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Windstream’s “Aspirational” Broadband: DSL Customers Not Getting Advertised Speed

An unhappy customer in Georgia.

Victor Brown, like many residential customers in rural northeastern Ohio, has one option for internet access — Windstream, an independent phone company that typically serves areas larger companies like AT&T, Verizon, and CenturyLink forgot. For 17 years, his internet speed has been absolutely consistent, and slow.

“It’s 1.2 Mbps day or night, no more and no less, and for that they are charging me $58 a month,” Brown told Stop the Cap! “In that time, there has never been an upgrade, a real commitment to improve service, or anything except repetitive sales calls and mailers offering to upgrade me to a faster speed level Windstream cannot actually deliver.”

Windsteam has told its investors that it expects to offer 60% of its customers at least 25 Mbps service by the end of 2018. In fact, Brown has already been offered that for nearly a year, but the service is not actually available.

“They will switch you to 25 Mbps today, with the higher bill to boot, but you won’t actually get any better speed than you have right now,” Brown said. “I know because we tried.”

Brown and several of his neighbors all attempted to upgrade to the higher-speed service advertised. Windstream accepted their orders, charged them more, and delivered exactly the same 1.2 Mbps service they have always had.

“It took a service technician coming out to make it clear to us there was no way we would ever get faster speed because there was too much copper wiring between their office and our homes,” Brown said. “The technician felt for us, and about half of his service calls were disappointing customers like us.”

Brown explained the Windstream technician candidly told him that the company’s head office is behind the speed upgrades, but does not actually have a clear understanding of the state of the local network. Marketing then sells customers on better service Windstream’s network is not capable of providing.

“They need to spend money to replace some copper with fiber but there is no money for that,” Brown said. “The most the technician could suggest was installing a bonded DSL connection that would use two different phone lines and deliver 2.4 Mbps. That would come at a price, however.”

Ruth in Cochranton, Penn., is in exactly the same position.

“We are paying for internet speed that we aren’t receiving,” Ruth complained. “It is so slow that we have a hard time getting a short 50 second video to load. Forget watching a YouTube video, it’s not going to happen.”

Over in Lilitz, Penn., Eileen and her neighbors were also dealing with temporary phone lines Windstream installed by dropping both on their lawns and then leaving them unburied for nine months. She cannot get anyone from the company to bury the lines despite seven separate phone calls. Down the street, internet and phone outages can last a week after a strong rainstorm hits the area, and since the weather has turned much colder, hum and crackle on the neighborhood’s phone lines have disrupted phone calls and DSL service. Nobody from Windstream has come to fix the problem.

Windstream tells a very different story to its investors in the form of ‘upgrades by press release’ and cheerful investor conference calls that claim dramatic improvements in service and growth. While cable operators are touting increasing availability of gigabit service, phone companies like Windstream are promising to give a little more than half their customers the minimum definition of broadband service — 25/3 Mbps, by the end of this year. Many of Windstream’s other half get nothing close to those speeds, with 1-3 Mbps common in rural areas.

Wall Street balks at the dollar amounts it would take for Windstream to fully update its network to offer broadband speeds that were common for cable subscribers a decade ago. That kind of network investment would likely drive down the share price, impact shareholder dividends or stock buyback plans, and increase debt. Instead, many phone companies are hoping the federal government will come to the rescue and subsidize rural network improvements through the FCC’s Connect America Fund or government grants. But many of those grants won’t deliver service improvements to existing customers. Instead it will allow rural phone companies to bring broadband to customers who never had it before.

Even the threat of new competition has not inspired many investor-owned phone companies to embark on a spending spree. That competition may eventually come from new wireless broadband services like 5G, but most observers predict that will be years away in the rural communities Windstream traditionally serves. Where Windstream does face competition, it often still loses market share, usually to the local cable company.

“My sister has Comcast and although they are evil as can be, at least their internet speed matches what they sell, and it is shockingly fast in comparison to what DSL has given me for nearly 20 years,” Brown said. “Unfortunately, no cable company is going to wire us up. There are only a few houses on my street.”

Brown believes it is time for the federal government to start insisting that investor-owned phone companies do better.

“We have universal service laws for landlines but not for internet? That does not make sense to me,” Brown tells us. “Isn’t it time for the government to insist that all providers deliver at least 25 Mbps service to their customers? They are not going to do it without someone ordering them to.”

AT&T Lays Foundation to Ditch DirecTV Satellite and U-verse TV in Favor of Online Streaming

Phillip Dampier November 14, 2018 AT&T, Consumer News, DirecTV, Online Video, Rural Broadband 4 Comments

In the not-too-distant future, AT&T will be delivering television programming to its DirecTV and U-verse TV customers over the internet instead of satellite or the variant of DSL its U-verse product uses.

Appearing at Morgan Stanley’s European Technology, Media and Telecom Conference, AT&T chief financial officer John Stephens told investors AT&T will be able to slash costs of television delivery by eventually retiring satellite service and rolling its U-verse TV into a single, self-installed, DirecTV set-top box product that will rely on broadband.

“It’s a device that allows us to, instead of rolling a truck to the home, we roll a UPS or FedEx truck to the home and deliver a self-install box,” Stephens said. “This allows the customer to use their own broadband. We certainly hope it’s our own fiber but it could be on anybody’s broadband. And they get the full-service premium package that we would normally deliver off satellite or over our IP-based U-verse service.”

AT&T employees are currently beta testing the new box and the company hopes to begin rolling it out to subscribers in 2019. Assuming they respond positively to the online streaming experience, AT&T will begin transitioning DirecTV customers away from its existing satellite platform and towards internet delivery. Stephens said the benefits are obvious: no more installers, roof-top satellite dishes, and service calls to deal with signal problems.

“The key is, as we roll that out to full production or full availability to our customers, you will see subscriber acquisition costs come down significantly because it’s the cost of that box as opposed to the cost of an employee rolling a truck, climbing the roof and installing the satellite [dish],” Stephens added.

The transition to less costly delivery platforms may be just in time for AT&T, which saw historically large subscriber losses on its DirecTV satellite platform. Other providers reported significant losses as well, demonstrating cord-cutting is a growing trend in the pay television industry. DirecTV’s expensive fleet of satellites carry not only nationally distributed networks but hundreds of local television stations beamed regionally to customers. The economics of satellite television may become questionable if customers continue moving away from linear, live television. Internet delivery services are much less costly and offer more robust on-demand viewing options.

Rural Americans may face the consequences of any transition. They are least likely to have suitable broadband service capable of supporting DirecTV’s streaming video service and could lose access to television altogether if AT&T (and Dish) retire their satellite fleets. That may be a small concern to AT&T, which has 25 million subscribers, the vast majority of which have access to broadband internet.

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)

AT&T Nearing End of Fiber Buildout

AT&T will complete its fiber buildout to areas designated to get fiber to the home service by mid-2019, according to AT&T executives.

John J. Stephens, AT&T’s chief financial officer, told investors on a quarterly conference call that AT&T is on schedule to complete expansion of its fiber to the home commitment to 12.5 million new customer locations, a regulator-required commitment imposed on AT&T in return for approval of its acquisition of DirecTV.

“We are getting near the end of our fiber build project, which is basically laying the foundation for stabilizing our broadband and TV business profits in 2019,” added AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson.

AT&T’s expansion has targeted millions of customer locations for fiber to the home service, replacing the fiber to the neighborhood technology AT&T used for several years to support its U-verse service. AT&T officials say its fiber network will reach more than one million new customers during 2018. That network is key to two AT&T initiatives – its emerging 5G wireless service, which requires fiber connections to cell towers, and AT&T Fiber and its broadband offerings — helping boost internet and online video revenue.

“This shift to fiber is beginning to drive IP broadband ARPU growth,” said John M. Donovan, CEO of AT&T Communications, Inc. “The strategic pivot we’re making with video, combined with our execution with fiber gives us the confidence that we will stabilize Entertainment Group [profitability] next year.”

AT&T Fiber is critical to the company’s ability to compete in the home broadband market against cable operators that have recently boosted internet speeds. AT&T’s hybrid fiber-copper U-verse system proved inadequate to match the significantly faster internet speeds many cable operators are rolling out. But AT&T Fiber will not reach all the company’s landline customers. Rural areas are unlikely to ever receive fiber upgrades and AT&T has had long-term plans to scrap its rural landline network, transitioning those customers to wireless voice and internet using AT&T’s 4G LTE network.

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