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AT&T To Strand Some DSL Customers With Fixed Wireless; Rural Areas Unlikely to See Fiber Upgrades for Years

AT&T CEO John Stankey is still looking to wring costs out of the business, and the company’s rural landline customers are next to take the cut.

At this morning’s J.P. Morgan Technology, Media and Communications Conference for investors, Stankey said AT&T is considering mothballing landline facilities in rural parts of its service area and offer wireless service instead.

“We have a voice replacement service now, so that allows us to look at our options around the footprint […] and begin the work of starting to shed some of that footprint and reduce the number of square miles that have that fixed infrastructure in place [where] you’re never going to have an incentive to ultimately upgrade to fiber,” Stankey told investors, quickly correcting himself over use the word ‘never’ in favor of “the next several years.”

“The best way to serve them is with robust wireless infrastructure and stepped up investment in that case and we will do that,” he added.

AT&T has been testing fixed wireless replacement phone service in parts of the southern United States for several years, to very mixed reviews. In these trials, AT&T rural landline customers receive a wireless modem that connects with existing home phone lines. Internet service is provided over AT&T’s 4G LTE network.

Stankey

AT&T ceased marketing its DSL service last October, although some Stop the Cap! readers claim they still occasionally receive targeted invitations for DSL service in some areas. The company has allowed its current rural DSL customers to keep their service, but many don’t. The company lost almost 39,000 DSL customers in the first three months of this year, with so signs of stopping. Across AT&T’s landline footprint, which extends from the Great Lakes region to the South as far west as Texas and east to Florida, there are only about a half-million AT&T DSL customers remaining. Most of those customers keep the service because they have no other options.

If AT&T wins FCC approval to decommission its wired network in rural areas where it has no plans to provide fiber to the home service, customers will lose traditional landline phone service and DSL.

Stankey said any serious effort in that direction is unlikely to begin until 2023, largely because AT&T will not make the investments to bolster its rural wireless infrastructure until then.

The CEO also foreshadowed no immediate plans to follow Verizon into the 5G wireless home internet business. In fact, Stankey admitted AT&T’s network is likely inadequate to support the data demands of home broadband customers.

That leaves rural customers in AT&T’s service areas with no hope of high-speed upgrades unless a community broadband provider launches or a cable operator agrees to wire rural areas. There are still questions about the capacity next generation satellite internet service will have in rural areas and whether service will be adequate to meet today’s data demands.

AT&T’s customers in urban and major suburban areas have a brighter future, however. Stankey told investors AT&T will expand its fiber to the home service to another three million households in 2021 and at least four million more in 2022. Overall, AT&T plans to provide fiber service to around 30 million homes and businesses in its wireline service area. If adequate returns on investment can be realized, along with reduced upgrade costs to reach each home, Stankey suggested another 10 million customer locations could one day see fiber service as well.

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.

Congressman Clyburn Plans to Reintroduce $100 Billion Rural Broadband Expansion Fund Bill

Clyburn

Congressman James Clyburn (D-S.C.) plans to reintroduce a bill offering $100 billion dollars to provide rural high speed internet service in unserved and underserved parts of the United States and to provide subsidies as needed to ensure that internet service is affordable.

The return of the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act will be welcomed by the House Rural Broadband Task Force and other groups appealing for rural broadband funding to resolve the pervasive lack of high-speed internet access in unprofitable service areas.

Clyburn notes that in his home state, one in ten rural South Carolinians lack access to suitable broadband service, despite years of more modest funding programs. His bill went nowhere in the 2020 session as part of the Democrats’ $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill, dubbed the Moving Forward Act. With the election of President Joe Biden and the razor thin Democratic majority control of the U.S. Senate, some form of expanded infrastructure spending bill is likely to emerge in Congress this spring, which will include rural broadband funding.

Like last year’s bill, the 2021 version will likely include:

  • $80 billion in direct subsidy funds to build out high-speed rural internet access to homes and businesses.
  • $5 billion set aside for low interest broadband deployment loans
  • $5 billion for distance learning programs
  • Funding for Wi-Fi service in school buses
  • The creation of the Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to monitor, promote, and assist rural communities and those economically disadvantaged in getting affordable high-speed internet service established in their community.
  • Funding for digital equity programs to train those not yet connected in how to use the internet.
  • A requirement that the FCC track and analyze national broadband pricing and ensure price transparency.

Clyburn’s 2020 bill also knocked down state barriers on building and expanding municipal broadband networks.

According to the FCC, 21 million Americans and 10 million school-age children do not have internet access. Low-income households are the least connected in America, and, not surprisingly, rural communities are the least served. What might surprise us all is that the data reveals a 75% correlation between median household income and broadband access In 2019, US Representative Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) created the Rural Broadband Task Force to close the digital divide, with the goal of all Americans having high-speed internet access by 2025. The digital era is to the 21st century what electricity was to the 20th, argues Clyburn. Bridging the digital divide is something we must address if we are going to reset the US economy for all. Featuring Jim Clyburn in conversation with Naomi Nix. (9:21)

Georgia’s Rural Internet Expansion Runs Into Telecom Industry Lobbyist Buzzsaw

Gooch

A bill in the Georgia legislature that would divert a portion of a state fund that currently subsidizes rural landlines towards rural internet expansion ran into trouble last week after lobbyists representing AT&T and several small rural telephone companies announced opposition to the measure.

Sen. Steve Gooch (R-Dahlonega), the chief sponsor of Senate Bill 65, is seeking to boost subsidy funds to expand high-speed internet in unserved areas of the state. His bill would designate up to $35 million annually towards construction of new broadband connections. Without the measure, state residents would instead see a reduction in Universal Access Fund (UAF) fees on their monthly phone bills beginning later this year. But if the bill passes, modest UAF charges would continue at 2020 levels for an additional nine years, expiring June 30, 2030.

Georgia’s Senate Regulated Industries Committee reviewed the current state of rural broadband funding in a meeting held last Thursday in Atlanta. Gooch noted Gov. Brian Kemp already set aside $20 million for rural broadband in the 2021 state budget, but he felt more needed to be done.

“Twenty million dollars […] is a good start,” Gooch said. “But we need to put more money into this year after year until the problem is fixed.”

Gooch’s measure has attracted 20 co-sponsors in the legislature so far:

Georgia’s cable and phone companies appear much less supportive of Gooch’s effort. Leading the charge against Gooch’s bill was AT&T Georgia. Kevin Curtin, AT&T’s assistant vice president of legislative affairs in Georgia, said diverting money from the UAF Fund to rural broadband expansion was unnecessary.

“There are many federal government programs doling out substantial amounts of funding to spread broadband,” Curtin said. AT&T has regularly pointed to the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) as the best source of rural broadband funding. The 10-year, $9.2 billion program has already designated $326.5 million for rural broadband expansion in Georgia. But it will take years for RDOF to dispense its available funds.

The state’s largest lobbying group for the cable industry does not care for the bill either.

“We want to continue to try to bring broadband to every Georgia citizen,” said Hunter Hopkins, interim executive director of the Georgia Cable Association. “Let’s just put more money in the general fund versus tinkering with the UAF.”

Rural Georgians are usually left waiting indefinitely for private industry investment to expand rural internet access. Instead, rural utility cooperatives are now stepping up to solve the rural broadband problem in parts of the state, often without waiting for government subsides.

Last week, Conexon, a fiber overbuilder and internet service provider teamed up with two member-owned utility co-ops with a plan to bring high-speed gigabit internet to 80,000 homes and businesses in 18 rural Middle Georgia counties.

The partnership will combine utility co-op investments of $135 million from Central Georgia EMC and $53 million from Southern Rivers Energy with $21.5 million from Conexon to build a new, 6,890 mile fiber to the home broadband network over the next four years that will serve residents in Bibb, Butts, Clayton, Coweta, Crawford, Fayette, Henry, Jasper, Jones, Lamar, Meriwether, Monroe, Morgan, Newton, Pike, Putnam, Spalding, and Upson counties. Monroe County has also offered $1.3 million to incentivize the partnership to break ground in that county as quickly as possible.

Customers in rural Georgia have given up waiting for companies like AT&T and Windstream to expand high-speed internet service.

“The majority of members in our service area have no access to the quality, high-speed internet service they so desperately need. That changes today,” said Southern Rivers Energy President and CEO Michael McMillan. “We know electric cooperatives play a critical role in connecting underserved areas and we are proud to partner with Conexon to help bridge the digital divide for our communities. This partnership will enable thousands of rural Georgians to finally access the same online connections as those in more urban areas, while allowing us to maintain focus on our core mission – providing reliable, affordable electricity to our members.”

Charter Spending $5 Billion to Expand Its Rural Footprint; Carolinas, Wisconsin, Ohio, E. Texas Will See Biggest Expansions

Charter Communications will spend almost $5 billion a part of a multiyear, 24-state broadband buildout to deliver high-speed internet service to more than a million unserved homes and businesses.

Approximately $1.2 billion of the cost to serve these low-density, mostly rural communities will come from the federal government’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), which is subsidizing some of the expenses associated with providing service in areas deemed unprofitable to serve.

Preparation and planning for Charter’s RDOF Phase 1 broadband buildout has already begun, with an additional 2,000 employees and contractors expected to focus on Charter’s rural expansion efforts in Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin.

The biggest expansions in coverage area appear to be in North and South Carolina, North and Eastern Wisconsin, East Texas, Ohio, and Eastern Tennessee.

Charter’s RDOF Expansion Project Map

The network Charter will build in these rural areas will offer Spectrum 1 Gbps high–speed broadband access to all newly served customer locations with starting speeds of 200 Mbps, with no data caps, modem fees, or contracts. Customers will also be able to subscribe to Spectrum TV, home phone and wireless mobile service.

Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge said one of the most important factors governing when service will become available is how well the cable company will be received by the owners of utility poles in the various regions.

“The more cooperation we have with the pole owners and utility companies, the faster we can connect these communities with high-speed internet services,” Rutledge said in a company news release. “We look forward to working with local municipalities, electric cooperatives, and investor-owned utilities to ensure that permits are obtained in a timely, fair and cost-effective fashion.”

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