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Charter Settlement Talks With New York Officials Proving Fruitful; Spectrum Likely Staying

Charter Communications’ ongoing settlement talks with the New York Public Service Commission are “productive” and will likely result in a final settlement agreement allowing Spectrum to continue operating in New York.

Today, the Public Service Commission formally approved a third extension for Charter, allowing the cable company to hold off filing an orderly exit plan and an appeal of the order revoking approval of Charter’s acquisition of Time Warner Cable in New York State. Department of Public Service (DPS) staff recommended one last 45-day extension to allow settlement discussions to continue and conclude.

“These discussions have been productive and should continue. However, DPS Staff believes that the Commission should direct that any request granted in response to Charter’s most recent filing be final in form and that any additional time allowed must either result in a settlement agreement being presented to the Commission or the cessation of settlement talks and a resumption of the processes outlined in the Revocation and Compliance Orders, unless good cause is shown by both parties,” wrote John J. Sipos, acting general counsel for the Public Service Commission. “This will ensure that progress is made or that in the event a settlement is not reached, that there is certainty as to the expectations on the parties going forward.”

DPS staff identified nine principles guiding discussions towards a final settlement:

  1. All addresses that are counted toward Charter’s obligations must further the Commission’s statements that service be provided to those in less densely populated areas (i.e., Upstate N.Y.).
  2. Addresses counted toward Charter’s obligations must not have had network previously passing the address or high speed broadband service available from a competitor. As the Commission has previously noted, New York City is one of the most wired cities in America, with much of the City served by multiple providers. Thus, the focus of the buildout should be in Upstate N.Y.
  3. Overlap between Charter’s proposed buildout Upstate and those areas awarded by the Broadband Program Office should be minimized or eliminated to the maximum extent practicable.
  4. The goal of DPS Staff and New York State is to ensure that the maximum number of New York State residents have wireline cable and broadband networks available to them.
  5. Charter’s violations of the January 8, 2016 order and September 2017 Settlement Agreement must be addressed.
  6. Going forward, the scope of changes allowed to be made to the buildout plan should be limited in order to provide certainty to New Yorkers as to when Charter’s network will pass their homes and businesses.
  7. Safety is of paramount importance to New York State and that, regardless of any targets agreed to, all work must be done safely.
  8. Company representations regarding the buildout and compliance with PSC orders must be truthful.
  9. The buildout schedule must establish concrete and enforceable consequences should Charter fail to meet its obligations.

Because the ongoing discussions have been conducted in private, without input from interested third parties (including Stop the Cap!) and the public, the revelation of the “nine principles” are the first indication the public has that the Commission’s staff has limited the scope of its negotiations to the rural broadband buildout obligation contained in the original merger approval order. This also coincides with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s high-profile commitment to expand broadband availability to every New York resident, one of the achievements the governor cites in his re-election campaign. Charter’s participation is essential to the program achieving its objectives, because rural broadband funding has been diverted to addresses not identified as targets for Charter’s rural broadband buildout.

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

Charter ran into trouble with the Commission because it failed to initially meet its buildout targets for 2017 and progress further faltered in 2018. The Commission argues Charter attempted to mask the problem by counting new passings in urban areas towards its broadband expansion commitment, including many addresses in the New York City area. When Charter balked at the Commission’s broad disqualification of Charter’s progress reports, many that included locations outside the intended goal of the rural expansion effort, the PSC hastily met in July and revoked approval of the original merger agreement, directly threatening Charter’s ability to provide Spectrum service in the state.

A vocal group of consumers among the 78,000 rural New Yorkers without access to cable, DSL, fiber, or wireless broadband are also calling out the governor and the Broadband Program Office (BPO) for bait and switch rural broadband. They accuse the governor of promising to get broadband service to every New York home or business that wants it, but quietly capitulating on that commitment by assigning tens of thousands of rural New Yorkers satellite internet service from HughesNet, widely criticized for not consistently meeting broadband speed standards and offering heavily usage capped service at very high prices.

Because the DPS has set a goal to minimize overlap of Charter’s planned expansion areas with addresses designated for BPO-funded HughesNet service, the Commission will indefinitely prevent satellite customers from getting other practical internet options, because many of these locations are high-cost service areas. Stop the Cap! urged the Commission to consider requiring Charter to further expand its rural broadband commitment as a penalty for earlier transgressions, specifically targeting as many satellite-designated addresses as practical, even if HughesNet has already received BPO funding to serve those locations.

Dampier

“The commitment should be to protect the interests of the public, not the assigned provider,” said Phillip Dampier, director and founder of Stop the Cap! “The Commission’s goal to maximize the number of New York addresses where wireline cable and broadband networks are available is laudable. But this goal is immediately abandoned in areas designated for satellite service. Satellite internet access has rarely, if ever, been considered by broadband regulators to be a suitable replacement for wired internet access. Satellite internet access has proven again and again to be a frustrating and inadequate broadband solution.”

“We are talking about a very small percentage of places where overlapped funding may occur, potentially giving these rural New Yorkers two options for internet access instead of one,” Dampier added. “There is no conflict with the public interest if it means these customers have the option of a much faster, unlimited internet access plan — something HughesNet does not and will not offer in the foreseeable future.”

Stop the Cap! argues without a better option for residents stuck with satellite, the governor has broken his promise and commitment to these left-behind New Yorkers.

“In many cases, these addresses are literally just down the road from the nearest Spectrum customer,” Dampier noted. “Niagara County, for example, is hardly in the middle of the Adirondacks and is heavily wired by Spectrum/Time Warner Cable already. Is it too much to ask to push them to do more?”

John B. Rhodes, chairman of the New York Public Service Commission, signed an order granting the extension, but acknowledged the lack of broadband service in counties where Spectrum offers service to some residents but not others is a point of contention.

“Many Upstate New Yorkers living in Charter’s franchise areas are understandably frustrated by the lack of modern communications infrastructure,” Rhodes wrote. “The Compliance and Revocation Orders [revoking the merger] were designed to deal with very serious issues presented by Charter’s conduct related to the company’s network expansion. As such, the processes envisioned therein must continue in the absence of an agreement.”

Verizon Denies Throttling Florence Victims, But Customers Deal with Slow Speeds

Verizon Wireless claims it is not intentionally slowing data services for its customers in North & South Carolina, despite growing complaints from customers about slow speeds.

Stop the Cap! has heard from nearly 20 readers in central and eastern North Carolina and they are displeased with Verizon’s performance.

“Signal is five bars but speed might as well be dial-up,” reports one reader. “I have consistently gotten 20 Mbps or better service for at least a decade from my home and workplace on Verizon’s network, but now the speed shows it starts at around 20 Mbps but quickly declines to less than 1 Mbps within 3-5 seconds. I have an unlimited data plan and have relied on it since Spectrum went out over the weekend.”

“Of course they are throttling us,” said Paul Ingell, who moved inland from New Bern to share a room with friends near Charlotte. “As soon as you go over 20 GB, the speed throttle game begins, and they are playing it. My bill reset date was today and by gosh speeds magically returned to normal. But my sister-in-law is still being throttled. Her phone delivers less than 1 Mbps sitting right next to mine and I get around 15 Mbps. We both own the same phones and have unlimited plans.”

The Washington Post covered the alleged Verizon slowdowns as well, and one Raleigh area reader claimed he is being throttled now as well.

“We lost power/cable and were using my Verizon unlimited data plan for internet access, and were very frustrated when attempting to access pages with dynamic content,” he wrote. “This is not typically a problem in central North Carolina, a high-coverage area. It seemed clear our data was being throttled.”

Another reader in New Bern who rode out the storm said Verizon service was very poor as he attempted to get news from CNN and Google during and after the storm. Browsing was almost impossible.

“E-mails and texts were the only reasonably quick way for me to get information. Other people complained of the same issue,” the reader wrote. “Having lost power and internet, the phone was our only contact with the outside.”

First word of the claimed throttling came from a reddit thread from AbeFroman21:

My family lives in a small town in eastern North Carolina, and we were just devastated by the hurricane. Our power has been out for five days now and internet service is gone as well. Two days ago my wife and I noticed that we couldn’t retrieve our email from our phone or check Facebook [for] updates from our community about the storm or when service would be restored.

We traveled into a bigger town and called Verizon to check and see if there was a data outage and when we could expect it to be restored. Only, I was told that my unlimited plan was deprioritized for being too low tier of a plan. But if I upgraded to a higher plan my service would be restored.

There’s no outage, just corporations sucking dry a community that as already lost so much. Thanks a**holes.

Verizon categorically denies it is throttling any customers in North Carolina.

“On North Carolina, we are not throttling,” said Richard Young, a Verizon spokesman. “The most likely scenario is that the customer, who can’t connect to the internet, is in an area that has lost cell service.”

Verizon Starts Taking Orders Thursday for 5G Home Internet in Houston, Indianapolis, LA and Sacramento

Verizon 5G Home will begin accepting new customer orders for its in-home wireless broadband replacement as of this Thursday, Sept. 13, with a scheduled service launch date of Oct. 1.

The new high-speed wireless service will be available in select parts of Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, and Sacramento.

Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg is calling the service part of Verizon’s 5G Ultra Wideband network. Initial reports indicate speed will range between 300-1,000 Mbps and existing Verizon Wireless customers will get a $20 price break on service — $50 a month instead of $70 for non-Verizon Wireless customers. We are still waiting word on any data caps or speed throttle information. Verizon informs Stop the Cap! there are no data caps or speed throttles. Service is effectively unlimited, unless hidden terms and conditions introduce unpublished limits.

Interested customers can determine their eligibility starting at 8 a.m. ET on Thursday from the Firston5G website. If you are not eligible initially, you can add your email address to be notified when service is available in your area.

Early adopters will be awarded with a series of goodies:

  • Free installation (a big deal, since it could cost as much as $200 later. An external antenna is required, as well as in-home wiring and equipment.)
  • 90 days of free service (a good idea, considering there may be bugs to work out)
  • 90 days of free YouTube TV (a welcome gift for cord-cutters)
  • Free Chromecast or Apple TV 4K (a common sign up enticement with streaming cable-TV replacements)
  • Priority access to buy forthcoming line of 5G-capable mobile devices

Customers in the first four launch cities will be using equipment built around a draft standard of 5G, as the final release version is still forthcoming. Verizon is holding off on additional expansion of 5G services until the final 5G standard is released, and promises early adopters will receive upgraded technology when that happens.

Verizon is clearly providing a greater-than-average number of enticements for early adopters, undoubtedly to placate them if and when service anomalies and disruptions occur. Although Verizon has done limited beta testing of its 5G service, it is very likely the 5G network will get its first real shakeout with paying customers. Unanticipated challenges are likely to range from coverage and speed issues, unexpected interference, network traffic loading, the robustness of Verizon’s small cell network, and how well outside reception equipment will perform in different weather conditions, particularly heavy rain and snow. With a large number of freebies, and no charges for 90 days, customers are likely to be more forgiving of problems, at least initially.

Chromecast

Verizon’s 5G network depends on millimeter wave spectrum, which means it will be capable of providing very high-speed service with greater network capacity than traditional 4G LTE wireless networks. But Verizon will have to bring 5G antennas much closer to subscribers’ homes, because millimeter wave frequencies do not travel very far.

Verizon will combine a fiber backhaul network with small cell antennas placed on top of utility and light poles to reach customers. That explains why Verizon’s initial 5G deployment is unlikely to cover every customer inside city limits. There are substantial deployment costs and installation issues relating to small cells and the optical fiber network required to connect each small cell.

Verizon’s existing FiOS network areas will offer an easier path to introduce service, but where Verizon does not offer its fiber to the home service, it will need to bring fiber optic cables deep into neighborhoods.

AT&T sees a similar challenge to 5G and is openly questioning how useful wireless 5G can be for urban/suburban broadband service, considering it can simply extend fiber optic service to those homes and businesses instead, without a costly 5G small cell deployment.

Verizon introduces 5G wireless in-home broadband in four U.S. cities and starts taking new customer orders on Thursday. (1:00)

Article updated at 6:28pm ET with information about data caps and speed throttles provided by Verizon.

Fixed Wireless Not a Good Solution for Rural Areas; Usage Demand Outstrips Capacity

Morrow

Australia is learning a costly lesson finding ways to extend broadband service to rural areas in the country, choosing fixed wireless and satellite networks that will ultimately cost more than extending fiber optic broadband to rural customers.

Australia’s National Broadband Network (NBN) is tasked with supplying virtually all of Australia with internet access, using fiber/wired broadband in urban and suburban areas and fixed wireless and satellite internet access in the country’s most remote locations.

But just a few years after debuting satellite broadband and fixed LTE 4G wireless service in many parts of the country, demand has quickly begun to overwhelm capacity, forcing costly upgrades and punitive measures against so-called “heavy superusers.” The NBN has also scrapped plans to introduce higher-speed fixed wireless services, fearing it will only create additional demands on a network that was not envisioned to manage heavy broadband usage from video streaming.

NBN CEO Bill Morrow has elected to place most of the blame on his customers, specifically “superusers” that he characterized as “online gamers” who spend hours during the day and peak usage periods consuming large parts of the fixed wireless network’s available capacity.

“In the fixed wireless, there’s a large portion [of end users] that are using terabytes of data,” Morrow said. “We’re evaluating a form of fair use policy to say, ‘We would groom these extreme users.’ Now the grooming could be that, during the busy period of the day when these heavy users are impacting the majority, that they actually get throttled back to where they’re taking down what everybody else is taking down.”

Under the current NBN fair use policy, monthly downloads per household are capped at 400 GB, with maximum usage during peak usage periods limited to 150 GB a month, which is already significantly less than what most average American households consume each month. With expensive and unexpected early upgrades to more than 3,100 cell towers to manage rapidly growing usage, the cost of service is starting to rise substantially, even as usage limits and speed reductions make these networks less useful for consumers.

In areas where the NBN extends a fiber optic network, the fixed wholesale price for a 50/20 Mbps connection is $32.00 (U.S.) per month. (A 100/40 Mbps connection costs $46.25). For fixed wireless, prices are rising. A 50/20 Mbps fixed wireless connection (with usage cap) will now cost $46.25 a month.

Morrow took heat from members of Parliament over his claim that online gamers were chiefly responsible for slowing down the NBN’s fixed wireless network.

“With great respect to everything you said over the last 15 minutes, you have been saying to us the problem here is gamers,” said MP Stephen Jones (Whitlam).

Morrow clarified that online gamers were not the principal cause of congestion. The main issue is concurrency, which drags down network speeds when multiple family members unexpectedly use an internet connection at the same time. The worst congestion results when several family members launch internet video streams at the same time. Online video not only leads average users’ traffic, it can also quickly outstrip available cell tower capacity. High quality video streaming can quickly impact 4G LTE service during peak usage periods, driving speeds down for all users. The NBN now considers these newly revealed capacity constraints a limit on the feasibility of using wireless technology like LTE to supply internet access.

The current mitigation strategy includes limiting video bandwidth, discouraging video streaming with usage caps or speed throttles, capacity upgrades at cell towers, and public education requesting responsible usage during peak usage times. With capacity issues becoming more serious, Morrow canceled plans to upgrade fixed wireless to 100 Mbps speeds because of costs. The proposed upgrades would have cost “exponentially” more than wired internet access.

Hype vs. Reality: Most Australians reject fixed wireless and satellite internet as woefully inadequate. (Source: BIRRR)

Actual Fixed Wireless speeds

Actual Satellite Internet speeds

The concept of supplying fixed wireless or satellite internet access to rural areas may have made sense a decade ago, but there are growing questions about the suitability of this technology based on growth in consumer usage patterns, which increasingly includes streaming video. The cost to provide a sufficiently robust wireless network could easily rival or even outpace the costs of extending traditional fiber optic wired service to many rural properties currently considered cost prohibitive to serve. In Australia, fixed wireless and satellite has delivered sub-standard access for rural consumers, and requires the imposition of “fair usage” caps and speed throttles that inconvenience customers. For now, Morrow believes that is still the best solution, given that Australia’s national broadband plan relies heavily on wireless access in rural communities.

“[The benefit of a fair usage policy is] big enough to where if we did groom them during the busy time of the day, it would be a substantial [speed] lift for people,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a silver bullet in any of this – this is going to require us to think through a number of different areas.”

Better Internet for Rural, Regional and Rural Australia (a volunteer consumer group) shares horror stories about relying on satellite to solve rural broadband problems. (7:50)

 

Rochester, N.Y. Based GoNetspeed Delivers $90 Gigabit Broadband to Pittsburgh and Connecticut

A Rochester, N.Y.-based broadband company founded by an ex-president of Time Warner Cable and a former top executive at Rochester Telephone is bringing broadband competition to thousands of residents in Connecticut and Pennsylvania through its fiber-to-the-home network.

GoNetspeed has been aggressively expanding its service in Comcast, Verizon, and Frontier Communications service areas in suburban Pittsburgh and several cities in Connecticut. According to chief operating officer Tom Perrone, GoNetspeed has managed to buildout 100 network miles of fiber across 13 towns in two different states in just the first six months of 2018, providing a new choice for broadband service to over 30,000 homes and businesses.

Most recently, the company completed expansion in the New Haven, Conn. neighborhoods of Beaver Hills, Edgewood, and West River, adding an additional 3,000-5,000 homes to its network service area.

GoNetspeed prioritizes expansion in areas where there is little competition and where neighborhood density makes it financially feasible to bring fiber optic cables into an area. The company markets its service with simplified, lifetime pricing:

  • $50 for 100/100 Mbps
  • $70 for 500/500 Mbps
  • $90 for 1,000/1,000 Mbps

In areas when service is first offered, the $100 installation fee is traditionally waived. There are no data caps. Static IPs and inside wiring are available at an additional cost.

GoNetspeed has received positive reviews from customers in parts of Bridgeport and West Hartford, where service is already available in Connecticut. In suburban Pittsburgh, GoNetspeed is available in parts of Ambridge, Beaver Falls, Baden, Conway, Beaver, Monaca, and Rochester. Over the summer, it announced it would soon also service New Brighton and Aliquippa. In general, the company wires neighborhoods where at least 10% of residents are committed to signing up for service. In Pennsylvania, it faces competition primarily from Comcast and Verizon. In Connecticut, competition will come from incumbents Comcast, Altice USA, and Frontier.

GoNetspeed’s headquarters are in suburban Rochester, N.Y. Ironically, it does not offer residential service in New York.

A GoNetspeed truck

The company originally behind GoNetspeed was Fibertech Networks (since sold to Crown Castle, a cell tower owner/operator). The founding partners were John K. Purcell, a former vice president at Rochester Telephone Corporation (now Frontier Communications) and Frank Chiano, the former head of Time Warner Cable in Rochester.

Fibertech was founded in 2000 as a fiber optic network operator. Purcell passed away in 2017, but Fibertech continued, eventually amassing a valuable 14,000 mile metro fiber network serving cities around the northeast. Fibertech served commercial customers like corporations, institutions, and wireless network operators seeking fiber connections to buildings or cell tower sites.

In the last several years, fiber network operators have started to enter the retail broadband marketplace as fiber overbuilders — providing fiber to the home service to areas where demand warrants investment. Most overbuilders target areas where no existing fiber competitor exists, which makes the northeast a viable target.

Verizon dropped its FiOS fiber to the home network expansion project eight years ago and incumbent telephone companies including Verizon, Frontier, Consolidated (formerly FairPoint), Windstream, and CenturyLink have shown little interest in investing in significant fiber upgrades in medium-sized cities in New England, the Northeast, and Mid-Atlantic region. That has given Comcast and Charter Communications — the two largest cable operators, a substantial and growing market share. But customers often loathe both cable operators, and there is built-in demand for new competition.

New Haven. Conn.

Local officials are also happy to see another competitive option. New Haven officials, like many others in Connecticut, have embarked on an effort during the last few years to attract new players to the state, especially after Frontier Communications acquired the assets of AT&T Connecticut. Many communities in Connecticut report a significant digital divide, particularly over the cost of internet access. New Haven, which has a significant low-income population, is happy to see GoNetspeed be part of the solution, but has wondered if GoNetspeed will expand service into lower-income areas of the city.

Connecticut Consumer Counsel Elin Swanson Katz, whose office manages broadband expansion in Connecticut, told the New Haven Register GoNetspeed’s expansion in New Haven “is just another strong indicator that Connecticut consumers are interested in having different options for broadband Internet service.”

“The more competition there is for consumers, for them to have choices, the better off we are,” Katz said. “It’s really important for our state to have ubiquitous access to affordable high-speed broadband that is reliable and that touches every corner of out state.”

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