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New Report Details Local Government Efforts to Improve Minnesota Connectivity

In our latest report, All Hands On Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access, we analyze how local governments in 12 Minnesota communities are expanding 21st century Internet access to their citizens.

In 2010, the Minnesota legislature set a goal for 2015 - universal access to high speed broadband throughout the state. Even though we have the technology to make that vision a reality, large swaths of the state will not meet that goal. Nevertheless, local folks who have chosen to take control of their connectivity are finding a way to exceed expectations, surpassing the choices in many metropolitan regions.

Some of the communities we cover include:

  • Windom, which is one of the most advanced networks in the state, built their own network after their telephone company refused to invest in their community.
  • Dakota County showed how a coordinated excavation policy can reduce by more than 90 percent the cost of installing fiber.
  • Lac qui Parle County partnered with a telephone cooperative to bring high speed broadband to its most sparsely population communities.

We delved into networks in Anoka, Carver, Cook, Lake, and Scott Counties. The report also shares developments in the municipalities of Chaska, Buffalo, and Monticello. We tell the story of RS Fiber, located in Sibley and part of Renville County. These communities provide examples of municipal networks, a variety of public private partnerships, and "dig once" policies.

This week in Minnesota, the governor’s office began accepting applications for the state’s new $20 million initiative Border-to-Border program. We hope this new report will serve as a resource for potential applicants and other community leaders across the U.S. interested in taking charge of their broadband destinies.

Read and download the full report [PDF].

Sign Up Early for A Gig in Longmont, Colorado

If you are in Longmont, you can sign up for gigabit service from LPC for only $49.95 per month. The Longmont Compass reports that customers who sign up within the first three months will retain that price point for an as yet undetermined extended period. AND, that price stays with the home if the customer sells, adding substantial value to the real estate.

The Compass also spoke with General Manager Tom Roiniotis about LPC's decision to offer Inernet and voice but not video: 

“Cable TV is a dying industry. People want to get the TV that they want, not the TV that the cable companies force them to get.”

When pressed for an example, Roiniotis considered sports. If you want to watch an NFL game, why should you have to pay for two hundred channels you’ll never even tune into? There is a growing consensus that audiences don’t want to watch the movie that happens to be on Showtime right now, they want to choose when to start, when to pause, and what movie they’re interested in. As he put it, “The consumer is finally becoming king in the world of TV.”

“In five years, I can see Xfinity (the Comcast content delivery network) using our fiber-optic to deliver their content,” he says. “So instead of investing another $20M in the technology to deliver cable, we save that money and let the consumers drive the future of content delivery.”

LPC began construction on the expansion in August with completion scheduled for 2017. Last fall, voters passed a referendum to bond in order to speed up construction.

Letters to the editor from Longmont locals express impatience. They want better services! P.R. Lambert recently wrote:

It's really sad that the Longmont fiber optic Internet will take so long to be installed. From what I see, the two major competitors (Comcast and Century Link) seem to believe that customers are a bother.

One of those has pricing on their web page that they refuse to honor, while the other will not even try to be competitive.

The Compass shared this video to illustrate what lucky Longmonters have coming to them:

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Vermont Draft Telecom Plan Fails to Deliver on Many Fronts

Last week, the Vermont Department of Public Service began a series of public hearings on the public comment draft of its State Telecommunications Plan. The plan is intended to asses the current state of the telecom landscape in Vermont, map out goals and benchmarks for the next 10 years, and provide recommendations for how to achieve them. The plan sets a target of 100 megabit per second symmetrical connections for every home and business in the state by 2024.

Oddly enough, achieving that even today would put them behind many metropolitan areas across the United States. The technology needed to deliver 100 Mbps connections is essentially the same that would be used to deliver 1 Gbps, begging the question why such a limited goal?

The 100/100 mbps symmetrical target is for 10 years into the future, but in the nearer term the plan calls for universal 4/1 Mbps coverage, raised to 10/1 Mbps coverage by 2020. While it may at first glance seem reasonable to set gradually rising targets, these long and short term goals actually have the potential to conflict with each other.

As pointed out by Vermont Public Radio, the 100/100 Mbps standard would likely require universal FTTH, or at least fiber to the node combined with other technological advances and investments. Meeting this goal would require a huge investment in next generation fiber optic infrastructure, yet the Telecommunications Plan calls for funding priorities to be focused on achieving universal 4/1 mbps coverage for the next 6 years. This lower standard will likely be met with a combination of last generation technologies like copper wire DSL and wireless that are incapable of meeting the 100/100 standard.

Continuing to build out older systems while deferring investments in fiber, which is adaptable to meet just about any future need, seems illogical. It’s a bit like saying you’re going to put all your expendable income for the next six years into repairing your VCR and buying tapes, while promising you’ll buy a DVD player immediately after. 

While the goal of first guaranteeing all Vermonters some basic level of coverage is admirable, Vermont can do better by setting higher goals for itself. However, a real plan would require Vermont to actually invest in better connections rather than continuing to award grants to pokey incumbent providers like Comcast and FairPoint.

EC Fiber Logo

Leslie Nulty, a former Project Coordinator with the locally-owned, open access EC Fiber Network in the eastern part of state, put it best in her scathing criticism of the plan:

The long-range vision is admirable, but unfortunately the plan has no guidance at all as to how to reach it. It’s near-term guidelines, on the other hand, assure that current public policy will hinder, if not completely block, achievement of the long-term “Vision.”

Another concerning piece of the Plan is its decidedly skeptical attitude toward public networks, or anything that deviates from the standard playbook of offering grants to incumbent provider to entice them to build. From page vii of the Telecommunications Plan:

7. Vermont policy makers should carefully consider the potential negative outcomes of state and municipalities directly competing with private firms in the provision of telecommunications services, especially in areas where consumers are adequately served. Vermont should refrain from policies, including financial incentives, that have the net effect of diminishing competitive choice in the marketplace.

There is no evidence that municipal networks diminish competititon while there is plenty of evidence that municipal networks have resulted in more competition and increased investment from incumbent providers. The idea that more competition results in less competition is worthy of an explanation from George Orwell. 

“Competitive choice” is another goal that sounds good, but in this context it is used primarily to discourage investment in local networks that allow communities to determine and meet their own needs. To communities that have limited or no broadband access, this in effect announces that the state has little interest in helping them build their own networks, they should just sit tight until they get an already obsolete 4/1 mbps connection from a private provider, subsidized by the state, sometime around 2017 or 2018. 

On the whole, this Telecommunications Plan offers minimalist requirements for “basic” broadband that are already obsolete, and completely ignores other important measures of quality connectivity, such as latency. It offers essentially no new funding to back up its promises, with only vague mentions of tapping “public and private sources” while using existing revenue streams to invest in meeting outdated standards through private providers. The list of recommendations mostly read like an endorsement of the status quo, which stands at odds with the headline grabbing pronouncements of long-term goals. In short, it seems like a plan designed to have the most public relations impact with the minimal expense of political, financial, or even intellectual capital. 

For a more detailed breakdown of the Vermont Telecommunications Plan’s failings from someone more versed in the local landscape, read the full testimony given by Leslie Nulty [pdf] at a public hearing on the issue. She touches on all the issues mentioned above and a variety of others, from the plan’s lack of support for open access network models to new funding mechanisms preferable to grants to incumbents, such as revolving loan funds to finance network buildouts. 

Department of Delusion: Comcast Takes Credit for Google Fiber, Unicorns, and Kittens

In what can only be assumed as a fit of insanity or confusion, several dozen US Mayors came out Friday with a letter to Chairman Wheeler, praising Comcast and demanding that the cable monopoly be allowed to take over Time Warner Cable. Given that Comcast and Time Warner Cable are among the most hated corporations in America, perhaps these math wiz mayors think two negatives will produce a postive?

In light of all the evidence against Comcast’s track record for customer service, its glacial pace at upgrading Internet access, and its false promises for investment, we find the letter absurd, at best. But then it contains this gem:

Since the Comcast Time Warner Cable transaction was proposed, Google has announced plans to expand its high-speed Fiber service to 34 new communities. 

Wow! Comcast wants to take credit for Google's investment in fiber networks? An investment by Google that is only necessary because the big cable companies have refused to meet the growing demand of our communities with better services?

This got us thinking, what else can Comcast take credit for since it announced the merger?

  • Since Comcast announced the merger, the Large Hadron Collider has not created a black hole large enough to destroy the Earth. #thankyouComcast
  • Since Comcast announced the merger, millions of kittens have been adopted #thankyouComcast
  • Since Comcast announced the merger, we have a potential Ebola vaccine #thankyouComcast
  • Since Comcast announced the merger, Bruce Willis has not had to blow up an asteroid to save our planet. #thankyouComcast

Check out our #ThankYouComcast hashtags on Twitter, Retweet them, add your own, and share with friends, family, and all your local officials. And if you’re living in one of the cities where your mayor sold you out for Comcast’s bottom line, make sure they know just how ludicrous their letter is, they’re clearly very out-of-touch with their constituencies.

Read the full letter here. And please, take a minute to file comments with the FCC on this merger. Due by Monday afternoon, August 25th.

#ThankYouComcast 

Comcast Responds to "Break-Up" Call With Customer Service Rep

Comcast's Chief Operating Officer, Dave Watson, recently posted a letter on the Team Comcast employee site in response to the viral customer-retention call from hell, reports the Consumerist. In his letter to Comcast minions, Watson admits:

The agent on this call did a lot of what we trained him and paid him — and thousands of other Retention agents — to do.

Watson also expresses that the call was "painful to listen to" and vows:

We will review our training programs, we will refresh our manager on coaching for quality, and we will take a look at our incentives to ensure we are rewarding employees for the right behaviors. We can, and will, do better.

Just a few days ago, over at the "Comcast Voices" blog, Tom Karinshak, Senior VP of Comcast's Customer Experience, vowed to investigate and wrote:

We are very embarrassed by the way our employee spoke with Mr. Block and Ms. Belmont and are contacting them to personally apologize.  The way in which our representative communicated with them is unacceptable and not consistent with how we train our customer service representatives. 

Regardless of whether one chooses to believe the response crafted for Comcast employees or the one posted to placate the general public, is this the company we want controlling our online access? If Comcast is allowed to merge with Time Warner Cable, we can expect more of the same.

Comcasts Invests in Theme Parks Rather than Better Broadband

While its network continues to offer last generation speeds at high prices and their customer service reps go viral harassing customers who try to leave their grasp, Comcast executives have decided it is time to invest hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade... their theme parks. That's right, as they shift call centers to the Philippines to save money, they are reinvesting it into roller coasters.

Having acquired Universal Orlando Resorts as part of their 2011 merger with NBC Universal, Comcast has decided to step outside its core business of providing Internet access, cable TV, and phone service in noncompetitive markets. According to a March CED Magazine article, Comcast plans to invest hundreds of millions in theme parks in both Florida and California in an effort to challenge Disney’s traditional dominance of the field. Attractions in Orlando will include an 1,800 room beach resort and a new Harry Potter ride.

This investment in rides occurs against the backdrop of falling infrastructure investment in the broadband industry, despite rapidly increasing bandwidth demands and claims by ISPs that services such as Netflix are straining their networks and must pay extra for “fast lane” service.

It is possible to imagine a world in which broadband markets are sufficiently competitive to force Comcast, CenturyLink and other incumbents to invest sufficiently in building out and upgrading their networks, delivering better service to their customers. But in our world, Comcast can spend the comparatively small sum of $18.8 million on lobbying (in 2013 according to OpenSecrets.org), becoming the seventh biggest campaign contributor in the nation and pushing legislation like the recent Blackburn amendment that eliminates potential public sector competitors.

Santa Fe Ready to Improve Local Internet Choice

The City of Santa Fe is taking first steps to improve the community's Internet choice, quality, and availability. Recently, the City announced that it has chosen a partner for a middle mile investment and will move forward with the $1 million fiber deployment project.

CenturyLink and Comcast serve Santa Fe, home to approximately 70,000 people. Residents and businesses both complain about slow speeds and relatively high costs. Residents pay $50 per month for average speeds of 5 Mbps while nearby Albuquerque pays the same price for 10 Mbps, according to the Santa Fe New Mexican.

CenturyLink owns the sole fiber hut connecting the community with the Internet. The company also owns the line bringing access to the web to downtown, giving it control over data transmittal in the city. A city press release, reprinted at SantaFe.com in May 2013 described the problem:

Every home and most businesses already have two physical routes to the Internet: A telephone line and a television cable...But in spite of this abundance of pathways, there is a crucial missing link in the infrastructure, an enduring legacy of the former telephone monopoly. This missing link spans from the central telephone office to a location about two miles away where several fiber optic cables emerge from the ground after traversing many miles of road, railroad and countryside from remote junctions across the state. Absent this two-mile link, local providers have only one way to connect to the outside world, and must pay a steep toll on the data transmitted over it. 

The City recently announced that it would work with local ISP Cyber Mesa to build an independent line from downtown to CenturyLink's fiber hut. The City hopes the line will introduce much needed competition, encouraging better service and prices.

According to the plan, Cyber Mesa will run the City's fiber service for four years; after that other bidders can apply to manage the network. Three other companies bid on the project, including CenturyLink who told the City "not to waste money on the project." CenturyLink opposes the plan, of course, and Chris spoke with the New Mexican about what to expect from the incumbents:

Mitchell also warned that the city should not expect competition to flourish on its own, saying Internet giants such as Comcast and Century Link “have a lot of power to run competitors out of business.”

Mitchell warned that Comcast and Century Link have a history of opposing public Internet infrastructure projects through legislation, and that the city should expect resistance if it continues building such projects.

“They’re very happy with the market the way it is,” Mitchell said.

Citylink Logo

The project details have raised a few eyebrows from industry experts. While the plan to build another line will provide another path to the Internet, one of the bidders, CityLink Fiber, questions the wisdom of the plan:

[CityLink Owner John] Brown said that in his bid he proposed creating a 7-mile loop that would have accomplished the city’s goals and provided additional coverage and redundancy. The city didn’t bite, saying that he couldn’t complete the project within the funding limits, he said.

Brown said he could, but the city remained unconvinced and instead opted for Cyber Mesa.

He also questioned the need for running cable through Century Link’s central exchange, saying it was unnecessary and expensive.

We have been impressed with John Brown's work and are inclined to believe him. But regardless of the details, local businesses are hungry for better service. A local Web design firm owner, Damien Taggart, notes that large data files can take hours to transmit.

Smaller ISPs are also looking forward to an option beyond CenturyLink. Joel Yelich, president of a local wireless provider told the New Mexican:

“I certainly hope that is successful in some way,” Yelich said. “The more competition, the better.”

Comcast Named the Worst Company in America, Gets Yummy Cake

Not everyone hates Comcast. Antennas Direct.com, helping cable TV customers cut the cord, recently surprised the corporate behemoth with a congratulatory confection. To our delight, they shared some moments from the experience.

The Consumerist recently named Comcast the 2014 Worst Company in America. Based on customer comments in the video, clearly Comcast deserves this prestigious designation. Do we want this company controlling our most important communications tool? Let them eat cake.

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Network Neutrality Update

The FCC is hearing the massive public outcry over its plan that would allow the big cable and telephone companies to create fast and slow lanes on the wires most of us depend on to access the Internet. Chairman Wheeler has made some bold claims that he would not allow commercially unreasonable deals but many doubt the FCC has the authority to enforce his tough talk.

Now we see that FCC Commissioner Rosenworcel wants to slow down the rulemaking for "at least a month" given the outcry.

Resistance to the plan does seem to be building with the emergence of over 100 Internet-dependent companies decrying the possibility of fast and slow lanes. Full letter here [pdf].

Mozilla has developed an alternative approach to reclassification that some are saying just might work, but as a naturally conservative person, I will want to see it vetted by trusted experts like Harold Feld. The main problem with reclassification seems to be that Republicans would demagogue it as Obama attempting to take over the Internet - a problem for Democrats already facing an uphill battle in November.

However, Barbara van Schewick - one of the most knowledgeable people on this matter - makes a strong case for the FCC rebooting the whole process, gathering more input, and ultimately reclassifying Internet access as Title II while forebearing many of the Title II powers that would allow the FCC to wield too much control over access to the Internet.

Much like the FCC has long overseen telephone access without censoring the content of our speech, it would be possible for the FCC to reclassify Internet access without getting involved in content.

However, the larger problem remains - the market power of the massive firms like Comcast and AT&T. As long as they continue to wield the power they do (which will grow if consolidation continues), they will buy support in Congress and use the FCC's revolving door to their advantage; no amount of regulation will ultimately contain them.

To preserve the open Internet over the long haul, we have to reduce the overwhelming power of those companies. We can do that with an "all hands on deck" approach to expanding Internet access - ensuring local governments are free to build their own networks as they choose or partner with trusted entities. On this matter, Chairman Wheeler has said he will use FCC power to remove state barriers to communities make those decisions, a tremendous step forward for preserving the open Internet.

This is a very important moment. We need the FCC to preserve the open Internet by continuing to prevent paid prioritization schemes and we need to create alternative networks to end the cable monopoly and reduce their power in DC and state houses.

Below is an excellent video on this subject that explains the problem and what can be done. As we noted in our podcast with Scott Bradner, the way this video presents the key question of who should pay who represents a break with the past traditions, but it may be time to reconsider who should pay when faced with a cable monopoly for Internet access.

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Bill Moyers on Network Neutrality and Threat from Comcast

Bill Moyers has returned to again discuss Network Neutrality with guests Susan Crawford and David Carr from the New York Times. The show is embedded below and well worth watching, especially toward the end as Bill reveals the revolving-door between the top levels of the Federal Communication Commission and industry lobbyists.

During the show, they also discuss the importance of ensuring communities are able to build their own networks as an alternative to the massive cable monopolies.

Finally, a post from John Nicols on BillMoyers.com outlines what action you can take to ensure the FCC protects the open Internet. Scroll about halfway down for the specific steps.

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