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A Lukewarm Reception for Vermont’s Plan to Lure Internet Providers

Vermont residents want better internet service and protection for universal access to phone service, even if customers have to pay a surcharge on their bill to make sure the traditional landline is still available in 100% of the state.

In contrast, some residents complain, Vermont regulators want to make life easier for a telecom industry that wants to abandon universal service, fails to connect rural customers to the internet, and has left major cell phone signal gaps around the state.

In 2017, Vermont commissioned two surveys that asked 400 business and 418 residential customers about their telecommunications services. It was quickly clear from the results that most wanted some changes.

Vermont is a largely rural, small state that presents a difficult business case for many for-profit telecom companies. Verizon Communications sold its landline business in northern New England, including Vermont, to FairPoint Communications in 2007. FairPoint limped along for several years until it declared bankruptcy and was eventually acquired by Consolidated Communications, which still provides telephone service to most of the state.

Many rural areas are not furnished with anything close to the FCC’s definition of broadband (25/3 Mbps). DSL service at speeds hovering around 4 Mbps is still common, especially in areas relying on Verizon’s old copper wire infrastructure.

Comcast dominates cable service in the state, except for a portion of east-central Vermont, which is served by Charter Communications (Spectrum). Getting cable broadband service in rural Vermont remains challenging, as those areas usually fail the Return On Investment test. Still, 85% of respondents said they had internet service available in their home. Vermont’s Department of Public Service (DPS) estimates about 7% of homes in Vermont have no internet provider offering service, with a larger percentage served only by the incumbent phone company.

The majority of residents own cell phones, with Verizon (47.5%) and AT&T (31.8%) dominating market share. Sprint has 0.6% of the market; T-Mobile has a 1.2% share, both largely due to coverage issues. But even with Verizon and AT&T, 40% of respondents said cell phone companies cannot deliver a signal in their homes. As a result, many residents are hanging on to landline service, which is considered more reliable than cell service. Some 40% of those relying on cell phones said they would consider going back to a landline for various reasons.

With the FCC ready to cut support funding for rural landline service, residents were asked if the state should maintain funding to assure continued universal access to landline service. Among respondents, 87.8% thought it was either “very important” or “somewhat important.” The study also found 51% would accept a general statewide rate increase to cover those costs, while 29% preferred rate increases be targeted to rural ratepayers only. About 16% did not like either idea, and 4% liked both.

When asked whether residents would be interested in having a fiber connection in their home, 80% of respondents said “yes,” but 30% were unwilling to pay a higher bill to get it.

Ironically, the state’s most aggressive residential fiber buildouts are run by some of the smallest community-owned internet providers, rural electric or telecom co-ops, and small independent phone companies. What makes these smaller providers different is that they answer to their customers, not shareholders.

Comcast and Charter are the two largest cable companies in Vermont.

Recently, the DPS released a 100+ page final draft of its 2018 Vermont Telecommunications Plan, setting out a vision of where Vermont should be a decade from now, especially regarding rural broadband expansion, pole attachment issues, and cell tower/small cell zoning.

The report acknowledges the state’s own existing rural broadband expansion fund is woefully inadequate. In 2017, the Vermont Universal Service Fund paid out $220,000 to assist ISPs with building out networks to rural areas.

“The amount of money available to the fund pales in comparison to the amount of funding requests that the Department receives, which is generally in the millions of dollars,” the draft report states. “With approximately 20,000 unserved and underserved addresses in Vermont, the Connectivity Initiative cannot make a meaningful dent in the number of underserved locations.”

Much of the report focuses on ideas to lure incumbent providers into volunteering to expand their networks, either through deregulation, pole attachment reform, direct subsidies, or cost sharing arrangements that split the expenses of network extensions between providers, the state, and residents.

A significant weakness in the report covered the forthcoming challenge of upgrading a state like Vermont with 5G wireless service:

Small cell deployment has been attempted along rural routes with very limited success and the national efforts to expand small-cell, distributed-antenna systems, and 5G upgrades have focused on urban areas. The common refrain on 5G is that ‘it’s not coming to rural America.’ 5G should come to rural Vermont and the state should take efforts to improve its reach into rural areas.

A small cell attached to a light pole.

To accomplish this, the report only recommends streamlining the permitting process for new cell towers and small cells. The report says nothing about how the state can make a compelling case to convince providers to spend millions to deploy small cells in rural areas.

Where for-profit providers refuse to provide service, local communities and co-op phone or electric providers often step into the void. But Vermont prohibits municipalities from using tax dollars to fund telecommunications projects, which the law claims was designed to protect communities from investing in ‘unprofitable broadband networks.’

The draft proposal offers a mild recommendation to change the law to allow towns to bond for some capital expenditures on existing or starting networks:

Vermont could use a similar program to help start Communications Union Districts as well as allow towns to invest in existing networks of incumbent providers. Limitations on the authority to bond would need to be put in place. Such limitations should include focusing capital to underserved locations only, limiting the amount (or percentage) of tax payer dollars allowed to be collateralized, and setting technical requirements for the service.

Such restrictions often leave community broadband projects untenable and lacking a sufficient service area or customer base to cover construction and operating expenses. Instead, only the most difficult and costly-to-serve areas would be served. The current law also prevents local communities from making decisions on the local level to meet local needs.

At a public hearing last Tuesday in Montpelier, the report faced immediate criticism from a state legislator and some consumers for being vague and lacking measurable, attainable goals.

“This plan does not appear to move Vermont ahead in a way that enables it to compete effectively,” said state Sen. Mark MacDonald (D-Orange). “It doesn’t seem to be moving forward at the pace we’re capable of.”

Clay Purvis, director of telecommunications and connectivity for the DPS, defended the plan by alluding to how the state intends to establish a cooperative environment for internet service providers and help cut through red tape. But much of those efforts are focused on resolving controversial pole attachment fees and disputes, assuming there are providers fighting to place their competing infrastructure on those utility poles.

Montpelier resident Stephen Whitaker was profoundly underwhelmed by the report.

“There is no plan at all here,” Whitaker said at Tuesday’s public hearing. “There is some new background information from the 2014 version, but there’s no plan there. There is no objective to reach the statutory goals.”

Census Bureau Reports Internet Penetration Lowest in Urban Poor and Rural Areas

There are stark contrasts in internet subscription rates depending on where you live and how much money you make, according to newly released findings from the U.S. Census Bureau.

As the cost of internet access continues to rise, affordability is increasingly a problem for poor Americans. In rural areas, a lack of broadband availability is also holding down subscription rates.

Telfair County, Ga. has the dubious distinction of being America’s worst connected county, with just 25% of households signed up for internet access. The most connected communities are found in suburban areas surrounding major cities along the Pacific Coast and northeastern U.S. More than 90% of households also have internet access in suburban areas outside of the District of Columbia, Atlanta, and Denver.

Urban Poor Americans Can’t Afford Increasingly Expensive Service Plans; Many Turn to Smartphones Instead

Although internet subscription rates are sky-high in wealthier suburban areas, poor inner city neighborhoods score poorly for internet subscriptions. In the Chicago metropolitan area, 77% of Cook County households subscribe to the internet. In downtown Los Angeles, just 80% are signed up. In D.C., only 78% subscribe.

In Philadelphia, there were some neighborhoods with just 25% of residents getting internet service. In the Tioga-Nicetown neighborhood, only 37.1% of households had internet service. Persistent poverty, crime, unemployment, and low-income in poorer parts of the inner city have conspired to make it very difficult for residents to afford internet access at prices often over $50 a month.

Increasingly, poor urban residents are turning to their smartphones as their sole source of internet. In the Philadelphia neighborhood of Fairhill, where internet subscriptions are below 38%, 12% of homes report smartphones are the only way they connect to the internet.

Pew Research Center senior researcher Monica Anderson told The Inquirer that 31 percent of Americans who earn less than $30,000 a year now rely only on smart phones for internet access, a percentage that has doubled since 2013.

“We are seeing smartphones help more people get online,” she told the newspaper, adding that data caps and data plan costs lead people to cancel or suspend services.

Rural and Native Americans Suffer Without Service, If They Can Afford It

Some of the worst scoring counties where internet subscription rates were lower than average are located in rural areas across the upper Plains, the Southwest and South. The desert states of Arizona and New Mexico, south Texas, the lower Mississippi through Southern Alabama and some areas of the Piedmont of Georgia, the Carolinas and Southern Virginia were notable for containing many counties with low broadband internet subscription rates, although there were exceptions throughout.

Only 67% of Native Americans have signed up for internet access, compared with 82 percent for non-Native Americans. Native Americans living on American Indian land had a subscription rate of 53 percent.

Thirteen percent of the counties achieving better than an 80% subscription rate were located in “mostly rural” or “completely rural” counties, often getting telecommunications services from a local co-op or municipal utility. Assuming a rural customer can buy internet access, the next impediment is often cost.

In “mostly urban” counties with median household incomes of $50,000 and over, the average broadband internet subscription rate was roughly 80 percent, while in “completely rural” counties with the similar median incomes, the average broadband internet subscription rate was only 71 percent.

“Mostly urban” counties with median household incomes below $50,000, however, only reported average broadband internet subscription rates of 70 percent while “completely rural” counties with similar median incomes had average broadband internet subscription rates of just 62 percent.

This contrast showed up most dramatically in the South. Of the 21 counties with populations of at least 10,000 and broadband internet subscription rates at or above 90 percent, 12 were in the South, four were in the Midwest, four in the West, and one in the Northeast. Conversely, of the 24 counties with broadband internet subscription rates at or below 45 percent and populations of at least 10,000, 21 were in the South, two were in the West, and one was in the Midwest.

VIDEO: How Big Telecom Isolates Rural America

From the producers of Dividing Lines:

Across the country, state legislatures have created barriers to community involvement in expanding internet access.

In Tennessee, lobbyists from AT&T, Charter, and Comcast spread huge campaign contributions around the state legislature. AT&T’s influence is felt in the governor’s own broadband expansion legislation, which was tailor-written to allow the phone company to collect huge taxpayer subsidies to expand inferior DSL into rural parts of Tennessee.

Meanwhile, some local communities seeking to build state-of-the-art fiber to the home networks capable of delivering 10 gigabit service found that doing so would be illegal under state law.

Think about that for a moment.

A multi-billion dollar telecom company is allowed to expand its slow speed DSL network with taxpayer-funded grants while your local community is forbidden to bring fiber optic service to your home even if your community votes to support such a project. Exactly who is the governor and state legislature working for when it comes to resolving Tennessee’s rural broadband nightmare?

In part two of this series, watch State Senator Janice Bowling describe how much influence AT&T has over the Tennessee state legislature. (5:31)

VIDEO: Dividing Lines – Dialed Back to Dial-Up in Rural America

From the producers of Dividing Lines:

The online world is no longer a distinct world. It is an extension of our social, economic, and political lives. Internet access, however, is still a luxury good. Millions of Americans have been priced out of, or entirely excluded from, the reach of modern internet networks. Maria Smith, an affiliate of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society and Harvard Law School, created Dividing Lines to highlight these stark divides, uncover the complex web of political and economic forces behind them, and challenge audiences to imagine a future in which quality internet access is as ubiquitous as electricity.

This is the first part of a series being deployed by organizations and community leaders across the country, from San Francisco to Nashville to Washington, D.C., in an effort to educate stakeholders and catalyze policymaking that elevates the interests of the people over the interests of a handful of corporations.

The fight for rural broadband in Tennessee pits a publicly owned electric utility against Comcast and AT&T and their allies in the state legislature. (5:25)

Frontier Boost Speeds in Fiber Markets While Its DSL Customers Suffer

Frontier can boost speeds on its acquired fiber to the home networks, which offer almost unlimited capacity upgrades.

Frontier Communications is America’s feast or famine broadband provider, today announcing speed upgrades for its acquired Frontier FiOS and Vantage Fiber service areas while the company continues to pile up hundreds of complaints about poor quality DSL service in the northern U.S. where fiber upgrades are unlikely to ever happen.

Frontier today announced gigabit service (1,000/1,000 Mbps) is now available in its FiOS (California, Texas, Florida, and parts of the Pacific Northwest and Indiana) and Vantage Fiber (primarily Connecticut) service areas. The company also unveiled new plans offering 200/200 and 300/300 Mbps speed options in Indiana, Oregon, and Washington.

“Frontier is pleased to now offer a 200/200 Mbps service, the fastest, most efficient introductory broadband service available in our markets, plus eye-popping speed and capacity with our FiOS Gigabit for the home,” said John Maduri, executive vice president and chief customer officer at Frontier Communications. “Speed and reliability are hallmarks of FiOS Fiber broadband service. Two-way speeds over our all-fiber network make Internet tasks faster and more efficient, regardless of the time of day, while also enabling the many connected devices and streaming services in the home to work simultaneously and smoothly.”

Frontier’s fiber networks are only found in certain regions of the country, including 1.4 million homes in the Tampa Bay/six-county region along the central west coast of Florida, parts of Southern California, Dallas, and individual communities in Indiana, Oregon, and Washington that used to be served by Verizon.

Frontier’s Vantage Fiber network was largely acquired from AT&T’s U-verse service area in Connecticut, with more recent limited rollouts in North Carolina and Minnesota. Life for the unfibered masses in the rest of Minnesota is less sunny, with nearly 500 complaints against Frontier filed by frustrated consumers stuck with a company they feel has forgotten about them.

City Pages notes no company affirms the notoriety of a bad phone company like Frontier Communications, which still relies on a deteriorating copper wire network in most of its original (a/k/a “legacy”) service areas. Complaints about mediocre internet access, missing in action repair crews, and Soviet era-like delays to get landline service installed are as common as country roads.

City Pages:

The grievances read like a cannonade of frustration. They speak of no-show repairmen. Endless waits on hold. Charges for services never rendered. Outages that last for days.

“I have never dealt with a more incompetent company than Frontier,” writes one customer on Google Reviews. “I have no other choice for internet or phone service in my area…. It took me over three months just for Frontier to get to my house to even connect my service…. They also canceled multiple times for installation without calling. They just didn’t show up.”

These maladies aren’t exclusive to the outbacks. They also extend to Watertown Township, in the exurbs of Carver County.

“Frontier Communications is my only option for internet,” Kathleen McCann wrote state regulators. “My internet service is worse than dial-up…. As a dentist, I am not able to email dental X-rays. It took me 47 minutes to upload one small photo to Facebook recently.”

Frontier vice president Javier Mendoza at least admits most rural Minnesotans will be waiting for upgrades forever.

“The economic reality is that upgrading broadband infrastructure in the more rural parts of the state is not economically viable,” he says.

That leaves customers hoping some other entity will step up and serve the critical digital needs of one of America’s most important agricultural states. If not, the future is dismal.

“Those people are screwed,” Christopher Mitchell of the Institute of Local Self-Reliance, a Minneapolis nonprofit, tells the newspaper. “People who make business or real estate decisions are not going to move to that area.”

With that bleak assessment, several rural Minnesota communities are doing something remarkable — building their own public broadband networks. Even more surprising is that many of those towns are led by hardcore Republican local governments that have very different views about municipal broadband than the national party.

Life is rougher for Frontier’s legacy customers that depend on the company’s decades-old copper wire networks.

Some have joked they could change the mind of big city Republicans that are openly hostile to the concept of public broadband by making them spend two weeks without adequate internet access.

In the Minnesota backcountry, in the heart of Trumpland, broadband is about as bipartisan an issue you can find. Ten cities and 17 townships in Renville and Sibley counties went all-out socialist for suitable, super high-speed fiber optic broadband. RS Fiber, the resulting co-op, delivers superior internet access with fewer complaints than the big phone and cable companies offer in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Public broadband is no more a “big government” takeover than municipal co-ops were when they were formed to bring electric and phone service to rural farms during the days of FDR. Waiting for investor-owned utilities to find adequate profits before breaking ground came second to meeting the public need for reliable power and phone service.

Today, part of that need is still there, even with an incumbent phone company delivering something resembling service. Frontier DSL is internet access that time forgot, with customers comparing it to the days of dial-up. Speed tests often fail to break 1 Mbps. Cable companies won’t come anywhere near most of these communities, many inconveniently located between nothing and nowhere.

As long as Frontier remains “checked out” with make-due internet access, rural Minnesota won’t ever benefit from the kinds of fiber fast speeds Frontier is promoting on the fiber networks that other companies originally built. Frontier is not in the business of constructing large-scale fiber networks itself. It prefers to acquire them after they are built. That makes Frontier customers in legacy service areas still served with copper envious of the kind of speeds available in California, Texas, and Florida.

Investors continue to pressure Frontier to reduce spending and pay down its debts, piled up largely on the huge acquisitions of Verizon and AT&T landline customers Frontier effectively put on its corporate credit card. For Wall Street, the combination of debt repayments and necessary upgrade expenses are bad news for Frontier’s stock. The company already discontinued its all-important dividend, used for years to lure investors. A growing number of analysts suspect Frontier will face bankruptcy reorganization in the next five years, if only to restructure or walk away from its staggering debts.

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