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Maine Raises the Bar on Public Broadband: Will Fund Projects Offering 100/100 Mbps

Maine’s broadband internet authority is proposing major changes to win public financing of broadband projects in the state, demanding better speeds and performance and giving more Maine communities the potential to construct their own public internet projects.

The ConnectMaine Authority (ConnectME), which traditionally modestly funds a variety of smaller scale internet projects in the state, wants to think big now that it has a budget over fifteen times its original size. With at least $15 million to spend this year and potentially tens of millions in federal broadband funding to manage, courtesy of Congress and the Biden Administration, the authority wants to make certain future projects can deliver the scale and service consumers need in the 21st century digital economy.

In April, ConnectME’s board voted to propose changing the criteria for broadband funding awards, now insisting that projects be capable of delivering at least 100/100 Mbps service, which is four times faster than the FCC’s current minimum definition of downstream broadband. The board hopes the faster speeds will be future-proof and more realistic of what consumers need to telecommute and access online classes, streaming video, and other high bandwidth services. The result of the proposed standards would likely require all future projects to be fiber to the home, although historically the vast majority of broadband projects funded by ConnectME in the past have been fiber to the home.

The authority has also proposed expanding the definition of what represents an “unserved/underserved” area qualified to receive public funding to include any address that lacks access to at least 50/10 Mbps service, up from the current standard of 25/3 Mbps. Such a change would likely open up funding in areas where only DSL service or wireless internet is currently available. Most cable operators can meet the new standard, so their territories would likely remain closed to public funding. Opposition from the state’s telephone companies was almost instant, however, represented in comments from Ben Sanborn, executive director of the Telecommunications Association of Maine, a state telecom lobbying group.

Sanborn considers the proposed changes negative because public dollars could end up funding competitors in areas already served by lower speed providers.

“Arguably, there are going to be a whole bunch of areas in the state that will be eligible for funding either from ConnectME or with federal dollars,” Sanborn told the Press Herald. “Our concern with that is that it is going to create a situation of overbuilding existing networks,” which could leave currently unserved areas out of getting any funding for service.

At present, about 11% of Maine homes still have no internet access, mostly in rural areas. Traditionally, telephone companies or co-op telecom providers are the most likely to provide rural internet service, but the costs to reach those not currently served can be prohibitive. Cable operators have been the least likely to extend service in rural areas, and cash-strapped telephone companies have been reluctant to replace rural copper wire networks that can extend for miles with fiber optics, just to reach a few dozen homes. As broadband penetration increases, the cost to reach remaining unserved homes typically rises as they are often the most costly to reach. Subsidy funding can make a considerable difference when determining the cost/benefit analysis of expanding service to these homes.

The authority is also hoping to inspire existing providers to adopt 100/100 Mbps as the new broadband speed minimum across the state, which it claims will meet the needs of customers. For cable providers, that likely will not happen until upgrades to DOCSIS 4.0 are implemented, unlikely in the short term. Cable broadband networks are designed to deliver much faster downstream speeds at the expense of uploads.

The newly available funds are likely to achieve a significant increase in the number of rural homes served, but probably will not be enough to achieve 100% penetration.

ConnectME plans a public hearing to discuss the proposed changes on May 13, with a final vote scheduled for later this month.

Frontier Exits Bankruptcy on Friday; Company to Focus on Gradual Fiber Upgrades

Frontier Communications is scheduled to announce its emergence from bankruptcy reorganization as early as Friday, beginning a new era with a reduced debt load, new leadership, and a plan to retire a considerable amount of its copper wire network in favor of fiber optics over the next decade.

“Frontier is ready to set a new course as a revitalized public company. Through the restructuring process, the company has stabilized its business and recapitalized its balance sheet, while making significant progress on the early stages of implementing our initial fiber expansion plan,” said John Stratton, incoming executive chairman of the board. “Frontier’s success with the Fiber-to-the-Home pilot program, which upgraded more than 60,000 locations from copper to fiber optic service in 2020, is just one example of the important work already underway. Frontier’s future is bright. I’m eager to work closely with our new board, our CEO Nick Jeffery, and the rest of the leadership team to build the new Frontier.”

As part of its reorganization, Frontier shed nearly $10 billion in debt, most attributable to its earlier buying spree of castoff landline customers formerly served by AT&T and Verizon. The company’s budget busting 2016 acquisition of Verizon service areas in California, Texas, and Florida was called “a textbook case of how not to do an acquisition,” by The Dallas Morning News

For at least a decade covering 2010-2020, Frontier was regarded as one of the worst phone companies in America in consumer surveys. Most of its legacy customers still suffer with Frontier’s dilapidated and deteriorating copper wire network and the slow speed DSL service barely supported on it. Speeds of 1-3 Mbps maximum are still common in some places, even in urban areas. Frontier’s acquisition of Verizon FiOS and AT&T U-verse service areas in states like Indiana, Washington, Connecticut, Florida, Texas and California gave a minority of customers access to pre-built fiber to the home networks, but Frontier’s notoriously poor switchover from Verizon and AT&T’s billing systems to their own effectively drove off hundreds of thousands of formerly loyal customers.

Under the leadership of former CEOs Maggie Wilderotter and Dan McCarthy, Frontier dragged from one quarter to the next, promising improvements that failed to materialize for most customers. The company’s $10.5 billion acquisition of landlines in California, Texas and Florida was particularly costly as the company sold bonds offering astonishing 10.5-11% interest rates to investors to cover more than $5 billion in debt coming due for repayment. A year after the Verizon deal, a half million Frontier customers left for good and the company lost $262 million.

Frontier’s latest fiber plan is to target upgrades in its legacy service areas, noted in blue on this map. These areas are all almost entirely served by copper wire, provide slow speed DSL, and are long overdue for fiber upgrades. Frontier will also expand fiber in its acquired service areas, represented by other colors on the map. Note that Frontier sold its Pacific Northwest region, marked by the red box, to Zipply Fiber, which also plans to scrap Frontier’s copper wire network in favor of fiber. (Map courtesy of Light Reading)

By the time bankruptcy was inevitable, Frontier was saddled with billions in debt and no financial ability to embark on fiber upgrades the company should have committed to a decade ago. Almost all of its existing fiber footprint was acquired from other companies.

Stratton

Frontier’s new management includes John Stratton, a former Verizon executive. Stratton believes Frontier’s future depends on the company expanding its fiber footprint. In 2020, it put that plan to the test by expanding fiber to the home service to 60,000 additional homes in a pilot project proving Frontier can plan and execute fiber upgrades on time and on budget. But a closer look at the numbers shows the majority of homes Frontier “upgraded” were brand new. Of the 60,000 homes, 44,000 were located in new housing developments or were unwired previously. These “greenfield” locations are typically easier to provision and much less expensive to service than pre-existing homes where Frontier first needs to decommission its existing copper wiring and replace it with fiber optics. Only around 16,000 pre-existing homes saw copper wire replaced with fiber in so-called “brownfield” locations.

For Frontier to succeed, it will need to move a lot more copper customers to fiber optics to remain competitive in the marketplace. Currently, Frontier serves approximately three million fiber homes and 11 million copper homes. Frontier is expected to announce fiber upgrades for an additional six million homes and target about 85% of its footprint to be serviced by fiber… eventually.

Some proposals hint the company could take five years or more to complete upgrades at the same time independent fiber to the home providers, next generation satellite internet, and wireless home 4G/5G internet plans are expanding. Much of Frontier’s service area is serviced by cable companies already providing high speed internet. Frontier’s plan assumes it will capture about 40% of the market — a tall order in communities like Rochester, N.Y., where dominant cable provider Charter Spectrum is assumed to have 70+% of the home broadband market. When competing fiber providers enter the market, Spectrum often slashes promotional pricing to $30 a month for 400 Mbps internet service for two years. Spectrum will probably offer similar pricing in newly competitive markets to retain customers threatening to cancel service and switch to Frontier.

Frontier plans to discuss its exit from bankruptcy and where the company will go in the future in a webcast presentation this Friday, April 30, 2021 at 10:00am ET.

AT&T Stops Selling DSL Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fiber to the Home Customers Only Cancel “If They Move or Die”

Customer satisfaction with fiber to the home internet service is so high, one industry leader says the only time customers cancel service is if they move or die.

Carl Russo, CEO of internet equipment vendor Calix, says phone companies are relying on fiber optic networks to turn their struggling businesses around except in the most rural areas of the country.

“Fixed wireless will sometimes be the right choice and Calix’s software supports it. But our telco customers with fiber will lose very few customers. If they provide strong, customer-focused service, no one will have a reason to switch,” Russo told Dave Burstein’s Fast Net News. “It’s only a slight exaggeration to say customers only churn if they move or die. This is provided the service provider chooses to ‘own’ the subscriber experience. A service provider that invests in fiber but doesn’t further invest in an excellent subscriber experience is still vulnerable.”

Russo argues that fiber to the home service has been the right choice for most of the developed world for several years now, at least where there is hearty competition between providers.

Where competition is lacking, phone companies often still rely on archaic DSL service, which is increasingly incapable of competing with even smaller cable operators. Phone companies are now up against the wall, forced to recognize that existing, decades-old copper wire infrastructure cannot sustain their future in the broadband business. Companies that drag their feet on fiber upgrades are bleeding customers, and some companies are even in bankruptcy reorganization.

Russo

Fiber networks are future-proof, with most offering up to gigabit speed to consumers and businesses. But upgrading to 10 Gbps will “add little to the cost” once demand for such faster speed appears, Russo said.

Fast Net News notes that France Telecom, Telefonica Spain, Bell Canada, and Telus have all proven successful using fiber to the home service to compete with cable companies to market internet access. Companies that approved less costly fiber to the neighborhood projects that relied on keeping a portion of a company’s legacy copper network, including AT&T, BT in the United Kingdom, and Deutsche Telekom in Germany, have had to bring back construction equipment to further extend fiber optic cables to individual customer homes — a costly expense.

Even public broadband projects like Australia’s National Broadband Network (NBN) paid dearly for a political decision to downsize the NBN’s original fiber optic design to save money. The NBN was hobbled by a more conservative government that came to power just as the network was being built. Many NBN customers ended up with a more advanced form of DSL supplied from oversubscribed remote terminals, which delivered just 50 Mbps to some subscribers. For-profit companies have also been pressured to keep costs down and limit fiber rollouts by Wall Street and investors. Verizon FiOS is the best known American example, with further network expansion of the fiber optic service essentially shelved in 2010 at the behest of investors that claimed the upgrades cost too much.

Underfunded upgrades often bring customer dissatisfaction as speeds cannot achieve expectations, and many hybrid fiber-copper networks are less robust and more subject to breakdowns. In the United Kingdom, BT’s “super fast” broadband initiative has been a political problem for years, and communities frequently compete to argue who has the worst service in the country. BT’s fiber-to-the-village approach supplies fiber internet service to street cabinets in smaller communities that link to existing BT copper phone lines that are often in poor shape. Customers often get less than 50 Mbps service from BT’s “super fast” service while a few UK cable companies are constructing all-fiber networks in larger cities capable of supplying gigabit internet speed to every customer.

Calix is positioned to earn heavily by selling the equipment and infrastructure that will power future fiber network upgrades that are inevitable if companies want to attract and keep customers. A new round of federal rural broadband funding will help phone companies pay for the upgrades, which means many rural Americans will find fiber to the home service in their future.

Telcos Without Fiber to the Home Service Face Crisis As Their Market Share Will Erode to Zero

Phillip Dampier June 3, 2020 Broadband Speed, Competition, Consumer News 2 Comments

The death of DSL?

If your local phone company does not offer fiber-to-the-home service, it risks seeing its market share as a broadband competitor drop to zero, according to new research from Wall Street analyst firm MoffettNathanson.

As the cable industry prepares to deploy DOCSIS 4.0, capable of much faster upload speeds in the gigabits and downloads as fast as 10 Gbps, the future of telephone companies that have under-invested in their networks for years is dire. The research firm’s “Equilibrium Forecast” sees DSL’s market share in areas where cable broadband is available dropping to zero. Phone companies that have invested in fiber half-measures, including fiber to the neighborhood, IP-DSLAM, and VDSL technology that traditionally delivers internet speed between 25-75 Mbps are not far behind. Only true fiber-to-the-home service stands a chance at protecting phone company broadband market share.

“DSL [and] mid-tier [fiber/copper combinations are both] obsolete,” researchers said in a private note to investors. “Broadband is increasingly a two-horse race between cable and telco fiber-to-the-home service, where it exists.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has only increased problems at the nation’s legacy phone companies, as customer losses accelerate in favor of cable company delivered internet. In the first quarter of 2020, cable company broadband sign-ups increased 122% compared to the same quarter last year, while phone companies said goodbye to at least 65,000 subscribers. Last year during the first quarter, telcos managed to add 20,000 customers.

Leichtman Research Group reports that most customers are looking for stable and reliably fast internet service, and phone company DSL delivers neither. Having a speedy and dependable connection has become crucial as tens of millions of Americans work from home to avoid contracting the illness. Sharing that internet connection with kids staying home from school quickly caused a spike in upgrade orders.

“The increased level of usage was enough to convince many customers that they needed higher speeds to handle the number of simultaneous users in their home,” MoffettNathanon wrote.

Many phone companies lacking fiber were unable to deliver on upgrades, and customers that could went shopping for alternatives. At the same time, large DSL providers like Frontier Communications and Windstream have become mired in bankruptcy and have been losing residential customers for years. MoffettNathanson told its investor subscribers it was time to declare DSL effectively dead as a competing technology, with fiber service variants like U-verse and other flavors of VDSL near-dead.

“As with legacy DSL, it is increasingly clear that this segment is simply not competitive anymore. Equilibrium market share in this cohort, if one looks out far enough, is 100/0.”

MoffettNathanson expects cable operators will achieve an 85% market share for broadband service in markets where their chief competitor is a phone company yet to provide fiber-to-the-home service. If phone companies do not embark on immediate fiber upgrades, the damage to their market share could be permanent, especially after DOCSIS 4 arrives, according to the researchers, because the newest cable broadband platform may be able to erase fiber’s speed advantage.

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