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Orlando Sentinel Op-Ed - Local governments should make broadband choices

The Orlando Sentinel published this op-ed about local government action for broadband networks on March 11, 2015. 

Local governments should make broadband choices
By Christopher Mitchell

Community broadband must be a local choice, a guest columnist writes.

When Comcast announced plans last year to invest hundreds of millions in theme parks in Florida and California, its customers may have wondered why the cable giant wasn't using those funds to deliver a faster or more reliable Internet connection. While Comcast's Universal Studios faces competition from Walt Disney World, most people don't have a real choice in high-speed Internet access.

The Federal Communications Commission has just boosted the broadband definition from 4 megabits per second to 25 mbps. At that speed, some 75 percent of Americans have no choice in providers — they are stuck with one or none.

The rest of America is living in the future, often because their local government rolled up its sleeves and got involved. In some of these communities, the local government built its own network and others worked with a trusted partner. Chattanooga's city-owned electric utility built the nation's first citywide gigabit network, which is about 100 times faster than the average connection today.

Google is famously working with some bigger cities, whereas local provider GWI in Maine has partnered with several local governments to expand gigabit access.

However, the big cable and telephone companies have almost always refused to work with local governments. Instead, they've lobbied states to restrict the right of local governments to build or partner in this essential infrastructure.

In Florida, the law puts restrictions on local governments that do not apply to the private sector, such as a strict profitability timetable that can be unrealistic for large capital investments regardless of being privately or publicly owned. Some 20 states have such barriers that limit competition by effectively taking the decision away from communities.

In January, President Obama spoke out in favor of local governments being able to make these investments and partnerships without state interference. He was in Cedar Falls, Iowa, which has one of the oldest municipal broadband networks in the country, but it's the first city in the state with citywide gigabit access. A local business owner, whose business had been able to thrive in its hometown due to the public network and its world-class access, introduced the president.

Both Obama and the FCC are taking actions to remove barriers to local authority, but they are seeing strong opposition from some Republicans in Washington, D.C.

National Republicans may be less likely to support an effort that Obama has now championed. But they can't just oppose the president; they will have to oppose their own base, which tends to believe decisions should be made locally. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance analyzed all citywide municipal networks, over 150 communities, and found more than 70 percent reliably vote Republican.

It may be surprising, but at the local level, there tends to be little partisan divide over whether local governments should get involved in a service so dominated by big monopolies. In the city council, it is a practical matter: Do local businesses have the connections they need to be competitive? If not, how can we make sure they do?

A bipartisan group of mayors has already come together to form Next Century Cities, a collaborative nonpartisan organization that includes a diverse group of cities. Some own and operate their own networks, as in Opelika, Ala. Some are working with partners, as Kansas City does. Some, as in Ammon, Idaho, can be hard to find on a map. And then there are cities like Los Angeles that recognize they need something better also.

Fortunately, Florida's law has slowed but not stopped smart local approaches. Martin County built a fiber network that has saved millions of dollars in connections for public facilities and is used by health-care facilities. The city of Palm Coast's FiberNET has saved hundreds of thousands of dollars for the community, while dramatically improving connections for the Flagler County School District and other entities.

Building a modern fiber-optic network is no theme-park ride, but hundreds of local governments have already demonstrated it is well within their capacity. And given that they have to live with the consequences of action or inaction, shouldn't it be their decision?

Christopher Mitchell is the director of Community Broadband Networks at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis.

Community Broadband Media Roundup - March 20

FCC Outlines Plan To Crush Awful State Protectionist Broadband Laws: from the it's-about-time dept by Karl Bode, Tech Dirt

While net neutrality rules are designed to protect consumers from a lack of last-mile competition, the agency's moves on municipal broadband are intended to actually strike at the issue of limited competition at the root. As we've noted a few times, ISPs (with ALEC's help) have passed laws in twenty states preventing those towns and cities from deciding their own infrastructure needs for themselves. 

It's pure, unabashed protectionism: the bills do little more than protect regional duopolies from change while hamstringing local communities desperate for better service. Usually the laws are passed under the auspices of protecting taxpayers from themselves, ignoring that the bills' sole purpose is to protect duopoly revenues. 

TV and Internet Service Providers Deliver the Worst Customer Experience: Fifth Annual Temkin Experience Ratings Evaluates 293 Companies Across 20 Industries

The poster child for poor customer experience in these industries - Comcast - was not only the lowest-scoring TV service and Internet service provider, but it was also one of the lowest-scoring companies in the entire Ratings. It ranked 289th overall out of 293 companies for its Internet service and ranked 291st overall for its TV service.

Of the 17 companies that received "very poor" ratings (below 50%) across the 193 companies, five of them were from these two industries: Comcast for TV (43%), Comcast for Internet (45%), Time Warner Cable for Internet (47%), Charter Communications for TV (48%), and Time Warner Cable for TV (48%).

"Internet and TV service providers are awful to consumers. The lack of competition continues to fuel this bad experience epidemic," states Bruce Temkin, managing partner of Temkin Group.

 

California

Broadband coming to Orleans by Jessie Faulkner, Times Standard

The Karuk and Yurok Tribes have been collaborating to bring the speeded-up service to the Klamath River communities of Orleans, Weitchpec, Wautec, Johnsons as well as Orick. A $6.6 million California Public Utilities Commission grant, awarded in October 2013, is financing the project. The tribes provide matching funds.

Colorado

Fort Collins eyes starting broadband Internet service by Nick Coltrain, The Coloradoan

If the city of Fort Collins made a sound while examining the possibility at offering its own Internet service, it'd be the chirps and whirrs of a 56K modem — Almost connected but with no guarantee of success. 

Minnesota

Businesses would be able to tie into countywide broadband by John Gessner, Sun This Week

Scott County has a high-speed, fiber optic network available for businesses and Internet service providers to tap into.

Neighboring Dakota County doesn’t. One result? Up to 10 companies that were wooed by Dakota County communities instead chose Scott County for its access to limitless bandwidth, according to Craig Ebeling.

Fiber Optic Project Moves Forward: KDUZ

Ten city councils and a standing room only crowd packed the United Farmers Cooperative Berdan Center on Monday for a public hearing and adoption of a tax abatement resolution to fund a loan to the Renville-Sibley County Fiber Joint Powers Agency for the RS Fiber Cooperative.

Maine

Broadband companies showing interest in Sanford by Ellen W. Todd, Sanford News

The City of Sanford, in collaboration with the SREGC, intends to finance and own a fiber-optic network connecting 80 community institutions and private enterprises — businesses, the hospital, municipal facilities, the mill complex, industrial parks, schools — in Sanford-Springvale.

Last year, the SREGC commissioned a study on the feasibility of bringing broadband (fiber-optic) communications access to the city. The company that did the study — Tilson Technology Management company of Portland — concluded that broadband access has the potential to add “between $47 and $192 million to the Sanford-Springvale region’s economic output over the next ten years.” 

Montana

Lawmakers consider issuing bonds for broadband expansion by Alison Noon, The News Tribune

New Hampshire

Editorial: Fast internet could be a boon for Concord

Creating a truly high-speed, affordable municipal internet network could be a pipe dream – or it could be a pipeline to a more vibrant Concord with a booming economy and a growing population of young entrepreneurs and knowledge workers.

New York

County touts pros of Municipal Broadband System WKBW-7

Erie County's Broadband Committee released a new report Wednesday touting the pros of building a Municipal Broadband System.

Erie County Legislator calls for faster internet by Mark Belcher, News 4 Digital Producer

“A municipal broadband network could be our generation’s great infrastructure project, like the Erie Canal or the Hoover Dam,” Burke said.

Cayuga County's high-speed Internet needs, state broadband initiatives discussed at Wednesday Morning Roundtable by Robert Harding, Auburn Citizen

According to Batman, what started out as a few towns became a larger collaboration to find a high-speed Internet service provider for the area. He said the group contacted these companies with a few ideas, including a public-private partnership. 

Unfortunately, there wasn't a lot of interest in such a venture.

"It simply is not a viable alternative," Batman said. "It simply is too expensive to serve me and my neighbors without financial incentives and support."

North Carolina

Community broadband debate centered in a North Carolina town by Renne Schoof, McClatchy Washington Bureau

“You don’t realize how fortunate you are to live in an urban setting in my district until you go into a remote area and have no access to broadband or to cellular telephone,” he said.

Tennessee

Rural Tennessee counties need broadband and internet service too by Dave Shepard, Columbia Daily Herald

The battle is typical of the Big Guys (telecommunications companies) verses the Little Guys (Municipal Electric Providers). My rural district which is comprised of 3 rural counties, Dickson, Hickman, and Maury, need expanded broadband service to make us competitive for industrial and business recruitment. We need expansion of broadband service into unserved areas to help our students do homework assignments and our residents to connect to a high speed internet service for business and pleasure. This service is already available to our state’s residents in densely populated areas all over the state of Tennessee.

My rural counties and constituents need broadband and internet service too, and I plan to vote to help them get it.

BTES adopts resolution to support legislation of municipal broadband by Tammy Childress, Bristol Herald Courier

The Bristol Tennessee Essential Services board adopted a resolution Wednesday to support legislation for municipal broadband.

City County approved a similar resolution earlier this month.

Remembering David Carr, and His Writing on Monopoly Power

Stacy Mitchell, Co-Director of ILSR and Director of the Community-Scaled Economy Initiative, took a few moments to look back over the work of David Carr. Carr's work included investigating monopolies in the telecommunications space. Stacy's story, re-posted here, originally ran on ILSR.org.

What will we do without David Carr, the brilliant media columnist at the New York Times who died last week? At ILSR, we will especially miss his writing on monopoly power, Amazon, and the book business. Below we’ve excerpted and linked to a few of his best recent pieces on those subjects.

In Modern Media Realm, Big Mergers Are a Bulwark Against Rivals — July 16, 2014

Comcast’s bold strategy of acquisition kicked off a wave of defensive consolidation, fueled by a combination of fear and abundant capital in the media realm.

I talked to the head of one company that creates television and movies, who expressed a common sentiment. “When Comcast decided to get bigger,” he said, “we all had to ask ourselves, Are we big enough? We all have to think about getting bigger.”

And why not? No one is stopping them.

With big data, a Big Brother government and now big media, size creates its own prerogatives. When Amazon used its market dominance to limit access to Hachette books over a price dispute, regulators yawned. When AT&T and DirecTV propose a tie-up in response to Comcast, the market issues are just another deal point. Cable companies slowed down content from clients (which are also competitors) like Netflix, and it was treated as a business dispute.

For the most part, the current government has passed on regulating potential monopolies, and as citizens, we have become inured to the consequences of bigness.


Amazon Absorbing Price Fight Punches — June 1, 2014

Someone forgot to tell the book business that it was dead. Last Thursday afternoon, I walked over to the Javits Center in Manhattan, where a throng of people had gathered for BookExpo America, the industry’s annual campfire — so many people that I wondered if there was a free whiskey concession…

The immense space was brimming with a surprising amount of optimism: After years of downward spiral, the industry seems to have found some kind of equilibrium.

It has also watched with a mix of giddiness and anxiety as the Hachette Book Group, one of the big Manhattan publishers, has taken on Amazon in a bitter dispute over pricing. Hachette is suffering big losses because Amazon is delaying delivery of Hachette titles while also eliminating discounts. (Its authors are getting clobbered in the process.) Amazon is taking a reputational hit for not putting its customers first, which has long been its guiding philosophy.

Hachette is the first big publisher to enter talks with Amazon since the last round of negotiations, and book people have rejoiced watching the bully get sand — a heap of negative press — kicked in his face.

Amazon, beloved by Wall Street (until recently) and its customers for putting growth and low prices ahead of profits, is getting a bit of an image makeover right now, and the results have not been pretty.

On one level, this is just one corporate giant fighting with another — Hachette is owned by Lagardère of France — over the share of e-book profits. So why the fuss? The answer is that books are different from the thousands of other products Amazon sells.

As the uproar grows, Amazon is learning that while it may own the publishing industry with a 40 percent market share of all new books sold, according to Publishers Weekly, it doesn’t own the debate….

 

Growling by Comcast May Bring Tighter Leash — Sept. 28, 2014

Comcast has a long corporate tradition of smiling and wearing beige no matter what kind of criticisms are hurled at it. That public posture is in keeping with the low-key approach favored by Brian L. Roberts, the company’s chief executive, as he seeks to take over the world. It’s worked very well so far.

But in a filing submitted to the Federal Communications Commission last week in defense of its proposed merger with Time Warner Cable, the company lashed out uncharacteristically at its critics. And David L. Cohen, Comcast’s chief lobbyist, continued the salvo in comments to reporters and in his written remarks.

Watching Comcast’s ballistic response to opponents of its $45 billion takeover bid was a bit like watching a campaign debate go off the rails. The front-runner, ahead by 20 points, is besieged by ankle-biters who suggest he is a lout and a bully. He finally loses it and goes off on his opponents in a fury, generally acting like, well, a bully.

 

Questions for Comcast as It Looks to Grow — April 6, 2014

It is hard to say how rugged the questions will be when Comcast goes before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday to defend its proposed megamerger with Time Warner Cable.

We do know that Comcast is feeling pretty confident about its chances. In a recent interview with C-Span, David Cohen, an executive vice president at Comcast and the man who will represent the company, said, “ I have been struck by the absence of rational, knowledgeable voices in this space coming out in opposition or even raising serious questions about the transaction.”

Really? How can the largest cable company in the country bid to buy the second-largest and gain control over 19 of the country’s top 20 markets — corralling a 30 percent market share in cable and a 40 percent share in broadband — and there be no serious questions?

 

Why Barnes & Noble Is Good for Amazon — July 14, 2013

Having a bookstore in your neighborhood, as opposed to one that is bookmarked on your browser, is an invitation. Not long ago, I was walking by an airport bookstore and thought, “What if this was the only place to buy books?” Similar to Hollywood, only the blockbusters would get shelf space…

Bookstores offer discoverability, not just the latest Dan Brown or Carl Hiaasen book on the front table, but sometimes treasures deep in the stacks, a long tail of midlist authors and specialty books. Even as the book business consolidates, the physical object displayed in an actual place will continue to be an important part of the ecosystem.

Let’s hope it survives.

 

Telecom’s Big Players Hold Back the Future — May 19, 2013

Ms. Crawford argues that the airwaves, the cable systems and even access to the Internet have been overtaken by monopolists who resist innovation and chronically overcharge consumers.

The 1996 Telecommunications Act, which was meant to lay down track to foster competition in a new age, allowed cable companies and telecoms to simply divide markets and merge their way to monopoly. If you are looking for the answer to why much of the developed world has cheap, reliable connections to the Internet while America seems just one step ahead of the dial-up era, her office — or her book — would be a good place to find out.

 

Navigating a Tightrope With Amazon — April 29, 2012

Mr. Bissinger, who has built a franchise on journalistic excellence and rhetorical intemperance — see his Twitter account — managed to choose his words carefully when talking about how his e-book ended up as a bug on the windshield of Amazon’s relentlessness on pricing.

That may have a little something to do with the fact that he has a great big book, “Father’s Day,” being released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in just two weeks. It would be a bad time to stick his finger in the eye of a company that sells more books — including his — than any other company in the world.

“It’s a shame that the e-book was not on sale at Amazon,” he said. “Amazon is a crucial outlet for any author, and when you lose them, it’s terrifying. It’s a killer for ‘After Friday Night Lights’ because it was just gaining momentum and books have a very small window of opportunity.”

Like Wal-Mart, Amazon is big enough to set prices in certain categories. Suppliers are left to scramble to meet those objectives or pass up the opportunity to work with the largest retailers in the world. Amazon’s might when it comes to pricing will only grow as the impact of the Justice Department’s lawsuit begins to emerge. But sometimes the company’s tactical aggression lands hard on the people who supply it.

 

Book Publishing’s Real Nemesis - April 16, 2012

The Justice Department finally took aim at the monopolistic monolith that threatened to dominate the book industry. So imagine the shock when the bullet aimed at threats to competition went whizzing by Amazon — which not long ago had a 90 percent stranglehold on e-books — and instead, struck five of the six biggest publishers and Apple, a minor player in the realm of books.

That’s the modern equivalent of taking on Standard Oil but breaking up Ed’s Gas ’N’ Groceries on Route 19 instead…

But pull back a few thousand feet and take a broader look at the interests of consumers. From the very beginning and with increasingly regularity, Amazon has used its market power to bully and dictate. It leaned on the Independent Publishers Group in recent months for better terms and when those negotiations didn’t work out, Amazon simply removed the company’s almost 5,000 e-books from its virtual shelves. The Seattle Times just published a series with examples of how Amazon uses its scale not only to keep its prices low, but also to keep its competitors at bay…

After a week of watching the Justice Department and Amazon team up, I’ve learned that low prices come with a big cost. Maybe I’ll order it at my local bookstore instead.

 

Photo of David Carr by Ian Linkletter.

Community Broadband Media Roundup - February 20

Next week the FCC will make a landmark decision that will affect the future of community networks. Here's a roundup of stories.

Hate Your Internet Service Provider? You Should Have Feb. 26 Circled on Your Calendar by Daniel B. Kline, Motley Fool

The state of city-run Internet by Allan Holmes, Center for Public Integrity

The Center and Reveal revisited Tullahoma, Tennessee and Fayetteville, North Carolina, where state laws restrict municipal broadband growth. 

How Will the Fight over Public ISPs and Net Neutrality Play Out? by Larry Greenemeier, Scientific American

In an effort to sort through these and other issues impacting how people will access and use the Internet for years to come, Scientific American spoke with Lev Gonick, CEO of OneCommunity, an ISP for Case Western Reserve University, University Hospitals and another 1,800 public-benefit organizations in northeastern Ohio. 

“The idea of local governments taking it upon themselves to improve community broadband speeds has caught on in recent years, particularly in towns and cities that host major universities craving greater network bandwidth.”

Idaho: 

Judge's ruling worsens Idaho's high school Internet headache by Bill Roberts, Idaho Statesman. We have long argued that throwing money at the biggest carriers is poor policy and a waste of taxpayer dollars.

A deadline for the loss of service looms as officials scramble for solutions.

Iowa:

Providers: Iowa's broadband expansion will take time, money by Barbara Rodriguez, News Tribune

Illinois:

Search still on for immaculate reception by Rich Warren: News-Gazette: Champaign, Illinois

“The FCC may truly blast open the cable industry to competition by overruling laws in Tennessee and North Carolina, which could create a precedent in the remaining 20 states that restrict municipal/public Internet providers. Unfortunately, huge corporations, such as Verizon, threaten to fight this in court to the bitter end.”

Maine:

Town weighing options to create a fiber optic broadband network by Robert Levin, Mount Desert Islander

The town will spend up to $20,000 to study the feasibility of constructing its own fiber optic network to link town buildings, schools and possibly private businesses and residences to high-speed broadband Internet.

Massachussets:

Baker pledges $50 million for Western Mass. broadband by Jack Newsham, Boston Globe

Missouri:

Schaefer seeks to block Columbia from creating high-speed Internet utility by Rudi Keller, Columbia Tribune

In a letter to committee Chairman Eric Schmitt, a coalition of private companies and industry associations said the bill would hinder economic growth, especially in rural areas where private companies are reluctant to invest.

“These communities should be free of artificial barriers, including the cumbersome, time-consuming, expensive, and ambiguous requirements” of Schaefer’s bill, said the letter, signed by Google, Netflix, the Telecommunications Industry Association and the American Public Power Association, among others.

Minnesota:

Broadband appetite grows in Upper Minnesota River Valley by Tom Cherveny 

Green Isle, Townships Nearing Final Phase for Fiber Project OK by Belle Plaine Herald

Ohio:

Cleveland seen pioneering a new kind of smart growth, Internet driven development: the Mix by Robert L. Smith, The Plain Dealer 

Tennessee:

TUB rural broadband gets another hearing  by Marian Galbraith

Texas:

EUB member proposes municipal-owned fiber-optic network by Matt Dotray, A-J Media

West Virginia:

W.Va. bill to build $78M rural broadband network advances by Eric Eyre, West Virginia Gazette

Oh Snap! House buckling to Frontier, Republican delegate alleges by Eric Eyre , West Virginia Gazette

“No wonder they’re called Frontier, Those are the kinds of speeds you’d expect on the American frontier in the 17th century,” Smith said in a press release.  

“I may be alienated by my party in the end, but right is right, and wrong is wrong. [Internet companies] ought to be held accountable for what they’re providing.”

Opinion:

Editorial: Let cities compete for broadband: Our view USA Today

Why should they be powerless as big companies route the information superhighway around them?

Editorial: Broadband development holds possibilities by Watertown Daily Times

Broadband is better as a public-private partnership By Ben Franske, MinnPost 

 

Internet and Education:

Technology at their fingertips, but lacking Internet

Students have access to the gadgets, but when Internet is lacking at home, they may fall behind. 

 

Comcast:

Comcast agent tells customer that data caps are “mandated by law” by Jon Brodkin, Ars Technica

Comcast forced to clarify that "there is no law" requiring data caps.

Cable customer service “unacceptable,” says cable’s top lobbyist

Former FCC Chairman Michael Powell loves cable, but facts are facts.

Comcast Ghostwrites Letters From Elected Officials to FCC

It is common knowledge that Comcast and a number of political leaders enjoy special relationships. Nevertheless, it was still a bit shocking to see the level at which Comcast's army has infiltrated the political process as uncovered in a recent Verge article.

Comcast, Time Warner Cable, AT&T, and CenturyLink lawyers and lobbyists often write legislation for lawmakers to introduce. This past summer, the puppetry went one step further when Comcast crafted letters supporting the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger. Those letters were then submitted to the FCC from the offices of a number of politicians known to receive support from the cable giant. We applaud both Comcast and their pet lawmakers for their efficiency!

The Verge was also able to obtain email threads that document how lobbyists drafted letters of support and sent them on to local elected officials, who then made insignificant changes in the signature line or transferred the exact language on to official stationery before sending it on to the FCC.

We have taken the liberty of presenting some of the letters below. You can see a few email exchanges that detail the conversation between Comcast lobbyists and political staff.

The Verge spoke with Michal Copps, former FCC Chairman, who now advises at Common Cause:

"When a mayor of a town or a town councilman or a legislator writes in — we look at that, and if someone is of a mind already to approve something like this they might say: ‘ah-ha, see!’" says Copps, who is now an advisor at Common Cause and opposes the merger. "These letters can be consequential, there’s no question about that."

The comment process has been tainted because Comcast has also used gentle nudging to obtain support from organizations benefitting from its charitable foundation. Columbia Professor Tim Wu has studied the potential merger:

"I think they have failed to meet their burden of persuasion that this will make life better for the average American consumer…What does the average American consumer care about? They care about prices being too high. Comcast could have said this merger will lower prices and committed itself to lower prices but it has made no sign that it will do this." 

Wu, who reviewed the documents obtained by The Verge, said that the new information "confirms the impression that evidence that the merger is in the ‘public interest’ is simply being manufactured."

"It’s sort of become an amusement park where the fake stuff outnumbers the real stuff," Wu says. "The fact is a lot of telecom issues are pretty obscure, they often don’t get the public very excited. So what do you do? You buy it."

Apparently, these elected officials did not expect their constituents to notice that they supported one of the most unpopular proposed mergers in history. In order to set the record straight, we encourage constituents to contact them and let them know that you do not support the merger, as they claim you do.

We also suggest that you let them know that you do not cotton to the idea that they let lobbyists put words in their mouths, regardless of the issue.

Most importantly, remember this incident the next time you enter the voting booth.

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 124

Thanks to Jeff Hoel for providing the transcript of Episode 124 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast with Hannah Jane Sassaman on using the franchise to organize against Comcast. Listen to this episode here.

 

00:04:

Hannah Jane Sassaman: Internet Essentials is a really important example of why letting big companies like Comcast own all of the infrastructure that lets us communicate and determine the policies that let us communicate is exactly the wrong idea for the next generation.

00:20:

Lisa Gonzalez: Hello there. Welcome again to the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. This is Lisa Gonzalez.

Hannah Jane Sassaman, Policy Director for Media Mobilizing Project, joins Chris today. The project is centered in Philadelphia, where a significant amount of the population is trapped in the digital divide. As most of our listeners know, Comcast offered Internet Essentials a few years ago to sweeten their NBC merger proposition. The program was supposed to get more lower-income people online, but it has had dismal results. In this interview, Hannah describes how the Media Mobilizing Project discovered Comcast's immense political clout in Philadelphia that went far beyond exposition as a cable TV and Internet provider.

As the community discovered how the multibillion-dollar corporation was taking advantage of them, animosity grew, and they decided it was time to hold Comcast's feet to the fire. Philadelphia's franchise agreement with Comcast is coming to an end, and the Media Mobilizing Project saw this is an opportunity to demand Comcast finally pay its fair share. They have begun a grassroots movement to pressure local officials to require any new agreement to include more affordable services for local citizens, a requirement that Comcast pay its fair share in taxes, and that Comcast employees should receive the benefits they deserve. The Media Mobilizing Project provides more detail on the platform at its website capcomcast.org. Here are Hannah Jane Sassaman and Chris, discussing efforts to tell Comcast to support its home town.

01:58:

Chris Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell. And today I'm speaking with Hannah Jane Sassaman, the Policy Director for Media Mobilizing Project in Philadelphia. Welcome to the show.

02:12:

Hannah Jane Sassaman: Thank you so much.

02:13:

Chris: I'm excited to have you on. Always like guests from Philly. I love going back there to visit friends. And I grew up in Allentown, so I'm a big fan of the cheesesteak, which is only possible to get in the Philadelphia area.

02:25:

Hannah: Next time you're here, I'll make sure you get the best one in town.

02:28:

Chris: Is that Jim's?

02:29:

Hannah: This place, Tony Luke's, that has -- puts this incredibly garlicky, oily, broccoli rub on their cold pork sandwiches, and other great stuff on their cheesesteaks. It's something that most folks out-of-town don't know about. But it's definitely the best cheesesteak and the best cold pork in town.

02:44:

Chris: All right. Well. I'm very glad to learn that. I look forward to that, next time I'm in town. And, now that we have our listeners starting to be really interested in what's going on in Philadelphia, why don't you tell us a little bit about the Media Mobilizing Project?

02:58:

Hannah: Sure. So, Media Mobilizing Project is a group that focuses on communications rights as a tool to end poverty. We live in the poorest big city in the United States. Philly is the poorest of the top ten big cities. And there's millions of people in this region that really struggle to get by. That struggle to get their kids into good schools, that struggle to get good jobs in healthcare, that are struggling against immigration issues, and many other issues. But they're isolated from each other, and it's really -- people feel really alone. So we do everything from really intensive media trainings to help people break the digital divide, to get online. We produce stories that really unite people across color lines, across communities of origin, across age. And we focus really hard, as well, on the structure of the media system that either lets us tell those stories or keeps us from telling those stories.

So, we've done everything from win $20 million for the city of Philadelphia from a big stimulus package that let us build 77 computer labs with community partners across the city. We produce very high quality video work that helps taxi workers win workman's compensation, that's helped Head Start parents -- we authorized the Head Start program to keep their kids in preschool. And we focus really hard on the relationships between things like the shuttering of our Philadelphia School District's schools, the closing of hospitals, and the ability for us to tell those stories, in the city where Comcast is headquartered. So, it's about the relationship between everyday things that we go through and our ability to connect with each other to solve the problems facing people in America today.

04:42:

Chris: Well, working in those communities, I have to assume that you're very familiar with the Comcast Internet Essentials program -- a program that, if you listen to Comcast, you know, is the solution for making sure that people that have children in the home are able to access the Internet so they can be educated and have all the tools that all the other kids have. What's been your experience, and the community's experience, with that program?

05:10:

Hannah: Internet Essentials is a really important example of why letting big companies like Comcast own all of the infrastructure that lets us communicate and determine the policies that lets us communicate is exactly the wrong idea for the next generation. So, back in 2011, as your listeners probably remember, Comcast was trying to merge with NBC-Universal -- which, you know, instinctively seems like a pretty -- pretty bad idea. It's a lot of monopolization in one industry. But executives at Comcast, led by David Cohen, the Executive VP there, told Congress that if they were allowed to merge with NBC, that they would get two million families online -- two million people online that weren't online before, with $10 a month Internet, a subsidized refurbished computer, and training to learn how to use it. Only, in 2011, something like 500 families in Philly were using it -- in a city where many, many families were eligible.

And the issue was that Comcast put a ton of barriers in front of low-income families to be able to use the service. They set it up so that if you owed Comcast any money, any back bills, or if you had old equipment at your house, that you had to pay that off, you had to return the equipment, in order to get online. They would check your credit. And these are issues that folks living in poverty struggle with all the time. The program was also only available to families where the kids were enrolled initially just in public schools. They expanded it after that to private, parochial, other kinds of schools. And those kids had to qualify for the free or reduced-price lunch programs. So that meant that millions of people that didn't qualify for those programs but still couldn't afford an unpredictable Comcast bill every month -- folks with disabilities, seniors, folks who were out of work, who needed Internet connectivity to get a job -- were just cut out of the picture, completely.

There was a really good piece, done by a reporter named Alan Holmes, who works for the Center for Public Integrity, studying the impact of Comcast's discount program's lack of availability to folks who were out of work, and to seniors, for example. And so, I think what really matters is that Comcast PRETENDS that that program really fixes the digital divide. They look at like a kind of charity. When really what we need is regulated and legislated change.

We shouldn't let Comcast have it both ways, saying: Please don't regulate us. Please let us merge with Time Warner Cable, for example. Please let us, you know, prevent cities like Pittsburgh, cities like Scranton, other cities in Pennsylvania from building their own competitive networks. Let us have a monopoly in every city where we work. Don't charge us any taxes. Comcast, you know, pushes very hard with its lobbying dollars to demand all these things. But then really doesn't actually get poor people online. Currently around the United States, only 12 percent of eligible families are using this program. And in Philly, that number is even lower: it's 9 percent. That's in Comcast's home town.

So, when we look at breaking the digital divide, and making sure everyone has the ability to advocate for their future, to learn, to apply for jobs, we can't trust big companies to do it on their own. We have to make sure that we're building the competitive market, that we are protecting communities' right to build their own solutions, to truly make that happen.

08:29:

Chris: You actually left out some other incredibly troubling details for even those who are able to figure out that there's this program out there that they could sign up for. I mean, there's the issue that Comcast just hasn't done a good job marketing it, in Philadelphia or anywhere. Oftentimes, when people call in, once they've learned about it, perhaps from a church group or something, they'll get a customer service representative who has no idea what they're talking about. And then, if they navigate the barriers, a few months later, they get one device that can connect to the Internet. You know, it's really -- the program is so incredibly limited. And, as Alan -- I believe Alan Holmes -- showed, it's still a profit center for Comcast. They're not even ...

09:09:

Hannah: That's right!

09:09:

Chris: ... losing money on it. You know, it's one of those things where -- You know, I hate to say, you know, oh, Comcast SHOULD be losing money on it. Well, the question should be, is it meeting the needs? And it's not. And on top of it, Comcast is just finding a way of sucking more money out of these communities that don't have it to give.

09:25:

Hannah: That's right. Comcast earned $18 million a year off this discount Internet program. Which is, I think, pretty disgusting. And I think the point that you brought up, Chris, about how this is really something that they're not even promoting well is quite right.

I was working with a school, a public school here in Philadelphia, named Constitution High. It's a magnet school, focused on history, focused on social studies, that in Old City, that's in the birthplace of the American democracy. It's literally a block and a half away from the Liberty Bell. I went and visited that school, and worked with a teacher there named Miranda Thompson and a number of students. And they said that Comcast had come in, in 2011, and done a huge dog-and-pony show at the school. They brought the Mayor. They brought the Philadelphia Eagles, football players. They brought a lot of cameras. They shut the second-floor bathrooms so only Comcast employees could use it, none of the kids could use it. They did this big dog-and-pony show to launch Internet Essentials. And all the students got in return were ten laptops for the school, of which -- six of which were broken the next year. I saw a pile of dead brick laptops.

And when Miranda did a survey, of over 150 students she interacts with during the day -- she just did a, you know, not a scientifically significant one, but talked with all of the kids she saw for a school day. Only three of those kids were signed up for the Internet Essentials program. And this is a school where two-thirds of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. And so, what we're looking at is, Comcast's putting forward this program to try to merge with Time Warner Cable, to cover and paper over their merger with NBC. And because of the really clear analysis that -- and the great media coverage that we've gotten -- that a number of advocates and students and community advocates have gotten around the paucity of this program, Comcast has started to improve it a little bit.

Like, for example, they removed that provision that was saying that if you owed them any money that you couldn't get online. They said that if that bill was over a year old, they would cancel it. They literally called it an "amnesty." Which I found to be incredibly telling about Comcast's hubris. Comcast thinks they've got the power to grant "amnesty" to people in the United States who are poor. They literally think that they have that control. Really what we need is an amnesty from the closed, monopolized, completely-out-of-control market that prevents the Internet from being an affordable utility, like it is in millions of other communities around the world. And so, I think that there's more and more analysis, both in our everyday communities as well as in Congress and at the FCC, that we need competitive, local broadband networks, as well as strong restrictions on what Comcast can charge our communities, to make sure that everyone gets online.

12:14:

Chris: One of the challenges of having those competitive systems, of course, is that it is incredibly difficult to organize around opposition to Comcast. For whatever reason. People are furious with Comcast, they hate their cable company. And yet, it's difficult to get them to recognize that there's an alternative. You've started to do this. You've identified that there IS an opportunity to organize around. And that's the franchise renegotiation. Because Comcast needs approval from the city to be offering its services. And this is true in about half of our states that have local franchising still. So why don't you tell us a little bit about what you're working on?

12:52:

Hannah: Last year, in 2013, we noticed -- we were working with -- we work with poor people's organizations, unions, all the time. To help them tell their stories, and to help unite their stories, as I described before. We were working with a coalition that was trying to expand paid sick days -- that was trying to make sure that the 200,000 workers in Philly, that don't even have one paid day off a year -- people who work in restaurants, do child care -- get it.

13:18:

Chris: This is a tangent that I really want to just cover briefly. It's really personal to me. I worked developing film for Ritz Camera, back when there was Ritz Camera stores. And ...

13:29:

Hannah: Yeah.

13:29:

Chris: ... you know, this was an hourly job. And there was no paid sick time. If I got sick, and I took a day off of work, I was expected to have a note from the doctor to justify ...

13:39:

Hannah: Yup.

13:39:

Chris: ... So, not only did I not get paid, and I didn't earn enough to actually have medical care -- to have health insurance -- I sure wasn't going to go to the doctor if I was ill. I was going to wait a while. But this is something that a number of cities have been looking at. Health care policy is not something we typically talk about. But Comcast really inserted themselves into this debate in Philadelphia, which I just found astounding.

14:00:

Hannah: Totally, Chris. Your Ritz Cameras story is indicative of what millions of people in this country go through -- hundreds of thousands here in Comcast's home town. So, we noticed, in 2013, that the biggest lobbyist against that bill in Philly City Council, to try to kill it, was Comcast. They spent more than any other lobbyist, talking to all of the members of Council about why they didn't think it should pass. And we thought that was an outrage. And also a really important thing to tell this city: that this company that claims to be a hometown hero was fighting the poorest people's right to have even one paid day off, to take care of a sick parent, or sick child, or themselves. It's just astounding to us.

And so, we work with national groups and local organizations. We got about 60,000 petition signatures, telling our City Council to listen to us, not to Comcast. We took them around City Hall, surrounded by TV cameras. And we -- I really believe that we moved the votes of a bunch of those different City Council members to vote "yes" when they otherwise would have voted "no." We got a majority of Councilors to pass a bill, but it was one vote short of a veto-proof majority. That bill was vetoed by our mayor.

We found out that Comcast was paying about a third of the taxes that other Pennsylvania-headquartered companies were paying. Here in Pennsylvania, they pay 3.4 percent in income taxes in a state where 10 percent is the average. We found that in their big downtown headquarters, they pay basically nothing in their -- on their huge building in property taxes. Which is particularly egregious because our school district depends on property tax to survive. And after we've been, you know, starved, in our school district, by our governor, by our mayor -- we just shuttered over 20 schools here in Philly, and schools opened this year without guidance counselors, nurses, sports, arts, you know -- it's a really a really telling thing when we have a company like Comcast not supporting the city where it actually lives.

We found that the new headquarters that they're building, they're getting $40 million in subsidies, right out of the gate, to build that building. And it's not like they're going to be providing jobs to low-income Philadelphians. They're going to try to import fancy techs and, you know, world-class employees, as they describe it, from outside of our community.

And we also found that executives at Comcast were actively pushing to break our teachers union, to -- instead of Comcast paying more in taxes to support the schools, Comcast was trying to force our teachers to pay more for, you know, subsidizing a school district, which is absolutely at rock-bottom bankruptcy.

It really seemed like a perfect time to focus on how can we ask the question, what is Comcast's responsibility to the city that has given so much to it, in a time of economic crisis? But we're the fourth-biggest cable market in the country, as well as Comcast's headquarters. So we're no joke. And then, we found that Comcast's 15-year deal, that they signed with the city of Philadelphia, in order to provide cable connectivity -- Comcast, because they dig up our streets, they have to pay what's called a franchise fee to the city of Philadelphia. And what that fee is -- it's calculated based on 5 percent of their gross cable receipts, every year. So that's not broadband, and that's not voice-over-IP. It's not the triple play. It's just their cable receipts.

And they also have to provide funding and some channel space for public-access television, which is vitally important. We do a lot of work on our local access channel, PhillyCAM. But we were looking at that franchise deal, saying why wouldn't we work to make it politically necessary and possible? That if Comcast is going to get another 15-year deal, that they have to actually pay their fair share. Even though it's not legally necessary for Comcast to, for example, pay another 5 percent on top of that 5 percent in cable receipts. Or to expand that Internet Essentials program we were talking about earlier, to create promotions for millions of other people in our region to access it. Or to pay for every piece of technology in the Philadelphia public schools, and provide free connectivity to them and their families, for example, for the life of the franchise. All of these things seem morally obvious. But they're not legally required.

But we -- but the negotiation, in order to get a franchise, is just that. It's a negotiation between the city of Philadelphia and Comcast. And we're working with thousands of people across the city, we're working with members of City Council, we're working with the technical office here in the city, to say that Comcast should not get a new franchise unless it pays its fair share. Unless it really makes sure that the rates for the service that it provides are affordable. So hundreds of thousands more people get online. That the resources that Comcast provides start to meet its deep, deep profits.

Like the fact that they don't pay enough in taxes, here in Philadelphia, is egregious. And that competition is something that can happen over the next 15 years. That we open up the franchise, look at either what the legal provisions are there, or what the political realities are that prevent other competitors -- fiber, um, you know, high-speed wireless -- from coming to Philadelphia -- that we get those kicked out, so we build the competition we need, so consumers truly get an affordable, high-speed, viable service. And Comcast has to bring down their prices to match it.

So that's -- those are the demands we're going to try to attach to this franchise. We're going to be bringing hundreds of people to public hearings around this, which should be announced any day now. It should be happening before the end of 2014. And we'll be working to make sure that low-income people, that local entrepreneurs, that people who represent the schools are telling their Council members that Comcast shouldn't get a new deal unless the true communications and resource needs of the city are met. And we think that this is a model that people can follow all around the United States.

Right now, Comcast is attempting to merge with Time Warner [Cable]. They're also trying to divest from a number of cities that they've served for years. Like Detroit, for example. They're trying to pick [pull] up states in Detroit so when they -- if and when they merge with Time Warner Cable, the amount of homes that are being served by Comcast falls under a cap of around 30 percent of American homes, so the Department of Justice won't consider them a monopoly. So they're leaving cities like Detroit. They're leaving, like, the Twin Cities region. In order to get Manhattan. In order to get Los Angeles. So when those cities are looking at new franchises that Comcast is trying to ram through, so they look kosher to the Department of Justice, they should also be looking at what are the different provisions they can attach to a franchise that make Internet more affordable, that make the resources the community needs far more on the table, and that builds the future of competition, which can keep communications prices down for millions of people.

21:02:

Chris: All right. Well, thank you so much for coming on the show.

21:04:

Hannah: Thank you, Chris.

21:05:

Lisa: Hannah left us with a few other suggestions for communities who may be in a similar situation. She suggests capcomcast.org to review in detail some of the demands the Media Mobilizing Project is putting together for the Philadelphia franchising negotiations. They have a number of resources, including video, and a petition we encourage you to sign and submit. You should also take a moment to contact your own elected officials and let them know that you support this type of strategy to improve connectivity in your community. Hannah also recommends trying to connect your local officials to elected officials in places where community networks have already had a positive impact. We have hundreds of examples at muninetworks.org . Lastly, she suggests following events at the FCC, and commenting to show your support for proposals that encourage community networks, local control, and network neutrality.

Send us your ideas for the show. E-mail us at podcast@muninetworks.org . Follow us on Twitter. Our handle is @communitynets . This week we want to thank Jessie Evans for the song, "Is it Fire?" licensed through Creative Commons. And thanks for listening.

Ting to Offer Fiber Internet Service in Charlottesville

Comcast may be an ISP Goliath, but a new David will soon move to Charlottesville. Tucows Inc., recently announced that it plans to begin serving as an ISP in the area and will eventually expand to other markets.

In a Motherboard article, CEO Elliot Noss said:

"At the simplest level, we'll be offering a lot more product for the same price, and a much better customer experience. We want to become like a mini Google fiber."

The company began in the 1990s and is known for registering and selling premium domain names and hosting corporate emails accounts. Two years ago they ventured into wireless cell service and were immediately praised for their top notch customer service and no-frills billing. Tucows promises to fill the customer service gap left by incumbent Comcast, one of the most hated companies in America.

Tucows will operate its Internet service under its cellular brand, Ting. It will take over existing fiber infrastructure owned by Blue Ridge InternetWorks and will begin serving customers as early as the first quarter of 2015. Ting hopes to be able to charge less than $100 per month for gigabit fiber service. Comcast charges $90 per month for 50 Mbps and CenturyLink charges $40 per month for 10 Mbps in Charlottesville.

As far as "fast lanes" go? From the Motherboard article:

Noss said that the company is dedicated to net neutrality as a "sensible business practice" and said "it's our responsibility to make sure content like Netflix is fast on our network. We're not looking for content providers to pay us in a double-sided fashion."

Ting reaffirms that philosophy on the Ting Blog:

Tucows believes very strongly in the open Internet. Up until now, there wasn’t a whole lot we could do but educate, agitate and contribute. Getting into fixed access, owning our own pipe, is an opportunity for us to practice what we preach when it comes to the open Internet and net neutrality.

Noss told Motherboard the company is looking beyond Charlottesville and taking input from an interested public at their website. They will first look at partnering, buying infrastructure, and leasing fiber from local governments. From the article:

"The one thing we won't do is spend a lot of time convincing people of the need for a fiber network,” he said. “We think that's a waste of time, and I think people already see the value.”

"Stop Mega Comcast" Coalition; Philly Comcast Subscribers Speak Out in New Video

As days go by, an increasing number of organizations, companies, and individuals go on record opposing the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger. The DOJ has already spent significant time analyzing the proposal and the FCC has been taking comments for months. On November 3rd, a new coalition, "Stop Mega Comcast," announced that it was jumping into the fray. 

Engadget reports that the group includes both consumer groups and competitors, including Dish Network and Public Knowledge:

"This much power concentrated in the hands of one company would be frightening even for the most trustworthy of companies," Public Knowledge's CEO Gene Kimmelman said in a statement. "And Comcast is definitely not that."

Certainly the people of Philadelphia could attest to the fact that Comcast is "not that." As we reported in episode #124 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, the Media Mobilizing Project is working in Comcast's hometown to compel the cable giant to give back to a city it has already taken so much from.

Hannah Jane Sassaman described for us how the community is using franchise negotiations as leverage for better prices, better services, and more accountability from Comcast. Their project, CAPComcast, recently released this video wherein people straight from the Comcast service center describe their frustrations with the incumbent.

Video: 
See video

Community Broadband Media Roundup - November 30, 2014

This week in community broadband, more communities are adding broadband to the list of essential utilities, and many of them are turning to Chattanooga as a model “gig city.”

As Times Free Press’s Dave Flessner reports, the great thing about Chattanooga's approach is that it’s not just about Internet. In fact, the broadband boom is really an unintended benefit of the city’s cutting edge smart grid, which keeps the city’s lights on and powers the economy as well. 

"What we're going to try to do is bring some of the brilliant people from Warner Bros., Fox, Disney and IBM down here to Chattanooga to help them get their heads wrapped around this notion that you've got to stop worrying about scarcity," [Annenberg Innovation Lab director Jonathan] Taplan said.

Last year, T-Bone Burnett, a Grammy Award winner, performed "The Wild Side of Life" from a Los Angeles studio with Chuck Mead, a founder of the band BR549 who was on stage in Chattanooga.

"They sang a song together over 2,000 miles apart," Taplin said. "That's the power of gigabit Internet. I think we're just beginning to think of the possibilities of what this thing can do."

And Android Authority’s William Neilson Jr. explores the desire for faster connections and more choices.

“Isn’t it amazing how much faster broadband speeds are in parts of the country where there are a number of broadband options available to residents? How many times am I going to write an article detailing a broadband provider telling a city that they don’t need “fast” speeds even though the city is universally angry at their lack of broadband options?”

Of course, we see the product of how increased competition brings better service even more clearly in communities that have municipal networks, not just in Google's Kansas City network. It is an outcome that all communities can achieve if they regain the authority to do so. 

In the beginning, Lafayette, Louisiana created its own utility system. And it was good. Steve Stackhouse Kaelble goes back to the very beginning of municipalization of utilities in his research on public power this week:

Lafayette is just one community, but it provides a great illustration of the forward-thinking mindset that led many American municipalities into the utility business. In some cases, local leaders got a glimpse of the future and worked to bring it to their communities ahead of the curve. In other cases, they found that the profit-driven business model that works so well in much of the American economy had left them behind when it comes to certain kinds of services.

The fruits of these local efforts are America’s public power communities — places where local governments and other public entities have taken charge to deliver services their communities need to prosper.

Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner is making her list and hoping for smarter sensors this Christmas. On Miner’s wish list: municipal broadband, and other essential smart grid infrastructure projects. The mayor requested close to a billion dollars in grant money from Gov. Cuomo for economic development in greater New York. It’s unclear if Syracuse is high enough on Cuomo’s list: 

Reality check: … [Miner is] well aware it's not terribly compelling to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on stuff you can't see. It's an "eat-your-peas'' approach that aligns with Miner's view of the role of government, versus the "shiny toys'' approach favored by Cuomo and the Buffalo Billion… Whether by accident or design, the mayor's plan leaves us wanting more. Think of it as an opening bid. Who's willing to push her vision farther?

And while all of these cities are moving forward with community broadband efforts of some kind, Jason Meyers with Light Reading spoke with the city’s Chief Technology Officer, Mike Mattmiller and noted that despite Seattle’s reputation as a tech leader, it is lagging in the gigabit connecitivity. Mattmiller suggests that a public-private partnership is still desired, depending on how a new study turns out.

Bozeman, Montana residents are urging leaders to help drive down prices and improve Internet speeds this week. Kenneth Silvestri voiced his opinion in the Bozeman Chronicle.

We could continue to be beholden to the monopoly imposed by the telecommunications companies, or we can invest in our future by laying the groundwork for a technology infrastructure that serves the community and expands access.

Sahara Devi seconded that sentiment in Bozeman, and we hope you will do the same in your own communities. When lawmakers on both sides of the isle hear your views on competition, local authority, and economic development, it is hard to back down from taking steps to increase local choices and better connectivity. 

Wi-fi

New York City and Seattle are both looking into wi-fi neighborhoods, with varying success. Last week a Seattle councilwoman announced her backing of Wi-Fi in tent cities, which would help serve the city’s homeless population. This week, T.C. Scottek with The Verge dug in to NYC’s effort to connect parts of the city with Wi-Fi.

One of the biggest problems is that LinkNYC will be funded by advertising, and as the Daily News correctly points out, the poorest neighborhoods in the city aren't worth as much to advertisers as tourist-packed Times Square. That's a reality that makes sense for profit-seeking businesses to build around, but not so much for public-facing utilities that ought to provide reasonably equal levels of service to everyone.

And “Mat Catastrophe” with Charleston City Paper lamented his city’s decision to let Comcast supply the bandwidth for the city’s new Wi-Fi-in-the-parks initiative. It seems Catastrophe is concerned that Comcast may not have the city’s residents real Internet interests at heart. 

… if you're hanging out in one of Charleston's lovely parks and you have a burning desire to do whatever it is you want with a free internet connection, by all means do so. But just don't believe for one second that it really makes the city more livable for any more than a small fraction of Holy City residents. And never forget that it's just another way that public money is siphoned into private hands.

If you want the City of Charleston to really make a name for itself, then you should support the idea of repealing the state law against municipal broadband providers and advocate for whichever mayoral and city council candidates are willing to take up that fight and move Charleston in the right direction in the 21st Century.

Corporate Monopolies and Mergers

Verizon claims it would *not* to sue the FCC to block net neutrality rules. But only if the commission promises it will not reclassify broadband providers as utilities. More and more citizens are making the connection between corporate monopolies and our poor broadband choices. Activists rallied in Brooklyn this week. Jay Cassano reported about the social justice argument for Waging Non-Violence.

Most concretely, the merger could result in higher prices for broadband Internet service, which would hit those who are economically disadvantaged the hardest.

'The merger could really negatively affect people who already have trouble accessing the Internet right now,” said Kevin Huang, campaign manager at Fight for the Future. 'When it comes to cable and Internet, the cost of service is crucial. It’s incredibly important for marginalized communities to participate in the 21st century ecology, but the prices for reliable Internet services have been going up.'”

After Local Communities Reclaim Authority, Comcast Turns Up Speed In Colorado

On November 4th, voters in several Colorado communities decided to reclaim local authority to provide telecommunications services. As Coloradans celebrated their steps toward self-reliance, Comcast felt a little quiver in its cowboy boots. KMGH in Denver is now reporting that Comcast plans to double Internet speeds at no extra charge for some Colorado customers. Customers now signed up for download speeds of 25 Mbps or 50 Mbps will see their speeds double at no extra charge by the end of the year.

KMGH reporter Ryan Tronier also notes that the recent election may have played a part in Comcast's decision to turn up the speed:

While the doubling of internet speeds is great news for Comcast customers, the move may not be as benevolent as it seems.

Comcast's announcement comes on the heels of seven Colorado cities and counties deregulating restrictive internet laws during the midterm elections. 

As many of our readers know, SB152 was passed in 2005 and prevents local governments from establishing telecommunications utilities unless voters approve an exemption. Exemptions passing in Boulder, Wray, Yuma, Cherry Hills Village, Red Cliff, Yuma County, San Miguel County, and Rio Blanco County appear to have been inspired by similar ballot measures years prior in Centennial, Montrose, and Longmont. Longmont is well into deploying its FTTH network.

With President Obama's recent support for reclassification to Title II as part of a free and open Internet plan, and Comcast's ongoing bid to merge with Time Warner Cable, a number of factors are still unsettled. Comcast is inclined to strategically present tidbits like this as a way to sweeten public perception when they want something of value.

Internet Essentials, Comcast's program for low income families was unveiled at a time when the cable behemoth wanted approval for its NBC acquisition. CEO David Cohen has admitted that it was used as a bargaining chip and it has since proved itself to be as much an obstacle as a tool. Unfortunately, Internet Essentials customers will not be included in this speed increase. In a place like Colorado where local communities are asserting their independence from one of the most hated companies in America, turning up the speed for free is the least Comcast can do.

Nevertheless, this is the latest example of how municipal networks, or the possibility of them, can inspire positive behavior from incumbents. In Columbia, Missouri, the local business community could not get adequate services from CenturyLink.  After announcing its intention to explore municipal fiber resources for commercial uses, CenturyLink decided it would offer gigabit service to a limited number of properties.

Colorado Comcast customers can expect their free speed increases by the end of 2014. While the increases are great news for existing customers, they do nothing for competition or for rural folks who are not served by the cable giant. Comcast customers who live in Denver can thank voters in Boulder, Wray, Yuma, Cherry Hills Village, Red Cliff, Yuma County, San Miguel County, and Rio Blanco County for their faster Internet speeds.