Tag: "comcast"

Posted February 7, 2010 by Christopher Mitchell

I am not going to spend a lot of time on this, because if it isn't in the proverbial weeds for the focus of this site, it is pretty close. But the merger between Comcast and NBC would be bad news for publicly owned networks.

Comcast is already a massive company that has huge advantages due to its scale. When a community served by Comcast decides it wants a network that puts the community first rather than the boardroom in Philadelphia, they have to compete with Comcast for customers. Comcast can cross-subsidize from its non-competitive markets, meaning it can offer its services at a loss in competitive communities, offering prices that a new network simply cannot beat while paying its bills.

The larger it gets and the more channels it owns, the more market power it has and the harder for competitors to get enough subscribers to stay in business.

Beyond publicly owned networks, the Comcast and NBC merger is bad for everyone who likes real choices in channels to watch and programming to consume. In these times of great creativity due to the openness of the web, it further constrains opportunities for independent content creators - as illustrated by two articles describing the sausage-making of creating a channel lineup: Comcast vs. the Tennis Channel and How Cable Programming is 'Chosen.'

Posted January 29, 2010 by Christopher Mitchell

Evidently, the Comcast-provided I-Net in Norton - a city of nearly 20,000 west of the Cape - suffers frequent outages, outraging those who depend on it. The City has decided to build their own network (after originally hoping Verizon would fund it) to connect town offices, public safety, and school sites with fiber-optic cables.

Norton predicts significant savings from the new network - just as do hundreds of other cities that are building their own I-Nets to cut costs and dramatically improve services and reliability.

The projected costs are $116,000, according to this article.

Town Manager James Purcell said the main infrastructure that will be installed will be the beginning, and likened the expenditure to paying for the installation of a major sewer line with stubs to various buildings.

Posted December 22, 2009 by Christopher Mitchell

After campaigning on building a publicly owned fiber-to-the-home network in Seattle, Mayor McGinn has decided to maintain leadership at the Department of Information Technology. Department head Bill Schrier will stay on, continuing his work that lays the groundwork for a community-owned network.

He said he expects the city to apply for federal stimulus money in the first part of the year to move toward that goal. In addition to improving broadband access in homes, the initiative could help Seattle City Light implement smart-grid infrastructure, and improve public safety communications.

Another article further notes their shared ambition:

"Mayor-elect McGinn ran on a platform of bringing fiber to every home and business in Seattle, something I've advocated for several years," Schrier commented.

No post discussing broadband in Seattle is complete without a reference to Glenn Fleishman - who both wrote another story discussing the situation and then patiently responds to many comments in the thread below it. Discussing Tacoma's publicly owned Click! network, he notes that Tacoma's investment benefited everyone:

Click being built actually helped what has become Qwest and Comcast: by creating a market and making it feasible for professionals who need high-speed Internet access in Tacoma to live there, Click spurred the two incumbents to improve their networks, compete, and gain new revenue. Comcast actually thanked Tacoma Power publicly years ago; not sure it would today, but it was seen as a big boost for the viability of competitive broadband.

Photo used under creative commons license from flickr.

Posted December 4, 2009 by Christopher Mitchell

My friend, Geoff Daily at App-Rising.com, has questioned the wisdom of running fiber to all anchor institutions.

There's been a lot of buzz around the benefits and relative viability of wiring all community anchor institutions (schools, libraries, hospitals, etc.) with fiber as the way to get the best bang for the broadband buck. But recent conversations with my fiber-deploying friends have led me to worry that doing this could be a big mistake.

...

The reason is simple: if you build a network to serve community anchors, then those institutions won't be available to serve as anchor customers for a community-wide deployment. Without those community anchors as customers, the economics of deployment, especially in rural areas, becomes much harder and may actually make robust, sustainable broadband impossible in some areas.

This is a question I have wrestled with also, in trying to help communities understand the real impacts of decisions they make on whether to build their own broadband network.

My first reaction is on philosophical grounds - public institutions like schools, police departments, etc., do not exist to prop-up the business models of cable or telephone companies. Large entities like municipal and county governments should own their own network because it will save them money and expand their capabilities. When will the tea-party protesters start protesting government paying exorbitant fees to telephone companies for slow T-1 lines and the like? After all, these are our tax dollars and they should be spent wisely.

My second reaction is that I seriously doubt removing these institutional networks will impact the business model significantly. Maybe it would have last decade, but now we know that Comcast and probably many more have ">massive margins in their broadband operations. Losing the libraries and schools will do little to their bottom lines. Even if it takes a bit out of their profits, they won't go missing meals.

But really, the answer is more complicated. Many municipalities already get "free" services from their cable company as a part of the video...

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Posted December 1, 2009 by Christopher Mitchell

It looks like Palo Alto should move quickly on expanding its publicly owned fiber-based I-NET - as the city renegotiates the cable franchise with Comcast, the private cable company is trying to rip-off taxpayers with exorbitant prices for community anchor tenants.

California is one of several states to recently take negotiating power on cable television franchises away from communities and grant it to the state. Historically, communities negotiated a free or reduced rate for connectivity to schools, public safety buildings and other key community anchors in return for access to community Right-of-Way - an essential permission necessary to build a cable network.

However, as these agreements come up for review, the regulatory landscape is significantly different than it was when they were negotiated in the past. Federal and state decisions have limited the power of communities to gain concessions from cable companies as they continue to raise prices and post large profits.

In response, many communities have embarked on smart efforts to build their own fiber-optic networks connecting key institutions. These networks often save money while greatly increasing available bandwidth, allowing local governments to be more efficient and use cutting-edge applications. In some communities, these Institutional Networks have formed the backbone of next-generation networks that extend full fiber-to-the-home network access to businesses and citizens. Palo Alto has not yet connected all the necessary buildings with its network and still depends on Comcast for bandwidth to those areas.

Communities should beware - network ownership means power. The network owner can decide what price to charge schools - prices that must be paid with tax dollars. Communities building their own networks have slashed these prices and reduced pressure on the tax base. They don't have to worry as much when cable franchise negotiations are up again - like Palo Alto is now.

Joe Saccio, deputy director of Palo Alto's Administrative Services Department, said Comcast's proposed rates for I-Net would essentially enable the cable company to bill the communities twice for the fiber network. The network's construction was funded by cable subscribers and according to the staff report, Comcast has already largely (if not completely) recouped those costs.

"It's felt...

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Posted October 28, 2009 by Christopher Mitchell

As I noted previously, a community in Colorado - Longmont - will soon vote on whether the local government should be allowed to sell retail Internet services. This community has tried a number of approaches to expanding broadband competition but have not yet succeeded in getting the networks they need.

The local paper opposes the measure. However, the editorial frames the issue in a curious way. It claims the ballot measure will "override" state law, which is utterly false. State law says the community has to approve it before they can do it - so the City is complying with the state law.

Those against the measure point to failed municipal-run telecommunication efforts as another reason not to support this measure. That’s fairly compelling, especially when we have no specifics about what type of telecommunications projects the city will pursue.

Those against the measure claim that municipal-run telecommunications efforts have failed. They often point at successful community networks (or even failed privately owned networks, oddly enough), call them failures, and rightly assume that no one will fact-check the assertions. Often, they will gin up some false numbers that suggest a far-off network has lost a lot of money (using their same methodology, it would be crazy for anyone to borrow to buy a house).

Regarding the concern over what specific project the city will pursue if authorized, this is an interesting catch-22 because it makes little sense to expend a lot of money on a business plan before a community has the authority to build something. Either decision is difficult and requires a trust in the local leadership and democratic process.

Comments to that editorial rightly note that Comcast and Qwest will not prioritize investments in Longmont until they see competition. The private sector has failed to generate competition on its own, so the community is smart to consider spurring competition themselves. However, both Comcast and Qwest can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to scare people into voting against competition - it will still be cheaper for the incumbents than having to actually invest in faster networks.

One of the comments provides some interesting background on local broadband:

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Posted October 14, 2009 by Christopher Mitchell

While I try to keep postings on this site to the subject of publicly owned networks, I think it important to discuss the ways in which some major carriers routinely flout the public interest. Thus, a little history on how Comcast has acted against the public interest.

Most of the readers of this blog are probably aware that Comcast has been dinged by the FCC following its practice of interfering with subscribers legal content (and undoubtedly illegal content as well) by blocking and disrupting the BitTorrent traffic. BitTorrent is frequently used to transfer large media files because it efficiently breaks large files into many little pieces, allowing the user to download from a variety of sources concurrently - the file is then reassembled.

When Comcast detected BitTorrent connections, it would effectively hang up on them, regardless of the congestion level on the network at the time. The FCC (the Bush Administration's FCC) said it couldn't do that and Comcast is currently in the courts trying to tell the FCC that it can't tell Comcast what it can't do on its network.

Prior to a journalistic investigation that proved Comcast was doing this, net geeks had repeated asked Comcast if it were blocking the BitTorrent protocol. Comcast never admitted to anything, often claiming it did not "block" anything... as time would go on, Comcast would refuse to admit it was blocking anything - as if permanently delaying traffic was anything other than a blockage. "I'm not blocking you, try back in 20 million years."

Around this time, Comcast quietly changed its policy regarding the maximum amount of bandwidth subscribers could consume in a month. At the time, I thought it was a result of the FCC cracking down on the arbitrary policies frequently used by cable companies, but it turns out we can thank the State of Florida for forcing Comcast to enact a transparent cap on monthly usage.

Prior to the official cap, there was an unofficial cap. Every month, some number of people would be notified they were kicked off Comcast's service for using too much bandwidth - but no one knew how much was too much and, perhaps more importantly, how to keep track of how much bandwidth they were using. Discussions on geek-hangout Slashdot suggested a monthly cap of between 100 Gigabytes and 300 Gigabytes depending on the neighborhood. There was no limit documented anywhere and Comcast representatives refused to acknowledge any hard cap.

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Posted September 28, 2009 by Christopher Mitchell

On Tuesday, September 15, EPB, the public power utility serving Chattanooga and nearby communities in Tennessee, rolled out fully fiber-powered triple-play services to 17,000, a number expected to grow by July 2010, when services will be available to some 100,000 people and businesses. It will take three years before all 160,000 potential subscribers are passed.

Chattanooga has had a relatively rough time creating the network due to the litigious nature of its incumbents, who have filed 4 lawsuits to stop the project only to have each of them dismissed by the courts. (This is a predictable outcome, many of these companies file frivolous lawsuits to intimidate communities with lost time and legal fees - leading to a no-lose situation for companies that invest more in lawyers than in the networks communities need in the modern economy.)

Prices and Options

All broadband speeds are symmetrical; prices by month

Option Price
15 Mbps $57.99
20 Mbps $69.99
50 Mbps $174.99
15 Mbps and basic phone $68.83
15 Mbps / basic phone / basic cable $92.97
15 Mbps/ phone & 120 min long distance / 77 Channels $117.24

Caveats: an extra $5.99 a month for HD Capability on the TV, but even the basic phone package comes with caller ID and 3-way calling

The Tennessee Cable and Telecommunications Association kicked off the lawsuits in 2007 and Comcast chimed in a year later. As has been done in other communities, the private companies alleged the power utility was cross-subsidizing its triple-play telecom offering with revenues from the electric side. Aside from this just being a poor business practice, the companies say such cross-subsidization would be unfair to them even as major carriers routinely cross-subsidize from community to community - overcharging in non-competitive markets to make up for keeping prices low in competitive markets.

Nonetheless, public power companies and other public agencies have learned to keep meticulous books to show they are not cross-subsidizing, something courts recognize each time their time is wasted by lawsuit-happy incumbent providers.

EPB has long offered some...

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Posted September 9, 2009 by Christopher Mitchell

The FCC recently asked for comments about how broadband should be defined. There was a marked difference between those who put community needs first and those who put profits first. Companies like AT&T and Comcast were quick to argue that the FCC should not change the definition of broadband for reasons ranging from too much paperwork to the suggestion that rural people have no need for VoIP. The honest approach would have been for these companies to say they do not want a higher definition because it will change their business plans, likely requiring them to invest in better networks for communities, and that will hurt their short term profits.

On the other side were groups that argued for a more robust definition of broadband - something considerably less ambitious than our international peers but an improvement over the current FCC definition.
NATOA's comments [pdf] focused on issues like the need for measurements based on actual speeds rather than advertised and symmetrical connections (or at least "robust upstream speeds to facilitate interactivity" - which we think captures the importance of symmetric connections without getting lost in debates about absolutely symmetric connections).

The key metric for broadband should be the applications and needs that drive consumer requirements and choices. In this way, broadband should be understood as a connection that is sufficient in speed and capacity such that it does not limit a user’s required application.

Their magic broadband number is a reasonable and doable 10Mbps symmetric connection for residential and small businesses as well as a 1Gbps level for enterprise users. Importantly, they note that a single broadband connection supports far more than a single computer or use - these connections are shared, often among many wired and wireless devices.

Compare these comments to those of the NCTA [pdf] (lobbying organization for cable companies) that argue broadband is nothing more than an "always on" connection regardless of the speeds or user experience. This is how they justify maintaining the international laughingstock definition of 768kbps/200kbps.

It is this basic “...

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Posted August 27, 2009 by Christopher Mitchell

Folks who are mostly interested in broadband are probably unfamiliar with video franchising laws. Many people still apparently believe that cable companies are able to get exclusive franchises from the city (granting them a monopoly on providing cable television). However, that is not true and has not been true for many years.

Most cable companies still have a de facto monopoly because it is extremely difficult to overbuild an existing cable company - the incumbent has most of the advantages and building a citywide network is extremely expensive. This is not a naturally competitive market; it is actually a natural monopoly.

However, most people want a choice in providers (something that goes beyond a single cable company and a satellite option or two depending on whether you rent/own and your geographic location. In talking with many local officials and the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisers (NATOA), it seems that almost every local government wants more competition in its community too.

This is where telephone and cable company lobbyists have stepped in - more successfully at the state level than at the federal level. They have convinced legislators that the barrier to more competition is local authority over the franchise (the rules a company agrees to in return for the right to use the community's Right-of-Way in deploying their network). These rules include red-line prohibition (you cannot refuse to serve poor neighborhoods), an affordable "basic" tier of service, local public access channels, broadband connections at public buildings, etc.

Some states have listened to the lobbyists and enacted statewide franchising - where local communities are stripped of the authority to manage their Right-of-Way and companies can offer video services anywhere in the state by getting a state franchise from the state government. Every year, we gather more data that this practice has hurt communities, raised prices, and barely spurred any competition. Most of the competition it is credited with spurring came from Verizon's FiOS deployments, which would have occurred regardless of state-wide franchise enactment.

This touches directly on broadband because the statewide franchises often give greater power to companies like Verizon to cherry-pick who gets next generation broadband. Wealthier neighborhoods will increasingly get access to faster...

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