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AT&T, Comcast, Lies Hurt Homeowners

As of this January, the FCC defines broadband as 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream, but in some rural areas in the United States, people are still struggling to access DSL speeds of 768 kbps. In a few extreme cases, individuals who rely on the Internet for their jobs and livelihoods have been denied access completely. 

The sad state of affairs for many Americans who subscribe to the major Internet service providers like AT&T and CenturyLink was recently chronicled in an article on Ars Technica that examined AT&T’s stunning combination of poor customer service, insufficient infrastructure, and empty promises to subscribers. It tells the unfortunately common story of the little guy being systematically overlooked by a massive corporation focused solely on short-term profit maximization. 

Mark Lewis of Winterville, Georgia, and Matthew Abernathy of Smyrna, Tennessee, are two examples of AT&T subscribers who, upon moving into new homes, found that not only were they unable to access basic DSL speeds, but that they had no Internet access whatsoever. Alternatively citing a lack of DSL ports and insufficient bandwidth, AT&T failed to provide Lewis Internet access over the course of nearly two years. As for Abernathy, the corporation strung him along for 9 months without providing DSL, forcing him and his wife to rely on a much more expensive Verizon cellular network to go online. 

The struggle that Lewis and Abernathy, as well as others cited in the article, face speaks to the larger problem of individuals relying on large, absentee corporations for their Internet access. Though AT&T has claimed that it intends to expand broadband access to rural and underserved communities, it hasn’t lived up to that promise. Ars Technica estimates that even if AT&T’s merger with DirecTV is approved, which the company says would facilitate the construction of new copper lines in underserved regions, 17 million subscribers would be stuck with slow DSL connections or no Internet at all. 

This isn’t the first time that a company like AT&T has been called out for promising broadband service and failing to deliver it. Ars Technica reported on a similar story in April of this year. And tales of Comcast’s incompetence are also easy to find. 

For residents of rural communities who rely on the Internet for work, the paucity of broadband options can even be a legitimate reason for individuals to sell their houses and move, which — spoiler alert — is what Lewis eventually did:  

With no wireline Internet available, Lewis and his wife have relied on Verizon Wireless service. This has limited Lewis’ ability to work at home. Luckily, they won’t be there much longer — Lewis, his wife, and their kids are putting their house on the market and moving to Massachusetts, where he’s secured a new job at a technology company. 

The new job is "the main reason we're moving," he said. "But in the back of my mind this whole time, I'm saying we can't continue to live here."

And while things turned out OK for Lewis and his family, limited broadband access in rural communities remains an obstacle for many. Individuals and communities should continue to demand accountability from their ISPs, who have for too long reneged on their not-so-ambitious broadband promises.

New Handbook on Next Generation Connectivity From Gig.U

Gig.U, a collaboration of more than 30 universities across the country has just released The Next Generation Network Connectivity Handbook: A guide for Community Leaders Seeking Affordable, Abundant Bandwidth. The handbook, published in association with the Benton Foundation, is available as a PDF online.

One of the authors, Blair Levin, has been a guest several times on the Community Broadband Bits podcast, last visiting in January 2015 to weigh in on public vs. private ownership of broadband networks. As many of our readers know, Levin was one of the primary authors of the FCC National Broadband Plan in 2010.

In a PCWorld article about the report, Levin commented on funding and on local control:

“Nearly every community we worked with saw public money as a last resort, when no other options for next generation networks were available,” he said. “But our group view was that the decision should be made by the local community.”

The report underscores the importance of local decision making authority, whether each community chooses to go with a municipally owned model, a public private partnership, or some other strategy.

Levin and his co-author Denise Linn also address issues of preparation, assessment, early steps, things to remember when developing partnerships, funding issues, and challenges to expect. They assemble an impressive list of resources that any group, agency, or local government can use to move ahead.

Add this to your library.

Co-Mo Cooperative Facing Off With Subsidized CenturyLink in Missouri

Parts of rural central Missouri have some of the fastest Internet service available thanks to fiber service from Co-Mo Electric Cooperative and United Electric Cooperative. The two have worked together to bring gigabit FTTH to cooperative members in central Missouri. Now that they have proven that people and businesses want high capacity connectivity, CenturyLink is about to enter the scene. The company plans to use millions of dollars in Connect America Funds (CAF) to build in areas already served by the cooperatives.

After years of planning and hard work, Co-Mo and United are not taking the threat lightly. They have filed challenges with the Wireline Competition Bureau but CenturyLink's Inside-the-Beltway power has thus far served them well. The Wireline Competition Bureau denied a challenge by Co-Mo and United but the decision appears to contradict established policy. Co-Mo and United recently appealed to the FCC asking them to review the Bureau's Order allowing CenturyLink to use over $10 million in CAF. [Read the Application for Review here.]

CenturyLink argues that Co-Mo and United are not providing voice services because they are working with a third party, Big River Telephone Company, to bring VoIP to members. If this were true, it could disqualify them as providers and lend credence to the argument that there are census blocks in the area that are not served. Because Co-Mo and United install, take phone orders for subscribers, and service phone switches, they should qualify as a provider of land line voice services. 

CenturyLink also asserted that census block information showed areas unserved even though those areas now have access to fiber connectivity from Co-Mo and United. General Manager of Co-Mo Connect Randy Klindt told us that the timing of their build prevented Co-Mo from providing an active customer in each block, but that service is available to people who live there. Even though it is not a requirement, Co-Mo and United now have detailed information that prove people in those census blocks can, and do, take FTTH service.

Co-Mo and United waged successful challenges for similar CAF awards to AT&T and Windstream. CenturyLink appears determined to use tax subsidies to build what will likely be only a fraction of the speed and reliability of Co-Mo or United Cooperative networks infrastructure. Unfortunately, CenturyLink's usual modus operandi - offering cheap intro rates to lure customers away from local providers like Co-Mo and United - could harm new investment in high speed networks.

Klindt also summed up the larger policy concern in an email:

The commission’s directive was to ensure that CAF support should not be used to build broadband in areas already served by an unsubsidized competitor...This money should be used in legitimate unserved areas, not areas with gigabit residential service available.

Learn more about Co-Mo Cooperative and their fiber network, Co-Mo Connect, in episode #140 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast where Chris interviewed Randy Klindt.

In NC, Bald Head Island Releases RFP for Gigabit Network

The Village of Bald Head Island, North Carolina, recently released a Request for Proposals (RFP), in its search for an FTTP network. The Village, home to about 160 year-round residents, is accessible only by ferry. Transportation on the island is limited to feet, bikes, and electric golf carts. While they may choose slower transportation methods, the people of the island want speed when it comes to Internet access.

Members of the community began working on the idea in the summer of 2013 as part of an initiative that involved several challenges facing this quiet community. They determined that the economic health of local businesses and quality of life depended on improving access, traditionally provided by AT&T and Tele-Media.

Real estate professionals on the island noted that lack of broadband interfered with the housing market. According to the RFP:

Adequate broadband service is at such a premium that current real estate transactions require conveyance of current Internet service. Otherwise, new installations can take a very long time. Inadequate broadband is a known and aggravating hindrance to daily operations of local businesses. There is very strong demand from prospective real estate buyers for high-speed broadband. Current services are of inadequate quality, and worsen in bad weather and during peak usage.

After reaching out to incumbents and potential new providers, Bald Head Island's Village Council chose to open up the possibilities and issue an RFP.

While the number of year round residents is small, part-time housing, vacation rentals, and local businesses catering to tourists are plentiful. As a result, a fiber network could reach approximately 2,500 premises. The population of the island varies based on holidays, with the number of people as high as 7,000. Community leaders expect it to increase significantly when fiber comes to the island.

We reached out to Calvin Peck, Village Manager:

"We are looking for a partner. We think fiber to the home is the way to do it. At this point there is no broadband on the island that fits the FCC's definition."

The community's main industries are real estate and tourism. While we often think of "getting away from it all" as a vacation gold standard, a number of visitors have told Peck they will vacation elsewhere until the island can get its connectivity up to speed. In addition to professionals who need to remain in touch electronically, children and grandchildren still want to stream Netflix or play games online while on vacation.

We saw similar problems in Cook County, Minnesota, where the community is engaged in a BTOP funded fiber deployment. The tourist industry in the woods also needed access to high-speed Internet to remain viable.

Even though the FCC recently struck down North Carolina laws that prevent municipalities from investing in broadband networks (or engaging in certain types of partnerships), leaders in Bald Head Island choose to move forward carefully. They know that the state challenge to the FCC's Order could restore the state restrictions based on judicial interpretation. The original bill was pushed through by then Speaker of the House Thom Tillis (now in the U.S. Senate), who is hostile to municipal networks.

Peck and village officials in Bald Head Island expect Tillis to strongly defend his bill at the federal level. They also don't know if the state general assembly will simply pass another law that could create another barrier. As a result, says Peck, they are approaching the project from a "worst case scenario" perspective. 

They hope that by the time they are operating, there will be no question, allowing them to move forward without the onerous state law requirements that stifle broadband development.

It is unfortunate that industry dollars so control North Carolina leadership that a place like Bald Head Island, with less than 200 full time residents, must develop a contingency plan to protect itself from its own state government. If the Village of Bald Head Island is willing to take on the task themselves for its own future and its right to do so has been recognized at the federal level, state decision makers should step aside and let the community proceed.

Responses to the RFP are due by June 20, 2015. View a PDF of the entire document at the Village website.

CNBC Runs Op/Ed From iTOK Supporting Local Authority, Munis

Editorials and opinion pieces in favor of local telecommunications authority have been popping up more frequently in recent months. The benefits of increased competition due to the presence of municipal networks has become hard to ignore. Recently, we noticed a commentary published on CNBC from Seth Bailey, chief strategist at iTOK. Bailey supports the February FCC decision that peeled back restrictions in Tennessee and North Carolina. 

Bailey describes the role of munis:

In a fight against this Internet injustice, more than 450 communities have created publicly-owned high-speed fiber-optic networks. Known as municipal broadband, these providers offer Internet services to their areas which are roughly 50 to 100 times faster than the offered cable or DSL connections. In short, municipal broadband allows those in rural areas to have high-speed access similar to that offered to residents of urban areas. Which means the quality of their technological lives do not suffer due to their addresses.

iTOK, a company that focuses on technology support, consumer service, and small business tech assistance, wants to see more restrictions struck down:

To that end, we call on the FCC and state legislators to challenge these laws on a more frequent basis and accelerate the competition among Internet providers. The reality is that if the U.S. wants to stay on the cutting edge of technology and continue to lead global markets in the technological revolution, we cannot allow large corporate ISPs to put restrictions on the type and quality of Internet connection speeds. The government should enact legislation immediately to require ISPs to provide the highest possible speeds to the largest group of people and let whoever can provide the best service win. If that's a large ISP or a municipal ISP it shouldn't matter. Fast, stable and affordable internet is something that everyone should have access to regardless of where they live.

Small ISPs and Paperwork - Community Broadband Bits Episode 151

Back in March, I spoke at the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities Telecom conference, which is always an event with interesting people. While there, I met Doug Hammer and Krista Allen of Harlan Utilities. With just over 5,000 people, Harlan is small but they actually have better Internet and cable choices than most of us, in large part due to the municipal utility.

Doug is the Director of Marketing and Krista the Director of Finance & Customer Service. We spoke again for this week's show about the challenge small ISPs have in just completing the paperwork required of ISPs by the federal government. Though small utilities like Harlan have only a few staff people, they are subject to many of the same forms as much larger companies.

We talk about the paperwork, but also some of the benefits that Harlan's municipal utility brings to the community.

Read the transcript from this episode here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 22 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Persson for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Blues walk."

North Carolina Files Petition Opposing FCC Ruling to End Anti-Muni Laws

It took a while, but the State of North Carolina finally decided to take its turn at the throat of the FCC. Attorneys filed a Petition for Review in the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals similar to the one filed by the State of Tennessee in March. The Petition is available for download below.

Our official comment:

"Attorney General Cooper must not realize the irony of using state taxpayer dollars to ensure less money is invested in rural broadband, but we certainly do," says Christopher Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. "State leaders should stand up for their citizens' interests and demand good broadband for them, rather than fighting alongside paid lobbyists to take away those opportunities."

Like Tennessee, North Carolina makes an attempt to stop the FCC's well-considered Opinion and Order by arguing that the FCC overstepped its authority in violation of the Consitution. The FCC addressed this argument in its Opinion and Order along with a myriad of other potential arguments. For detailed coverage of the FCC's well-considered decision, we provided information on highlights of the decision back in March.

According to WRAL, Wilson is taking the new development in stride:

The City of Wilson was not surprised that North Carolina sued.

"We are aware of the suit," said Will Aycock, who manages the Greenlight network. "We knew that this would be an ongoing process."

The Attorney general's has not contacted Wilson about the suit, he added.

We have to wonder if North Carolina is a bit embarrassed in arguing that rural areas should not be allowed to build their own networks even as the metro regions in Charlotte and the Triangle are seeing gigabit investment. State elected officials in North Carolina seem committed to two-tier Internet access: fast for the metro and stiflingly slow in rural regions.

"Wilson filed this petition [last year to restore local authority] not with immediate plans to expand into its rural neighboring communities, but to facilitate the future advancement of its critical Gigabit fiber-optic infrastructure over the long term."...Wilson does not expect to incur any legal costs related to the North Carolina suit, Aycock said. "We told our story," he explained.

Unfortunately, this is another example of big telecom dollars asserting influence over  state leaders. Wilson's Greenlight has proven itself over and over again to be an economic development tool, a way for the municipality to save precious public dollars, and an agent to encourage better connectivity for citizens

FCC Opens Spectrum; Creates Citizens Broadband Radio Service

On April 17th, FCC Commissioners voted unanimously to expand the use of spectrum previously reserved for U.S. Army and Navy radar systems. The FCC Report and Order creates the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) which establishes rules for shared use by licensed and unlicensed users.

This is a step forward to ensuring we are getting the most use out of the spectrum - by allowing different entities to share the spectrum when it is not being used in some geographic areas for the purpose it was originally allocated for. Milo Medin of Google explained this plan at Freedom to Connect - watch his presentation here.

According to the FCC Press Release [PDF], sharing will be managed with a three-tiered approach:

In addition to the protected incumbent tier, the Report and Order authorizes two commercial tiers of use in the Citizens Broadband Radio Service. The General Authorized Access tier, which allows any user with a certified device to operate without seeking any further Commission approval, will permit low-cost entry into the band, similar to unlicensed uses. A Priority Access tier will make geographically targeted, short-term priority rights to a portion of the band available through future spectrum auctions. One or more Spectrum Access Systems, operated by private commercial entities, will facilitate coexistence among the different user tiers.

Public Knowledge applauded the decision. Senior Vice President Harold Feld:

Today’s FCC’s actions lay the groundwork for changes in the very way we use wireless, allowing different levels of interference protection and network architecture that will make the wireless world of the future as radically different as the smartphone and the WiFi hotspot are from touchtone phones and the CB radios.

New America's Michael Calabrese, Director of New America's Wireless Future Project commended the FCC and pushed for more action:

"Today's bipartisan FCC vote to create a Citizens Broadband Service is a historic step that lays the foundation for spectrum sharing. While exclusive licensing will persist for many years, there is little left to be cleared for traditional auctions. There is, however, a potential spectrum superhighway of grossly underused federal and satellite spectrum that needs to be opened for low-power sharing by both unlicensed users and by priority access licensees who pay for interference protection. The Commission should move quickly to extend this new Citizens Broadband Service to other similar bands with immense fallow capacity, thereby ushering in a new era of wireless broadband abundance."

The Verge quoted FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler:

"Since they don’t make spectrum anymore, and since spectrum is the pathway of the 21st century, we have to figure out how we’re going to live with a fixed amount," said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said during Friday's session. "Sharing is key to that." 

In order to address the problems and challenges that may arise as spectrum is shared between public and private users, the FCC Order also calls for a public comment period. 

Our hope is that this step forward begins to allow more unlicensed technologies that will build on the success of Wi-Fi - allowing residents, neighborhoods, communities, etc., to build high capacity wireless networks. Wi-Fi works well within the home but this spectrum could be used to create similar high capacity networks in neighborhoods.

Our Totally Not Ironic Letter of Support for the Comcast/TWC Merger

Last week, the New York Times reported that the “outpouring of thoughtful and positive comments” Comcast has received for their Time Warner Cable proposed merger is much more than it’s cracked up to be. We are shocked, shocked, to learn that organizations receiving a lot of Comcast charity are endorsing its merger plans.

After a hasty staff meeting, we decided that for a mere $250,000 we too, could see the benefits of this monopolistic mega-merger. We know they ghostwrite many of their most favorable letters, but we want to save them the trouble, by providing our own glowing endorsement. 

Dear Chairman Wheeler,

After careful consideration,  we wish to share our strong support for the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger. Firstly, we want to make absolutely clear that our endorsement of this union has absolutely nothing to do with $250,000 generously donated to our organization, no strings attached, by Comcast. After years critiquing  their slack customer service, their perennially rising prices, and their lobbying to prevent real competition, we now think a merger between the two most hated companies in America is a way awesome idea!

We support the company’s efforts to announce gigabit speeds while charging high enough prices to ensure no one calls their bluff. We hope that the merger doesn’t distract Comcast from its efforts in Philadelphia to never pay municipal property taxes or to ensure low wage workers have no sick days in the City of Brotherly Love. 

We feel certain that this merger won't upset our swell market for cable services and that consumers will have the same level of nonresponsive customer service they’ve enjoyed in the past. In short, we think this is a “marvelous proposal,” now that we’ve got all these Benjamins! It may be bad for hundreds of millions of Americans, but we have hundreds of thousands of reasons to support it!

And let’s face it, once Comcast and Time Warner Cable morph into one monstrous godzilla, fit to swallow 2 out of 3 Americans, customers will most certainly have even MORE to gripe about, making them more receptive to our ideas for locally owned networks. Here it MuniNetworks.org, we value self-reliance, local control, and job security. Albert Einstein said that if you can’t solve a problem make it bigger. Now, you might say “that wasn’t what he meant,” but relatively speaking, Comcast is writing checks to us, not his estate [editor's note: verify Comcast hasn’t paid off Einstein’s estate].

There are at least 250,000 reasons that we now recognize how much Comcast Cares. It really is a “tremendous community partner.” We think of Comcast as being the 1% of corporations because, like Standard Oil, it gives some of its vast monopoly-generated wealth back to us in the form of pay-to-play philanthropy. You really have to look no further than their Internet Essentials program for evidence of their eagerness to do as little as possible while appearing to give a damn.  

We would go on, but now we can afford to take the whole office out to lunch. Do you know how many tikka masala lunches we can get with $250,000?! It doesn’t get much better than this at a small nonprofit working on a shoestring budget!

So, Chairman Wheeler, to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, now that we’ve established what this is, we’re ready to haggle over a price.

Comcast, we’ll take the check in one lump sum rather than monthly installments. Thank you!

(In)Sincerely,

~Community Broadband Networks at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance

 

Comcast's Contradictory Conundrum: Title II Tightrope

Comcast must continue to prove growth is a breeze to satisfy stockholders while simultaneously arguing that, gadzooks FCC! how do you expect us to grow under Title II?! As DSL Reports points out, contradicting itself just doesn't work:

At the time [of the FCC's proposal to implement Title II regulations], Comcast CFO Michael Angelakis proclaimed the switch to Title II introduced "higher uncertainty" into the company's broadband investment strategy. Meanwhile, top lobbyist David Cohen was quick to insist in a blog post that we'd see an immediate investment hit should the FCC proceed with its plans:

quote:

"To attempt to impose a full-blown Title II regime now, when the classification of cable broadband has always been as an information service, would reverse nearly a decade of precedent, including findings by the Supreme Court that this classification was proper. This would be a radical reversal that would harm investment and innovation, as today's immediate stock market reaction demonstrates."

DSL Reports points out that the change has not slowed down Comcast's desire to invest or innovate:

So what are we to make of Comcast's announcement that it's making a major investment to push 2 gigabit fiber to 18 million homes before the end of the year, followed by a major DOCSIS 3.1 push in 2016? While more speed to more people is a welcome announcement by any measure, Comcast's pretty clearly interested in charming the regulators currently considering the company's $45 billion acquisition play for Time Warner Cable. 

Comcast must perform a tightrope act to rival the Flying Wallendas to keep everybody happy and achieve its goal of world domination.

Oddly enough, we believe Comcast is lying about both things! Its supposed upgrade to 2 Gbps is smoke and mirrors AND there continues to be no evidence that outlawing paid prioritization will reduce investment beyond the status quo.