCSIS 4.0 on hold for at least a year or two. With AT&T and Verizon distracted and focused on spending billions to build 5G wireless networks, both companies have stopped significant expansion of fiber-to-the-home service for residential customers, reducing competitive pressure on cable operators. This reduced competition allows cable companies an opportunity to raise rates on broadband customers, and Charter Spectrum has done exactly that, announcing a general $5/month increase on residential internet service to take effect by the start of 2021.

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