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In an effort to keep families connected as schools and workplaces close in response to the novel coronavirus, many Internet service providers (ISPs) are taking steps to make their services more accessible and functional for those of us who are staying home for the foreseeable future.
Some policies are being officially encouraged by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) through Chairman Ajit Pai’s new Keep Americans Connected Pledge. By signing onto the pledge, providers agree to open Wi-Fi hotspots to the general public and to not disconnect or charge late fees to those struggling to pay bills due to the pandemic.
To ensure people have sufficient connectivity during the public health crisis, some ISPs are going beyond the pledge’s requirements by raising speeds, suspending data caps, and offering free Internet access to certain households.
While these efforts will not close all of the digital divides being exacerbated the pandemic, they are an important step toward mitigating the immediate impact on families and businesses.
Keep Americans Connected Pledge
FCC Chairman Pai announced the Keep Americans Connected Pledge last Friday, March 13. The pledge calls on ISPs to make Wi-Fi hotspots publicly accessible and to keep households and small businesses that are facing financial difficulties because of the pandemic connected over the next couple months.
As schools and businesses ask people to stay home to reduce the spread of Covid-19 coronavirus, I wanted to share some thoughts about how I expect broadband Internet access networks will handle the change and increase in broadband traffic in residential areas.
Our first reaction is that, as with so many areas with network effects, the rich will get richer. This is to say that historic inequities will be exacerbated — people that have been able to afford the high-quality networks will probably see very little disruption and those who have older networks may be effectively disconnected.
Better Network Scenarios
Those on fiber optic networks probably won't notice major changes in demand. This is the easy one — it is why we have long believed that fiber optics should be the goal for the vast majority of Americans.
Most modern cable networks should be also able to handle the demand — especially on the download end. This is good because 2 out of 3 Americans with broadband gets it from a cable network. Upgrades in recent years from the aggressive cable companies (Comcast Xfinity, Cox, and some of the many smaller cable networks — Charter Spectrum less so) should allow more than sufficient download capacity even if home video streaming increases significantly. But in smaller towns, where the local cable companies haven't been able to afford those upgrades and the bigger cable providers have just ignored them, I would expect to see intermittent and in some cases, persistent congestion problems from bottlenecks.
In the upstream direction, the cable networks will have some challenges. I wouldn't expect most Comcast or Cox markets to have too many problems, though neighborhoods with lots of professionals using video conferencing tools could congest. I would expect Charter Spectrum, Mediacom, and many of the others to have frequent congestion for upstream connections, lowering throughput extremely at times.
The people of Egremont have had it with Charter Spectrum and their shenanigans. After the latest issue pushed them too far, the town’s Select Board voted to give the company the boot.
Charter Spectrum had proposed connecting 96 percent of Egremont’s households for approximately $1.185 million, the lion’s share to be funded by a Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) last mile grant. The company, however, had not calculated make-ready costs correctly until after making their proposal. After examining the situation in Egremont, Charter Spectrum has almost doubled the estimate for the project to $2.285 million.
The difference Charter Spectrum says, is due to the need to replace 150 poles, which they say are not tall enough to accommodate their infrastructure. Charter Spectrum puts the blame on local company Fiber Connect, which has been deploying fiber in Egremont and other Berkshire towns. The national company says that Fiber Connect’s fiber optic cable has filled any room on the poles for Charter Spectrum cables.
MBI isn’t willing to fill the $1.1 million gap created by Charter Spectrum and neither is the company. Peter Larkin from MBI attended the October 15th meeting and presented an MBI proposal, in which the town would pay for half of the gap and MBI would cover the remaining $600,000. Locals at the meeting were less than thrilled.
With a population of only around 1,200 people, the news from MBI topped off an already long and frustrating process to bring high-quality Internet access to the rural town. Egremont had planned to joined Wired West, the broadband cooperative of western Massachusetts towns, but later opted to work with the national cable provider. Ever since the decision, they’ve experienced delays in negotiations, often because Charter Spectrum has remained elusive about where exactly they plan to deploy and which premises would be left out.
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.
On December 14th, FCC Chair Ajit Pai and the Republican Commissioners voted to present a huge holiday gift to big ISPs by dismantling network neutrality, despite outcries from the American people. When we examined FCC data to determine how many Americans would be left without market protections from known network neutrality violators, the numbers were discouraging. Now we’ve reached into the weeds to analyze the numbers on a statewide basis.
Percentage Of Population
The results reveal that a significant percentage of Americans will be limited to Internet access only from large monopolies that have a history of violating network neutrality and very strong incentives to abuse their market power.
Some states with higher population benefit slightly from competition relative to others — compare Florida’s 40 percent to 65 percent in Pennsylvania — but this also reflects the anti-competitive nature of big ISPs that tend to cordon off sections of the country and respectfully stay within their zones. Other, more rural states, such as Wisconsin at 66 percent, have few options because national ISPs just aren’t interested in serving areas where population is sparse and the pay-off is a long time coming. Lack of competition means high probability of service from one of the big four known violators in our study — AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, and Charter.
In this chart, we've listed states in order of greatest percentage of impacted population:
Update 12/22/2017: Original maps generated on December 11th and used for these fact sheets understated the population of Americans forced to obtain services from known network neutrality violators. The problem is even greater than we originally calculated. We've update our maps and our fact sheets to reflect the more accurate data.
Network neutrality protects Americans from the ability of powerful ISPs to exercise unchecked power over what subscribers access and how quickly they receive certain content. The neutral characteristic of the Internet is one of its finest qualities. If Republican FCC Commissioners and Chairman Ajit Pai vote to shred network neutrality on December 14th as they’ve indicated, 177 million Americans will be left to the whims of a flawed market.
Mapping It Out, Presenting The Fact (Sheets)
We recently presented visualizations based on FCC Form 477 data that supports our findings on the way the repeal will limit vast swaths of people to a bleak Internet access future. Nationwide, approximately 29 million people have no broadband Internet access. Another 129 million will have no ability to change Internet access providers because there is no other option. Out of those folks, 48 million are forced to take service from an ISP that is a known network neutrality violator. Likewise, 146 million may have a choice between two ISPs, but about 52 million must choose between two network neutrality violators that have actively worked to undermine the policy for years.
Our team also parsed out the numbers for California and the East Coast from Maine to Virginia. The results are just as discouraging.
In our fact sheets, we focused on the number of people who either have no broadband access or who will be forced to take service from a firm that is a known violator of network neutrality. We've included our maps to help illustrate just how pervasive this problem is in each region.
Update 12/20/2017: Original maps generated on December 11th understated the population of Americans forced to obtain services from known network neutrality violators. The problem is even greater than we originally calculated, particularly in New York. End update.
This Thursday, December 14th, the FCC plans to remove network neutrality protections. Republican Commissioners and Chairman Ajit Pai justify the decision by claiming that the market will naturally protect subscribers from predatory big ISP behavior. Unfortunately, the FCC’s own numbers disprove their theory. We dug into the data that reveals how 177 million Americans will be left without any market protection following net neutrality repeal.
Visualizing The Data
Using FCC 477 data, we created a visualization of relevant data. This map focuses on the people and businesses at greatest risk - where they are limited to options from providers that have violated network neutrality in the past or have admitted the plans to violate it in the future.
For a larger image, download this version [18 MB png].
The results are not inspiring. More than 129 million people are limited to a single provider for broadband Internet access using the FCC definition of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. Out of those 129 million Americans, about 52 million must obtain Internet access from a company that has violated network neutrality protections in the past and continues to undermine the policy today.
When a community is plagued with poor connectivity, it impacts residents, businesses, schools, and government. Several entities within a community sometimes band together to explore solutions. In Grand Island, New York, the Town Board and the School District are pooling resources in search of possibilities.
The town entered into a contract for Internet access with Time Warner Cable, which was purchased by Charter Communications; the company now serves the town under the name “Spectrum.” According to Town Supervisor Nathan McMurray, he’s measured speeds in Town Hall, which dip as slow as 5 to 10 Megabits per second (Mbps). The cable provider claims that its speeds are 50 Mbps. "I can't find anyone who has had 50 Mbps, the fastest I've seen is 25," said McMurray. "Every week I receive screenshots from people complaining."
Grand Island (population approximately 21,000) is in the Niagara River and considered part of Erie County. The county is at the western border of the state with Canada; Buffalo is the nearest American urban center.
A Middle Mile Partnership?
The town and the school district have commissioned a feasibility study to examine the idea of investing in a publicly owned fiber-optic line through the middle of the island. The city hopes the investment will encourage more providers to move into the area and build out last mile infrastructure to serve the community.
School district representatives mentioned that they are satisfied with the service the schools now receive from the Board of Cooperative Educational Services, but are in interested in the benefits of owning the infrastructure:
"By building their own infrastructure (the school district) will have at least as good as service as they do now, but they will own the lines," said McMurray of the potential for a partnership. "And by leveraging the power of the schools the municipal infrastructure will benefit as well. By involving the school this puts this into the realm of possibility."
Even though they don't have to chip in any local funds, the town of Shutesbury, Massachusetts, rejected Charter’s proposal to build a hybrid fiber coaxial network in their community. They don’t consider the proposal a “good long-term solution to bring broadband to our town" and prefer to build a publicly owned fiber-optic network for future-proof technology, provider accountability, and local control.
You Get What You Pay For
Unlike Charter’s proposal to serve only 96 percent of the homes in the community, the town made a commitment to include all members of the community some time ago. Charter would not extend its proposal to include about three dozen properties that are further out unless the town committed to providing funds above and beyond what the state offered to provide as part of the proposal. Board of Selectmen Chair Michael Vinskey went on to tell MassLive that Charter would not commit to a specific cost for extending a network to those additional homes.
In the words of Vinskey, committing to such an ambiguous arrangement, “would not be fiscally responsible.” No kidding.
Shutesbury authorized spending for a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network once already. In 2015, folks at the annual Town Meeting voted to approve $1.7 million in bonding to pay for the infrastructure. They’ll take another vote this May for the debt exclusion authorization, as required by state law.
Community leaders estimate deployment to every property at approximately $2.57 million. Their share of the state grants that are to be distributed by MBI come to $870,000 for construction and professional services. Like the community of Leverett, Shutesbury intends to use a modest property tax increase to fund the infrastructure investment.
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.