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Vermonters Hostile to Comcast Takeover of Southern Vermont Cable Company

Residents of southern Vermont are upset about Comcast’s proposed acquisition of an independent cable company that has served the region for more than 30 years, fearing the cable giant will bring its reputation of high rates, poor service, and abusive customer relations to an area known for resisting large corporations.

The Southern Vermont Cable Company (SVCC) owns several small cable systems serving about 2,450 subscribers around Brattleboro, just a short distance from the Massachusetts and New York borders. SVCC launched service because larger cable companies including Comcast and what was formerly Time Warner Cable did not see a viable business opportunity serving southern Vermont. The independent operator successfully launched service on its own, but has faced business pressure from cord-cutting and a constant need to upgrade its cable plant to meet growing demands for fast and robust broadband service.

“For more than 30 years, SVCC has offered great local service to its customers and has made significant capital investments in its system throughout the years,” Daniel M. Glanville, vice president of government/regulatory affairs and community impact for Comcast’s western New England region, said in testimony before state regulators reviewing the sale. “However, there is a need for continued capital investment as technology continues to evolve and video competition continues to increase due to an ever-growing number of video service options.”

Instead of offering to sell the system to the communities it serves, SVCC executives elected to sell the system to Comcast.

“I am confident that an organization like Comcast will provide SVCC’s subscribers with quality customer service and will continue to invest in SVCC’s systems,” said Ernest Scialabba, president and owner of SVCC.

Customers have a much different view, according to the Brattleboro Refomer:

Steve West of Dummerston told regulators he has “only praise for the good folks at SVCable, and nothing but contempt for Comcast.”

“As a computer repair professional for 20 years, I’ve had many dealings with Comcast/Xfinity, nearly all of it bad,” he wrote. “Many of us in rural Vermont have few options. I view them as one of the most toxic companies in the U.S., and I’ve successfully avoided being a customer.”

Martha Ramsey of Brattleboro told the commission she is a Comcast customer and “can attest, along with all my neighbors, that Comcast has a long way to go to providing reliable cable service” to southern Vermont.

“Therefore, I can only assume that this sale would simply be a hostile buyout for the benefit not of customers but of shareholders, and so should not be permitted, in order to prevent any further erosion of decent utility services in Vermont,” she wrote. “My Comcast bill has already increased by an outrageous percentage in the last five years without any credible explanation, and I expect such increases to continue. Helping Comcast to become the only player in the market would be to accelerate this race to the bottom — that is, increasingly unaffordable and increasingly shoddy infrastructure and service — that at a scary pace is impoverishing all but the very wealthy.”

“Comcast will provide increased reliability and network capacity which will enable former SVCC customers to enjoy the full suite of Comcast’s Xfinity TV services, including the X1 platform, Xfinity on Demand (Comcast’s video on demand service), multiple high-definition offerings, sports programming and international programming,” said a Comcast representative. “Comcast will also introduce Comcast Business Services, which provides business-grade products and services for businesses of all sizes. Video customers will also be able to use the Xfinity Stream app on their tablet or smartphone to view live and Xfinity On Demand programming.”

But the idea a giant multinational company like Comcast, with more than 830,000 customers, will preserve a local touch to SVCC’s operations is absurd, according to local residents.

“Please don’t allow this to happen,” Kathleen Fleischmann wrote. “One of the reasons we chose to move to Vermont was that it wasn’t owned by the multinationals. Southern Vermont Cable is a great company, and our service would certainly be degraded by having to deal with Comcast. You must be aware that they are one of the most hated corporations in the country. Their lack of customer service is legendary.”

Eli K. Coughlin-Galbraith urged the commission not to “let this one go. We’re all being strangled by massive multinational corporations piece by piece. Fight it. Fight it any way you can.”

The Vermont Department of Public Service will hold a public hearing about the proposed sale from 4-8 p.m. on Feb. 3 at the O’Brien Auditorium in the East Academic Building at Landmark College in Putney.

N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo Vetoes Public Rural Broadband Feasibility Study as the Unserved Struggle On

No service.

Despite New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s $500 million, 2015 Broadband for All initiative which guaranteed broadband service for anyone  that wanted home internet access, five years later rural broadband gaps continue to plague the state.

A bill that would set aside funds to complete a feasibility study to launch a state owned broadband provider of last resort was quietly vetoed by Cuomo at the end of 2019. Assembly member Aileen Gunther (D-Monticello) sponsored the bill after hearing scores of complaints about terrible or non-existent internet access from constituents in her district, which covers the parts of the rural Catskills region north of the Pennsylvania border.

Gunther complained that despite the governor’s broadband initiative, private phone and cable companies were still ignoring rural customers, leaving them with slow DSL service or no internet access at all. Gunther’s bill was a first step in potentially allowing the state to step in and provide service to New Yorkers unable to get broadband from any private provider.

New York has spent over $500 million on its Broadband for All program and made Charter Spectrum an integral part of its broadband expansion plans in return for approval of its 2016 acquisition of Time Warner Cable. But a growing number of the governor’s critics claim the program has failed to deliver on its mandate, stranding thousands of New Yorkers without internet service and tens of thousands more with just one option — unpopular satellite internet access.

Gunther

Gunther was upset to learn that New York was prepared to hand over more than a half billion dollars to large private telecom companies including Frontier Communications and Verizon while not being willing to spend a penny to fund projects to reach New Yorkers for-profit companies could not be dragged kicking and screaming to service.

“We’re all spending millions and millions of dollars on privately owned internet service providers,” said Gunther. “In return for promises, a lot of our communities do not have access to the internet, or if they do have access to the internet, it’s slow and these companies are not, I think, fulfilling the promises made.”

The rural broadband problem is not resolved in the Finger Lakes or Southern Tier regions of New York either. This week, Yates County announced it was joining an effort by Schuyler, Steuben, and Tioga counties, and the Southern Tier Network, to complete a broadband feasibility study to improve internet access in the four counties. Fujitsu Broadband will manage the study and hopes to have results by June. The study will target the pervasive problem of inadequate broadband service in the region, which includes crucial tourist, winery, and agricultural businesses vital to New York’s rural economy.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announcing rural broadband initiatives in New York in 2015.

Gov. Cuomo has called such initiatives “well-intentioned” but was non committal about contributing more state funds to construct new networks or underwrite further expansion of existing ones. New York is about to begin its annual hard-fought budget negotiations in hopes of completing the state budget by April. Finding funding for such projects will probably require a powerful political advocate able to wrestle funding for further broadband improvements.

Even after spending $500 million, New York’s rural broadband problem has not been resolved. That offers insight into the merits of other state broadband programs, which often limit annual broadband expansion funding to under $30 million annually.

Those still without service are likely in high-cost service areas, where each customer could cost over $20,000 to reach. New York’s Broadband for All program relied on a reverse auction that required private companies to bid to service each unserved address. No wireline provider bid on any high-cost service areas, leaving Hughes Satellite as a subsidized satellite provider of last resort. But inadequate broadband mapping left scores of rural New Yorkers behind without even the option of subsidized satellite internet access.

Charter, Comcast Start Competing in Each Other’s Territories… But Only For Big Business Accounts

Comcast and Charter Communications have begun to compete outside of their respective cable footprints, potentially competing directly head to head for your business, but only if you are a super-sized corporate client.

Comcast Business has targeted selling large Fortune 1000 companies internet service through contractual partnerships with Charter, Cox, and Cablevision/Altice USA for a few years now. The cable giant recently entered the Canadian market, at least for U.S.-based companies that have satellite offices north of the border. Comcast now directly competes with other cable operators selling enterprise-level broadband service, whether the customer is inside Comcast’s footprint or not, but will not offer a similar service to consumers looking for better options.

The cable industry’s longstanding de facto agreement not to compete head to head for customers will probably remain intact even as Charter this week unveils its own national broadband service called Spectrum Total Connect. It will be available across the country, offering customers up to 940 Mbps broadband service at a highly competitive price, but only if you are running a large business and have an account with Spectrum Business National Accounts, which provides connectivity for large business franchises, national retailers, and companies utilizing a large network of telecommuters scattered around the country. Consumers need not apply here either.

Charter has refused to say who it has partnered with to provide the service, but it is likely a reciprocal agreement with Comcast and other cable companies it already works with to provide enterprise-level service. The new service will be rolled out in the next several weeks.

Cable companies have been successful selling connectivity products to small and medium-sized businesses, but large national companies have traditionally relied on phone companies to provide them with total connectivity packages that can reach all of their locations. Until Comcast began selling service outside of its footprint, cable companies have had to turn down business opportunities outside of their respective service areas. But now Comcast and Charter can reach well beyond their local cable systems to satisfy the needs of corporate clients.

But neither company wants to end their comfortable fiefdoms in the residential marketplace by competing head to head for customers. Companies claim it would not be profitable to install redundant, competing networks, even though independent fiber to the home overbuilders have been doing so in several cities for years. It seems more likely cable operators are deeply concerned about threatening their traditional business model supplying services that face little competition. In the early years, that was cable television. Today it is broadband. Large swaths of the country remain underserved by telephone companies that have decided upgrading their deteriorating copper wire networks to supply residential fiber broadband service is not worth the investment, leaving most internet connectivity in the hands of a single local cable operator. Most cable companies have taken full advantage of this de facto monopoly by regularly raising prices despite the fact that the costs associated with providing internet service have been declining for years.

Cherry-picking lucrative commercial customers while leaving ordinary consumers mired in a monopoly is more evidence that the U.S. broadband marketplace is broken and under regulated. Competition is the best solution to raising speeds while reducing prices — competition regulators should insist on wherever possible.

Regulators… Captured: AT&T Gets FCC to Omit Bad Internet Speed Scores It Doesn’t Like

AT&T was unhappy with the low internet speed score the FCC was about to give the telecom giant, so it made a few phone calls and got the government regulator to effectively rig the results in its favor.

“Regulatory capture” is a term becoming more common in administrations that enable regulators that favor friendly relations with large companies over consumer protection, and under the Trump Administration, a very business-friendly FCC has demonstrated it is prepared to go the distance for some of the country’s largest telecom companies.

Today, the Wall Street Journal reported AT&T successfully got the FCC to omit DSL speed test results from the agency’s annual “Measuring Broadband America” report. Introduced during the Obama Administration, the internet speed analysis was designed to test whether cable and phone companies are being honest about delivering the broadband speed they advertise. Using a small army of test volunteers that host a free speed testing router in their home (full disclosure: Stop the Cap! is a volunteer host), automated testing of broadband performance is done silently by the equipment on an ongoing basis, with results sent to SamKnows, an independent company contracted to manage the data for the FCC’s project.

In 2011, the first full year of the program, results identified an early offender — Cablevision/Optimum, which advertised speed it couldn’t deliver to many of its customers because its network was oversold and congested. Within months, the company invested millions to dramatically expand internet capacity and speeds quickly rose, sometimes beyond the advertised level. In general, fiber and cable internet providers traditionally deliver the fastest and most reliable internet speed. Phone companies selling DSL service usually lag far behind in the results. One of those providers happened to be AT&T.

In the last year, the Journal reports AT&T successfully appealed to the FCC to keep its DSL service’s speed performance out of the report and withheld important information from the FCC required to validate some of the agency’s results.

The newspaper also found multiple potential conflicts of interest in both the program and SamKnows, its contracted partner:

  • Providers get the full names of customers using speed test equipment, and some (notably Cablevision/Optimum) regularly give speed test customers white glove treatment, including prioritized service, performance upgrades and extremely fast response times during outages that could affect the provider’s speed test score. Jack Burton, a former Cablevision engineer said “there was an effort to make sure known [users] had up-to-date equipment” like modems and routers. Cablevision also marked as “high priority” the neighborhoods that contained speed-testing users, ensuring that those neighborhoods got upgraded ahead of others, said other former Cablevision engineers close to the effort.
  • Providers can tinker with the raw data, including the right to exclude results from speed test volunteers subscribed to an “unpopular” speed tier (usually above 100 Mbps), those using outdated or troublesome equipment, or are signed up to an “obsolete” speed plan, like low-speed internet. Over 25% of speed test results (presumably unfavorable to the provider) were not included in the last annual report because cable and phone companies objected to their inclusion.
  • SamKnows sells providers immediate access to speed test data and the other data volunteers measure for a fee, ostensibly to allow providers to identify problems on their networks before they end up published in the FCC’s report. Critics claim this gives providers an incentive to give preferential treatment to customers with speed testing equipment.

Some have claimed internet companies have gained almost total leverage over the FCC speed testing project.

The Journal:

Internet experts and former FCC officials said the setup gives the internet companies enormous leverage. “How can you go to the party who controls the information and say, ‘please give me information that may implicate you?’ ” said Tom Wheeler, a former FCC chairman who stepped down in January 2017. Jim Warner, a retired network engineer who has helped advise the agency on the test for years, told the FCC in 2015 that the rules for providers were too lax. “It’s not much of a code of conduct,” Mr. Warner said.

An FCC spokesman told the Journal the program has a transparent process and that the agency will continue to enable it “to improve, evolve, and provide meaningful results as we move forward.”

The stakes of the FCC’s speed tests are enormous for providers, now more reliant than ever on the highly profitable broadband segment of their businesses. They also allow providers to weaponize  favorable performance results to fight off consumer protection efforts that attempt to hold providers accountable for selling internet speeds undelivered. In some high stakes court cases, the FCC’s speed test reports have been used to defend providers, such as the lawsuit filed by New York’s Attorney General against Charter Communications over the poor performance of Time Warner Cable. The parties eventually settled that case.

In 2018, the key takeaway from the report celebrated by providers in testimony, marketing, and lobbying, was that “for most of the major broadband providers that were tested, measured download speeds were 100% or better of advertised speeds during the peak hours.”

Comcast often refers to the FCC’s results in claims about XFINITY internet service: “Recent testing performed by the FCC confirms that Comcast’s broadband internet access service is one of the fastest, most reliable broadband services in the United States.” But in 2018, Comcast also successfully petitioned to FCC to exclude speed test results from 214 of its testing customers, the highest number surveyed among individual providers. In contrast, Charter got the FCC to ignore results from 148 of its customers, Mediacom asked the FCC to ignore results from 46 of its internet customers.

Among the most remarkable findings uncovered by the Journal was the revelation AT&T successfully got the FCC to exclude all of its DSL customers’ speed test results, claiming that it would not be proper to include data for a service no longer being marketed to customers. AT&T deems its DSL service “obsolete” and no longer worthy of being covered by the FCC. But the company still actively markets DSL to prospective customers. This year, AT&T also announced it was no longer cooperating with SamKnows and its speed test project, claiming AT&T has devised a far more accurate speed testing project itself that it intends to use to self-report customer speed testing data.

Cox also managed to find an innovative way out of its poor score for internet speed consistency, which the FCC initially rated a rock bottom 37% of what Cox advertises. Cox claimed its speed test results were faulty because SamKnows’ tests sent traffic through an overcongested internet link yet to be upgraded. That ‘unfairly lowered Cox’s ratings’ for many of its Arizona customers, the company successfully argued, and the FCC put Cox’s poor speed consistency rating in a fine print footnote, which included both the 37% rating and a predicted/estimated reliability rating of 85%, assuming Cox properly routed its internet traffic.

The FCC report also downplays or doesn’t include data about internet slowdowns on specific websites, like Netflix or YouTube. Complaints about buffering on both popular streaming sites have been regularly cited by angry customers, but the FCC’s annual report signals there is literally nothing wrong with most providers.

Providers still fear their own network slowdowns or problems during known testing periods. The Journal reports many have a solution for that problem as well — temporarily boosting speeds and targeting better performance of popular websites and services during testing periods and returning service to normal after tests are finished.

James Cannon, a longtime cable and telecom engineering executive who left Charter in February admitted that is standard practice at Spectrum.

“I know that goes on,” he told the Journal. “If they have a scheduled test with a government agency, they will be very careful about how that traffic is routed on the network.”

As a result, the FCC’s “independent” annual speed test report is now compromised by large telecom companies, admits Maurice Dean, a telecom and media consultant with 22 years’ experience working on streaming, cable and telecom projects.

“It is problematic,” Dean said. “This attempt to ‘enhance’ performance for these measurements is a well-known practice in the industry,’ and makes the FCC results “almost meaningless for describing actual user experience.”

Tim Wu, a longtime internet advocate, likened the speed test program as more theoretical than actual, suggesting it was like measuring the speed of a car after getting rid of traffic.

T-Mobile Fixed 4G Wireless Home Internet: $50/month With No Data Caps

T-Mobile is gradually expanding its new fixed wireless home broadband service, prioritizing rural areas next to major highways where the mobile provider has strong 4G LTE service.

T-Mobile Home Internet is initially being targeted to rural customers unlikely to have high speed internet access from a cable company or are stuck with low speed DSL from the phone company. It offers “unlimited service” with no data caps, but T-Mobile reserves the right to temporarily throttle speeds of users exceeding 50 GB of usage per month when their local cell tower is congested. Customers can check T-Mobile’s fixed wireless website to see if they qualify for service.

A Stop the Cap! reader in Indiana testing the service over the last month reports speeds averaging around 50/3 Mbps, with ping times often 30 ms or much more, which makes the service problematic for video games. But T-Mobile Home Internet works fine with streaming video services.

(Image: The Gadgeteer)

The service is currently available only in a few areas. T-Mobile is carefully managing the service by registering the customer’s wireless home internet equipment to a specific cell tower. Customers are not allowed to take the service on the road, such as on vacation. Since the service relies on T-Mobile’s existing 4G LTE cell tower network, it is essential to balance capacity between fixed wireless customers and T-Mobile’s existing mobile users. Pricing is comparable to Verizon’s 5G Home Internet and in most cases the price includes taxes and fees.

T-Mobile began marketing the service to its existing customers in qualified service areas over the summer. Among those enrolled, none have reported speed throttling, despite the fine print warning to heavy users.

“I consistently use over 250 GB a month and speeds have never been impacted,” our reader told us. “However, speeds can suffer around rush hour, when I suspect more people are using their cell phones. But they are still 25+ Mbps for downloads.”

Customers signing up for the service will receive:

  • a T-Mobile LTE Wi-Fi Gateway with a pre-installed T-Mobile SIM card;
  • A 5200mAh battery backup, also likely for future portability options;
  • AC Adapter;
  • Quick Setup Manual.

(Image: The Gadgeteer)

There is no charge for the equipment and start-up kit, but it remains the property of T-Mobile and needs to be returned if you cancel, otherwise T-Mobile will charge you $207.

Users plug in the equipment in an area of their home that gets the strongest T-Mobile reception. Once T-Mobile’s LTE network is detected, the service will register and activate service on the T-Mobile cell tower. Customers manage the rest of the service with a smartphone app, which configures Wi-Fi capable devices, sets streaming speeds, and allows customers to check usage. There are two LAN ports on the back of the device for Ethernet connections and a phone jack, presumably to support landline service sometime in the future. Most will be able to configure the service in less than 10 minutes.

Ironically, one service T-Mobile explicitly says won’t work with its fixed wireless offering is T-Mobile’s new TVision live TV service. But customers report no problems using AT&T TV Now and Hulu’s Live TV service.

The included backup battery provides long lasting power to stay connected during a power interruption.

Customers have reported favorable impressions of the service, assuming they have a solid signal from a nearby cell tower. T-Mobile is cautiously marketing the service only to customers where cell towers are not already congested, and only in areas relatively close to a nearby cell tower, to assure good reception. T-Mobile can also self-limit the number of fixed wireless customers signed up for each cell tower. That means most of its fixed wireless customers will be in semi-rural areas, often nearby a major road or highway where a T-Mobile tower provides service. It is not likely T-Mobile will initially market fixed wireless service in dense suburban or urban areas, because cell towers are much more likely to be congested. It also seems unlikely T-Mobile will sell the service in deeply rural areas where it lacks good cell coverage because T-Mobile is relying on its existing network of cell towers to support the fixed wireless service.

An excellent review of the service and its features has been written by The Gadgeteer.

T-Mobile explains how its fixed wireless home internet service works. (1:15)

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  • John C. Hall: What you say is still true, in 2020. Our home phone service is very high and they offer only 1 home phone package. To drop the home phone line and k...
  • Kenneth: I want to sue them for abandoning my system and my investment in it....
  • Phillip Dampier: The thing about this policy change is that it appeared as a cryptic bill notice buried on a single invoice mixed in with lots of other notices. Most p...
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