Broadband telecommunications: Brookline-based services

Brookline has had multiple telecommunications services for over 30 years, but they are so different in structure and focus that there has been far less competition than an outsider might expect. Once established, companies tend to march in place.

Resident companies: Resident telecommunications companies in Brookline–newest to oldest–are RCN beginning 1993, Comcast beginning 2006 (originally Times Mirror 1981, then Cox 1995) and Verizon beginning 2000 (originally New England Telephone 1883, then NYNEX 1984, then Bell Atlantic 1997). These companies all have cables under or above streets serving nearly all Brookline businesses and residences.

Each of the companies has a different base of technology and a different service focus. Verizon and its predecessors offered only analog telephones to the general public for more than 70 years. Eventually, the telephone services could be used for digital data by connecting them through modems, starting in the 1950s.

Comcast and its predecessors focused on cable television. The frequencies and bandwidth were much too great to be carried over Verizon’s copper wire pairs, or so it was thought at first, giving this succession of companies another type of natural monopoly for a time.

RCN focused on Internet services at first but also provided cable television. The bandwidth needed for thousands of broadband Internet channels was a step beyond that needed for tens of television channels, giving this company a natural monopoly for a time.

Technologies: Founding eras of the original companies led to different bases of technology. Verizon has a network of copper wire pairs, some over 100 years old, installed for analog telephone service. Comcast has foil-over-foam coaxial cables, a technology advance of the 1960s for video signals. RCN has fiber-optic cables, a fully digital technology practical on a municipal scale by the late 1980s.

For more than a decade, all three resident companies have offered a mix of similar services. All promote so-called “bundles” of telephone, television and Internet services but also sell separate services. A key element for Verizon is so-called DSL (digital subscriber line) technology, transmitting broadband signals over copper wire pairs for up to about 3 miles–thought impossible or impractical before the middle 1990s.

Since the middle 1990s, Comcast and its predecessors have encountered an increasing frequency of signal quality problems, according to Stephen Bressler, who was for many years telecommunications coordinator for Brookline. Their cable technologies are usually regarded as reliable for around 20 years, and cables are now well beyond that nominal service life.

Except in small patches, Comcast, recently rebranded as Xfinity, does not seem willing to renew its main infrastructure. Customer service personnel are described often as unresponsive and sometimes as worse. Of about 180 Yelp reviews for the Boston area as of August, 2015, all but three rated the Comcast (Xfinity) service at “one star,” the lowest rating–an astonishingly negative set of reviews.

RCN fares better with online reviews but hardly well. Many complaints concern erratic Internet and poor response to outages. Remember that with cable Internet one is sharing bandwidth with neighbors, predictably causing slower response at popular times of day. RCN will not install premise wiring. One will need to provide coaxial cable between the service connection and the point of use.

If trying RCN for Internet, it’s probably best to buy one’s own cable modem rather than rent from RCN. Complaints suggest that RCN tends to shrug off problems with cable modems, including those the company supplies. The cost will typically be recovered in about a year. Check with RCN to see that a prospective unit has been approved for use with their cable service.

Verizon experiences increasing problems maintaining broadband Internet over its aging copper wires. Every August, temporary installation crews come in to help with changes when large numbers of tenants typically move. Most are not familiar with Brookline wiring and equipment. They predictably create large numbers of problems that can sometimes take weeks to resolve. Paper-ribbon, 19 AWG wire-pairs from the 1920s and paper-pulp, 22 AWG improvements from the 1930s are fragile and suffer from humidity.

DSL can be a tricky service to use and maintain. Technologically skilled people can get considerable help from DSL Reports online. Verizon may have sold more DSL service in Brookline than it can reliably provide. The company cannot readily expand capacity, owing to decades of shortsighted practices. Newer cable segments jammed alongside older ones, without reorganizing wire pairs, have clogged the space in underground ducts. Some technicians say long-term records of wire-pair assignments by cable segment have become haphazard.

Competition: Obviously knowing that it operates the most capable technology, RCN resists offering price competition, although it now sells unbundled services. As of summer, 2015, its lowest performance Internet service is priced on a par with Verizon’s highest priced DSL but delivers about three times the bandwidth that Verizon usually provides, when Verizon DSL services are working well.

However, after the first year, RCN hikes the price of its lowest performance Internet service in steps until it costs about twice as much as Verizon’s highest priced DSL service. Comcast (Xfinity) does not look as though it intends to compete. Reliability of its service has been reported as so dim for so long that only unwitting prospects, who have not learned about problems, and those who find themselves locked in because of apartment wiring seem particularly likely to become new customers.

During leadership by Brookline resident Ivan Seidenberg, from 2000 through the end of 2011, Verizon promoted a fiber optic Internet service called FIOS. Verizon accepted billions of dollars in federal subsidies when committing to install that service. FIOS remains unavailable to nearly all locations in Brookline, and it might never become available. Equipment was reportedly installed in Brookline, but it has reached few if any homes and businesses. Nationwide, FIOS availability is very spotty, as shown in a coverage map prepared by an independent organization.

U.S. availability, Verizon and Frontier FIOS, 2014

Source: adapted from Techdirt (Mike Masnick)

Unlike the original map, which tries to show “percentage” of coverage with shading, the above, reduced scale map has been altered to a uniform color where at least some coverage was reported. The “percentage” map was clearly missing actual conditions in areas of metropolitan Boston. The original, full scale map and information about how it was assembled are available from Fiber for All of Sarasota, FL.

AT&T claims to be developing a competitive fiber optic network to be called U-Verse, but no such Internet service has been reported as available anywhere in Massachusetts, only telephone and television services that may or may not be distributed by fiber optics.

Regulation: Brookline is now unable to monitor or investigate telecommunications services. After the retirement of Mr. Bressler last year, Brookline has effectively had no regulation. No one on town staff and no member of a standing board or committee has the needed combination of technical knowledge and business experience. Anyone able to perform such work competently would make an unlikely candidate to tolerate the political committee appointments and domineering practices of the current, technologically challenged Board of Selectmen.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, August 22, 2015

Raymond Bartnikas, Cables: a chronological perspective, in Bartnikas and Srivastava, eds., Power and Communication Cables: Theory and Applications, Wiley, 2003, pp. 1-75 (12 MB)

Sean Buckley, Frontier will expand FIOS in markets it purchased from Verizon, Fierce Telecom (Washington, DC), May 22, 2015

Phillip Dampier, In Massachusetts, Verizon FIOS arrives for some but not others, Stop the Cap (Rochester, NY), 2013

Hiawatha Bray, Cable provider RCN banks on better service to drive growth, Boston Globe, August 11, 2012

Compare Comcast in Brookline, DirecTV (El Segundo, CA), 2015

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