OSWEGO COUNTY – It has been two years since Spectrum Cable made a promise to increase high-speed internet access to underserved areas in New York state and still nothing has been done.
In 2018 Spectrum had promised New York it would expand cable to underserved areas if the state would approve its merger with Time Warner Cable. The state approved, Spectrum got its merger but never built out the high-speed internet into the underserved parts of the state as promised. It did increase the number of New Yorkers it served. Hooking up numerous customers in New York City simply by connecting numerous high-rise apartment buildings wasn’t Anthony Brindisi’s, D-22nd Congressional District, idea of expanding high-speed internet into underserved areas of the state. It wasn’t the Public Service Commission’s either. They threatened to throw Spectrum out of the state. Spectrum convinced the state to give them another chance, promising once again to fulfill their original promise to expand broadband access to rural New York.
“Their (Spectrum’s) agreement with the state of New York was to build out into underserved areas,” Brindisi said. “And the reason the Public Service Commission went after Spectrum was because they were finding that they were not building out in underserved areas. They were building out in places like New York City and other metropolitan areas that already had access to broadband. My understanding is part of the agreement to settle the state’s dispute with Spectrum, Spectrum agreed that they would now go into more rural areas. We’ll see if that happens. But, I would encourage the Public Service Commission to watch them like a hawk and make sure they follow through on their commitments.”
So, what happens if they don’t fulfill this latest promise? “I think they should be kicked out,” Brindisi replied. “I wanted them kicked out last time. To me, call me old-fashioned, but when you make an agreement, and you don’t live up to the agreement, there have to be penalties. The state decided to settle their dispute with Spectrum. I don’t necessarily agree with that, but now that they did, I think the state should give them a very short runway to prove they are actually expanding into some of these underserved areas.”
“From a federal perspective,” Brindisi noted, “Charter, which is the parent company of Spectrum, is looking to get out of the terms of their 2016 merger agreement with Time Warner. Specifically, what they want to do is be able to charge more for data. So, if people go over their allotted limit for data, Spectrum would like to charge more money, and I don’t think that’s fair. I’m asking the FCC (the Federal Communications Commission) to reject their request.
“This is the worst time to allow them to be able to do that,” Brindisi said, “because kids are learning from home, people are working from home, there’s more telehealth going on. People’ll go over their data caps in a week, and then they’re going to get stuck with a larger bill.”
“The FCC repealed net neutrality, (a policy that does not allow cable companies to differentiate between different data sources, relegating some to fast lanes while blocking other content. Cable companies could then charge more to unblock or speed up that content.) However, when the Spectrum merger agreement was made, they are subjected to net neutrality. They made that deal, and now they’re trying to get out of it, and I don’t think that should happen.,” Brindisi said.
“The state Public Service Commission really has to go after them and I don’t understand why they’re allowed to continually raise prices,” Brindisi suggested. “To me, their business model is a dying business model. More and more people are cutting the cord because they realize that they can get, through the internet, many of the television services you get through the traditional cable company. So, they’re trying to squeeze the remaining customers they have, and that’s why they’re also asking the FCC to let them out of the terms of their merger, because, although they say they’re not going to do this (charge extra for more data usage), I don’t believe them, and I believe that they really want to charge more for people going over on their data.”
One way or another, it’s all about the money. “And that’s why you haven’t seen Spectrum or Verizon expand into more rural areas,” Brindisi continued, “because they don’t see profit there. But I don’t think rural broadband is something that should be profit-driven. It’s a necessity in 2020 to have access to high-speed internet. And we have seen that very clearly in the last few months, especially with the pandemic. People are being asked to work from home. Kids are being asked to learn from home. And you can’t accomplish those things if you don’t have access to high-speed internet. So, that’s why I think the federal government should make investments in building out the infrastructure and then working with local companies, coops, and municipalities to provide the service. “We had this issue back in the ‘30s with electricity, and the federal government undertook a rural electrification program as part of the New Deal,” Brindisi noted, “and within 10 years, we were able to bring electricity into rural areas. We can do the same thing with rural broadband. But we’ve got to have the will in Washington to get it done.”
That’s one answer to the problem. Brindisi is also open to others, like funding competition.
“Money has been given to many companies to expand broadband,” he said, “and I don’t believe there’s enough oversight to make sure those dollars are being spent wisely and in the areas that need it the most. I don’t know if it’s the federal government that should be building out broadband, but certainly, the federal government should be working with state and local governments to make those investments. I believe in things like municipal broadband, and if a county or town wants to get into that business to provide service to their residents, the state and the federal government should partner with them to try to make that happen.
“I think there are examples where they (municipalities) can use existing infrastructure and the right of ways that exist. To me, those belong to the public and should be made available to everybody. I think we should also work more in rural areas with the rural electric coops, because in many cases, they have the infrastructure already in place, delivering electricity into rural areas, and it’s not a far stretch to use that infrastructure to lay fiber-optic cable.”
And again, as always, it’s just a question of money. Brindisi’s in favor of the federal government providing it.
“If there’s federal investment to help with the buildout, that will help alleviate some of the costs for municipalities, for smaller providers. We’re talking about infrastructure at the federal level and an infrastructure bill. I think that a big piece of that has to be rural broadband investments,” he said.
“We passed an infrastructure bill in the House, and it included a large piece for rural broadband back in July, which I supported.”
As far as whether the bill will pass the Senate: “I hope so,” Brindisi said. “Maybe not the full bill, but pieces of it. There definitely is bi-partisan support for rural broadband, and I think that we should focus on those areas that have the best chance of passing, like the broadband piece.”
The bill “is certainly meant to increase competition, so it doesn’t designate companies where the money would go, but it certainly encourages greater market competition, which would allow traditional internet service providers to take advantage of it as well as local companies, coops, and municipalities, so they can compete for customers.”
Providing the funds to create something new is one way a congressman can change the playing field. Another way is to break up something old. To Brindisi, Spectrum looks a lot like a monopoly.
“They are the only game in town,” Brindisi said. “I actually just included very important language in the Dept. of Justice funding bill that passed the House in July. The language I added requires the anti-trust division of the Dept. of Justice to investigate monopolistic business practices among cable companies like Spectrum. The Dept. of Justice really has to do a better job looking at these monopolies and investigating them. And they don’t right now. Or at least they don’t to the extent they should. And the language I put into the Dept. of Justice funding bill would require them to look at the business practices of these big cable giants.”
This issue is complex and multi-faceted and to top it off Charter Communications is a giant. Nevertheless, Brindisi remains determined.
“It’s not something I’m going to let go of,” he said, “even though it feels like David versus Goliath sometimes, I hope the story of David versus Goliath turns out to be true in this case.”
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