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Modest Investment Yields Results in Steamboat Springs - Community Broadband Bits Episode 163

When Steamboat Springs resolved to improve Internet access for key community anchor institutions and businesses, they decided to make an economical investment in a carrier neutral facility to allow multiple ISPs to invest and compete with each other. In episode 163 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, Tim Miles explains what that means and how they did it.

Tim is the Technology Director at Steamboat Springs and South Routt School Districts in Colorado. He tells us about the poor connectivity the community had from CenturyLink and how they opened a bottleneck to encourage more investment. In part because of how Colorado limits local authority to build networks, they formed the Northwest Colorado Broadband Cooperative with the local Chamber of Commerce.

They are already seeing benefits in the form of lower prices for anchor institutions and reduced outages - Tim describes just how painful those outages had been when there was no local Internet choice.

Read the transcript from this discussion 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 other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to bkfm-b-side for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Raise Your Hands."

More Feasibility Studies in Colorado and Ohio

Two more communities in Ohio and Colorado are seeking information through broadband feasibility studies.

The Aspen Daily News recently reported that Pitkin County has already completed phase one of its feasibility study. This past spring the primary Internet path coming into Aspen via CenturyLink fiber was severed causing widespread outage for 19 hours. The first half of the feasibility study sought ways to introduce a redundant path.

The first option was a 100 percent fiber solution and a hybrid fiber/microwave solution was proposed as an alternative. For option A, the consultants recommended a fiber backbone along Highway 82 with fiber lines running into Redstone, Marble, and Snowmass. Microwave could serve nearby Fryingpan Valley. Option B would travel the same route but make more use of microwave.

Early cost estimates:

Estimated operating costs for option A would be more than $122,000 per year, while option B would cost just over $92,000 annually. Yearly maintenance costs for the fiber-only model were projected at just under $62,000, and the hybrid model would run more than $123,000.

A survey or residents in several communities in Pitkin County indicated most are not happy with speeds or reliability of current Internet access. Approximately half of the region does not have broadband as defined by the FCC at 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload

[One of the consultants] said that according to the survey, customer satisfaction in the area is “significantly low.” It also noted that 34 percent of responders said they run a business out of their home, and an additional 10 percent replied that they will start up an in-house business within the next three years.

Adams relayed that more than half of respondents felt that the county should build some sort of “state-of-the-art communications network.”

“It’s clear that the residents would like to see the county do something,” he said.

County Commissioners chose to instruct staff to pursue a $150,000 matching grant from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs to help fund the second half of the feasibility study. The second phase ail focus on developing a financial plan and business models for a middle-mile network.

In Hancock County, Ohio, a collaborative effort between the county, the Findlay City Schools, and Findlay will investigate expanding a planned school fiber network.

The Courier reports that County Commissioners voted to hire a firm that will complete a study to create route plans, building entry sites, and project strategy. The Findlay and Hancock County governments hope to take advantage of the asset and connect government offices for more affordable, fast, and reliable voice, video, and data. There are 31 locations where the the city and county have indicated they would like to extend the fiber.

A local hospital is also expressed an interest in connecting its facilities, notes Martin White, Director of Information Technology at the Findlay City Schools.

Hancock County will contribute $7,894 toward the study and Findlay's share will be $8,855. The study should be complete in 5 weeks. Regardless of the outcome, the schools will deploy the network, reports the Courier:

White said the district plans to move forward with the project even if there is no other local interest. However, the fiber optics loop needed to connect Findlay schools puts the network within reach of city, county and hospital buildings, White said.

Schools can be jumping off points for wider I-Nets and even networks that extend out to business customers. In Ottawa, Kansas, the community built off a school fiber optic network to bring more affordable connectivity to a nearby college and an agricultural cooperative.

AT&T, Comcast, Lies Hurt Homeowners

As of this January, the FCC defines broadband as 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream, but in some rural areas in the United States, people are still struggling to access DSL speeds of 768 kbps. In a few extreme cases, individuals who rely on the Internet for their jobs and livelihoods have been denied access completely. 

The sad state of affairs for many Americans who subscribe to the major Internet service providers like AT&T and CenturyLink was recently chronicled in an article on Ars Technica that examined AT&T’s stunning combination of poor customer service, insufficient infrastructure, and empty promises to subscribers. It tells the unfortunately common story of the little guy being systematically overlooked by a massive corporation focused solely on short-term profit maximization. 

Mark Lewis of Winterville, Georgia, and Matthew Abernathy of Smyrna, Tennessee, are two examples of AT&T subscribers who, upon moving into new homes, found that not only were they unable to access basic DSL speeds, but that they had no Internet access whatsoever. Alternatively citing a lack of DSL ports and insufficient bandwidth, AT&T failed to provide Lewis Internet access over the course of nearly two years. As for Abernathy, the corporation strung him along for 9 months without providing DSL, forcing him and his wife to rely on a much more expensive Verizon cellular network to go online. 

The struggle that Lewis and Abernathy, as well as others cited in the article, face speaks to the larger problem of individuals relying on large, absentee corporations for their Internet access. Though AT&T has claimed that it intends to expand broadband access to rural and underserved communities, it hasn’t lived up to that promise. Ars Technica estimates that even if AT&T’s merger with DirecTV is approved, which the company says would facilitate the construction of new copper lines in underserved regions, 17 million subscribers would be stuck with slow DSL connections or no Internet at all. 

This isn’t the first time that a company like AT&T has been called out for promising broadband service and failing to deliver it. Ars Technica reported on a similar story in April of this year. And tales of Comcast’s incompetence are also easy to find. 

For residents of rural communities who rely on the Internet for work, the paucity of broadband options can even be a legitimate reason for individuals to sell their houses and move, which — spoiler alert — is what Lewis eventually did:  

With no wireline Internet available, Lewis and his wife have relied on Verizon Wireless service. This has limited Lewis’ ability to work at home. Luckily, they won’t be there much longer — Lewis, his wife, and their kids are putting their house on the market and moving to Massachusetts, where he’s secured a new job at a technology company. 

The new job is "the main reason we're moving," he said. "But in the back of my mind this whole time, I'm saying we can't continue to live here."

And while things turned out OK for Lewis and his family, limited broadband access in rural communities remains an obstacle for many. Individuals and communities should continue to demand accountability from their ISPs, who have for too long reneged on their not-so-ambitious broadband promises.

Co-Mo Cooperative Facing Off With Subsidized CenturyLink in Missouri

Parts of rural central Missouri have some of the fastest Internet service available thanks to fiber service from Co-Mo Electric Cooperative and United Electric Cooperative. The two have worked together to bring gigabit FTTH to cooperative members in central Missouri. Now that they have proven that people and businesses want high capacity connectivity, CenturyLink is about to enter the scene. The company plans to use millions of dollars in Connect America Funds (CAF) to build in areas already served by the cooperatives.

After years of planning and hard work, Co-Mo and United are not taking the threat lightly. They have filed challenges with the Wireline Competition Bureau but CenturyLink's Inside-the-Beltway power has thus far served them well. The Wireline Competition Bureau denied a challenge by Co-Mo and United but the decision appears to contradict established policy. Co-Mo and United recently appealed to the FCC asking them to review the Bureau's Order allowing CenturyLink to use over $10 million in CAF. [Read the Application for Review here.]

CenturyLink argues that Co-Mo and United are not providing voice services because they are working with a third party, Big River Telephone Company, to bring VoIP to members. If this were true, it could disqualify them as providers and lend credence to the argument that there are census blocks in the area that are not served. Because Co-Mo and United install, take phone orders for subscribers, and service phone switches, they should qualify as a provider of land line voice services. 

CenturyLink also asserted that census block information showed areas unserved even though those areas now have access to fiber connectivity from Co-Mo and United. General Manager of Co-Mo Connect Randy Klindt told us that the timing of their build prevented Co-Mo from providing an active customer in each block, but that service is available to people who live there. Even though it is not a requirement, Co-Mo and United now have detailed information that prove people in those census blocks can, and do, take FTTH service.

Co-Mo and United waged successful challenges for similar CAF awards to AT&T and Windstream. CenturyLink appears determined to use tax subsidies to build what will likely be only a fraction of the speed and reliability of Co-Mo or United Cooperative networks infrastructure. Unfortunately, CenturyLink's usual modus operandi - offering cheap intro rates to lure customers away from local providers like Co-Mo and United - could harm new investment in high speed networks.

Klindt also summed up the larger policy concern in an email:

The commission’s directive was to ensure that CAF support should not be used to build broadband in areas already served by an unsubsidized competitor...This money should be used in legitimate unserved areas, not areas with gigabit residential service available.

Learn more about Co-Mo Cooperative and their fiber network, Co-Mo Connect, in episode #140 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast where Chris interviewed Randy Klindt.

Santa Fe's Targeted Fiber Investment - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 152

After Santa Fe found its residents and businesses were often paying the same rates for connections at half the speed of peers in Albuquerque, the City began investigating the local broadband market. This week on Community Broadband Bits, Sean Moody joins us to discuss the situation and what Santa Fe is doing to spur more investment.

Sean works in the Economic Development Division of the City as a Special Projects Administrator. He explains the bottleneck in middle mile access that allowed CenturyLink to charge higher rates for backhaul than are common in similar communities.

The City decided to invest $1 million in a new fiber link that would bypass the choke point and allow various independent companies to have a better choice for access to the wider Internet. Along the way, the City partnered with the state for additional benefits.

Read the transcript from our discussion here.

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

This show is 25 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 Persson for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Blues walk."

Small Texas Town Don't Need No Stinkin' CenturyLink

The people in Kemp, population 1,100, have officially said "adios" to CenturyLink and now give their business to a local wireless provider, reports Government Technology. According to the article, the community grew tired of slipshod service and repeated service interruptions:

At one point, the city lost its Internet connection for five days. “That was the last straw because that was detrimental to us, because we depend on the Internet so much more, especially with our phone system," said [City Administrator Regina] Kiser. "We had just gone with the voice over IP [Internet protocol] when our system went down for five days, so you try to call city hall about various things, including the police department, and there was no phone. So, that was horrible.”

After a year of requests from the municipality for better service went unheeded, government officials decided it was time to make some changes:

“If you’re a government entity and you call in, they send you into cyberspace somewhere and your phone just rings and rings and rings, and I guess there’s just not any commission to be made on cities from what I’m understanding,” Kiser said. “This problem’s been going on for about a year, as far as not having the power we need to run our court program. So we tried, but it was just impossible to deal with CenturyLink.”

Kemp now works with One Ring Networks, where they receive service for a rate of $450 per month. There was no installation charge and in exchange, One Ring Networks is able to expand its network in the community. It now has the opportunity to sell service to residents and businesses in Kemp.

Unlike the typical "up to" speeds the big incumbents offer, One Ring Networks claims it "carves out" 5 Mbps download and upload for each subscriber, says Kris Maher from One Ring Networks:

“With the other carriers, that 10 Mbps by whatever is a best effort service, which means it can go up to 10 Mbps, but 10 Mbps isn’t guaranteed. Ours is right at 5 and it’s always going to be at 5, no matter who else is on our network.”

Kiser notes that residents are happy with their new provider and that, despite a brief delay caused by inclement weather, the upgrade was a simple task:

“CenturyLink’s been the only game in town for so long, they took advantage of the situation and they’re probably freaking out now that they have some competition for the first time,” Kiser said.

Longmont's NextLight Offers Businesses, Residents Third Fastest Internet In the U.S.

Ookla finds the third fastest Internet access in the U.S. is located in Longmont, Colorado, reports the Times Call. NextLight, Longmont's gigabit municipal fiber network, is the source of the increase in speeds, driving Longmont's Internet access speeds far beyond any other service in the state.

Ookla clocks average download speed in Longmont as 105 Mbps, which includes all providers in the community. Incumbents Comcast and CenturyLink are dragging down NextLight's average download speed of 221 Mbps. Statewide, Colorado's average is 40 Mbps.

According to the article:

Ookla shows Internet speeds in Longmont shooting up in January and February, when LPC crews began hooking up customers to NextLight in earnest. 

NextLight continues to attract residential and business customers. In February, NextLight announced it would be hiring more install crews to meet the high demand for connections. Places without the speed, affordability, and reliability NextLight can offer will find themselves at a disadvantage as economic development increasingly relies on next-generation networks.

The Times Call spoke with Bret McInnis, vice president for information technology for Circle Graphics. The local business switched from CenturyLink to NextLight because it needed better connectivity. Before taking service from NextLight, their maximum capacity connection was 50 Mbps download or upload and it wasn't enough:

Because the images for the canvases use high-resolution photos, they are sent in large files that can range from 100 to 300 megabits in size. The company prints anywhere from 5,000 to 20,000 canvases a day during the busy holiday season.

"We've got more bandwith," McInnis said, standing in front of the five tall black towers of computing equipment that make up the business's data center. "So the NextLight fiber feeds right into this and we used to see peaks with CenturyLink ... you would see periods when we were bursting at our capacity."

Switching to NextLight, McInnis said, means employees can download and upload the high-resolution images much more quickly.

"Now, we can't really overuse it and you don't see peaks like you used to," McInnis said. "That reduced latency, which means we get the files faster, which means we can print faster and get it to the customer faster. So that's the end result."

Tom Roiniotis, Longmont Power and Communications Manager, notes how the Ookla recognition brings the community one step closer to a  critical goal:

"One of the reasons we're doing this project is to strengthen us from an economic development perspective," Roiniotis said. "There are people who access this (Ookla) information when deciding where to locate." 

Ammon Brings Local Connectivity to Idaho Schools as State Education Network Goes Dark

The City of Ammon's municipal fiber network recently stepped in to provide primary broadband access for School District 93 as the state's educational network went dark reports Local News 8. Watch the video of local coverage below.

When a judge ruled last year that the Idaho Education Network (IEN) contract between the state Department of Administration was void, an education broadband crisis loomed across the state. As the drama played out, however, local networks such as Ammon's muni, have come to the rescue to keep students connected.

Ammon Mayor Dana Kirkham described an attitude characteristic of municipal networks:

"I think it's just something we do in the spirit of collaboration, and I think that's always important because when we talk about the school district and the city it's all the same people, and so anytime we can keep costs down it benefits everyone involved," Kirkham said.

CenturyLink and Education Networks of America (ENA) were providers under the contract voided last year. As CenturyLink and ENA cut off service to schools, forcing them to negotiate their own contracts, they have discovered better, more affordable broadband from local providers like Ammon.  A recent Idaho State Journal reported on several school districts:

The state, under the now-void IEN contract, had been paying Education Networks of America more than $6,000 a month for a 20 Mbps Internet service to Rockland School District. The school district will pay less than a third of that cost for a new 100 Mbps service next year.

The State Journal also discovered that numerous school districts had used fiber optic service from local providers but were forced to switch to slower service in order to obtain the IEN reimbursement. In order to get the reimbursement, West Side School District had to switch from fiber from Direct Communications, a local company, to a slow copper T1 connection from CenturyLink:

Once the IEN contract was in place, the Idaho taxpayers were saddled with paying over $8000 a month for outdated copper service to that same location.

[Direct Communications Marketing Director Brigham] Griffin said Preston [School District] was in the same boat. It had been getting fiber-optic Internet from Direct Communications, but had to switch to copper to have the state pick up the tab.

“Preston School District will now receive double their previous speed for about a fifth of the monthly cost,” Griffin said.

Though it is incredibly frustrating to see how Idaho has hurts its schools while funnelling extra tax dollars to CenturyLink, it is not as rare as you might think. Many states have these kind of "deals" with the large phone companies. We have long covered the depressing story in Wisconsin, where AT&T has successfully lobbied to hobble WiscNet, an arrangement that brings tremendous cost savings to local budgets and better connections to schools. 

This is more evidence for a point we have long made: building better networks does not necessary have to cost a lot more. We spend so much money inefficiently that eliminating these crony capitalism deals would free up significant funds to be spent more wisely.

In Ammon, Mayor Kirkham summed up the situation:

"This is always an argument for local control so whenever you have local control, then you aren't at the mercy of the decisions being made higher up the ladder and so this is one of those instances where you see that being played out," Kirkham said. 

Video: 
See video

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.

Bozeman City Commission Approves Master Plan: "It's A No-Brainer"

Bozeman elected officials voted unanimously on January 26th to approve a recently completed master plan and take the next step to deploying publicly owned open access infrastructure. We discussed the Bozeman approach in a recent podcast with city staff and a local business.

The Bozeman Daily Chronicle reports that local business leaders attended the City Commission meeting to speak in favor of the initiative, including the local Chamber of Commerce president, representatives from local tech companies, and the director of the Downtown Bozeman business coalition.

Commissioners heard comments from supporters, CenturyLink, and local provider Montana Opticom. Even though Jim Dolan from Montana Optimcom expressed some concerns about some engineering issues, the local ISP rep still said, "It’s a great initiative and it really will help the valley.” The Chronicle reports commissioners questioned supporters for about an hour before voting to move forward.

The project plan will use tax increment funding (TIF) in the Downtown and North 7th Avenue designated TIF Districts to facilitate funding for the first phase of the project. Phases two and three will bring fiber to the public schools and close up the proposed fiber rings by expanding to more business districts. You can reivew the Bozeman Fiber Master Plan and Feasibility Study and a summary of the project in the Commission Memorandum online.

The vote echoed a recent editorial in the Chronicle promoting the project and describing the decision to move forward as a "no-brainer":

On Monday, the Bozeman City Commission will consider a proposal to direct money from the North Seventh Avenue and downtown tax increment finance districts into a project to install a broadband, fiber-optic network around the city.

That’s a long and complicated sentence that describes what would be a not-too-monumental action on the part of the commissioners. But it could be the catalyst for a major economic boom to the city and the region, and commissioners should not hesitate to sign on to the plan. This system will provide sorely needed ultra high-speed Internet access to businesses and institutions.

There’s really no reason not to get involved in this reasonably priced project that has the potential to produce tremendous economic benefits.