Frontier DSL speeds to improve next week
One more week.
That's how soon representatives with Frontier Communications say they will be able to improve connection speeds for high-speed Internet customers.
In recent months, many of Frontier's customers in Pocahontas and Webster counties have seen their high-speed Internet connections slow to a trickle. But that's about to change, according to Reed Nelson, Frontier's Director of Engineering for West Virginia.
"By the 17th of this month, a doubling of capacity will be in place for this market," Nelson announced at a meeting held at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, February 3.
Speaking to an audience that included NRAO technical and executive staff, Pocahontas County Commissioners and representatives of the local schools and libraries, Nelson said capacity could be doubled again in another two weeks if needed.
Chris Clark, NRAO's head of computing and networking, and Pocahontas County Commissioner and web developer David Fleming both told Nelson all of that additional capacity should be made available on the 17th to meet the current needs of local customers.
Nelson, along with Dana Waldo, Frontier's Senior Vice President for West Virginia, asked those at last Thursday's meeting for both patience and forgiveness.
"We know we've had some bumps in the road," Waldo said at the outset of the meeting.
Frontier is making progress on both short- and long-term fixes for its network and its recently-acquired territory from Verizon, said Waldo.
"This is very much like being on the Interstate highway at rush-hour," he said. "It gets congested. What we're trying to do is look for paths where we can reduce that congestion. That's the short-term fix."
In the long-term, Frontier is investing some $400 million over the next two years, including $126 million in Federal stimulus funds, to overhaul its network in West Virginia, including the facilities it purchased from Verizon.
For Pocahontas County, much of Frontier's attention is on establishing a reliable, high-capacity connection between NRAO and West Virginia University. Nelson said $5.9 million will be spent on laying an additional 66 miles of fiber-optic cable and related equipment between the two institutions. Some of that new cable will provide loops along the path from Green Bank and Morgantown to increase the reliability of the connection. These loops should also improve residential broadband access along the way. One of the loops will be between Green Bank and Mill Creek, with fiber connecting the two via Snowshoe and Valley Head. The other will travel by way of Arbovale and the county's Upper End.
Statewide, Frontier is investing in significant upgrades to its fiber-optic and traditional copper network, said Waldo and Nelson.
The initial fiber cables laid by Frontier contained 12 fiber-optic strands, according to Nelson. At the time they were installed, it was thought these cables would provide more than enough capacity for the foreseeable future.
"Since then, we've been doing hundreds of fiber strands," Nelson continued. "So there was obviously a misunderstanding of where technology was going.
"I apologize for what you've experienced," Nelson said to those at Thursday's meeting, "but also, we ask for your understanding as you see what we're investing here.
Nelson said Frontier is in a unique position among telecommunications companies to have so much of one state under its control.
"It's being reviewed from a national perspective in Washington, D.C., as we've gone through the stimulus process," he said. "What happens if a company really invests in a market with top tchonology? Can you have services that are available at a good rate that's reasonable for customers to afford? Can you provide the level of bandwidth required for these new advanced services? We really are in the spotlight for many reasons."
When he first moved to West Virginia in the late 1990s, Nelson said most people were happy with the performance of dial-up internet, which had maximum speeds at a fraction of what today's high-speed digital subscriber line (DSL) service can provide.
Even basic, 1 Mbps (megabit per second) DSL was viewed as more than adequate when it was first offered within the last several years. But at that time, few online websites were using streaming video and other media. With the increase in music, video and images being piped across the Internet today, customers' bandwidth requirements have taken a sharp upward ascent from the slow, steady climb of just two or three years ago.
"All the things that are out there require bandwidth that we never would have dreamed would have been required when we were building the network," Nelson said.
"We're trying to gain a concept of where this is going," he continued. "It became very clear to us that you can't just continue to patch a network."
Part of the bottle neck of traffic for Frontier's network in West Virginia in Bluefield, where the company's network ties into the national backbone for Internet service. To ease the strain on this one site, Frontier plans to add additional "egress points," essentially on/off ramps for data being sent and received by West Virginia customers, at Charleston, Clarksburg and Charles Town.
Locally, in addition to the project to connect NRAO with WVU, investments are also being made in other parts of Pocahontas County. Currently, Frontier's residential high-speed Internet customers are supposed to receive speeds of about 1 Mbps.
John Mutscheller, Frontier's Technical Supervisor in Marlinton, said local crews are working to increase capacity whenever they go out to service equipment in Pocahontas County.
"When we put in a new site or we augment an existing site, if they're at one meg--we have some at three--we're jumping them up to 5 megs," he said. "That's the company policy."
An installation at Thornwood will be the first 5 Mbps site to come online in Pocahontas County, Mutscheller said. Eventually, all sites in the county will be upgraded to that level, he said.
That doesn't necessarily mean that all Frontier high-speed customers will see those speeds. Generally, with the copper lines that connect customers to Frontier's equipment, connection speeds drop off as the distance from the equipment increases.
Nelson said advances in modems, like those Frontier provides customers for connecting to its network, could fix that in coming years.
In the meantime, Pocahontas County Commissioners say they are fielding complaints daily from customers who aren't getting Frontier's advertised speeds.
"Customers have been paying for value not received," County Commissioner Martin Saffer told Nelson.
Saffer asked if Frontier customers in Pocahontas County would receive a rebate or credit on their monthly bills for service that has not been provided.
Nelson deferred the question to Reta Griffth, a former county commissioner herself who is now Frontier's General Manager for the territory that includes Pocahontas County.
"We will take those concerns into consideration," Griffith responded.
Frontier's service agreements with customers state that speeds received are not guaranteed, but rather will be 'up to' the specified speed, she added.
Frontier's own marketing materials have added to the billing headaches of the company and its customers.
"'High Speed Max' doesn't mean the same thing every place," Griffith explained.
Even from Elkins to Marlinton, there are differences in the service levels. Griffith said part of this is due to differences between Frontier's equipment and equipment it acquired from Verizon. Additionally, Verizon customers were on a different price structure from Frontier customers, she said. Frontier is now moving toward a standard speed and pricing package that would apply statewide, in order to remove the confusion and billing complications, Griffith added.
Fleming encouraged the Frontier representatives to be "generous and benevolent" toward angry Pocahontas County customers and consider some form of compensation for those who have recently been receiving less-than-advertised service.
Residential customers won't be the only ones anxiously waiting for Internet connection speeds to improve on February 17.
Ruth Bland, principal for Green Bank Elementary-Middle School and the county school system's technology coordinator, said the West Virginia Board of Education is approaching the state legislature to fund digital textbooks in all West Virginia schools.
Additionally, Bland said the state's standardized testing will be completely online by 2014.
"All students in the state, grades three through 12, in the third week of May, will be online, taking that test," she said.
Bland asked Nelson to take a hard look at the capacity of the network statewide to be sure it could accommodate that amount of concentrated traffic. Currently, teachers must stagger the schedule for students taking online tests, she said, so as not to overload the systems currently in place.
A number of students also lack Internet, or even telephone access, at their homes. Bland said this is of particular concern as the school system moves toward using online texts and teaching resources.
Nelson said he foresees the United States moving toward a push for "universal service" for broadband in rural areas, much as it began to do in the 1930s to increase access to telephone service.
In fact, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski announced plans on Monday to modernize the Universal Service Fund to do just that.
"[W]hen it comes to our broadband infrastructure, we are not where we need to be," Ghenachowski said in his remarks.
Up to 24 million Americans could not get broadband access even if they wanted it, he said.
"The infrastructure simply isn't there."
In particular, Genachowski mentioned a recent visit to West Virginia with Senator Jay Rockefeller.
"During our visit, I spoke with people who can't get high-speed Internet or mobile coverage at their home or business, even though communities right next door are connected," he said. "How frustrating is that?"
Those in Pocahontas County who have recently experienced the recent slow-downs of Frontier's network-or who lie just beyond its reach-could give Genachowski an answer to that question.
In the meantime, many of them are waiting to see what will happen on February 17.