AT&T Fails Big in Dallas, Makes Big Claims for Austin

Even though I regularly read examples of terrible customer service from the massive corporations like AT&T, Time Warner Cable, CenturyLink, and more, I apparently retain the capacity to be surprised as how bad they are. The Dallas Morning News recently ran this piece: "AT&T Never Misses An Opportunity to Miss An Opportunity."

In a neighborhood with poor access to satellite services and miserable with Time Warner Cable, people were thrilled when AT&T proclaimed it would be investing in U-Verse. Even though U-Verse is an amped-up DSL service that barely competes with cable connections, people who are fed up with Time Warner Cable were excited for a choice.

Lo and behold, right in the thick of the CBS-Time Warner fight, I received notices from AT&T that Uverse was now available in my neighborhood. This is something I’ve waited more than two years for. I was thrilled. Finally, there’s choice! Since receiving my first notice from AT&T in early August, I’ve been inundated with AT&T offers. Dozens of pieces of mail have arrived in my mailbox. Clearly, AT&T wanted my business.

And I wanted badly to give it to them. I phoned one day after receiving my first notice. I signed up immediately for service. The friendly sales person told me because of high demand, she couldn’t set an installation date for sooner than two weeks. Whatever. Fine. We agreed on August 19, somewhere between 9 and 11 a.m. I couldn’t wait.

Only they didn't show. They cancelled. And they cancelled the next appointment and put him off time and time again. But now he has a date of when he will be able to take service ... and I'm not making this up. 12/31/2036.

Those familiar with AT&T's announcement in Austin may think that it will take 23 years to upgrade Dallas because the massive corporation is focusing so much attention on Austin where they are kind of promising a gig.

Karl Bode has long been covering what he calls Fiber to the Press Release from AT&T.

The company has made it repeatedly clear that they aren't interested in investing a huge amount of money in fixed-line networks when the real money is in wireless and $15 per gigabyte LTE overages. While the company has made much of "Project VIP" network investment project, their investment numbers for that project have been a lot of smoke, mirrors and very fuzzy math.

However, local folks tell me that AT&T is indeed pulling permits and doing something differently - so this is not entirely smoke and mirrors. Just mostly.

And over at Stop the Cap, Phil Dampier has a deeper dive into AT&T's pool of obfuscation:

The five-county Austin–Round Rock metropolitan area has a population of 1,834,303 residents. Assuming AT&T managed to offer fiber service to 100,000 residents — and that is a generous figure, that represents only 5.5% of Greater Austin. The old U-verse is still a work in progress in several Texas cities, so it could take years for AT&T to deploy fiber in Austin. Expect AT&T to start with the low-hanging fruit — multi-dwelling units such as apartments, condos, and other similar buildings, some that already have existing fiber connections in place.

We still have no idea what AT&T is going to charge for its "Gig" ... which will start at 300 Mbps. Don't count on AT&T to suddenly invest in FTTH in your town - much better to take action however you can to solve your problems locally.

Alex Marshall Coming to Humphrey School at U of Minnesota

Six months ago, I wrote about a book by Alex Marshall, the Surprising Design of Market Economies. In a few weeks, he will be presenting to a small group at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. You can learn more about the event and register here.

I am looking forward to this - Thursday, October 24, at Freeman Commons in the Humphrey School on the West Bank campus. 11:30 - 1:00.

In a thesis that has implications for policy wonks, economists and planners of all types, Marshall shows how government creates the essential institutions necessary for economic life, and how the typical debate between those who value the market and those who value government regulation is a false one. Marshall, a Senior Fellow at the Regional Plan Association in New York, is the author of two other books on urban planning, and is a former newspaper reporter. He was also a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University. His work has been published in many places, including The New York Times Magazine, Bloomberg View and The Washington Post.

Animated Video Provides Introduction to Community Networks

Anyone looking for a short introduction to community owned networks should start with this brief animated video. Please share it around - embed in Facebook, blogs, whatever. We have this and other informative videos archived here.

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Idaho Town Calls for Fiber Investment; Cable and DSL Not Good Enough

This is the third time we have found an occasion to highight the community of Ketchum in Idaho. We previously noted their work on a strategic plan and that Cox cable was booted off the broadband advisory board after trying to sabotage the process with a push poll.

Now the local paper has editorialized on the "Need for Fiber."

While it is tempting to marginalize the need for such services as just a way for Johnny or Sally to download games or movies faster, increasingly the lack of fiber optic capacity is also limiting health care and advanced education options for residents, as well as impacting the growth of telecommuting and home-based businesses for which Ketchum has noticeably been successful in attracting in the past.

Now owners of home-based businesses are increasingly saying they can not operate effectively without fiber to the home, and telecommuters contend their employers will be less likely to let them work from home without fast, reliable fiber broadband.

This is all true and we wish we saw a hundred editorial boards recognizing it every week. The question is what the community can do about it given the challenge and potential expense. The answer from the Ketchum Keystone is smart:

Overcoming these obstacles will be very heavy lifting for any city government, but there are also remarkable opportunities and common sense strategies available including the use of the existing and soon to be retired water pipe grid, simple changes in building codes to require fiber-optic implementation, and government loan and incentive programs, all of which make the prospects for a sooner rather than later solution.

Every community has a somewhat unique mix of challenges and assets. Communities with the asset of smart leadership will seize upon opportunities like maximizing joint projects between the water system, public works, and such. Communities without smart leadership may want to solve that problem first.

Ketchum has identified the problem, and that is a good first step. Until a community recognizes that the big cable and telephone corporations will not solve this problem alone and that communities have an essential role in the process, little progress is likely.

Poulsbo Wireless Mesh Pilot Extends Internet in Washington - Community Broadband Bits Podcast #66

With a population of over 9,000 just across Puget Sound from Seattle, Poulsbo is a town with a lot of commuters and a vision for improved access to the Internet to allow more to reduce the physical need to travel. City Councilmember Ed Stern joins us for the 66th episode of Community Broadband Bits to discuss their plan.

We talk about the history of Noanet and Kitsap Public Utility District investing in fiber networks, only to have the state legislature restrict the business models of such entities in a bid to protect private providers (that have repaid that kindness by refusing to invest in much of the state).

Unable to achieve its vision for a fiber network, Poulsbo has since created an ordinance to increase the amount of conduit in the community for future projects and embarked on an open access mesh wireless project. See our full coverage of Poulsbo.

Read the transcript from our discussion here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 19 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Break the Bans for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Broadband for Schools and Libraries on the Agenda at Oct. 1 SHLB Event

The Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition (SHLB) will present a webcast via BroadbandUS.TV tomorrow, October 1. The event focuses on broadband in schools and libraries. The webcast, titled The Importance of High-Capacity Bandwidth for Schools and Libraries runs from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. ET. 

Presenters from schools, libraries, vendors, and broadband coalitions will address some of the issues most pressing for schools and libraries. The discussions provide a special emphasis on E-rate as the FCC reviews the program during the current Notice of Proposed Rule Making [PDF]:

Panel #1: How Can the E-rate Program Support High Capacity Broadband?

Panel #2: Wireless and Internal Connections; What Options Are Available to Bring Broadband into the Classroom and Out to the Community?

Panel #3: How can the E-rate Program be Strengthened for the Long-Term?

In addition to panel discussion, Tom Power, Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Telecommunications, Office of Science and Technology, Executive Office of the President, will speak.

Register here for the event. (There is a charge to attend whether in person or by stream.)

Surprise! Industry Lobbyists Oppose Gigabit Community Race to the Top Proposal - Part 1

This is Part 1 in a two-part series discussing comments submitted to the FCC in response to a petition filed by Fiber-To-The-Home Council proposing a new Gigabit Community Race to the Top program.

The Fiber-To-The-Home Council (FTTHC) recently submitted a proposal to the FCC to create a Gigabit Communities "Race to the Top" program. The proposal suggests granting unclaimed portions of universal service funds (USF) to qualifying entities in small and rural markets willing to build gigabit networks. While the proposal may need some adjustments, the idea holds potential for encouraging community owned networks and we hope the FCC takes the next step by opening an official rulemaking proceeding.

What makes this proposal so promising for community networks is that it may not require grantees to qualify as “eligible telecommunications carriers” (ETCs), a technical requirement placed by the FCC on USF recipients. This requirement virtually assures that USF funds go to already established telcos and not to upstart community networks.

Instead, Race to the Top lays out its own qualifying criteria which opens the door for a broader variety of recipients, including co-ops, nonprofits and municipalities, taking a similar approach as the federal stimulus BTOP program. Furthermore, Race to the Top has the potential to improve on BTOP in one major aspect by focusing on last-mile networks, which BTOP grants largely shied away from.

The FCC comment period for this initial proposal has closed and the majority of submitted comments are supportive. But I want to highlight some of the misleading comments submitted by a few industry lobby groups - National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA), Rural Broadband Association (NTCA) and USTelecom. This post will focus on the NCTA, the main lobbying apparatus of the massive cable corporations. A future post, Part 2, will discuss the others.

NCTA opposes the petition on multiple grounds which jump out in bold headings like “Funding Gigabit Networks is a Poor Use of Federal Subsidies” and “Overbuilding of Existing Networks Is Wasteful.” These comments rely on the illusion that cable service is already adequate in rural areas, and where it is not, cable companies will fill the gaps (eventually). A skeptic could also read these comments as a cry for market protection, a plea to not increase competition.

These assertions strike at the heart of why community owned networks are so important - they reflect community self-determination. Communities should not have to wait for a profit-driven corporation to meet local needs; certainly not when it comes to critical infrastructure like broadband.

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NCTA’s aversion to any form of competition is clear from its request that the FCC “not devote limited USF resources to… markets that already have broadband service.” Keeping in mind that industry incumbents consider “broadband service” to mean anything as slow as a few hundred kbps (kilobytes per second), NCTA essentially believes universal service funds should play no role in providing alternatives to outdated networks.

NCTA’s self-serving definition of “broadband service” disregards other statutory requirements of universal service including “quality” and “just, reasonable and affordable rates.” 

NCTA alleges that Race to the Top “relies almost entirely on speculation about the economic and social effect” of subsidizing gigabit networks. Anyone who has been paying attention knows it is not speculation that community owned networks help local governments, schools, businesses and residents save money (I count at least six stories highlighting cost savings on MuniNetworks.org in the past month alone). We have also featured stories about how community networks improve educational opportunities, spark local entrepreneurship, expand community infrastructure, and protect user privacy.

NCTA points to cable-offered “‘business class’ broadband throughout… their hybrid fiber-coax networks” and “Metro Ethernet and other fiber-based services that offer speeds of 1 Gbps or even 10 Gbps.” What NCTA fails to mention is that in many small and rural markets where a cable incumbent offers these services, it is often the only provider of such services, which results in high prices and limited adoption (see this letter for an example of the hoops Redhat had to go through to get advanced services from Time Warner Cable).

The flaw in NCTA’s argument is that it solely treats availability as the ultimate end, completely ignoring affordability. In contrast, affordability is one of Race to the Top’s stated objectives. Time and time again, we see how community owned networks introduce much needed competition which drives prices down and adoption rates up. Race to the Top can help more communities achieve the same result.

Additional comments made by NCTA and the others attack the FCC’s power to implement Race to the Top and the idea of including entities aside from “eligible telecommunications carriers.” I will discuss these comments in Part 2.

Google Ad Compares Fiber to Broadband

Google knows how to differentiate its gigabit Internet access from the slower options offered by cable and DSL. Community networks should take notes on effective advertising. 

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Indianola's Community Network Spurs Entrepreneurship

When Indianola decided to invest in a municipal fiber network, the decision was part of a larger economic development plan that included a startup incubator in partnership with Simpson College - which we wrote about earlier this year. Located near Des Moines in Iowa, Indianola is one of a few communities that has partnered with a local trusted provider, MCG in this case, that offers services over a publicly owned network.

According to Chris Draper, Director of Indianola + Simpson College Entrepreneurial Development Initiative (EMERGE), his program would not exist if the city did not decide to invest in economic development and municipal broadband as a package deal. Less than a year after launch, EMERGE has nine active startups, some of which are already seeing significant growth and seizing new opportunities. Collective Labor (collectivelabor.com) has created an online platform to facilitate collective bargaining negotiations.

By centralizing the process of calculating proposals and editing contract terms, Collective Labor decreases negotiation time, reduces errors and ultimately makes the negotiation process more efficient. In Iowa alone, Collective Labor believes it can save schools upwards of $35-million a year by streamlining their collective bargaining efforts, freeing up budgets to hire more teachers and improve schools.

Even more promising, the platform can handle all collective bargaining scenarios from teachers to municipal workers, and trade unions to public safety professionals. The demand for Collective Labor’s service is proving solid. Less than a year after launching (in February), Collective Labor has signed up five school districts and has thirteen contractor requests pending. In fact, Collective Labor President, David Gaus, just announced on Twitter that a Colorado firm has agreed to invest cash and expertise that will result in a new office and additional staff to support a nationwide expansion. Not bad for a startup that’s barely seven months old.

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With other ventures ranging from biofuels trading to book publishing, EMERGE has successfully engaged a wide cross section of the community, from English students to professional engineers. Another startup seeing early success is LNR, which has developed an innovative way of “painting” stripes and other road marks. Instead of using actual paint, which eventually wears off, LNR has developed a colorable quick-setting concrete and application device that produces road markings which last 20 times longer than paint. Having just launched in April, LNR has already secured a $100,000 loan from the Iowa Innovation Acceleration Fund for market development.

Chris Draper says the key to the program is the combination of resources it brings together for the benefit of local entrepreneurs. Before the program, a member of the community with an idea would have to seek advice on diverse topics from various individuals - a daunting task that hinders untold numbers of would-be entrepreneurs. Now, EMERGE offers all of the necessary expertise in one place. And with a community fiber network at its disposal, the expertise offered by EMERGE is in-tune with the most advanced communications technology available.

Collective Labor is a good example of EMERGE’s ability to quickly enable high-tech ventures. Collective Labor's founder, David Gaus, previously used Excel spreadsheets to manage the collective bargaining process as a school business official. When he brought the idea and spreadsheets to Draper’s team at EMERGE, they converted it into an online cloud-based platform in a matter of months. This is the type of expertise seen in high-profile big-city startup incubators, but it's now available in a small-town community of 15,000 people in Iowa.

Small Minnesota Town, Annandale, Fed up With Slow DSL

Yet another Minnesota town is fed up with slow, unreliable Internet access and is examining what it can do to make sure it has the network it needs to succeed in the modern economy. Annandale is 50 miles northwest of Minneapolis with a population of 3,200 and has Windstream as the telephone company.

Windstream, as with other large firms that primarily serve rural America, offers a DSL more suited to the late 1990's than 2013. It has little capacity to invest in better networks, even if it had the willingness. We've covered Windstream several times in previous stories.

After a flood of complaints from residents to City Hall about slow speeds and frequent outages, the City issued a request for proposals for a feasibility study that will explore alternatives to the present reliance on Windstream.

Local leaders understand that the private sector is not likely to invest significantly in its community due to its density and rural location. But the town needs modern Internet access to retain and attract good jobs. The Annandale Advocate newspaper ran a story on September 17 but it is not available for non-subscribers.

At a chamber of commerce meeting later in the week Gunnarson added that strong broadband is a basic, essential feature of modern commerce.

"New businesses expect good Internet. When you buy a car you expect tires on it. Unfortunately, our car has wooden tires," he said.

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The same paper published a guest editorial by City Council members to explain how little power the City has over private providers. Many people falsely believe that towns are actively keeping competition out:

We even had some people angrily ask our staff why are we keeping the competition out. So to set the record straight, the city can't do much about it because it is all private wires, equipment, operations and corporate customer service.

Also, a recent call to the PUC, the Public Utilities Commission, confirms that not much can be done since broadband is not regulated. Sorry folks. As far as letting in competition, we have zero say in that. Any other provider can come in any time. In fact, many of us citizens would throw the welcome party.

If any provider believes it is being denying the right to offer service in Annandale, there is a legal process to rectify the situation. Since 1992, no local government has had the power to offer a cable monopoly and the same is true for telephone or Internet access since the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

The problem is not local governments, it is the extremely high cost of building networks and the difficulty of competing with entrenched incumbents that can lower costs temporarily to deny subscribers to new networks.

Annandale has not committed to any specific course of action; it is gauging what opportunities are available and how a business model might work. And like most towns, they are leaving the door open to working with the incumbent:

Does our current provider still have an opportunity to be rock star in Annandale? They sure do. They just need to upgrade and make the city hall phone stop ringing.

A CBS Atlanta investigation has previously found that Windstream blatantly lies to consumers about their services.

CBS Atlanta News

Given Annandale's size, it is impractical to build a standalone triple-play FTTH network but it may find that an incremental fiber approach could work. Start with municipal facilities and businesses and expand to residents as necessary. Without a strong cable provider, most households probably already have a satellite TV service. This would leave open the possibility of doing an Internet and telephone double-play as Longmont, Colorado is doing. They could also partner with another network that wants to expand.

Regardless, you can expect the same big companies that refuse to invest in Annandale will publicly argue that the town should do nothing. But doing nothing is the best way to ensure nothing changes.