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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)

AT&T Introduces Low Cost Internet for Low Income Households

Phillip Dampier March 19, 2019 AT&T, Broadband Speed, Consumer News 1 Comment

AT&T is following the cable industry’s tradition of offering slower speed internet service at a discount to qualified customers, at prices as low as $5 a month.

AT&T is introducing Access, available only to those receiving public benefits.

“We’re making it easier for more people to connect to friends, family, their communities and the possibilities of the internet,” said Cheryl Choy, vice president wired voice and broadband products, AT&T. “Access from AT&T is an affordable internet option available to millions of Americans with limited budgets.”

The service offers participants the fastest available speed tier that will work reliably at their home. AT&T DSL service can be speed variable, so some households may only be able to get slower service. If AT&T qualifies you for 5 or 10 Mbps, the service will cost $10 a month. If only 3 Mbps or less is available, the price is $5 a month. Installation and equipment is provided free of charge.

Service will include a monthly data allowance of either 150 GB or 1 TB of data per month depending on the type and speed of service you receive. If you exceed your monthly data plan allowance, you will be automatically charged $10 for each 50 GB of data usage in excess of your data plan, even if less than 50 gigabytes is used. For more information, go to att.com/internet-usage.

Get more information and enroll here.

Speed Tiers (the speed furnished will be whatever is fastest and reliable at your service address)

  • 10 Mbps $10 per month
  • 5 Mbps $10 per month
  • 3 Mbps $5 per month
  • 1.5 Mbps $5 per month
  • 768kbps $5 per month

To qualify, a household must have at least one resident participating in the Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (better known as ‘SNAP’) and must live in an area where AT&T provides landline service. Customers must also not owe any past due balance to AT&T within the last six months. California residents only: If at least one member of your household receives Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits you also may qualify to participate.

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.

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)

Frontier Left Residents in N.Y.’s North Country Out of Service for 10 Days

A snowstorm, in winter, in Upstate New York, was the excuse Frontier Communications gave for leaving scores of residents in the Minerva-Johnsburg area without phone or internet service for as long as 10 days this month.

“We are aware of a service interruption in Minerva and have been delayed by a snowstorm that impeded access and diverted resources starting Friday,” Javier Mendoza, vice president of corporate communications and external affairs at Frontier, told The Sun.

The company routinely blames external factors for wide scale service interruptions, which often impact Frontier’s rural customers, totally reliant on aging copper wire infrastructure the company has refused to replace.

“Often [service outages] are due to uncontrollable circumstances like commercial power outages, severe weather, construction crews damaging telecom cables, cars hitting telephone poles or telecom equipment cabinets,” Mendoza said. “These causes can also delay response and restoral efforts beyond Frontier’s control.”

But customers in several states where Frontier provides the only internet access around are just as concerned by poor service that is within Frontier’s control.

Johnsburg’s town supervisor is one of them, complaining regularly about the poor quality of Frontier’s internet service, powered by DSL. It suffers frequent service outages.

Minerva-Johnsburg, N.Y.

“It’s been widespread throughout the town,” Supervisor Andrea Hogan told the newspaper. “People can’t run businesses with that.”

Those who rely on the internet to work from home are challenged by Frontier’s DSL service and frequent service problems.

Greg and Ellen Schaefer retired to the community of North River and planned to do part-time work remotely over the internet. They pay Frontier $228 a month for a package of satellite TV, landline, and internet service. On a good day, they achieve a maximum of 3 Mbps for downloads and 0.5 Mbps for uploads. But in Frontier country, where good days can be outnumbered by bad ones, the couple has often been forced into their car in search of good Wi-Fi. Some days they work from the local library, others they park by an AT&T cell tower near the base of Gore Mountain to use their car’s built-in AT&T hotspot.

Predictably, the Schaefers question the value for money they receive from Frontier Communications.

Frontier’s name conjures up the notion of a phone company providing service in the rough and rugged Old West, but Glenn Pearsall told The Sun he prefers to think of Frontier as an antique three-speed car, offering customers the choice of “dim, flickering,” or “off.”

Pearsall pays Frontier for internet speeds advertised at 6-10+ Mbps, but receives 0.69 Mbps for downloads and 0.08 Mbps for uploads at his home in Garnet Lake. A typical Microsoft Office software update takes approximately 48 hours to arrive, assuming one of many frequent service outages does not force the upgrade to start anew.

The problem for most Frontier DSL customers, especially in rural areas, is the distance between the company’s local exchange office and customers. The further away one lives, the slower the speed.

Many rural telephone exchanges have tens of thousands of feet in copper wire between the central office and an outlying customer. As a result, in the most rural areas, no internet service is available at all.

Frontier is accepting millions in Connect America Funds (CAF) — paid for by ordinary customers on their phone bill, to expand internet access into unserved areas. Frontier has to replace at least some of its copper wiring with fiber optics, which does not degrade significantly with distance. It can then reach customers part of the way over its existing copper facilities, which saves the company millions in replacement costs.

Demand for internet service and constantly rising traffic volumes suggests Frontier must regularly upgrade its equipment and backhaul connectivity. But in some areas, the company has failed to keep up with demand, resulting in online overcrowding. Customers that access the internet during peak usage times in the evenings report dramatic slowdowns and web pages that refuse to load — both symptoms of oversold network capacity.

Frontier is an integral part of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s rural broadband initiative, which promises 99.9% of New Yorkers will have access to high-speed internet. The company collected $9.7 million in January 2018 to expand service to another 2,735 customers in the North Country, Southern Tier, and Finger Lakes region. The company claims it will deliver 100 Mbps internet speed to those customers in its news releases, but also warns what the company claims is never guaranteed.

“Our products state in our literature what you ‘may’ get. So it’s speeds ‘as fast as.’ You may not get 6 Mbps every moment of the day,” admitted Jan van de Carr, manager for community relations and government affairs.

It is that kind of mentality that has Pearsall keeping a bottle of champagne at the ready on the day he can disconnect Frontier service for good. But considering the alternative is likely to be satellite internet offered by Hughes, that bottle is likely to remain corked for a long time into the future.

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