Windstream Turns Focus to Wireless

Windstream CEO Tony Thomas recently told investors that the company plans to stress wireless technology over copper going into the future. The company has been using point-to-point wireless to serve large businesses for several years. The company has more recently been using fixed point-to-multipoint wireless technology to satisfy some of it’s CAF II build-out requirements.

Thomas says that the fixed wireless technology blows away what could be provided over the old copper plant with DSL. In places with flat and open terrain like Iowa and Nebraska the company is seeing rural residential broadband speeds as fast as 100 Mbps with wireless – far faster than can be obtained with DSL.

Thomas also said that the company is also interested in fixed 5G deployments, similar to what Verizon is now starting to deploy – putting 5G transmitters on poles to serve nearby homes. He says the company is interested in the technology in places where they are ‘fiber rich’. While Windstream serves a lot of extremely rural locations, there also serve a significant number of towns and small cities in their incumbent service areas that might be good candidates for 5G.

The emphasis on wireless deployments puts Windstream on the same trajectory as AT&T. AT&T has made it clear numerous times to the FCC that they company would like to tear down rural copper wherever it can to serve customers with wireless. AT&T’s approach differs in that AT&T will be using its licensed cellular spectrum and 4G LTE in rural markets while Windstream would use unlicensed spectrum like various WISPs.

This leads me to wonder if Windstream will join the list of big telcos that will largely ignore its existing copper plant moving into the future. Verizon has done it’s best to sell rural copper to Frontier and seems to be largely ignoring its remaining copper plant – it’s the only big telcos that didn’t even bother to chase the CAF II money that could have been used to upgrade rural copper.

The new CenturyLink CEO made it clear that the company has no desire to make any additional investments that will earn ‘infrastructure returns’, meaning investing in last mile networks, both copper and fiber. You can’t say that Frontier doesn’t want to continue to support copper, but the company is clearly cash-stressed and is widely reported to be ignoring needed upgrades and repairs to rural copper networks.

The transition from copper to wireless is always scary for a rural area. It’s great that Windstream can now deliver speeds up to 100 Mbps to some customers. However, the reality of wireless networks are that there are always some customers who are out of reach of the transmitters. These customers may have physical impediments such as being in a valley or behind a hill and out of line-of-sight from towers. Or customers might just live to far away from a tower since all of the wireless technologies only work for some fixed distance from a tower, depending upon the specific spectrum being used.

It makes no sense for a rural telco to operate two networks, and one has to wonder what happens to the customers that can’t get the wireless service when the day comes when the copper network gets torn down. This has certainly been one of the concerns at the FCC when considering AT&T’s requests to tear down copper. The current FCC has relaxed the hurdles needed to tear down copper and so this situation is bound to arise. In the past the telcos had carrier of last-resort obligations for anybody living in the service area. Will they be required to somehow get wireless signal to those customers that fall between the cracks? I doubt that anybody will force them to do so. It’s not far-fetched to imagine customers living within a regulated telcos service area who can’t get telephone or broadband service from the telco.

Customers in these areas also have to be concerned with the future. We have wide experience that the current wireless technologies don’t last very long. We’ve seen electronics wear out and become functionally obsolete within seven years. Will Windstream and the other telcos chasing the wireless technology path dedicate enough capital to constantly replace electronics? We’ll have to wait for that answer – but experience says that they will cut corners to save money.

I also have to wonder what happens to the many parts of the Windstream service areas that are too hilly or too wooded for the wireless technology. As the company becomes wireless-oriented will they ignore the parts of the company stuck with copper? I just recently visited some rural counties that are heavily wooded, and which were told by local Windstream staff that the upgrades they’ve already seen on copper (which did not seem to make much difference) were the last upgrades they might ever see. If Windstream joins the other list of big telcos that will ignore rural copper, then these networks will die a natural death from neglect. The copper networks of all of the big telcos are already old and it won’t take much neglect to push these networks into the final death spiral.

Carrier of Last Resort

Every once in a while I see a regulatory requirement that makes me scratch my head. One of the requirements of the current CAF II reverse auction is that every winner must become an Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC) before receiving the funding – and I wonder why this is needed? This requirement is coupled with another puzzling requirement that anybody taking this funding must provide telephone service in addition to broadband. Since the purpose of the CAF II program is to expand rural broadband these requirements seem incongruous with the purpose of the program.

The ETC regulatory status was created by the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Congress created this new class of carriers to mean any carrier that is willing to provide basic services within a specified geographic area (and in 1996 this was specified as providing voice service) and for that willingness to serve would be eligible to receive any available subsidies.

While this is not in writing anywhere, I’m guessing that these requirements are part of the ongoing plan to erode the rural carrier of last resort obligation (COLR) for the big telcos. Carrier of last resort is a regulatory concept that is applied by regulators to utility infrastructure providers including telco incumbents, electric, gas and water providers. The textbook definition of carrier of last resort is a utility provider that is required by law to serve customers within a defined service area, even if serving that customer is not economically viable. Further a COLR is required to charge just and reasonable prices and generally has legal hurdles that make it difficult to withdraw from serving within the defined service area.

We are seeing rural carrier of last resort obligations eroding all over the place. For example, the FCC is proposing rules that will allow copper providers to tear down copper networks with no obligation to replace them with some alternate technology.

I think this requirement in the CAF II reverse auction is along the same vein. All of the areas covered by this auction are within the historic regulated footprint of one of the large telcos. Except for the Verizon service areas, where Verizon did not accept the original CAF II funding, these are the most remote customers in this auction are in very rural areas. These are the customers at the far end of long copper lines who have no broadband, and likely no quality telephone service.

Anybody accepting the CAF II reverse funding must file for ETC status for those census blocks where they are getting funding. This is a requirement even if the auction winner is only going to be serving one or two people within that census block. Census blocks are areas that generally include 600 – 800 homes. In cities a census block might be as small as a block or two, but in rural areas a census block can be large.

My bet is that the large telcos are going to claim that they no longer have carrier of last resort in any rural area where there is now a second ETC. They will ask regulators why they need to serve a new home built in one of these areas if there is another carrier with similar obligations. If that’s the case, then this reverse auction is going to remove huge chunks of rural America from having a carrier of last resort provider. It’s likely that incumbent telcos will use the existence of a second ETC to avoid having to bring service to new homes.

I have an even more nagging worry. ETC status is something that is granted by state regulatory commissions. In granting this status it’s possible that some states are going to interpret this to mean that a new ETC might have some carrier of last resort obligations. If the incumbent telco tears down the copper network, it’s not unreasonable to think that state regulators might turn to the new ETC in an area to serve newly constructed homes and businesses.

I would caution anybody seeking ETC status as part of getting this funding to make sure they are not unknowingly picking up carrier of last resort obligations along with that status. If I was making such a filing myself I would query the regulators directly to get their response on the record.

I will be the first to tell you that I could be off base on this – but this feels like one of those regulatory requirements that could have hidden consequences. I can’t think of any reason why this program would require a new provider to supply telephone service other than for letting the large telcos off the hook to do so. I know that many companies going after this funding would think twice about taking it if it means they become the carrier of last resort.

Carrier-of-Last-Resort Obligations

Earlier this month the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia upheld FCC orders that still require large telcos to be the carrier-of-last-resort provider of telephone service for at least some of their service territory. The ruling is the result of appeals made by CenturyLink and AT&T that required them to provide telephone service to new rural households.

The idea of carrier of last resort has been part of the telephone industry for nearly as long as the FCC has been regulating the industry. The concept was a key component of spreading the telephone network to all corners of the country – the Congress and the early FCC understood that the whole country was better off if everybody was connected.

Over the years the FCC and various state regulatory commissions ruled that telcos had to make a reasonable effort to connect rural customers. Telcos always had the option to petition against adding customers in really hard to reach places like mountaintops, but for the most part telcos routinely added new homes to the telephone network.

Carrier-of-last-resort started to weaken with the introduction of competition from the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Since that time the big telcos have been able to walk away from carrier-of-last-resort obligations in most of their territory. This court order ruled that in areas where the telcos are still receiving federal high cost support that the telcos are still obligated to connect homes that request service.

I worked for Ma Bell pre-divestiture and there was a real pride in the telephone industry that the network reached out to everybody. Telcos then also deployed huge numbers of pay telephones throughout the network to reach those that couldn’t afford phone service – even though they lost money on many of the payphones. The Bell company and the smaller independent telcos made it their mission to extend the network to everybody.

This order made a few comments, though, that puzzled me. They point out that many of the high-cost areas served by the big telcos are up for new funding from the upcoming CAF II auctions. Any winners of that auction are required to file to become the Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC) for any areas they receive funding. The discussion in the court order implies that these new ETCs will become the carrier-of-last-resort in these areas.

That surprised me because there are plenty of carriers that have ETC status and yet are not the obligated carrier-of-last-resort. The best example is the same big telcos examined in this case who are the ETC of record for their whole footprints but now only have carrier-of-last-resort obligations for the last most rural areas covered by this case. There have been stories for years of people who built new homes, even in urban areas, and are refused service by both the telco and cable company. The cable companies have no carrier-of-last-resort obligations, but it’s clear that in many places the telcos have been able to walk away from the obligation.

I think that companies seeking the CAF II reverse auction funding might be surprised by this interpretation of the rules. Being carrier-of-last-resort means that a carrier is obligated to build to reach anybody in the covered area that requests telephone service. The reverse auction doesn’t even require total coverage of the covered census blocks and that seems to be in conflict with the court’s interpretation. The reverse auction census blocks are some of the most sparsely populated areas of the country and building to even one remote customer in some of these areas could be extremely expensive.

Unfortunately, the carrier-of-last-resort obligation only applies to telephone service and not to broadband. It would be nice to see this concept applied to broadband and the FCC missed a good opportunity to do this when they handed out billions of federal dollars in the CAF II plan. With that plan the big telcos are only required to make their best effort to reach customers with broadband in the areas that got the CAF II funding – I’m hearing from rural people all over the country that a lot of the CAF II areas aren’t seeing any upgrades. For the most part the idea of carrier-of-last resort and universal coverage are becoming quaint concepts of our past.

When Customers Use Their Data

In a recent disturbing announcement ,Verizon Wireless will be disconnecting service to 8,500 rural customers this month for using too much data on their cellphones. The customers are scattered around 13 states and are a mix those with both unlimited and limited data plans.

Verizon justifies this because these customers are using data where Verizon has no direct cell towers, meaning that these customers are roaming on cellular data networks owned by somebody else. Since Verizon pays for roaming the company say that these customers are costing them more in roaming charges than what the company collects in monthly subscription fees.

Verizon may well have a good business case for discontinuing these particular data customers if they are losing money on each customer. But the act of disconnecting them opens up a lot of questions and ought to be a concern to cellular customers everywhere.

This immediately raises the question of ‘carrier of last resort’. This is a basic principle of utility regulation that says that utilities, such as traditional incumbent telephone companies, must reasonably connect to everybody within their service territory. Obviously cellular customers don’t fall under this umbrella since the industry is competitive and none of the cellular companies have assigned territories.

But the lines between cellular companies and telcos are blurring. As AT&T and Verizon take down rural copper they are offering customers a wireless alternative. But in doing so they are shifting these customers from being served by a regulated telco to a cellular company that doesn’t have any carrier of last resort obligations. And that means that once converted to cellular that Verizon or AT&T would be free to then cut these customers loose at any time and for any reason. That should scare anybody that loses their rural copper lines.

Secondly, this raises the whole issue of Title II regulation. In 2015 the FCC declared that broadband is a regulated service, and that includes cellular data. This ruling brought cable companies and wireless companies under the jurisdiction of the FCC as common carriers. And that means that customers in this situation might have grounds for fighting back against what Verizon is doing. The FCC has the jurisdiction to regulate and to intervene in these kinds of situations if they regulate the ISPs as common carriers. But the current FCC is working hard to reverse that ruling and it’s doubtful they would tackle this case even if it was brought before them.

Probably the most disturbing thing about this is that it’s scary for these folks being disconnected. Rural homes do not want to use cellular data as their only broadband connection because it’s some of the most expensive broadband in the world. But many rural homes have no choice since this is their only broadband alternative to do the things they need to do with broadband. While satellite data is available almost everywhere, the incredibly high latency on satellite data means that it can’t be used for things like maintaining a connection to a school server to do homework or to connect to a work server to work at home.

One only has to look at rural cellular networks to understand the dilemma many of these 8,500 households might face. The usable distance for a data connection from a cellular tower is only a few miles at best, much like the circles around a DSL hub. It is not hard to imagine that many of these customers actually live within range of a Verizon tower but still roam on other networks.

Cellular roaming is an interesting thing. Every time you pick up your cellphone to make a voice or data connection, your phone searches for the strongest signal available and grabs it. This means that the phones of rural customers that don’t live right next to a tower must choose between competing weaker signals. Customers in this situation might be connected to a non-Verizon tower without it being obvious to them. Most cellphones have a tiny symbol that warns when users are roaming, but since voice roaming stopped being an issue most of us ignore it. And it’s difficult or impossible on most phones to choose which tower to connect to. Many of these customers being disconnected might have always assumed they actually were using the Verizon network. But largely it’s not something that customers have much control over.

I just discussed yesterday how we are now in limbo when it comes to regulating the broadband practices of the big ISPs. This is a perfect example of that situation because it’s doubtful that the customers being disconnected have any regulatory recourse to what is happening to them. And that bodes poorly to rural broadband customers in general – just one more reason why being a rural broadband customer is scary.

Retiring the Copper Networks

telephone cablesAttached is a copy of FCC Docket DA-14-1272 where Verizon is asking to discontinue copper service in the towns of Lynnfield, MA, Farmingdale, NJ, Belle Harbor, NY, Orchard Park, NY, Hummelstown, PA and Ocean View, VA. In this docket the FCC is asking for public comments before it will consider the request.

In these particular towns Verizon is claiming that almost all of the households are already served by fiber and they are seeking to move the remaining households to fiber so they can disconnect and discontinue the use of the copper networks there. And perhaps if there are only five percent of lines left on copper in these towns that might be a reasonable request by Verizon. But this does prompt me to talk about the whole idea of discontinuing older copper networks, because both Verizon and AT&T have said that they would like to eliminate most of their copper by 2020.

In the case of Verizon it’s a tall order to get rid of all copper because they still have 4.9 million customers on copper with 5.5 million customers that have been moved to fiber. AT&T has a much larger problem since they don’t use fiber to serve residential customers except in a few rare cases. But both big carriers have made it a priority to get people off copper.

Many customers are unhappy with the idea of losing their copper and many have complained that they are getting a lot of pressure from the big telcos to drop their copper. There are numerous Verizon customers who say they are contacted monthly to get off the copper and they feel like they are being harassed. There are a few different issues to consider when talking about this topic.

Not everybody that loses copper will get fiber. Of the big telcos only Verizon even owns a residential fiber network. But even the Verizon FiOS network doesn’t go everywhere and they are not expanding the fiber network to new neighborhoods. For customers that live where there is no fiber, the goal is to move them to a DSL-based service or, in the case of AT&T to cellular phones.

Interestingly when a telco moves a customer from POTs (Plain Old Telephone Service) on copper to VoIP on DSL the telco will keep using the identical old copper wires. They will have changed the technology being used from analog to digital. But more importantly in most cases they will have changed the customers from being on a regulated product to an unregulated one. And that is one of the primary thrusts to get people off POTs.

POTs service is fully covered by a slew of regulations that are aimed at protecting consumers, such as carrier-of-last-resort obligations that require telcos to connect anybody who asks for service.  But in most states those same protections don’t apply to VoIP or fiber service. The most important right that customers lose with VoIP are the capped prices, meaning that the prices for VoIP or fiber service could be raised at any time by any amount. And the carrier-of-last-resort obligations have real-life impact even for existing customers. If a customer is late paying their bill on a VoIP network, Verizon would be within their rights to refuse to connect them back to service when they pay.

There are customers who want to stay on POTs on copper for various reasons. One reason is that POTs phones are powered by the copper network and so they keep working when the power goes out. There are still parts of the country where the power goes out regularly or where there is a reasonable expectation of hurricanes or ice storms. For example, houses that still had copper could make calls for up to a week after hurricane Sandy.

Another reason to keep copper is for security and medical monitoring. The copper POTs network has always been very reliable. But it is much more common for households to lose Internet service. Once a phone is converted to VoIP, then any time the Internet is down for a customer then their security and medical monitoring services that use those phones don’t work.

The FCC is going to be flooded with requests like this one to disconnect people from POTs. Certainly the copper networks are getting old. There might be merit for disconnecting copper in towns that are almost entirely fiber and where the customer losing POTs will move to fiber. In most cases fiber seems to be as reliable as copper, although it cannot power the phones when the electricity goes out.

But it seems somewhat ludicrous for the FCC to approve shuttling people from POTs to DSL while still using the same old copper lines. That clearly is being done as way to avoid regulation and customer protections and not for the carrier to save money. And it is clearly not in the customer’s best interest to move customers from POTs to cellular.