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Seth's Tale of Comcast Woe Perfectly Illustrates Many Internet Policy Problems

Ideally, working from home allows one to choose the environment where he or she can be most productive. In the case of Seth that was Kitsap County in Washington State. Unfortunately, incompetence on the part of Comcast, CenturyLink, and official broadband maps led Seth down a road of frustration that will ultimately require him to sell his house in order to work from home.

The Consumerist recently reported on Seth's story, the details of which ring true to many readers who have ever dealt with the cable behemoth. This incident is another example of how the cable giant has managed to retain its spotless record as one of the most hated companies in America

Seth, a software developer, provides a detailed timeline of his experience on his blog. In his intro:

Late last year we bought a house in Kitsap County, Washington — the first house I’ve ever owned, actually. I work remotely full time as a software developer, so my core concern was having good, solid, fast broadband available. In Kitsap County, that’s pretty much limited to Comcast, so finding a place with Comcast already installed was number one on our priority list.

We found just such a place. It met all of our criteria, and more. It had a lovely secluded view of trees, a nice kitchen, and a great home office with a separate entrance. After we called (twice!) to verify that Comcast was available, we made an offer.

The Consumerist correctly describes the next three months as "Kafkaesque." Comcast Technicians appear with no notice, do not appear for scheduled appointments, and file mysteriously misplaced "tickets" and "requests." When technicians did appear as scheduled, they are always surprised by what they saw: no connection to the house, no Comcast box on the dwelling, a home too far away from Comcast infrastructure to be hooked up. Every technician sent to work on the problem appeared with no notes or no prior knowledge of the situation.

It was the typical endless hamster wheel with cruel emotional torture thrown in for sport. At times customer service representatives Seth managed to reach over the phone would build up his hopes, telling him that his requests were in order, progress was being made behind the scenes, that it was only a matter of time before his Internet access was up and running. Then after a period of silence, Seth would call, and he would be told that whatever request he was waiting for was nonexistent, "timed out," or in one instance had actually been completed.

Seth usually had to be the one to make the call to Comcast for follow up. There was one notable exception, however on February 26th:

Oh, this is fun. I got a call from a generic Comcast call center this morning asking me why I cancelled my latest installation appointment. Insult to injury, they started to up-sell me on all the great things I’d be missing out on if I didn’t reschedule! I just hung up.

In mid-March, Comcast discussed the possibility of building out its network to Seth's house but he would have to pay for at least a portion of the costs; he was interested. Pre-survey estimates were up to $60,000. A week later, Comcast contacted Seth and told him that they would not do the extension even if Seth paid for the entire thing. 

Comcast was not the only provider Seth contacted. When he first learned that Comcast did not connect his home, he contacted CenturyLink. He was told by a customer service tech he would be hooked up right away but the company called him the next day to tell him that CenturyLink would not be serving his needs. They were not adding new customers in his area. 

Nevertheless, he was charged more than $100 for service he never could have received. Seth had to jump through hoops to get his "account" zeroed out. CenturyLink's website showed that they DID serve Seth's address, reports the Consumerist and, even though they have claimed to have updated the problem, the error remained as of March 23rd.

Official maps created by the state based on data supplied by providers, are grossly incorrect. As a result, Seth's zip code is supposedly served by a number of providers. While that may be true on paper, it doesn't do Seth much good. A number of those providers, including Comcast and CenturyLink (as Seth is painfully aware) do not serve his home. Satellite does not cannot the VPN connection he needs due to latency inherent in satellite Internet connections. He is using cellular wireless as a last resort now, but only as a short term solution because it is limited and expensive.

Ironically, Seth's new home is not far from the Kitsap Public Utility District fiber network. Because state barriers require the Kitsap PUD to operate the network as a wholesale only model, however, Seth cannot hook up for high-speed Internet. He would only be able to connect if a provider chose to use the infrastructure to offer services to him.

Here we have the perfect storm of harmful state barriers, corporate gigantism, and  "incumbetence." From his blog:

I’m devastated. This means we have to sell the house. The house that I bought in December, and have lived in for only two months.

I don’t know where we go from here. I don’t know if there’s any kind of recourse. I do know that throughout this process, Comcast has lied. I don’t throw that word around lightly or flippantly, I mean it sincerely. They’ve fed me false information from the start, and it’s hurt me very badly.

This whole thing would have been avoided if only Comcast had said, right at the start, that they didn’t serve this address. Just that one thing would have made me strike this house off the list.

I don’t know exactly how much money I’m going to lose when I sell, but it’s going to be substantial. Three months of equity in a house isn’t a lot of money compared to sellers fees, excise taxes, and other moving expenses.

So, good bye dream house. You were the first house I ever owned, I’ll miss you.

But putting all the blame on Comcast ignores the failed public policy that allows Comcast to act like this. Providers like Comcast lobbied legislators and DC to ensure no map could be created that would be useful. The carriers have refused to turn over data at a granular level that would prevent these mistakes from happening. And whether it is the states, the NTIA, or the FCC, they have wasted hundreds of millions of dollars on maps that do little more than allow carriers to falsely claim there is no broadband problem in this country.

And we have utterly failed to hold our elected leaders to account for this corrupt system. Something needs to change - but it won't until people stand up and demand an end to these stories.

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.

Isleboro, Maine, Will Vote to Bond for Municipal Network in May

Isleboro, the Maine island community of 566, will decide in May whether or not they want to bond to build a municipal fiber network, reports The Working Waterfront. The network will be owned by the town who plans to partner with GWI to operate and manage it. 

Currently, about 2/3 of residents on the island use DSL from Fairpoint. While a few locations can reach 15 Mbps download, most residents pay from $20 - $70 for around 3 Mbps download. Upload speeds are much less. GWI also offers point-to-point wireless from the mainland and one side of the island has cellphone.

The firm estimated costs to cover the island to be between $2.5 and $3 million, which would include construction and leasing of poles from Central Maine Power (CMP).  Community leaders will ask voters to approve a municipal bond to fund the project:

The $3 million bond would raise property taxes on a house assessed at $300,000 by about $13.77 per month ($164.25 per year). As a per-month cost, with both the pay-back on the bond and the standard service fee for Internet, the resident of a house valued at $300,000 would pay $48.77, according to [Arch] Gillies, [chairman of the Board of Selectmen]. (This appears to be for the lowest level of service.)

In 2012, the community formed a Broadband Working Group to dig deeper in to the state of broadband on the island and search for ways to improve it. The community hired a consultant to do an assessment and make recommendations. Traditional large scale providers do not find the community ripe for investment with its small number of households.

After reviewing the recommendations, community leaders decided it was in the community's best interest to deploy a network that would be owned by the public. They then engaged in a Request for Information process and received responses from three vendors. Eventually, they chose to work with GWI, in part because it is a local company. Fairpont and Time Warner Cable also responded, but their proposals did not stipulate that the infrastructure would belong to the town. There were other inferiorities in their proposals.

Community leaders have determined that they will need approximately 50% of the community to subscribe in order to cover the operating costs. They also hope that, with more subscribers, they can reduce the prices below the proposed rates. At this time, they anticipate offering service at $35 per month for 3 Mbps/1 Mbps, $75 per month for 500 Mbps symmetrical, and $125 per month for gigabit service. 

If voters approve the bond issue at the annual town meeting on May 9th, they will be asked to commit to a level of service in order to accurately assess the project's viability. If there is not a 50 percent commitment, the town may not proceed with the bond issue. If the bond is approved and sign-ups suggest a favorable future, construction would begin in the fall.

Mesa's Focus on Dig Once and Fiber Leases Pays Off - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 139

Arizona's city of Mesa is one of the largest communities in the nation to benefit from the city taking role in ensuring conduit and fiber are available throughout the area. This week we talk with Alex Deshuk, the city's Manager of Technology and Innovation that was brought on in 2008.

We talk about how Mesa has, for longer than a decade, ensured that it was putting conduit in the ground and making fiber available to independent providers as needed to ensure they had multiple options around town and especially to select areas where they wanted to encourage development.

Having this fiber available has helped to encourage high tech investment, including the new Apple Global Command Center.

Read the transcript from this episode here.

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

This show is 20 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

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

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

Greater Minnesota Partnership Focuses on Non-Metro Need - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 136

Like many states, Minnesota has a major metro area that generally has higher quality Internet access than non-metro communities. The Greater Minnesota Partnership, a coalition of businesses, chambers, nonprofits, and cities from across the state, have made improving Internet access a major priority in their efforts to influence the state legislature.

This week, we talk with Dan Dorman, Executive Director of the Greater Minnesota Partnership. He is also a former Minnesota state Rep and remains a small business owner. We discuss the need to improve access even as major cable lobbyists fight in the capital to preserve the status quo. The Partnership believes state barriers to community networks should be removed.

Dorman offers a unique perspective as a former member of the Minnesota Legislature. He knows what it is like to be lobbied constantly by one side of the issue but rarely hear from the other. Fortunately, the Greater Minnesota Partnership is working to provide that other side as best it can.

We previously discussed the Border-to-Border fund in episode 119.

Read the transcript from this conversation here.

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

This show is 28 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

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

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

Los Angeles Times Supports Local Authority

President Obama's recent appearance in Cedar Falls infused adrenaline into the debate about local authority for telecommunications decisions. As a result, some of the media outlets from large cities are now coming out in support of local authority. The Editorial Board of the LA Times published an opinion on January 21st supporting the notion of restoring local authority in states where laws prevent community decision making.

The Times recognizes that rural areas will benefit most from reversing these restrictions, that the restrictions need to be removed for us to compete globally, and that there are numerous municipal networks that are up to the challenge of improving connectivity. The LA Times also recognizes the value of public-private partnerships in New York and in other places where local government has forged productive relationships with the private sector.

Editors at the LA Times boil it down to one tenet:

Regardless, the decision about whether a local agency should get into the broadband business should be left to the people who bear the risk — local officials and the people who elect them.

U.S. Senator Cory Booker Introduces Community Broadband Act

Senator Booker has taken the lead in introducing the Community Broadband Act to the U.S. Senate along with Senators McCaskill and Markey. We are thankful for their leadership on the issue. As part of their announcement, they included the following statements:

“As Mayor of Newark, I saw firsthand the value of empowering local communities to invest and innovate. The Community Broadband Act provides cities the flexibility they need to meet the needs of their residents,” Sen. Booker said. “This legislation will enhance economic development, improve access to education and health care services, and provide increased opportunity to individuals in underserved areas. At a time when local governments are looking for ways to ensure their communities are connected and have access to advanced and reliable networks, the Community Broadband Act empowers local governments to respond to this ever-increasing demand.”

"Barriers at the state level are preventing communities from developing local solutions when there is little or no choice in their Internet service provider,” Sen. Markey said. “This legislation will support the ability of cities to decide for themselves whether or not they would like to build their own broadband networks and provide community members with high speed Internet service. I thank Senator Booker for his leadership introducing the Community Broadband Act, which will support more options in the broadband market and greater local choice. I also continue to urge the FCC to act now to use its authority to end any restrictions placed upon local communities to make these decisions for themselves.”

“Folks in small towns and rural communities should have the same access as everyone else to the Internet, and the jobs and business opportunities it brings,” Sen. McCaskill said. “Large Internet providers too often aren’t willing to offer service in rural America, so this bill ensures local communities can come together to provide their residents with access to the opportunities high-speed broadband offers.”

And we included this statement:

We believe these decisions about how best to expand Internet access are best made by local governments, who are most informed of the need and challenges. We applaud Senator Booker for this bill to ensure communities can decide for themselves if a partnership or an investment in network infrastructure is the right choice.

The Coalition for Local Net Choice was also included, saying:

Senator Booker has been a great champion of local communities, both as a longtime mayor and now as a member of Congress. As a former mayor, he clearly understands the importance of local decision-making regarding critical economic development infrastructure. CLIC applauds Senator Booker for his affirmation of local Internet choice and his support for the authority of local governments to work on next generation broadband networks with their private sector partners and local communities.

This bill (read it here) is effectively the same language from previous, bipartisan bills in 2005 and 2007. However, in the years since, many elected Republicans have changed their mind and others no longer want to be associated with an issue that President Obama supports.

Howard County Fiber Encourages New Jobs, Competition in Maryland - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 133

While at the Broadband Communities Economic Development conference in Springfield last year, I had the good fortune to catch a panel with Chris Merdon, the CIO of Howard County, Maryland.

Howard County has become an Internet Service Provider, not just to itself, but to private firms as well. To improve Internet access for businesses, it is both leasing dark fiber to existing providers and directly offering services to businesses and buildings.

We are grateful that Chris could join us for a Chris2 interview! We discuss how and why Howard County chose this strategy and how it is benefiting the community.

Read the transcript of our discussion here.

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

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

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

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

Open Access Network Proposal Goes Before Bozeman City Commission

At a December 15 Bozeman City Commission meeting, broadband advocates, local incumbents, and city staff all had their say on the idea of an open access network. The hearing was part of a process that began last year, when the idea of a public network was first brought up. Bozeman issued an RFP last spring for help in planning their next steps, and eventually selecting a consultant to shepherd the process from a feasibility study and public input through to final planning. We wrote in more detail about the start of this planning phase back in August.

At the December meeting, Bozeman Economic Development Director Brit Fontenot asserted that "The existing model of Internet service provision is outdated," and laid down for the Commissioners the broad outlines of plan for a public-private partnership to create an open access network involving anchor businesses, the city, the local school district, and Bozeman Deaconess Hospital. A memo submitted by Mr. Fontenot in advance of the meeting, as well as a series of other documents relating to the planning process including a consultant summary report, are available on the city’s website [PDF]. 

Several local citizens spoke on the proposal at the Commission meeting in addition to Mr Fontenot. According to the consultant, a survey of city businesses found that nearly two-thirds were dissatisfied with their current Internet service. This claim was supported by local business owner Ken Fightler of Lattice Materials, who according to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle

said that [his] company employs 50 people in Bozeman but struggles with "really abysmal Internet." They've talked to every major provider in town trying to find a better option, he said, but have found everything available involves either mediocre speeds or unaffordable pricing. 

Perhaps the most interesting comments came from a representative of one of the local incumbents:

Jason Weathers, with Charter Communication, one of the city's major Internet providers, told the commission that he agreed with much of what was being said.

The company has 130 miles of fiber cable in operation already, he said, but installing the final section to connect the existing network to homes or businesses tends to be expensive, driving up the price

The open-access network proposal "has a lot of things that benefit us as a provider," Weathers said.

By providing neutral last mile infrastructure for multiple independent ISPs to use, publicly-owned networks can lower barriers to entry and facilitate competition, driving down prices and improving service. There is nothing revolutionary in this idea, but it is unusual to hear an incumbent admit that it has merit. More often, incumbents who have already paid off their inferior copper or coaxial cable networks are reluctant to open themselves up to competition on a level playing field. 

The meeting concluded with the Bozeman City Commissioners directing Fontenot’s Economic Development Office to come back in February with a draft of an amendment to the city’s “Growth Policy” that incorporates elements of the Bozeman Master Fiber Plan - in effect, to draft a way to put the plan into legal action. With neighboring cities like Butte, Missoula, and Livingston in various phases of consideration or construction of their own networks, Bozeman is feeling the pressure to move forward and stay economically competitive.

Public or Private Ownership? Community Broadband Bits Episode 132

Ever since the last time I spoke with Blair Levin on Episode 37, I have wanted to have him back for a friendly discussion about public or private ownership of next generation networks.

Though Blair and I entirely agree that local governments should be free to decide locally whether a community broadband network investment is a wise choice, he tends to see more promise in partnerships or other private approaches whereas we at ILSR tend to be concerned about the long term implications of private ownership of essential infrastructure.

In what may be the longest interview we have done, Blair and I discuss where we agree and how we differ. We weren't looking to prove the other wrong so much as illustrate our different points of view so listeners can evaluate our sides. Ultimately, we both believe in a United States where communities can choose between both models -- and some may even seek solutions that incorporate both.

Blair Levin was the FCC Chief of Staff when Reed Hundt was Chair and was instrumental in forming Gig.U. In between, he did a lot of things, including being Executive Director for the FCC's National Broadband Plan. He is currently with the Metropolitan Project at Brookings.

Read the transcript of our discussion here.

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

This show is 37 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

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

Thanks to Dickey F for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Florida Mama."