Comcast: Rural Broadband Must Make Business Sense

(Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism)
The FCC says that residents of Eagle Rock Estates in western Pulaski County already have access to broadband internet service. Comcast agress with the residents that they do no, but doesn't plan on building out to their area anytime soon.
The FCC says that residents of Eagle Rock Estates in western Pulaski County already have access to broadband internet service. Comcast agress with the residents that they do no, but doesn't plan on building out to their area anytime soon. (Mapbox)

Pat Ulrich lives in a rural Pulaski County subdivision that has been waiting more than 15 years for broadband internet, but Comcast wants nearly $50,000 to run a cable to her area.

The Federal Communications Commission has a Connect America Fund for just this kind of situation. Unfortunately, the FCC seems to believe Eagle Ridge Estates already has broadband.

In tapping the fund, the FCC identifies work it will subsidize and where that work must be performed, and then internet providers submit bids for that work.

Successful bidders for projects in Arkansas include OzarksGo, a subsidiary of Ozarks Electric Cooperative; Next, a subsidiary of North Arkansas Electric Cooperative; South Central Arkansas Electric Cooperative; Arkansas Valley Electric Cooperative; AT&T; and Windstream Holdings Inc.

Unfortunately, the FCC’s map shows that Ulrich’s neighborhood already has broadband. Alex Horwitz, vice president of public relations for Philadelphia-based Comcast, agrees Comcast doesn’t serve those residents, and Ulrich said no other company does either.

Asked whether Comcast would consider having the agency correct the mistake and then tapping the CAF fund, Horwitz declined to comment, saying it was a hypothetical situation.

Ulrich said she’s never contacted the FCC about the error, but would be willing to file a formal complaint. “I would love to [have a broadband option] but we’re in the one area of Pulaski County that Comcast won’t serve,” she wrote on Facebook recently. A neighbor, she said, was told by Comcast’s Xfinity residential division that it would cost $46,000 to run cable to his house from Kanis Road — a quote confirmed by Comcast.

“We built a house in 2004 and never imagined it would take this long to get reliable broadband service,” Ulrich said. About 50 potential customers in the subdivision are similarly unserved, she said.

Horwitz explained why: For-profit companies like Comcast have to be able to make a business case for new build-outs.

In this specific case, Horwitz said, the build-out to Ulrich’s neighbor’s home would not be cost-effective because the home is far from the nearest Comcast network and burying the line would be difficult in a route that is almost all rock.

For a new build-out, Comcast aims to cover a distance of just 150 feet, he said.

Comcast first quoted a price of about $3,900 to Ulrich’s neighbor, an estimate that changed after a Comcast team conducted an on-site survey. “The quote was eventually escalated to $46,000. … We would need to build out over 6,400 feet of fiber network to service” Ulrich’s neighbor, Hortwitz said.

He described how the company determines if its worthwhile to delve into unserved areas. “Any build-outs above and beyond our current infrastructure in Pulaski County — and anywhere else we serve — must meet a certain set of criteria,” Horwitz said.

“When we evaluate prospective new build opportunities, we take into account such factors as distance from where our nearest network exists, costs associated with a proposed build-out, and number of homes and businesses that could be served. … This subdivision is many miles from our nearest plant.” Horwitz said Comcast has not bid for any of the FCC’s CAF projects in Arkansas.

Despite not having the FCC’s help with funding, Comcast continues “to build in Pulaski County and areas that are contiguous to our existing plant, both from a residential and business standpoint,” Horwitz said. “Examples of recent Comcast build-outs are in Maumelle and Little Rock, to the business communities there. … We offer up to 100 gigabits [per-second speeds] to Little Rock, among the fastest nationally.”

The company also spent about $110 million on its network in Arkansas between 2011 and 2017.

Ulrich said she’s trying to get written confirmation of a heckuva deal a representative of Comcast Business, the company’s commercial line, offered her on March 25: Sign up for a 36-month contract with a monthly bill of least $178 and Comcast will waive the $3,929 it would cost to run a line to her property and give her much faster internet than she currently has available via cellphone towers and satellites. Horwitz said the company has no record of giving Ulrich a recent quote. While she waits, Ulrich scans the horizon for other options.

“I keep an eye on new broadband technology and see there are a few potential players,” she said. “AT&T has a project called AirGig that sits atop electrical power lines to deliver high-speed signals pole to pole, but it’s still in the testing phase. There are also new satellites in the works that promise to be better. We’ll see.”