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Bradford, N.Y. – The Poster Child of America’s Rural Broadband Crisis (Updated)

The Kozy Korner Restaurant is one of the local businesses in Bradford, N.Y.

Bradford, N.Y. is an unassuming place, not atypical of communities of under 1,000 across western and central New York. It’s too far south to benefit from the tourist traffic and affluent seasonal residences of the Finger Lakes region. It isn’t next to a major interstate, and the majority of travellers heading into the Southern Tier of New York are unlikely to know Bradford even exists. Nestled between the Sugar Hill State Forest, Coon Hollow State Forest, Goundry Hill State Forest, and the Birdseye Hollow State Forest, the largely agricultural community does offer some nearby tourist opportunities for outdoor hiking, camping, boating, and horseback riding.

Ironically, just 25 miles further south of Bradford is the headquarters of Corning, Inc., a world leader in the production of optical fiber. Both communities are in Steuben County, but are miles apart in terms of 21st century telecommunications technology.

Corning residents can choose between Verizon and Charter Spectrum. Bradford has a smattering of cable television and internet service from Haefele TV, a tiny cable company serving 5,500 customers in 22 municipalities in upstate New York — towns and villages dominant provider Charter Spectrum has shown no interest in serving. Verizon barely bothers offering DSL service, and has shown no interest in improving or expanding the service they currently offer. As a result, according to the Bradford Central School District, approximately 90% of student households in the district do not have access to broadband internet speeds that meet or exceed the FCC’s minimum standard of 25 Mbps.

“Connectivity is sporadic throughout the community,” the district told state officials.

Some residents suffer with satellite internet, which has proven to be largely a bust and source of frequent frustration. Slow speeds and frequent application disruptions leave customers with web pages that never load, videos that don’t play, and cloud-based applications far too risky to rely on. Others are sneaking by using their mobile phone’s hotspot for in-home Wi-Fi, at least until their provider throws them into the penalty corner for using too much data.

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s 2015 Broadband for All initiative was supposed to end this problem forever. Gov. Cuomo promised that his program would offer high-speed internet access to any New Yorker that wanted it. New Yorkers want it, but still can’t get it, and now comes word the all-important third round of funding to reach some of the hardest areas of the state to serve may now on “indefinite hold,” according to Haefele TV, with no explanation. That means providers that would otherwise not expand service without the state’s financial assistance are shelving their expansion plans until the money arrives, if it ever does.

This week, the Democrat and Chronicle toured broadband-challenged Bradford. Reporter Sarah Taddeo sends word the status quo is not looking good for the people of the spread-out community. In fact, the internet challenges Bradford faces are all too familiar to long-time readers of Stop the Cap!:

  • Stalled funding: Haefele TV has shown an interest in expanding service in Bradford, and New York State awarded the company $5,150,612 to connect 1,303 homes and businesses in upstate New York. The money now appears to be on hold, according to a Haefele spokesperson.
  • Poor broadband maps: Bradford residents without service are hopelessly dependent on the broadband service maps offered voluntarily by incumbent providers. Those maps are inaccurate and typically unverified. Even worse, many Bradford residents are falling victim to the scourge of the “census block,” a granular measurement of an area showing who has service and who does not. In suburban areas, a census block is usually part of a neighborhood. In rural areas, it can encompass several streets containing random houses, businesses, and farms. Most broadband funding programs only award funds to “unserved” census blocks. If any provider delivers service to a single home or business within a census block, while ignoring potentially dozens of others, awards are typically not available because that area is deemed “served.” Bradford has several examples of “served” census blocks that are actually not well-served, as well as at least one that was skipped over altogether.
  • Politics and bureaucracy: Politicians are usually on hand to take credit for broadband expansion programs, but leave it to the bureaucrats to dole out funding. That is typically a long and arduous process, requiring a lot of documentation to process payments, which are usually provided in stages. Some providers do not believe it is worth the hassle of participating. Others do appreciate the funding, but do not appreciate the delays and paperwork. Politicians who declare the problem solved are unlikely to be back to explain what went wrong if lofty goals are ultimately unachieved.
  • Relying on for-profit providers: Some portions of Bradford will eventually get service from Haefele, while others will be officially designated as served by Hughes’ satellite internet service — one of two satellite providers that already earn low marks from local residents sharing scathing reviews from paying customers. Haefele won’t break ground without state dollars, and nothing stops Bradford residents from signing up for satellite internet today.
  • Homework Hotspots: Impacted families often have to drive to a community institution or public restaurant or shopping center that offers reliable Wi-Fi to complete homework assignments, pay bills, and manage the online responsibilities most people take for granted. Their children may be left at a permanent disadvantage not growing up in the kind of digital world kids in more populated areas do.

With funding for the area seemingly “on hold,” the Bradford’s school district stepped up and found $456,000 from the community’s share of the state’s Smart Schools bond fund, which supplied $2 billion for school districts to spend on technology products and services. Instead of buying iPads or more computers, school officials announced an initiative that would spend the money on an 18-mile fiber network strung through the community’s most student-dense neighborhoods. The school district claims “50-75% of student households will be covered” by the initial phase of the project, with plans to eventually reach everyone with a fiber-fed Wi-Fi network. The proposal has been cautious about staying within the guidelines of the bond initiative, such as limiting access exclusively to students, at least for now.

So far, the proposal has survived its first major review by state officials, but there is still plenty of time for large cable and phone companies serving the state to object, not so much because they want to punish the people of Bradford, but because they may not like a precedent established allowing school districts to spend state funds on broadband projects that could expose them to unwanted competition.

Updated 3:50pm ET: We received word from a credible source denying that the third round of broadband funding was on hold across New York, so we are striking through that section of the story. We anticipate receiving a statement for publication shortly and will update the story again when it arrives.

The Star Gazette visited Bradford, N.Y., to learn more about the broadband challenges faced by the community of nearly 800 people in southwestern New York. (1:47)

N.Y. Congressman Introduces Bill Forcing Cable Companies to Reveal Real Internet Speeds, Pricing

Brindisi, as he appeared in an ad slamming Charter Spectrum in the summer of 2018.

Rep. Anthony Brindisi (D-N.Y.) today introduced a bill in Congress to force cable operators fined by a state telecommunications regulator to publicly reveal the actual performance of their internet services, subscriber counts, and a complete price listing including all fees and surcharges.

The Transparency for Cable Consumers Act comes in response to New York’s experiences with Charter Communications, which was fined for failing to meet its commitments under a 2016 merger agreement allowing Charter to acquire Time Warner Cable. Brindisi made the cable company’s performance a core issue in his 2018 campaign, brazenly buying commercial time on Spectrum cable systems for 30-second ads slamming the cable company.

“I’ve heard from thousands of Upstate New Yorkers who are sick and tired of dealing with frequent rate hikes, poor customer service, and failed promises,” said Brindisi. “This is more than just an inconvenience. For families on fixed incomes, an unexpected rate hike could wreck their budget. And for people in rural communities, crawling internet speeds can take away their connection to jobs, health care, information, and important online services. When a company enters into an agreement, it should be required to hold up its part of the bargain.  We can’t keep giving these companies a free pass. If we don’t hold them accountable, nothing will change.”

Brindisi has bristled over the New York State Public Service Commission’s decision to repeatedly extend the deadline given to Charter to file an orderly exit plan winding down its cable operations in the state. The most recent extension was approved on Wednesday, now giving Charter Communications until April 5, 2019 to appeal the Commission’s decision and until May 9, 2019 to file its six-month exit plan.

Brindisi complains Spectrum is being allowed to linger even as consumers continue to contact his office with complaints about frequent rate hikes, slow internet speeds, and poor customer service. His December 2018 letter to the PSC asking the Commission to stop giving Charter additional time extensions has gone unanswered, according to Brindisi.

Brindisi’s bill attempts to walk a fine line around the federal government’s wholesale deregulation of the cable industry. Various deregulation measures stripped federal, state, and local officials of most of their powers to oversee the internet and Voice over IP telephone service. Cable television remains subject to some local oversight and regulation, but not in all areas. Many states also have so-called “state franchise” laws in place, which gives blanket authority for cable operators to offer cable television in the state without seeking a separate agreement with each community.

The Transparency for Cable Consumers Act, would require a cable or internet company to disclose information about its operations if it is fined by a state regulator:

  • The number of cable and broadband internet customers in each county;
  • The average cable bill and broadband internet bill amounts in each county;
  • A full accounting of all fees charged customers in each county; and
  • The average broadband internet speeds delivered in each county.

Rep. Anthony Brindisi (D-N.Y.) appeared on the House floor this afternoon to introduce the Transparency for Cable Consumers Act. (1:18)

Democrats Unveil New Net Neutrality Bill Restoring 2015 Openness Rules

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, with fellow Senate Democrats and FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel (upper left corner), speaks at the announcement of a new bill that would codify net neutrality as federal law.

Democrats in Congress this morning unveiled a new bill that would effectively reinstate the 2015 Open Internet rules repealed under the Trump Administration’s Republican-dominated Federal Communications Commission.

The new bill, “Save the Internet Act of 2019,” was hailed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as a “pillar of economic opportunity” for the digital 21st century information economy and a bill that will stop internet service providers from raising broadband prices even higher.

“A full 86% of Americans oppose the Trump assault on net neutrality including 82% of Republicans,” Pelosi said at an announcement ceremony held in Washington this morning. “With the Save the Internet Act, Democrats are honoring the will of the people and restore the protections that do this — stop unjust discriminatory practices by ISPs that try to throttle the public’s browsing speed, block your internet access, and increase your costs. This is about freedom, this is about cost.”

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced his intention to repeal net neutrality in 2017, and despite tens of millions of letters protesting that decision, Pai began rolling back net neutrality rules last year.

The three-page bill was co-sponsored by 46 Democrats in the U.S. Senate. It codifies the language from the FCC’s 2015 Open Internet rules as a standalone federal law, no longer subject to reinterpretation or dismissal by the FCC. A companion bill is expected to be introduced in the House on Friday.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) implored Senate Republicans to get on board with Democrats to support the re-establishment of a level playing field on the internet, criticizing their lack of support during last year’s effort to resurrect net neutrality.

“Unfortunately, all but three Senate Republicans voted on behalf of the special interests,” Schumer said, noting the measure still passed the Senate in 2018 but ultimately was shelved by the then-Republican controlled House. “So now we have a Democratic House, and Republicans will have a second chance — there are second chances — to right the Trump Administration’s wrong.”

Net neutrality has faced multiple legal challenges and intense lobbying by the telecommunications industry, especially by large cable and phone companies that generally oppose the concept, claiming it would impede management of their networks and block the creation of new innovative services that could deliver extra bandwidth on demand. Telecom companies also complain content providers like Netflix unfairly utilize their networks without fair compensation.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her fellow Senate Democrats introduce the Save the Internet Act of 2019, a bill re-establishing net neutrality as federal law. (31:35)

 

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)

Questions Grow Over CenturyLink’s Massive 2-Day December Outage

Phillip Dampier January 22, 2019 CenturyLink, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, Video 1 Comment

What do an emergency operations center in Cochise County, Ariz., Colorado hospitals, the Idaho Bureau of Corrections, and many 911 call centers across Massachusetts have in common? They were all brought down by a two-day nationwide CenturyLink outage from Dec. 27-28 that also resulted in internet outages for tens of thousands of CenturyLink’s residential customers. The cause? CenturyLink blamed a single, faulty third-party network management card in Denver for disrupting services for CenturyLink and other phone companies, notably Verizon, from Alaska to Florida.

Hours after outage began, two days after Christmas, CenturyLink issued a general statement:

“CenturyLink experienced a network event on one of our six transport networks beginning on December 27 that impacted voice, IP, and transport services for some of our customers. The event also impacted CenturyLink’s visibility into our network management system, impairing our ability to troubleshoot and prolonging the duration of the outage.”

That “network event” caused serious disruptions to critical services in 37 states, including 911, according to Brian Kyes, president of the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs of Police Association.

“This is affecting 911 (wireline & wireless) delivery to most of Massachusetts,” Kyes said in a statement during the outage to the Boston Herald. “We have heard from MEMA that this issue may also affect some landlines but I have not heard of any specific situations or communities that have been impacted. We are advising all police and fire chiefs to test their local 911 systems and notify their residents of potential issues by reverse 911, social media or any other means that they have at their disposal. The interruption in service may depend on a particular phone carrier and the information that we have is that it may be intermittent.”

CenturyLink outages on Dec. 27, 2018. (Image: Downdetector.com)

The disruptions affected much of Massachusetts — a state served primarily by Verizon Communications, because CenturyLink is a major commercial services vendor inside and outside of its local landline service areas and supplies some connectivity services to Verizon, mostly for wireless customers.

ATM networks also went down in certain parts of the country. CenturyLink is one of many vendors providing data connectivity between the cashpoint machines and several banking institutions.

Also impacted, the Idaho Department of Corrections, including inmate phone systems, and the Idaho Department of Education, which lost the ability to make or receive calls.

Consumers also noticed their internet connections were often down or sporadic in some locations, primarily because CenturyLink’s backbone network became saturated with rogue packets.

The Denver Post presented a more detailed technical explanation about the outage:

CenturyLink said the [defective] card was propagating “invalid frame packets” that were sent out over its secondary network, which controlled the flow of data traffic.

“Once on the secondary communication channel, the invalid frame packets multiplied, forming loops and replicating high volumes of traffic across the network, which congested controller card CPUs (central processing unit) network-wide, causing functionality issues and rendering many nodes unreachable,” the company said in a statement.

Once the syndrome gets going, it can be difficult to trace back to its original source and to stop, a big reason networks are designed to isolate failures early and contain them.

“We have learned through experience about these different types of failure modes. We build our systems to try and localize those failures,” said Craig Partridge, chair of the computer science department at Colorado State University in Fort Collins and a member of the Internet Hall of Fame. “I would hope that what is going on is that CenturyLink is trying to understand why a relatively well-known failure mode has bit them.”

The Federal Communications Commission also expects answers to some questions, opening another investigation of the phone company. In 2015, CenturyLink agreed to pay a $16 million settlement to the federal agency after a seven-state outage in April 2014.

Pai

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said the agency would once again take a look at CenturyLink, focusing on disruptions to emergency services.

“When an emergency strikes, it’s critical that Americans are able to use 911 to reach those who can help,” Pai said in a statement. “This inquiry will include an examination of the effect that CenturyLink’s outage appears to have had on other providers’ 911 services.”

A retired manager at Qwest, a former Baby Bell now owned by CenturyLink, strongly criticized CenturyLink’s lack of communications with customers and an apparent lack of network redundancy.

“For a company in the communication business, they sure failed on this,” said Albuquerque resident Sam Martin. “I participated on the Qwest Disaster Recovery teams, and I do not recall ever having the network down for this kind of time and certainly never the 911 network. The 911 network should never have been down. The lack of this network can contribute to delays in rescue and fire saving lives.”

Martin is dubious about CenturyLink’s explanation for the network outage, suggesting a defective network card may be only a part of the problem.

“The explanations given so far are not valid,” Martin said. “The public may not be aware of it, but the communication network has redundancy and for essential services like inter-office trunking and 911 calls, there are duplicate fiber optic feeds – “rings” that duplicate the main circuit in another path – and switching equipment to these locations so that they may be switched electronically and automatically upon failure to a back-up network ring. When these systems are operating properly, the customer is unaware a failure occurred. If the automatic switching does not take place, employees involved with disaster recovery can intervene and manually switch the affected network to another fiber ring or electronic hub and service is restored until the actual damage is fixed.”

None of those things appeared to happen in this case, and the outage persisted for 48 hours before all services were restored.

“CenturyLink has to have a disaster recovery plan with redundancies in place for electrical, inbound and outbound local and toll-free carriers, as well as network and hardware component redundancies. CenturyLink should be able to switch between multiple fiber optic rings or central offices in case entire networks of phones go down. They would then locate and repair, or replace, defective telecommunication components without the customer ever knowing. The fact that this did not happen is discouraging and scary for the consumer. The fact that it happened nationwide is even more surprising and disturbing. Hopefully the truth will come out soon.”

A critical editorial in the Albuquerque Journal added:

We need answers from CenturyLink beyond the cryptic “a network element” caused the outage. We need to know how many CenturyLink and Verizon customers were affected. And we need to know what they – and other internet and phone providers – are doing to prevent similar outages or worse from happening in the future. Because if the outage showed nothing else, it’s that like an old-time string of Christmas lights, we are living in an interconnected world.

And when one light goes out, they can all go out.

KTVB in Boise, Idaho reported on CenturyLink’s massive outage on Dec. 27-28 and how it impacted local businesses and government services. (3:09)

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