Minnesota PUC holding public hearings across MN with unhappy Frontier Customers

MPR reports on the troubles that Frontier customers are having with their broadband service…

Some of Frontier Communications’ unhappy customers have been living with poor telephone, internet and customer service for years.

“Our internet here is horrible, our provider is Frontier,” said Monica King Von Holtum who lives near Worthington in southwest Minnesota. “It’s infuriating.”

Problems with Frontier crop up when her husband also gets on his computer, or maybe a neighbor logs in.

“If I’m literally the only person using the internet, it’s fine,” said King Von Holtum. “As soon as we have one or more people using different devices it just tanks and we can’t get anything done.”

She’s supposed to get 6 megabits per second of data. But that hardly ever happens. Sitting at her computer, she demonstrates with an online internet speed test just how bad things can get.

And they customer service…

The PUC has heard from lots of unhappy customers. It’s received more than 400 comments and complaints about Frontier. One telephone customer said service drops out regularly, sometimes for as long as a week. An internet customer said Frontier’s service record shows the company lacks “common decency.” Another calls the company’s high-speed internet service “worse than dial-up.”

The PUC will be holding public hearings this Fall…

The PUC has heard from lots of unhappy customers. It’s received more than 400 comments and complaints about Frontier. One telephone customer said service drops out regularly, sometimes for as long as a week. An internet customer said Frontier’s service record shows the company lacks “common decency.” Another calls the company’s high-speed internet service “worse than dial-up.”

Many customers, like Joe and Monica King Von Holtum of Worthington, feel stuck.

“That makes me wish that maybe there was some competition out here,” said Joe King Von Holtum.

He said their only other internet options, like a satellite service, are unaffordable.

Here are the dates (according to the PUC calendar):

  • Ely September 4, 2018, at 6:00 p.m. – Vermilion Community College
  • McGregor September 5, 2018, at 6:00 p.m. – McGregor Community Center
  • Wyoming September 12, 2018, at 6:00 p.m. – Wyoming City Hall
  • Slayton September 25, 2018, at 6:00 p.m. – Slayton Public LIbrary
  • Lakeville September 26, 2018, at 2:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. – Lakeville Heritage Center

Bill Coleman and Chris Mitchell ask – Are CAF II Investments Helping Rural Minnesota?

The podcast is a good listen. Here’s the intro from Community Networks

In the most recent report from the Blandin Foundation, Researcher Bill Coleman from Community Technology Advisors and his crew put boots to the ground to examine the results of Connect America Fund (CAF II) investments. Bill recently visited our office in Minneapolis to discuss the report with Christopher for episode 318 of the  podcast.

You can download the report, Impact of CAF II-funded Networks: Lessons From Two Rural Minnesota Exchanges here.

Bill and Christopher discuss the challenges Bill and his team encountered when they initially decided to gather documentation on what services CAF II funded projects brought to rural Minnesota. In order to get past those challenges, the researchers devised a methodology that other communities can reproduce.

Once the team had answered the technical questions about infrastructure, they analyzed the results and applied them to Minnesota’s statewide goals for broadband access. They determined that, in addition to lack of transparency regarding CAF II network plans, the tendency to invest in slower speeds, including DSL, will not help Minnesota achieve its goals.

For people living in urban areas who have grown accustomed to broadband within reach, it’s hard to imagine the situation in rural Minnesota, where there are still homes that have no access to the Internet at all. The disparity in speeds and availability complicate the idea that rural folks should have access to high-quality connectivity at the same levels as people living in urban centers.

Comcast Internet Essential now available to Low-Income Vets

CED Magazine reports…

This year, Comcast is expanding eligibility to Internet Essentials to all low-income veterans living in the operator’s service footprint, which it estimates covers about 1 million eligible veterans.

The article details more of the program…

During a press conference call on Monday, Comcast’s Senior EVP and Chief Diversity Officer David Cohen said the Internet Essentials program, which provides high-speed internet service for $9.95 per month plus tax to eligible customers, is the most successful internet adoption program, outpacing other initiatives by 10 times.

And

The program has made enhancements each year, with more than 35 in all. Last year, Comcast expanded eligibility to include more families with school age children, those receiving HUD housing assistance, and low income seniors in select markets. It also increased the program’s service speed to 15 Mbps down and 2 Mbps up.

The FCC has designated the national broadband standard at 25 Mbps download speeds, though Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel recently said she believes that should be upped to 100 Mbps.

The big news is the popularity of the program…

In its seventh year running, Comcast’s program to provide low-income Americans with less expensive internet access has now connected 6 million people across the country.

And it’s good to think of people getting broadband for reduced rates. It would also be good to see them get it at the 25/3 rate mentioned above and to see the FCC increase the speed definition.

Fixed wireless project in Southeast Minnesota to start later this summer

Wallaces Farmer recently posted details on the fixed wireless happening in Southeast MN. The describe fixed wireless…

Fixed wireless broadband works in a similar fashion to cellphone communication with towers carrying a signal. Customers of fixed wireless broadband have a radio at a fixed location, maybe at home, on their farm or at a business, that communicates to an antenna on a nearby tower. Signals can be sent through a line of site to the tower approximately 5 to 7 miles depending on the strength of the radio.

And the team working on it…

Earlier this summer a unique partnership between Mabel Cooperative Telephone Co., MiEnergy Cooperative and Spring Grove Communications was announced that will bring expanded broadband access to rural residents, businesses and communities in northeast Iowa and southeast Minnesota. …

With the partnership announcement, MiEnergy Cooperative is joining Mabel Cooperative Telephone Co. and Spring Grove Communications in ownership of Harmony Telephone Co. From this partnership a new company called MiBroadband will be formed.

And the importance of broadband…

“Improved broadband access in rural areas will change the dynamic and outcome of rural America,” Finstad adds. “At USDA, we are always looking for ways to create a vibrant and future-looking community that has vitality and that can compete in a global market. This partnership is creating opportunities for families like mine to be here in rural Minnesota for generations to come.”

Impact of competitive (vs monopoly) market on broadband investment – competitive gets more attention

The Institute for Local Self Reliance has taken a deep dive into broadband providers and competition for their latest report – Profiles of Monopoly: Big Cable & Telecom. On the highest level, this is what they found…

Real Competition Drives Investment
: The telecom companies have invested in Fiber-to-the-Home in areas where they face competition, which are generally more urban areas. The advent of Google Fiber in 2011 further increased the competition in urban markets. Efforts to increase investment from the largest firms in more rural areas have largely failed. Though states have varied regulations, the same trend results in every state — investment by the large ISPs is correlated to competition rather than the regulatory environment. This reality does not suggest that competition between a cable monopoly and a telephone monopoly is sufficient for high-quality Internet access, but it clearly helps to ensure connections at the minimum definition of broadband.

Big Cable Companies Dominate: 
These networks are capable of delivering high-speed broadband to everyone within their service area, a legacy of the local franchising requirements that often required universal service or at least service to all areas with a specified density of housing. More than half of the states have since removed local authority to negotiate such provisions but they bear some responsibility for the far-reaching cable networks.

Big Cable and Telecom Focus on Urban Markets
: The big cable and telecom companies fight over urban customers, not rural customers. About 98 percent of the urban population (254 million people) have access to broadband. About 5 million urban residents, however, remain without broadband access. In rural areas, only 69 percent of the population (43.6 million people) have broadband access, leaving 19.3 million rural residents without high-speed Internet access.

The report profiles 6 providers: Comcast, Charter, AT&T, CenturyLink, Frontier, and Verizon. They track how many customer they have, their potential and the customers they have in monopoly areas versus competitive areas. The numbers are startling at times. The number of monopoly customers are a magnitude smaller than the competitive areas.

They give a nod to Blandin’s recent report – Impact of CAFII-funded Networks:  Lessons From Two Rural Exchanges Left Underserved, which highlights the fact that (federally subsidized) CAF II networks being deployed are not meeting Minnesota state speed goals. (CAFII only requires 10/1 speeds and with the quickly diminishing quality of the lines, that is what they are building to in many areas.)

The report leaves some advice for communities…

The fact is, the large providers, such as Comcast and AT&T, have not  answered the digital divide. Communities must find their own way,  whether be working in partnership with local ISPs, cooperatives, or  building their own community networks.

Lake County network – might cost locals money but it has opened economic opportunity

Earlier this week, I posted about Lake County receiving the first bid for their network. (Quick recap – Lake County got federal funding in 2010 to build the network; it is for sale.) Now the Lake County News Chronicle reports…

While getting out from under a $48.5 million debt for less than $5 million seems like a sweetheart deal for Lake County and the winning bidder, local property taxpayers are still on the hook for more than $25 million.

When the Lake County Board of Commissioners voted last week to approve a $3.5 million purchase agreement for Lake Connections, the county’s municipal broadband internet project, there were some gasps that the federal government and taxpayers could lose up to $45 million in the deal.

And there’s more owed by locals…

However, $45 million spread over the entire nation could be just the beginning of the pain for local taxpayers. According to the county’s 2016 financial statement prepared by the Minnesota Auditor’s Office — the latest statement available — the county’s broadband enterprise fund owes more than $14.3 million to the general fund and $3.3 million to the Health and Human Services fund.

In addition, the county bonded for $7.24 million in April to settle its debts with Rohl Networks and MP Nexlevel, the two main contractors on the Lake Connections project. The 15-year bond’s 3.17 percent interest rate means the county will owe an additional $2 million in interest and will owe an average annual payment of $610,000 — roughly the same amount the county has dedicated to supporting the broadband network over the past few years.

The broadband project encountered numerous hiccups and cost overruns during and after construction, forcing the county to dip into its general and health and human services funds to make up the difference in its broadband fund.

But if the county’s funds dedicated to the network remain at current levels, the county will still be more than $17 million in the hole when the bond is paid off.

All things being equal of course it would be nice to see the network more solvent for the ones who built it. And there’s a lot of math going on in the equation so I’ll go with the largest number, which was quoted in the headline – $25 million. The county taxpayers may still owe $25 million for the network.

I mentioned in my last post that I happened to look at Lake County last year for a research report. We found that the increased economic benefit to the county was $13,695,550 annually – that comes to $1,850 per household connected. As more people get connected the annual community economic benefit will increase. So within two years, the economic benefits for the community members (taxpayers) will surpass the amount owed.

That doesn’t mean the community/taxpayers will be cutting a big check at the end of each year. I assume there will be longer terms with which to work. But as a taxpayer, I’d be happy to pay back a portion each year for the increased economic benefit. Also – with broadband my house value increases 3 percent. In Lake County (tallying all of the houses with fiber) that total increased value is $38.5 million.

Again, we’d like to see everything succeed – but when the community members benefit, it’s difficult to see this as a loss.

Interactive map of CAF II 903 Auction Approved Bidders

Thanks to CNS for sending me a very cool interactive map of carriers who have been approved to bid in the upcoming auction.

It looks like there are about 19 carriers in Minnesota – scattered almost everywhere but Northeast MN. I’ve tried to list all of the MN carriers – when in doubt, I included the company although some were right on the border.

  1. Roseau Electric Cooperative
  2. Wikstrom Telephone Company, Inc.
  3. Garden Valley Telephone Company
  4. Halstad Telephone Company
  5. Red River Rural Telephone Association, Inc.
  6. Paul Bunyan Rural Telephone Cooperative
  7. Johnson Telephone Company
  8. West Central Telephone Assoc.
  9. Emily Cooperative Telephone Company
  10. Consolidated Telephone Company
  11. FDL Reservation Business Committee
  12. Federated Telephone Cooperative
  13. Farmers Mutual Telephone Company
  14. Hanson Communications, Inc.
  15. Broadband Corp.
  16. Jaguar Communications, Inc
  17. Winnebago Cooperative Telecom Association
  18. Lismore Cooperative Telephone Company
  19. Woodstock Telephone Company