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When Cole Marshall decided to buy an empty lot and build a house, one of his top priorities was getting fast and reliable Internet service.
Marshall says he received assurances from Charter, the local cable company, that he could get Internet access to his home in Wisconsin. There was also a promise of relatively fast DSL, with telco Frontier Communications telling him it could provide 24Mbps download speeds, he told Ars.
As it turned out, neither company could deliver. Once the house was built, Charter would only offer service if he paid $117,000 to cover the cost of extending its network to his new home. Frontier does provide DSL Internet, but only at slower speeds of up to 3Mbps downstream and 1Mbps upstream.
Marshall, who works at home as a Web developer, subscribed to Frontier and struggles with his Internet connection daily.
“Cable was always available everywhere I lived, and I never thought moving just a little bit out of the city would mean I'd get hardly anything,” Marshall said.
Charter and Frontier both oppose the building of a citywide municipal fiber network that could eventually save Marshall and others from poor connectivity.
Marshall had been looking for land to buy starting in 2012, and found the nearly 1-acre lot he’d ultimately purchase in 2013. The property is just outside the city limits of Sun Prairie, a city of about 30,000 residents, but has a Sun Prairie address and zip code. 'We're surrounded by fields, so technically you'd call it rural,' Marshall said. The city is expanding, though, and 'eventually there's going to be plenty of houses.'
Despite not being in a densely populated area, Marshall said the lot was advertised as 'cable-ready.' Before committing to the purchase, Marshall said, “I looked on Charter’s website, and I typed in the address of the lot, and it said, ‘yep, we can service you.’”
Just to make sure, Marshall said he looked up the addresses of neighboring homes and got the same answer. Just to make extra sure, Marshall said he called Charter “and gave them the address, and they said, ‘yup we can service that lot.’”
Construction on the house began in November 2014 and finished in June.
Marshall started getting worried during construction when he noticed satellite dishes on the roofs of nearby homes. He talked to a neighbor across the street who wasn’t using satellite Internet, but was on a 3Mbps DSL connection.
“I was kind of shocked, but then he gave me the impression that he was just on a lower plan to save some extra money,” Marshall said. Marshall called Frontier, 'and they told me that I could get 24Mbps DSL on the lot.. After the house was finished I found out all that was wrong and [my neighbor] was on the fastest plan he could possibly get.”
That would have been ok if cable had been available, since DSL was just a backup option. But the worst news was yet to come.
'Once my house was built, I called [Charter] to set up service, and that’s when they told me they made a mistake. I was too far away from their network,' Marshall said.
In June, a Charter construction coordinator told him he’d have to pay $117,000 to cover all labor, materials, and permitting for a network extension to serve the home. Marshall would have to pay the entire $117,000 up front before Charter would begin construction, and the price would not go down even if other homeowners signed up for service.
A fiber optics extension is “very expensive,” the Charter employee told Marshall in an e-mail, which Marshall shared with Ars. “Typically we only extend fiber to subdivisions of 100 houses or more,” Charter told Marshall. Charter hadn’t built in the area because “the cost outweighs the return as there are not enough potential customers.”Advertisement
These types of estimates can vary wildly. One Nebraska resident we interviewed sought a fiber connection from Windstream Communications and was told it would cost him $383,500. Yet a second network provider called Northeast Nebraska Telephone Company offered to run fiber across a three-mile span to his house for a mere $42,000.
Not a “simple line extension”
Charter confirmed its $117,000 estimate to Ars.
Marshall has been told that his home was about 3,200 feet from Charter’s network, or about 6/10 of a mile. But a Charter spokesperson told Ars that an inspection determined it could not build to Marshall’s home from the nearest facilities.
There weren’t enough fibers in the nearest 'transport fiber' facility to create a new node, and extending the network from the nearest coaxial cable facility would have caused service degradation, a Charter spokesperson told Ars. (Like other cable providers, Charter operates a network that includes both fiber and coaxial cable, with cable providing the final connection to the home.)
To complete the project, Charter would have to build from the nearest 'distribution fiber,' which was three miles away, the company spokesperson said. Cables would have to be installed underground for the majority of that route, and a new node and power supply would have to be installed.
In short, it wasn’t a “simple line extension,” and that’s why the cost is $117,000, Charter says.
The other question is why Marshall wasn’t told this back in 2013. The Charter spokesperson didn’t have any information on Marshall’s initial conversations with the company.
Marshall did not get any promises in writing from Charter when he called to confirm that the company could service the lot. 'I never imagined I would need it in writing because I mistakenly trusted them. It didn’t seem wrong to assume that they had the best information about their own network,' he said.
Charter's website now provides the message, 'Sorry, Charter services are not available,' when you type in Marshall's address. But Marshall says it was giving out bad information in 2013—and even after he moved in this year, he received a Charter Internet service advertisement in the mail. (You can see it in the picture above this story.)
'I did get a mailing right after I moved in, 'welcome to your new home, [Charter] Spectrum broadband Internet,' and it made my blood boil when I saw that,' Marshall said.
Marshall says he doesn't blame the realtor and previous lot owner for advertising the property as cable-ready, 'because they too took Charter’s word that service was available.' When Marshall complained to Charter, 'they simply dismissed my complaint with an excuse to the extent of 'our information isn’t always accurate,' he said.
Charter is trying to buy Time Warner Cable in a merger that would make it the nation's second biggest broadband provider after Comcast and ahead of AT&T.
Frontier: No plans to improve DSL speeds
When Marshall learned Frontier could only provide 3Mbps instead of 24Mbps, he did some research into the company's network layout.
'Our connection to the central office in this area actually makes a weird loop around the outside of the city before reaching the homes on our road, adding miles of unnecessary line which would work for phone service but makes their Internet service almost unusable,' he said.
With DSL, speeds are highly dependent on a home’s distance to the nearest central office or cabinet.
“The equipment that serves this area does allow for speeds up to 24Mbps,” a Frontier spokesperson told Ars. “Unfortunately, those speeds cannot be supported at the distance [Marshall’s] home is from the equipment in our Sun Prairie Central Office.”
Frontier recently accepted $283.4 million from the federal government to extend Internet service of at least 10Mbps down and 1Mbps up to 650,000 rural homes and businesses over the next six years. That includes 76,735 homes and businesses in Wisconsin.Advertisement
But Frontier told Ars that it has “no immediate plans to install additional equipment that would provide the option for faster speeds at this location,' referring to Marshall's neighborhood. 'We will take a closer look at this situation as we finalize our plans for 2016.”
Other customers suffer same fate
Marshall is not the first customer to say he got inaccurate information from an Internet provider.
In earlier articles, we wrote about a man who says he bought a house after Comcast employees mistakenly told him he could get cable Internet, and another customer who says AT&T promised him broadband but could only provide speeds of less than 1Mbps.
The US government’s broadband map website can provide a rough idea of what providers offer service in a general area, but it isn’t perfect. Promises from broadband providers also aren't guarantees, as customer service representatives could be relying on incorrect information.
Even verifying with neighbors that service is available and seeing the actual Internet equipment in the house you’re buying isn’t always foolproof. We’ve interviewed multiple home buyers who couldn’t get AT&T DSL even when their neighbors had service. Even in cases where the previous homeowner had DSL, AT&T sometimes refuses to connect a new occupant in the very same home, claiming it doesn’t have enough network capacity.
Compared to those people, Marshall is lucky. His 3Mbps/1Mbps connection with Frontier allows him to work, though with difficulty.
“I try to multitask as best as I can,” he said. “I’m not sure if it's affecting the amount of hours I work, because I work up a problem on one page and wait for that to load and then go back to another problem.”
Marshall hasn’t gone with satellite because it would have data caps and latency that could affect the Voice over Internet Phone system he uses for work. There’s also a point-to-point wireless provider in the area, but the price and speeds weren’t too different from Frontier’s offering, he said.
Marshall pays $53.78 a month for two DSL lines, one for his work computer and “the other one set up in the living room so I can have grainy Netflix.” Marshall’s girlfriend lives with him, and she also works at home occasionally. Though the Frontier download speed is up to 3Mbps, Marshall said it generally slows down to about 2Mbps at night when the network is more congested. The upload speed is supposed to max out at 1Mbps, “but I've never gotten more than 600kbps.”
The US defines broadband as speeds of at least 25Mbps down and 3Mbps up.
City wants to offer fiber service, and private ISPs don't like it
Sun Prairie's City Council decided in July to build a municipal fiber network. It's starting as a pilot project in one area but could eventually go citywide. There's no certainty that it will reach Marshall's home, but the initiative provides a glimmer of hope. Wisconsin state law imposes some restrictions on municipal broadband, but doesn't ban the projects.
Naturally, Charter and Frontier both opposed the Sun Prairie network. The companies 'spent more than 90 minutes telling city officials why it’s a bad idea, highlighting failures in other municipalities, questioning the utilities’ ability to handle operations, and even hinting, if it goes through, they’ll cut jobs in the Sun Prairie area,' said a Sun Prairie Star accountof a meeting a few weeks before the vote.
'We were at a few meetings where Charter and Frontier's general manager in this area sort of tried to lay it out, trying to pretend that it’s a really bad idea, that other municipalities have failed and maybe they wouldn't be able to handle it,' Marshall said.
Marshall has discussed his situation with city officials and contacted representatives in the state legislature. A staffer for State Senator Mark Miller wrote back to Marshall earlier this month, telling him that because of a 2008 change in state law, 'local Internet service is no longer regulated by local governments.' That change created a state-level franchising process, eliminating the local franchises cable companies previously had to negotiate with in individual cities and towns. Local franchises can force cable companies to serve all residents, but that isn't an option in this case.
'Senator Miller opposed the law change for a number of reasons, including the situation you find yourself in,' Marshall was told by the senator's office. 'Namely, there is no incentive for Charter to be responsive to prospective customers. The new law was sold as necessary to provide competition. However, the competition never materialized in much of the state, including your neighborhood, while Charter can continue running its business without any oversight by local government.'
Marshall may be out of luck, but he said he hopes his experience 'serves as a warning to other people, because I'd hate to see anybody else in my situation.'