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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)

Stop the Cap! Analysis: Charter Spectrum and New York State Reach Tentative Deal

Charter Communications and the New York Department of Public Service announced a tentative settlement Friday that would allow Spectrum to continue providing cable TV, phone, and internet service in New York in return for a renewed commitment from the cable company to meet its 145,000 new passings rural broadband buildout agreement, commit to an expansion of that rural buildout, and in lieu of fines, pay $12 million in funds deposited in two escrow accounts to be used to help defray the costs of further broadband service extensions apart from Charter’s original commitments.

“Today the New York Department of Public Service jointly filed a proposed agreement with Charter Communications to resolve disputes over the network expansion conditions imposed by the Public Service Commission,” said Department of Public Service CEO John B. Rhodes in a statement issued Friday. “This proposed agreement will now be issued for a 60-day public comment period and remains subject to review and final action by the Public Service Commission.”

The agreement reinforces the state’s desire that Charter’s broadband expansion commitment be met by expanding service to homes and businesses in areas unlikely to get cable service otherwise, namely areas in Upstate New York. The state originally objected when Charter tried to count new passings in the highly populated New York City area as part of its expansion commitment. The new agreement requires the 145,000 homes and businesses newly passed be entirely Upstate, and completed no later than Sept. 30, 2021.

Only 64,827 new passings have been recognized by both parties as “completed” as of December, 2018

The proposed settlement gives insight into just how badly Charter failed to meet its original broadband expansion commitments, noting “Charter shall be deemed successfully to have completed 64,827 passings qualifying towards the Total Passings requirements of the Settlement Agreement and the 2019 Settlement Order, as of December 16, 2018.”

Charter’s record of failure on its rural expansion commitment is stark.

The original 2016 Merger Order required Charter to expand service to:

  • 36,250 premises by May 18, 2017
  • 72,500 by May 18, 2018
  • 108,750 by May 18, 2019
  • 145,000 by May 18, 2020

Charter did not even come close. Department Interim CEO Gregg C. Sayre said in 2017 that as of May 18 of that year, Charter had only extended its network to pass 15,164 of the 36,250 premises it was required to pass in just the first year after the merger.

In June 2017, New York fined Charter and required a $13 million ($12 million refundable to Charter if it complied) deposit be placed in escrow in an effort to get the company to comply with its buildout commitments. But Charter also failed to meet its commitments under that settlement as well:

  • 36,771 premises by Feb. 16, 2017
  • 58,417 by June 18, 2018
  • 80,063 by Dec. 16, 2018
  • 101,708 by May 18, 2019
  • 123,354 by Nov. 16, 2019
  • 145,000 by May 18, 2020

With just shy of 65,000 premises recognized as completed as of December, 2018 — almost three years after the merger — Charter was 15,236 premises short, based on the December 16, 2018 deadline. Within a few weeks from today, the company should have completed its 101,708th new passing. That seems extremely unlikely to actually happen.

Charter itself claimed in July, 2018, “Spectrum has extended the reach of our advanced broadband network to more than 86,000 New York homes and businesses since our merger agreement with the PSC.” That number is also suspect.

The company did not say if the expansion numbers it reported met the terms of the 2016 Merger Order, but Charter obviously thought those should be counted as legitimate new passings for the purpose of meeting its merger obligations. New York regulators clearly thought many of those expansions did not, and were infuriated when Charter began airing advertisements promoting its rural expansion in New York with what the state believed to be inflated numbers.

The Settlement

A review of the proposed legal settlement shows the Commission accepted many of the recommendations made by Stop the Cap! regarding the terms of any deal that would rescind last summer’s order revoking approval for the merger of Time Warner Cable and Charter Communications in New York State. We recommended the settlement focus on requiring an even greater expansion of rural broadband than originally envisioned, particularly in areas the state designated for HughesNet satellite internet access. We also recommended that any monetary fines be directed to further expansion of rural broadband, instead of being sent on to Albany to be added to the state’s general fund.

We noted that although Charter flagrantly violated the terms of the 2016 Merger Order, successfully removing the company from New York would likely result in years of litigation, and the likely entry of Comcast, which in our view is anti-consumer, and a much worse choice in terms of pricing and the quality of customer service. Comcast also imposes data caps in many of its service areas, a concept which Stop the Cap! obviously fiercely opposes. In our view, given a choice between Charter and Comcast, which would be the highly likely outcome, New York consumers would benefit (slightly) by keeping Spectrum service.

The terms

Reach 145,000 unserved/underserved New Yorkers with at least 100 Mbps internet access

  • Charter is recommitted to expand rural internet service to 145,000 New Yorkers qualified as unserved (download speeds less than 25 Mbps available) or underserved (download speeds of 25-99.9 Mbps) entirely within Upstate New York.

Schoharie, NY

To ensure Charter does not simply choose “low-hanging fruit” to wire, such as new housing starts or urban business parks, the agreement limits Charter expansions to no more than 9,500 addresses in the urban and suburban areas adjacent to Albany, Buffalo, Mt. Vernon, Rochester, Schenectady, and Syracuse.

Additionally, Charter is restricted from expanding service to no more than 9,400 addresses that are scheduled to get (or already have) access to another wired provider because of a grant from the New NY Broadband Program.

But Charter is allowed to expand service to reach not more than 30,000 customers stuck on New York’s list of addresses designated to get HughesNet satellite internet. Stop the Cap! strongly recommended the Commission do all it can to require or encourage Charter to reach as many satellite-designated New Yorkers as economically feasible. The proposed agreement takes our recommendation into account, but we will urge the Commission to strike the 30,000 cap and allow Charter to reach as many of these disadvantaged customers as possible, and have it count towards their broadband expansion commitment. Those addresses designated to receive satellite service are the least likely to be reached by any commercial provider because of the costs to reach them, and they are too scattered across the state to make a public broadband alternative feasible.

Charter gets to include some ‘already-in-progress new passings’ towards its 145,000 new passings commitment: 5,993 passings located within Upstate Cities Charter would likely have serviced anyway; 4,388 wired overlap passings (where an existing telco or cable provider already offers service), and 9,397 addresses where wireless or satellite service was the only option.

A new “milestones” schedule is included for new buildouts, which partly explains why so many rural New Yorkers expecting to receive service by now are complaining about delays:

  • 76,521 new premises by Sept. 30, 2019
  • 87,934 by Jan. 31, 2020
  • 99,347 by May 31, 2020
  • 110,760 by Sept. 30, 2020
  • 122,173 by Jan. 31, 2021
  • 133,586 by May 31, 2021
  • 145,000 by Sept. 30, 2021

If Charter again fails to stay on schedule, it must pay $2,800 for each designated-as-missed passing address into an escrow fund. If it chooses not to appeal that decision, or loses an appeal, those funds will be added to an Incremental Build Commitment fund described below.

Rural Broadband Expansion Fund #1 ($6 million) — Incremental Build Commitment

The first rural broadband expansion fund will contain $6 million dollars that Charter will pay into escrow and will be dedicated to defray Charter’s costs of constructing additional broadband passings above and beyond the 145,000 noted above. Charter itself or the state can designate the unserved addresses either want serviced, and Charter will be permitted to withdraw funds to pay for materials, construction, labor, licensing, and any permits required for these incremental expansion efforts. This money will be reserved for Charter to use for its own projects.

Rural Broadband Expansion Fund #2 ($6 million) — Incremental Broadband Fund

Although New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo promised broadband service for any New Yorker that wants it, his New NY Broadband Program left more than 80,000 New York homes and businesses behind because the program relied on private companies to bid to serve each unserved/underserved New York address. In especially rural areas, no company ultimately bid to reach those addresses because the subsidy funding offered by the state was too little to make the expansion investment worthwhile. In the end, those addresses were designated to be served by HughesNet, a satellite internet service provider. But HughesNet cannot guarantee its internet speeds, has draconian usage caps, and is very expensive. Customer satisfaction scores are also generally poor. For most, a wired internet solution is far preferable. To get one, New York would need to launch a new round of broadband funding, with a more generous subsidy to make construction costs to reach those unserved customers financially worthwhile.

The second $6 million rural expansion fund is more or less exactly that — an additional source of funds to try to reach those missed by earlier funding rounds. Most of the money in this fund would be awarded after a bidding process starting on or after Sept. 30, 2021. Any provider capable of offering customers at least 100 Mbps service will be qualified to participate in the first round of bidding to receive a portion of this money. The areas under consideration would be in existing Charter franchise areas or outside of a Charter-franchised area if both Charter and New York’s Broadband Program Office (BPO) agree. In most cases, for reasons of simplicity, we expect most this money will end up financing expansion projects just outside of Charter’s existing service area. So if you happened to live within a mile or two of an existing Charter customer, this money could be used by Charter to extend its network in your direction. Charter also enjoys the right of first refusal, an important advantage for the cable company. Charter could agree to service a designated address before it becomes open to a competitive bidding process.

The terms are generous to providers, who only have to agree to pay 20% of their own money to submit a cost-sharing bid. The fund would cover the remaining 80%, which would be particularly useful where the cost to extend a fiber connection to a rural neighborhood or development would run into the tens of thousands of dollars. The downside is that $6 million will not go very far in these high cost areas, where a single project could easily exhaust $50,000-100,000 just to reach a handful of homes and businesses. Assuming there are any funds left, the BPO will entertain bids in later rounds from wireless providers delivering at least 25 Mbps service, assuming no wired provider submits a bid. But it is just as likely the funds will be long gone before that happens. The state needs to choose the wording of its terms carefully. Charter could easily apply for funds to buildout new housing tracts or large development projects and business parks the company would have reached anyway. We recommend restricting these funds exclusively to projects that would otherwise fail a bidder’s own Return On Investment formula.

Stop the Cap! intends to be a participant in the comment round and we will share with readers our formal comments as they are submitted.

Comcast: Rural Broadband Must Make Good Business Sense Or You Won’t Get It

If your home or business is more than 150 feet from the nearest Comcast cable, the company will think twice before providing you with service.

Pat Ulrich and her 50 neighbors in a rural subdivision in Arkansas have waited more than 15 years for Comcast or AT&T to extend broadband service to no avail, not unless they are willing to pay an installation fee of almost $50,000.

“When we evaluate prospective new build opportunities, we take into account such factors as distance from where our nearest network exists, costs associated with a proposed build-out, and number of homes and businesses that could be served. … This subdivision is many miles from our nearest plant.” Alex Horwitz, vice president of public relations for Comcast, told Arkansas Business. A nearby neighbor of Ulrich was quoted $46,000, mostly to install over 6,400 feet of fiber optic cable to connect the subdivision to Comcast’s network.

Pulaski County, Ark.

AT&T is no help either, because the homes are too far away from the phone company’s central switching office to deliver adequate internet service.

The FCC’s Connect America Fund (CAF) and other broadband funding initiatives normally might offer Ulrich and her neighbors some help, except for the fact the FCC’s broadband availability maps falsely claim the subdivision is already getting broadband service, which disqualifies it from receiving broadband expansion subsidy funding.

“We built a house in 2004 and never imagined it would take this long to get reliable broadband service,” Ulrich said.

Comcast and other cable operators did, however. Unlike phone companies that are mandated to provide basic telephone service to any customer seeking it, cable companies are allowed to choose the areas they service, typically based on population density and the costs associated with providing service. For Comcast, service extensions must meet the company’s return on investment test, and Ulrich’s subdivision failed. Horowitz claimed extending service would require Comcast to route a fiber extension through an area that “is almost all rock.”

Comcast is investing in some buildouts in its service area, but mostly to serve business parks. For residential areas, the company wants to limit the amount of cable it must install to reach a prospective customer to under 150 feet. If service is not available on your street, chances are the company will quote an installation fee running into the thousands of dollars.

Unfortunately for Ulrich, even if she managed to have the FCC correct their broadband availability map, Horwitz said Comcast has not bid for any of the FCC’s CAF projects in Arkansas.

Amazon Planning to Launch Satellite Internet for Rural Communities Worldwide

Amazon is planning to finance the launch of a new global satellite internet service, powered by a fleet of more than 3,000 low Earth-orbiting satellites that will deliver high-speed internet service to rural underserved and unserved communities, opening up the possibility of millions of potential new Amazon.com customers.

Known as Project Kuiper, named after a famous Dutch-American astronomer, the project is enthusiastically backed by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and will require billions of dollars in investment. The proposal claims Amazon will launch 3,236 small satellites into space in about a decade, which experts claim is plenty of time for the ambitious project to either flourish, be changed, or scrapped under pressure from Wall Street.

“Project Kuiper is a new initiative to launch a constellation of low Earth orbit satellites that will provide low-latency, high-speed broadband connectivity to unserved and underserved communities around the world,” an Amazon spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “This is a long-term project that envisions serving tens of millions of people who lack basic access to broadband internet. We look forward to partnering on this initiative with companies that share this common vision.”

Although the marketing focus of the project will be on reaching rural and unserved areas, the satellite broadband network would deliver data coverage anywhere within a range of 56 degrees north to 56 degrees south latitude, which would cover virtually every continent, except extreme South America, Antarctica, parts of far northern Russia, Alaska, and Canada. About 95 percent of the world’s population would be reached by Amazon’s satellite project. Most similar ventures promise much faster and more responsive service than traditional satellite internet service, at a much lower cost.

Kuiper

But CNBC reported the road to the next generation of satellite internet access “is littered with companies that tried, and failed, to pull off a coup in space-based internet.”

  • 2015: Facebook scrapped plants to spend up to $1 billion on satellite internet access for Africa and other under-covered continents.
  • 2002: Teledesic closed its doors after spending $9 billion on a similar low Earth-orbiting satellite project backed by Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

Amazon could have competition if any of the projects still in progress actually begin offering service.

Amazon has very deep pockets and has the financial capacity to fully fund the project, but not without likely protests from investors concerned about the cost and history of earlier flopped ventures. Additional details can be found in these three sets of filings made with the International Telecommunications Union last month by the Federal Communications Commission on behalf of the Amazon-backed venture.

Cable ONE Acquires Fidelity Communications in $525.9 Million Cash Deal

Cable ONE today announced it has acquired family owned cable operator Fidelity Communications, in a $525.9 million cash deal.

Fidelity serves 134,000 residential and business customers in smaller communities in Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas. Cable ONE showed interest in Fidelity because many of its small cable systems are not too far away from existing Cable ONE systems that also target smaller communities.

Fidelity systems typically sell broadband at speeds of 50 Mbps ($64.99) and 100 Mbps ($89.99).

Fidelity does not usage cap its customers, Cable ONE does.

Cable ONE has also been criticized for charging the highest price residential broadband service in the country.

Fidelity currently serves customers in:

Arkansas
Alexander
Bauxite
Beebe
Benton
Bryant
Cherokee Village
Hardy
Haskell
Hensley
Highland
Little Rock
Mabelvale
Mammoth Springs
Maumelle
North Little Rock
Pulaski
Shannon Hills

Louisiana
Erwinville
Glynn
Jarreau
Lakeland
Morganza
New Roads
Oscar
Rougon
Ventress

Missouri
Adrian
Buffalo
El Dorado Springs
Gerald
Harrisonville
Lebanon
Nevada
New Haven
Owensville
Rolla
Salem
Sullivan
Thayer
West Plains

Oklahoma
Lawton

Texas
Atlanta
Carthage
Hallsville
Jefferson
Marshall
Queen City

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