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Nebraska Farmer Wants Fiber, Won't Be Ripped Off By Windstream

Windstream has the distinction of being one of the worst providers we have ever covered from consumers' perspective, but in rural areas many people have little or no choice. The latest Windstream debacle involves a Nebraska farmer, an outrageous price quote, and a local company that is taking on the project for about one-ninth of Windstream's estimate.

Ars Technica recently introduced us to Nelson Schneider, CTO of the Norman R. Schneider Family Trust Farm in Ceresco, Nebraska. Like many other farms today, the Schneider business needs fast, reliable connections for a variety of reasons including checking ever changing grain prices. Schneider had Windstream's DSL for $80 per month, but his promised speeds of 1.5 Mbps were clocked at 512 Kbps download and 256 Kbps upload, making business online impossible.

When he attempted to take advantage of the business class speeds Windstream advertised online, the company dismissed him. Schneider had to file a complaint for false advertising with the FCC just to get Windstream to negotiate. He wanted fiber, was willing to pay for construction costs, and considered it an investment in the vitality of the farm. 

Windstream told him it would cost Schneider $383,500 (gulp) to install 4.5 miles of fiber from his property to its facilities in town. Even though Windstream's fiber network map shows they run fiber about one-half mile away, they insisted he would need to connect to the facility farther away. When he asked about connecting to this closer line, Windstream refused to connect him. The company would not provide a reason when Ars asked for a reason.

Even though Schneider was prepared to pay thousands of dollars to bring fiber to his farm, such a preposterous quote and Windstream's refusal to commit to anything higher than 10 Mbps symmetrical were too much. He contacted Northeast Nebraska Telephone Company when he learned that they had been connecting local farms with fiber. Soon an NNTC executive visited the farm and the two talked about the possibilities. The final estimate was $42,000 or about one-ninth what Windstream demanded and now NNTC is working with Schneider to make the project easier:

Northeast agreed to let Schneider pay for the construction in three annual payments of about $14,000 each, and it will provide 50Mbps download speeds and 15Mbps uploads for $100 a month, he said. Northeast also agreed to a $6,000 credit for any other customer “that signs up using the line I'm paying to install.” The necessary paperwork is being finished up this month.

“They said they'd have to order the fiber cables, but should be able to get me set up by the end of September of this year,” he said.

It is true that $42,000 is a sizable sum, but Schneider considers it well-spent and we are pleased to see a local business was able to work with a provider that, unlike Windstream, clearly is has some desire to serve rural businesses.

What does Norman Schneider say about ditching Windstream for this investment?

“I look at it like buying a nice new car, only instead of taking me places on the paved highway, it will finally allow me to drive the Information Superhighway at the speed limit,” he said. “Right now I feel like an Amish horse-drawn carriage when doing anything online."

Hudson Lays Out Details for Its Municipal Gigabit Network

Hudson, Ohio's upcoming municipal network, Velocity Broadband, may be serving commercial customers as early as September, reports the Hudson Hub Times. At a July 22nd Rotary Club meeting, Assistant City Manager Frank Comeriato presented details on the plan. The city has no plans to serve residents but once business services are in place, they may consider a residential build out.

The gigabit network, to be owned and operated by the city of Hudson, will be deployed incrementally. Incumbents Time Warner Cable and Windstream serve local businesses but a majority complain of unreliable connections and unaffordable prices in the few places where fiber is available.

Earlier this year, the city conducted a survey and businesses responded:

"They wanted better service and speed," [Comeriato] said. "After only two vendors responded to the city to offer the service, the city decided it could offer the service like it offers public power, water and other infrastructure."

Hudson officials realize that it connectivity is an essential service for economic development and that businesses have no qualms with relocating to places where they can get the bandwidth they need:

"Economic development is 80 percent retention, and Hudson businesses are unhappy with their current service, he added. "They want something like this."

Hudson Public Power has been preparing by training crews to deploy the infrastructure. Like other communities that have recently decided to invest in municipal networks, Hudson will focus only on Internet access and voice.

Earlier this year, the City Council approved the initial $800,000 capital expenditure to begin the deployment. According to Hudson Communications Manager Jody Roberts, the city expects to spend another $1.5 million in 2016 on infrastructure before they light the network, scheduled for 2016.

"We will then determine any additional amounts needed in [future] years, since by then we will be bringing in money in the form of monthly fees from customers," Robert said of anticipated costs. "It is our goal for this service to become fully self-sustaining. And, we anticipate by offering this service, we will attract more businesses to Hudson (more income tax) and retain more businesses."

Local public relations firm AKHIA will be one of the beta testers as the network progresses. They upload and download large data files on a daily basis and their current 5 Mbps connection is inadequate. Ohio.com reported:

“Our [current] Internet is constantly going down,” [Jan Gusich, part-owner and chief executive officer] said. When that happens, her staff leaves to find other places with available Internet, such as coffee shops, she said.

Hudson is home to approximately 23,000 people and located in the northeast corner of the state. In 2014 they released an RFP for a Broadband Needs Assessment and Business Plan; the survey was part of that assessment.

After consultants reviewed the city's assets and developed an option that incorporated its I-Net, their February 2015 estimate came to approximately $4.9 million for infrastructure to four commercial areas of town for an open access model. At the time, the consultants suggested that the price would increase to $6.5 million if the city chose to take on the role as retail provider.

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.

North Georgia Town Considering Fiber for Business

The City Council of the city of Commerce is considering using its existing fiber resources to offer connectivity to local businesses. At a November 3rd work session, Council members reviewed the plan and, according to the Main Street News, members voiced support for the idea.

“We’ve been actively working on this for months,” [City Manager Pete] Pyrzenski told the council. “We’ve been counseled on, we’ve talked through the options… this is a pretty viable utility for Commerce.” 

“We are ready to pull the fiber,” Pyrzenski declared. “Our role is to supply the fiber. We’re not going to get into cable TV, not going to get into telephone, just high-speed Internet.”

“Businesses have been looking for an alternative,” noted Mayor Clark Hill.

Windstream now serves the community of 6,500 but there have been significant complaints and there are no other options in this north Georgia town.

The city will need to invest $70,000 for equipment and legal fees. The network plan will use an existing line and will run additional fiber to expand the reach to more commercial customers. At this point, the city estimates a 5 - 10 year payback but that period may be reduced if local businesses respond positively. The city will fund the deployment with an interdepartmental loan from their municipal electric utility. Commerce also owns a municipal gas utility.

Multiple Minnesota Projects Submit "Expressions of Interest" to FCC

We reported in February that the FCC sought "expressions of interest" from entities that want a share of Connect America funds. The agency sought feedback on the need and desire for projects across the country from entities that have not traditionally received universal service funds. The FCC received over 1,000 expressions of interest.

Minnesota leads the U.S. in proposed projects. According to a recent MPR News Ground Level article, 62 expressions of interests come from Minnesota. Projects vary in size; some focus on a small number of homes while others plan to bring services to many people.

All of the proposed projects address gaps in rural broadband service. MPR noted that several of the expressions of interest describe community experience with CenturyLink, Frontier, and Mediacom. The RS Fiber cooperative wrote:

“The communities have approached all three providers [CenturyLink, Windstream, and MediaCom] and asked them to work with the communities to build the fiber network. They all refused. Then the communities offered to put up the money to construct the network and the providers could operate and eventually own the network. None of them were interested.”

The MPR article reports the FCC will likely offer approximately $86 million to the three incumbents to bring broadband to unserved and underserved areas. If they refuse, a long line of interested parties are waiting.

Minnesota's desire for broadband caught the attention of state lawmakers. A bill to earmark funds for rural broadband was introduced earlier this session and has received bipartisan support. From the MPR article:

Even if the Minnesota projects go nowhere with the FCC, they already may have had an impact here in the state.

For the first time, lawmakers here are considering whether to spend money on broadband infrastructure, and the idea has backing from Gov. Mark Dayton. But “there was concern from the governor and others there might not be enough interest,” said Christopher Mitchell, analyst with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “This answers that.”

Home Security Firm ADT Opposes Kentucky Bill to Eliminate Landlines

In February, we reported on another attempt by AT&T, Windstream, and Cincinnati Bell, to eliminate plain old telephone service (POTS) in Kentucky. According to Mimi Pickering from the Rural Broadband Policy Group, AT&T's SB 99 is quickly moving ahead and may even be up for a full House vote at any time.

Kentucky has fought to save its landlines for three years in a row. Many of us only think of landlines as a way to speak with loved ones, but for the isolated, elderly, and those that face daily health hazards, a landline is also a lifeline.

We recently learned that home security firm ADT submitted a letter opposing the passage of SB 99 because many business and residential customers rely ADT's technology designed for traditional landlines. Even thought the letter is dated March 4th, it only recently came to light. The letter states:

Many of our customers, like the one who alerted ADT to this bill, rely on POTS to carry alarm signals to and from monitoring companies like ADT.  Some also use POTS for their Personal Emergency Response Systems (PERS) and medical alert services.  ADT accepts that the transition from POTS is a natural progression towards new technology, and is actively working to develop best processes and an acceptable timeline where POTS is discontinued; however, the safety of everyday Kentuckians could be jeopardized if this is not done in a pragmatic, thoughtful way.

Kentuckians can weigh in on this bill by calling the toll free message line at 800-372-7181 and tell House leadership and their legislator to oppose SB 99.

Big Incumbents At It Again In Kentucky; Mimi Pickering in the Richmond Register

Yet again, lobbyists from AT&T, Windstream, and Cincinnati Bell are lobbying state elected officials under the false guise of improving communications in Kentucky. In a Richmond Register opinion piece, Mimi Pickering from the Rural Broadband Policy Group revealed the practical consequences of Senate Bill 99.

Republican Senator Paul Hornback is once again the lead sponsor on the bill. As usual, backers contend the legislation moves Kentucky communications forward. Last year, Pickering and her coalition worked to educate Kentuckians on SB 88, that would have eliminated the "carrier of last resort" requirement. We spoke with Pickering about the bill in Episode #44 of the Broadband Bits podcast. They had a similar fight in 2012.

In her opinon piece, Pickering describes the practical effect of this policy change:

It would allow them to abandon their least profitable customers and service areas as well as public protection obligations. But it is a risky and potentially dangerous bet for Kentuckians. Kentucky House members should turn it down.

Everyone agrees that access to affordable high-speed Internet is a good thing for Kentucky. However, despite what AT&T officials and their numerous lobbyists say, SB 99 does nothing to require or guarantee increased broadband investment, especially in areas of most need.

AT&T Kentucky President Hood Harris claims that current Kentucky law prevents the company from investing in new technology. As Pickering points out, AT&T refused to build in unserved areas when offered federal funds. Those funds came with minimum obligations; AT&T was not interested.

The bill appeared to be on the fast track to passage, breezing through the Senate Economic Development, Labor, and Tourism Committee only ten days after being introduced. According to the Kentucky Herald-Leader, AARP, the Kentucky Resources Council, and several smaller cable and Internet service providers expressed opposition to the bill:

"We are not giving up our land lines. We want to hang onto them even as we get our cellphones because we think the land lines are more dependable," said Jim Kimbrough, president of AARP Kentucky.

...

Smaller cable companies and Internet providers told senators they worry the bill lacks language to protect them from unfair competitive tactics by AT&T once it's freed of even more PSC regulation, following earlier phone deregulation measures that passed in 2004 and 2006.

Pickering knows quick passage is dangerous. From her opinion piece:

How is this good for Kentucky? There is no good reason for the General Assembly to rush thorough the AT&T-backed legislation and surrender the rights and protections guaranteed to us under our long-standing communications laws.

SB 99 is bad news and big trouble for all of us, unless of course you are one of these telecommunication giants.

Mark Creekmore Takes on Windstream - Community Broadband Bits Podcast #69

Earlier this year, Mark Creekmore transitioned from a frustrated DSL customer to a champion for better Internet access in Georgia. A concerned citizen and tech consultant, Mark joins us for the latest Community Broadband Bits podcast. He discusses his history with Windstream and the steps he went through to improve his Internet access.

Along with this interview, you can read a how-to guide he wrote on DSL Reports.

Mark documented the times his connection speeds fell, his calls to tech support, and their inability to deliver what they promised. Finally, he helped the CBS Atlanta affiliate to cover Windstream's failure to deliver promised services.

We became aware of Mark as he became aware of Windstream's efforts to revoke local authority from local governments to build networks that would deliver the services that Windstream would not. Read our coverage of those legislative fights from 2013 and 2012.

Read the transcript of our conversation here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

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 previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Mudhoney for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Small Minnesota Town, Annandale, Fed up With Slow DSL

Yet another Minnesota town is fed up with slow, unreliable Internet access and is examining what it can do to make sure it has the network it needs to succeed in the modern economy. Annandale is 50 miles northwest of Minneapolis with a population of 3,200 and has Windstream as the telephone company.

Windstream, as with other large firms that primarily serve rural America, offers a DSL more suited to the late 1990's than 2013. It has little capacity to invest in better networks, even if it had the willingness. We've covered Windstream several times in previous stories.

After a flood of complaints from residents to City Hall about slow speeds and frequent outages, the City issued a request for proposals for a feasibility study that will explore alternatives to the present reliance on Windstream.

Local leaders understand that the private sector is not likely to invest significantly in its community due to its density and rural location. But the town needs modern Internet access to retain and attract good jobs. The Annandale Advocate newspaper ran a story on September 17 but it is not available for non-subscribers.

At a chamber of commerce meeting later in the week Gunnarson added that strong broadband is a basic, essential feature of modern commerce.

"New businesses expect good Internet. When you buy a car you expect tires on it. Unfortunately, our car has wooden tires," he said.

logo-annandale-advocate.jpg

The same paper published a guest editorial by City Council members to explain how little power the City has over private providers. Many people falsely believe that towns are actively keeping competition out:

We even had some people angrily ask our staff why are we keeping the competition out. So to set the record straight, the city can't do much about it because it is all private wires, equipment, operations and corporate customer service.

Also, a recent call to the PUC, the Public Utilities Commission, confirms that not much can be done since broadband is not regulated. Sorry folks. As far as letting in competition, we have zero say in that. Any other provider can come in any time. In fact, many of us citizens would throw the welcome party.

If any provider believes it is being denying the right to offer service in Annandale, there is a legal process to rectify the situation. Since 1992, no local government has had the power to offer a cable monopoly and the same is true for telephone or Internet access since the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

The problem is not local governments, it is the extremely high cost of building networks and the difficulty of competing with entrenched incumbents that can lower costs temporarily to deny subscribers to new networks.

Annandale has not committed to any specific course of action; it is gauging what opportunities are available and how a business model might work. And like most towns, they are leaving the door open to working with the incumbent:

Does our current provider still have an opportunity to be rock star in Annandale? They sure do. They just need to upgrade and make the city hall phone stop ringing.

A CBS Atlanta investigation has previously found that Windstream blatantly lies to consumers about their services.

CBS Atlanta News

Given Annandale's size, it is impractical to build a standalone triple-play FTTH network but it may find that an incremental fiber approach could work. Start with municipal facilities and businesses and expand to residents as necessary. Without a strong cable provider, most households probably already have a satellite TV service. This would leave open the possibility of doing an Internet and telephone double-play as Longmont, Colorado is doing. They could also partner with another network that wants to expand.

Regardless, you can expect the same big companies that refuse to invest in Annandale will publicly argue that the town should do nothing. But doing nothing is the best way to ensure nothing changes.

First BTOP Project Connects Rural North Georgia Communities

Back in December, 2009, Vice President Biden travelled to Dawsonville, Georgia, to officially kick off the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) program. The first award, a grant of $33.5 million, went to the North Georgia Network Cooperative. The group combined that grant with local and state funding and in May, 2012, lit the North Georgia Network (NGN).

We spoke with Paul Belk, CEO of NGN, who shared the network's story and described how it is improving economic development while serving schools and government across the region. We also recently published a podcast interview with Paul Belk.

In 2007, Bruce Abraham was the Lumpkin County Development Authority President and could not recruit new business to the region. Atlanta is only 60 miles away but companies and entrepeneurs were not willing to branch out toward north Georgia. Business leaders repeatedly told Abraham they were not interested because of the lack of broadband. DSL was available from Windstream, but businesses kept telling Abraham, "That's not broadband." North Georgia was losing jobs and there was no strategy to replace them.

Abraham found economic development representatives from Forsyth, White, Union, and Dawson counties shared the same problem. With North Georgia College & State University in Dahlonega, the group decided to address the problem together.

In 2008, they received a OneGeorgia Authority BRIDGE grant. They used the $100,000 award to commission a feasibility study that suggested the area had potential as a new tech hub. The study also indicated that the region's traditional manufacturing and agricultural industries would continue to dwindle. The group, determined to pursue the establishment of a new tech economy, knew the first step would be next-generation infrastructure.

In 2009, two local electric cooperatives joined the group and it incorporated to become the nonprofit North Georgia Network Cooperative. With the addition of the Habersham and Blue Ridge Mountain Electric Coops, the organization had access to technical expertise, equipment, and staff that could facilitate construction and operation of the future network.

Recovery Seal

Belk notes that the pieces fell into place for NGN throughout the process. The group applied for a grant during the first round of the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP). The NGN Cooperative received a $33.5 million BTOP grant and an additional $2.5 million OneGeorgia Authority BRIDGE grant. Habersham and Blue Ridge Mountain also invested, bringing the final cost to $42 million.

Mostly aerial, the 1,100 mile network went up quickly (PDF of the network map). Construction began in March 2011 and was finished that same fall. On May 2, 2012, the network was officially lit in Lumpkin County where construction had started, completing the ring.

Unlike most other BTOP projects, NGN provides some last mile connectivity for small and medium sized business. Habersham and Blue Ridge Mountain work directly with customers, who can purchase connections between 1-10 gig. The backbone allows 100 gig transport.

Belk notes that NGN changed economic development in several ways. Before the network, local businesses learned to get by with little or no reliance on local connectivity. Tax professionals used to store files and transactions on a laptop and then drive to another community with better connectivity because DSL was not reliable or fast enough to transfer files. He describes their method as a "courier service." The NGN Cooperative continues to reach out to small and medium sized businesses to encourage adoption and show them how the network can expand their reach.

Belk told us about JumpinGoat Coffee Roasters. In the past, this small business relied exclusively on sales through its physical storefront and most sales were during the tourist season. Now the company sells gourmet coffee all over the country all year long beause it has reliable and robust connectivity. JumpinGoat is only one example of how NGN brings more money into the community.

Recently, NGN announced it will provide connectivity to a new data center built by Boston-based Standard Colo, in Lumpkin County. The initial investment in the community will be $10 million and community leaders expect the total investment to be $70-83 million in five years. 

Georgia seal

The investment will create 10-12 high paying positions in a community where average wage is $10 per hour. In addition to increasing the tax base, Belk sees this as a first step in transforming the area into the tech hub envisioned in 2008.

NGN also contributes to the community's efforts to prepare students to fill future tech jobs. Before NGN, Lumpkin County Schools had 3 bonded DSL connections and less than 20 Mbps to the Internet - now the District has 1 gig and access to the 10 gig cloud at no extra charge. Eight school districts and three colleges connect with NGN. The cloud allows schools to scale back on expenses for equipment, such as servers and video encoders, because each district can share across the cloud rather than purchase equipment for each location.

Eventually, the schools hope to eliminate textbooks and use the cloud as depositories for learning materials. Belk sees the schools breaking out of the "island" approach to pool their buying power for better prices on virtual learning material licenses.

Kids are entering college better prepared, says Belk, in part because the University of North Georgia and other local colleges provide credit to high school students via distane learning. The community wants to create an environment where, throughout their school careers, kids learn with technology and acquire skils to take advantage of the booming tech hub. Parents in north Georgia want to keep their kids close to home.

In addition to schools and businesses, seven local governments and five major medical centers use the network for connectivity. Belk notes that most financial institutions in the region also connect to the NGN. Users work directly through the electric coops to connect.

NGN's serves as a backbone for multiple carriers, reducing rates, encouraging choice, and prompting better service in a region that was left behind by large incumbents. The price of DSL has dropped $10 since the network launched. Belk says Windstream, who would not invest in the region in 2007, is "building fiber like crazy."

Belk feels his region is in a good position now, thanks to the network. While he can point to value in enhanced educational opportunities, healthcare advances, and business development, he believes the community gained most by avoiding loss. Belk notes that, like the interstate highway build out that determined what small towns would survive, broadband infrastructure establishes winners and losers. If you don't offer it, some other community will.