Bulletin from the broadband wars - BlueStone Press
September 19, 2018

Bulletin from the broadband wars

Rochester and Wawarsing reach out to underserved residents

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It’s an age-old conflict: buyer versus seller. When the seller has no competition, and the buyer is dependent on the seller’s product, it’s a lopsided matchup with a huge advantage going to the seller. This scenario is playing out locally with Spectrum (full name: Charter Spectrum), the cable service provider, being the seller, and the towns of Rochester and Wawarsing, representing their respective cable customers, being the buyers. As a result, the rates people pay for cable service, how good that service is, and whether they can even get any service, are mostly in Spectrum’s control. It is no surprise, then, that some rural customers are underserved or not served at all, and must rely on satellite dishes, which is problematic if your house is obstructed by forests or mountains to the south, or if too much snow piles up on the dish, etc.

Recently, Ulster County legislator Lynn Archer, Wawarsing town supervisor Terry Houck and Rochester supervisor Mike Baden invited the local press to an informal discussion of the above situation. In their efforts to get reliable broadband to every possible residence, they are putting out an online survey to determine where there is need and asking residents of the two towns to participate.

“Tell us what your issues are,” said Archer. “Are you having problems getting connected? Are you having problems with your service? Is it cost-prohibitive?”

As people may not know, in July the NYS Public Service Commission ordered Spectrum to cease operations in New York state, sell its cable business within 60 days, and do it without disrupting service. The PSC regulates broadband service, and it agreed to Time-Warner’s merger with Charter/Spectrum a couple of years ago under certain conditions, including expanding broadband service to a certain number of rural customers. “Charter's repeated failures to serve New Yorkers and honor its commitments are well documented and are only getting worse. After more than a year of administrative enforcement efforts to bring Charter into compliance with the commission’s merger order, the time has come for stronger actions to protect New Yorkers and the public interest,” PSC chairman John Rhodes said, as quoted in the Albany Times-Union on July 28. In Baden’s opinion, Spectrum will appeal this order, and “it’ll probably be tied up in the courts for years.” However, it does put pressure on Spectrum to live up to the commintments it made to the PSC.

Houck, Baden and Archer have decided to act now to reach out to residents in order to find out where they can ask Spectrum to expand service. “We really think this is the right time to get word out to the community,” said Archer.

Every town’s contract with Spectrum is different. Rochester’s stipulates cable coverage be provided if there are 20 houses per mile of road; in other towns, that number may be 30. The Town of Marbletown actually has a contract without an ending, locking in the current terms indefinitely. “Ours expired in 2016,” commented Houck. He is considering approaching a different cable provider for Wawarsing (there being at least one that could be interested) and giving Spectrum some competition.

Most people sign up for what’s called the triple-play package of TV, internet and phone service. However, it’s possible to opt to get only two of the three, or just the internet. Archer pointed out that Rondout Valley High School students receive iPads to work with, but if they don’t have internet service at home, the kids can only use them in school, a distinct disadvantage. Concerning cost, she said, “There are programs that people may not know about. They [Spectrum] never advertise – which I find fascinating – that there is a plan for $15 a month for low- and moderate-income families” for internet-only service, which Baden guessed is either subsidized by the state or mandated by state law as a condition of Spectrum’s license to operate. It’s called “Internet Assist” and can be found on the Spectrum website. It is available to families who receive school lunch subsidies and to low-income seniors – provided they have had no cable service for at least 60 days.

Spectrum has been less than forthcoming with its (not always accurate) map of customer service, probably wary of sharing information that could lead to competition. As a result, the two town governments have a hard time knowing where pockets of poor or nonexistent cable service are.

“We have a town with some interesting topography, making it difficult to get everybody connected,” commented Archer, “but we also have some really wacky things that we’ve been identifying.” She described certain locations where “cable would start from one end of the road and go up, then start at the top and come down, and the people in the middle were left behind!”

What may add to Spectrum’s unwillingness to expand is the tangled web of power pole ownership. Individual poles may belong to Central Hudson, Verizon, or private individuals – none to Spectrum, however. Therefore, they have to negotiate the use of each separate pole.

Reliable broadband service has become almost as necessary to modern life as electricity and running water. Our local town governments are acutely aware of this fact. “The internet is a great equalizer, and we need to leverage it that way,” Archer said.

Town of Rochester residents can find out about the survey by going to townofrochester.ny.gov. An explanation is on the homepage.

Lynn Archer can be reached at RochesterNoCable@outlook.com.

Residents without internet access can call the town clerk at 845-626-7384. Hard copies of the survey are available at the Town Hall in Accord.



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