Tag: "right-of-way"

Posted October 30, 2012 by Lisa Gonzalez

Amy Davis, Investigative Reporter for Click2 Houston.com and local channel 2, reports that Wave Vision, a Houston cable company, is not up to the task in the Lone Star State. According to Davis, the cable company may soon lose its license in Houston.

But the story won't end there because the state of Texas has preempted most local authority to protect consumers and the City's interests. Franchises like this one were grandfathered in when AT&T pushed its statewide franchising legislation that made the state responsible for enacting the franchises that allow video providers to put their cables in the rights-of-way and offer services to residents. And that law does not allow the state to refuse franchises to deadbeat corporations.

As long as a company fills out the form, the state must grant a franchise and the City has to abide by it. This leaves the City with only one option - taking the company to court. And that means more legal expenses. But when Houston wins the case, and it almost certainly will, it is not clear that they will be able to collect because the company will likely declare bankruptcy and the City will be just one of several with unpaid debts.

This is what happens when AT&T writes the legislation that takes power away from communities and puts it in the state or federal levels. State and federal government is not as responsive to citizens as local and is not equipped (nor authorized in many circumstances) to protect the public interest.

Now for the background on just how bad company is, another reminder of why communities must have the authority to build their own networks rather than being stuck with companies like this.

Customers have complained to the local Better Business Bureau 90 times and 61 of those complaints have gone unanswered, driving the BBB rating to an F for Wave Vision. (And those are just the complaints the BBB knows about!)

According to Amy Davis, however, customer complaints have not put Wave Vision in this precarious position. The company owes the City of Houston $809,789.91 in unpaid rights of way fees. Customers continue to pay those fees as part of their monthly bill, but the money is not finding its way to...

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Posted October 28, 2011 by Christopher Mitchell

A common misconception is that local governments award exclusive (or monopolistic) franchises to cable companies and that is why the US has so little cable competition.  However, no local government has done this since the 1996 Telecommunications Act 1992 Cable Act made the practice illegal.

But even before the '96 Telecom Act '92 Cable Act, local governments tended to award non-exclusive contracts to cable companies because they wanted more competition, not less -- as illustrated in this article about Cox preparing to renew its franchise agreement with New Orleans.

Federal laws and Federal Communications Commission decisions also have sharply curtailed the city's negotiating ability.

Even if other companies were seeking permission to provide cable to local customers, said William Aaron, a legal adviser to the council on telecommunications issues, council members could not arbitrarily refuse to renew the Cox franchise. The council could do that only on the basis of certain limited criteria, such as that the company has not lived up to the terms of the 1995 agreement.

Cox has had a nonexclusive franchise to operate in Orleans Parish since 1981, meaning that other companies also can apply to provide cable services, though none has done so. The franchise was renewed in 1995.

For years, state and federal policies have limited local authority to require just compensation for access to the valuable right-of-way because the cable and telephone companies pretended that they would invest more and create competition if local authority were preempted.

Local authority has been significantly preempted in many communities without any real increase in competition or lowering of prices. No surprise there - another victory for companies better at lobbying than providing essential services.

Posted July 7, 2011 by Christopher Mitchell

A friend once told me about his battle with the local government over whether it would charge him a fee for inspecting the house he wanted to begin renting out (he had bought another house but didn't want to sell the first in a down market). His house was well maintained and he said he would be happy to schedule the inspection whenever convenient for the City but absolutely would not pay a fee so they could inspect his house.

Consider this from a different perspective. The local government should make sure that rental properties meet certain standards (building and fire codes if nothing else). This means inspections. Who should pay for the inspections? It boils down to two choices: the property owner or the tax-base at large. It seems more fair to charge property owners at least a portion of the cost as they benefit the most from being able to rent out their property.

I make this point to lead into another discussion about managing the Right-of-Way (ROW), the city-owned property used for utilities. An article in TribLive about a town near Pittsburgh fighting to keep its cable fees offers insight into a national discussion about fees for using the ROW.

Hempfield charges utilities $750 for a right-of-way permit, $500 for a renewal, and $250 for a construction permit, according to a township ordinance.

Ferguson said without the fees, the township would not be able to monitor the work.

"We use the monies, those permit fees, to pay staff to make sure they repair roads as they're supposed to," Ferguson said. "Part of the fee is ... for our inspectors to go out and make sure they (utilities) complete the job right."

Ferguson said utility companies sometimes dig up new roads to install or repair lines and leave the road in shambles afterward.

"Taxpayers should not be required to pay the staff to make sure utility companies do the right thing," he said.

FCC Logo

Telecommunications providers have long claimed that local government fees are unreasonable and getting the necessary permits is too difficult. But when asked to document such claims, they rarely do. The FCC is currently examining whether it believes the fees charged by local governments are fair...

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Posted May 18, 2011 by Christopher Mitchell

An article in the San Francisco Bay Guardian about public opposition to AT&T's further cluttering the right-of-way with 726 metal boxes to start delivering their super DSL U-Verse alerted me to people getting organized for community fiber.

AT&T's U-verse upgrade would enable it to offer connection speeds three times faster than current service — but not nearly as fast as what fiber proponents envision. Several members of the tech industry interviewed by the Guardian cautioned that another AT&T upgrade might be necessary after less than a decade to keep pace with technological advancement.

Ha! Considering that AT&T U-Verse tops out at 24Mbps downstream (if you are lucky and live close to the key electronics) and a piddling 1.5 Mbps upstream, it is already obsolete. Cable networks offered considerably better performance last year -- suggesting that AT&T should stop wasting everyone's time in SF with this approach.

We have previously written about efforts to use the City's fiber to bridge the digital divide and the SFBG article introduces us to new ideas using that asset.

Meanwhile, Board of Supervisors President David Chiu recently asked DTIS to examine the possibility of leasing excess capacity on city-owned dark-fiber infrastructure, which is currently in place but not being used. This could boost bandwidth for entities such as nonprofits, health care facilities, biotech companies, digital media companies, or universities, Chiu said, while bolstering city coffers. "There are many places in town that need a lot more bandwidth, and this is an easy way to provide it," he said.

Sniezko noted that other cities have created open-access networks to deploy fiber. "This is really effective because it's a lot like a public utility," she explained. "The city or someone fills a pipe, and then anyone who wants to run information or service on that pipe can do so. They pay a leasing fee. This has worked in many places in Europe, and they actually do it in Utah. In many cases, it's really cool — because it's publicly owned and it's neutral. There's no prioritizing traffic for one thing over another, or limitation on who's allowed to offer service on the network. It ... creates some good public infrastructure, and...

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Posted May 17, 2011 by Christopher Mitchell

A small Idaho town near Idaho Falls in the eastern part of the state, Ammon, is creating a new approach for a small open access fiber-optic network. When the vision is fully realized, all businesses and residents will have affordable, fast, and reliable access to the Internet and other telecommunications services via a multitude of independent service providers.

The town has adopted a new ordinance spelling out its vision and began building the backbone of the network. The purpose is well written and could serve as a model for others, excerpted here:

To protect the public right-of-way by improving both the management and regulation of competing demands through the elimination of duplicate fiber optic facilities within the public right-of-way.

To reduce the cost of maintaining the sidewalk, pavement and public facilities located within the public right-of-way by minimizing the number of pavement cuts and dislocation of other public facilities necessitated by the construction or installation of fiber optic facilities.

To foster competition among retail broadband service providers by providing open Access to the City Fiber Optic System.

Ammon had previously applied for broadband stimulus funds but was not awarded a grant or loan. Undaunted, they continued to examine how they can build the network their community needs to attract economic development and maintain a high qualify of life. An article in the Boise Weekly profiled the network and the man behind it:

Bruce Patterson is the one-man IT department for Ammon, a small town of 13,000 near Idaho Falls. He is fed up with companies overlooking the town when they discover the cost of Internet is prohibitive.

"The City of Ammon wants to be the road, not the traffic," Patterson said. "Nondiscrimination is what we believe is the right thing. We wanna be completely open to every consumer and provider."

As we see time and time again, this community has Internet access from at least one provider, but it does not meet the needs of the...

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Posted May 4, 2011 by Rita Stull

This is the first in a series of posts by Rita Stull -- her bio is available here. The short version is that Rita has a unique perspective shaped by decades of experience in this space. Her first post introduces readers to the often misunderstood concept of the Right-of-way, an asset owned by the citizens and managed mostly by local governments.

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In the process of knitting a baby blanket, a whole ball of yarn became tangled into this mess. . . .

. . . reminding me of the time, in the early eighties, when I was the second cable administrator appointed in the U.S., and found myself peering into a hole in the street filled with a similar looking mess—only made of copper wires, instead of yarn.

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Why talk about yarn and copper wire in the same breath on a site dedicated to community broadband networks? Because it was the intersection of ‘art and cable’ that got me started in the ‘telecommunications policy’ arena, the same kind of thinking that continues today in our tangled telecom discussions: Is it content or conduit, competitive, entertainment, essential, wireless, landline, gigahertz, gigabits?

I transferred from the Recreation Department to launch the city’s cable office as an experienced government supervisor with a Masters in Theater. My employer and I thought cable TV was the ‘entertainment’ business and I had the requisite mix of experience and skills to manage one of the first franchises awarded in 1981.

Yikes. Imagine my surprise on discovering that cable was a WIRE LINE UTILITY using PUBLIC LAND, which each citizen pays TAXES to buy, upgrade and maintain! And, our three-binders-thick, cable franchise was a ‘legal contract’ containing the payment terms for use of our public rights-of-way, as well as protection of local free speech rights. I was thirty years old, a property owner who had never thought about who owned roads, sidewalks and utility corridors.

Rights-of-way are every street plus about 10 feet of land on each side. That land belongs to everyone in the community. Rights-of-way are a shared public asset—sometimes called part of our common...

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Posted October 18, 2010 by Christopher Mitchell

As Salisbury prepares to officially launch its publicly owned FTTH network offering triple-play services, it offers lessons for other communities that want to follow in its footsteps. As we wrote a month ago, Fibrant has candidly admitted it cannot win a price war with incumbents. Companies like Time Warner Cable have a tremendous scale advantage, which allows them to price below cost in Salisbury because the large profits from all the non-competitive markets nearby can subsidize temporary losses.

On October 10, the Salisbury Post ran a story "Fibrant can't match cable company specials." Alternative possible titles for the article could have been "Cable Co cuts prices to drive competition from market," or "Time Warner Cable admits customers pay different prices for same services." Interestingly, when Fibrant unveiled its pricing originally, the headline read "Fibrant reveals pricing" rather than "Fibrants offers speeds far faster than incumbents."

A lesson for community networks: do not expect the media to cover you fairly. The big companies have public affairs people with relationships with the press and they often buy a lot of local advertising. This is not to say all local media is bought off -- far from it -- but local media will have to be educated about the advantages of community networks.

Quick question: When you hear this quote, who do you first think of?

"We always work with customers to meet their needs and budget."

The cable company, right? Well, that is Time Warner Cable's claim in the above Salisbury Post article. Later in the article, a local business owner expressed a different sentiment: "Time Warner has the worst customer service I have ever dealt with."

The business owner goes on:

“Fibrant may have these same kind of issues, however I can actually go to the source to deal personally with someone who is vested in the community, not spend two hours on the phone and never solve the problem as I do with TWC,” he said.

“Even if pricing is higher, I would make the change. Price is important, but quality and service is tantamount.”

Speaking of the services...

...
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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 August 10, 2009 by Christopher Mitchell

In another example of how some private companies continue acting against the public interest, Verizon is again using FiOS as a weapon, threatening not to bring it to a New York town unless the town essentially waives some $12,000 in real estate taxes.

Communities maintain what is called the "right-of-way" - where utility polls are located or conduit is buried underground. Imagine if a cable company had to work out an arrangement with every resident who had a poll in their yard to string cable - what a headache! Instead, companies like Verizon negotiate with the municipal government for access to the right-of-way. In return, communities typically negotiate for things like a franchise fee, often a 3%-5% fee from television revenues that is used to fund local public access channels. The right-of-way is a valuable community asset and the community deserves to benefit from allowing private companies to profit from it.

In this case, Verizon wants to dodge the real estate taxes it owes by taking them out of the franchise fee - which would pass effectively reduce its public interest obligations required by using the rights-of-way. Yet another way in which companies put profits above the community.

Verizon must have some skilled accountants, they never seem to pay taxes. When they sold off their customers in New England to the failing Fairpoint, they also avoided paying taxes on the income from the sale.

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