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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.

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.

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 MuniNetworks.org, 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!

(In)Sincerely,

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

 

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.

Cities in Kentucky and Massachusetts Want a Say In Comcast/Time Warner Cable Merger

As the feds continue to evaluate the wisdom of the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger, local communities in several states are attempting to throw a wrench in the federal approval machine.

In Worcester, Massachusetts, the City Council recently refused to approve the transfer of the city's cable television license to Comcast. In order to sweet-talk the federal agencies concerned the merger may create too much market concentration, Comcast has worked out a deal with Charter Communications to transfer customers in certain geographic areas. Charter is the current incumbent in Worcester. 

According to a Telegam & Gazette article, the City Council does not need to approve the transfer for it to take affect. Nevertheless, the City Council voted 8-3 on October 14 to urge City Manager, Edward M. Augustus Jr., not to approve the transfer of the license. If Augustus makes no determination, the transfer will automatically be approved.

The city can only examine the transfer based on four criteria including company management, technical experience, legal experience, and financial capabilities. Management and poor customer service are the sticking points for Worcester:

District 5 Councilor Gary Rosen said the City Council should not welcome Comcast to Worcester because of its "deplorable and substandard" customer service across the country. 

"It's a terrible company," he said. "In my opinion, they should not be welcome in this city. Comcast is a wolf in wolf's clothing; it's that bad. They are awful, no doubt about it. Maybe we can't stop it, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't speak out." 

A similar scenario is playing out in Lexington, Kentucky. The community is the second largest city served by Time Warner Cable in the state. They are concerned existing customer service problems will worsen if Comcast becomes their provider.

The Urban City Council drafted two resolutions denying the transfer. The resolutions had first reading on October 9. Customer service is, again, a point of contention.

According to an October 9 Kentucky.com article, the city proposed including a fine for poor customer service as part of the agreement.  The fine is in the current franchise agreement, but TWC will not agree to carry it forward into the next agreement. The two parties have been working on a new contract since the previous one expired in 2012.

From an October 7 article in Kentucky.com:

Vice Mayor Linda Gorton said the city held two public meetings and also asked for public input regarding issues with the city's cable provider.

The city received "reams" of negative feedback from citizens, she said "It's everything from equipment, to service, to cost or the inability to understand how costs are set."

Council members also want to ensure that the local cable office be open some evening and weekend hours so customers can seek help. They also want to include an existing provision wherein the provider maintains a studio for public access television.

"We want to keep these terms in our current agreement," Gorton said. "For our citizens, we are working hard to get a good franchise agreement."

Back in Worcester, community leaders recognize their limitations:

Councilor-at-Large Frederick C. Rushton said there is no question there is a need for better cable television service in Worcester, but added that federal laws are unfortunately geared more in favor of cable companies than consumers. 

"We can make it sound like we are taking on the big boys, but in reality this will go nowhere," he said. "People want better service but I'm not sure the council floor is the way to get better service. We are just bit players in a big play. It may feel good to vote this, but it may very well end up having no effect." 

Community Broadband Media Roundup - October 17

This week, cities took the stage and made some very important moves to restore their local authority. From cities resisting big media mergers, to those choosing to join the new Next Century Cities initiative, it is a good time to be a part of municipal government efforts. 

Broadband Cities

Boulder, CO officials are looking ahead at their Longmont neighbor's gig network and exploring ways to make sure their own businesses are not left in the dust. Boulder’s chamber is pushing for an approval of ballot issue “2C”. Gavin Dahl of Boulder Weekly writes that the ballot question would open the way for the city to offer competitive gig services, helping the city keep existing businesses happy, and entice others to move in.

But according to Boulder News’, Erica Meltzer, opponents still seem to have their heads in the sand; The libertarian Independence Institute says if there was a market for fiber in the city, “some business” will find a way.  Maybe they think competitive, affordable Internet will just appear.

Meantime, Columbia, Missouri government officials may be facing an uphill battle. The city is exploring how to light its dark fiber infrastructure. Opponents say the plan goes against state restrictions on the city offering such services directly to customers. We believe the move would encourage competition among ISPs that would otherwise not be able to operate because of a lack of capital required to build fiber networks.

Cities choosing to keep ownership of their fiber infrastructures is often a sound decision, and North Kansas City, Missouri residents may soon be appreciating the city’s most recent announcement. In an effort to “give back” to residents, LiNKCity officials say that beginning in 2015 residential customers can get free Internet service. The decision is thanks to a unique partnership with a server farm company. 

From GovTech’s Colin Wood:

“I don’t think I’ve seen anything like this, in fact,” said Chris Mitchell, adding that he guesses DataShack intends to boost profits by gaining more local businesses as customers, and will do so by offering additional services like cloud-based storage -- services the city did not offer.”

Add Baltimore to the list of cities that are “fighting for fiber,” according to the Baltimore Sun’s Scott Dance. The Baltimore Broadband Coalition is working to convince citizens and city officials to explore municipal fiber. Harlem entrepreneurs are exploring how gigabit speeds can be a boon to businesses and startups, but also have a positive community impact:

"A lot of the broadband announcements were around wireless ... and that has a ways to go in terms of being effective…  it's important for the community to understand that broadband is essential to lowering crime, increasing education opportunities and closing the wealth gap."

Just outside of San Antonio, the community of New Braunfels, Texas is moving forward with a feasibility study. And not one but three Connecticut communities are taking broadband futures in their own hands. Mayors from New Haven, West Hartford, and Stamford are banding together to solve the state’s broadband problems. GovTech’s Colin Wood tapped Chris Mitchell for insight:

“I watch with a sort of nervous excitement. It’s exciting to see these cities working together and recognizing that they have a need. But I get nervous because I feel like they’re going to get responses to their RFQ, and the easiest thing to do will be for some ISPs to commit to only building out some areas of town. And I think that’s dangerous fundamentally.”

Next Century Cities

Solidarity and learning from city successes and challenges are core values of the newly launched Next Century Cities initiative. Mayors and city leaders from all over the country converged on Santa Monica, to support each other in their broadband efforts. From Sandy, Oregon to Morristown, Tennessee, 32 cities announced their commitment to six basic principles that will help lead communities to self-determination in their broadband endeavors.

Before heading to Santa Monica, one of the major voices for broadband, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, spoke on a panel in Boston to urge cities to move forward independent of federal programs. Do yourself a favor and head to twitter, type #NCCLaunch and read the stream of comments. Then head to the initiative web page, watch the webcast, educate yourself and urge your city officials to take action.

Comcast/TWC Merger

Franchise agreements between cities and Time Warner Cable may be key to blocking Comcast and TWC’s proposed merger. More and more cities are standing up and demanding real choice in their communities; this week several stepped forward.

According to Ars Technica’s Jon Brodkin, city council leaders in Lexington, Kentucky say TWC’s refusal to address customer service complaints are the reason they are denying transfer of ownership. Consumer advocates like John Bergmayer hope others follow suit. 

"I suppose the broader question is whether a single municipality by itself can stop this merger. Maybe not, but it’s unlikely that any one town would be acting alone. If I were Comcast or Time Warner, I’d be looking nervously at my other franchise agreements in towns around the country, and at the states. Taken together these actions could imperil the merger—and might give the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] and DoJ [Department of Justice] even more incentive to act."

And city council leaders in Worcester, Massachusetts are attempting to block Comcast from entering the area this week as well, it seems “substandard customer service” is finally beginning to bite the company back. The Daily Dot’s Patrick Howell O’Neill has the story:

"It's a terrible company," City Councilor Gary Rosen said. "In my opinion, they should not be welcome in this city. Comcast is a wolf in wolf's clothing; it's that bad. They are awful, no doubt about it. Maybe we can't stop it, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't speak out."

ILSR Statement on FCC Call for More Competition: A Step In the Right Direction

There is little doubt that our readers are aware of Chairman Wheeler's remarks on September 4th at 1776, a start-up incubator in D.C. His message echoed what policy leaders have repeated countless times - competition is lacking in the world of broadband.

Telecommunications has become a popular topic in the past few months as decision makers are discovering that constituents DO care about online access, economic development, and exessive consolidation. ILSR was pleased to see the Chairman address the issue of lack of competition and released the following statement:

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance applauds FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s Agenda for Broadband Competition. We feel it is a positive step coming from the nation’s top communications official.  

“These gigabit developments are positive, but they are not yet pervasive,” Wheeler said. “Looking across the broadband landscape, we can only conclude that, while competition has driven broadband deployment, it has not yet done so a way that necessarily provides competitive choices for most Americans.”

Wheeler's recognition that Americans lack a true choice in fast, affordable, and reliable Internet access is an important development. If we want real options for next-generation connectivity, local governments must be free to build then own networks. 

If there is one thing we have learned from the history of essential infrastructure, it is that local governments must have the option of building and owning it themselves. 

Hundreds of communities have already invested in their own fiber networks, keeping money in the local economy and spurring job growth.” says Community Broadband Networks director Chris Mitchell.

FCC Public Comments Round Up

The Electronic Comment Filing System (ECFS) on the FCC website has been working overtime in the last few months, so we decided this would be a good time to “Roundup” the various petitions that are open for comment regarding Internet rules, give a brief rundown of the timeline, and let you know how you can make your voice heard. There are a couple of key deadlines this week, so make sure to get your comments in! Below is a quick summary of some of the petitions and filings you should be aware of, their deadlines, and next steps.

Net Neutrality (14-28)

After extending the deadline for Initial Comments on Net Neutrality, the FCC received more than a million comments asking them to preserve the open Internet. ILSR submitted its petition July 18, focusing on the issue of paid prioritization, reclassification, and regulation of content. The FCC also extended the deadline for reply comments to September 15.

The commission is expected to establish net neutrality rules by the end of 2014.

Local Authority on Municipal Networks

Wilson, North Carolina (14-115) and Chattanooga, TN (14-116) filed petitions with the FCC July 24th asking them to remove restrictions on their ability to expand and offer services to nearby communities. On July 28th, the FCC opened a public comment calendar for the request.

ILSR stands firm in its support of these communities, and others that have built their own networks. We are not alone. The US Conference of Mayors, several communities, the American Public Power Association, a coalition from the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors, the National League of Cities, and the National Association of Counties all joined together to publicly support restoring local authority to communities targeted by state laws to prevent competition.

Initial comments are due August 29th, Reply Comments are due September 29th.

Comcast/Time Warner Cable Merger

Comcast announced it would by Time Warner Cable Inc. in March. The merger (14-57) would give one company enormous power over our nation’s media and communications infrastructure.  ILSR signed on to a letter to Chairman Wheeler in April.

You must file your complaint by Monday, August 25 to be considered. Responses to comments are due September 23rd. Replies to those responses are due October 8.

AT&T/DirecTV Merger (14-90)

AT&T and DirecTV announced their intentions to merge in May. The FCC opened proceeding 14-90 June 11. Although some organizations, including ILSR have asked for an extension for comments, the current deadline for petitions is Sept. 16. Replies can be filed until October 16, and responses to those are due by November 5. 

Notice of Inquiry on Broadband Progress

And finally, the FCC opened a Notice of Inquiry on Broadband Progress August 5. The Inquiry (14-126)  kicks off the FCC’s tenth “State of the Internet” report, in which they examine whether “advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.” 

The deadline for the inquiry is September 4, the reply comment deadline is September 19. 

Comcasts Invests in Theme Parks Rather than Better Broadband

While its network continues to offer last generation speeds at high prices and their customer service reps go viral harassing customers who try to leave their grasp, Comcast executives have decided it is time to invest hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade... their theme parks. That's right, as they shift call centers to the Philippines to save money, they are reinvesting it into roller coasters.

Having acquired Universal Orlando Resorts as part of their 2011 merger with NBC Universal, Comcast has decided to step outside its core business of providing Internet access, cable TV, and phone service in noncompetitive markets. According to a March CED Magazine article, Comcast plans to invest hundreds of millions in theme parks in both Florida and California in an effort to challenge Disney’s traditional dominance of the field. Attractions in Orlando will include an 1,800 room beach resort and a new Harry Potter ride.

This investment in rides occurs against the backdrop of falling infrastructure investment in the broadband industry, despite rapidly increasing bandwidth demands and claims by ISPs that services such as Netflix are straining their networks and must pay extra for “fast lane” service.

It is possible to imagine a world in which broadband markets are sufficiently competitive to force Comcast, CenturyLink and other incumbents to invest sufficiently in building out and upgrading their networks, delivering better service to their customers. But in our world, Comcast can spend the comparatively small sum of $18.8 million on lobbying (in 2013 according to OpenSecrets.org), becoming the seventh biggest campaign contributor in the nation and pushing legislation like the recent Blackburn amendment that eliminates potential public sector competitors.

KGNU From Boulder Interviews Chris for Independent Colorado Radio

KGNU from Boulder recently interviewed Chris on It's the Economy. This 27 minute interview is a crash course in all the intertwined topics that have the telecom policy crowd buzzing.

Host Gavin Dahl asked Chris about SB 152, the 2005 Colorado statute that constricted local authority and has prevented communities in that state from investing in telecommunications infrastructure. As many of our readers know, the Colorado communities of Longmont, Montrose, and Centennial, have held elections to reclaim that authority under that statute's exepmtion. The two also discussed legislative activities in Kansas and Utah inspired by big cable and telecommunications lobbyists. 

The conversation also delved into gigabit networks, network neutrality, the Comcast/Time Warner mergers, legislative influence, the Coalition for Local Internet Choice, and FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler's recent statement about local authority.

In short, this interview packs a tall amount of information into a short amount of time - highly recommended! 

You could also read a transcript of the interview here.