Tag: "level playing field"

Posted March 31, 2010 by christopher

Light Reading took an in-depth look at FairPoint's anti-competition, anti-public ownership lobbying in Maine, where it is fighting a stimulus award to a consortium that includes a public entity. We have previously covered goings-on in Maine where FairPoint is involved due to their terrible track record of offering services while pushing for rules that would prevent communities from building their own networks.

For those who are not familiar, FairPoint had bought the lines from Verizon as part of a tax-dodge called the "Reverse Morris Trust" (one loophole that might be closed before Verizon can abuse it again). FairPoint promptly went bankrupt, but not before screwing up service for thousands upon thousands of residents and businesses in New England (from months of screwed-up billing to weeks without telecom services). Now FairPoint wants to make sure many Maine residents have no choice in providers for the foreseeable future.

Carol Wilson's look at this situation is fairly comprehensive.

... Maine Fiber Co., won a $25.4 million grant to build what is called the Three-Ring Binder, an middle-mile fiber optic network that will include three fiber rings in Western, Northern, and Downeast Maine. Maine Fiber’s intent is to lease dark fiber as an open access network, and not to sell commercial services.

More details about the Three Ring Binder are available here and here.

The Maine Fiber Company is a private sector entity that has partnered with the University of Maine System. Though the company will run the network, some fibers will be reserved for the schools - this is a common private-public partnership that is mutually beneficial. This network will be open access - meaning that all can use it on equal terms (as opposed to being monopolized solely by the owner, as FairPoint does with its network). But FairPoint sure doesn't want to deal with competition in the many areas that it currently monopolizes with poor service at high prices.

It [Three Ring Binder Network] is now facing a challenge from FairPoint Communications Inc. , which bought...

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Posted February 25, 2010 by christopher

Last summer, I predicted the NTIA's rules for the broadband stimulus would disadvantage the public sector and tilt the playing field toward the private sector. I was right.

Consider a recent story about the first round of the stimulus:

With time and resources scarce and applications to review from nearly 2,200 entities, favoring vendors was less complicated because they wrote savvier proposals and required less follow-up, in Winogradoff's view.

Private companies were able to submit savvier proposals and generally swamp the system with far more proposals, slowing the entire process because the federal agencies did not expect the volume. NTIA claimed they wanted to make the funds more widely available and instead shut out much of the public sector.

NTIA, along with most federal agencies, simply does not understand that a "level playing field" between private companies and the public sector is simply not possible. The public sector has different interests - maximizing social benefits whereas the private sector is interested in generating profits. Public and private entities are different creatures, operating in different regulatory environments, with divergent motivations. You can no more create an objectively level playing field between the two than one could in designing a contest between basketball and soccer teams. The rules are simply going to favor one or the other.

The question becomes, who should the rules favor? When it comes to infrastructure and tax dollars, the rules should favor those who put the public interest first. This was the lesson of the Rural Electrification Administration, which was horrified at the idea of lavishing grants on profitable companies in the hopes they would temporarily invest in rural areas. Instead, they offered loans to cooperatives and extended electricity to farms across the country during the worst Depression in our history.

What have we learned from that? Nothing. We contort our policies while offering more and more money to companies that time and time again show they have no interest in serving rural America. This is ludicrous - not only have we already built a wire out to almost every home in America, we still have the...

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Posted October 2, 2009 by christopher

At a general discussion yesterday at the NATOA National Conference down here in New Orleans, I was stunned to hear someone from the muni world accept the idea that some municipalities do not want to compete with the private sector. I say stunned, not because I'm surprised to hear that some towns do not want to provide telecommunications services in competition with the private sector, but because towns "compete" with the private sector in many ways that go unnoticed.

Police and education are two examples in which every community provides services in competition with the private sector (security guards and private schools). Most communities have libraries - taking sales away from hard-working bookstores. Some towns provide municipal golf courses or public swimming pools. There are many ways in which it is acceptable for the public sector to "compete" with the private sector.

The problem with accepting the blanket statement that the public should not compete with the private sector is that it 1) is factually inaccurate and 2) suggests that to provide telecommunications services would be a substantial deviation from the historic role for municipal and local governments.

The truth is that local governments have long stepped in, where necessary, to ensure the community has everything it needs to be successful. Interestingly, this has included both municipal liquor stores and lumber yards in many remote communities. Properly posed, the question is not whether communities should deviate from their historic role of avoiding competition with the private sector, but whether telecommunications falls into that area that communities have long elected to serve when a community need is unmet.

This is a question with which most communities will wrestle, but they should do so on honest terms. Though providing telecommunications services in some communities may be novel, they have long "competed" with the private sector in other generally accepted areas. Communities will come down on both sides of providing services and time will tell if they made the right decision for their community.

Posted September 16, 2009 by christopher

Craig Settles recently wrote "Debunking Myths about Government-Run Broadband" to defend publicly owned networks (the title is unfortunate as many networks are publicly owned but not necessarily run directly by the government). Nonetheless, he tackles several false claims commonly levied against public networks and offers an entertaining rebuff to those rascally incumbents down in North Carolina that keep trying to buy legislation to protect themselves from competition:

Time Warner tried to get a bill passed in the state legislature this year to prevent cities from offering broadband service. They claimed community networks create an un-fair playing field. Personally, if I ran a bezillion dollar company and a small town of 48,000 with no prior technology business expertise built a network 10 times faster than my best offering, I’d be embarrassed to be associated with the bill. If incumbents want to level the playing field, maybe they should outsource their engineering operations to Wilson.

He revealed an upcoming list of ten smart broadband communities that has since been published here. This is a mixture of communities that have taken action to improve broadband - a variety of models and community types.

Without detracting from this list, I want to note that some networks are missing important context. For instance, Wilson NC, lists an unimpressive number of subscribers currently, but the network is still being built and many who want to subscribe are not yet able to subscribe. Additionally, it would be nice to see the prices offered for each speed tier -- many of these networks keep higher speed tiers much more affordable than do traditional carriers. That said, many kudos to Craig for putting this list out there (he will be putting similar lists up in the near future).

While on the subject of impressive community networks, NATOA has announced its community broadband awards. I am excited to see the city of Monticello recognized for its courage in responding to shady incumbent-led attacks and frivolous lawsuits --...

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Posted August 12, 2009 by christopher

What can states do?

Many states want to improve broadband access for their citizens. Some states genuinely want to act and others are content to give some money to industry-front group Connected Nation and form a Task Force in order to give the appearance that they are doing something rather than actually taking action.

However, the problem is difficult because in a time of severe budget crunches, states may not have the funds to invest directly in infrastructure or help communities do so themselves. There are some options - and I recently highlighted one: Virginia's Broadband Infrastructure Loan Fund.

The Virginia Resources Authority (VRA) now has a revolving loan fund to help communities build the broadband infrastructure they need. Unfortunately, the fund has started empty but they are in search of grants to get started until the state can seed it.

Even without the revolving loan fund, which keeps a very low interest rate for loans, the VRA is available to help communities that want to approach the capital markets for infrastructure funds. Communities may not have sufficient experience in this arena or may just benefit by having the VRA combine multiple small needs into a larger package at a better rate.

Elsewhere, the Vermont Telecommunications Authority was supposed to serve a similar function but seemed to be immediately captured by Fairpoint and turned into a tool for private companies.

One of the most basic things a state should do is ensure it has not created barriers to public investments in broadband networks. It may be a few years old, but the American Public Power Association created a list of laws blocking or retarding community broadband networks. These should be repealed. Those arguing that the public sector has too many advantages should read our discussion about the level playing field.

Capitol photo by Rob Pongsajapan

Posted April 30, 2009 by christopher

Do not be fooled — this debate is not between “purely” private companies and municipal governments; it is between heavily-subsidized beneficiaries of governmental handouts on one side and locally-elected and openly accountable public servants on the other.

Posted April 30, 2009 by christopher

Many private, often incumbent and monopolistic, providers use the term "level playing field" as code for ensuring communities are unable to build their own networks. They do not actually want a "level playing field," they want more advantages for their businesses.

Consider the fight in 2009 over this issue in North Carolina:

HB 1252 would create extraordinary financial accounting and administrative burdens on municipal broadband providers that would render their existence fiscally difficult, if not impossible. The bill also subjects municipalities to the new jurisdiction of the North Carolina Utilities Commission, while not requiring the same of private providers. Also troubling is the injunctive relief provision, which could encourage litigation for purposes of gaining competitive advantage. Furthermore, the legislation appears to prevent municipalities from pursuing alternative funding sources, such as broadband grant programs included in the Federal stimulus bill, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Source: Save NC Broadband Blog

Additionally, the process in North Carolina reveals the extent to which private providers like Time Warner buy legislation in some states.

While big companies like Time Warner Cable pretend to be the underdog compared to community networks, the reality is that big national corporations have far more advantages than any local government. We created this video to illustrate the point:

 

Cross-Subsidizing

Cable and telephone companies are able to cross-subsidize their networks - they can charge more in the areas they serve where there are no competitors in order to charge less in a competitive community. Numerous state and federal laws prohibit public entities from cross subsidizing across services. Further, when private companies are forced to have open meetings and disclose their business plans like their public sector counterparts, we will be closer to a "level playing field."

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Posted April 29, 2009 by christopher

Incumbent providers, grown lazy on a steady diet of public subsidies and monopoly rents, have done their best to cast this as a debate between efficient private competitors and inefficient government monopolies. But it is the incumbents that would rather regulate than compete. They resist municipal entry not because it is incompetent – no one resists incompetent competitors – or because it is unnecessary. Rather incumbents resist municipal entry because they recognize the ability of local government to offer a genuine competitive alternative to a high priced monopoly or duopoly services.

Posted April 29, 2009 by christopher

It is duplicitous to suggest that the incumbents represent the “free market” against “government-subsidized” municipal networks. Incumbents are incumbents precisely because they have had the weight and resources of government to back them up for years. Furthermore, they have had backing from those levels of government - the federal and state - which are least pervious to direct participation by local residents. Municipal networks, funded by the public and accountable to the public, represent a balance to the domination of telecommunications infrastructure by huge corporations which have long enjoyed substantial government subsidy. Banning or restricting municipal networks will end this effort to create a level playing field.

Posted April 29, 2009 by christopher

Local governments do not favor themselves on taxes or right of ways or otherwise compete unfairly with incumbent telecommunications and incumbent cable companies. To the contrary, private incumbents enjoy a wealth of state and federal subsidies, guaranteed rates of return, regulated rates for pole attachments, etc. In addition, local telephone companies enjoyed years of regulated monopoly status to build positions of dominance they continue to enjoy. To pretend that these local incumbents, with their subsidies and regulated access, need to “level the playing field” to protect a “free market” against local government systems flies in the face of reality.

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