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Telecom Industry Lobbyist Gets Friendly Reception on C-SPAN

The cable industry’s public affairs network — C-SPAN, gave a friendly reception to a top telecom industry lobbyist over the weekend, responding to soft ball questions about rural broadband and telecommunications public policy debates.

Jonathan Spalter, president and CEO of USTelecom appeared on C-SPAN’s “The Communicators” to answer questions about broadband service in the era of COVID-19. USTelecom’s members, primarily telephone companies, have been strong proponents for government funding of rural broadband expansion, are opposed to telecom industry regulation and net neutrality policies, and argues that the more oversight and regulation the industry deals with, the less investment Wall Street will direct towards broadband networks.

Spalter was asked about how American broadband networks handled the work/learn-from-home requirements during the coronavirus pandemic. Spalter said networks handled the increased traffic well, but noted many rural Americans still lack access to high-speed internet. Some Democrats have proposed regulating broadband service as a utility to deal with issues of access and affordability, an idea that Spalter rejects.

“To wrap it in the red tape of regulatory strictures, the overhang of bureaucracy that would be required if we were to make it a utility, would take us backward,” Spalter said, adding he prefers “light touch” regulation. But Spalter had no objection to spending taxpayer dollars to pay for-profit telephone companies to expand broadband service in high-cost rural areas. Spalter called estimates that it would cost $100 billion to bring high speed internet service to all Americans “adequate.”

Jonathan Spalter, USTelecom’s president and CEO, talked about the coronavirus’s impact on telecommunications, regulatory issues, and solving the problems of rural internet access. (28:52)

Frontier Communications’ Rural Broadband Claims Open to Skepticism

Frontier Communications is seeking to slow or block rural broadband funding for tens of thousands of rural Americans that live inside Frontier service areas but cannot subscribe to broadband service because the company does not offer it.

Frontier is currently embroiled in a controversy over its regulatory filings with the FCC that sought to block or delay public funding of competing broadband projects in its territories by claiming such funding might be unfair and redundant, since Frontier is already supplying (or will supply) service in those communities.

The FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) will eventually spend $20.4 billion on rural broadband expansion, but the Commission is bending over backwards to protect incumbent cable, phone, and wireless companies from possible competition that potentially could be funded with public money. The Commission has invited providers to cross check “census blocks” — small geographic areas it has identified as eligible for rural broadband funding and report back if any should be excluded from the first phase of the program.

Incumbent phone and cable companies can protect their service areas from interlopers by claiming broadband service already exists in areas designated for rural broadband funding. Since the FCC continues to depend on voluntary disclosures of service areas by cable and phone companies, there is no immediate consequence if those providers take a more favorable view of what constitutes “service,” even if it ultimately results in long, further delays in rural broadband coverage for tens of thousands of Americans.

In early April, Frontier filed a lengthy submission objecting to the inclusion of 16,987 census blocks where it claims it already provides suitable broadband service. The majority of RDOF funding — $16 billion of the available $20.4 billion will be spent in the first funding phase, and only on census blocks where no provider offers high speed internet. If Frontier gets the FCC to block potential new entrants from qualifying for Phase One funding, it could spare the company from facing competition and leave a lot of homes with no internet service for years.

Immediate concerns were raised with the FCC regarding Frontier’s filing, including independent research that suggested Frontier was not being entirely honest about providing broadband at speeds at or exceeding 25 Mbps.

NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association:

Simply put, as the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association noted, “it is difficult to believe that Frontier was able to provide voice and 25/3 Mbps service in each of these 16,000 census blocks in just eight months.” Such incredulity is compounded by the fact that Frontier operated under the specter of a looming bankruptcy during this period, making it difficult to envision deployment to such a large number of locations within just several months’ time after years with little meaningful progress. Indeed, as WISPA and NRECA correctly point out, Frontier just four months ago alerted the Commission to the likelihood that it would be unable to meet its interim deployment milestones to which it was beholden pursuant to broadband commitments made in 2015. Moreover, Frontier’s financial disclosures, again as WIPSA and NRECA reference, showed an operator losing subscribers and working with a financial structure that would appear to have severely limited its ability to invest capital in broadband deployment.

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance also shared its concerns with the FCC, reminding the agency of Frontier’s lengthy track record of misrepresenting its service performance:

Frontier’s record in recent years offers numerous warning flags that the Commission should consider before accepting its nearly 17,000 challenges. The company has been the subject of numerous official complaints and investigations in the states in which it operates and has settled investigations in several states after extremely lengthy records were compiled showing its inability to regularly provide basic services. Consider this nonexhaustive list in just recent years:

California
CPUC investigating Frontier outages after transfer from Verizon in 2016 (2020)
Connecticut
AG and Dept. of Consumer Protection investigating Frontier for bad quality and billing (2019)
Florida
AG sent letter to Frontier after hearing complaints after transfer from Verizon (2016) and collected complaints (2016)
Ohio
PUC filed complaint that Frontier didn’t maintain service quality (2019)
Minnesota
PUC organized public hearings (2018) and settled with Commerce Department (2019)
Commerce launched a second investigation into billing and customer service (2019)
New York
PSC requested review after complaints of poor quality and outages (2019)
Nevada
Cited by AG’s Bureau of Consumer protection for misrepresenting speeds and service quality (2019)
North Carolina
AG issued civil investigative demand (2019)
Pennsylvania
AG Bureau of Consumer Protection settled with Frontier after investigation into poor quality and speeds (2020)
Utah
PSC investigated telephone outages (2019)
West Virginia
Settlement with AG for misrepresenting speeds (2015)
PSC ordered independent audit after complaints of poor quality and outages (2018)

The Commission faces a crisis of credibility on matters of broadband and telecommunications data collection, with two significant scandals in just the past 6 months.

Frontier’s claimed DSL speeds compared with actual average speeds (Courtesy: Smith Bagley, Inc.)

One company, Smith Bagley, Inc., went even further, building a spreadsheet of several disputed census blocks in an independent investigation. The company called Frontier repeatedly, posing as potential new broadband customers to test Frontier’s claims it supplied 25/3 Mbps service in several rural census blocks in New Mexico and Arizona. It found no instance where Frontier was ready to sell 25 Mbps service to any of the locations requested.

“Frontier either does not offer broadband service, or offers service at below 25/3 Mbps, in every one of the 1,300 census blocks it challenged in Arizona and New Mexico,” Smith Bagely noted in its letter to the FCC, citing another third party broadband availability database.

In a haughty response to the FCC dated May 26, Frontier waved off the criticism, claiming it was based on “a scattershot challenge to one-off census blocks, ad hominem attacks, and irrelevant sources.”

But the company also made a crucial admission about the broadband speeds it claims to offer that is worthy of a closer look:

“Frontier does not claim it serves every location in each census block at 25/3 Mbps. Under the Commission’s rules, carriers report the fastest speed available for sale in that census block, even if it is only available in one or a handful of locations.”

In other words, if Frontier found in its own internal testing, unverified by an independent third party, that it managed to provide 25 Mbps to even one out of hundreds of households, it can ignore the rest of the area’s much slower DSL speeds and petition the FCC to exclude funding for a new, more capable service provider. In fact, it need not disclose the abysmal speeds other homes might be enduring from Frontier and declare that census block to be adequately served by broadband and unworthy of additional funding, at least during Phase One.

Frontier also suddenly announced on May 23 it was now open to RDOF Phase One funding in its contested census blocks, which appeared to be a significant concession. But the company also noted the FCC’s established rules are the rules, regardless of what Frontier thinks:

“But to the extent the Commission decides to maintain its decision to include partially served census blocks in RDOF Phase II, SBI, Frontier, and any other company will be able to bid on those locations after mapping is complete and Phase II is implemented.”

Rosenworcel

The end impact of that could be a concession without any meaningful change.

Frontier also asked the FCC to dismiss concerned public interest groups and consumer complaints about its service because they are anecdotal. Besides, Frontier argued, companies seeking to enter Frontier-served areas can always apply for Phase Two funding, which will only be a small fraction of the funding available in Phase One. Because Phase Two is designed to help providers pay for improving existing service, sizeable portions of that funding will likely be awarded to companies like Frontier.

That the FCC plans to spend billions on broadband improvements based on flawed broadband availability data and imprecise census block criteria has infuriated Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel.

“Time and again this agency has acknowledged the grave limitations of the data we collect to assess broadband deployment. If a service provider claims that they serve a single customer in a census block, our existing data practices assume that there is service throughout the census block. This is not right. It means the claim in this report that there are only 21 million people in the United States without broadband is fundamentally flawed. Consider that another recent analysis concluded that as many as 162 million people across the country do not use internet service at broadband speeds,” Rosenworcel said in 2019. “Adding insult to injury, the same flawed data we rely on here is used to populate FCC broadband maps. For those keeping track, one cabinet official has described those maps as ‘fake news’ and one Senator has suggested they be shredded and thrown into a lake.”

This year, her Democratic colleague Commissioner Geoffrey Starks added his own concerns.

“I have zero tolerance for continuing to spend precious universal service funds based on bad data,” Starks said. “There is bipartisan—and nearly universal—agreement that our existing broadband deployment data contains fundamental flaws. And yet today’s order presses ahead with funding decisions based on mapping data that doesn’t reflect reality.”

Canadian Minister Open to Transforming Internet Access Into a Universally Available Public Utility

Only 40% of rural Canadians today have suitable internet access and a Canadian minister is now “open to the idea” of transforming broadband in the country into a universally available public utility.

Minister for Rural Economic Development Maryam Monsef admits that Canada’s current reliance on private cable and phone companies like Bell, Telus, and Rogers has kept large parts of Canada from getting affordable, 21st century internet access. Creating a public broadband utility that would provide universal access may be the best solution to reaching areas considered too unprofitable to serve by private companies.

The impetus to consider creating one of the world’s largest publicly owned broadband providers comes as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced millions of Canadians to work from home. But with well under half of rural Canada lacking high speed internet service, educators, medical personnel, and business workers find themselves unable to connect.

Nancy and Jeff Boss of Flamborough, Ont., live 10 minutes outside of Hamilton. They are “off the grid” for high speed internet by just 100 meters. To bring cable broadband to their home, the local cable company quoted an installation price of $27,000. As a result, the Boss family relies on a cell phone data plan that costs $150 a month and offers 100 GB of usage on a 4G LTE network. The family often exceeds its usage allowance, and told CBC’s “The Current” their monthly bill has crept up to $500 in usage charges at times.

Nancy Boss is a school teacher, and life without internet in the COVID-19 era of online classes is difficult.

“I am struggling daily with my lessons, I can’t do live lessons as the minister of education is requiring us,” Boss told CBC Radio, adding that her own children’s education is being affected too. “It’s really hard for our kids to participate in their lessons [and] it’s sad, they can’t chat with their friends who they miss very much.”

Monsef

The Liberals promised $5-6 billion for rural internet expansion in the 2019 budget as part of a party pledge to get 100% of Canadians connected to high-speed internet by 2030. But that was before the pandemic struck, making internet connectivity more essential than ever before.

Broadband advocacy group OpenMedia’s Laura Tribe says the government’s promises are nice, but the target date remains 2030 — a decade away. She argues people need internet access today. Tribe says the weak link is relying on corporate cable and phone companies to do the work to reach rural Canada. Despite repeated funding efforts and ongoing lobbying, Tribe believes many of the country’s largest providers have dragged their feet on rural expansion for years, noting they operate in the interest of shareholders, not rural Canadians. Recently, Tribe believes many of Canada’s largest telecom companies have made rural Canadians “pawns” in a greater debate about deregulation and wireless spectrum for 5G. When providers see their business interests threatened, they warn lawmakers and regulators the result may be further delays in rural internet expansion.

That is why Tribe advocates declaring broadband service to be an essential public utility, putting the onus on the government to complete “last mile” buildouts to individual rural homes and businesses like the Boss family as quickly as possible. On that point, Monsef seemed to agree.

“One of the things that the federal government can do is to invest in that last mile, where the business case for the private providers is not the same,” Monsef, who also serves as the MP for Peterborough-Kawartha said. “Once you do connect Canadians, though, those investments will pay off because that connectivity leads to economic development and a higher quality of life.”

When pressed about her support for declaring broadband service a national public utility, Monsef said she was open to the idea and having a debate on what solution will work best for rural Canada.

“What COVID has done is create an opportunity for a resurgence of good ideas, and that’s a good idea that I’m open to,” Monsef said. “This is among the many good ideas that we are considering: What are the pros? What are the cons? How do we get it done? Who’s on board?”


Minister for Rural Economic Development Maryam Monsef appeared on CBC Radio Ottawa’s morning show to discuss the state of rural broadband in Canada. (9:58)

CBC Radio One’s “The Current with Matt Galloway” spent a half hour exploring the plight of rural Canadians expected to work at home who lack suitable internet access. Is it time for Canada to make broadband service a public utility? (24:07)

Canadian Mobile Operators Raking in Fat Coronavirus Profits With Bill Shock

Canadians are opening cell phone bills that have skyrocketed as a result of usage from work-at-home initiatives to stop the spread of COVID-19, a health crisis that is also fattening profits at some of the country’s biggest mobile operators.

Rosette Okala of Pickering, a suburb of Toronto, was stunned to receive her Rogers Mobile bill this month for $540, up from the usual $160 she is used to paying.

“I almost dropped,” Okala told CBC News. She is a pharmaceutical employee whose job requires being online. Her 12-year-old son has been online more too, doing schoolwork.

The part of Pickering where Okala lives does not have wired internet service available, so she relies on internet service from her mobile provider, like hundreds of thousands of other Canadians do. Pickering is hardly a tiny town either. With a population of 92,000, the city is immediately east of Toronto in the Durham Region. Despite that, there are sections of the city still waiting to get wired internet service.

Using the internet in areas considered to be “rural Canada” by providers is not cheap. Rogers offers customers a $145/mo wireless internet plan that includes 100 GB of usage. Customers that exceed that do so at their peril, facing overlimit fees of $5/GB.

“This is just a slap in our face,” said Okala. “We [rural customers] pay huge bills just to be able to do something basic that most people take for granted.”

Okala hoped her employer would help cover her phone bill. Rogers has been reluctant to help, despite a showy ad campaign from the cable and wireless giant promising customers “we are in this together and are here to help.” When it comes to billing matters, talk is cheap and help is hard to find.

Pickering, Ont.

Okala said she spent hours on the phone with a Rogers representative trying to negotiate a lower bill. Rogers eventually offered a paltry $30 credit and a payment plan to pay off her balance. A second attempt resulted in an improved offer of $100 credit, an upgrade to a different service plan, and 50% off monthly service fees for 24 months. But Rogers still wanted to be paid at least $440, at least until the CBC pointed out it would share Okala’s story with the rest of Canada for free. Rogers suddenly offered to take another $230 off Okala’s March bill and give her the mobile hotspot hub she was leasing for free.

John Burbidge, a University of Waterloo economics professor in North Dumfries living in a town of 10,000 near Cambridge, Ont., got schooled in the mobile broadband business by Bell Mobility, which sent him a bill for $650, including nearly $400 in usage charges. Burbidge was confused by an email from Bell, Canada’s largest phone company, which claimed it was waiving overlimit usage fees for customers during the pandemic. He missed the fine print advising that fee waiver only applied to Bell’s DSL and fiber wired customers, not wireless data plans. Burbidge argued it was unfair to exempt some customers from usage fees, while continuing to charge them to others.

“If rural Canadians are expected to work and do school work from home, decent and reasonably priced access to the internet is a basic right. Bell should not be allowed to gouge rural customers,” Burbidge told Canada’s public broadcaster.

Bell told the CBC the company was offering customers an extra 10 GB on customer data allowances and a $10 credit off the cost of using a mobile hotspot connected to Bell’s mobile network. As a courtesy, Bell agreed to credit Burbidge’s account $350 for March and take 60% off overlimit fees in April, but he is on his own after that. Burbidge’s current plan charges $180 a month for up to 100 GB a month, with a $5/GB overlimit fee.

“It’s really sad to hear,” Laura Tribe, executive director of consumer group OpenMedia told the CBC. “Data caps are definitely unnecessary. We see them as a punitive mechanism to make sure that people suppress the amount of data that they use and overpay when they go over what they want.”

The Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA), an industry lobbying group representing the country’s wireless companies, claims data caps are necessary to prevent overwhelming Canada’s wireless networks, which could make calling 911 impossible. But voice calls can travel over different spectrum than data traffic, and no wireless company or the CWTA would admit if their networks were close to being overhwhelmed by traffic as a result of millions of Canadians working from home.

Tribe says the traffic spikes that have come from the coronavirus crisis prove her point. Even with data usage at all-time highs, no provider is claiming their network is close to capacity. That should call into question whether there is any need at all for mobile data caps.

“They’re a way to increase profits and suppress the usage of the networks,” said Tribe.

Siberia May Have Better Rural Internet Access Than You Do

Russian satellite television provider Tricolor, in collaboration with Eutelsat Networks, has launched satellite broadband service throughout Siberia, with data plans offering speeds up to 100 Mbps.

Customers can choose from packages of internet and television service or just go broadband-only. A one time fee of $136.75 gets the customer a startup package including a satellite receiver and data modem. Customers can pick up equipment from stores in Novosibirsk, Omsk, Tomsk, Krasnoyarsk, Barnaul, Irkutsk and Kemerovo or have it direct shipped to their home address.

Customers can choose between three “unlimited” data packages: 40/10 Mbps for $75/mo, 20/5 Mbps for $45/mo, or 10/5 Mbps for $27/mo. Like many satellite providers, Tricolor reduces data speeds during peak usage times for customers using over 50, 25, and 15 GB of usage per month, respectively. But Tricolor says speed reductions will not be as severe as some providers that reduce speeds to less than 1 Mbps. A faster, usage-limited tier with speeds up to 100 Mbps is also to be introduced, and customers can get discounted subscriptions by agreeing to usage caps on the three aforementioned speed tiers.

Tricolor provides solid reception across the Russian Federation, including the vast expanse of Siberia. Wiring a country the size of Russia is a daunting task, so satellite and wireless internet services are likely to be a major offering across the country for years to come.

Tricolor’s coverage map.

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