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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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Peering: Then and Now on Community Broadband Bits Podcast #96

This week we are welcoming Scott Bradner, a long time doer, writer, and thinker on Internet matters. Thanks to a listener request, we had already recorded an interview last week discussing peering before the news broke that the FCC would be allowing paid prioritization peering arrangements, which many have said represents the end of network neutrality. We talked prior to the announcement of the FCC's upcoming rules so we do not discuss them directly.

We explain what "peering" is and why it is essential to the Internet. It gets a little technical but we try to bring it back with simple examples.

Our take on the Comcast-Netflix deal may surprise some listeners because the arrangement is not as far from the tradition of paid interconnection arrangement as some strong supporters of network neutrality maintain. However, we are explicit in noting that monopoly providers like Comcast may abuse their market power to shake down companies like Netflix. That is worrisome but may best be dealt with using other means aside from changing the way peering has historically worked.

We end the show discussing the consolidation of ISPs and the role of symmetry in peering.

Scott recommended these two columns and I strongly encourage readers/listeners to read Barbara van Schewick's post on the subject.

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 20 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 Valley Lodge for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Sweet Elizabeth."

No Scale Advantage in Netflix Speed Ranking

Netflix has continued to publish monthly rankings of ISPs average speed in delivering Netflix video content to subscribers. Though they first published data about the largest, national ISPs like Comcast, AT&T, and the link, they have an expanded list with many more ISPs.

I recognize two municipal networks on the expanded list of 60 ISPs. For March 2014, the Chattanooga EPB network is ranked 4th and CDE Lightband of Clarksville, Tennessee, is ranked 7th.

With the exception of Google Fiber and Cablevision, the top 10 are regional or somewhat smaller ISPs. Combined with the significant spread across the rankings of the biggest ISP, we see no empirical evidence for any kind of benefits to subscribers from scale. That is to say, Netflix data shows that bigger ISPs do not deliver better customer experience.

We do see more evidence that fiber networks deliver faster speeds on average, with cable following, and DSL trailing distantly. This is why DSL networks are losing customers where people have a choice and cable is gaining (most often where there is no fiber option).

Any claims by Comcast that allowing it to merge with Time Warner Cable would result in better service should be subject to extreme skepticism. Many much smaller networks deliver faster connections and raise rates far less often that Comcast, which is at the high end of frequency in rate hikes.

The problem with the biggest companies is that they focus on generating the highest returns for Wall Street, not delivering the best experience to Main Street.

Paid Prioritization Threat Reinforces Value of Community Networks

Recent reports out of the FCC say that it will allow ISPs to create and sell "fast lanes" of Internet access to the companies with sufficiently deep pockets to afford them. While some people argue over whether this violates network neutrality principles or not, the more important point is that most communities have no control over how the networks on which they depend are operated.

The big ISPs, like Comcast and AT&T, are focused on maximizing revenue for their shareholders. It is why they exist. So they will want to make the fast lanes as appealing as possible, which in turn means making providers like Netflix unable to deliver a high quality product without paying special tolls to Comcast.

What does that mean for you? It means you should expect to see the big providers slow their already anemic pace of investing in higher capacity connections in favor of pushing content providers into the paid prioritization schemes. It also means that you may have to start paying more for Netflix or Hulu, where the additional money goes to the ISP you already overpay for comparatively lousy service.

A range of ISPs, from privately owned Sonic.Net in California to Chattanooga's Electric Power Board right up to Google have demonstrated that they can deliver a "fast lane" to everyone. This fight over paid prioritization is nothing more than the big cable and telephone companies trying to increase their profits while minimizing needed investments in higher quality service to everyone.

Unless you live in an area with a community-owned network. Unlike the big providers with a fidiciary responsibility to distant shareholders, community owned networks are directly accountable to the community. Their mission is to maximize local benefits, not extracting as much wealth from households as possible. ISPs like Sonic also have much more reasonable policies but over time these privately owned ISPs are vulnerable to being bought by the big national providers.

Community owned networks are far less likely to engage in paid prioritization because it adds no value for subscribers in the community. In fact, the worse the big cable companies act in terms of ripping off subscribers, the more valuable community owned networks become by providing a better level of service.

Another example of this is monthly data caps - the big cable companies have been "experimenting" with them in several markets in the south but always in areas where the community has not built an alternative option. Community networks not only offer a much better option to the community, they change the behavior of incumbents who are accustomed to operated in non-competitive environments.

The final benefit of community owned networks is that if the federal regulators fall down on the job AND your community-owned networks engages in behavior that hurts subscribers, there is a democratic process for rectifying that, whether in elections for the city council or coop board.

Seattleites Want More Than Rhetoric in Quest for Better Broadband

In a recent SLOG post from the Stranger, Ansel Herz commented on Mayor Ed Murray's recent statement on broadband in Seattle. Murray's statement included:

Finding a job, getting a competitive education, participating in our democracy, or even going to work for some, requires high speed internet access. I have seen people say online, "I don’t need a road to get to work, I need high speed internet." Seattle would never leave the construction of roads up to a private monopoly, nor should we allow the City’s internet access to be constructed and managed by a private monopoly.

It is incredibly clear to me and residents throughout the City of Seattle, that the City’s current high speed internet options are not dependable enough, are cost prohibitive for many, and have few (if any) competitive options.

The Mayor also hinted that if the City needs a municipal broadband network, he would "help lead the way."

As a Seattleite, Herz knows firsthand about the lack of connectivity options in the area. Herz writes:

This is both encouraging and disappointingly tentative language from the mayor. It seems to cast municipal broadband as a last resort. Municipal broadband is a no-f*cking-brainer. [our *]

Herz turned to Chris for perspective:

"I have seen this from many Mayors who talk about how someone should do something but we don't always see concrete actions because of the difficulty and the immense opposition from some powerful companies like Comcast," Christopher Mitchell, the Director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative, who's worked with cities across the country on this question, tells me.

Seattle doesn't know what to expect from a Mayor that Comcast tried to buy (we suspect they did not succeed but have nonetheless sent a loud message). It is encouraging to see that the issue has not simply disappeared, but Herz and his neighbors want more:

What are you waiting for, Ed? Progressive rhetoric (and retweeting people who want to see municipal broadband happen) is great, but commitment and action are even better.

Long List of Public Interest Groups Sign on to Free Press Letter Opposing Comcast Time Warner Cable Merger

The Free Press announced that more than 50 public interest groups, including the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, signed on to its letter in opposition to the Time Warner/Comcast merger.

The letter, addressed and delivered to Attorney General Eric Holder and FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, begins:

The proposed Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger would give one company enormous power over our nation’s media and communications infrastructure. This massive consolidation would position Comcast as our communications gatekeeper, giving it the power to dictate the future of numerous industries across the Internet, television and telecommunications landscape.

In the press release, Craig Aaron, President and CEO of the Free Press, stated:

“The question before the FCC is whether this deal serves the public interest. The answer is clear: A bigger Comcast is bad for America.

“Merging the nation’s two biggest cable-Internet providers would turn Comcast into our communications gatekeeper, able to dictate the cost and content of news, information and entertainment. We need an Internet and video marketplace that offers people high-quality options at prices they can afford — not a near-national monopoly determining what we can watch and download.

“In the past four years, Comcast has raised basic cable rates in some markets by nearly 70 percent. Its top lobbyist has admitted that the price increases will continue to skyrocket if the merger goes through. And that's about the only thing Comcast has said about this deal that you should believe.

“The growing chorus of groups opposing this takeover knows the truth. The only rational choice is for the FCC and Justice Department to reject this merger."