When Cathy Corman bought a house in 1998, she didn’t mind that it had no cable service. Corman was finishing a dissertation, her husband was starting a new job, and they were raising five-year-old triplets—they didn’t spend much time watching TV. And to get on the Web, all they needed was a phone line and a dial-up Internet subscription.
But years passed and dial-up Internet became a quaint memory for most Americans. The cable industry that gained its dominance by offering TV service became the top provider of high-speed broadband. For most of 2016, Corman’s house still didn’t have cable, fiber, or any access to reliable, high-speed Internet service despite its location outside of Boston in densely populated and affluent Brookline, Massachusetts.
Corman, a university lecturer and journalist, needed fast Internet service, and the local cable companies, RCN and Comcast, were offering it to nearly all of their neighbors. But for reasons that weren’t totally clear, her family’s house had never been hooked up, and the cable companies wouldn’t wire up the house unless the couple paid for all of the necessary construction and permitting.
“We and our next-door neighbors are the only two residences in all of North Brookline without cable,” Corman told Ars. RCN has a manhole in front of the house, and “Comcast has a node in a manhole around the corner. What will it cost to bring cable to our homes? A bit more than $10,000. That’s before we even begin to pay for monthly service.”
Corman and her husband spent several years trying to convince town officials and the cable companies that they shouldn’t have to subsidize the companies’ construction costs, to no avail. Ultimately, they decided to pay RCN to connect them. The owners of the two houses without cable split the bill so that each homeowner paid RCN about $5,000.
In late November, shortly after Corman first spoke to Ars, RCN finished the construction connecting its network to the two houses. She is now enjoying 330Mbps download speeds at home.
Still, Corman is baffled that she and her husband had to pay so much just to get modern service at their house. Corman recognizes she was fortunate; her family has the ability to eat these unusual costs and get service (“We obviously can afford to pay this, we’re doing it,” she said). But as a teacher working with the area’s low-income communities, she regularly meets with students that don’t have Internet access at home. “It might be available to them, but they can’t even afford it,” she said.
That’s why Corman believes, especially after her recent experience, that Internet access should be treated like “a utility, just like water or electricity.”
“We were never asked if we wanted to be hooked up, even when the companies were bringing service to massive new construction projects just down the street,” Corman said. “It’s just not right.”
Most homeowners balk at cable construction fees
Corman is not the only Internet user who paid thousands in recent years to merely get started. In the outskirts of San Jose, California, in so-called Silicon Valley, a man named David Martin paid Comcast more than $15,000 in 2013 to run cable to his house. Both Corman and Martin contacted Ars after a previous story about Charter charging other US Internet users $9,000 for access in New York state.
Generally, it’s extremely rare for homeowners to pay the construction fees. RCN VP of Regulatory Affairs Tom Steel, who has been with the company for 20 years, told Ars that Corman is “the only one I’m aware of that’s actually done this.” This isn’t surprising, as we’ve previously written about homeowners who were quoted even higher prices than RCN gave Corman.
Most homeowners in this situation simply made do with slower Internet service. Accordingly, Corman and her husband used dial-up Internet service for many years after moving into their house. In later years, they settled on cellular Internet because Verizon DSL was slow and unreliable, she said.
“This is a dense, dense area with a combination of multimillion-dollar houses and public housing a stone’s throw from us,” Corman said. “It’s about as diverse as you can get in the area, and we’re the only ones without Internet.”
Corman’s case is unusual because most of the neighborhood has service. Cable companies might skip parts of town that are sparsely populated and won’t provide enough paying customers to provide a big return on investment, but they typically wouldn’t leave just a couple houses in a neighborhood unwired.
RCN built its network in Brookline in the late 1990s, years after the incumbent cable company’s wires were already installed. RCN “would love to build everywhere we could,” Steel said. But much depends on access rights. “People don’t like you coming in and digging up their trees and driveways,” he said.
Steel’s educated guess is that Corman’s house was missed in the initial construction because RCN wasn’t able to get an easement over another person’s property. “You run into these situations where you just can’t get to that house from here,” Steel said.
It’s also possible a previous owner of Corman’s house denied access to the property, Comcast said.
Comcast operates Brookline’s original cable network because of its 2002 acquisition of AT&T Broadband. There is only underground wiring in Corman’s neighborhood for telephone and electric service, and the cable companies are required by the town to build underground in areas where there are no utility poles. Wiring up Corman’s home would have been cheaper and easier if there were utility poles in the neighborhood.
Corman approached town government officials in 2012 about getting high-speed Internet. She was working as a freelance audio producer and couldn’t upload or download files on her home Internet.
“I ended up inviting and serving doughnuts to representatives from Comcast and RCN… and several people from the town,” Corman said. “I invited them to come into our home and take a walk around the neighborhood. We felt very strongly that the town should help us. We thought that there was something outrageous about being in a neighborhood this dense and we’re the only two houses [without cable].”
Price estimates ranged up to $20,000
Initially, “Comcast said it would cost $20,000 to come around the corner with a cable to our house,” Corman said. RCN quoted a similar price, though the company later reduced its quote to the $10,000 Corman and her neighbor eventually paid.
At one point, Comcast came up with a plan that would have cost the residents only $500. But it required digging a narrow trench through another neighbor’s yard, and the neighbor was worried about potential property damage and declined to provide access, Corman said. As a result, Comcast would have had to run its cable more than 100 feet underground to connect the house, while the nearest RCN cable was just across the street.
Even though the RCN wires were fairly close to the house, the construction cost was pretty high because of the lack of utility poles in the neighborhood.
“Even though the manhole was right out front [of Corman’s house], it was costly underground work,” Steel said. “I know it was frustrating for her to look out her window and see the manhole and say, ‘well what the heck?’ But the cost is well documented, we tried all we could to reduce it.” The cost is based on permitting and what RCN pays its contractors for the construction, he said.
As in many other cities and towns, the cable companies’ licenses with Brookline don’t require them to provide service to every resident. Complaining to town officials had no real effect for Corman. “They advised us we could not make a complaint about Internet, because the only provision [in the franchise agreements] is for cable TV,” she said.
So even though broadband is a more vital service than cable TV today, “you can’t go in front of the town and say, ‘we need relief because we want Internet,’ you can only go and talk about cable for television,” Corman said. To Corman, this shows that the old franchise agreements for cable aren’t sufficient to regulate modern cable Internet providers.
Comcast’s franchise renewal agreement with Brookline, signed last year, says the company must only provide service if the construction costs per housing unit are no more than $1,000. If it costs more than $1,000, the homeowner has to pay the excess costs in order to get cable lines to their homes.
Before that franchise renewal, Corman said she and her husband presented to the committee that was renegotiating with Comcast in hopes that the cap would be eliminated or raised much higher. RCN’s 2008 agreement with the town, which is still in effect, has a cap of $700. Both the Comcast and RCN franchise agreements say that residents who need underground wiring installations must reimburse Comcast or RCN for the actual cost of construction.