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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  • icon
    Spaceman Spiff (profile), 27 Feb 2015 @ 6:59am

    partisan nitwit disease

    partisan nitwit disease, otherwise known as PND. Of course, the name should be "partisan wingnut nitwit disease", more commonly known as PWND...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    jupiterkansas (profile), 27 Feb 2015 @ 9:54am

    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?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Ninja (profile), 27 Feb 2015 @ 10:07am

      Re:

      Well, we could save some money going without it considering it isn't working.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        John Fenderson (profile), 27 Feb 2015 @ 10:13am

        Re: Re:

        I think that's too broad of a statement. For all the problems (and there are many) you might be surprised at how much it does work. The problem is that when it works well it is essentially invisible to the general public.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Mason Wheeler (profile), 27 Feb 2015 @ 10:23am

          Re: Re: Re:

          Precisely. As the saying goes, you hear on the news about the two cars that got in an accident, not the three million that reached their destination safely.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            ProphetZarquon, 27 Feb 2015 @ 10:11pm

            Re: You hear on the news about the 2 cars that got in an accident, not the 3,000,000 that reached their destination safely.

            You might want to dial that analogy back a bit: There are a lot more than 2 accidents per 3 million trips.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        drummer315, 27 Feb 2015 @ 12:40pm

        Re: Re:

        Government? Good point, the government is not working, or at least not for its constituents....

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Alien Rebel (profile), 27 Feb 2015 @ 11:03am

      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.
      -

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Chris Rhodes (profile), 27 Feb 2015 @ 12:14pm

        Re: Re:

        Think Goldmad Sacks wouldn't assemble an army of mercenaries if they could?
        They don't need one. The government already has that job, and at a much cheaper price than Goldman could do it on their own, since it's funded by taxpayers.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Alien Rebel (profile), 27 Feb 2015 @ 1:52pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          We're not there yet, not quite. We still have some vestiges of governmental authority that our oligarchs are crying hot tears over. Russia, on the other hand, seems to have arrived. About the only difference between them and 16th century Sienna is that the modern Russian serfs have cell phones.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 27 Feb 2015 @ 3:09pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          Yes, but the whole premise is based on the government going away. This means that the transition to fully privatized military and police would require the arduous task of slapping a "TM" superscript on our current batch of badges & emblems. OK, maybe "arduous" isn't the right word.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 27 Feb 2015 @ 12:27pm

        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.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Chris Rhodes (profile), 27 Feb 2015 @ 12:49pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          It's kind of ridiculous to find examples where the entire economy and capital structure of a country was leveled by years of missile strikes and urban combat and then blame the resulting chaos and shortages on "governmental collapse".

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Bill Quick, 27 Feb 2015 @ 8:25pm

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      ProphetZarquon, 27 Feb 2015 @ 10:06pm

      Re: What's left if government fails?

      Rebellion. Good luck sir.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        art guerrilla (profile), 1 Mar 2015 @ 4:35am

        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.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Pragmatic, 2 Mar 2015 @ 2:48am

      Re:

      You've just explained the anti-government faction's agenda.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 Feb 2015 @ 9:56am

    perhaps it would be a good idea for US Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Senator Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) to actually have a serious look at this and maybe then realise what has been going on, how bad it is and why it needs to be changed!!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Ambrellite, 27 Feb 2015 @ 10:01am

    AKA corruption

    Can we call it corruption? So long as Frontier is ok with that, I mean.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 Feb 2015 @ 10:11am

    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).

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Ohboyoberto, 27 Feb 2015 @ 11:34am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ECA (profile), 27 Feb 2015 @ 12:03pm

    Can you say FORCED?

    Understand something about this..

    WHO is paying the bills for this to happen..
    THE USERS.
    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 27 Feb 2015 @ 3:17pm

      Re: Can you say FORCED?

      Just like the citizens whose taxes go to pay the settlements & awards granted to the victims of police misconduct.

      Almost seems like there's a development pattern here.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    toyotabedzrock (profile), 27 Feb 2015 @ 1:01pm

    I'm fairly certain all large business in West Virginia has its hands in all levels of government and in both parties.
    I'm a progressive Democrat and I'm telling you the corruption is bipartisan in West Virginia. The only slight difference is the democrats are subject to shame that will sway them a tad in that state.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    retrogamer (profile), 27 Feb 2015 @ 2:18pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Karl Bode (profile), 27 Feb 2015 @ 2:30pm

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        retrogamer (profile), 27 Feb 2015 @ 5:26pm

        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.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Greg, 27 Feb 2015 @ 5:18pm

    So the FCC taking over the internet fixes this?

    Considering they are run by an Obama appointed telecom industry lobbyist, and the regulation was written by the Obama administration and handed over (independent board my a$$) to Wheeler, and Comcast is his biggest buddy on the golf course, what could go wrong?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 27 Feb 2015 @ 5:31pm

      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'.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    retrogamer (profile), 27 Feb 2015 @ 5:56pm

    I wanted to post one other thing; here's an FCC map that illustrates what I was trying to get across:
    http://www.fcc.gov/maps/2015-broadband-progress-report-fixed-broadband-deployment-map
    Appalach ia 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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Avatar, 27 Feb 2015 @ 7:35pm

    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...)

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 Feb 2015 @ 8:48pm

    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 almost always available and not too expensive.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      retrogamer (profile), 27 Feb 2015 @ 8:56pm

      Re: Alternatives

      The problem with that in Appalachia, is the hills and trees. Satellite reception is spotty at best in the rural areas - the ones that are stuck with POTS/dial up and actually need satellite, ironically.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      ProphetZarquon, 27 Feb 2015 @ 10:29pm

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      art guerrilla (profile), 28 Feb 2015 @ 4:52am

      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...
      THERE IS NO CHOICE, nimrod...
      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...

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      John Fenderson (profile), 1 Mar 2015 @ 4:54pm

      Re: Alternatives

      Satellite is awful. i don't think it should really qualify as broadband, personally, but it doesn't require local physical infrastructure to work. Performance-wise, though, it's really only one step up from dialup.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Padpaw (profile), 28 Feb 2015 @ 9:21am

    1st world nation with 3rd world living conditions

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Alien Rebel (profile), 28 Feb 2015 @ 1:32pm

    Contrast

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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