If You Want To See What The U.S. Broadband Market Really Looks Like, Take A Close Look At West Virginia

from the dysfunction-junction dept

While sexy Google Fiber deployments get the lion’s share of media attention these days, it’s the notably less sexy service in states like West Virginia that continue to perfectly exemplify just how broken U.S. broadband really is. Local Charleston Gazette reporter Eric Eyre has quietly done an amazing job the last few years chronicling West Virginia’s immense broadband dysfunction, from the State’s use of broadband stimulus subsidies on unused, overpowered routers and overpaid, redundant consultants, to state leaders’ attempts to bury reports highlighting how a cozy relationship with companies like Frontier, Verizon and Cisco has led to what can only be explained as systemic, statewide fraud on the taxpayer dime.

It’s of course the one-two punch of regulatory capture and the resulting lack of competition that are to thank for West Virginia’s problems, which certainly aren’t unique across the country. In state after state, the largest, incumbent ISPs throw cash at the state legislative process, allowing them to literally write state telecom law aimed at protecting their uncompetitive geographical fiefdoms from real competition. Because the nation’s suffering through a particularly nasty bout of partisan nitwit disease, when someone tries to do something about it, they’re ironically assailed as anti-business, anti-American, or anti-states’ rights.

I tend to focus on West Virginia as a shining example of this dysfunction because things have gotten so bad there, local players have stopped even the slightest pretense that the entire legislative process isn’t under the thumb of the country’s biggest and wealthiest telecom companies. Case in point is this latest report by Eyre citing complaints by West Virginia Delegate Randy Smith, who says things have reached the point where nobody, from any party, can get a bill through the West Virginia legislative process if it doesn’t first get approval from Frontier Communications. From a recent post to his Facebook page:

“As you know, Frontier Communications is the only game in town for many rural communities in West Virginia when it comes to Internet service. After introducing the legislation, I spoke with someone in leadership and was told it’d go nowhere because it would hurt Frontier. In other words, Frontier has its hands in our state Capitol…No wonder they’re called Frontier. Those are the kinds of speeds you’d expect on the American frontier in the 17th century.”

What reckless, dangerous bills was Smith trying to pass? One would have restricted ISPs from advertising their service as “broadband” unless it offered speeds of 10 Mbps (the FCC’s new definition is already 25 Mbps, or 10 Mbps for rural subsidized service). Another would have allowed consumers to take complaints about poor broadband service directly to State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey — if the state Public Service Commission refused to hear their complaints. But because both would have marginally threatened Frontier’s monopoly in the State, they weren’t even seriously considered. Frontier’s facing a lawsuit in the state for long repair delays and for advertising broadband speeds users can’t actually get.

Again, West Virginia’s certainly not unique; the ISP stranglehold over the state legislative process just tends to be more sophisticated and better obfuscated in larger States. Regardless of the state, attempts at reform are usually assailed by those professing to adore free markets, when more often than not what they really adore is being able to abuse government to help protect mono/duopoly revenues. That’s why, although it was massively overshadowed by the net neutrality vote the same day, yesterday’s FCC vote to begin gutting protectionist, ISP-written state laws is an incredibly important first step toward returning some degree of power back to local communities while taking the fight directly to the bloated and corrupt broadband industry status quo.

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Companies: frontier communications

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Comments on “If You Want To See What The U.S. Broadband Market Really Looks Like, Take A Close Look At West Virginia”

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Alien Rebel (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Careful now, that’s the card holding up the magnificently constructed house of Libertarian thought. If the power government wields doesn’t just magically disappear when the government goes away, then what? Oh right, Papal armies, warlords, chaos of Italian city-state warfare, and all the history of the middle ages, cited in the Federalist Papers as reason for why a strong central government is essential.

Think Goldmad Sacks wouldn’t assemble an army of mercenaries if they could? Let’s completely de-fang the federal government and find out.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

“If the power government wields doesn’t just magically disappear when the government goes away, then what? Oh right, Papal armies, warlords, chaos of Italian city-state warfare, and all the history of the middle ages”

Just look at how Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya turned out after American bombs and bullets “liberated” these countries from despotic dictators. Most people would rather live under a repressive dictator than suffer the anarchy that followed the collapse of the government.

Bill Quick (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Isn’t the whole reason we have a government is to prevent businesses and individuals from abusing their power? What’s left if government fails?

No, the reason we have our government is:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

art guerrilla (profile) says:

Re: Re: What's left if government fails?

worked out pretty well, didn’t it ? ? ?

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Anonymous Coward says:

My in-laws live in rural West Virginia. When they first moved in, they couldn’t even sign up with Frontier because they were told there was only enough capacity for 10 households in their area, and all of the slots were being used. They eventually got it.

We visit once or twice a year, and every time, there is some sort of outage that lasts at least an hour, often longer. Not to mention the atrocious speeds when it does work. At least it provides me with some forced time to live off the grid (no cell service at their house, either).

Ohboyoberto says:

I cry to think

that Verizon FiOS in FL (and other states) will soon be Frontier. Luckily I can switch to the local cable company, but that is it. Two options, which I am more than happy to have consider some have 1+DSL or just 1.

Anyway, hopefully by the time this all goes into play and branding and ownership starts changing, my VZ contract will be up and I can get out cheap. If not I’ll just pay the term fee and move on.

ECA (profile) says:

Can you say FORCED?

Understand something about this..

WHO is paying the bills for this to happen..
The ones getting CRAPPED ON, by cheap, low level, Access to the net.

With little to no choice in WHO can be in an area to supply net access, You get MILKED for services. And each service then wants more money so they CHARGE other services for more money if they wish access thru their service.(netfliks, amazon, Youtube,…) So the service isnt being paid 1 time for a service, but many times.

retrogamer (profile) says:

I don’t have much to add, but I just wanted to say thanks for writing this, Karl. I got into it a bit in the comments on one of the Title II articles with that Telecom employee who criticized Mike’s reporting. His argument was that the old rules were such a great success for America that regulation risked stopping that progress. Of course, as anyone like myself who lives in Appalachia will tell you, we’ve been regressing for years. In the dial up era, we were on a near equal playing field with other states in terms of communication infrastructure. Now, we face an impossible battle in luring business to the region due our lack of infrastructure, but no one in the press seems to care. I hope you keep on this, I realize covering us doesn’t exactly bring in page views, so it’s much appreciated.

Karl Bode (profile) says:

Re: Re:

They’ve been deregulating a broken duopoly market for fifteen years. When the market then continually gets worse (Comcast’s awful customer support, for example), they just turn around and pretend it’s getting better and better. It’s an entirely philosophy based on make believe driven solely by making as much money as humanly possible with a total disregard for the health of the Internet.

I’m really not some blind advocate for government regulation, but I’m an absolute supporter in instances where it’s very clear free market dogma, a hope and a magic pony ride isn’t going to protect the consumer from abuses (environmental issues, uncompetitive telecom markets).

Your region is the norm, not the exception. It’s why the FCC’s muni-broadband decision was such a big deal this week.

retrogamer (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I probably should have clarified that my point in that other discussion (in the comments) was about the lack of build out (to regions outside of the few urban centers) that still only have POTS as an option, but I didn’t mean to give the impression that it’s only Appalachia affected. My argument (which you highlight here with Frontier) is that when you have only one game in town – and no game in the “country” – there is no incentive for buildout. The more rural area to urban, and the less players in the game, the more the problem is exacerbated.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Oh look, that line again

So I’m curious, do you honestly not know better, or are you assuming we don’t?

The FCC’s actions have nothing to do with ‘taking over the internet’, the purpose for the change was to apply some much needed regulations to the companies that provide access to it, and keep them from using their monopoly/duopoly positions to their own advantage, at the price of their ‘customers’.

retrogamer (profile) says:

I wanted to post one other thing; here’s an FCC map that illustrates what I was trying to get across:
Appalachia is a bit unique in that we are surrounded by states with a lot of yellow (rural with access) while being in a sea of blue (rural without access) when you are talking broadband. The western states and some of the midwest tend to coalesce around one color. What this means is that if I am a business looking at a location in either South or North Dakota, North Dakota is not really a more attractive option than South Dakota in terms of infrastructure. But, if I’m deciding between Portsmouth, OH or Middletown, OH, it’s huge.

Avatar says:

In Frontier’s defense, they have only had the West Virginian market for a couple of years now. I’ve got a friend in their NOC and he had many a tale of the utter brokenness of the system that they took over – apparently the whole thing had been left to go to seed by the previous operator and was being held together with baling wire and chewing gum. They’ve put a lot of equipment and overtime into getting things running as crappily as they do.

(There were also many comments about their local techs being too busy siring children on their sisters to know how to do things properly…)

ProphetZarquon says:

Re: Alternatives

“One thing people seem to forget is satellite internet. Yes, I know, it’s slow (12-15Mbps down), and subject to weather outages, but at least it’s frequently unavailable and more than twice as expensive.”
There, I fixed it!

I may just be bitter because there’s fiber one block away but NONE of the carriers in Denver are even planning to offer broadband in my neighborhood yet. 1.1mbps-up:128kbps-down DSL on lines that disconnect for minutes at a time a few dozen times a day. Comcast is unavailable. Fiber is unavailable. Line-of-sight wireless & satellite are faster but cost about double & have strict monthly usage limits. Three blocks away the new low cost housing project & condos have a buffet of broadband. Here in our old neighborhood, the telecom regional directors have all told me they have no plans to slate our neighborhood for service at all.

art guerrilla (profile) says:

Re: Alternatives

sorry, a non cow, that bullshit won’t wash:

1. TRIED to get even shitty satellite link (problem -for most- isn’t that it is ‘slow’ -it is 5-10 times faster than DSL!- but the latency), but you know what ACTUALLY happens ? ? ?
i call or go on website of a satellite ISP, and as SOON as i input my zip code, they either A. tell me they can’t offer service because of NON-COMPETE ‘agreements’ (I DIDN’T agree to any steeenking non-compete ‘agreements’!); or, B. LITERALLY transfer my phone call to my present (shit) ISP…
2. live in a rural-ish area outside a medium metro area (said area has a local utility which has 50mps service in some parts of the city, but CAN NOT EXPAND; NOT due to their desire, NOT due to the market/demand, NOT due to economics, BUT BECAUSE THEY ARE FORBIDDEN TO DO SO…) and while the local cable MONOPOLY (um, this is America, richtig ?) has said (and shown maps) that their service extends MILES past our residence for DECADES, that is a lie on two counts: A. they are plain old-fashioned lying, it does not extend that far; B. they are subject to NON-COMPETE agreements, so that i could not get their (slightly less shitty) ISP service if they did have cable strung out here…
3. last frustration, in esearching about fiber optic, ran across a map which shows a major fiber trunk NOT ONE MILE from where i live… will there be ANY FREAKING WAY i could tap that shit, EVEN IF I HAD THE MONEY/MEANS ? ? ? no fucking way, i am screwed by korporations who have fucked us over royally…

‘we’ do NOT own or even have any real influence on the shitty and shady ‘deals’/laws ‘our’ (sic) municipalities/states have imposed upon us, to parcel out OUR right-of-ways, AGAINST OUR WISHES…

Alien Rebel (profile) says:


If you haven’t worked up enough rage yet to rush out and stock up on torches and pitchforks (hurry while supplies last) then go beyond just looking at what the U.S. doesn’t have; look at what’s going on elsewhere. Try Googling “Broadband Delivery UK” or “Superfast Broadband Programme.”

It seems they’re working hard in the UK to extend high speed broadband (24 Mbps+) to nearly every friggin’ homestead, no matter how rural.

Department for Culture, Media & Sport- The Superfast (Rural) Broadband Programme: update (PDF)
North Yorkshire ramps up its superfast broadband programme
Superfast broadband programme aims to get us all better connected
Hampshire set to reach 95% of premises with high speed broadband

The situation may be more nuanced than what I see from my personal surfing (of course it is) but it looks like the citizens, telecoms and government in the UK are working reasonably well together to get it done. But what really kills me were the things that did not turn up in my research to any noticeable degree- ALEC-like obstruction, lobbyists and politicians crying that socialism is killing puppies, telecom propaganda insisting that all you citizen/serfs should just be patient, and that the free market fairy and/or Google fiber will be along to save you any day now.

Last year I stumbled on the website of a project in the UK, B4RN (Broadband for the Rural North) a non-profit social enterprise set up to organize local citizens and resources to build out fiber to homes in rural communities where British Telecom and Virgin are unable to do so profitably. From the B4RN site- “The aim is to build a community-owned gigabit Fibre To The Home (FTTH) network in the scarcely populated, deeply rural uplands of Lancashire in the north west of England utilising the skills, time, energy and ingenuity of the local residents and businesses.”

Here’s an excerpt from B4RN’s Business Plan (pdf)

B4RN’s purpose is to undertake the supply, installation and operation of a full FTTH network providing a fibre link directly into every property in its service area. It works on a parish by parish basis and aims to deliver both technical excellence and 100% inclusivity within those targeted parishes. No exclusions because a property is too far away or too difficult to reach – it will be available to everyone. This is world class broadband offering 1Gbs (1000 megabits a second) service speeds and will jump our rural community from the slow lane to the leading edge of technology and keep it there for decades to come.

Wouldn’t it be great to have some such community based non-profits on the loose in West Virginia, working in partnership and getting serious support from both the Federal government and telecoms? Oh, right, U.S. telecom profits are sacred, and that sort of thing is either banned or discouraged here, thanks to ALEC and others. Maybe we’ll catch up to the Brits in a few decades, once the legal challenges to our latest FCC regs finally get through our court system.

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