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Only Co-Ops Can Fix West Virginia’s Dismal Broadband Desert

West Virginia still ranks 43rd in the nation for having the worst broadband availability, despite claims from providers like Frontier Communications that rural broadband expansion has been ongoing and have cost the company tens of millions of dollars.

The state’s two senators are working to get more attention on broadband issues in one of the country’s most rural and mountainous states, despite the fact the free market is not likely to solve West Virginia’s broadband woes.

“Broadband high-speed is tremendously needed,” said Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.V.). “We have over 18 to 20 percent of West Virginians not connected whatsoever.”

“I’m working everyday on this in a bipartisan way,” said Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.V.). “It’s essential for our economy, our health care, our education. All of the things that are in a new economy.”

The federal government has distributed broadband grant funds to help address rural broadband unavailability, but after a decade of assistance, rural residents often remain without service. Charlie Dennie believes taking charge of broadband issues on the local level is the only way broadband problems will finally be resolved. Dennie is a big believer in public broadband co-ops, where local communities manage their own internet access affairs without waiting around for big phone and cable companies or the federal government. Dennie runs a business in the state that depends on broadband, and if he waited for incumbent providers like Frontier to deliver 21st century broadband service, his business is likely to go out of business.

That prompted him to write this commentary:

Dennie

Much of West Virginia is a broadband desert, and we have been foolishly pleading with the major carriers for water.

Recently, we seem to be coming to terms with reality. The reality is, they’re not coming, broadband is not a utility. The international, modern-day, robber barons dominating internet delivery have no obligation or incentive to meet our needs. Their aggressive return on investment models can’t be met in the small markets. Still, they attempt to roadblock appropriately scaled providers from entering the market and meeting our needs.

Since internet and cable TV are not utilities, the carriers are free to pick the low hanging fruit of our more densely populated communities and move on, leaving smaller markets stranded on the wrong side of the digital divide. The major carriers’ only obligations or concerns are with Wall Street. Main Street and all that term implies is not a consideration.

If we’re going to see our desert watered and blooming, we’ll be digging our own wells, meaning, building our own networks. The incumbent telephone companies and the cable TV providers bristle at this idea. The major providers spent over $66 million last year to lobby the states and Congress. Twenty-one states have now roadblocked or outlawed municipal or community-owned fiber. Municipal or community owned fiber is a serious threat to the status quo.

In years past, no one would have been surprised if West Virginia lawmakers had sat on their hands and done nothing or, enacted more protectionist legislation. That didn’t happen with this Legislature. Paraphrasing Bob Dylan, “The times they are a-changing.”

During the 2017 legislative session, I witnessed the boldest and most fearless leadership in my memory. The House of Delegates Judiciary Committee led by its chairman, Del. John Shott (R-Mercer), and Vice-Chairman, Del. Roger Hanshaw (R-Clay), introduced HB-3093. It was a sweeping piece of legislation sending a strong message to the incumbent internet providers to provide better service or make room for someone who will.

Carmichael

HB-3093 created the West Virginia Broadband Enhancement Council, streamlined the process for attaching fiber to utility poles, cleared the way for new construction methods, authorized the West Virginia Economic Development Authority to make loan guarantees for broadband construction and authorized the creation of cooperative associations for internet. As a proponent of the legislation, I requested a public hearing. Gathering in the House chamber only hours before the vote, industry lobbyists voiced strenuous objections. The strongest objections to the bill were the provisions streamlining attachments to utility poles and authorizing cooperative associations to provide broadband.

HB-3093 passed the house with 97 votes. I spoke to Senate President Mitch Carmichael (R-Jackson), just before the bill was introduced in the Senate. Sen. Carmichael had the power to keep the bill from advancing and Frontier, his employer at the time, was out in force to stop it. Before the bill went to the floor Sen. Carmichael said to me, “They’ll fire me, but I have to do what I think is right.” HB-3093 passed the Senate with Sen. Mike Romano (D-Harrison), casting the single, dissenting vote. A few days later, Frontier Communications fired Sen. Carmichael. Today, there are some who want to “Ditch Mitch,” but I will always remember the day he was called to choose between his economic self-interest and what was best for his constituency. Mitch fell on his sword. He did what he thought was right.

It’s important to know where you have been to understand where you are going, and this is only a chapter of our emerging broadband story. Changing the rules that protect the powerful to move us forward requires courageous leadership. If you believe broadband isn’t a political issue, I can give you 66 million reasons why you couldn’t be more wrong.

Ironically, community owned networks will be good for the current providers. The community owned networks provide the “last mile” to the home or business that enables delivery of high-speed internet. The community networks still need the content provided by current carriers. The communities will have choices and can negotiate with providers. Everybody wins.

I’ll have more for you later. Meanwhile, visit the broadband council at https://broadband.wv.gov. Take the speed test, then look under the “Resources Tab” about co-ops. Ignore the naysayers. I’ll show you how co-ops will change everything.

Mass. Taxpayers Give Comcast $4 Million to Expand Monopoly Broadband Service

State and local officials gather to welcome Comcast’s state-funded service expansion in western Massachusetts. (From left to right: MBI chairman Peter Larkin; Carolyn Kirk, deputy secretary of the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development; Michael Parker, senior vice president for Comcast’s Western New England region; Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito; Kevin Hart, former chair of the Montague Broadband Committee; and Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington.) (Image: MBI )

Two years after Republican Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker imposed a state-mandated “pause” on WiredWest, a collaborative, multi-community, publicly owned fiber to the home broadband network for western Massachusetts, Comcast is celebrating the introduction of expanded service in the towns of Buckland, Chester, Conway, Hardwick, Huntington, Montague, Northfield, Pelham and Shelburne, made possible with a $4 million taxpayer-funded grant to the nation’s largest cable operator.

While state officials continually questioned the economics of WiredWest, which by that time enrolled more than 7,000 eager would-be customers with $49 deposits, Comcast repeatedly declared it was “uneconomic” to provide broadband service to most rural western Massachusetts communities, at least until state officials paid the cable giant millions of dollars to reach 1,089 previously unserved homes and businesses in the nine towns, effectively giving Comcast a broadband monopoly.

“We were pleased to work with Comcast, who met the two-year timeline we set to deliver critical 21st-century broadband connections to more homes and businesses,” said Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito in a press release this week. She called the project “a great example of a public-private partnership” that would help resolve rural Massachusetts broadband problems.

WiredWest could not have met Polito’s two-year timeline, primarily because the collaborative has been blocked and ambushed repeatedly after Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick left office. State officials in Boston and the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI), responsible for funding broadband initiatives, began a campaign of fear, uncertainty, and doubt about the project shortly after Gov. Baker took office, culminating in recommendations from then-MBI director Eric Nakajima imploring towns not to sign agreements with WiredWest, and eventually withholding critical funding from the broadband cooperative, questioning its governance and operating model.

It soon became clear Gov. Baker preferred an industry solution to the rural broadband problem, which caused broadband advocate Susan Crawford to slam the decision in early 2017.

“This is the story of a dramatic failure of imagination and vision at the state level: Governor Charlie Baker’s apparent insistence that Massachusetts relegate small towns to second-rate, high-priced, monopoly-controlled (and unregulated) communications capacity,” Crawford wrote. “It’s a slow-rolling tragedy that will blight western Massachusetts for generations.”

A divide and conquer campaign to peel off communities from the WiredWest project has been underway for years. Earlier this year, MBI dangled $3.1 million in grants available exclusively to Charter Communications to build out its network in several towns in the region. When asked if those taxpayer dollars would be available to publicly owned broadband projects like WiredWest, Peter Larkin, MBI’s current board chairman, responded “no.”

Despite the roadblocks, many of the communities staying loyal to the WiredWest concept have hired Westfield Gas & Electric’s ‘Whip City Fiber’ division to help design and construct their own fiber to the home networks, which will be superior to what Charter or Comcast plans for the region.

For exasperated residents and businesses who have waited more than four years for broadband, the politics and constant delays have become secondary issues to getting broadband… from somewhere. That may explain why Kevin Hart, who frequently objected to Comcast’s proposal to build an inferior copper-fiber network while chairing the Montague Broadband Committee, suddenly switched sides and praised the Comcast project this week for its timely introduction of broadband service.

In contrast, Montague Broadband Committee member Robert Steinberg in 2016 called Comcast’s cash infusion from taxpayers “corporate welfare.”

WWLP in Springfield reports several towns are getting expanded cable and broadband service from Comcast. (1:21)

Charter, New York Officials in “Productive Dialogue” to Resolve Disputes

An attorney for Charter Communications revealed that company officials and New York telecom regulators were engaged in a “productive dialogue” over how to resolve the state’s dispute with the cable operator.

In written requests to extend the deadlines for a rehearing of the decision to revoke Charter’s merger with Time Warner Cable and file an “exit plan” to leave New York State, Helmer revealed the two sides were engaged in substantial talks to resolve their differences.

“Good cause exists to further extend the deadlines [….],” wrote Maureen O. Helmer, counsel for Charter Communications. “Charter and the Department [of Public Service] have been involved over the past few weeks in productive dialogue regarding the July Orders as well as the related special proceeding initiated by the Commission in the Supreme Court.”

Helmer added that Charter has been “assembling additional information” about its criticized rural broadband expansion program for review by the Public Service Commission, which decided in late July to evict Charter/Spectrum from New York for consistently failing to meet its merger obligations with the state.

Charter’s lawyer suggests it is in the Commission’s best interest to accept additional delays in the deadlines to file a rehearing appeal of the July eviction order (requesting an extension until Oct. 10, 2018) and to file an orderly exit plan (requesting an extension until Nov. 8, 2018).

“A further extension would allow additional time for discussions between Charter and the Department before the initiation by Charter of additional Commission or court proceedings. Additional proceedings before the Commission and/or the courts would have the potential to divert the resources of both Charter and the Department from discussions regarding both orders, and could have the effect of making it more difficult to resolve the issues raised by the orders without litigation,” Helmer wrote.

There is an increasing likelihood the Public Service Commission’s July order effectively throwing Charter Communications out of New York State was actually a hardball, last-ditch negotiating tactic, potentially to extract additional conditions and more rigid compliance with the orders of the Public Service Commission.

Charter officials originally claimed the July eviction order was an example of election year politics by the governor and a striking union. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has repeatedly slammed Charter/Spectrum for its performance in New York, is running for re-election. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) also continues to strike Charter in the New York City area, attracting support from local politicians.

A Commission that is amenable to Charter’s request for a second delay in meeting its deadlines to file paperwork would send a clear signal the PSC is no longer intent on throwing the cable operator out of the state.

The PSC’s July order rescinding the approval of Charter’s acquisition of Time Warner Cable was based ironically, in part, on Charter’s frequent failure to meet the state’s deadlines.

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)

 

USDA’s Rural Broadband Funding Protects Incumbents

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is trumpeting the availability of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to fund rural broadband programs around the country, but only in the most rural communities where an existing monopoly provider won’t be harmed.

“USDA has been investing in rural telecommunications infrastructure for decades, and our current programs offer more than $700 million per year for modern broadband e-Connectivity in rural communities,” the USDA writes on its new Broadband website. “In the coming months, USDA will almost double these longstanding programs with at least $600 million of additional funds for expanding rural broadband infrastructure in unserved rural areas and tribal lands.”

The funds will target unserved areas through a “pilot program” that goes to great lengths to keep funds away from underserved areas where an existing phone company offering slow speed DSL might suddenly face unwanted competition.

The Trump Administration’s budget language requires that funds be only spent in rural areas with a population of less than 20,000 residents, and only where there is insufficient access to broadband service with speeds of at least 10/1 Mbps — a drop from the FCC’s 25/3 Mbps standard. That lower speed threshold is widely seen as protecting incumbent phone companies and will keep broadband funds out of communities where DSL service predominates. The USDA will also notify all service providers in the general area about any application for funds, providing ample opportunity to object if a provider(s) report it already offers service to at least some of its customers at speeds of 10/1 Mbps or more.

If a dispute arises about service availability, the USDA will consult broadband availability maps that Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said “stink” or send USDA employees to the community to conduct an investigation.

For the moment, the USDA is asking rural Americans to share their stories about their broadband experiences:

To best bridge the e-Connectivity gap in rural America, USDA wants to hear the thoughts and needs of those individuals living and doing business in rural communities. Only through your participation can this program succeed in making rural America great again, so please share your user and service provider feedback, insights and ideas, on the many factors we’re considering, including:

  • How affordable and reliable should rural broadband service be?

  • What time-of-day (morning, afternoon or evening) do rural residents and businesses most need to use high-speed internet?

  • How fast of internet connectivity is needed for business management, e-commerce, farming, ranching, education, and medical/healthcare purposes in rural areas, especially for large data transfers and real-time communications?

Share your feedback with the USDA.

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