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Small City Fights Comcast Over Institutional Network

Reports have recently surfaced from The Detroit News and that a town in Michigan is now fighting Comcast over who owns their network.

The Backstory

Fifteen years ago, West Bloomfield, Michigan, population about 65,000, wanted an Institutional Network (I-Net) to connect all the important services, like emergency response, police, fire, and water, with a dedicated high-speed network. The town entered into a franchise agreement in order to share the construction costs with the incumbent cable company, which at the time was MediaOne. According to the township, MediaOne offered to contribute $400,000 to the cost of construction as part of that agreement.

The agreement was transferred to Comcast in 2000; Comcast acquired MediaOne in 2002. MediaOne and successor Comcast have provided "free high-speed bandwidth transport as well as interconnectivity" during the life of the network claims Comcast in a letter submitted to the court. The cable giant also describes the practice as a "benefit not provided by Comcast's competitors" and wants it to stop. The franchise agreement expired on October 1 but was renewed until 2025.

To The Courts

Comcast and the town are now fighting over ownership of the infrastructure. With Comcast demanding new fees, the town is bringing a lawsuit. Comcast, however, maintains that it owns the I-Net that the town uses for all its important communications. The Detroit News reports that the township is coming out swinging:

The township said it is illegal to use public funds for private commercial purposes and insists there was never any reference to a cable company ever retaining ownership of the I-Net and said it has paid all other costs including upgrades and maintenance of the system which is “imperative to public safety operations of the township and will impact the township’s budget which is currently being prepared for 2016.”


The township not only seeks a preliminary and permanent injunction against Comcast, it wants the company’s act declared a “wrongful conversion of township property” and to be awarded three times the actual damages plus costs and attorney fees.

In the past, these agreements made sense to small towns that needed economical internal communications. All across the U.S., towns signed onto franchise agreements with large providers that offered to build I-Nets and supply connectivity.

As original franchise agreements expire, ownership issues and rate changes are popping up. After years of dependency on big corporate providers in an environment where there is little or no competition, communities like West Bloomfield often find themselves at the mercy of companies like Comcast.

What Can Cities Do? Take Control

There’s another way though. Many towns have built their own I-Nets - often with better connectivity and more savings than franchise agreements offer. The infrastructure can be expanded for other public policy programs too, like economic development or residential Internet access. The “Institutional Networks” page is full of stories about communities that have built their own I-Nets. Rather than trusting big corporate providers, towns control their own infrastructure and are better able to predict connectivity costs.

Franchise agreements are expiring across the country. Big corporate providers like Comcast and Time Warner Cable use this strategy to squeeze more dollars from institutional customers. Martin County, Florida, overcame a similar situation when Time Warner Cable tried to extract exorbitant fees as their franchise agreement expired. Rather than pay an increased rate of more than 800 percent, they chose to invest in a publicly owned fiber I-Net. The community is now able to control their costs with fast, affordable, reliable infrastructure that the community can expand. Read more about Martin County in our 2012 Report, Florida Fiber: Martin County Saves Big with Gigabit Network.

Other towns can expect to find themselves in the same situation as West Bloomfield, Michigan. Raising rates and demanding new fees, large providers put profit before the best interests of the community. With these franchise agreements expiring, there’s a chance for cities and towns to take back local control by building their own networks.

The time to act is now. To learn more about what to do at the local level, check out our Community Connectivity Toolkit.

Fibrant Rolls out 10 Gbps, A Look At Salisbury's Challenges in FTTH

Salisbury, North Carolina's Fibrant, now holds the distinction of offering the fastest Internet access in the country. The municipal network is making 10 Gbps symmetrical connectivity available for residents and businesses.

Fibrant's first 10 Gbps customer is Catawba College, a local school that will use the ultra-fast connections for its new Digital Media Creation and Collaboration labs. In a press release Joanna Jasper, Catawba CIO stated:

"By moving to Fibrant's 10 Gbps speeds, the College is in a better position to differentiate itself. We can bring world-class broadband services to our campus community to support the next generation of educational applications."

"The future is all about rich immersive digital media and being able to communicate and collaborate with others in real-time regardless of where people are in time and space."

The city of Salisbury hopes this new standard will set it apart from other North Carolina communities and entice more economic development. From a BizJournals article:

“It helps us differentiate ourselves” among cities and states seeking technology companies, [says Kent Winrich, Director of Broadband and Infrastructure Services]. “It will attract international companies. It’s not sniping businesses from Charlotte.”

Winrich sees Salisbury attracting technology companies that need the bandwidth for real-time connections to clients and suppliers — software developers and data centers, for example.

The network, which already offers gigabit connectivity to businesses and residents for around $100 per month, has attracted several businesses to a community that once struggled with job loss. Mayor Paul Woodson told WFAE that the investment in Fibrant grew out of necessity:

"All we were trying to do was differentiate ourselves from other cities. We lost our mills, we lost our furniture factories. We decided we need to do something to replace the manufacturing the whole country was losing, not just Salisbury, the whole country, so that’s how we got started."

Listen to the entire WFAE story below and check out episode #168 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast for a conversation between Chris and Kent Winrich, Salisbury Director of Broadband and Infrastructure.

Salisbury has had to deal with a variety of challenges, having built the network during the worst economic downturn in 70 years and seeing Time Warner Cable slash its prices to undermine the municipal network. We thought the following background would be helpful.

Salisbury is located in west central North Carolina and home to approximately 34,000 people. In the early 2000s, the community suffered from high unemployment and businesses could not get the connectivity they needed from incumbents. There were key commercial areas in town that had no Internet access at all. Local leaders hoped the network would spur economic development an area that had previously been known for textile and other manufacturing.

Incumbent providers Time Warner Cable (TWC) and AT&T did not see enough profitability to justify upgrades, so community leaders had to take action without them.

seal-north-carolina_0.jpgIn 2005 the city began to investigate the idea of a municipal fiber network. An early survey suggested 30 percent of households would purchase at least one service from the city by the end of year three - TV, telephone, or Internet access. The local community expressed support for the project, including businesses, potential anchor institutions, and residents.

The city issued approximately $29 million in revenue bonds to finance its network deployment in November 2008. At the time of the issue, Moody's rated Salisbury at A-1 and Standard & Poor listed the city as A-plus which are equivalent ratings and considered "investment grade."

As plans moved forward, a series of setbacks delayed deployment and launch. Even though the city reached an agreement with AT&T to place city fiber on the incumbent's poles, preparing the poles took longer than expected. Synchronizing audio and video proved to be a challenge at first due to software glitches and there were also problems with remote controls accompanying set-top boxes. 

Incumbent Time Warner Cable, however, was able to take advantage of its substantial market share and cross subsidize to offer exceptionally low prices in the region. Certainly the stiff competitive prices negatively affected Fibrant's ability to reach its subscription goals.

In 2014, two bond rating agencies, Moody’s and Fitch, downgraded the bond rating for the city, citing financial struggles with the Fibrant network as a major factor in the decision. As Moody’s wrote, the city’s reduced bond rating from Aa2 to A3...

“...primarily incorporates the city's outsized enterprise risk associated with its broadband enterprise (Fibrant), with considerable operating pressure should the Fibrant continue to underperform.” 

Moody's also based its rating on the city's decision to redirect $7.6 million from its sewer and water enterprise fund to support the network. The investor service described the city's situation as "a narrowed but still acceptable cash position for the water & sewer fund."

Moody's decision to downgrade, we should note, came after a decision by Standard & Poor to upgrade, which sheds some light on the fragile and complicated bond rating process.

In 2011, North Carolina was also a battleground for TWC's intense lobbying efforts to block initiatives like Fibrant through state legislation. TWC managed to push through a restrictive bill that negatively impacted municipal networks, including Fibrant, by limiting its ability to expand.

Nevertheless, Fibrant has slowly and steadily added customers bringing subscribership to 3,000 in the summer of 2014 and in December reported that 3,200 customers took Fibrant service. By that time, Fibrant was already offering gigabit service for around $100 per month, having upgraded top tier customers to gigabit symmetrical speeds with no rate increase.

According to Winrich, the switch to even faster speeds was not as difficult as one might expect:

"We changed out our router and realized we could actually bump this up, and be the first city in the world to do it. And we were just scratching our heads going, ‘really, we’re going to be the first ones?’ And we kept checking with everyone we knew, and they said ‘we don’t know of anybody.’ So, we just jumped all over it and it was really very easy to do. Surprisingly easy to do."

Rates will vary but will cost around $400 per month, approximately $100 per month higher than the 2 Gbps residential service recently announced by Comcast. In other words, 25 percent higher for 5 times the speed with the added bonus of reliability from a local provider that cares about the welfare of its community.

An increasing number of communities are considering the benefits of municipal networks and places with 1 Gbps offerings have an even greater advantage. The ability to offer 10 Gbps lets businesses know that Fibrant has an entrepreneurial approach just as their business customers do; Salisbury is positioning itself and the region for the future:

“This whole area could be so vibrant, and Salisbury would be in the center of it,” [Winrich] says.

Orono and Old Town Receive Funding for Fiber in Maine

The Old Town-Orono Fiber Corporation (OTO Fiber), the entity created by the cities of Old Town and Orono in Maine to design, install, maintain and manage a planned fiber network, recently received a grant for $250,000.

The funds, awarded by the Northern Border Regional Commission (NBRC), will help the communities commence their open access network project. According to a statement released by Maine Senators Angus King and Susan Collins, this was one of six awards to Maine communities. The other grants included road, sewer, and other municipally-owned facilities needed to maintain or grow jobs in the northern counties of Maine.

Congress created NBRC in 2008 as a state-federal partnership to encourage job growth in several northern counties of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York that experience economic distress. 

In 2014, Old Town and Orono, working with the University of Maine, had been awarded ConnectME funds for the project but the funding was blocked by Time Warner Cable. Those funds were meant to string approximately 4 miles of cable intended for integration into a much larger network to eventually connect to the state's Three Ring Binder network. The ConnectME Authority chose to withhold the funds, based on TWC's argument that this open access network would overbuild potentially 320 subscribers but OTO Fiber vowed to continue and seek funds elsewhere. The funding blocked by TWC amounted to $125,000.

Approximately 7,800 people live in Old Town; Orono is home to a little over 10,000 people and the Unversity of Maine where over 11,000 students attend classes.

Albany, NY Proposes Feasibility Study for Municipal Broadband Service

In July, the city of Albany, NY released a Request for Proposals (RFP) seeking qualified consulting firms to conduct a feasibility study for a municipal broadband service. As the RFP states, the study will look to develop strategies, find gaps in service and adoption, and develop a business plan to explore partnerships between the city and private ISPs.

According to Broadband Communities magazine, a working group comprised of several important community organizations and business groups in Albany will help to steer plans for the possible municipal broadband initiative. Jeff Mirel, a technology professional in Albany and a member of the working group, explains the group’s goals for the feasibility study:

“The first step is asking the right questions, which is what we want this study to do. What are the real broadband needs and issues that both businesses and residents experience here? Is it infrastructure, technology, education, affordability? How do we address the gaps to not only keep and attract companies, but bring these employers and a connected local workforce together? By taking a deep, comprehensive look at broadband access and usability, along with best practices, we can move towards meaningful, actionable strategies.”

This news out of Albany, a city of about 100,000 people, comes as major gaps persist in high speed broadband access in many parts of the state. FreeNet, Albany’s free wireless network, received a $625K state grant in 2009 earmarked to expand its service. But neither FreeNet nor Time Warner Cable and Verizon, the two biggest providers of broadband service in Albany, provides the fast, affordable, reliable connectivity a municipal fiber-based network could provide

At recent hearings in front of the New York State Public Service Commission (PSC) in the New York cities of Poughkeepsie, Buffalo, and Bethlehem, political leaders and consumers expressed particular frustration with Verizon’s unwillingness to build its FIOS fiber service out to underserved parts of New York. In some cases they are asking the state’s Public Service Commission to strengthen regulations and require private companies to bring better Internet service statewide.

We warned in 2012 that Verizon would never bring FIOS to Albany and many other cities in the state. Then, as now, it’s clear that Albany’s feasibility study offers a way forward towards the only certain strategy for bringing the fast fiber-based broadband to Albany: taking matters into their own hands.

Hudson Lays Out Details for Its Municipal Gigabit Network

Hudson, Ohio's upcoming municipal network, Velocity Broadband, may be serving commercial customers as early as September, reports the Hudson Hub Times. At a July 22nd Rotary Club meeting, Assistant City Manager Frank Comeriato presented details on the plan. The city has no plans to serve residents but once business services are in place, they may consider a residential build out.

The gigabit network, to be owned and operated by the city of Hudson, will be deployed incrementally. Incumbents Time Warner Cable and Windstream serve local businesses but a majority complain of unreliable connections and unaffordable prices in the few places where fiber is available.

Earlier this year, the city conducted a survey and businesses responded:

"They wanted better service and speed," [Comeriato] said. "After only two vendors responded to the city to offer the service, the city decided it could offer the service like it offers public power, water and other infrastructure."

Hudson officials realize that it connectivity is an essential service for economic development and that businesses have no qualms with relocating to places where they can get the bandwidth they need:

"Economic development is 80 percent retention, and Hudson businesses are unhappy with their current service, he added. "They want something like this."

Hudson Public Power has been preparing by training crews to deploy the infrastructure. Like other communities that have recently decided to invest in municipal networks, Hudson will focus only on Internet access and voice.

Earlier this year, the City Council approved the initial $800,000 capital expenditure to begin the deployment. According to Hudson Communications Manager Jody Roberts, the city expects to spend another $1.5 million in 2016 on infrastructure before they light the network, scheduled for 2016.

"We will then determine any additional amounts needed in [future] years, since by then we will be bringing in money in the form of monthly fees from customers," Robert said of anticipated costs. "It is our goal for this service to become fully self-sustaining. And, we anticipate by offering this service, we will attract more businesses to Hudson (more income tax) and retain more businesses."

Local public relations firm AKHIA will be one of the beta testers as the network progresses. They upload and download large data files on a daily basis and their current 5 Mbps connection is inadequate. reported:

“Our [current] Internet is constantly going down,” [Jan Gusich, part-owner and chief executive officer] said. When that happens, her staff leaves to find other places with available Internet, such as coffee shops, she said.

Hudson is home to approximately 23,000 people and located in the northeast corner of the state. In 2014 they released an RFP for a Broadband Needs Assessment and Business Plan; the survey was part of that assessment.

After consultants reviewed the city's assets and developed an option that incorporated its I-Net, their February 2015 estimate came to approximately $4.9 million for infrastructure to four commercial areas of town for an open access model. At the time, the consultants suggested that the price would increase to $6.5 million if the city chose to take on the role as retail provider.

New Report on Bandwidth Caps From Open Technology Institute

The Open Technology Institute (OTI) at the New America Foundation recently released its report on bandwidth caps. "Artificial Scarcity: How Data Caps Harm Consumers and Innovation" is the latest warning about an issue with grave implications. The PDF is now available to download

Last November, the Government Accounting Office (GAO) released a report [PDF] with serious comments on how ISPs might abuse their power through bandwidth caps. In that report, the GAO strongly suggested the FCC take action.

This report by Danielle Kehl and Patrick Lucey further examines how this profit grabbing technique from the big ISPs impacts consumer decisions and usage. 

From the OTI press release:

In this paper, we examine the growth and impact of usage-based pricing and data caps on wired and mobile broadband services in the United States. We analyze the financial incentive that Internet service providers (ISPs) have to implement these usage limits and discuss research that demonstrates how these policies affect consumer behavior. In particular, we explain how data caps can make it harder for consumers to make informed choices; decrease the adoption and use of existing and new online services; and undermine online security.

It is also increasingly clear that data caps have a disproportionate impact on low-income and minority populations as well as groups like telecommuters and students. In the conclusion, we urge the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), particularly as the new Open Internet Order goes into effect, to open up a serious inquiry into whether data caps are an acceptable business practice.  

In addition to their own data and conclusions, Kehl and Lucey provide information to many other resources that tackle the implications of bandwidth caps. As consumers' need for bandwidth increases with their changing Internet habits, this topic will only become more pressing.

Graphic: LD 1185 Proposes Planning Grants for Munis in Maine

In late April, LD 1185 and several other broadband bills came before the Maine House Energy, Utilities, and Technology Committee. We have seen a flurry of activity in Maine this year as local communities deploy networks, develop plans, or begin feasibility studies. Likewise, the state legislature has been active as House and Senate members try to defibrillate the barely beating heart of the state listed as 49th for broadband availability.

The national providers in Maine - Time Warner Cable and FairPoint have little interest or capacity to invest in high quality services in Maine. Time Warner Cable is more focused on major metros and being acquired. FairPoint is laying off workers and also, positioning itself to be acquired. Fortunately, these big companies aren't the only option for improving Internet connectivity in Maine.

LD 1185, presented by Representative Norm Higgins, seeks to establish $6 million this year in funds for local communities that wish to deploy municipal networks. Maine already has the middle mile Three Ring Binder in place; the focus of this proposal is to help communities get the infrastructure they need to connect to it. In an effort to get the word out about the bill and grow support, Higgins and his team created this graphic explaining the proposal (a 2-page printable edition of the graphic is available for download from the link below):

LD 1185 Graphic

LD 1185 Graphic

According to a recent Legislative Bulletin from the Maine Municipal Association, LD 1185 and LD 1063, which redirects ConnectME towards issuing planning grants, appear to have the most traction of all the Maine bills. Testifying in support of both bills were the Maine Office of the Public Advocate, the ConnectME Authority, the University of Maine, Great Works Internet, Maine Fiber Company, the AARP, and the Coastal and Island Institutes. The Mayors' Coalition, and community officials from Rockport, Isleboro, South Portland, and Orono also testified in favor of the bills.

From the Office of the Public Advocate's Testimony on LD 1185:

The bill proposes to provide municipalities with matching grants to fund broadband planning efforts, and provide technical support to those communities. Providing this kind of assistance to communities is important to ensuring that those communities make informed decisions regarding use of public funds for broadband investment. The bill offers several novel and useful concepts not seen in other legislation that are particularly promising.

As can be expected, Verizon, Fairpoint, Time Warner Cable, and the Telecommunications Association of Maine testified in opposition.

Happy Friday! New Funny or Die Video Spoofs Cable TV Bundles

Funny or Die offers up a new video, If Everything Was Bundled Like Cable, starring David Koechner. None of us like paying for stuff we don't use, and television channels are no exception. Here are some examples of that same model as it applies to other everyday activities.

"I don't like your way! Fix it!"

Comcast Merger Wrap-up and Anti-Monopoly Policy - Community Broadband Bits Episode 148

In the aftermath of the Comcast/TWC merger being effectively denied by the Department of Justice and Federal Communications Commission, we thought it was a key moment to focus on antitrust/anti-monopoly policy in DC. To discuss this topic, we talk this week with Teddy Downey, Executive Editor and CEO of the Capitol Forum as well as Sally Hubbard, Capitol Forum senior correspondent and expert on antitrust.

We start off with the basics of why the Comcast takeover of Time Warner Cable posed a problem that regulators were concerned with. From there, we talk more about the cable industry and whether other mergers will similarly alarm regulators.

We end with a short discussion of what states can do to crack down on monopolies and the abuse of market power. Along the way, we discuss whether DC is entering a new era of antimonopoly policy or whether this merger was just uniquely troubling.

We learned about Teddy and Sally from Barry Lynn at the New America Foundation, who we had previously interviewed for one of my favorite shows, episode 83.

Read the transcript from our discussion with Sally and Teddy here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 24 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.

Find more episodes in our podcast index.

Thanks to Persson for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Blues walk."

Our Totally Not Ironic Letter of Support for the Comcast/TWC Merger

Last week, the New York Times reported that the “outpouring of thoughtful and positive comments” Comcast has received for their Time Warner Cable proposed merger is much more than it’s cracked up to be. We are shocked, shocked, to learn that organizations receiving a lot of Comcast charity are endorsing its merger plans.

After a hasty staff meeting, we decided that for a mere $250,000 we too, could see the benefits of this monopolistic mega-merger. We know they ghostwrite many of their most favorable letters, but we want to save them the trouble, by providing our own glowing endorsement. 

Dear Chairman Wheeler,

After careful consideration,  we wish to share our strong support for the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger. Firstly, we want to make absolutely clear that our endorsement of this union has absolutely nothing to do with $250,000 generously donated to our organization, no strings attached, by Comcast. After years critiquing  their slack customer service, their perennially rising prices, and their lobbying to prevent real competition, we now think a merger between the two most hated companies in America is a way awesome idea!

We support the company’s efforts to announce gigabit speeds while charging high enough prices to ensure no one calls their bluff. We hope that the merger doesn’t distract Comcast from its efforts in Philadelphia to never pay municipal property taxes or to ensure low wage workers have no sick days in the City of Brotherly Love. 

We feel certain that this merger won't upset our swell market for cable services and that consumers will have the same level of nonresponsive customer service they’ve enjoyed in the past. In short, we think this is a “marvelous proposal,” now that we’ve got all these Benjamins! It may be bad for hundreds of millions of Americans, but we have hundreds of thousands of reasons to support it!

And let’s face it, once Comcast and Time Warner Cable morph into one monstrous godzilla, fit to swallow 2 out of 3 Americans, customers will most certainly have even MORE to gripe about, making them more receptive to our ideas for locally owned networks. Here it, we value self-reliance, local control, and job security. Albert Einstein said that if you can’t solve a problem make it bigger. Now, you might say “that wasn’t what he meant,” but relatively speaking, Comcast is writing checks to us, not his estate [editor's note: verify Comcast hasn’t paid off Einstein’s estate].

There are at least 250,000 reasons that we now recognize how much Comcast Cares. It really is a “tremendous community partner.” We think of Comcast as being the 1% of corporations because, like Standard Oil, it gives some of its vast monopoly-generated wealth back to us in the form of pay-to-play philanthropy. You really have to look no further than their Internet Essentials program for evidence of their eagerness to do as little as possible while appearing to give a damn.  

We would go on, but now we can afford to take the whole office out to lunch. Do you know how many tikka masala lunches we can get with $250,000?! It doesn’t get much better than this at a small nonprofit working on a shoestring budget!

So, Chairman Wheeler, to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, now that we’ve established what this is, we’re ready to haggle over a price.

Comcast, we’ll take the check in one lump sum rather than monthly installments. Thank you!


~Community Broadband Networks at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance