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For years, national cable and telecom companies have complained that they work in a tough industry because “there’s too much broadband competition.” Such a subjective statement has created confusion among subscribers, policy makers, and elected officials. Many people, especially those in rural areas, have little or no choice. We wanted to dive deeper into the realities of their claim, so we decided to look at the data and map out what the large carriers offer and where they offer it. In order to share our findings with policy makers, local elected officials, and the general public, we’ve created a report that includes series of maps to illustrate our findings and our analysis, Profiles of Monopoly: Big Cable and Telecom.
Choice: The Ultimate Prize
Whether it’s a brand of breakfast cereal, a model of car, or an Internet Service Provider (ISP), those who purchase a good or service know that when they have more options, the options they have are better. The FCC defines "broadband" as connectivity that provides speeds of at least 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload; our report fouces on service where ISPs claim to offer this minimum threshold.
When it comes to ISPs, subscribers often have a faux choice between unequal services, such as one telephone company offering slow DSL and one cable company that offers faster cable Internet access. People in rural America often have even slimmer options because cable ISPs don’t provide broadband in less populated rural areas. In other words, the market has spoken and the market is broken.
National ISPs with millions of customers are some of the most hated companies in the U.S. Poor customer service, contract tricks, and a refusal to upgrade services are only a few of the common complaints from subscribers who are often trapped due to lack of competition. Frontier Communications is proudly carrying on that tradition of deficiency in Minnesota. In fact, the company’s excellence at skullduggery has drawn the attention of the state’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC), which launched an investigation into the service quality of Frontier this spring.
So Much Going On Here
While many of us are used to some level of poor service when it comes to the big ISPs, Frontier in Minnesota accumulated so many complaints, the PUC felt they had no choice but to take action. According to Phil Dampier from Stop the Cap!, the Commission received 439 complaints and negative comments in a five-week period in early 2018. Some but not all, of the types of issues that subscribers described included:
It took an extra year for a community in Minnesota to finally see high-quality Internet service. Balaton spent an extra year in connectivity purgatory while Frontier delayed a much-needed project. To learn more, we connected with the Balaton and Marshall Economic Development Director Tara Onken and Woodstock Communications Vice President and General Manager Terry Nelson.
Balaton: An Underserved Community
Balaton, is a small town of 600 people in Lyon County, located in the southwest area of the state. Balaton’s Internet service is dismal; residents have access to satellite, fixed wireless, or DSL. Satellite is unreliable, and the fixed wireless services’ max speed is 5 - 10 Mbps. DSL service varies based on how far the home is from the central office. In some places in town, DSL should be able to reach broadband speed -- 25 Mbps (download) / 3 Mbps (upload), but in reality, DSL is slow and unreliable because it is based on old copper lines.
In 2016, the small private company Woodstock Communications decided to improve connectivity in Balaton. Woodstock already had service to a few local businesses and other members of the community were asking for service. When the Minnesota Border-to-Border Broadband Program grant applications opened, the company requested a grant of about $413,000.
The goal was to bring Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) service of 1 Gigabit-per-second (Gbps), upload and download, to the underserved residents -- 40 times faster than broadband. FTTH is the fastest, most reliable technology available but also most capital-intensive. It’s available to only about 25 percent of the U.S. population.
Local investigative news shows often earn a reputation for digging into scams and rip-offs that pick consumers’ pockets. In a recent WLOS News 13 Investigates segment, Western North Carolina’s ABC affiliate started asking some tough questions about Frontier’s Internet access service in rural parts of the state.
A Comedy Of Errors
At the heart of the rip-off in this investigation is Frontier’s habit of advertising speeds that it cannot provide. The WLOS crew traveled to a home in a mountainous area of the region to visit Craig Marble, who moved from D.C., and works from home in the tech field. “It's just a comedy of errors except that it's not funny. It takes five minute to load a single webpage,” Marble said.
Marble discussed how he has paid for service of up to three Mbps download but he has never, to his knowledge, been able to obtain even that slow speed. As far as he’s concerned, he should at least be able to get what he’s paying for every month.
“This should be 3.0, not .3,” Marble said. He showed News 13 various speed tests for his service, they came up .3 and .5, and .6 at various times throughout the morning and afternoon.
Complaints, Complaints, Complaints
According to News 13, numerous complaints against Frontier resonate through local conversation. The station had received other complaints from people, some reporting that their Internet access works about 60 percent of the time. When they followed up with the Attorney General, they learned of 56 complaints filed against Frontier, about half due to issues with slow speeds.
WLOS spoke to Christopher about big telecom’s tendency to advertise “up to” speeds:
“If you can get good speeds in the middle of the night, but not during the day, I think that's deceptive advertising to be suggesting to people that they can get those speeds,” said Christopher Mitchell, director of Community Broadband Networks at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minnesota.
Mitchell says, companies shouldn't advertise what they can't offer.
“This is not something that is beyond the ability of the company to solve, this is a decision that they're making which is to market a service that they cannot deliver or are willing to deliver on reasonable terms,” said Mitchell.
California Legislators have turned on their constituents living in rural areas who want to participate in the 21st century online economy. What began as a move in the right direction - allocating substantial resources to funding high-speed Internet infrastructure - has become another opportunity to protect big incumbents. It’s twice as nice for Frontier and AT&T, because they will be paid big bucks to meet a low Internet access bar.
Democrat Eduardo Garcia, the main author on Assembly Bill 1665, represents the Coachella Valley, a rural area in the southern area of the state near Palm Springs. Democrat Jim Wood coauthored with eight others. Wood represents coastal areas in the northern part of the state, which was passed during the eleventh hour of the 2017 legislative session. Wood’s district and region has obtained several grants from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) that have helped to improve local connectivity.
The CASF is much like CAF; both programs are funded through a surcharge on revenue collected by telecommunications carriers from subscribers. Since 2007, when California authorized the CASF, the legislature has amended the rules and requirements several times. Early on, CASF awards went primarily to smaller, local companies because large corporations such as AT&T and Frontier did not pursue the grants. Now that those behemoths have their eyes on CASF grants, they’ve found a way to push out the companies who need the funds and have shown that they want to provide better services to rural Californians.
AB 1665 allocates $300 million to Internet infrastructure investment and an additional $30 million to adoption and related local programs. Policy experts have criticized the legislation on several fronts. Consultant Steve Blum told CVIndependent:
The incumbents (large corporate ISPs) including AT&T, Frontier and the California Cable and Telecommunications Association jumped in and said, ‘We want the bill to be X, Y and Z.’ … Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia took it and started adding language that reflected the desires of these cable and telephone company incumbents.
It’s been about two years since the people of Lincoln County, Wisconsin, learned that Frontier Communications received federal funding to expand Internet access in their region. Now, they’re wondering why Frontier has still not started construction of promised infrastructure.
A Long Road To Nowhere
The community has been seeking ways to improve local connectivity for years. Back in 2013, they held a series of local listening sessions and workshops with officials from the University of Wisconsin-Extension Center for Community Technology Solutions. The goals of the workshops were to educate community members about the importance of connectivity and to learn more about the availability of Internet access at the local level. The meetings addressed both residential and business needs.
In the summer of 2015, county officials announced that they had been working on an initiative to find a way to improve connectivity throughout Lincoln County. By engaging members of the public in town hall forums they had learned that the general consensus was:
“For the most part, people are disappointed with their current service.”
“Generally speaking, their current Internet service is not fast enough and there just isn’t enough capacity to do what they want to do.”
Community leaders were also learning that a fair number of home-based businesses were popping up in the county.
Update: Please note, this information is now out of date. It was developed in 2017.
This is the central hub for ILSR’s research on Internet access around the Appalachian United States. We have compiled federal statistics on broadband availability and federal subsidies for large Internet Service Providers. We've created detailed maps of 150 counties in Kentucky, Southeast Ohio, and northern West Virginia.
We've also created Rural Toolkits for Kentucky, Southeast Ohio, and northern West Virginia. These toolkits offer a big picture look at connectivity on a regional and statewide level. They also provide action steps for folks to learn more and get involved.
Remember these three key details when reading through this information:
Internet access: if you can get online, check email, and browse the web.
Broadband: the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) currently defines this as speed of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload.
Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH): a high-speed fiber-optic connection directly to the home. This type of technology can support speeds of more than 1,000 Megabit-per-second (Mbps).
Appalachia can get better Internet service, but the big companies aren’t going to do it. Cooperatives and small towns are stepping up and delivering world-class Internet service.
This information covers the entirety of the state – all 120 counties.
Rural Toolkit: This toolkit provides the basics of how to get started. From what is broadband to the details of federal funding, this toolkit has got you covered. At the back, it includes a statewide fact sheet, which is also available separately.
West Virginia rural communities struggle with access to broadband but a bill in the state legislature is taking some first steps to encourage better connectivity. HB 3093 passed the House with wide support (97 - 2) and has been sent on to the Senate for review. The bill doesn’t appropriate any funding for Internet infrastructure projects around the state, but adopts some policies that may help local communities obtain better connectivity.
Revenue Neutral And Popular
The state is facing a $500 million budget deficit and lawmakers don't have the appetite to appropriate finds for Internet infrastructure projects. As in most states, policy bills do well during times of financial strife. Elected officials still want to do what they can to encourage better broadband so, according to at least one lawmaker, the revenue neutral nature of the bill has contributed to its success in the legislature. Delegate Roger Henshaw, one of the bill's co-sponsors, told Metro News:
“Notice this is a revenue-neutral bill,” Hanshaw said. “That’s in fact one of the reasons we’re rolling it out now. We have other bills here in both the House and Senate that are not revenue-neutral bills that were on the table for consideration.
“But with the clock ticking on us, it became clear that we probably ought to be looking at options to advance service that didn’t even have the possibility of a financial impact. This bill does not.”
Check out the 3-minute interview with Hanshaw on Soundcloud.
The Broadband Enhancement Council
West Virginia’s Broadband Enhancement Council was created in a previous session and receives more authority and responsibility under HB 3093. They are tasked with the authority to, among other things, gather comparative data between actual and advertised speeds around the state, to advise and provide consultation services to project sponsors, and make the public know about facilities that offer community broadband access.
In Wisconsin, Sun Prairie Utilities (SPU) and TDS Telecommunications Corp. have signed a letter of intent (LOI) for the sale of the city’s municipal network to the Chicago-based telecommunications company. The parties plan on having a final deal hashed out and concluded by the end of March.
TDS Plans For Growth
According to Sun Prairie Mayor Paul Esser, approximately 700 homes are connected to the SPU network, leaving 12,000 households left to be hooked up. TDS has expressed a desire to accelerate the Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) expansion, in keeping with its recent growth strategy.
“We plan to expand the network to launch 1 Gigabit broadband speeds, as well as phone service, and our industry leading IPTV solution, TDS TV, to residents,” [Drew Petersen, vice president of external affairs and communications at TDS] said. “For businesses, we would look at providing dedicated fiber connections and our hosted VoIP phone solution, TDS managed IP Hosted.”
TDS has also recently acquired Interlinx Communications and its subsidiary Tonaquint Networks in southern Utah.
Sun Prairie Residents, Businesses Not Happy With Incumbents
About a year ago, we learned that an FTTH pilot project had experienced incredibly high demand: 54 percent of households in the pilot area requested the service. It was a good problem to have, but perhaps the community's leaders got cold feet. The demand for high-quality Internet access is strong in Sun Prairie where residents are fed up with poor service from Charter and Frontier. Enter TDS.
What The Future Holds
Will TDS be able to do a better job? Will TDS maintain the assets or sell out to some other behemoth like Comcast? Time will tell. Whether or not TDS will encourage the current providers to improve services or just offer another poor option to the people of Sun Prairie remains to be seen.
A northern Minnesota county has been approved for federal funding to bring high-quality Internet access to some of the community's most rural residents. Lake County (population: about 11,000) has been building Lake Connections, a county-owned community network, for the past few years. People living in the densely wooded region have always lacked adequate Internet service, but with this funding, they will have better connectivity than many city dwellers.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently authorized $3.5 million for Lake Connections through the Rural Broadband Experiment program. Lake Connections previously faced numerous delays, but this next stage of the project is ready to move forward.
Despite Best Efforts, Delays
Lake County has long been working towards a more connected future by building a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network. The massive project covers almost 3,000 square miles, connect almost 100 community anchor institutions, and will provide connectivity to over 1,000 businesses. Grants, loans, and matching local funds to complete the project add up to approximately $70 million.
The county obtained federal stimulus funding through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) in 2010 (see our 2014 report, All Hands on Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access). Incumbent providers, Mediacom and Frontier, delayed the project by alleging rule violations and fighting for ownership of utility poles. By July 2014, however, the fiber network started serving its first 100 customers.