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Mediacom Wants to Kill Public Broadband in Iowa

Lobbyists for Mediacom, one of America’s medium-sized cable operators, are reportedly behind the latest effort to curtail public broadband in the state of Iowa with a new bill designed to make life difficult for municipalities trying to get internet access to their residents.

Senate Study Bill 3009, proposed by Sen. Dan Dawson, the new chairman of the Iowa Senate Commerce Committee, would create an unfair playing field between cities and towns attempting to offer their residents broadband service and the state’s private cable and phone companies which often do not.

In addition to tying the hands of local officials in their efforts to obtain funding for such projects, the bill would also make a public record of private strategies used by providers to construct systems and market service to the public. Cable operators like Mediacom could be able to obtain business records from municipal providers that would give the company an unfair advantage identifying financial information and rollout schedules about where municipal systems would offer service next.

Iowa’s report for Mediacom’s lobbying activity shows their support for restricting public broadband.

The bill would also forbid communities from marketing their broadband service on bills sent for other municipal services, including power, gas, sewage, garbage removal, and water. Municipalities would also be forbidden from lowering rates to levels deemed unprofitable, even when incumbent providers like Mediacom cut prices in competitive service areas to keep business while quietly subsidizing those lower prices on the backs of their other subscribers in non-competitive areas.

Iowans can protest the new bill by sending e-mail to Sens. Dan Dawson ([email protected]) and Carrie Koelker, ([email protected]) the subcommittee chairperson reviewing the bill. Ask them to kill the bill, because Iowa needs more broadband service, not less.

N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo Vetoes Public Rural Broadband Feasibility Study as the Unserved Struggle On

No service.

Despite New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s $500 million, 2015 Broadband for All initiative which guaranteed broadband service for anyone  that wanted home internet access, five years later rural broadband gaps continue to plague the state.

A bill that would set aside funds to complete a feasibility study to launch a state owned broadband provider of last resort was quietly vetoed by Cuomo at the end of 2019. Assembly member Aileen Gunther (D-Monticello) sponsored the bill after hearing scores of complaints about terrible or non-existent internet access from constituents in her district, which covers the parts of the rural Catskills region north of the Pennsylvania border.

Gunther complained that despite the governor’s broadband initiative, private phone and cable companies were still ignoring rural customers, leaving them with slow DSL service or no internet access at all. Gunther’s bill was a first step in potentially allowing the state to step in and provide service to New Yorkers unable to get broadband from any private provider.

New York has spent over $500 million on its Broadband for All program and made Charter Spectrum an integral part of its broadband expansion plans in return for approval of its 2016 acquisition of Time Warner Cable. But a growing number of the governor’s critics claim the program has failed to deliver on its mandate, stranding thousands of New Yorkers without internet service and tens of thousands more with just one option — unpopular satellite internet access.

Gunther

Gunther was upset to learn that New York was prepared to hand over more than a half billion dollars to large private telecom companies including Frontier Communications and Verizon while not being willing to spend a penny to fund projects to reach New Yorkers for-profit companies could not be dragged kicking and screaming to service.

“We’re all spending millions and millions of dollars on privately owned internet service providers,” said Gunther. “In return for promises, a lot of our communities do not have access to the internet, or if they do have access to the internet, it’s slow and these companies are not, I think, fulfilling the promises made.”

The rural broadband problem is not resolved in the Finger Lakes or Southern Tier regions of New York either. This week, Yates County announced it was joining an effort by Schuyler, Steuben, and Tioga counties, and the Southern Tier Network, to complete a broadband feasibility study to improve internet access in the four counties. Fujitsu Broadband will manage the study and hopes to have results by June. The study will target the pervasive problem of inadequate broadband service in the region, which includes crucial tourist, winery, and agricultural businesses vital to New York’s rural economy.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announcing rural broadband initiatives in New York in 2015.

Gov. Cuomo has called such initiatives “well-intentioned” but was non committal about contributing more state funds to construct new networks or underwrite further expansion of existing ones. New York is about to begin its annual hard-fought budget negotiations in hopes of completing the state budget by April. Finding funding for such projects will probably require a powerful political advocate able to wrestle funding for further broadband improvements.

Even after spending $500 million, New York’s rural broadband problem has not been resolved. That offers insight into the merits of other state broadband programs, which often limit annual broadband expansion funding to under $30 million annually.

Those still without service are likely in high-cost service areas, where each customer could cost over $20,000 to reach. New York’s Broadband for All program relied on a reverse auction that required private companies to bid to service each unserved address. No wireline provider bid on any high-cost service areas, leaving Hughes Satellite as a subsidized satellite provider of last resort. But inadequate broadband mapping left scores of rural New Yorkers behind without even the option of subsidized satellite internet access.

Montana’s 3 Rivers Communications Getting Out of the Cable TV Business On Oct. 31

After years of increasing costs for video programming, the disadvantages of not being large enough to qualify for lucrative volume discounts, and a declining customer base, a Montana cooperative says it is calling it quits on cable television service later this year to focus on its broadband business.

3 Rivers Communications, a rural telecommunications cooperative based in Fairfield, Mont., this week announced it was discontinuing television service on Oct. 31, 2019, inviting its members to choose a streaming TV provider (DirecTV Now, YouTube TV, etc.) instead.

The co-op serves 15,000 customers across two significant service areas in Montana. Only 1,800 still subscribe to cable television service — a number that has dropped steadily since the introduction of streaming TV alternatives. Most cable networks and local stations charge a sliding scale fee to carry their programming, with substantial volume discounts offered exclusively to large providers like Comcast, Charter, AT&T, DirecTV and Dish Networks. Small, independent companies are at a disadvantage because they must charge substantially more to cover their higher wholesale costs. Many have attempted to mitigate these high fees by pooling resources and buying programming through a national cooperative, but even that arrangement cannot keep costs low enough to prevent subscribers from canceling service after each rate increase.

Local TV station rate inflation, along with sports programming price hikes, have made offering cable television untenable for a growing number of small cable operators. As an example, 3 Rivers customers in Big Sky pay $32.99 for a basic cable TV package of 23 channels, including C-SPAN, Local Access, three religious networks, three home shopping channels, and around a half-dozen digital multicast TV networks. A comprehensive digital cable TV package costs $104.99 a month, just for television.

The 3 Rivers Communications television lineup for Big Sky, Mont.

In the last ten years, 3 Rivers has been focused on expanding its fiber to the home network, now reaching 65% of its customers. But the costs to provide service in rural Montana remain high, and internet packages remain costly. A 10 Mbps unlimited internet account costs $74.95/mo, 20 Mbps costs $94.95/mo, and 30 Mbps costs $114.95 (add around $10/mo for voice service). Offering television service originally boosted the average revenue received from each subscriber, but now that costs have skyrocketed, 3 Rivers now feels it should focus its investments on better broadband service.

“With all the new streaming options available, [including] Netflix and Hulu and Amazon Prime, in addition to traditional satellite providers like Dish and DirecTV, we just can’t really compete anymore,” 3 Rivers marketing director Don Serido told KRTV News. “We’re getting out of the TV business and we’re really going to focus on providing the best broadband we can to all of our cooperative members. That’s really what people want and need.”

Serido also said the company’s lack of support for pay-per-view and on demand programming also hurt its TV business. As a convenience to members, 3 Rivers is waiving all early termination fees and will continue to honor its promotional agreements until service is ended on Oct. 31.

The biggest impact will likely be felt by Montana TV stations that will lose retransmission consent revenue from 3 Rivers. Only a handful of streaming providers offer TV stations from the Great Falls market, forcing many cord-cutters to depend on on-demand viewing from services like Hulu and over-the-air antennas to pick up local stations.

As a member-owned cooperative, 3 Rivers returns all of its profits to members through capital credits. At the end of each fiscal year, the cooperative allocates a percentage of the margins to each patron on a pro-rata basis according to the total amount paid or produced for services. These allocations to patrons are known as capital credits. Upon approval of the Board of Trustees, these allocations are refunded to cooperative patrons. As a result, 3 Rivers has no incentive to overcharge its customers. Instead, it often invests its funds in improving service for its customers. When the cooperative was formed in 1953, it was the only provider of telephone service in north-central Montana. It has offered internet service for the last 20 years, with television only becoming a part of its menu of offerings a decade ago.

3 Rivers Communications will get out of the cable television business this fall, reports KRTV News in Great Falls, Mont. (1:05)

Virginia Capitulates on Providers Revealing Their Broadband Service Gaps

Virginia officials cannot get broadband providers to reveal full details about their actual service areas, so the state now believes cable and phone companies will be more forthcoming if they can quietly share that information with each other, keeping the state government in the dark.

Virginia Public Radio reports that there are more than 600,000 residents that have no access to high-speed internet, because the state’s dominant telecom companies — Verizon, Cox, and Comcast, choose not to provide service. But the state’s efforts to fund rural broadband projects to reach the unserved have been repeatedly complicated by the lack of accurate information about who actually has access to broadband, and who does not.

“If you call them and say, “I live at this address can I get connected?’ They can tell you yes or no. They will not share that information nationally,” Evan Feinman, Virginia’s chief broadband advisor, told VPR.

State officials cannot get straight answers because telecom companies treat their service areas as confidential and proprietary business information. Broadband availability maps have been criticized as inaccurate as well, with providers volunteering the information with little, if any, independent verification. That creates problems when a would-be provider for an unserved area completes a broadband grant application that results in immediate objections from incumbent providers that claim they already offer service in the proposed project’s service area.

Feinman believes that if the state steps out of any referee roll of verifying what areas actually get service, providers will suddenly begin sharing service information with each other.

Feinman

“Comcast is interested in helping us avoid having to fund an overbuild… if they don’t bid on covering the rest of the county then they’re not interested in covering the rest of the county,” Feinman explains. “So when another ISP comes in I have high confidence that when that ISP asks Comcast ‘Hey I want to cover the rest of this county, how much of that do I need to do?’ Comcast will share that information.”

That is not the experience of other states, where providers like Charter Communications treat any disclosure of their rural broadband service areas and intended expansion areas as “highly confidential information.” In New York, companies will share information with the state, especially when state taxpayers are helping to subsidize their costs, but under no circumstances will they share service and expansion intentions with other providers, calling them competitors.

That would leave Virginia taxpayers footing the bill for rural broadband funding, without the state being a fully informed partner, able to audit projects and their service areas.

This year, Virginia intends to spend $19 million on rural broadband funding, a comparatively tiny amount for the number of residents still lacking service (New York spent over a half billion dollars), but still an increase over earlier years. But where those funds are spent may now be up to the same cable and phone companies that have never been willing to offer service in those areas before, and may not be too interested in letting someone else serve those areas either.

The stakes are high, as Feinman pointed out.

“I have conversations with corporate leaders who say, ‘Well am I going to be able to get in touch with my manager at 1 am and will he or she be able to send me a document?’ If the answer is no that community’s off the list,” says Feinman.

Virginia could follow the lead of Wall Street analysts that have conducted detailed studies by using a provider’s own website to query service availability and information for each individual address in a proposed service area. It would be a labor intensive project, but one that would put providers on record about whether they actually offer service or not.

Virginia Public Radio reports the state’s goal for universal broadband has been hampered by a lack of accurate broadband mapping. Now the state proposes to allow cable and phone companies to sort it out themselves. (1:43)

Bradford, N.Y. – The Poster Child of America’s Rural Broadband Crisis (Updated)

The Kozy Korner Restaurant is one of the local businesses in Bradford, N.Y.

Bradford, N.Y. is an unassuming place, not atypical of communities of under 1,000 across western and central New York. It’s too far south to benefit from the tourist traffic and affluent seasonal residences of the Finger Lakes region. It isn’t next to a major interstate, and the majority of travellers heading into the Southern Tier of New York are unlikely to know Bradford even exists. Nestled between the Sugar Hill State Forest, Coon Hollow State Forest, Goundry Hill State Forest, and the Birdseye Hollow State Forest, the largely agricultural community does offer some nearby tourist opportunities for outdoor hiking, camping, boating, and horseback riding.

Ironically, just 25 miles further south of Bradford is the headquarters of Corning, Inc., a world leader in the production of optical fiber. Both communities are in Steuben County, but are miles apart in terms of 21st century telecommunications technology.

Corning residents can choose between Verizon and Charter Spectrum. Bradford has a smattering of cable television and internet service from Haefele TV, a tiny cable company serving 5,500 customers in 22 municipalities in upstate New York — towns and villages dominant provider Charter Spectrum has shown no interest in serving. Verizon barely bothers offering DSL service, and has shown no interest in improving or expanding the service they currently offer. As a result, according to the Bradford Central School District, approximately 90% of student households in the district do not have access to broadband internet speeds that meet or exceed the FCC’s minimum standard of 25 Mbps.

“Connectivity is sporadic throughout the community,” the district told state officials.

Some residents suffer with satellite internet, which has proven to be largely a bust and source of frequent frustration. Slow speeds and frequent application disruptions leave customers with web pages that never load, videos that don’t play, and cloud-based applications far too risky to rely on. Others are sneaking by using their mobile phone’s hotspot for in-home Wi-Fi, at least until their provider throws them into the penalty corner for using too much data.

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s 2015 Broadband for All initiative was supposed to end this problem forever. Gov. Cuomo promised that his program would offer high-speed internet access to any New Yorker that wanted it. New Yorkers want it, but still can’t get it, and now comes word the all-important third round of funding to reach some of the hardest areas of the state to serve may now on “indefinite hold,” according to Haefele TV, with no explanation. That means providers that would otherwise not expand service without the state’s financial assistance are shelving their expansion plans until the money arrives, if it ever does.

This week, the Democrat and Chronicle toured broadband-challenged Bradford. Reporter Sarah Taddeo sends word the status quo is not looking good for the people of the spread-out community. In fact, the internet challenges Bradford faces are all too familiar to long-time readers of Stop the Cap!:

  • Stalled funding: Haefele TV has shown an interest in expanding service in Bradford, and New York State awarded the company $5,150,612 to connect 1,303 homes and businesses in upstate New York. The money now appears to be on hold, according to a Haefele spokesperson.
  • Poor broadband maps: Bradford residents without service are hopelessly dependent on the broadband service maps offered voluntarily by incumbent providers. Those maps are inaccurate and typically unverified. Even worse, many Bradford residents are falling victim to the scourge of the “census block,” a granular measurement of an area showing who has service and who does not. In suburban areas, a census block is usually part of a neighborhood. In rural areas, it can encompass several streets containing random houses, businesses, and farms. Most broadband funding programs only award funds to “unserved” census blocks. If any provider delivers service to a single home or business within a census block, while ignoring potentially dozens of others, awards are typically not available because that area is deemed “served.” Bradford has several examples of “served” census blocks that are actually not well-served, as well as at least one that was skipped over altogether.
  • Politics and bureaucracy: Politicians are usually on hand to take credit for broadband expansion programs, but leave it to the bureaucrats to dole out funding. That is typically a long and arduous process, requiring a lot of documentation to process payments, which are usually provided in stages. Some providers do not believe it is worth the hassle of participating. Others do appreciate the funding, but do not appreciate the delays and paperwork. Politicians who declare the problem solved are unlikely to be back to explain what went wrong if lofty goals are ultimately unachieved.
  • Relying on for-profit providers: Some portions of Bradford will eventually get service from Haefele, while others will be officially designated as served by Hughes’ satellite internet service — one of two satellite providers that already earn low marks from local residents sharing scathing reviews from paying customers. Haefele won’t break ground without state dollars, and nothing stops Bradford residents from signing up for satellite internet today.
  • Homework Hotspots: Impacted families often have to drive to a community institution or public restaurant or shopping center that offers reliable Wi-Fi to complete homework assignments, pay bills, and manage the online responsibilities most people take for granted. Their children may be left at a permanent disadvantage not growing up in the kind of digital world kids in more populated areas do.

With funding for the area seemingly “on hold,” the Bradford’s school district stepped up and found $456,000 from the community’s share of the state’s Smart Schools bond fund, which supplied $2 billion for school districts to spend on technology products and services. Instead of buying iPads or more computers, school officials announced an initiative that would spend the money on an 18-mile fiber network strung through the community’s most student-dense neighborhoods. The school district claims “50-75% of student households will be covered” by the initial phase of the project, with plans to eventually reach everyone with a fiber-fed Wi-Fi network. The proposal has been cautious about staying within the guidelines of the bond initiative, such as limiting access exclusively to students, at least for now.

So far, the proposal has survived its first major review by state officials, but there is still plenty of time for large cable and phone companies serving the state to object, not so much because they want to punish the people of Bradford, but because they may not like a precedent established allowing school districts to spend state funds on broadband projects that could expose them to unwanted competition.

Updated 3:50pm ET: We received word from a credible source denying that the third round of broadband funding was on hold across New York, so we are striking through that section of the story. We anticipate receiving a statement for publication shortly and will update the story again when it arrives.

The Star Gazette visited Bradford, N.Y., to learn more about the broadband challenges faced by the community of nearly 800 people in southwestern New York. (1:47)

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