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Mr. and Mrs. Monopoly Seek Treatment with Competify

Check out this new video from the Competify coalition. The short 2-minute feature introduces viewers to Mr. and Mrs. Broadband Monopoly, who are clearly suffering from "chronic broadband access control."

Meet Mr. and Mrs. Broadband Monopoly

Competify focuses on raising awareness about the long term damage caused by lack of high-quality Internet access competition. Our livelihoods suffer when a small number of huge corporate telecommunications providers control connectivity. The coalition provides hard information on how these de facto monopolies and duopolies negatively impact our lives and how a more competitive environment can help.

Here is a statement from Competify and the Partners for the Cure:

The largest data collection ever conducted by the FCC and almost a decade of advocacy by those throughout the broadband economy have finally brought us to this long-awaited milestone — the FCC’s review of the high-capacity broadband market. As the incumbents struggle to come to terms with the fact that their own behavior has given them chronic broadband access control, they seem to be trying to blame the high-capacity broadband lines they sell for their very own conduct. Here at COMPETIFY, we have a message for those critical high-speed broadband lines: from powering schools and libraries to 5G to the Internet of Things, we think you are pretty “special.” And today is a major step toward your freedom.

It’s important to note that a very common symptom of chronic broadband access control is confusion. Indeed, the large incumbent companies have gone to great lengths to explain why the lines providing vital broadband service to our businesses, hospitals, schools, government buildings, banks and countless other indispensable institutions are “not very special anymore” and are “obsolete.” By all means, if those interests insist on that point of view, then they should have no concerns whatsoever about this proceeding, as they have obviously moved on to more “special” technologies.  In the meantime, the rest of the broadband economy anxiously awaits the FCC’s efforts to finally cure this diseased marketplace.

Visit the Competify website to learn more and to sign the petition asking the FCC to take action to encourage competition through smart policies.

Seniors, Low-Income, Disabled Communities Pay the Price in St. Paul

For seniors, low-income residents, and the disabled in Saint Paul, Minnesota, a Comcast discount within the city's franchise agreement is not all it was cracked up to be. The Pioneer Press recently reported that, as eligible subscribers seek the ten percent discount guaranteed by the agreement, they are finding the devil is in the details - or lack of them.

This is a warning to those who attempt to negotiate with Comcast for better service. Comcast may make deals that it knows are unenforceable. 

"No Discount For You!"

For years, Comcast held the only franchise agreement with the city of St. Paul. In 2015, the city entered into a new agreement with the cable provider and, as in the past, the provider agreed to offer discounts for low-income and senior subscribers. Such concessions are common because a franchise agreement gives a provider easy access to a pool of subscribers.

It seems like a fair deal, but where there is a way to squirm out of a commitment, Comcast will wriggle its way out. 

Comcast is refusing to provide the discount when subscribers bundle services, which are typically offered at reduced prices. Because the contract is silent on the issue of combining discounts, the city of approximately 298,000 has decided it will not challenge Comcast's interpretation:

The company notes that the ten percent senior discount applies only to the cable portion of a customer's bill. Comcast has maintained that it is under no legal obligation to combine discounts or promotions, and that bundled services provide a steeper discount anyway.

Subscribers who want to take advantage of the discounts will have to prove their senior status and/or their low-income status. In order to do so, Comcast representatives have been requesting a copy of a driver's license or state issued i.d. 

CenturyLink Picks Up the Baton

In November, the city approved an additional franchise agreement with competitor CenturyLink. That agreement also provides that seniors, low-income households, and disabled residents are eligible to receive a ten percent discount. CenturyLink can, in the alternative, offer a discount of $5 off a subscriber's cable bill if a subscriber applies for the low-income discount. In order to receive this discount, the subscriber must prove they are enrolled in a public assistance program. CenturyLink is not compelled to provide both the $5 reduction and the ten percent discount under the terms of the agreement.

The CenturyLink contract states that bundling discounts will not forfeit the $5 discount but does not say the same for the alternative ten percent discount.

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Seniors on the Chopping Block

Discounts for low-income seniors are at risk in the CenturyLink contract reports the Pioneer Press. The contract offers the company an "out" by allowing it to exchange a senior discount to residents for free gigabit per second (Gbps) service at centralized locations. Rather than offering a ten percent discount to senior subscribers at their homes, CenturyLink can provide the high-speed connectivity to two St. Paul senior centers or to one senior center and a community center and present two training session per year on using the Internet.

My own parents, who are elderly and leave the house less frequently than they have in the past, depend on their Internet connection to stay in touch with their kids. A number of elderly folks are lower-income. Ten percent, a modest sum to a profit machine like Comcast, could be the tipping point for whether or not elderly people living on fixed incomes subscribe.

Would I rather have Mom trudging through the St. Paul snow to wait in line at the senior center to Skype in a noisy room filled with other seniors? No. Will Mom go to the senior center? Probably not. This trade-off is not equitable.

When You're All Lawyered Up, It's Easy to Break Promises

As franchise agreements expire across the country, communities like St. Paul will be negotiating new contracts or considering other options. Companies like Comcast and CenturyLink, backed by armies of lawyers, have turned backhanded negotiating into an art form. Cities like St. Paul employ smart, capable attorneys, but telecommunications is highly specialized; few communities have legal staff experienced in this field.

Lose The Big Companies, Gain Control

Contrary to the typical behavior of Comcast and CenturyLink, publicly owned networks have a history of lowering prices or increasing speeds for free. When we ask why, decision makers usually tell us they make the change because it's good for the community. Subscribers are the shareholders when a network is publicly owned.

Communities that invest in municipal networks shake off dependence on big providers like Comcast and CenturyLink. By investing in their own infrastructure, they spur economic development, save public dollars, and become more self-reliant. 

Missouri Legislature Off to Another Anti-Muni Session: Pick Up Your Phone and Call!

If you pay attention to state laws affecting municipal networks in Missouri, you are experiencing an unsettling feeling of deja vu right now. On January 7, Representative Lyndall Fraker introduced HB 2078, a bill much like last year's Senate anti-muni bill. Fraker is Chair of the House Utility Infrastructure Committee, where  the bill is now awaiting a hearing, so it has a good chance of being heard sooner rather than later. 

Your Phone Call Required! 

Time to call Members of the Committee, especially if any of them represent you, and let them know that you expect them to vote against this bill. It is anti-competitive, opposed to local authority, and prevents new investment. Bad bill! 

Preventing Partnerships to Maintain The Status Quo

This bill would not only make it extremely difficult for local communities to invest in publicly owned Internet networks, but would complicate and delay public-private partnerships. A number of communities across the country already own infrastructure and are exploring ways to partner with private providers who want to use it to serve schools, businesses, and residents. If a community wants to lower telecommunications costs or obtain better services, this legislation would have them first jump through a series of obscure, expensive, and cryptic hoops. This legislation creates barriers that serve no purpose except to erect hurdles that discourage local communities from finding better providers.

The requirements in HB 2078 and its companion bill SB 946 are clearly intended to limit competition - to maintain the existing de facto monopolies and duopolies within Missouri. As we have seen in places like Westminster, Rockport, and in Missouri's North Kansas City, partnerships are filling a gap in places where incumbents don't feel justified investing or communities are not ready for their own high-quality Internet networks. A key benefit to allowing partnerships is the establishment of competition in areas where there is only one provider who has no reason to work to please its subscribers.

According to HB 2078, before a community can even consider offering any type of service:

"...the competitive service is not being offered to fifty percent of the addresses by any combination of service providers within the boundaries of such city, town, or village."

In other words, existing de facto monopoly status in places where there is only one provider can be easily preserved by the Missouri State Legislature if this piece of legislation passes.

State Lawmakers Impose Their Will On Local Decisions

The bill also dictates specific criteria for feasibility reports, waiting periods, and fiscal impacts. HB 2078 directs the city on specific loan requirements, limits borrowing to $500,000, and dictates interest terms. Along with other restrictions, the bill shackles local governments to the point where investing in better infrastructure is not practical.

Give the Locals What They Want!

Once again, state lawmakers are stepping over the line when they should be stepping back from it. Missouri has existing barriers that discourage publicly owned networks and negatively impact rural communities overlooked by large corporate providers. Rather than perpetuate this harmful state of affairs, state lawmakers should look to the future, strike down the state's existing barriers, and give local communities full authority to decide their own connectivity future.

Local Governments and Internet Access Debate - Community Broadband Bits Episode 185

For this week's Community Broadband Bits podcast, we are trying a discussion/debate format between myself, Christopher Mitchell, and Ryan Radia, Associate Director of Technology Studies at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. We have debated previously and prefer a style of seeking to flesh out the argument rather than merely trying to win it.

We start by discussing the role of incumbents in limiting competition and what might be done about it. Next we move to bandwidth caps. On both of those points, we have pretty significant disagreement.

We finish by discussing the role of conduit and poles, where we have some agreement. If you like this show, please do let us know and we'll try to have more in this style.

The transcript from this episode is available here.

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

This show is 22 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Warm Duck Shuffle."

No Longer Just a Luxury: Tennessee Communities Need Broadband Access Now

Sandi Wallis, a resident of northern Bradley County in Tennessee, doesn’t simply want to have ultra-fast, reliable broadband access for the fun of it. She needs it to run her home business. Her school-age children need it too:

“I've had to send my kids into town to do their homework. We’ve had to go into town with our business laptops to download updates to our programs for our accounting business because we can’t do it at home. We need service — not just reliable service and not just for entertainment.”

Wallis made the comments at a recent meeting hosted by the Bradley County Chamber of Commerce in Tennessee. The meeting focused on a persistent problem in many parts of Bradley County - residents and businesses lack the fast, affordable, reliable, broadband access that is available via Chattanooga’s EPB fiber network in neighboring Hamilton County. The deficiency is taking its toll.

Cleveland, a city of about 43,000 in Bradley County, has explored the idea of building their own community broadband network. But business leaders, government officials, and residents across Bradley County and the State of Tennessee are all anxiously awaiting the results of the ongoing legal struggle over the state’s anti-muni law. In addition, a bill set for consideration at the next state legislative session would, if passed, allow municipalities like Chattanooga to expand their existing fiber broadband services to adjacent communities in Bradley County. 

Don’t Mind the Gaps

Alan Hill, a representative from AT&T, suggested that rather than focusing on the broadband service gaps in the state, Bradley County should acknowledge AT&T’s positive contributions in the area:

“Instead of talking about the gaps, we need to celebrate what all has happened here because there is a lot of opportunities here for businesses that have services both wired and wireless.” Hill said.

Much like hiding a dirty family secret, large corporate providers believe that by ignoring a problem, it doesn't exist. Tell that to the thousands of residents and businesses that slug along on inadequate connections while gazing longingly toward Chattanooga. For community members like Dr. Terry Forshee, president of the local Cherokee Pharmacy, all that matters is that private competition is not getting the job done:

“The problem is I am one of the gaps,” Forshee said. “In my opinion, you had 27 years to bring cable down to me. I’m three miles away to the closest that you come. I’m waiting. I call every month.”

The Marvel of the Free Market?

The problem is not just about expanding broadband service to the rural, unserved parts of Bradley County. The broadband service in downtown Cleveland, Tennessee, is so poor, in fact, that business owners like Clark Campbell say they’ll soon have to leave town if something doesn’t change:

"We have multiple businesses in downtown Cleveland that compete with Chattanooga, but I had to move my family to Ooltewah this year in order to have adequate Internet service. We will consider moving our business to Hamilton County if the high-speed Internet problem is not solved in the next 12 months because we just can't compete with the speed, reliability and customer service of EPB in Chattanooga."

Send in the Munis

For the time being, the people of Cleveland and other communities throughout Bradley County and the rest of the state can only wait and wonder what it would be like to get the kind of broadband access that the residents of neighboring Chattanooga now enjoy. Meanwhile, Ken Webb, CEO of Cleveland Utilities (CU), is looking ahead at solving a problem where private enterprise has failed:

“‘I do not come in an adversarial role toward anyone or any other interest in this room,’ Webb said. ‘I do, in addition to representing Cleveland Utilities, come representing a significant number of citizens who realize and understand access to reliable and reasonably priced high-speed internet is no longer a luxury. Broadband availability has become such a necessity we can no longer wait for the service issues to be addressed.’”

Conduits Lead to Competition - Community Broadband Bits Podcast Episode 182

As we noted in a preliminary story last week, the city of Lincoln has crafted a collection of conduits allowing greater competition for advanced telecommunications services. As we discuss this week in episode 182 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, they have also crafted a smart policy to continue expanding the conduit system.

To better understand their impressive approach, we interviewed David Young, Fiber Infrastructure and Right of Way Manager; Mike Lang, Economic Development Aide; and Steve Huggenberger, Assistant City Attorney. We think this policy is one that many communities will want to consider and copy.

Lincoln is already seeing the benefits from the conduit system, with multiple providers using it and at least one investing in an FTTH network. Nebraska prohibits local governments and public power systems from building their own networks to connect local businesses and residents, but this approach allows the community to ensure they have a brighter, more fiber-lit future.

The transcript from this episode is available 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.

You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Warm Duck Shuffle."

Pioneer Press Op-Ed: Competition and Community Savings

The Pioneer Press published this op-ed about Minnesota high speed Internet access and availability on December 3, 2015. 

Christopher Mitchell: Competition and community savings

Minnesota has just one more month to achieve its goal of high speed Internet access available to every resident and local business. In 2010, the Legislature set a 2015 goal for universal Internet access at speeds just under the current federal broadband definition. But the state never really committed to anything more than a token effort and will fall far short.

Even for those of us living in metro areas that have comparatively high speed access, we don't have a real choice in providers and most of us lack access to next-generation gigabit speeds.

The big cable and telephone companies excel at restricting competition by manipulating markets, state and federal government policy, and other means. This is why so many local governments across the nation are themselves expanding Internet infrastructure: to ensure local businesses and residents can access affordable next-generation services and create a real choice. We should be encouraging these local approaches.

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance is tracking more than 450 communities where local governments are expanding choices with direct investments in networks. Just this month, some 50 communities in Colorado and two in Iowa voted to move forward with plans for their own networks or partnerships.

Here in Minnesota, we have seen a variety of successful approaches. Eagan's modest network attracted a data center.

Dakota County has saved itself millions of dollars by placing conduit for fiber in the ground at very low cost as part of other projects. Now it can use that to help local companies to compete with the big cable and telephone companies.

Scott County's fiber network has helped create more than 1,000 jobs and tremendously improved access in area schools. In Sibley County and part of Renville, cities and townships joined together to help launch a new cooperative, RS Fiber, which shows tremendous promise. Cooperatives, which are effectively community-owned as well, offer some of the best connectivity in rural regions of the state.

Some municipal networks have been accused as being failures. For years, cable and telephone companies claimed Windom in southeast Minnesota was a disaster. WindomNet is one of the most advanced networks in the state and has been expanded to serve nearby towns that had been ignored by the big telephone companies.

In our 2014 study All Hands on Deck, we identified more than $400,000 in regional savings from WindomNet every year. In addition, the network helped keep 47 jobs in the community from one employer alone that previously couldn't get the service it needed from the national telephone company serving it. This is a threat to cable and telephone monopolies, not local taxpayers.

With Windom's success, the cable and telephone companies now attack Monticello's municipal FiberNet for not having yet broken even financially. However, that is the not the only metric by which it should be judged.

Ten years ago, Internet access in Monticello was dismal, harming local businesses. They demanded the city take action and the city asked the telephone and cable company to improve their services -- but those companies insisted everything was fine. So Monticello voted by 74 percent to build its own network.

The telephone company sued, costing Monticello millions in lost time despite its prevailing easily in court.

During the case, the telephone company improved its services, and, after Monticello built its own network, the cable company dropped its rates dramatically. The same package that residents in Rochester and Duluth pay $145 per month for was offered for $60 per month guaranteed for two years. Prices in Monticello from all providers are a fraction of what we pay in the metro.

We estimated the aggregate savings in the community at $10 million over the past five years in All Hands on Deck.

Rather than allowing communities to decide locally on the best strategies to improve Internet access, Minnesota discourages them by requiring a supermajority vote before a community can offer telephone service. This requirement particularly harms Greater Minnesota, where mobile phones are far less reliable and telephone service plays a more important public safety role.

We need an "All Hands on Deck" approach to improving Internet access. The state should be lessening barriers to investment, not maintaining them at the behest of large cable and telephone companies. Local government strategies will play an important role in ensuring our communities can thrive in the digital age.

Christopher Mitchell, St. Paul, is director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. He is on Twitter @communitynets

Conduit Brings Connectivity in Lincoln, Nebraska

Lincoln, Nebraska, population 269,000, is making the most of a tough situation to improve connectivity and increase telecommunications competition; the city is doing it with conduit.

The state has severe restrictions that ban communities and public power companies from offering telecommunications services. Local businesses, government facilities, and citizens must rely on the private sector to keep them connected. Faced with that limitation, Lincoln city leaders are enticing private providers with an extensive, publicly owned conduit network.

Using Tubes to Draw in Partners

In 2012, the city invested $700,000 to install a conduit system that has since grown to over 300 miles across the city. Over the past three years, Lincoln has leased conduit space to multiple providers, including Level 3 and NebraskaLink, which offer a range of services to businesses and anchor institutions. NebraskaLink provides backhaul for Lincoln's free Wi-Fi, launched in 2014.

Mayor Chris Beutler recently announced that Lincoln will be partnering with provider number six, ALLO Communications. This local company plans to be the first provider to use the conduit to build its gigabit fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) network to every home and business in Lincoln. The network is scheduled for completion in 2019. ALLO is based in Lincoln and offers telephone, Internet, and video to residents and businesses.

Smart Conduit Choices for Long Term Vision

Installing conduit is a major expense when constructing an underground fiber network. Communities which take advantage of opportunities to install conduit during excavation projects, traffic signal upgrades, and development projects, will save in the future if or when those communities decide to move ahead with fiber installation. In addition to reducing deployment costs, existing conduit reduces the number of disruptions that occur when multiple providers want to bring services to a given area.

Local coverage of Lincoln's new partnership:

 

Flipping the Switch in Santa Fe

In May, Chris introduced you to Sean Moody from Santa Fe's Economic Development Division, to explain how the community was investing in a new fiber link to better serve the local business community. With a little competition, Santa Fe officials expect more choice, better connectivity, and improved services.

CenturyLink controls the community's only connection to the Internet and the line bringing access to the web into the downtown district. Santa Fe's $1 million investment creates another path to encourage other providers to compete. Residents in Santa Fe pay approximately $50 per month for average speeds of 5 Megabits per second (Mbps) while nearby Albuquerque pays the same for 10 Mbps.

The situation may soon change.

On Monday, December 14th, the community will celebrate the investment as they "Flip the Switch and Connect Santa Fe to the Future." The event will take place at the Santa Fe City Offices and will begin at 9 a.m. Mayor Javier M. Gonzales will flip the switch at 10 a.m. to activate Santa Fe’s very first gigabit-speed Internet connection.

From the announcement:

Mayor Gonzales and the City’s Economic Development Division invite you to celebrate activating the first gigabit district in Santa Fe through Santa Fe Fiber, the City’s innovative broadband infrastructure project.

...

On Monday, December 14th from 9 until 11 AM Mayor Gonzales will be joined by special industry guests to flip the switch and experience first-hand the power and potential of gigabit-speed Internet delivered over the City’s newly completed fiber optic backbone. The community is invited to bring devices and try out the new speed!

Maine Model for Muni Fiber - Dark and Open - Community Broadband Bits Episode 176

An interesting confluence in events in Maine have resulted in what some are calling the "Maine model" of fiber optic networks that are available to multiple Internet Service Providers to encourage competition and high quality services. The CEO of GWI, Fletcher Kittredge, joins us this week to explain this model and where it is currently being implemented.

GWI is a local firm, rooted in Maine and focused on delivering high quality services with great customer support. It is working with Rockport (which we wrote about here and podcasted on here) and Islesboro (podcast here) as well as others.

Fletcher starts by telling us more about Maine's Three Ring Binder network and then goes on describe the dark fiber model, benefits of that approach, and how he thinks about public vs private ownership of the open access physical assets.

Read the transcript from this episode here.

Note: This podcast was posted a day late due to the very poor Internet connectivity at a retreat center in Minnesota. Thanks CenturyLink for a reminder why communities cannot rely on the national carriers to invest in modern infrastructure.

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

This show is 22 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 other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Warm Duck Shuffle."