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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.

Windstream’s “Aspirational” Broadband: DSL Customers Not Getting Advertised Speed

An unhappy customer in Georgia.

Victor Brown, like many residential customers in rural northeastern Ohio, has one option for internet access — Windstream, an independent phone company that typically serves areas larger companies like AT&T, Verizon, and CenturyLink forgot. For 17 years, his internet speed has been absolutely consistent, and slow.

“It’s 1.2 Mbps day or night, no more and no less, and for that they are charging me $58 a month,” Brown told Stop the Cap! “In that time, there has never been an upgrade, a real commitment to improve service, or anything except repetitive sales calls and mailers offering to upgrade me to a faster speed level Windstream cannot actually deliver.”

Windsteam has told its investors that it expects to offer 60% of its customers at least 25 Mbps service by the end of 2018. In fact, Brown has already been offered that for nearly a year, but the service is not actually available.

“They will switch you to 25 Mbps today, with the higher bill to boot, but you won’t actually get any better speed than you have right now,” Brown said. “I know because we tried.”

Brown and several of his neighbors all attempted to upgrade to the higher-speed service advertised. Windstream accepted their orders, charged them more, and delivered exactly the same 1.2 Mbps service they have always had.

“It took a service technician coming out to make it clear to us there was no way we would ever get faster speed because there was too much copper wiring between their office and our homes,” Brown said. “The technician felt for us, and about half of his service calls were disappointing customers like us.”

Brown explained the Windstream technician candidly told him that the company’s head office is behind the speed upgrades, but does not actually have a clear understanding of the state of the local network. Marketing then sells customers on better service Windstream’s network is not capable of providing.

“They need to spend money to replace some copper with fiber but there is no money for that,” Brown said. “The most the technician could suggest was installing a bonded DSL connection that would use two different phone lines and deliver 2.4 Mbps. That would come at a price, however.”

Ruth in Cochranton, Penn., is in exactly the same position.

“We are paying for internet speed that we aren’t receiving,” Ruth complained. “It is so slow that we have a hard time getting a short 50 second video to load. Forget watching a YouTube video, it’s not going to happen.”

Over in Lilitz, Penn., Eileen and her neighbors were also dealing with temporary phone lines Windstream installed by dropping both on their lawns and then leaving them unburied for nine months. She cannot get anyone from the company to bury the lines despite seven separate phone calls. Down the street, internet and phone outages can last a week after a strong rainstorm hits the area, and since the weather has turned much colder, hum and crackle on the neighborhood’s phone lines have disrupted phone calls and DSL service. Nobody from Windstream has come to fix the problem.

Windstream tells a very different story to its investors in the form of ‘upgrades by press release’ and cheerful investor conference calls that claim dramatic improvements in service and growth. While cable operators are touting increasing availability of gigabit service, phone companies like Windstream are promising to give a little more than half their customers the minimum definition of broadband service — 25/3 Mbps, by the end of this year. Many of Windstream’s other half get nothing close to those speeds, with 1-3 Mbps common in rural areas.

Wall Street balks at the dollar amounts it would take for Windstream to fully update its network to offer broadband speeds that were common for cable subscribers a decade ago. That kind of network investment would likely drive down the share price, impact shareholder dividends or stock buyback plans, and increase debt. Instead, many phone companies are hoping the federal government will come to the rescue and subsidize rural network improvements through the FCC’s Connect America Fund or government grants. But many of those grants won’t deliver service improvements to existing customers. Instead it will allow rural phone companies to bring broadband to customers who never had it before.

Even the threat of new competition has not inspired many investor-owned phone companies to embark on a spending spree. That competition may eventually come from new wireless broadband services like 5G, but most observers predict that will be years away in the rural communities Windstream traditionally serves. Where Windstream does face competition, it often still loses market share, usually to the local cable company.

“My sister has Comcast and although they are evil as can be, at least their internet speed matches what they sell, and it is shockingly fast in comparison to what DSL has given me for nearly 20 years,” Brown said. “Unfortunately, no cable company is going to wire us up. There are only a few houses on my street.”

Brown believes it is time for the federal government to start insisting that investor-owned phone companies do better.

“We have universal service laws for landlines but not for internet? That does not make sense to me,” Brown tells us. “Isn’t it time for the government to insist that all providers deliver at least 25 Mbps service to their customers? They are not going to do it without someone ordering them to.”

Frontier Boost Speeds in Fiber Markets While Its DSL Customers Suffer

Frontier can boost speeds on its acquired fiber to the home networks, which offer almost unlimited capacity upgrades.

Frontier Communications is America’s feast or famine broadband provider, today announcing speed upgrades for its acquired Frontier FiOS and Vantage Fiber service areas while the company continues to pile up hundreds of complaints about poor quality DSL service in the northern U.S. where fiber upgrades are unlikely to ever happen.

Frontier today announced gigabit service (1,000/1,000 Mbps) is now available in its FiOS (California, Texas, Florida, and parts of the Pacific Northwest and Indiana) and Vantage Fiber (primarily Connecticut) service areas. The company also unveiled new plans offering 200/200 and 300/300 Mbps speed options in Indiana, Oregon, and Washington.

“Frontier is pleased to now offer a 200/200 Mbps service, the fastest, most efficient introductory broadband service available in our markets, plus eye-popping speed and capacity with our FiOS Gigabit for the home,” said John Maduri, executive vice president and chief customer officer at Frontier Communications. “Speed and reliability are hallmarks of FiOS Fiber broadband service. Two-way speeds over our all-fiber network make Internet tasks faster and more efficient, regardless of the time of day, while also enabling the many connected devices and streaming services in the home to work simultaneously and smoothly.”

Frontier’s fiber networks are only found in certain regions of the country, including 1.4 million homes in the Tampa Bay/six-county region along the central west coast of Florida, parts of Southern California, Dallas, and individual communities in Indiana, Oregon, and Washington that used to be served by Verizon.

Frontier’s Vantage Fiber network was largely acquired from AT&T’s U-verse service area in Connecticut, with more recent limited rollouts in North Carolina and Minnesota. Life for the unfibered masses in the rest of Minnesota is less sunny, with nearly 500 complaints against Frontier filed by frustrated consumers stuck with a company they feel has forgotten about them.

City Pages notes no company affirms the notoriety of a bad phone company like Frontier Communications, which still relies on a deteriorating copper wire network in most of its original (a/k/a “legacy”) service areas. Complaints about mediocre internet access, missing in action repair crews, and Soviet era-like delays to get landline service installed are as common as country roads.

City Pages:

The grievances read like a cannonade of frustration. They speak of no-show repairmen. Endless waits on hold. Charges for services never rendered. Outages that last for days.

“I have never dealt with a more incompetent company than Frontier,” writes one customer on Google Reviews. “I have no other choice for internet or phone service in my area…. It took me over three months just for Frontier to get to my house to even connect my service…. They also canceled multiple times for installation without calling. They just didn’t show up.”

These maladies aren’t exclusive to the outbacks. They also extend to Watertown Township, in the exurbs of Carver County.

“Frontier Communications is my only option for internet,” Kathleen McCann wrote state regulators. “My internet service is worse than dial-up…. As a dentist, I am not able to email dental X-rays. It took me 47 minutes to upload one small photo to Facebook recently.”

Frontier vice president Javier Mendoza at least admits most rural Minnesotans will be waiting for upgrades forever.

“The economic reality is that upgrading broadband infrastructure in the more rural parts of the state is not economically viable,” he says.

That leaves customers hoping some other entity will step up and serve the critical digital needs of one of America’s most important agricultural states. If not, the future is dismal.

“Those people are screwed,” Christopher Mitchell of the Institute of Local Self-Reliance, a Minneapolis nonprofit, tells the newspaper. “People who make business or real estate decisions are not going to move to that area.”

With that bleak assessment, several rural Minnesota communities are doing something remarkable — building their own public broadband networks. Even more surprising is that many of those towns are led by hardcore Republican local governments that have very different views about municipal broadband than the national party.

Life is rougher for Frontier’s legacy customers that depend on the company’s decades-old copper wire networks.

Some have joked they could change the mind of big city Republicans that are openly hostile to the concept of public broadband by making them spend two weeks without adequate internet access.

In the Minnesota backcountry, in the heart of Trumpland, broadband is about as bipartisan an issue you can find. Ten cities and 17 townships in Renville and Sibley counties went all-out socialist for suitable, super high-speed fiber optic broadband. RS Fiber, the resulting co-op, delivers superior internet access with fewer complaints than the big phone and cable companies offer in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Public broadband is no more a “big government” takeover than municipal co-ops were when they were formed to bring electric and phone service to rural farms during the days of FDR. Waiting for investor-owned utilities to find adequate profits before breaking ground came second to meeting the public need for reliable power and phone service.

Today, part of that need is still there, even with an incumbent phone company delivering something resembling service. Frontier DSL is internet access that time forgot, with customers comparing it to the days of dial-up. Speed tests often fail to break 1 Mbps. Cable companies won’t come anywhere near most of these communities, many inconveniently located between nothing and nowhere.

As long as Frontier remains “checked out” with make-due internet access, rural Minnesota won’t ever benefit from the kinds of fiber fast speeds Frontier is promoting on the fiber networks that other companies originally built. Frontier is not in the business of constructing large-scale fiber networks itself. It prefers to acquire them after they are built. That makes Frontier customers in legacy service areas still served with copper envious of the kind of speeds available in California, Texas, and Florida.

Investors continue to pressure Frontier to reduce spending and pay down its debts, piled up largely on the huge acquisitions of Verizon and AT&T landline customers Frontier effectively put on its corporate credit card. For Wall Street, the combination of debt repayments and necessary upgrade expenses are bad news for Frontier’s stock. The company already discontinued its all-important dividend, used for years to lure investors. A growing number of analysts suspect Frontier will face bankruptcy reorganization in the next five years, if only to restructure or walk away from its staggering debts.

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