Fast, affordable Internet access for all.
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North Carolina's digital divide between urban and rural communities is increasing dangerously in a time when high quality Internet access is more important than ever. Rural and urban areas of North Carolina are essentially living in different realities, based on the tides of private network investment where rural communities are severely disadvantaged. The state has relied too much on the telecom giants like AT&T and CenturyLink that have little interest in rural regions.
The state perversely discourages investment from local governments and cooperatives. For instance, electric co-ops face barriers in seeking federal financing for fiber optic projects. State law is literally requiring the city of Wilson to disconnect its customers in the town of Pinetops, leaving them without basic broadband access. This decision in particular literally took the high-speed, affordable Internet access out of the hands of North Carolina's rural citizens.
The lengths to which North Carolina has gone to limit Internet access to their citizens is truly staggering. Both a 1999 law limiting electric cooperatives' access to capital for telecommunications and a 2011 law limiting local governments' ability to build Internet networks greatly undermine the ability of North Carolinians to increase competition to the powerful cable and DSL incumbent providers.
In the face of this reality, the Governor McCrory's Broadband Infrastructure Office recommended a "solution" that boils down to relying on cable and telephone monopolies' benevolence. What this entire situation comes down to is a fundamental disadvantage for North Carolina's rural residents because their state will not allow them to solve their own problems locally even when the private sector abandons them.
AT&T lawyers filed suit against Nashville just two days after Mayor Megan Barry signed the new One Touch Make Ready (OTMR) ordinance into law. The Metro Council passed the proposal for the final time, and sent it on to the Mayor, on September 20th.
Seeking Out Streamlining
OTMR was proposed by Google Fiber, which wants to enter the Nashville market by deploying an aerial fiber network. In order to do that, they need to attach fiber-optic cables to utility poles around town, but the current process is cumbersome and will significantly delay the rollout. OTMR streamlines the procedure but would allow some one other than AT&T to manage the rearrangement of wires on all poles in the Nashville rights-of-way. The telecom giant owns about 20 percent of the poles in Nashville; the city’s electric utility, NES, owns the rest.
AT&T seeks a permanent injunction to stop the city from enforcing the new ordinance. They argue the city does not have the authority to enforce the ordinance - that role is within federal jurisdiction through the FCC.
They go on to state that the Metro Council does not have the authority to pass the ordinance because, according to the city charter, only the Electric Power Board the has the right to pass regulations that deal with issues related to equipment, such as poles and the cable on them.
AT&T also asks that the court grant a permanent injunction on the basis that they already have a contract with the city relating to AT&T’s wires that are on NES poles. The contract allows the company to handle its own wires and enforcing the ordinance would basically nullify that component of the contract.
What This Is Really About
They're at it again. Recently, they have been called out for taking advantage of E-rate; now they are taking advantage of their own lack of infrastructure investment to worm their way out of obligations to serve low-income residents. Fortunately, a nonprofit group caught up with AT&T's shenanigans and held their feet to the fire.
"Nah, We Don't Have To Do That..."
As part of FCC-mandated conditions under which AT&T was allowed to acquire DirecTV in 2015, the telecommunications conglomerate created the "Access from AT&T" program, offering discount Internet access to low-income households. The program consists of tiered services - download speeds of 10 Megabits per second (Mbps) for $10 per month, 5 Mbps for $10 per month, and 3 Mbps for $5 per month.
The company is required to enroll households in the fastest speeds available, but a significant amount of low-income families don't qualify because the fastest speed AT&T offered to their home is 1.5 Mbps download. The problem, created by AT&T's own lack of infrastructure investment in certain neighborhoods, allowed AT&T to dodge their responsibility under the terms of the DirecTV acquisition by simply denying enrollment to households with speeds less than 3 Mbps. Trouble is, some one noticed.
NDIA In Cleveland, Detroit
The National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) realized the scope of the problem when they attempted to help families in low-income neighborhoods in Detroit and Cleveland sign up for Access from AT&T. In addition to discovering that residents could only obtain 1.5 Mbps download speeds, NDIA found that AT&T denied these households enrollment because their speeds were too slow. The only other option for ineligible households was AT&T’s normal rate for 1.5 Mbps service, which is six times the cost of the Access program.
Loopholes: All Lawyered Up And Nowhere To Go
The city of Davis, California, recently released a Request for Proposals (RFP) for a citywide fiber-optic feasibility study report. The community wants to consider the options for a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network. Responses are due October 31.
The scope of the work includes:
The study should provide an analysis of options for engineering, constructing, provisioning and operating a high speed citywide FTTP network. It should feature both physical and network transport layer components required to pass and potentially connect every home, business, apartment complex, and institutional building within the City of Davis. The analysis should also consider future use at strategic infill and edge points around the City in order to support network growth through the coming decades.
Davis wants firms to consider public private partnerships, the city’s network as an open access infrastructure, and Davis is only an infrastructure provider.
In early 2015, a group of citizens formed DavisGIG to encourage community leaders to move forward by establishing a Broadband Advisory Task Force and the feasibility study. In March, Davis established a task force to examine the possibility of deploying a network to serve municipal facilities, community anchor institutions, businesses, and residents. Incumbents Comcast, AT&T, Omsoft, and non-profit Davis Community Network offer a wide range of services now and there is little consistency for the city’s 68,000 residents.
The University of California Davis (UCD) is a major employer, as is the State of California. According to the RFP, there is a growing entrepreneurial culture springing up in Davis due to the presence of UCD’s research environment. The community wants to feed that growth with a citywide, future-proof, FTTH network.
Important due dates:
- Notice of Intent to Respond: Thursday Sept. 22, 2016
- RFP respondent questions due: Thursday Sept. 29, 2016
- Answers to questions distributed: Friday Oct. 14, 2016
- Proposals Due: Monday Oct. 31, 2016 at 3:00 p.m. PT
Send questions to Diane Parro, Chief Innovation Officer: clerkweb(at)cityofdavis.org.
On September 6th, the Nashville Metro Council approved a proposed One Touch Make Ready (OTMR) ordinance by a wide margin of 32-7 on a roll call vote (computers were down). This was the second vote to advance the ordinance, designed to streamline deployment of fiber-optic networks in a city looking for better connectivity. Elected officials responded to Nashville residents who flooded their council members’ offices with emails.
The Nashville Metro Council will take up the ordinance one last time; passage could speed up competition in the country music capital. Google Fiber has been pushing for a OTMR, while incumbents AT&T and Comcast look for a non-legislative solution to the problem of the poles while protecting their positions as dominant Internet Service Players (ISPs).
Caught Between A Rock And A Hard Stick
The city of Nashville sits on limestone, a rock that cannot support the trenching and underground work of fiber deployment. The only other option is to use the utility poles. Eighty percent of the poles are owned by the public utility Nashville Electric Service (NES), but incumbent provider AT&T owns the other 20 percent. Google Fiber says it needs to attach fiber to 88,000 poles in Nashville to build its network and about half of those (44,000) need to be prepared to host their wires.
Pole attachments are highly regulated, but there are still gray areas. Susan Crawford provides an overview of the policies and regulations on BackChannel; she accurately describes how poles can be weapons that guard monopoly position. Currently, each company that has equipment on the poles must send out a separate crew to move only their own equipment. This process can drag on for months. The OTMR ordinance is a deceptively simple solution to this delay.
Deceptively Simple, But Regulated
In late July, the FCC released a Notice of Apparent Liability (NAL) in which it found the telecommunications giant AT&T Southeast liable for a $106,425 forfeiture. The agency also ordered the company to return $63,760 of E-rate funds it described as “improperly disbursed.” AT&T overcharged two school districts in Florida and, in a response released last week, are trying to justify their pilfer by blaming the E-rate rules and the schools themselves, much as a criminal blames victims for being such easy targets.
Funded By Phone Users
E-rate funds are collected as a surcharge on telephone bills; the funds go to schools to help pay for telecommunications costs at schools, including telephone, Internet access, and infrastructure costs like fiber network construction. The amount a school district receives depends on the number of students in the district that qualify for free and reduced lunches; schools with higher numbers of low-income students are reimbursed at a higher rate. Given that many of our schools are funded through property tax rolls, this means that schools in poorer neighborhoods that are more likely to need help with their budgets receive the higher reimbursement rates.
According to the program rules, phone companies and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that participate are required to offer the “lowest corresponding price” to schools. Providers aren’t permitted to charge rates that exceed the “lowest corresponding price” or bid higher than that price on contracts to serve similarly situated entities if those entities are eligible to receive E-rate funds. School districts do not carry the burden of getting the lowest corresponding price - telephone and Internet access providers are responsible to ensure that they offer the lowest price in exchange for the opportunity to participate in the program. Between July 2012 and June 2015 alone, AT&T received $1.23 billion in E-rate funding nationwide.
Filching In Florida
The Columbus, Ohio suburb of Dublin is home to Dublink, a fiber-optic network that serves local businesses, schools, and community anchor institutions. Dublink brought new jobs and research opportunities to the local economy while saving local institutions hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.
Just recently, Dublin City School District and City of Dublin struck a deal to allow public schools to use the network. Now, residents want Dublink to deliver high-speed access to their homes.
Residents Want The Benefits, Too
This spring, Dublin residents expressed their discontent with incumbent Internet service providers (ISPs) Charter Communications and AT&T at two packed meetings. Doug McCollough, Dublin’s Chief Information Officer (CIO) summarized local sentiments in a memo to the City Council in April. In the memo and in a Columbus Business First article, McCollough downplayed the idea that the city would operate a network itself, but noted a growing impatience in his community:
"We are a city and should not be competing against telecom carriers, (but) the patience for that message is running out. Our residents want broadband service in their home for a reasonable price – now."
In 2015, Nashville welcomed Google Fiber with open arms, anticipating all the possibilities gigabit connectivity could mean for businesses and residents. The deployment is moving slowly, however, in part because of time consuming make ready work on utility poles. In order to speed up the process and establish better policy for the city in general, Nashville has just introduced a one touch make ready ordinance.
Too Many Wires
A recent Nashville Scene article described the situation, common in a number of communities where utility poles already carry a number of wires:
The thousands of poles that stand around the city, most of which are owned by Nashville Electric Service, are arranged with power on top and communications equipment in a line below that. In Nashville, this means NES equipment pushes electricity up top, while broadly speaking, gear from Comcast and AT&T — whether for home phone, cable or internet service — operates below.
Enter Google Fiber. Because Nashville largely sits on a massive bed of limestone rock, running cable underground is, for the most part, not a viable option. That means Google has to join its new friends in the industry on the poles, through a process known as Make Ready. In a typical scenario, that involves Google — or any other new company trying to enter the market or get on a particular pole — notifying NES, which will then notify each telecom company that it needs to send a crew to the pole — one after another — to move their equipment and accommodate the new party. The process can take months, even if contractually mandated time frames are followed. Google Fiber officials and operatives working on their behalf suggest that’s not always the case.
At a recent City Council meeting, New Braunfels council members approved $57,000 in funding for Phase II of a study to explore the feasibility of constructing a city-owned fiber network. The city's Industrial Development Corporation (4B Board), which helps guide the city's economic development initiatives, previously recommended moving on to this next phase of the project.
Because state laws in Texas prevent municipalities from offering retail telecommunications services, New Braunfels must advance carefully. The city is proceeding with the consultant's recommendation to pursue a public-private partnership (PPP) for the proposed network. With this second phase of the study, the consultant will help the city release a Request for Proposals (RFP) to solicit interest from would-be private Internet Service Providers (ISP) for the city-owned network.
Clarification from Christopher Mitchell: In Texas, the term telecommunications does not include Internet service. Communities cannot offer telephone service but are able to offer Internet only type services.
Some Findings from Phase I of the Feasibility Study
At a February 4B Board meeting, the New Braunfels Assistant City Manager Kristi Aday noted that the proposed network would cost the city somewhere in the range of $3 - $5 million. A major factor in determining the cost of the network, she said, is whether to use underground fiber for the network or to go with an aerial approach, using poles owned by New Braunfels Utilities.
The California State Assembly will soon vote on three bills that have significant implications for rural Internet access initiatives in the Golden State. An online Change.org petition is asking you to urge lawmakers to give local communities the authority to determine their own Internet access needs.
On April 20th, 2016, the State Assembly will vote on a bill to provide state funding for community-based efforts aimed at improving broadband access in rural areas. And during the current session this week, California Represenatives will vote on two additional bills, drafted by lobbying groups working for the telecom industry, which seek to give incumbent providers even greater power to control the quality and price of Internet access options that are available in these rural communities.
From the petition:
Bill AB1758 was drafted by rural broadband activists and sponsored by assemblymen Mark Stone, Eduardo Garcia, Marc Levine, and Mike McGuire. It extends state funding and grant programs to local agencies and consortiums to plan and build community based internet solutions in communities throughout the state that have been ignored by big telcom. The bill requires a super majority to move from committee to vote. Committee members need to hear from people around the state to move this bill forward. If it dies in committee, funding will cease, and rural communities around the state will be at the mercy of AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner, etc. AB1758 comes to discussion on April 20th, 2016.
The petition describes two other bills up for consideration, AB2130 and AB2395, which will greatly influence the use of California Advanced Services Funds, allowing large corporate cable and telecom incumbents access to those funds. Local communities will have very little opportunities to obtain those same grants under the proposed changes.