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Georgia’s Rural Internet Expansion Runs Into Telecom Industry Lobbyist Buzzsaw

Gooch

A bill in the Georgia legislature that would divert a portion of a state fund that currently subsidizes rural landlines towards rural internet expansion ran into trouble last week after lobbyists representing AT&T and several small rural telephone companies announced opposition to the measure.

Sen. Steve Gooch (R-Dahlonega), the chief sponsor of Senate Bill 65, is seeking to boost subsidy funds to expand high-speed internet in unserved areas of the state. His bill would designate up to $35 million annually towards construction of new broadband connections. Without the measure, state residents would instead see a reduction in Universal Access Fund (UAF) fees on their monthly phone bills beginning later this year. But if the bill passes, modest UAF charges would continue at 2020 levels for an additional nine years, expiring June 30, 2030.

Georgia’s Senate Regulated Industries Committee reviewed the current state of rural broadband funding in a meeting held last Thursday in Atlanta. Gooch noted Gov. Brian Kemp already set aside $20 million for rural broadband in the 2021 state budget, but he felt more needed to be done.

“Twenty million dollars […] is a good start,” Gooch said. “But we need to put more money into this year after year until the problem is fixed.”

Gooch’s measure has attracted 20 co-sponsors in the legislature so far:

Georgia’s cable and phone companies appear much less supportive of Gooch’s effort. Leading the charge against Gooch’s bill was AT&T Georgia. Kevin Curtin, AT&T’s assistant vice president of legislative affairs in Georgia, said diverting money from the UAF Fund to rural broadband expansion was unnecessary.

“There are many federal government programs doling out substantial amounts of funding to spread broadband,” Curtin said. AT&T has regularly pointed to the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) as the best source of rural broadband funding. The 10-year, $9.2 billion program has already designated $326.5 million for rural broadband expansion in Georgia. But it will take years for RDOF to dispense its available funds.

The state’s largest lobbying group for the cable industry does not care for the bill either.

“We want to continue to try to bring broadband to every Georgia citizen,” said Hunter Hopkins, interim executive director of the Georgia Cable Association. “Let’s just put more money in the general fund versus tinkering with the UAF.”

Rural Georgians are usually left waiting indefinitely for private industry investment to expand rural internet access. Instead, rural utility cooperatives are now stepping up to solve the rural broadband problem in parts of the state, often without waiting for government subsides.

Last week, Conexon, a fiber overbuilder and internet service provider teamed up with two member-owned utility co-ops with a plan to bring high-speed gigabit internet to 80,000 homes and businesses in 18 rural Middle Georgia counties.

The partnership will combine utility co-op investments of $135 million from Central Georgia EMC and $53 million from Southern Rivers Energy with $21.5 million from Conexon to build a new, 6,890 mile fiber to the home broadband network over the next four years that will serve residents in Bibb, Butts, Clayton, Coweta, Crawford, Fayette, Henry, Jasper, Jones, Lamar, Meriwether, Monroe, Morgan, Newton, Pike, Putnam, Spalding, and Upson counties. Monroe County has also offered $1.3 million to incentivize the partnership to break ground in that county as quickly as possible.

Customers in rural Georgia have given up waiting for companies like AT&T and Windstream to expand high-speed internet service.

“The majority of members in our service area have no access to the quality, high-speed internet service they so desperately need. That changes today,” said Southern Rivers Energy President and CEO Michael McMillan. “We know electric cooperatives play a critical role in connecting underserved areas and we are proud to partner with Conexon to help bridge the digital divide for our communities. This partnership will enable thousands of rural Georgians to finally access the same online connections as those in more urban areas, while allowing us to maintain focus on our core mission – providing reliable, affordable electricity to our members.”

AT&T and T-Mobile Borrow Billions to Bid on 5G Spectrum

Phillip Dampier January 13, 2021 AT&T, Public Policy & Gov't, Wireless Broadband No Comments

AT&T is seeking to borrow $14 billion dollars to help finance the cost of acquiring 5G airwaves in a competitive auction that has drawn heavy bidding from wireless carriers.

The phone company is in talks with Bank of America to provide a one-year term loan that will likely be refinanced in the bond market and paid off over several years.

AT&T’s loan follows news that T-Mobile USA borrowed $3 billion from investors for its own 5G spectrum acquisitions.

The FCC expects to collect more than $80.8 billion from the auction of 280 megahertz of spectrum around 3.7-3.98 GHz—a portion of the satellite C-band. This is the FCC’s largest mid-band 5G spectrum auction to date. Analysts were expecting bids of around $47 billion, but wireless carriers seem motivated to grab as much 5G spectrum as possible.

AT&T’s loan will add to the company’s existing $159 billion in debts, making it the world’s largest non-financial corporate borrower. Much of AT&T’s debt came from its 2018 $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner, Inc.

House Democrats Blast Telecom Companies for Data Caps, Rate Hikes

House Energy & Commerce Committee

Democrats serving on the House Energy & Commerce Committee today blasted the nation’s largest internet service providers for price increases and data caps placed on consumer broadband services at the height of a global pandemic, questioning the industry’s commitment to keeping Americans connected.

“Over the last ten months, internet service became even more essential as many Americans were forced to transition to remote work and online school. Broadband networks seem to have largely withstood these massive shifts in usage,” wrote Democratic Reps. Frank Pallone, Jr (N.J.), Mike Doyle (Penn.) and Jerry McNerney (Calif.). “Unfortunately, what cannot be overlooked or underestimated is the extent to which families without home internet service — particularly those with school-aged children at home — have been left out and left behind.”

Pallone

The congressmen questioned nine providers after reading media coverage of rate hikes and the implementation of data caps by Comcast and the potential for Charter Spectrum to impose data caps as early as May 2021.

“This is an egregious action at a time when households and small businesses across the country need high-speed, reliable broadband more than ever but are struggling to make ends meet,” the three Democrats wrote.

In March 2020, many cable and phone companies relaxed a number of restrictions on customers in response to the emerging COVID-19 pandemic. Many volunteered to suspend data cap overlimit fees, provide affordable broadband options to the economically disadvantaged, offer free months of service, open restricted Wi-Fi hotspots, and discontinue collection efforts or service disconnects on customers falling behind on bills.

Despite the pledge, consumers filed a significant number of complaints with the Federal Communications Commission alleging the companies broke their promises, by far most often for not following through on free service offers or continuing aggressive collections of past due bills and shutting off service.

Consumer complaints filed with the FCC regarding the “Keep America Connected” pledge, received from March-November 2020. (Source: FCC)

The Energy and Commerce Committee has now sent letters to the CEOs of many providers, seeking answers to these questions as part of ongoing oversight of the industry:

  • Did the company participate in the FCC’s “Keep Americans Connected” pledge?
  • Has the company increased prices for fixed or mobile consumer internet and fixed or phone service since the start of the pandemic, or do they plan to raise prices on such plans within the next six months?
  • Prior to March 2020, did any of the company’s service plans impose a maximum data consumption threshold on its subscribers?
  • Since March 2020, has the company modified or imposed any new maximum data consumption thresholds on service plans, or do they plan to do so within the next six months?
  • Did the company stop disconnecting customers’ internet or telephone service due to their inability to pay during the pandemic?
  • Does the company offer a plan designed for low-income households, or a plan established in March or later to help students and families with connectivity during the pandemic?
  • Beyond service offerings for low-income customers, what steps is the company currently taking to assist individuals and families facing financial hardship due to circumstances related to COVID-19?

The full letters are available below:

Altice USA

AT&T

CenturyLink/Lumen

Charter Communications

Comcast Cable Communications

Cox Communications

Frontier Communications

T-Mobile US

Verizon Communications

AT&T Stops Selling DSL Service

Phillip Dampier October 5, 2020 AT&T, Broadband Speed, Consumer News, Rural Broadband 3 Comments

AT&T stopped accepting orders for traditional DSL service from customers across its landline service area on Oct. 1, and will no longer allow existing customers to change speeds or transfer DSL service if they move to a new address.

AT&T sells three classes of wired internet service to residential customers:

  • DSL: Traditional, old-fashioned DSL is sold primarily in rural and exurban areas that were never upgraded to AT&T’s U-verse service. Download speed is typically between 1-6 Mbps. This service is no longer available to new customers.
  • U-verse: AT&T’s fiber-to-the-neighborhood service delivers 24 Mbps or faster download speed. AT&T uses fiber optic cables between the central switching office and the customer’s neighborhood, where it connects with existing copper wiring that runs down your street and into your home. Most AT&T internet customers are still served by U-verse.
  • Fiber: About 4.3 million former U-verse customers have been upgraded to AT&T Fiber, the company’s fiber to the home service. This upgrade eliminates the copper wiring that runs to your home, which provides for vastly faster internet speeds.

Only AT&T’s DSL service has been discontinued. The company claims about a half million customers still get DSL service from AT&T as of the second quarter of 2020. Most don’t choose DSL by choice. It is often the only option, because the customer lives in a rural area where no other options for internet service exist. That may leave some new customers with no options for wired internet service at all.

“We are focused on enhancing our network with more advanced, higher speed technologies like fiber and wireless, which consumers are demanding,” AT&T said in a statement. “We’re beginning to phase out outdated services like DSL and new orders for the service will no longer be supported after October 1. Current DSL customers will be able to continue their existing service or where possible upgrade to our 100% fiber network.”

AT&T has been slowly expanding its wireless 4G LTE home internet service in select rural areas, but the service is unlikely to reach all the areas now shut out of DSL service.

While AT&T’s rural customers have been left behind, prices for AT&T Fiber are coming down, at least for new customers. Spectrum and Comcast have offered attractive new customer promotions in areas served by AT&T, and the phone company is now responding with better offers. New customers can now get 100 Mbps from AT&T Fiber for $35 a month, 300 Mbps for $45 a month, and 1,000 Mbps for $60 a month (all promotions good for 12 months and do not include equipment fees or taxes).

AT&T Reportedly Looking for a Buyer for DirecTV, But Some Are Skeptical a Deal Can Be Done

Just five years after buying DirecTV for $49 billion, AT&T is looking to sell the satellite TV service after losing over 10 million customers because of repeated price hikes, network blackouts, and the ongoing shift to streaming online video.

The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that AT&T was in talks with private equity firms, potentially including Apollo Global Management and Platinum Equity about the possibility of acquiring DirecTV and taking the service private.

Regardless of who buys the service, AT&T might lose $30 billion on the five-year-old venture, buying high and selling low at a price that could drop below $20 billion. AT&T is rapidly losing its television customers. More than six million people have dropped TV packages from AT&T’s U-verse TV and satellite provider DirecTV in the last two years. Craig Moffett, an analyst with MoffettNathanson, told the New York Post even at a rumored discount sale price of $20 billion, AT&T may have “overvalued” the “albatross.”

Moffett is skeptical buyers will close a deal, considering AT&T’s remaining 17.7 million television customers are still in the mood to cancel, with an “astounding” 18% of customers leaving each year.

But even with the customer losses, DirecTV moves a lot of money through its operations, making it at least look attractive on certain buyers’ books. DirecTV’s cash flow helped AT&T’s own unimpressive earnings, adding $22 billion to AT&T’s balance sheet since buying the satellite company. A buyout by a private equity firm could further slowly drain DirecTV by saddling it with debt, secured in part by its still healthy cash flow. A buyer could also attract investors by borrowing even more to pay out handsome dividend bonuses. That could leave DirecTV hopelessly hobbled in debt, leaving DirecTV in an “inevitable” position of having to merge with its chief competitor, Dish Network, or face eventual bankruptcy. If that were to happen, rural Americans could face a satellite TV monopoly as their only choice for live video entertainment.

DirecTV customers report innovation at the satellite service seems to have disappeared since AT&T took over. Very little has changed with the service in the past few years, except for AT&T raising prices and getting stingier with promotions. Many rural DirecTV customers still depend on satellite television because of a lack of over the air reception or broadband service. For these customers, saving money on television service means having to bounce back and forth between Dish Network and DirecTV, trying to keep a discounted promotion active on their account. If the two satellite services eventually merge, that will cease.

After AT&T acquired Time Warner (Entertainment), insiders report many of AT&T’s legacy businesses, including DirecTV and U-verse, have become afterthoughts. AT&T’s bigger priorities now lie with its new 5G wireless service and HBO Max, its new online video service. But the company’s most profitable businesses continue to be cell phone service and selling wired broadband internet access, which together now earns the company over $180 billion annually.

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