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FCC’s Ajit Pai Takes Credit for America’s Alleged Broadband Wonderland

Santa Broadband: Ajit Pai’s magical world of broadband

God bless deregulation and your local phone and cable companies for making American Broadband Great Again.

That’s the message FCC Chairman Ajit Pai hopes will be the take away in the forthcoming 2019 Broadband Deployment Report — a highly dubious and over optimistic assessment of America’s rural broadband landscape.

“For the past two years, closing the digital divide has been the FCC’s top priority,” Chairman Pai said. “We’ve been tackling this problem by removing barriers to infrastructure investment, promoting competition, and providing efficient, effective support for rural broadband expansion through our Connect America Fund. This report shows that our approach is working. But we won’t rest until all Americans can have access to broadband and the 21st century opportunities it provides to communities everywhere.”

Except closing the rural-urban broadband gap has been a FCC priority for more than two years, and was a particularly high priority for the previous administration, which devoted a large amount of controversial stimulus funding after the Great Recession to internet expansion during the Obama Administration. In fact, Chairman Pai repeatedly claimed credit for broadband expansion projects that were funded by the previous administration, while at the same time criticizing the FCC under former Chairman Thomas Wheeler for harming investment in broadband with the enforcement of net neutrality.

The FCC continues to rely on dubious and flawed data to produce its reports — unverified data typically volunteered by the country’s phone and cable companies. The FCC has been frequently criticized for relying on inaccurate broadband availability maps, taking providers at their word on broadband speeds that fail to materialize in the real world, and reporting expansion projects that do not directly benefit consumers.

Pai’s office this week released a press release attempting to conflate broadband gains to his deregulatory policies and the banishment of net neutrality.

“The private sector has responded to FCC reforms by deploying fiber to 5.9 million new homes in 2018, the largest number ever recorded. And overall, capital expenditures by broadband providers increased in 2017, reversing declines that occurred in both 2015 and 2016.”

But Pai does not offer any evidence to back up those claims. In fact, as Stop the Cap! has reported, many of the country’s largest telecom companies have been cutting capital expenditures, many initiated as part of system upgrades to convert to digital cable television or to increase the amount of fiber optics to increase cable system reliability — neither relevant to the debate about net neutrality. This year, Charter Communications has announced a dramatic drop in spending (despite the repeal of net neutrality) because their long-planned system upgrades surrounding the retirement of analog cable television are now complete. Charter also had its merger agreement with Time Warner Cable revoked in New York for failing to meet its rural broadband commitments in that state.

Comcast cut spending by 3% because it bought fewer set-top TV boxes in light of cord-cutting customer losses. Verizon, which has been aggressively promoting its forthcoming 5G millimeter wave wireless network, slashed spending from $17.2 billion in 2017 to between $16.6-17 billion last year, and a significant sum of that money was earmarked for 5G buildouts in urban areas, not expanding rural internet. AT&T’s capital expenditures for 2019 are not expected to move much, placed in the $23 billion range for 2019, just a little more than last year. But AT&T is expecting to be reimbursed $1.6 billion by the federal government for AT&T’s FirstNet public safety network buildout, and much of its other spending is targeting its wireless business, including a plan to launch 5G services in 19 cities this year. That means less money for AT&T’s wireline network, including fiber broadband for homes and businesses.

Pai’s claims about the increased availability of broadband, at higher speeds, comes largely at similar incremental rates to progress under the Obama Administration. In New York, which is seeking to approach near universal broadband coverage, what moved the needle the most was a large sum of funding available to subsidize rural broadband expansion. The availability of substantial financial assistance from the state government, which some described as corporate welfare, appeared to be the most effective broadband expansion motivator for an industry Pai praised in his press release, not deregulation or the repeal of net neutrality.

Investor Skepticism Forces Wireless Carriers to Tread Cautiously on 5G Spending

Phillip Dampier February 18, 2019 Consumer News, Wireless Broadband No Comments

Investors are not buying into the substantial hype surrounding the forthcoming 5G revolution and many remain unconvinced about the benefits of spending billions of investor dollars to deploy the next generation in wireless.

A survey by telecom analyst McKinsey & Co., picked up a clear drag on proposed spending, especially outside of North America, as carriers are finding investors reluctant about the business case for 5G technology.

The survey found 60% of wireless operators cited selling investors on the merits of 5G to be their greatest challenge. Only 25% were confident they could successfully prove a substantial return on investment for shareholders who typically want short-term results. Investors are demanding detailed evidence that 5G networks, the most costly requiring large fiber optic networks and neighborhood small cell antennas, will pay off with increased revenue and customer demand. Unlike earlier cellular standards which required incremental upgrades usually on existing cell towers, the fastest iteration of 5G will require providers to construct costly new fiber networks with a very large number of short-range antennas expected to be placed on top of utility or light poles.

Customer demand for 5G is anticipated to be low until new devices are introduced capable of connecting to it, and investors already recognize consumers are increasingly delaying device upgrades since the industry dropped two-year service contracts with device subsidies. Ongoing upgrades to existing 4G LTE networks may ultimately dampen demand even for less costly 5G networks that will be deployed on existing cell towers. McKinsey’s survey found less than 35% of respondents are planning quick launches of 5G on gigabit-speed capable millimeter wave spectrum, citing the high cost of deploying small cell networks.

“Until th[e business case emerges], most operators will tread cautiously, leveraging 5G for near-term objectives and waiting for a clearer view on the use cases’ economics to accelerate,” the McKinsey report concluded. “Given the expense required to prove those significant use cases, it could be an uncomfortably long wait. And for operators in countries that don’t see 5G as a matter of strategic and economic importance, there is a greater risk of falling behind.”

In early 2019, most network operators will focus on network planning and funding, with the first significant wave of launches expected in the U.S. coming later this year. Just over half of U.S. operators plan to have “large-scale 5G deployments” completed by late this year, and U.S. carriers are the most optimistic 5G can make good business sense, at least for some applications. Other U.S. carriers expect their networks to launch by the end of 2022. But in neither case are those launches expected to be widespread across the country. Competing with cable and phone company internet with fixed wireless service is also a non-priority for most operators.

“At least at the outset, the majority see enhanced mobile broadband and the Internet of Things (IoT), rather than fixed wireless access or mission-critical applications, as the most prevalent applications,” McKinsey’s survey found. Among early potential applications are smart utility meter connectivity, traffic sensing, and connected public infrastructure like lighting and traffic control signals. Giving consumers a way out of choosing between Verizon and Comcast for home internet service is not going to be an early priority for companies like AT&T. In fact, starting a price war is the last thing investors want to see.

“Although commercially in its infancy, 5G technology is ready, and in most markets its presence will be felt from 2020 on,” McKinsey’s report states. “Yet the fact that commercial models are not ready cannot be minimized; the business case is marginal, and the investments to enable new business models are not currently planned.”

McKinsey believes what will ultimately drive a gradual rollout of 5G technology is network congestion which can no longer be managed through existing traditional cell tower networks, known as “macro sites.”

“In rural and suburban areas, as well as along roadways, operators can handle increased traffic simply by densifying existing networks with macro sites,” McKinsey shared. “In many highly populated urban areas, by contrast, they’ll need to rely on small-cell solutions for two reasons: a higher concentration of traffic, as measured by traffic load per square kilometer, and the use of higher spectrum bands (greater than 3 gigahertz).”

But making the jump from the traditional large cell tower to a network of small cells scattered around neighborhoods will require a great deal of money. Operators will need to build fiber optic connectivity to each small cell, which can be managed either with a newly constructed fiber project or leasing existing fiber optic networks, presumably from cable operators which already have a significant fiber presence. In either scenario, rural areas will largely be left out, because all-important network traffic density is generally inadequate to support the business case for 5G, and cable operators are unlikely to have fiber networks available to lease in those areas.

Kagan: Cable Company Wireless Is Designed to Trap You in a Bundle, Not Compete in Wireless Business

Comcast and Charter Communications have no real interest in competing head-to-head in wireless with AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, or Sprint. Instead, the two cable companies hope to trap you in a bundled package of services too inconvenient to cancel.

Jeff Kagan, a longstanding telecommunications analyst specializing in the cable industry, believes Comcast, Charter, and other cable operators entering the wireless business have no intention of being a serious competitor to the country’s four largest mobile companies.

“The goal of XFINITY Mobile [from Comcast] is to offer their customers another service and to create a sticky bundle,” Kagan said. “It’s not to lead the wireless wars. It’s not to increase their market share for traditional reasons. It is simply to create a sticky bundle to stabilize and grow their customer base.”

Kagan

XFINITY Mobile and Spectrum Mobile (from Charter), both require customers to be signed up for their respective internet services. If a customer cancels internet service, they will lose their mobile service. That could prove to be a major hassle for wireless customers, because they will have to properly port out their existing phone number(s) to another provider before dropping broadband.

Kagan believes cable operators will use mobile service to further strengthen their bundle by tying discounts to the number of services each customer takes through the cable company.

“Customers who use one service find it easy to switch away to a competitor,” Kagan said. “However, when they use multiple services and get a discount for the bundle, they become sticky and generally stay put. And the more services a customer uses, the larger the discount, the stickier they get and the less likely they are to wander.”

That is also likely to be true with Altice, which operates Optimum (Cablevision) and SuddenLink and has partnered with Sprint to offer cell service.

Sprint and T-Mobile, which are planning to merge, have repeatedly argued cable operators will be aggressive new players in the mobile business, giving the potentially combined carrier fierce new competitors. But Kagan doubts that will prove true.

“The problem is, the sticky bundle is not a low-cost solution,” Kagan offered. “With that said, the higher cost to the cable television companies is less than that of losing their customer base. So, the cost makes sense as simply a cost of doing business.”

The challenge cable operators face is that none plan to own and operate their own traditional cellular network. Comcast and Charter have partnered with Verizon Wireless to resell access to its 4G LTE network and Altice will rely on Sprint. Leasing access on an ongoing basis is likely to be more expensive that relying on your own network, but beyond offering Wi-Fi calling and experimental access to future 5G-type services in the emerging CBRS band, cable operators will remain almost completely dependent on their wireless provider partners, limiting their effective ability to compete.

Kagan believes the goals of the two industries are different. Wireless operators are trying to monetize their networks through usage, while cable operators are trying to find new services that will keep customers loyal and are willing to ignore monetizing their wireless side businesses to achieve that goal.

Charter Communications Slashing Investments in Its Cable Systems by $1.9 Billion in 2019

Spending less, charging more in 2019.

Despite repeated claims from some in Washington that eliminating net neutrality would stimulate U.S. telecommunications companies to invest more in their networks, Charter Communications has announced a dramatic $1.9 billion cut in capital expenditures (CapEx) spending on its Spectrum cable systems for 2019.

Charter posted 2018 revenue of $43.6 billion (up 4.9 percent over 2017), with especially healthy returns for its internet service, which grew 7.1%. Charter earned $11.2 billion in revenue, up 5.9% in the fourth quarter of 2018 alone, partly from rate increases, reduced costs, and additional broadband customers.

Republican FCC commissioners have repeatedly argued that deregulating the internet by sweeping away net neutrality would stimulate companies to invest more in their networks. But it now appears the reverse is true. In 2017, Charter spent $8.7 billion on network investments; in 2018 the company spent $9.1 billion. But this year, with net neutrality no longer the law of the land, the cable company is planning to dramatically cut investments in 2019 to just $7 billion. The combined company, which now includes Time Warner Cable (TWC) and Bright House Networks (BH), has never spent this little on capital expenditures. The 2016 merger between Charter and TWC and BH forced a 189.4% spike in spending after the deal was completed, as Charter began a cable system overhaul and upgrade.

Charter is expecting it can distribute more of its revenue to shareholders, share buybacks, and debt payments as a result of the completion of its all-digital conversion project, which eliminated analog television signals from cable systems to make more room for revenue-enhancing internet service. The company also gets to lease more set-top boxes to customers seeking to view digital television signals on older analog TV sets.

Charter also reports it has successfully completed its DOCSIS 3.1 internet upgrade to more than 99% of its cable systems, allowing the introduction of premium-priced gigabit internet speed.

Charter executives signaled investors earlier this month Charter expects to post greater revenue and profits as a result of the spending reductions, but these new-found gains will have no effect on the company’s ongoing plans to continue mildly aggressive rate increases in 2019.

Charter has not disclosed how much it plans to spend on its new mobile business in 2019. The company is marketing its mobile phone service more aggressively this year as it prepares to accept customers bringing existing phones to its cellular service, powered by Charter’s in-home and in-business Wi-Fi and Verizon Wireless’ 4G LTE network.

Rural New Yorkers Left Behind by Gov. Cuomo’s ‘Broadband for All’ Program

Tens of thousands of rural New York families were hopeful after Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced in 2015 his intention to bring true broadband to every corner of the state by the year 2018. At the time, it was the largest and most ambitious broadband investment of any state in the country, putting $670 million in lawsuit settlement money and rural broadband funds from the FCC on the table to build out rural broadband service other states only talk about.

But for many rural New Yorkers, Gov. Cuomo’s program was a failure that could lock in substandard internet service (or no service at all) for years. What began as a 100% broadband commitment later evolved into 99.9% (then 98% in another estimate) after state officials learned $670 million was not enough to convince providers to share the cost of extending their networks to the most rural of the rural as well as those unlucky enough to live just a little too far down the road to make extending cable broadband worthwhile. But the governor proclaimed mission accomplished, and as far as the Cuomo Administration is concerned, the rural broadband issue has been resolved.

“There were a lot of tax dollars that were flipped and the governor has said, ‘Internet for everybody. Everybody will have internet.’ Well, that’s not the case. We’re not seeing that and those were his promises, not mine, but I voted for that money. A lot of other members did too,” Sen. Rob Ortt (R-North Tonawanda) told WBFO radio last year.

Ortt wants to know where the money is going and who exactly is getting it, and proposed legislation requiring annual reports from the Empire State Development Corporation detailing expenditures and disclosing the formula used to determine who gets true broadband service, and who does not.

For those not getting high-speed wireless or wired connections, the state has either offered nothing or dreaded satellite internet service, paying HughesNet $14,888,249 to supply discounted satellite equipment Hughes itself routinely discounts as a marketing promotion on their own dime.

For rural residents learning HughesNet was their designated future provider, many experienced with satellite internet over the last decade and hating nearly every minute of it, it was “thanks for nothing.”

“The governor pulled the rug right out from under us,” Ann told Stop the Cap! from her home near Middle Granville in Washington County, just minutes away from the Vermont border. “I have kids that require internet access to finish research and send in homework assignments. Internet service is not an option, and my kids’ grades are suffering because they have to complete homework assignments in the car or in a fast food restaurant or coffee shop that has Wi-Fi.”

Ann used HughesNet before, and canceled it because service went out whenever snow arrived in town.

“I thought the governor promised 100 Mbps service and HughesNet can’t even provide 25 Mbps,” she claims. “If you get 5 Mbps on a clear summer’s day, you are doing okay. In winter, reading email is the only thing that won’t frustrate you. It’s slow, slow, slow.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announcing rural broadband initiatives in New York.

Nick D’Agostino brought his family to a new home an hour northeast of Syracuse when he got a new job. He was counting on the governor’s commitment to bring wired internet access to a home that used to have Verizon DSL, but no longer does after Verizon’s wired infrastructure deteriorated to the point where the company stopped offering the service to new customers like him arriving in the neighborhood. D’Agostino had to spend hours researching the state’s Broadband Program Office website to find out which provider was going to be supplying his census block (neighborhood) with 100 Mbps internet. He found HughesNet instead.

“It’s a kick in the pants because we have a lot of experience with HughesNet and Exede and neither came close to meeting their advertising claims,” he told Stop the Cap! “Exede was often unusable and a horrible company to deal with. HughesNet has a new ‘Gen 5’ service that is capable of DSL speeds, but comes with a low data cap and speed throttling.”

D’Agostino warns that New York made a terrible choice relying on satellite internet, even though HughesNet’s latest fleet of satellites has offered improvement over HughesNet a decade ago.

“The problem is HughesNet customers in a geographic area all share the same spot beam — a regionally targeted satellite signal that serves a specific state or region,” D’Agostino said. “When we lived in North Carolina, the population growth in rural areas meant a lot more satellite customers were sharing the same spot beam, and speeds plummeted, especially after Netflix, Hulu, and cord cutting took off. Nothing eats bandwidth like streaming video, which is why you can subscribe to their 50 GB allowance package and be over that limit after a single week.”

D’Agostino fears that tens of thousands of additional satellite users will dramatically slow down HughesNet across upstate New York unless the company finds a way to get more shared bandwidth to serve the state’s rural broadband leftovers.

“That usually means, ‘wait until the next generation of satellites are launched,’ something nobody should have to wait for,” D’Agostino said.

The obvious solution for D’Agostino is to convince Charter Spectrum, the nearest cable provider, to extend its lines down his street. The cable company agreed, if he paid an $88,000 engineering, pole, and installation fee.

“That is not going to happen, even if we got the dozen or so neighbors in our position to split the cost,” he said. “This is why Cuomo’s program is a flop. It turns out close to $700 million is not enough, and they probably always knew there would be people they could never economically serve because they are miles and miles from the nearest DSL or cable connection. But if the electric and phone companies are compelled to offer service, the same should be true for internet access.”

D’Agostino believes rural New Yorkers left behind need to organize and make their voices heard.

“They keep saying we are .1% of New York, but I’ve seen plenty of rural town supervisors and other local officials across upstate New York complain they have all been left behind, and that decision will cost their towns good education, jobs, competitive agribusiness, and services online that everyone assumes people can easily access,” he said. “Clearly the state is not telling the truth about how many are being internet-orphaned. There have been three rounds of broadband funding in New York. It is time for a fourth round, finding either tax breaks or funding to get existing providers to reach more areas like mine that are less than a mile from a Spectrum customer.”

Ann shares that sentiment, and adds that Vermont is looking for ways to get internet to its rural residents as well.

“We’re at the point where companies or co-ops already offering service are probably the quickest and easiest option to solve the rural internet crisis, but they are not going to pay to do it if they are not required to,” she said. “We have taxes and surcharges on our phone bill now that are supposed to pay for internet expansion, but the amounts are too small to get the job done I guess. Perhaps it is time to revisit this, because 99.995% is better than 99.9% and satellite internet should be the last resort for people living in a cottage miles from anyone else, not for people who can be in town in less than a five-minute drive.”

A familiar story for any rural resident trying to get internet access to their rural home. But there is a small silver lining. HughesNet’s newest generation of satellites has provided a modest improvement that is often better than rural DSL. (10:19)

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