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Virginia’s Fauquier County Hires Broadband Consultant

Fauquier County, located less than an hour west of Washington, D.C., recently formalized a contract with a Virginia-based consultant to develop a broadband Internet strategy for the county. The county is home to nearly 70,000 residents, many commute to work in D.C.

What’s the problem?

Fauquier County had the eighth-highest median income in the United States in 2011, yet its rural residents lack high-speed Internet access options. Large corporate Internet service providers (ISPs), Comcast and Verizon, deliver high-speed Internet to profitable markets in Fauquier’s largest towns, Bealeton, Warrenton, and Marshall. However, due to low population densities and low projected returns, incumbent ISPs did not invest in broadband infrastructure upgrades that rural communities need. 

Earlier this spring, the county government created the Fauquier Broadband Advisory Committee (FBAC), a ten-member committee tasked with exploring Internet accessibility solutions for the county. The recently approved feasibility study is the first step to bringing rural residents the services they require. 

Tackling the Urban/Rural Divide

The $60,000 assessment and feasibility study will prioritize economic development opportunities and quality of life improvements for Fauquier residents. The study also aims to map county demand and assess how to best deliver last-mile coverage to the entire county, including the 57 percent of residents who live in rural areas. The consultant released two countywide broadband surveys to pinpoint local interest, one for residents and another for businesses

The county plans to designate infrastructure projects as capital expenses and potentially create an independent broadband entity to run the network. For local officials, there are important returns to a better network. Improved connectivity could lead to job growth, improved educational outcomes, and better healthcare and public safety. Rick Gerhardt, who sits on FBAC, told Fauquier Now:

“It’s about economic viability, more people can work at home... and education… We’ve got kids in this county who can’t do their homework without going to McDonald’s… I don’t think you can survive a day without broadband.”

Lake Oswego Schools Opting For Dark Fiber

Lake Oswego School District (LOSD) in Oregon is set to make an investment that will save up to $301,000 per year in telecommunications costs - its own dark fiber network.

To Lease Or To Own? There Is No Question!

LOSD is the latest in a string of local schools that have chosen to invest in fiber infrastructure for long-term savings. Caswell County, North Carolina, is also investing in dark fiber with an eye on the future. Because the school district will own the network, they will no longer be surprised by unexpected rate hikes, making budgeting easier. The money they save can be directed toward other programs and, because it is dark fiber, they are only restricted by the equipment they install and the bandwidth agreements they enter into with Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Some schools choose to become ISPs themselves or join collaborations in which they can purchase bandwidth collectively to save even more. 

According to Joe Forelock, the district’s assistant superintendent for academic and student services, “This is a long-term investment for the health of the district over the next many, many years.” Once the network is in place, it will cost approximately $36,720 annually to maintain it, which is 89 percent less than what Comcast plans to charge LOSD for the 2016 - 2017 school year. 

We want to note that Comcast tripled their rates from the 2015 - 16 school year, in part because the 2016 - 17 contract was only for a year while the dark fiber network is being constructed. With no competition in the region, Comcast has broad practical authority to decide what LOSD will pay. “Right now, Comcast is essentially the only game in town in many communities," Morelock says, "including LO."

Clackamus County will install the $1.54 million network; 40 percent of the total cost will be reimbursed through E-rate, the federal program for schools that pays for Internet access and certain infrastructure expenses.

“After six years, if costs remain the same and do not increase, or decrease for that matter, the district will save $181,000 per year in connectivity costs with the E-rate discount, or $301,000 per year if E-rate were to disappear,” Morelock says.

Connecting In Clackamus

Other community anchor institutions (CAIs) in Clackamus County have been connecting to the Clackamus Broadband eXchange (CBX). The CBX is the middle mile dark fiber-optic network that runs through the county, which was funded in 2010 with American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funding. 

Duke Dexter, broadband program coordinator for Clackamas County spoke with the Lake Oswego Review

Dexter says there was no obligation for any district or agency to join the network, but people want to travel the Internet more quickly, he says, and fiber-optic cables offer a faster link to the information superhighway.

“We built … a freeway," Dexter says, "and now, other people are building on-ramps to be able to get onto that freeway.”

Nashville Considering One Touch Make Ready

In 2015, Nashville welcomed Google Fiber with open arms, anticipating all the possibilities gigabit connectivity could mean for businesses and residents. The deployment is moving slowly, however, in part because of time consuming make ready work on utility poles. In order to speed up the process and establish better policy for the city in general, Nashville has just introduced a one touch make ready ordinance.

Too Many Wires

A recent Nashville Scene article described the situation, common in a number of communities where utility poles already carry a number of wires:

The thousands of poles that stand around the city, most of which are owned by Nashville Electric Service, are arranged with power on top and communications equipment in a line below that. In Nashville, this means NES equipment pushes electricity up top, while broadly speaking, gear from Comcast and AT&T — whether for home phone, cable or internet service — operates below. 

Enter Google Fiber. Because Nashville largely sits on a massive bed of limestone rock, running cable underground is, for the most part, not a viable option. That means Google has to join its new friends in the industry on the poles, through a process known as Make Ready. In a typical scenario, that involves Google — or any other new company trying to enter the market or get on a particular pole — notifying NES, which will then notify each telecom company that it needs to send a crew to the pole — one after another — to move their equipment and accommodate the new party. The process can take months, even if contractually mandated time frames are followed. Google Fiber officials and operatives working on their behalf suggest that’s not always the case. 

One-Stop Approach

One touch make ready will allow one entity the ability to move all the wires from all the entities at one visit. Louisville, Kentucky, has enacted one touch make ready but AT&T and Frontier have joined forces to sue the city to stop it. The policy cuts costs and streamlines deployment for new entrants, thereby encouraging competition, so incumbents are not fond of the idea.

Nevertheless, the state's Department of Economic and Community Development (TNECD) recently released the results of a study which included one touch make ready one of several recommendations. Enacting the policy is a way to control poles and proactively handle many of the disputes that can arise between entities that use them.

Learn more about Louisville's approach to one touch make ready; listen to Christopher interview Ted Smith, the city's Chief Innovation Officer, in Episode #193 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Discussing (Ranting) Consolidation - Community Broadband Bits Episode 209

In celebration of Independence Day, we are focused this week on consolidation and dependence. At the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, we are very focused on independence and believe that the consolidation in the telecommunications industry threatens the independence of communities. We doubt that Comcast or AT&T executives could locate most of the communities they serve on a blank map - and that impacts their investment decisions that threaten the future of communities.

So Lisa Gonzalez and I talk about consolidation in the wake of Google buying Webpass and UC2B's partner iTV-3 selling out to Countrywide Broadband. And we talk about why Westminster's model of public-private partnership is preferable to that of UC2B.

We also discuss where consolidation may not be harmful and how the FCC's order approving the Charter takeover of Time Warner Cable will actually result in much more consolidation rather than new competition.

Read the transcript from this show here.

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

This show is 18 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 download this mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Fifes and Drums of the Old Barracks for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Cork Hornpipe."

Savannah Studies Situation for Possible Muni

In early May, leaders in Savannah, Georgia, retained a consultant to prepare a feasibility study to help the community examine ways to improve local connectivity. Local leaders want consultants to consider ways to better serve municipal facilities, community anchor institutions, businesses, and residents.

Incumbent Trouble

In March, incumbent Comcast announced that it would bring fiber-optic connectivity to businesses in Savannah by the end of 2016, but the company has a poor reputation in the Hostess City with both residents and businesses.

Back in 2011 and 2012, there were so many complaints to city leaders Aldermen began holding public meetings so citizens could air complaints. People complained about high rates, poor customer service, and Internet interruptions during rainstorms. Business owners could not get cable connectivity in the downtown area from Comcast; the company said the low number of connections did not justify the investment. Stop the Cap! covered the whole sordid affair in 2012, describing Savannah’s unhappy populace as in a state of “open revolt.”

The company has reportedly made improvements, but trust is a fragile thing.

Moving Forward, No Comcast

After so much trouble with the cable company, it’s understandable that city leaders might decide to side-step Comcast. According to an announcement in Broadband Communities Magazine, the consultants will examine the existing fiber assets in the city and offer ways to expand off that fiber to better serve the community.

City officials have been discussing the possibilities of better connectivity via a municipal fiber optic network for a while now and have been more open about it in recent months. In March, Mayor Eddie DeLoach told Local News WTOC:

“We got to have fiber optic if we are going to have anyone from the film industry or SCAD or these engineering places, we got to have high speed internet. We got to have the broadband.”

“If Savannah is going to compete in the next 15 years, starting this year we need to come up with a plan and a design with that in mind.”

Meeting the American Cable Association - Community Broadband Bits Podcast Episode 202

The American Cable Association (ACA) represents over 800 small and medium-sized cable companies around the United States, including many municipal cable and fiber-optic networks. This week, we talk with ACA President and CEO Matt Polka about what they do and how small cable companies are vastly different from the big companies like Comcast and Charter.

We spoke after it was clear Charter's merger with Time Warner Cable would be approved, but before this article in Ars Technica effectively missed the point of Matt Polka's objection to the competition requirement in the merger. In our interview, we discuss the larger problem - that the federal government consistently puts its thumb on the scale to benefit the biggest cable companies at the expense of smaller ones. Forcing Charter to compete with Comcast would be a far bigger benefit to communities than having it take over small cable networks.

We wrap up with a discussion about how smaller companies, which includes all municipal networks, are disproportionately impacted by regulations that do not distinguish between the biggest providers (that tend to cause the majority of problems) and the smaller providers (that bear the brunt of regulations designed for reigning in the problems caused by the big carriers).

Read the transcript from this show here.

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

This show is 29 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 download this mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Forget the Whale for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "I Know Where You've Been."

Data Cap Problem Grows...And Grows...And Grows

A recent Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article (requires subscription) chronicles the increasingly problematic effect of data caps on the quality of residential subscribers' Internet access experience.

Also known as a bandwidth cap, a data cap is a monthly bandwidth usage limit Internet Service Providers (ISPs) sometimes impose on subscribers at their standard monthly rates. While some ISPs charge customers more for exceeding their monthly bandwidth caps, in other cases ISPs may even cut off a customer’s service completely.

The problem is also harming companies like Netflix and Sling TV who are losing customers who can’t justify paying for a high capacity video streaming service that’s only available until they hit their data caps partway through the month. In response, Netflix lowered the video quality for users on ISP networks that use data caps as a way to help them avoid the limitations. The plan worked, but in the process Netflix angered customers, who blamed both the ISPs and the streaming service for the lowered video quality.

It's Not All About The Money

The problem goes beyond the extra fees charged to customers who use a lot of data. The WSJ article cites two Internet users who’d like to join the growing number of “cord cutters” who are dropping television service for Internet-based video. As one man put it:

“I wouldn’t have regular TV if not for the data cap,” he says. “Comcast has got me by the throat.”

Another added:

“I was planning to cut the cord when my DirecTV contract is up,” he says. “This is essentially a ploy to keep people from cutting cable in my opinion.”

An increasing number of subscriber complaints and suspicions about the accuracy of measuring bandwidth usage heighten concerns.

Feds Take Notice

The Government Accountability Office released a report at the end of 2014 expressing their concern about ISPs abusing the use of data caps. At the time, the FCC said that they had not received enough complaints about the problem to merit action. In 2015, as this new WSJ article notes, the FCC received an unprecedented number of complaints about data caps. The problem is only getting worse as household bandwidth usage continues to grow.

To Cap Or Not To Cap? That Is The Question

Providers like Comcast will sometimes offer unlimited usage for an additional monthly fee. Recently, both Comcast and AT&T announced they will raise data caps; Comcast will also increase the price of unlimited usage to $50 per month. Experts speculate the move is a reaction to FCC limits imposed on the Time Warner Cable/Charter Communications merger. From a recent POTs and PANs article:

First, the FCC just required that one of the conditions for Charter’s purchase of Time Warner is that they impose no data caps on customers for seven years. In making that statement the FCC said that they had serious concerns about ISP data caps if those same ISPs also owned video programming, like Time Warner. In such cases, the ISP imposing data caps is favoring their own content over Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu delivered over the Internet.

Seventy percent of all homes in the U.S. have access to one or fewer ISPs offering service that meets the FCC's definition of high-speed Internet access - 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload. Data caps are a natural result of the control incumbent ISPs have in markets with insufficient competition.

"Inconsistent With Its Mission"

Limits on bandwidth usage are generally not a problem for municipal network users as publicly owned networks are known to reject the use of data caps. A statement from Vermont's EC Fiber reflected a common philosophy:

An uncapped internet environment encourages entrepreneurs and economic growth. Despite the trend toward instituting data caps among commercial internet providers, ECFiber believes that caps are inconsistent with its mission as a community network. An unconstrained online environment frees businesses and individuals to be creative and innovative.

ISP US Internet Gets More Respect Than Rodney Dangerfield - Community Broadband Bits 194

In Minneapolis, a small and privately owned ISP has been steadily building fiber across the city and developing a stunning reputation for great customer service, low and predictable pricing, and generally being a great company to do business with. Co-founder Travis Carter of US Internet joins us for episode 194 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

We discuss their approach to building networks, especially their philosophy around customer service and just how poorly some of US Internet's competitors treat their customers. As a small firm that is carving out its own path in a world of giants, its experiences are important lessons and points of consideration for community networks.

We also discuss how US Internet interacts with local governments. Though the company has high praise for Minneapolis, it discusses where some of the challenges have been in navigating local government zoning and permitting. Travis also offers some advice based on how smart investments and a well-organized approach to leasing fiber have helped US Internet to begin expanding in suburb Saint Louis Park.

USI coverage map is available here. For more information on USI's pricing, see their website for Fiber-to-the-Home and telephone service.

We plan to have Travis back on in the future again, so if you have questions you would like us to ask, please tell us!

Read the transcript from this show here.

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

This show is 30 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 download this Mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Kathleen Martin for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Player vs. Player."

New Report on Digital Inclusion from Sesame Workshop

A recent report by Victoria Rideout and Vikki S. Katz from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at the Sesame Workshop delves into detail on the experiences of lower income families and Internet access. The report, “Opportunity for all? Technology and learning in lower-income families,” points to the promises of digital inclusion for educational opportunities, but also to the current inequalities in Internet access. 

The researchers highlight several key findings from the study in an effort to inform policymakers of the root causes, and effects, of these inequalities on lower-income families. They include issues of race (families headed by Hispanic immigrants are less connected), of access (mobile-only and inconsistent connectivity), and of affordability (despite the existence of discounted programs).

Discounted Programs Not Working

We’ve written several times about the failings of the large corporate providers’ discounted programs for Internet access. Over the past few years, Comcast’s Internet Essentials program has been a prime example. We reported on the Consumerist article that highlighted how the program benefits Comcast more than lower-income families. In 2013, our Lisa Gonzalez shared her own family’s experience with the program. 

Rideout and Katz’s report again show the real impact of these programs’ failures. Only 5% of those surveyed had ever signed up for the programs although many met the eligibility requirements. Even those that did receive the service sometimes found that it could not meet their needs. After all, the program only provides up to 5 megabits per second (Mbps) in download speeds. A parent of a seventh grader in Colorado explained to the researchers (page 11): 

I had (Internet Essentials) because (my children) had assignments that they needed the computer for... I hated it. It wasn’t working. It was too slow, it would freeze and they couldn’t get anything done. We had it for almost a year. I just got rid of it. I was paying $10 (a month) to not use it.

A Better Solution: Community

The report from Rideout and Katz at the Sesame Workshop found that the largest barrier for Internet access in lower-income households is financial. The researchers detail the many ways that better Internet access would provide better education opportunities for lower-income children, and the survey shows that parents know this too.

So, why haven’t these discounted programs been effective in bridging the digital divide? The programs aren’t readily available. Enrollment is confusing. And, more importantly, people outside the community run these programs - people who don’t know what the community needs. 

Chattanooga’s municipal network offers a better solution. Chattanooga took the best aspects of Comcast’s Internet Essentials program and combined them with a deep understanding of community needs. An effective policy for providing affordable Internet access must be rooted in the community.

Rural Broadband Expansion Ignores Economic Development Potential in Minnesota - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 190

For years, many rural communities suffered from a broadband donut hole problem - the investment in better-than-dial-up was in the population center, leaving a donut of poor access around it. Now policy to reverse that in places like Minnesota is perversely creating the opposite problem, to the detriment of the entire community.

This week on the Community Broadband Bits podcast we welcome back Dan Dorman, Executive Director of the Greater Minnesota Partnership. He is also a former legislator and current small business owner in Greater Minnesota.

We discuss how this problem developed and where we see it happening before our very eyes. Though we focus on Minnesota, this issue is broadly applicable to all states. We also talk about how Comcast lobbyists have cynically manipulated the program to prevent economic development or possible competition, despite the fact that Comcast serves practically no one outside of the metro region.

Lisa Gonzalez and I predicted this problem in our paper from 2014, All Hands On Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access. Listen to Dan Dorman's last appearance, episode 136.

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 25 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 Kathleen Martin for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Player vs. Player."