Dear rural wireless customer – you’re fired!

I love hot weather – but maybe as a Minnesotan I’m not ready for 90 degrees in mid-September because things are making me crabby. For example the fact that Verizon is cutting off 20,000 rural cell customers in states like Maine, Michigan, North Dakota and Montana because they spend too much time roaming. The Rural Blog gives a quick description of the situation…

Verizon is disconnecting wireless service to rural users in several states, including Maine and Montana, saying they use too much data to make service profitable. The issue centers on Verizon’s LTE in Rural America program, which Verizon say has brought coverage to more nearly 2.4 million people since its inception in 2010. Verizon partners with 21 small rural carriers around the country and pays them when its customers end up roaming off Verizon’s cell network and onto the rural carriers’ network. The affected customers have Verizon’s “unlimited” data plan, but don’t live in Verizon’s native service area. Verizon may be losing money on these perpetually roaming customers, Jon Brodkin reported for Ars Technica in June, when Verizon first began cutting off rural customers.

As a private company, Verizon can do what it wants. (Although Stop the Cap outlines the specifics of the services procured and now cut off in some of the states listed. Part of the frustration is that local partners – sometimes public partners – built infrastructure to entice Verizon to their areas and now Verizon is walking away.)

But this is a reminder that we need to reconsider broadband and telephone (cell or landline) standing as utilities!

There has been a push to deregulate VoIP in Minnesota – or more specifically recognize that all telephone calls are quickly transferred to IP (Internet Protocol) so in practice it’s a push to deregulate POTS (plain old telephone service). The push is an attempt to level the playing field because traditional phone companies are held to a pretty stringent standard and are expected to compete with wireless providers, who are not. No doubt, it isn’t fair.

But I think seeing this action from Verizon indicates that lowering the bar leaves consumers unprotected. Maybe the answer is that we level the playing field on higher ground!

Talking about the attempt to deregulate phone service (in April 2017) Representative Sheldon Johnson and Senator Simonson said the following…

First, under the bill there will no longer be a right to have phone service. It is expensive and unprofitable to serve rural customers and maintain infrastructure. Companies will invest their money in densely populated, more profitable urban areas and disinvest in maintenance of the network in rural, more expensive-to-serve, less profitable areas. Rural consumers will experience decreasing service quality and more outages as the system is allowed to deteriorate and resources are moved elsewhere.

Second, existing protections against charging exorbitant connection or reconnection charges would be gone. If the bill becomes law, phone companies can shut you off for no reason even if you always pay their bill on time or without notice if you are late. Companies can shut off customers simply because they are too expensive to serve and not sufficiently profitable. Who are these customers? They are older Minnesotans, people with disabilities, people on fixed incomes, and people who live in Greater Minnesota.

Third, AT&T and Comcast tell legislators that deregulation will produce more competition, lower prices, better service, more jobs, and broadband for everyone. Beware of would-be deregulated telecommunications companies bearing “gifts.”

Their second point sounds prophetic now – if you add “cell” to “phone companies”. Communication (broadband and phone) is a lifeline. Perhaps more policymakers need to look at it from that lens.

RS Fiber Announces Faster Wireless Broadband Speeds and Expanded Coverage

Good news from RS Fiber…

Winthrop, MN – RS Fiber has announced it will be offering a second level of broadband speed and expanding coverage area of its wireless broadband service, RS Air.

Company officials say a download speed of 50 Mbps will be available to RS Air customers. This is an enhanced option from the 25 Mbps currently offered for the rural broadband service. The 50 Mbps speed is currently available to 90% of the wireless broadband service area.

Hiawatha Broadband Communications (HBC), the operator for the RS Fiber Network, has served high speed broadband wireless service of 50 Mbps in its own HBC markets for the past year. Following a period of testing in the RS Fiber network, the service became available in August.

HBC President & CEO, Dan Pecarina, states that this speed increase will be of great value customers.

“Our mission at RS Fiber is to bring the best service possible to our customers whether that is Gigabit service from the fiber optic network in town or broadband wireless to the most rural areas of the townships we serve. With more households using more devices, this speed increase option will make it easier for the kids to do their homework at night and for mom and dad to get their online work done too.”

The coverage area of RS Air will also increase with the addition of several new towers. Toby Brummer, RS Fiber General Manager, said that the availability of RS Air service depends on the signal levels received from the tower to the home or business.  He said anyone interested in RS Air wireless broadband service should call (800) 628-1754 to schedule a site check to see if RS Air service is available at their location.

MN Broadband Task Force: Fixed wireless, satellite, CAF and MN grant challenge process

Today the Minnesota Broadband Task Force met; the topics of the day were fixed wireless and satellite. It was interesting to hear from the various vendors. In short they got an update on what’s going on with fixed wireless and then a demo of satellite. (There was public feedback in the form of letters that came in from rural satellite users.)

I think most folks in the room would agree that this is the B-side of broadband. (There might not be agreement on whether they will stay on the B-side.) These are the folks that are interested in serving rural areas and/or in playing the role of competitor to an incumbent provider. We heard dismay at how CAF money is being spent on expanding slower connections – rather than upgrading services. The presenters attract customers who have slow connections and whose providers have said they have no plans to upgrade. They see the frustration and are able to capitalize on it by offering service that they say is better.

One red flag was a discussion on the CBRS (citizen band radio spectrum) and fear that the government may sell that public property to the highest bidder. A bidder that may choose to not use the spectrum. The problem is that can keep the competition away – leaving community members with limited choice for broadband.

Folks were also talking about the grant challenge process for the MN broadband funds in light of what’s happening in Kandiyohi County. (I will try to get more details on what’s going on there.) The issue is that a grant applicant must inform an incumbent (or nearby) provider if they intend to seek funds to upgrade service. Then the incumbent/nearby provider has a chance to challenge. One issue is that even if they don’t challenge – they know competition is coming, which means they can make just enough changes to make it difficult for the newcomer to the area. (Discussion at 3:30 in video below.)

Lots of interesting discussion….

 Here are more detailed notes… Continue reading

Nobles County board approves $1 million gift for broadband

According to the Daily Globe

Commissioner Gene Metz stepped away from his seat on the Nobles County board Tuesday morning to wear his second hat — that of vice president of Lismore Cooperative Telephone Co. (LCTC) — to ask the board to financially support the completion of Nobles County’s broadband project, to the tune of nearly $1 million.

After some discussion, it passed on a 4-0 vote with Metz abstaining.

Earlier this year, LCTC was awarded a $2.94 million grant from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, but another $1 million in anticipated grant funding fell through. In need of additional funding to complete the project, representatives from the cooperative appeared before commissioners in April seeking a $3 million loan. Discussion later turned to bonding for the money.

The article details the reasons why the commissioners decided to support the work of the cooperative…

“If you feel strongly enough, it’s economic development for the county,” he added.

Commissioner Justin Ahlers said he wanted to go on record saying the broadband project is essentially “building a library.”

“We’re not investing in bricks and mortar, but it’s impacting everyone in the county,” Ahlers said. “Internet is the way it is now. I can’t see us going backwards.”

HBC Services Now Available in New Trier

Good news from HBC, especially for New Trier…

Hiawatha Broadband Communications, Inc., (HBC) announces its high-speed broadband services are now available in New Trier.

HBC officials state that residents and businesses can now begin connecting to the state-of-the-art fiber-optic network.  HBC President and CEO, Dan Pecarina, said New Trier customers will be able to enjoy the full range of the company’s services.

“We are excited to be able to provide our new customers access to super-fast Internet with speeds up to one Gigabit as well as high-definition Video, and crystal-clear Phone service. The service will truly be something they have not experienced before,” he said.

All three HBC services: Internet, Video, and Phone are available to New Trier residents. Internet service features speeds up to one Gigabit. HBC Video offers up to 350 channels including nearly 130 HD channels and local programming produced by HBC Studios. Phone service options include Unlimited Local and Long Distance Calling and other home phone options. Customers will be able to keep their current phone number upon switching services.

Anyone interested in HBC services is encouraged to call (888) 474-9995 to speak with a Customer Care Representative.

New Trier customers are also eligible for HBC’s Cornerstone program. Any customer choosing 100 Mbps Internet service will have the option of upgrading to Gigabit speeds with no increase to their monthly bill.

Construction of the high-speed HBC broadband network is currently underway in Miesville and Cannon Falls. Services will be available in those communities this fall.

Does your broadband provider use data caps? Check this list to find out

Broadband Now has recently compiled a list of broadband providers that offer plans with data caps. There is a huge range of caps – from 4GB to 3000GB. Just about every mode of broadband transport is listed too – fiber, fixed wireless, satellite, cable and DSL. It doesn’t appear to have cellular plans listed. (So if you’re using a mobile hotspot it won’t be listed here.)

To put the caps in perspective, last year iGR reported that the average broadband data usage for a household (of 4) is 190 gigabytes per month.

Here’s Broadband Now’s explanation of data caps…

Data caps have emerged in recent years as a way for Internet providers to police bandwidth usage on their networks. Rather than letting everyone use the “pipe” as much as they want, the broadband industry in the US seems to be moving towards a “pay as you go” model where customers who use more data than other will have to pay extra for it.

Statements from Internet providers suggest that data caps are a necessary step to combat network congestion. Opponents of data caps believe that the motivation for data caps has more to do with recovering declining cable revenue or creating a roadblock for streaming services like Netflix. Whichever side you believe, the outcome is the same — data caps are becoming commonplace.

When you shop for an Internet plan, keep in mind that Internet providers often advertise their data caps as “data plans” or “data limits.”

Sitting in St Paul, I’m tempted to ask myself – who would choose a broadband provider with a data cap? Especially one with a limit significantly lower than the average used. Truth of the matter is some folks don’t have a choice. I hear from those folks often. They are out of range for provider “in town” and often only have access to a provider with a data cap.

What’s the take on Microsoft’s proposal to bring broadband to rural areas?

I wrote about the Microsoft proposal to bring broadband to rural areas when it first came out. I had some reservations – many based on satellite being the solution for the last mile. I think that leaves that last mile falling farther and farther down the digital divide. I’ve seen a few other takes on Microsoft’s plan; others have reservations too.

Susan Crawford (in Wired) points out that Microsoft is really looking at broadband for the Internet of Things…

Here’s what’s really going on: Microsoft is aiming to be the soup-to-nuts provider of Internet of Things devices, software, and consulting services to zillions of local and national governments around the world. Need to use energy more efficiently, manage your traffic lights, target preventative maintenance, and optimize your public transport—but you’re a local government with limited resources and competence? Call Microsoft. …

Now let’s get behind those laudatory headlines in the Times and Post. Microsoft doesn’t want to have to rely on existing mobile data carriers to execute those plans. Why? Because the carriers will want a pound of flesh—a percentage—in exchange for shipping data generated by Microsoft devices from Point A to Point B. These costs can become very substantial over zillions of devices in zillions of cities. The carriers have power because, in many places, they are the only ones allowed to use airwave frequencies—spectrum—under licenses from local governments for which they have paid hundreds of millions of dollars. To eliminate that bottleneck, it will be good to have unlicensed spectrum available everywhere, and cheap chipsets and devices available that can opportunistically take advantage of that spectrum. …

And hustled is what we will be if we believe that Microsoft’s plans, by themselves, will fix America’s desperate internet access problem in rural areas. You see, while using white spaces will certainly be better than nothing in rural locations, those guard bands simply aren’t wide enough to allow for genuine, world-class internet data transmission to human beings in living rooms. Not possible. Not enough bandwidth. True, where commercial mobile radio (like AT&T and Verizon) isn’t available at all, white spaces will definitely help. You could use it for Internet of Things applications that are very very useful, as in advanced agriculture—don’t need to send much data to do that. But you would never use a white spaces transmission service alone if you didn’t have to. You’d end up with maybe a handful of Mbps or even less—hundreds of times less than what people with fiber would be getting. White spaces will definitely be another arrow in the quiver used by local fixed wireless operations, but they are no kind of substitute for actual great consumer internet access in rural areas.

From a discussion with Harold Feld on Community Broadband Network’s Podcast

And again, it’s important to recognize that TV White Space isn’t so much a technology as a bunch of frequencies we’re opening up so that people can develop new technologies. Right now, and again, it’s important to keep in mind there’s a difference between speeds you get in the laboratory, versus speeds that you can actually get in the real world. Right now, I think what they’re talking about is putting out networks that would operate at 45 megabits per second, symmetrical both ways, which, in a lot of rural areas, is much better than what you now. Even for a lot of folks in urban areas, if you do it cheaply and affordably, that’s better than the options that are available at much higher prices from the cable companies. The problem is wireless is very complicated, and we’re talking about devices that are operating at comparatively very low power. Television stations operate at 50,000 watts. Your TV White Space device is operating at one watt for the fixed devices, even less than that in microwatts for the more mobile devices when those come out. So, the other thing that people have to keep in mind is your speed or your broadband network isn’t just about the wireless part, it also then depends a lot on the back haul, what’s available. If you’re using wireless to bring it back to some place where it will land on fiber for back haul, then every hop cost to you moves from one tower to another, costs you more speed. So, we’re probably talking initially things that are more in the range of 10 megabits per second down with potentially the same or slightly less up. So, initially, this is going to be good for people who don’t really have anything, and it will give them stuff that’s useful, but not up to where it needs to be. Now, again, the technology’s going to keep getting better as it moves along, and the Microsoft folks have said, “We’re depending on a bunch of other inputs; we’re depending on the FCC doing things to make it possible to use the spectrum more effectively; we’re depending on finding ways to do things like getting fiber out, not in the communities to serve the communities, at least close enough that we can use it as back haul for the networks that are set up with these TV White Space devices.” So, everybody should keep in mind — Listeners should keep in mind that we’re at the beginning here. In rural areas, you have a lot of open TV White Spaces, because you have a lot of unused channels. That gives you a lot of capacity so you can get better speed on the wireless side, but that’s offset by having, in a lot of places, still needing to use copper, or some kind of wireless for you back haul. So, that drops the parent speed. I would say look for this to be more like eight to ten megabits locally, at least in the first generation deployments.

Craig Settle via Daily Yonder points out that local communities must have some ownership …

What’s really at issue here is that if communities are not holding the driving wheel on broadband projects and they don’t own or at least rent the vehicle, they are ultimately a passenger in someone else’s ride. At some point, the needs of the network owner could trump the needs of the community.

Odasz recalls that, “we have not seen Microsoft do any meaningful outreach to rural America as in terms of meeting the particular web-based challenges that these communities have. Microsoft’s TVWS strategy relies heavily on incumbents and politicians, which historically have fallen short on resolving rural broadband needs.”

Odasz believes that the private sector is all in favor of training that could lead to jobs such as programming or working in a data center. However, they fall short when teaching displaced workers in manufacturing or mining how to become e-commerce entrepreneurs, or how to use broadband to improve in their current blue-collar or professional Jobs. The politics of communication regulation have led politicians to support “incumbents” – the legacy telephone companies – rather than new approaches. Programs to help constituents defray the cost of broadband can be hit or miss.

Similar to Google’s entry into broadband, the Microsoft TVWS announcement is good news for getting infrastructure into more places, particularly within rural communities. The jury is still out has to how much this new connectivity will improve local economies, education, and healthcare for those in the communities who need broadband most.