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Stop the Cap! Urges N.Y. Public Service Commission to Come Clean on Charter Talks

Stop the Cap! today filed comments with the N.Y. Public Service Commission urging the regulators to publicly disclose the nature of their ongoing discussions with Charter Communications.

“Since last July’s vote revoking Charter/Spectrum’s merger approval with Time Warner Cable, the PSC has been engaged in secret talks with the cable company in what we now believe was actually an enforcement bludgeon to get the cable company to meet its commitments,” said Stop the Cap! president Phillip M. Dampier. “We suspect Charter got the message to either clean up its act and follow through on its original merger obligations, or the regulator would make good on its threat to boot the company out of New York. If Charter behaves, the Revocation Order exiling Charter from the state will probably disappear in a final settlement.”

Stop the Cap! agrees with the PSC that Charter should be held to all the merger obligations it originally agreed to, but by keeping the talks secret, consumers and lawmakers have no idea what is happening and cannot intelligently participate in the discussions.

“After multiple extensions, enough is enough,” Dampier said. “Charter also hides from public view almost all the details about its progress in reports to the Commission, making it impossible for rural New Yorkers to know when they might expect to get wired for service.”

Dampier

Stop the Cap! recommends the PSC take the discussions public and let all New Yorkers have their say about what happens next. The consumer group also reminded the PSC that there are other matters that should be considered in the discussions, including a long-lasting strike of Charter’s workers in the New York City area that is impacting the quality of service for customers.

“Anyone who has had a service problem with Spectrum knows the more experienced a technician you get, the better,” Dampier said. “Using replacement workers or third-party outsourced technicians reduces customer satisfaction and often leaves problems unresolved.”

Stop the Cap! also repeated its recommendation that any assessed penalties or fines that come from any settlement should be targeted to improving broadband service in the state.

“There are more than 75,000 New York homes and businesses that have been thrown under the bus by the New York State Broadband for All program, which assigned slightly subsidized satellite internet access for those locations, making it harder than ever for future funding opportunities for wired broadband to reach these rural residents,” Dampier said. “Most funding programs exclude areas already provided with broadband expansion funds or served by another provider, regardless of how well that provider serves their customers.”

Stop the Cap! suggests that Charter be required to expand its rural broadband commitment to reach as many of the 75,000 stranded rural locations as economically feasible.

“It is about the only solution that can cut through the red tape at this point, because these locations are usually scattered across the state, making it unlikely another provider will ever show much interest,” Dampier said. “I know it isn’t ideal to stick these homes and businesses with a cable company with a poor customer satisfaction score, but when I hear from rural unserved New Yorkers, they are desperate and cannot wait 5-10 years for something else to come along, especially if it turns out to be low-speed DSL.”

Dampier also worries about the reputation of the PSC if it suddenly announces a settlement that allows Charter/Spectrum to stay.

“Last summer, every newspaper in the state reported Charter was being thrown out of New York. Many consumers were thrilled. Then things went quiet as the public learned about extension after extension, delay after delay” Dampier said. “If the Commission suddenly announces the case is settled and Charter can stay without explaining why that is the right decision, a lot of New Yorkers are going to accuse the Commission of selling them out. Comments like that are already appearing in the docket from fed up New Yorkers who have run out of patience.”

The full text of the Stop the Cap! letter follows:

 

February 19, 2019

Hon. Kathleen H. Burgess
Secretary to the Commission
New York State Public Service Commission
Three Empire State Plaza
Albany, NY 12223-1350

Re: 15-01446/15-M-0388 Joint Petition of Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable for Approval of a Transfer of Control of Subsidiaries and Franchises, Pro Forma Reorganization, and Certain Financing Arrangements.

Dear Secretary Burgess,

Please share our comments with Chairman John B. Rhodes and Commissioners Gregg C. Sayre, Diane Burman, and James S. Alesi.

As a party in the proceeding whose views and recommendations were recognized by the Commission and its staff in drafting a final Merger Order granting Charter Communications its request to merge with Time Warner Cable, we remain actively interested and engaged in this transaction on behalf of consumers in New York.

As you know, most Upstate New Yorkers have just one choice for a telecommunications supplier capable of achieving the FCC’s broadband speed benchmark of 25/3 Mbps. That company is generally Charter Communications. Wireline phone companies in much of western, central, and northern New York offer DSL service to many of their customers, often at speeds well below the FCC’s definition of broadband. At our location, incumbent local exchange carrier Frontier Communications only offers up to 3.1 Mbps, a speed few consumers would consider acceptable in 2019. As a result, whatever cable company offers service in large parts of Upstate and Western N.Y. enjoys a de facto monopoly on broadband service in most of these areas.

In July, 2018 the Commission rightly found that despite multiple warnings, Charter Communications flagrantly failed to meet its obligations to New York as part of the Commission’s Merger Order. Charter Communications has failed to challenge that decision in court or offer credible evidence to rebut your conclusions. In fact, the company has largely relied on selective interpretations of the Merger Order to renege on its rural broadband expansion commitments – a key condition that was necessary for this merger to be in the public interest. While counting new passings in the urban New York City area, the company was also running television ads promoting its rural broadband expansion that we believe misled customers about Charter’s true performance of meeting its commitments to New York.

However, nearly seven months after the Commission voted to effectively expel Charter Communications from New York, the Commission and/or its staff has instead entered into in-camera negotiations with the cable company in what we can only suspect is an effort to enforce Charter’s compliance with the original Merger Order in return for a settlement eventually dispensing with the July 2018 Revocation order.

While we have no objection to the Commission’s actions seeking Charter’s compliance with its merger obligations, we remain concerned that these ongoing negotiations have remained secret for over half a year, with little ability for public interest groups, consumers, and others to provide informed input in those discussions or track their progress. Virtually all of the compliance reports submitted by Charter since the Revocation Order are also heavily redacted, leaving the public and lawmakers in the dark.

A growing number of New Yorkers are now questioning the credibility of the Commission in public comments in the docket. For example, Matt Stern on Nov. 26, 2018 (Comment 572) opined:

“Negotiations done in secret with never ending extensions are not in the best interest of the people of NYS. […] Charter has made little or no line extensions in my town in 20 years. 2 full decades. Many of us live less than 1 mile from the existing infrastructure. This is the same all over upstate NY. We are tired of excuses. If you are unable to secure these necessary infrastructure expansions then resign immediately. We are done waiting.”

Wayne Martin offered in comment 576 (Dec. 15, 2018):

“Surprise, surprise, surprise, another extension granted. The (non)actions of this commission are a slap in the face to the taxpayers of New York.”

On Dec. 18, 2018, Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi (Comment #580) asked the Commission to cease granting extensions to Charter:

“It is simply unacceptable to keep delaying Charter’s exit from New York State if they cannot meet their obligations to customers. While the company keeps getting extensions granted, I am hearing on a daily basis from Charter customers experiencing poor service and increased rates. […] The PSC’s November 23, 2018 order granting Charter an extension until January 11, 2019 to present its exit plan reads, in part, “The Compliance and Revocation Orders were designed to deal with very serious consumer issues presented by Charter’s conduct related to the company’s network expansion.” This is exactly the problem. Charter has had since July to prepare an exit strategy and delaying it any further is not in the best interests of its customers, many of whom rely on cable and internet service for their job, or to communicate with family members.”

On Feb. 6, 2019, Adam Nash complained about the Commission’s repeated extensions in Comment 614:

“[…] I’m concerned with constant extensions Time Warner has been given since July, 2018, so far they’ve been given 5. If this commission was serious on this matter there wouldn’t be this many extensions. It was stated in a article done by the Times Union News in Oct, 2018 that, “Staff believes that the commission should direct that any request granted in response to Charter’s most recent filing be final in form and that any additional time allowed must either result in a settlement agreement being presented to the commission or the cessation of settlement talks,” PSC acting general counsel John Sipos wrote in response to Charter’s request.” This statement was made when it was at its 3rd extension, NYS is at its 5th currently.”

We believe it is long past time for the Commission to publicly disclose the nature of the ongoing negotiations, specific details about the progress that has been made, and the ultimate goal of these discussions. The Commission’s July 2018 Revocation Order provoked shock headlines in the media across the state, and consumers have the expectation Charter will be leaving the state. If that ultimately does not happen, the Commission should be prepared to explain why.[1]

Our group’s view is that Charter Communications must meet each and every obligation in the Commission’s Merger Order if it wants to do business in New York and that a significant penalty is now due for failing to meet those obligations on a timely basis.

We also believe a long-standing labor dispute between the company and its unionized workforce is having an ongoing detrimental impact on the quality of service received by customers in the New York City area. We recommend the Commission undertake an investigation to see how this dispute is impacting customers.

We recommend you review our submission (item #278) of Apr. 5, 2018 recommending specific penalties against Charter that would, among other things, expand the company’s rural broadband expansion commitment even further (either in lieu of, or in addition to, financial penalties) to assist at least some of the 75,000+ unserved New York locations that are being offered substandard satellite internet access[2] from Hughes Network Systems, LLC. These locations lack wired broadband because no provider bid for financial assistance to undertake a buildout during the last round of the New NY Broadband Program, administered by the New York Broadband Program Office.[3]

These addresses are effectively stranded because programs offering public subsidy funding usually disqualify locations already provided with subsidies as duplicative.[4] But satellite internet providers cannot guarantee the speeds required to qualify as broadband, leaving those locations as a distinct disadvantage and less likely to ever get suitable broadband.[5] HughesNet also includes a very low data cap ranging from 10-50 GB.[6] In 2018, the average internet-connected home used 268 GB of data per month.[7] A penalty that includes an incentive or requirement for a private company like Charter to wire many of those locations offers a unique opportunity to resolve this serious problem. Charter offers customers at least 100 Mbps of speed and no data caps.

We appreciate the Commission and its staff’s hard work on this matter, and hope you will seriously consider our input and ideas, demonstrating once again that the New York Public Service Commission takes its obligations to the citizens of New York seriously.

Very truly yours,

Phillip M. Dampier
President and Founder

[1] “New York Moves to Kick Spectrum Out of State,” New York Times (Jul. 27, 2018) (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/27/nyregion/new-york-spectrum-charter-cable-broadband.html), “NY State Regulators Move to Order Charter Out of New York Over Alleged Broadband Woes,” WNBC-TV/NBC News (Jul. 27, 2018) (https://www.nbcnewyork.com/news/local/NY-PSC-Charter-New-York-489356141.html), “New York’s order kicking Spectrum cable out of state ‘pretty radical’,” The Post-Standard (Syracuse), (Jul. 27, 2018) (https://www.syracuse.com/news/index.ssf/2018/07/new_yorks_move_to_kick_spectrum_cable_out_of_state_pretty_radical.html), “PSC Orders Cable Giant Charter Out of NY,” (Albany) Times-Union, (Jul. 27, 2018)  (https://www.timesunion.com/business/article/PSC-holding-special-meeting-on-Charter-Friday-13109921.php), “New York tells Spectrum Cable to get out of the state,” The Buffalo News, (Jul. 27, 2018) (https://buffalonews.com/2018/07/27/psc-wants-spectrum-cables-owner-to-get-out-of-new-york/)

[2] Satellite Broadband Remains Inferior to Wireline Broadband (VantagePoint) (Sept., 2017) (https://www.vantagepnt.com/wp-content/uploads/dlm_uploads/2018/04/vps-satellite-broadband-remains-inferior-to-wireline-broadband-090717.pdf)

[3] “Broadband Delays Prompt Frustration in Rural NY” Lockport Union-Sun & Journal (Apr. 2, 2018) (http://www.govtech.com/network/Broadband-Delays-Prompt-Frustration-in-Rural-New-York.html)

[4] “While the first round NOFA was silent on the eligibility of such overlapping projects, the second round NOFA specifically stated that areas already served by a RUS incumbent service provider were not eligible for subsequent funding.” (Selected passage from USDA’s “Broadband Initiatives Program – Pre Approval Controls Audit Report 09703-0001-32”) (March, 2013) (https://www.usda.gov/oig/webdocs/09703-0001-32.pdf)

[5] “HughesNet service is available in the contiguous U.S., Alaska and Puerto Rico. Stated speeds and uninterrupted use of service are not guaranteed. Actual speeds will likely be lower than the maximum speeds during peak hours.” (HughesNet Subscriber Agreement last revised March 10, 2017 — PART I – KEY PROVISIONS – 1.1 SPEED CLAIMS AND DISCLAIMERS.) (http://legal.hughesnet.com/SubAgree-03-16-17.cfm)

[6] “HughesNet Gen5 Fair Access Policy for the 10 GB, 20 GB, 30 GB and 50 GB Service Plans” (http://legal.hughesnet.com/FairAccessPolicyGen5.cfm)

[7] “OpenVault U.S. Household Broadband Data Consumption” (Jan. 22, 2019) (http://openvault.com/openvault-broad-based-broadband-usage-acceleration-in-2018-1tb-power-users-double-to-4-12-of-all-households/)

North Carolina’s Goal to be the First Giga State is Improbable With Current State Legislature

Solving America’s rural broadband crisis will take a lot more than demonstration projects, token grants, and press releases.

Since 2008, Stop the Cap! has witnessed media coverage that breathlessly promises rural broadband is right around the corner, evidenced by a new state or federal grant to build what later turns out to be a middle mile or institutional fiber optic network that is strictly off-limits to homes and businesses. Politicians who participate in these press events tend to favor publicity over performance, often misleading reporters and constituents about just how significant a particular project will be towards resolving a community’s broadband challenges. Much of the time, these projects turn out to serve a very limited number of people or only fund part of a broadband initiative.

Officials last week said they are hoping to make North Carolina “the first ‘giga-state,’ with broadband access for all its residents.” But to realistically achieve that goal, nothing short of an expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars will be required to realistically achieve that goal statewide.

A decade ago, rural broadband progressed in North Carolina, as communities transitioned away from traditional tobacco and textile businesses to the information and technology economy. To assure a foundation for that economic shift, several communities identified their local substandard (or lacking) broadband as a major problem. The state’s phone and cable companies at the time — notably Time Warner Cable, AT&T, and CenturyLink, often proved to be obstacles by refusing to upgrade networks in the state’s smaller communities. Some cities decided to stop relying on what the broadband companies were willing to offer and chose to construct their own modern, publicly owned broadband network alternatives, open to residents and businesses. A handful of cities in North Carolina went a different direction and acquired a dilapidated and bankrupt cable system and invested in upgrades, hoping cable broadband improvements would help protect their communities’ competitiveness to attract digital economy jobs.

That progress largely stalled after Republicans took control of the state legislature in 2011 and passed a draconian municipal broadband law that effectively banned public broadband expansion. Most of those backing the measure took lucrative campaign contributions from the state’s dominant phone and cable companies. One, Sen. Marilyn Avila, worked so closely with Time Warner Cable’s lobbyists, the resulting bill was effectively drafted by the state’s largest cable company. For that effort, she was later wined and dined by cable lobbyists at a celebration dinner in Asheville.

To be fair, some North Carolina cities are experiencing a broadband renaissance. Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro, Cary, Durham, Winston-Salem, and Chapel Hill will have a choice of providers for gigabit service. Google has installed fiber in some of these cities while AT&T and Charter lay down more fiber optics and introduce upgrades to support gigabit speeds.

Things are considerably worse outside of large cities.

In North Carolina, 585,000 people live in areas where their wired connections cannot reach the FCC’s speed definition of broadband — 25 Mbps, and another 145,000 live without any notion of broadband at all.

Bringing all of North Carolina up to at least the nation’s minimum standard for broadband will not be cheap, and politicians and public policy groups must be realistic about the real cost to once and for all resolve North Carolina’s rural broadband challenges. Where the money comes from is a question that will be left to state and local officials and their constituents. Some advocate only tax credit-inspired private funding, others support a public-private partnership to share costs, while still others believe public money should be only spent on publicly owned, locally developed broadband networks. Regardless of which model is proposed, without a specific and realistic budget proposal to move forward, the public will likely be disappointed with the results.

The Facts of Broadband Life

There is a reason rural areas are underserved or unserved. America’s broadband providers are primarily for-profit, investor-owned companies. They are not public servants and they respond first to the interests of their shareholders. Customers might come in second. When a publicly owned utility or co-op is created, in most cases it is the result of years of frustration trying to get a commercial provider to serve a rural or high cost area. Public projects are usually designed to serve almost everyone, even though it will likely take years for construction costs to be recovered. Investor-owned companies are not nearly as patient, and usually demand a Return On Investment formula that offers a much shorter window to recover costs. For broadband, adequately populated areas that can be reached affordably and attract enough new customers to recover the initial investment will get service, while those areas that cannot are left behind. The two populations most likely to fail the ROI test are the urban poor that may not be able to afford to subscribe and rural residents a company claims it cannot afford to serve. Many early cable TV franchise agreements insisted on ROI formulas that allowed companies only to skip areas with inadequate population density, not inadequate income, which explains why cable service is available in even the poorest city neighborhoods, while a wealthy resident in a rural area goes unserved.

Today, most cable and phone companies install fiber optic infrastructure most commonly in new housing developments or previously unwired business parks, while allowing existing copper wire infrastructure already in place elsewhere to remain in service. Some companies, including AT&T and Verizon, have made an effort in some areas to replace copper infrastructure with fiber optics, but in most cases, their rural service areas remain served by copper wiring installed decades ago. As a result, most rural residents end up with DSL internet from the phone company, often at speeds of 5 Mbps or less, or no internet service at all. Neither of these phone companies, much less independent telcos like CenturyLink and Frontier, have shown much interest in scrapping copper wiring for fiber optics in rural service areas. There is simply no economic case that shareholders will accept for costly upgrades that will deliver little, if any, short-term benefits to a company’s bottom line. That reality has led some communities to try incentivizing commercial providers to make an investment anyway, usually with a package of tax breaks and cost sharing. But many communities have achieved better results even faster by launching their own fiber broadband services that the public can access.

Some states with large rural areas have recognized that solving the rural broadband problem will be costly — almost always more costly than first thought. Such projects often take longer than one hoped, and will require some form of taxpayer matching funds, municipal bonds, public buy-in, or a miraculous sudden investment from a generous cable or phone company. In states with municipal broadband bans, like North Carolina, politicians who support such restrictions believe the cable and phone companies will spontaneously solve the rural internet problem on their own. Such beliefs have stalled rural broadband improvements in many of the states ensnared by such laws, usually tailored to protect a duopoly of the same phone and cable companies that have historically refused to offer adequate broadband service to their rural customers.

Challenges for North Carolina

(Courtesy: North Carolina League of Municipalities – Click image for more information)

North Carolina is a growing state, so a small part of the rural broadband problem may work itself out as population densities increase to a level that crosses that critical ROI threshold. But most rural communities will be waiting years for that to happen. Intransigent phone and cable companies are unlikely to respond positively to local officials seeking better service if it requires a substantial investment. As industry lobbyists will tell you, it is not the job of government to dictate the services of privately owned companies. The Republican majority in North Carolina’s legislature underlines that principle regularly in the form of legislation that reduces regulation and oversight. Many, but not all of those Republicans have also taken a strong strand against the idea of municipalities stepping up to resolve their local broadband challenges by working around problematic cable and phone companies. The ideology that government should never be in the business of competing against private businesses usually takes precedence.

Almost a decade ago, the cable and phone companies of North Carolina made three failed attempts to enshrine this principle in a new statewide law that would limit municipal broadband encroachment to such an extent it made future projects unviable. They succeeded in passing a law on their fourth attempt in 2011, the same year Republicans took control in the state legislature.

Today, Republicans still control the legislature with a Democratic governor providing some checks and balances. Why is this important? Because for North Carolina to achieve its goal, it will realistically need a combination of bipartisan support for rural broadband funding and an end to the municipal broadband ban.

Where is the money?

Although North Carolina wants to be America’s first “gigabit” state, New York is the first to at least claim full broadband coverage across the entire state. That did not and could not happen without a multi-year spending program. Recently, North Carolina’s Department of Information Technology launched a $10 million GREAT Grant program to provide last-mile connectivity to the most economically distressed counties in the state. While a noble effort, and one no doubt limited by the availability of funds to spend on broadband expansion, it is a drop in a bucket of water thrown into a barely filled pool.

To put this problem in better context, New York’s goal of full broadband coverage (which in our view remains incomplete) required not only $500 million acquired from settlement proceeds won by the state after suing Wall Street banks for causing the Great Recession, but another $170 million in federal broadband expansion funds that were expected to be forfeited because Verizon — the state’s largest phone company — was not interested in the money or upgrading their DSL service upstate.

Big Money: New York’s rural broadband funding initiative spent hundreds of millions to attack the rural broadband problem. Gov. Andrew Cuomo outlines funding for just one of several rounds of broadband funding.

Last year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo detailed success for his Broadband for All program by pointing out the state spent $670 million to upgrade or introduce broadband service to 2.42 million locations in rural New York, giving the state 99.9% coverage. That amounts to an average grant of $277 per household or business. In turn, award recipients — largely incumbent phone and cable companies, had to commit to matching private investments. For that state money, the provider had to typically offer at least 100 Mbps service, except in the most rural parts of the state, where a lower speed was acceptable.

North Carolina has 585,000 underserved or unserved locations. Just by using New York’s average $277 grant, North Carolina will have to spend approximately $202 million with similar matching funds from private companies to reach those locations. In fact, it is assuredly more than that because North Carolina’s goal is gigabit speed, not 100 Mbps. Also, New York declared ‘mission accomplished’ while stranding tens of thousands of expensive or difficult to reach residents with subsidized satellite internet access. That offers nothing close to gigabit speed. A more realistic figure for North Carolina in 2019 could be as high as $250-300 million in taxpayer dollars — combined with similar private matching funds to convince AT&T, Charter, CenturyLink and others that the time is right to expand into more rural areas. But as New York discovered, there will be areas in the state no company will bid to serve because the money provided is inadequate.

If the thought of handing over tax dollars to big phone and cable companies bothers you, the alternative is helping communities start and run their own networks in the public interest. Except private providers routinely retaliate with well-funded campaigns of fear, uncertainty and doubt over those projects, and they become political footballs to everyone except their customers, who generally appreciate the service and local accountability.

If North Carolina’s state government relies on a series of $10 million appropriations for grants, it will likely take at least 20 years to wire the state. Stop the Cap! agrees with the goals North Carolina has set to deliver ubiquitous, gigabit-fast broadband. But those goals will be difficult to reach in the present political climate. Republicans in the state legislature approved reductions in the corporate income tax rate to 2.5 percent, down from 3 percent last year, and the personal income tax rate drops to 5.25 percent from 5.499 percent. North Carolina’s latest budget sets aside $13.8 billion for education, $3.8 billion for Medicaid, $3 billion in new debt for road maintenance, and $31 million in grants to attract the film industry to shoot their projects in the state.

It is likely any appropriation significant enough to actually deliver on the commitment to provide total broadband coverage will have to be spread out over several years, unless another funding mechanism can be identified. That assumes the Republicans in the state legislature will be receptive to the idea, which remains an open question.

Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform Slams Another Public Broadband Project

Americans for Tax Reform’s leader Grover Norquist is continuing a campaign against municipally owned public broadband projects, labeling them “really stupid ideas” that are best left in the hands of private companies like Comcast, AT&T, Verizon and Charter.

Norquist’s group is one of many Koch Brothers’ funded groups butting into the local public discussion about Traverse City Light & Power’s new fiber-to-the-premises project, which would deliver a gigabit fiber optic alternative to the area’s dominant phone and cable companies. TCL&P already provides electric service in Traverse City, and is considering introducing fiber broadband for 2,300 downtown customers. As the local utility works towards developing a business plan, local officials are suddenly receiving opposition mailers and phone calls from a variety of national groups with a coordinated message against “government-owned networks.”

None of the groups contacting city officials will reveal their funding sources, but there are strong suspicions the coordinated effort is designed to protect the city’s existing duopoly, run by Charter Spectrum and AT&T.

The Record-Eagle notes city officials and residents are receiving professionally printed postcards and other mailers some consider “propaganda.” Not every letter of opposition generated by these campaigns appears to be genuine. Traverse City Commissioner Amy Shamroe told the newspaper the city studies incoming opposition emails and calls, and found many are questionable form letters, including a few that claim to be from “Firstnametest Lastnametest.”

Shamroe

“I encourage dissenting opinions, but I like them to come from real people,” she said.

Although some genuine Traverse City residents are telling local officials they oppose government competition with private businesses, Shamroe says a much larger number of people support the project and are frustrated with its slow pace.

Norquist argues public broadband believers are being snookered into supporting “really stupid ideas” that will ultimately require taxpayer bailouts or come with hidden fees and taxes. Norquist claims he is not aware of any successful municipal broadband project, despite the fact there are dozens of successful projects that have received strong support in their communities, especially when providers offer services that cable and phone companies will not deliver. In Michigan, Holland BPW (a municipal utility), Sebewing, and Midwest Connections Electric Co-Op, are all successfully providing fiber broadband services to their customers.

Much of the opposition to community broadband is designed to muddy the waters about such projects, using opposition mass-mailings and paid staffers to argue such broadband projects are risky at best, failures at worst. Their opposition is backed up with articles and studies that claim to prove government-run broadband has been a national fiasco, although most of their sources and studies have undisclosed direct or indirect ties to the same cable and phone companies that would face direct competition from a community run provider.

In the past, local officials have often been unprepared to deal with professionally-coordinated opposition efforts, but Traverse City officials are ready to deal with the opposition’s talking points, and have shared a detailed FAQ about the project.

One local resident brought many of those talking points up at an association meeting, and Shamroe was prepared to answer them point by point. The resident recognized he was “blindsided” by the opposition’s distorted representations about the project, and thanked Shamroe for addressing his concerns.

Ironically, Norquist told the newspaper he was particularly opposed to local utilities and governments using excess revenue earned from overcharging utility customers to fund fiber optic competition, arguing that if a provider is overcharging you for a service and making excess profits from it, “they should give you the money back.”

That is an argument Norquist has never brought to the attention of AT&T, Charter, Comcast, and Verizon.

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)

Windstream Relying on Government Funding to Double 100 Mbps Availability in 2019

Windstream is relying on the Federal Communications Commission’s Connect America Fund to double the areas where it will offer 100 Mbps broadband service, expected to reach 30% of the company’s 18-state local service area by the end of the first quarter of 2019.

“Windstream understands that premium internet speeds are critical to families and businesses in rural America, and we are systematically enhancing our network to meet that urgent demand,” said Jeff Small, president of consumer and small and medium-sized business services. “Network upgrades are expensive, especially in rural areas where there are relatively few customers, so Windstream is using a combination of its own capital and crucial support from the FCC’s Connect America Fund to make faster speeds more widely available. Without support from the Connect America Fund, many of these projects simply would not be economically feasible.”

Thomas told attendees at the Citi 2019 TMT West Conference Windstream’s legacy copper wire telephone network is not up to the job of handling the kinds of internet speeds more modern technologies can manage.

In urban and larger service areas, Windstream is most likely to deploy fiber to the home service in new housing developments and select gentrified neighborhoods where a business case exists to invest in fiber upgrades. The company also typically replaces its copper wireline infrastructure with fiber where road construction projects or damage forces the company to replace or relocate its lines. Suburban and more densely populated rural areas are likely to receive an upgraded version of Windstream’s DSL service that can manage up to 50 or 100 Mbps. In Windstream’s significant rural service area, the phone company is increasingly turning to fixed wireless technology, especially in flat midwestern states like Nebraska and Iowa where it plans to offer a combination of 3.5 GHz “CBRS” and 5G millimeter wave fixed wireless broadband capable of delivering up to 1,000 Mbps.

Windstream’s service area

“[We are deploying wireless internet] probably at a larger scale than a lot of the larger wireless companies,” Thomas said, especially in flatter areas where wireless signals go a long way.

Because most current broadband expansion fund programs require companies to commit to at least 25/3 Mbps service, simply expanding basic ADSL technology has proven inadequate to meet the government’s speed requirements. But wiring fiber to the home service to get faster speeds in rural areas does not meet the Return On Investment requirements Windstream’s shareholders demand. Windstream claims fixed wireless can solve both problems.

“You can get 100 Mbps out there very cost-effectively,” Thomas claimed. “You are really blowing away copper infrastructure and making it irrelevant because you’re embracing this 100 Mbps technology.”

As of early 2019, Windstream claims that 60% of its customers can get at least 25 Mbps service, 40% can receive at least 50 Mbps service. By the end of March, 30% will be able to receive 100 Mbps service.

 

A satisfied Windstream customer talks about his upgrade to 50/8 Mbps, which replaces his old 6 Mbps DSL service. (6:03)

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