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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)

Wilson, N.C.’s Fight for Better Internet Found Lots of Opposition from Big Telecom and Republicans

If you’ve ever lived in small-town America, you know how bad the internet can sometimes be. So one town in North Carolina decided: If we can’t make fast internet come to us, we’ll build it ourselves. And they did, despite laughter and disbelief from Time Warner Cable (today known as Spectrum).

When the city started installing fiber optics, the incumbent cable and phone companies did not like the competition and fought back, hiring an army of 40 lobbyists. The telecom companies enlisted the support of the now Republican-controlled state legislature, often with the help of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and other conservative groups. Together, they hammered home scare stories with suspect studies critical of municipal broadband written by not-so-independent researchers ghost-funded by many of the same big cable and phone companies.

National Public Radio’s “Planet Money” looks at what happened when the City of Wilson decided to try and start its own internet provider, and how it started a fight that eventually spread to dozens of states, a fight about whether cities should even be allowed to compete with big internet providers, and what the effect the outcome might have on working remotely. But the citizens of Wilson seem to love Greenlight Community Broadband, right down to its well-regarded customer service, which includes dropping by elderly customers’ homes during lunch to troubleshoot set-top boxes and nefarious remote control confusion. (22:47)

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)

This Internet Provider Earned a 94% Customer Satisfaction Score, and It Isn’t Comcast or Spectrum

One of America’s internet service providers managed to achieve a customer satisfaction score of 94%, an unprecedented vote of approval from consumers that typically loathe their cable or phone company.

What also makes this provider different is that it is owned by the public, and administered by the City of Fairlawn, Ohio. Fairlawn is a suburb of Akron, with a population of around 7,400 people. Akron is dominated by Charter Spectrum for cable and AT&T for telephone service. But the suburbs have been underserved by both companies for decades. As with many northeastern cities, the economic shift away from manufacturing towards high-tech businesses requires robust connectivity. But many communities are stuck with a cable company that will not service less populated areas in town and a phone company that is willing to leave many customers with low-speed DSL and nothing better.

When a community finds it cannot get gigabit fiber optic service for residents, it can either live with what is on offer instead or decide to do something about it. Fairlawn decided it was time to establish FairlawnGig, a municipal broadband utility that would provide gigabit fiber service to every resident in town, if they wanted it.

Broadband Communities reports local residents love the service they are getting:

The online survey results reveal overall satisfaction with FairlawnGig at an astoundingly high number of 94% with more than 3 out of 4 (77%) saying they are “very satisfied.”

Additionally, FairlawnGig 94% of residential customers rated the service they receive from FairlawnGig as “excellent” or “very good.”

FairlawnGig offers two plans to residents: 300/300 Mbps service for $55 a month or 1,000/1,000 Mbps service for $75. Landline phone service is an extra $25 a month, and the municipal provider has pointed its customers to online cable TV alternatives like Hulu and YouTube TV for television service. Incumbent cable and phone companies usually respond to this kind of competition with cut-rate promotions to keep the customers they have and lure others back. Spectrum has countered with promotions offering 400 Mbps internet for as little as $30/mo for two years. Despite the potential savings, most people in Fairlawn won’t go back to Spectrum regardless of the price. FairlawnGig’s loyalty score is 80, with 85% of those not only sticking with FairlawnGig but also actively recommending it to others.

Residents appreciate the service, deemed very reliable, and that technicians are local and accessible. The City says it works hard to ensure that customer appointments are kept and on time and representatives are available to assist customers with their questions and technical support needs. FairlawnGig claims its technicians spend extra time teaching customers about their services.

City officials candidly admit they were willing to build and launch the municipal fiber service even if it did not recoup its original investment for years to come. That is because the municipal fiber network has benefited the city in other ways:

  • It has attracted new residents to town and kept them there.
  • Several businesses launched or moved to be within FairlawnGig’s service area. Most are white collar businesses, such as IT firms, software and hardware engineers, and consultants.
  • A new orthopaedic hospital is being developed in the town, in part because FairlawnGig can provide connectivity up to 100 Gbps for things like medical imaging and video conferencing.
  • As businesses move in, so do workers looking for a shorter commute. Property values in the town have increased and realtors make a point to alert would-be buyers when a property is within FairlawnGig’s service area.

In short, Fairlawn officials see providing internet access as more than just a profit center. It is a public service initiative that is paying back dividends that will eventually exceed the $10 million investment taken from the city’s general fund to build the network. Taxes did not increase as a result of FairlawnGig either. Now other towns around Fairlawn and the city of Akron itself are showing interest in how to join forces to expand the public service well beyond Fairlawn’s town borders.

WOIO in Akron covered FairlawnGig back in January 2019 in this report explaining how a publicly owned fiber to the home service was delivering gig speed to this northeastern Ohio community. (2:31)

Rural New York Legislators Slam Charter Spectrum’s Request to Limit Rural Broadband Funding

With an estimated 90,000 New Yorkers stranded without broadband service, a proposal from Charter Communications to block funding for future projects is coming under fire from a bipartisan group of rural legislators.

Charter, which does business as Spectrum, filed a request with the Federal Communications Commission to exclude certain census blocks for funding under the agency’s new $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF). The cable company claims it intends to privately fund expansion of internet service in those areas, and does not welcome government-subsidized competition.

“Good cause plainly exists to grant the waiver to avoid overbuilding areas in which Charter has already begun the process of deploying service and is investing private capital well in excess of $600 million,” company officials wrote. “This will ensure scarce universal service support is deployed to close the gap/digital divide in actually unserved areas. The commission has previously granted rule waivers where, as here, the purposes of the rule would be disserved by its strict application, and where waiver would affirmatively serve the public interest.”

Many of the rural homes Charter claims it intends to serve have been waiting for internet access for well over a decade. Many were hopeful that wait would end shortly after the cable company agreed to expand service to an additional 145,000 rural New York households as part of an agreement with state regulators approving its merger with Time Warner Cable. But a March 2020 audit conducted by the Comptroller of New York found Charter was not meeting its commitments:

“[…] It has been over three years since the merger was approved. Network expansion should have already been provided to approximately 126,875 unserved or underserved premises based on the 2016 Commission Order approving the merger. As of July 2019, Charter had only extended its network to 64,827 premises. Based on the original Order, 62,048 additional customers should have received access to these services. Charter now has until September 2021 to complete the network expansion of 145,000 premises previously scheduled to be completed by May 2020.”

Barrett

Some New York legislators believe Charter is out of line asking the FCC to exclude funding for other rural broadband projects while taking its time meeting its own commitments.

“Charter’s waiver request is simply self-serving and will in no way benefit the residents of upstate New York who, even in the year 2020, are struggling to access adequate broadband by any provider,” Rep. Didi Barrett (D-Hudson) wrote in a letter to the FCC. “Charter’s petition is a blatant attempt to reduce competition and leave consumers with no choice but to wait around for Charter to finish a job that should already be complete. In Upstate New York, tens of thousands of residents and businesses are still waiting for internet service because of Charter’s years-long effort to renege on their obligations to New York State and the people who live in rural communities. We must continue to call Charter out until every household and business is served as planned under their agreement with New York State.”

Republican congresswoman Elise Stefanik from Schuylerville agrees with many of Barrett’s views, blasting Spectrum for seriously delaying its rural rollout commitments. Stefanik worked with FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to change the qualification requirements for the RDOF program, which originally would have excluded New York from receiving funding. If the FCC adopts Charter’s request, it would block much of her district from receiving broadband funds, either because Charter previously indicated it would (eventually) offer service or because the state previously supplied broadband subsidies, which would also seem to disqualify RDOF grants.

“I have heard directly from constituents and local elected officials that this decision would have a severe impact on their ability to gain rural broadband access, which is essential, especially during this time of crisis,” Stefanik said. “Charter’s request would exclude parts of the North Country from this critical federal funding, and I will work with my upstate colleagues and the FCC to keep it available.”

WNYT in Albany reports rural New York communities like Stillwater have waited years for Charter Spectrum to provide broadband service. The addresses Spectrum grudgingly will serve in the area are routinely quoted installation fees starting at $8,000. (2:16)

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