Home » New York » Recent Articles:

Gov. Cuomo’s “Broadband for All” Under Audit by Comptroller; Angry NY’ers Still Waiting

Phillip Dampier October 13, 2020 Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, Rural Broadband, Video 1 Comment

Gov. Andrew Cuomo discusses his rural broadband initiative in New York.

Despite repeated assurances that 98% of New Yorkers now have access to high-speed internet, rural New Yorkers from the state’s border with Massachusetts to farm country outside of Niagara Falls don’t believe it. Now New York’s Comptroller, Thomas P. DiNapoli, is auditing the half-billion dollar program to determine where the money went and where broadband service is now available.

A source told WGRZ-TV in Buffalo that an audit of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s “Broadband for All” program was initiated by the Comptroller’s office back in March 2020 after rural residents and the lawmakers that represent them began complaining the program never delivered on its commitments. WGRZ Reporter Nate Benson notes that what may have started as a routine audit may now be under additional scrutiny because of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced many New Yorkers online for work and learning from home.

The broadband program, introduced with great fanfare by the governor in 2015, promised that every New Yorker that wanted high speed internet (at least 25 Mbps in rural areas, 100 Mbps in urban communities) would have access by the end of 2018. The governor claimed the state earmarked $500 million — mostly proceeds from legal settlements with large New York City banks accused of criminal activity surrounding the Great Recession — towards the program, with dollar for dollar matching from companies awarded grants to expand internet access in specific areas.

Benson noted that publicly available data on the N.Y. Broadband Program Office website found a significant shortfall in private investment dollars, with only four out of 53 internet service providers awarded grants matching or exceeding the amounts they received from the state broadband fund. In short, they accepted generous subsidies without being equally generous with their own money.

DiNapoli

The program used a reverse auction approach to award state broadband funding. Phone, cable, and wireless providers bid to serve one or more of the 256,000 “census blocks” the state identified as lacking access to high-speed internet. Most companies chose the most densely populated census blocks next to their existing service areas, assuring higher profits while the state paid a significant amount of the construction costs. In the end, 76,000 census blocks in very rural, sparsely populated areas least likely to get broadband service attracted no bids at all. To achieve the state’s vaunted “98% served,” officials signed a contract with a satellite internet provider to service the remaining 30% of rural New Yorkers left behind, despite the fact satellite internet providers had a reputation for not meeting subscriber expectations and rarely guaranteed consistent minimum broadband speeds of 25 Mbps. Hughes Satellite provides the service, but our readers using the service warn it comes with a stingy data cap inadequate for today’s average household usage. Speeds are wildly inconsistent as well, often way below 25 Mbps.

Even with satellite internet as an option, New Yorkers continue to tell Stop the Cap! they are still without access, including satellite, even in communities just a few miles outside of major cities like Albany, the state capital. The true scope of the problem became apparent last spring as the coronavirus pandemic emerged, forcing employers to send workers home and schools switched to online learning.

Westerlo, N.Y.

The Berne Knox Westerlo School District, located in the hill towns of Albany County, quickly realized there was a wide gap between the state’s “98% covered” claim and reality.

“We had about 28-30% of our student population without internet access or with very poor internet access.” Superintendent Dr. Timothy Mundell told WRGB News. The district tried stop-gap measures like parking Wi-Fi enabled school buses around the district and handing out Wi-Fi hotspot devices, which proved to work unevenly. Mundell says the only real solution to this problem is ubiquitous fiber to the home internet access, and that is a long way off.

“It concerns me because every day we’re without, my students have the potential of falling behind their peers down in the suburbs and the urban areas,” Mundell said. “So this is a real equity issue for us and we want to make sure rural areas get served.”

Two Republican lawmakers from Western New York also introduced a bill this year to repeal a 2019 state tax on optical fiber cable projects. Senators George Borrello and Pam Helming believe the tax will discourage fiber optic buildouts, especially in higher cost rural areas.

“The reality is that broadband is no longer a luxury this is a basic infrastructure need just like water sewer electric and roads, and without it we’re not going to be able to expand.” Sen. Borrello said.

Dundee, N.Y.

But the biggest proponent of the law’s repeal, Verizon Communications, is also one of the telecommunications companies showing the least interest in expanding its fiber internet service in rural New York. Verizon is fighting the tax so it can save money on expanding its mobile 4G and 5G wireless networks, which are connected with fiber optic cables, not because it wants to expand FiOS fiber to the home service.

Meanwhile, New Yorkers without broadband remain stuck.

“It’s all a lot of empty promises with no sign of service,” Katy tells Stop the Cap! from her home near Dundee, in the Finger Lakes region of the state. “I’ve lived here since the days when the only phone line you could get was a party line shared with four other homes and I still have my rotary dial phone New York Telephone installed in 1965. These companies don’t want me to forget I am living in the past.”

Katy lives about 500 feet from the nearest address able to subscribe to Charter Spectrum and was quoted $9,000 to extend cable to her home, set far back from the main road. Verizon has never offered DSL in her neighborhood, because she is located too far away from the central office. Her property is set in a small forest, so satellite internet is not a possibility either.

“I can watch two channels over the air from Syracuse with my outdoor antenna, but that is all. I guess I prefer reading anyway,” she tells us.

WGRZ in Buffalo reports the New York State’s Comptroller’s Office is auditing Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Broadband for All program, which guaranteed 98% of New Yorkers high-speed internet. (3:06)

Tropical Storm Isaias Brings Frontier’s Network to Its Knees in the Hudson Valley of N.Y.

Phillip Dampier August 5, 2020 Consumer News, Frontier, Public Policy & Gov't 2 Comments

A tropical storm that swept up the east coast of the United States took out Frontier Communications’ landline network, its backups, and 911 service for residents of Orange and Sullivan Counties, N.Y. for 13 hours last night, requiring a response from local fire officials after Frontier’s backup equipment also failed.

Tropical Storm Isaias brought significant, but not unprecedented wind and rain to the Hudson Valley of New York on Tuesday. While most of the damage and service outages were further east in the New York City, Long Island, and New Jersey areas, a general power failure in the City of Middletown started a chain of events that left two counties without Frontier phone, internet, or 911 service from 7:30 pm Tuesday night until 8:30 am Wednesday morning.

When the power failure began, Frontier’s switching network went down. Calls to 911 failed to connect, and customers reported no dial tone or internet access. Frontier’s backup battery system, designed to operate in the event of a power failure, itself failed and literally melted under the pressure, spilling enough toxic chemicals to force Frontier to request assistance from the Middletown Fire Department and Orange County Hazmat, which responded to contain the toxic material. Frontier had to drive in a replacement backup solution from another service area to get its network up and running again.

“There were several equipment failures there related to the power outage,” Brendan Casey, commissioner of emergency services told the Times Herald-Record. “Their backup system failed, their switch failed, battery issues that resulted in a minor hazmat issue. It was like everything just failed up there.”

After dealing with the failed battery equipment, county officials, firefighters, and Frontier technicians were left in the building’s parking lot cooling their heels until 2 am trying to figure out how to restore 911 service to the area, without success. Casey reported Frontier successfully restored 911 service later Wednesday morning.

Orange County, N.Y.

As Frontier technicians gradually restore service to individual customers affected by the storm, county officials are calling on the New York Public Service Commission to conduct a review of the incident and investigate if Frontier was adequately prepared to deal with the storm. Frontier will not be alone. Gov. Andrew Cuomo blasted utility companies across downstate New York, accusing them of being ill-prepared to handle the storm. Some customers are expected to be without power, phone, and internet service for up to a week.

“We know that severe weather is our new reality and the reckless disregard by utility companies to adequately plan for tropical storm Isaias left tens of thousands of customers in the dark, literally and figuratively. Their performance was unacceptable,” Cuomo said. Cuomo ordered the PSC to “launch an investigation into Verizon, PSEG Long Island, Con Edison, Central Hudson Gas & Electric, Orange and Rockland Utilities, and New York State Electric & Gas to understand how such a failure could have taken place. New Yorkers deserve answers and they deserve better. The large volume of outages and the utilities’ failure to communicate with customers in real-time proves they did not live up to their legal obligations. The fact that many customers still do not know when their power will be restored makes it even more unacceptable. The worst of this situation was avoidable, and it cannot happen again.”

Frontier was not the only telecommunications company embarrassed by the tropical storm. Along the Westchester-Putnam border, power outages knocked out cell service. At one location, a backup generator designed to provide backup power to the cell tower immediately caught fire, causing damage to the building at the base of the tower.

“While there was a fire at the cell tower in question, I have no information if all carriers on that tower are down or just one. What we do know is that cell services across the county are negatively impacted for all carriers. We had reports that cell towers in this region (Putnam, Orange, Rockland, Passaic) were damaged during the storms,” said Thomas Lannon, director of Putnam County’s technology office.

Frontier filed for bankruptcy protection in April 2020.

Rural New York Legislators Slam Charter Spectrum’s Request to Limit Rural Broadband Funding

With an estimated 90,000 New Yorkers stranded without broadband service, a proposal from Charter Communications to block funding for future projects is coming under fire from a bipartisan group of rural legislators.

Charter, which does business as Spectrum, filed a request with the Federal Communications Commission to exclude certain census blocks for funding under the agency’s new $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF). The cable company claims it intends to privately fund expansion of internet service in those areas, and does not welcome government-subsidized competition.

“Good cause plainly exists to grant the waiver to avoid overbuilding areas in which Charter has already begun the process of deploying service and is investing private capital well in excess of $600 million,” company officials wrote. “This will ensure scarce universal service support is deployed to close the gap/digital divide in actually unserved areas. The commission has previously granted rule waivers where, as here, the purposes of the rule would be disserved by its strict application, and where waiver would affirmatively serve the public interest.”

Many of the rural homes Charter claims it intends to serve have been waiting for internet access for well over a decade. Many were hopeful that wait would end shortly after the cable company agreed to expand service to an additional 145,000 rural New York households as part of an agreement with state regulators approving its merger with Time Warner Cable. But a March 2020 audit conducted by the Comptroller of New York found Charter was not meeting its commitments:

“[…] It has been over three years since the merger was approved. Network expansion should have already been provided to approximately 126,875 unserved or underserved premises based on the 2016 Commission Order approving the merger. As of July 2019, Charter had only extended its network to 64,827 premises. Based on the original Order, 62,048 additional customers should have received access to these services. Charter now has until September 2021 to complete the network expansion of 145,000 premises previously scheduled to be completed by May 2020.”

Barrett

Some New York legislators believe Charter is out of line asking the FCC to exclude funding for other rural broadband projects while taking its time meeting its own commitments.

“Charter’s waiver request is simply self-serving and will in no way benefit the residents of upstate New York who, even in the year 2020, are struggling to access adequate broadband by any provider,” Rep. Didi Barrett (D-Hudson) wrote in a letter to the FCC. “Charter’s petition is a blatant attempt to reduce competition and leave consumers with no choice but to wait around for Charter to finish a job that should already be complete. In Upstate New York, tens of thousands of residents and businesses are still waiting for internet service because of Charter’s years-long effort to renege on their obligations to New York State and the people who live in rural communities. We must continue to call Charter out until every household and business is served as planned under their agreement with New York State.”

Republican congresswoman Elise Stefanik from Schuylerville agrees with many of Barrett’s views, blasting Spectrum for seriously delaying its rural rollout commitments. Stefanik worked with FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to change the qualification requirements for the RDOF program, which originally would have excluded New York from receiving funding. If the FCC adopts Charter’s request, it would block much of her district from receiving broadband funds, either because Charter previously indicated it would (eventually) offer service or because the state previously supplied broadband subsidies, which would also seem to disqualify RDOF grants.

“I have heard directly from constituents and local elected officials that this decision would have a severe impact on their ability to gain rural broadband access, which is essential, especially during this time of crisis,” Stefanik said. “Charter’s request would exclude parts of the North Country from this critical federal funding, and I will work with my upstate colleagues and the FCC to keep it available.”

WNYT in Albany reports rural New York communities like Stillwater have waited years for Charter Spectrum to provide broadband service. The addresses Spectrum grudgingly will serve in the area are routinely quoted installation fees starting at $8,000. (2:16)

Audit Critical of NY Public Service Commission’s Performance Holding Telecom Companies Accountable

New York’s Public Service Commission (PSC) has come under fire in an audit by State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli for “falling short” monitoring Charter Spectrum, Altice-Optimum, and Windstream, some of the state’s largest telecom companies.

“When New Yorkers flip on the lights, log in or make a call, they should be confident that someone is making sure these service providers are living up to their promises,” DiNapoli said. “My auditors found the state Public Service Commission was not doing enough to make sure utilities are holding up their end of the deal. PSC lacked critical equipment to do its job and rarely inflicted financial consequences when companies did not deliver. This has to change.”

The audit found that the regulator was often arbitrary in its orders, frequently failed to verify compliance of conditions imposed on providers, and quietly dropped compliance penalties including fines and merger revocation orders when the Commission faced pushback from companies.

Most of the audit’s criticism was directed at how the PSC managed the 2016 merger-acquisition of Time Warner Cable by Charter Communications (better known as Spectrum). The merger was approved after Charter agreed to ten deal conditions. But DiNapoli’s auditors found Charter failed to either complete four of these conditions or the PSC failed to verify they were completed. New York also lost the opportunity to collect $5 million from Charter’s failure to meet its rural broadband commitments. Instead, the PSC settled for $1 million and agreed to extend the deadline for Charter to expand its rural footprint, rewarding the company for its failure.

DiNapoli’s audit criticized the PSC’s verification procedures to determine if Charter adequately upgraded its cable systems to all-digital technology and raised broadband speeds by the end of 2018. Instead, the Comptroller found the Commission often took Charter’s word for it because it lacked the equipment and resources to independently verify Charter’s performance.

DiNapoli

The auditors also complained Charter offered scant evidence of compliance with two other terms of its merger approval agreement — wiring 50 community locations for free broadband service and investing at least $50 million to improve service quality for New York customers. The audit found no evidence Charter had wired any community locations for free broadband service, and the Commission failed to verify Charter made suitable investments in service improvements by its May 2018 deadline.

The Commission disagreed with several of the audit’s findings. The Commission claimed it held comprehensive proceedings to review the Charter acquisition of Time Warner Cable, imposed deadlines on the conditions, and eventually threatened to revoke Charter’s cable franchises for the company’s failure to comply with its orders.

“After pursuing escalating enforcement actions, the Commission in mid-2018, revoked the merger authorization,” the Commission responded. “This final enforcement action which revoked the company’s authorization to operate in in the state set an important precedent in New York — and across the nation — as this type of enforcement remedy had not been previously utilized in the regulatory community. Ultimately, the enforcement action was settled in a manner that resulted in a company commitment to expand its network entirely Upstate at an estimated cost of more than $600 million, more than twice the original estimate at the time of the merger approval, and $12 million paid by the company in lieu of penalty for additional network expansion work.”

The settlement effectively rendered the PSC’s fines against Charter for not meeting its rural broadband expansion deadlines moot. The Commission argued New Yorkers benefited more from Charter’s additional commitments to expand its cable footprint even further than originally envisioned.

“The Department utilizes penalty actions in a strategic manner to address violations,” the Commission explained. “It can be more beneficial to the state’s customers to obtain at shareholder expense expanded infrastructure, reductions in rates, or improvements in customer service rather than imposing financial penalties, and when that is the case, the [Commission] does indeed prefer the best response for customers.”

But DiNapoli’s audit noted that utilities are well aware of how to avoid paying fines by delaying their collection indefinitely through legal remedies. The audit slammed the PSC for walking away from collecting the fines owed, noting it “creates a lack of accountability and inspires little motivation to stay in compliance.” It also complained that regardless of what additional remedies the PSC extracted from Charter in a final settlement, tens of thousands of rural New Yorkers remain without the internet service they were promised, and will probably have to wait until as late as 2021 to get it.

“As it has been over three years since the merger was approved, network expansion should have already been provided to approximately 126,875 unserved or underserved premises based on the 2016 Commission Order approving the merger,” the audit found. “As of July 2019, Charter had only extended its network to 64,827 premises. Based on the original Order, 62,048 additional customers should have received access to these services. Charter now has until September 2021 to complete the network expansion of 145,000 premises previously scheduled to be completed by May 2020.”

The PSC also claimed it was distracted by legal actions it was taking surrounding the revocation of the merger’s approval, but after the case was settled, the Commission did undertake random speed testing to verify Charter had raised the broadband speeds as agreed in the merger agreement.

“Staff is confident that, in all areas field tested to date, the Charter network is capable of providing broadband service with download speed in excess of 300 Mbps, and the network itself has the potential to provide download speed beyond 1 Gbps. In fact, the company is marketing 1 Gbps service in much of the New York State service footprint,” the Commission argued.

The Commission confirmed Charter has not yet showed it is providing free broadband service to 50 community service locations, such as libraries, schools, or town halls. Charter initially refused to provide information about the service locations it selected for complimentary service “for privacy reasons.” But since the Commission placed no deadline on complying with this condition, it cannot penalize Charter for not meeting it on a timely basis.

“After multiple discussions, Charter finally provided a list of the 50 Anchor Institutions on July 17, 2019 and included bill copies and/or account screen shots demonstrating no charge for broadband service to these institutions,” the Commission responded. “Staff has been able to independently confirm that 33 of the 50 institutions are receiving broadband service from Charter at no charge. For the remaining institutions, Charter was asked to provide additional evidence that these institutions have been provided this complimentary service. If Charter cannot definitively demonstrate that the 17 institutions are receiving free service, Charter must select a replacement institution in order to fulfill this condition. Once Charter has provided this information, Staff will then begin its independent confirmation.”

The Commission also claims Charter met its obligation to invest at least $50 million in service improvements.

“In its May 2018 Annual Update, Charter provided a list of expenditures totaling over $90 million to comply with this condition. From that list, Staff identified completed projects totaling approximately $70 million that were dedicated to New York State. To verify these expenditures, Staff requested and analyzed actual invoices to determine whether the expenditures were made,” the Commission claimed.

The audit found some of these same issues also applied to two other telecom merger and acquisition deals impacting New York consumers. Altice’s acquisition of Cablevision’s Optimum cable service received approval with five deal conditions. The audit found the Commission failed to adequately verify compliance with three of those conditions, relating to internet speed and performance, free broadband service to 40 community institutions, and improvements to customer service requiring Altice to fix customer issues within two days. The Commission responded that its belated verification found no non-compliance, but the audit urged the Commission not to delay its verification procedures going forward.

FairPoint is now known under the name of its owner, Consolidated Communications.

FairPoint Communications offers telephone and internet service to 13,700 customers in a few rural communities in New York. Its new owner, Consolidated Communications, was required to implement eight deal conditions, and the audit found it failed to meet two of them. FairPoint was required to invest at least $4 million in network reliability and service quality improvements, including the expansion of internet access service to at least 300 additional locations. FairPoint submitted an expansion plan, and updated reports, including the number of locations completed which is claimed to be over 300.

But the audit found the Commission failed to verify these claims, citing inadequate staffing to visit FairPoint’s rural service areas to perform field inspections. The audit found the Commission didn’t bother to verify service improvements in any location. Another deal condition was designed to protect FairPoint’s “customer-facing” employees from layoffs. Soon after the merger, “FairPoint reclassified 9 of the 39 customer-facing positions and ultimately eliminated them, claiming they ‘duplicated work being performed in other work centers.'” The audit’s initial findings triggered an investigation by the PSC to determine if FairPoint violated the terms of its merger order. Ultimately, the Commission found it did not, but the audit warned the PSC was completely unaware of the employment changes until the audit discovered them.

The Comptroller’s Office made four recommendations the PSC should either implement or improve:

  1. Actively monitor all conditions listed in Orders to ensure all utilities are in compliance.
  2. Develop and issue Orders that include well-defined, measurable, and enforceable conditions. The Orders should also include the consequences for non-compliance, as appropriate.
  3. Verify the accuracy of data submitted by utilities that is used by the Commission or Department to evaluate or make decisions concerning the utilities. This includes data submitted for performance metrics, safety standards, and Utility Service Quality Reports.
  4. Develop policies and procedures that provide employees with standard monitoring steps to perform when overseeing compliance with merger or acquisition Orders, as well as steps addressing the auditing of data submitted in support of Utility Service Quality Reports.

Californians That Subscribed to Time Warner Cable Maxx Internet Service Getting A Refund Up to $180

Only former TWC Maxx customers in Southern California qualify for bill credits.

If you were a Time Warner Cable internet customer in California, Charter Communications may refund you up to $180 if the company did not deliver the internet speed it advertised.

Charter has settled the lawsuit filed by the district attorneys of Los Angeles, San Diego, and Riverside that alleged Time Warner Cable knowingly sold customers internet speed it could not deliver. Charter will pay $16.9 million, most of which will be returned to affected customers in the form of a bill credit.

“This historic settlement serves as a warning to all companies in California that deceptive practices are bad for consumers and bad for business,” said Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey. “We as prosecutors demand that all service providers — large and small — live up to their claims and fairly market their products.”

There are three tiers of relief for impacted customers:

  • Customers subscribed to Time Warner Cable Maxx internet service in the past will be offered one of two free services. Cable TV and internet customers will receive three free months of Showtime (current subscribers excluded). Internet-only customers will receive one free month of Spectrum Choice, a slimmed down streaming TV package (current subscribers excluded). Both services will automatically be disconnected at the end of the free service period, protecting customers from future billing unless they subsequently subscribe.
  • Internet customers subscribed to a premium Time Warner Cable Maxx speed tier will receive a one time credit of $90.
  • If the customer was also supplied a legacy cable modem unable to support the subscribed premium internet speed tier, the subscriber will receive a one time credit of $180.

Charter Communications will automatically notify impacted subscribers and apply service credits within the next 60 days, but you will have to call Spectrum to activate the Showtime or Spectrum Choice offers.

The settlement also sets aside a payment to the plaintiffs of $1.9 million, to be split evenly between the three cities.

The lawsuit and corresponding settlement are similar to the 2017 internet speed case filed against Time Warner Cable by the New York Attorney General’s office. New York and Los Angeles were among the first cities upgraded to Time Warner Cable Maxx service, which raised internet speed for customers up to 300 Mbps. In New York, the lawsuit alleged Time Warner Cable knowingly advertised higher internet speed its network could not always support because of congestion and antiquated cable equipment and modems.

Search This Site:

Contributions:

Recent Comments:

Your Account:

Stop the Cap!