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

No service.

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

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

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

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

Gunther

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Journal:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nevada’s Attorney General Finds Frontier Internet Lacking, Wins Refunds and Upgrades

Frontier residential customers in Nevada could receive a refund and improved service after a court filing from the Nevada Attorney General’s Bureau of Consumer Protection (BCP) found Frontier’s internet services lacking.

Since 2017, BCP has collected scores of complaints about Frontier’s internet service and its performance, mostly regarding slow service, frequent outages, and ongoing billing problems.

The BCP found Frontier liable under NRS Chapter 598 which forbids providers from misleading consumers about internet speed and service performance in marketing and advertising. An Assurance of Discontinuance filed with the court allowed Frontier to settle while avoiding admitting any wrongdoing and agreeing to correct service deficiencies.

The state found Frontier repeatedly did not disclose limitations of broadband service availability and knowingly marketed its DSL service at speeds the company could not provide customers.

According to the court document:

  • Frontier is required to “clearly and conspicuously” disclose in its print and broadcast advertising the actual internet speeds available to customers in terms of minimum and maximum speed.
  • Customers that sign up for a high-speed plan that Frontier cannot provide may switch to a lower speed plan or discontinue service incurring no penalties or early cancellation fees.
  • Existing customers that do not receive at least 90% of the highest speed their current plan advertises will receive a service credit of 50% of the internet charge for each month Frontier did not provide such speed. Credits will begin in 2020 and end three years after the date the court accepts the Assurance.
  • Frontier has also agreed to invest at least $1 million to improve internet service in Elko County.

Frontier Urgently Trying to Restructure $17 Billion Debt as Chapter 11 Looms

Frontier Communications is preparing a detailed plan for bondholders explaining how the company hopes to cut its $17 billion in debt before it faces the possibility of bankruptcy.

The Wall Street Journal reports Frontier is ready to begin formal negotiations with those holding its debt to create a new payback plan before it faces the first of several repayment deadlines for bonds running into the billions, starting in 2022. But the strategy is risky because if any of the company’s major bondholders disagree, it could put Frontier on a fast track to Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization.

Frontier’s debt problems are a consequence of its decision to expand its wireline footprint through acquisitions of castoff copper landline networks being sold primarily by Verizon Communications and AT&T. Critics have repeatedly called out Frontier for bungling network transitions with extended service outages, billing problems, and other customer service-related failures that left customers and some state regulators frustrated and alienated. The company is still facing regulatory review in states like Connecticut, where it failed to properly manage a customer cutover from AT&T’s systems to its own, and in Utah, West Virginia, California, and Florida where similar cutovers from Verizon Communications left more than a few customers without service and months of billing problems.

As a result, Frontier lost many of the customers it acquired, with many unwilling to consider doing business with the phone company ever again.

Although Frontier’s latest acquisitions of Verizon landline customers in California, Texas, and Florida included large Verizon FiOS fiber to the home territories, Frontier customers continue to disconnect service at a greater pace than the phone company’s chief cable competitors — Comcast and Charter Spectrum. Customer defections are even worse in large sections of Frontier’s stagnant “legacy” markets — service areas that have been managed by Frontier or its predecessor Citizens Communications for decades. That is because almost all of those legacy markets are still serviced by decades-old copper wire networks, many capable only of providing low speed DSL internet access.

Frontier’s large debt load is cited as the principal reason the company cannot embark on upgrade efforts to replace existing copper wiring with optical fiber. In fact, virtually all of Frontier’s fiber service areas have been acquired from AT&T or Verizon. Frontier executives have attempted to placate shareholders by promising to aggressively manage costs. But promises of dramatic savings have proved elusive and frequent media reports have emerged covering extensive service outages, poor network maintenance, ongoing billing and customer service issues, and inadequate staffing to address a growing number of service outages and problems. In several states, repeated 911 outages have triggered regulator investigations with the prospect of stiff fines.

Three Frontier insiders have privately shared their insights with Stop the Cap! about ongoing frustrations with the company and the most recent developments.

“Upper management has no comprehension that in many of our markets, customers have choices and they abandon us when all we can sell is DSL service at speeds often less than 12 Mbps,” one senior regional executive told us. “Our retention efforts are so poor these days, representatives are not really expected to rescue accounts because in most cases there is no legitimate reason to do business with us. In some states where there are high mandated surcharges, we cost more than our cable competitors.”

Another mid-level executive in one of Frontier’s largest legacy markets — Rochester, N.Y., said morale is low and a growing number of colleagues believe the days to bankruptcy are short.

Frontier Communications debt load.

“Our loyal customers are literally dying off, as their adult children disconnect decades-old landline accounts,” said an executive who wished to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak with the media. “The customer numbers have been ugly for a long time and are getting worse. Our recently retired customers who have had DSL and voice service with us since the 1990s are disconnecting because some have gone with Spectrum and others are moving out of the area. Some of these customers hate Spectrum and won’t do business with them no matter the price, but we are losing their business anyway when they move out of state.”

The Rochester executive noted Frontier has an impossible job trying to sell its internet and voice products against Charter Spectrum.

“Their offers are $40 a month for 100 Mbps internet and $10 for unlimited local and long-distance calls,” the executive noted. “Ours costs nearly $30 just for the phone line after taxes and fees, and how can you sell someone DSL that delivers less than 6 Mbps to many parts of a market still served by copper trunk lines to a central office several miles away? They also find out they have to lease our modem at an additional fee and there are other fees in the contract many customers have learned to look for. Answer: you can’t.”

A Frontier executive in Ohio shared a similar story.

“We hold our own in our rural markets where we can offer a customer better than dial-up internet, and our service is very good if you live in an area where we expanded broadband thanks to FCC subsidies. Some of these new areas are even served by fiber,” the executive explained. “The problem with this is fewer people live in rural areas and these places cost a lot more to maintain when we dispatch service crews or have to run new cable. For Frontier to be truly successful, we have to get better internet service into our larger older markets, but that means pulling copper off poles and putting up fiber and there is just no interest from the higher ups to spend the money to do this. So instead the company bought new territories to keep revenue numbers up, but we are also quickly losing many of those customers to cable too. I really don’t know what we will do when wireless companies offer 5G internet.”

Some Frontier bondholders recognize Frontier must reduce its debt to have the financial resources to expand fiber service. Others want the company to shed its legacy copper service areas (while keeping FiOS/U-verse enabled markets) either to regional companies willing to invest in upgrades or to hedge funds that would likely ring whatever remaining value still exists out of these abandoned service areas. Some suspect these hedge funds would also load up the spinoff companies with even greater debt to facilitate dividend payouts and other investor-friendly rewards.

It will be up to state and federal regulators to protect Frontier’s customers as the two emerging groups of conflicting bondholders angle to protect their investments, perhaps at the risk of reliable phone and internet service.

The Wall Street Journal:

One, including Elliott Management and Franklin Resources, pushed for an exchange of their bonds at a discount to their face value for new secured debt that would be paid before unsecured debt in a potential bankruptcy.

Still, bondholders including GoldenTree Asset Management have warned the company against doing such a swap since 2018, arguing it violated the terms of their bonds.

The company this week reached out to Houlihan Lokey, which represents a group of bondholders that includes GoldenTree—as well as JPMorgan Chase & Co., Oaktree Capital Management and Brigade Capital Management—to sign up to view a confidential restructuring proposal, a person familiar with the matter said. That group has yet to gather enough holders to form a majority, people familiar with the matter said.

Wall Street Journal Says Faster Internet Not Worth It, But They Ignore Bottlenecks and Data Caps

The Wall Street Journal believes the majority of Americans are paying for internet speed they never use or need, but their investigation largely ignores the question of traffic bottlenecks and data caps that require many customers to upgrade to premium tiers to avoid punitive overlimit fees.

The newspaper’s examination was an attempt to test the marketing messages of large cable and phone companies that claim premium speeds of 250, 500, or 1,000 Mbps will enhance video streaming. A total of 53 journalists across the country performed video streaming tests over a period of months, working with researchers at Princeton University and the University of Chicago to determine how much of their available bandwidth was used while streaming videos from Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube and other popular streaming services.

Unsurprisingly, the newspaper found most only need a fraction of their available internet speed — often less than 10 Mbps — to watch high quality HD streaming video, even with up to seven video streams running concurrently. That is because video streaming services are designed to produce good results even with lower speed connections. Video resolution and buffering are dynamically adjusted by the streaming video player depending on the quality of one’s internet connection, with good results likely for anyone with a basic broadband connection of 10-25 Mbps. As 4K streams become more common, customers will probably get better performance with faster tiers, assuming the customer has an unshaped connection that does not throttle video streaming speeds as many mobile connections do and the streaming service offers a subscription tier offering 4K video. Netflix, for example, charges more for 4K streams. Some other services do not offer this option at all.

Image: WSJ

WSJ:

For most modern televisions, the highest picture clarity is the “full” high-definition standard, 1080p, followed by the slightly lower HD standard, 720p, then “standard resolution,” 480p. The Journal study found a household’s percentage of 1080p viewing had little to do with the speed it was paying for. In some cases, streaming services intentionally transmit in lower resolution to accommodate a device such as a mobile phone.

When all HD viewing is considered—1080p and 720p—there were some benefits to paying for the very highest broadband tiers, those 250 Mbps and above.

Streaming services compress their streams in smart ways, so they don’t require much bandwidth. We took a closer look at specific services by gathering data on our households’ viewing over a period of months. Unlike the “stress test,” this was regular viewing of shows and movies, one at a time.

Netflix streamed at under 4 Mbps, on average, over the course of a show or movie, with not much difference in the experience of someone who was paying for a 15 Mbps connection and someone with a one gigabit (1,000 Mbps) connection. The findings were similar for the other services.

There is a brief speed spike when a stream begins. Netflix reached the highest max speeds of the services we tested, but even those were a fraction of the available bandwidth.

Users watching YouTube might launch a video slightly faster than those watching Netflix, and at lower resolution, but this is a function of how those services work, not your broadband speed, the researchers said.

Whereas Netflix tries to load “nice high quality video” when you press play and hence has higher spikes, YouTube appears to “want to start as fast as possible,” said Paul Schmitt, one of the researchers.

A spokeswoman for Alphabet Inc.’s YouTube said the service chooses playback quality based on factors including type of device, network speed, user preferences and the resolution of the originally uploaded video. A Netflix Inc. spokeswoman said the company aims to deliver quality video with the least possible bandwidth. Amazon.com Inc. had no comment.

The Journal finds little advantage for consumers subscribing to premium speed tiers, if they did so hoping for improved streaming video. The unanswered question is why customers believe they need faster internet speeds to get those improvements in the first place.

The answer often lies in the quality of the connection between the streaming provider and the customer. There are multiple potential bottlenecks that can make a YouTube video stutter and buffer on even the fastest internet connection. Large providers have had high profile disputes with large streaming companies over interconnection agreements that bring Netflix and YouTube traffic to those internet service providers’ customers. Some ISPs want compensation to handle the increasing amount of incoming video traffic and have intentionally not allowed adequate upgrades to keep up with growing subscriber demand. This creates a traffic bottleneck, usually most noticeable at night, when even a small YouTube video can get stuck buffering. Other streaming videos can suffer from repeated pauses or deteriorate into lower resolution video quality, regardless of the speed of your connection.

Another common bottleneck comes from oversold service providers that have too much traffic and not enough capacity to manage it. DSL and satellite internet customers often complain about dramatic slowdowns in performance during peak usage times in the evenings and on weekends. In many cases, too many customers in a neighborhood are sharing the connection back to the phone company. Satellite customers only have a finite amount of bandwidth to work with and once used, all speeds slow. Some other providers do not pay for a large enough pipeline to the internet backbone, making some traffic slow to a crawl when that connection is full.

Customers are sold on speed upgrades by providers that tell them faster speeds will accommodate more video traffic, which is true but not the whole answer. No amount of speed will overcome intentional traffic shaping, an inadequate connection to the video streaming service, or an oversold network. Too bad the Journal did not investigate these conditions, which are more common than many people think.

Finally, some customers feel compelled to upgrade to premium tiers because their provider enforces data caps, and premium tiers offer larger usage allowances. Cable One, Suddenlink, and Mediacom customers, among others, get a larger usage allowance upgrading. Other providers offer a fixed cap, often 1 TB, which does not go away unless a customer pays an additional monthly fee or bundles video service.

Data caps are a concern for video streaming customers because the amount of data that can be consumed in a month is substantial. As video quality improves, data consumption increases. The Journal article does not address data caps.

Finally, the Journal investigation confined itself to video streaming, but internet users are also increasingly using other high traffic services, especially cloud backup and downloading, especially for extremely large video game updates. The next generation of high bandwidth internet applications will only be developed if high speed internet service is pervasive, so having fast internet speed is not a bad thing. In fact, providers have learned it is relatively cheap to increase customer speeds and use that as a justification to raise broadband prices. Other providers, like Charter Spectrum, have dropped lower speed budget plans to sell customers 100 or 200 Mbps service, with a relatively inexpensive upgrade to 400 Mbps also gaining in popularity.

Does the average consumer need a premium speed tier for their home internet connection? Probably not. But they do need affordable unlimited internet service free of bottlenecks and artificial slowdowns, especially at the prices providers charge these days. That is an investigation the Journal should conduct next.

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