Tag: "incumbent"

Posted November 18, 2010 by christopher

Yet another town has decided to take responsibility for their broadband future: a small Florida community has secured financing and is moving forward with their publicly owned FTTH network.

The City Council voted unanimously Monday night to approve the $7.3 million in funding with Regions Bank in Orlando. City Manager Lisa Algiere told the council members the city would be doing most of its business with the local Regions Bank.

The funding will come in the form of three bonds: a series 2010A Bond, which is good for 20 years and has an interest rate of 3.61 percent; the second bond is a Series 2010B Bond and is for five years with an annual interest rate of 3.20 percent; while the third bond is a Series 2010C Bond and is good for one year. The funding secured by the city is a drawdown loan, meaning it will only take what it needs and only repay that portion.

The network has been branded Greenlight (though the website is not yet fully functional). Greenlight is also the name used by the Community Fiber Network in Wilson, North Carolina.

Light Reading interviewed a network employee, shedding more details than have been released elsewhere.

He says they are passing 7,000 premises, but Wikipedia only notes a population of 2,000 in 2004, so there is more than meets the eye at first glance. They financed the network without using general obligation bonds, working with a nearby bank (Regions is a big bank, headquartered out of state).

Local competitors are AT&T and Comcast, though both offer extremely slow services; the fastest downstream speed available from Comcast is 6Mbps. The new network, as do nearly all recent community fiber networks, will offer much faster connections, the slowest being 10Mbps.

This is a good sign that communities in Florida can still move forward despite the many...

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Posted November 11, 2010 by christopher

The Media and Democracy Coalition has released a short paper detailing the many ways in which cable and phone companies have failed America. These companies use their market power to gouge residents and businesses, putting a drag on our economy. Meanwhile, the biggest ones are massively profitable and refuse to invest in the networks necessary to keep America competitive with peer nations.

We recently wrote about how privately owned networks tend to consolidate and reduce competition rather than reducing prices. The lesson is as clear as it has always been throughout human history: allowing a select few to control essential infrastructure is a recipe for economic calamity.

From the paper:

It’s good for our economy when companies make money and hire workers. But while small businesses continue to struggle in this economy, the cable and phone companies achieved extremely healthy profit margins. If the Great Recession didn’t stop these ISPs from making big profits, how could they be hurt by sensible consumer protections to keep the net operating just like it always has?

Well, seeing as how seat belts destroyed the automobile industry... and then air bags also destroyed the automobile industry... and CAFE standards destroyed the automobile industry.... wait -- all of these predictions were false. Perhaps we should not base important policy decisions upon the dire predictions of self-interested parties who are obligated to put self-interest ahead of the public interest.

I was saddened to see that the paper suggest "we need" the private companies to build these networks. Point of fact, not only do we not "need" them to do it, we "need" to wake up to the fact that even when they do the best they can, it is second best to networks built by those who put the public interest first. Compare the networks of communities like Salisbury, NC; Monticello, MN; Lafayette, LA; and Chattanooga, TN, to the joke AT&T calls U-Verse and the stronger offers of FiOS. The private sector cannot be trusted to build the infrastructure we need.

Addendum: I should note that while infrastructure must be managed in the public interest, I do believe the private sector should have a strong role as service providers operating on top of...

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Posted November 9, 2010 by christopher

As we wrote last week, Salisbury's Fibrant -- the newest community fiber network in the country -- launched last week and immediately saw Time Warner Cable respond with an upgrade to its cable plant that allowed it start advertising even faster speeds - a 50/5 tier of broadband (whether they actually deliver that to anyone, I doubt and will wait to see).

Fibrant was "only" advertising (and delivering) 15/15 and 25/25 speeds, so some suggested that TWC had taken the top honors away... though for people who know much about telecom technology, most of us will gladly take a 25/25 on fiber-optics over a supposed 50/5 on an old, unreliable coax network.

Nonetheless, Fibrant didn't break a sweat, and announced that they were already offering a 50/50 plan though they did not advertise it. I'm not sure why it was not advertised -- though if the reason was to hold a trump card ready in response to TWC's gimmicks, it was a smart move. And Fibrant's 50/50 plan at $85 is cheaper than TWC's 50/5 plan.

Though community fiber networks consistently offer better experiences and lower costs, the big incumbent providers are well versed in gimmicks -- communities must keep that in mind as they plan their own networks. This may mean creating higher tiers of service that many only interest a select few, if that, to remind the populace of the technical superiority of the public network.

Salisbury has since announced that both 100/100 and 200/200 plans are in the works from their network. A 200/200 will be the fastest plan in North Carolina -- though one wonders how the results of the election will impact the future of community fiber networks in the state. Unable to beat community fiber networks in the market, TWC has repeatedly pushed for crippling laws against communities that would dare create competition against TWC. After the 2010 election, North Carolina has a more conservative state government that may find TWC's lobbying more persuasive.

In the meantime, TWC is yet again increasing rates to subscribers, as noted by Stop the Cap!. We'll see if Fibrant is able to shield the community from future rate increases as...

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Posted November 5, 2010 by christopher

In North Carolina, Salisbury has launched the state's second FTTH network, as communities continue to build the next-generation broadband infrastructure in which their massive incumbent providers decline to invest. We have offered in-depth coverage of Fibrant as they prepared to launch the new services. As of Tuesday, Nov 2, the network softly launched, which is to say they will slowly ramp up the number of paying customers as they gain experience and confidence. Stop the Cap! also covered the launch with extensive coverage as well as both praise and criticism for Fibrant's approach.

Some of the 115 early, free testers of Fibrant became the first paying customers Monday, with the utility scheduling installations for 200 other residents on a waiting list.

A local group has posted a number of videos about Fibrant, including a recent one that compares Fibrant's speeds to the pathetic offering of Time Warner Cable (see bottom of this post). In a totally unrelated development (or so Time Warner Cable would have us believe), TWC has rapidly increased its broadband tiers in the region. In this, TWC has joined Comcast in downplaying the role competition has in forcing incumbent investment. If you believe TWC, competition plays no role in their investment decisions, a fascinating approach to succeeding in an area they constantly claim is a very competitive market.

The cable giant’s new download speed can reach 50 megabits per second, twice as fast as Fibrant’s 25 Mbps. However Time Warner’s fastest upload speed — 5 Mbps — is still slower than Fibrant’s best upload speed of 25 Mbps and standard upload speed of 15 Mbps. Time Warner is more expensive.

Of course, as the video shows, TWC's actual broadband differs significantly from its advertised speeds. I would like to see a speedtest comparing the new TWC offerings -- though I wonder if they have instituted the...

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Posted November 3, 2010 by christopher

Wilson's Greenlight community fiber network is ahead of schedule. They continue to operate ahead of the business plan, despite a few difficulties that offer lessons to up and coming community networks.

We recently covered the fallout from their application to the broadband stimulus program where they had to disclose network information to their competitors.

Fortunately, that was not the only news last month from North Carolina's first all-fiber citywide network. They also surpassed 5000 subscribers and remain 6-9 months ahead of their business plan in take rate, according to the Wilson Times.

The number of customers is expected to reach 5,300 by the end of the fiscal year if the current trend continues, according to Dathan Shows, assistant city manager for Broadband and Technical Services. The city's current business plan calls for Greenlight to reach 5,000 customers by the end of the third full year of operation, which will be June 2011.

This is not the first time the network has exceeded projections; the network was built faster than expected and quickly jumped out ahead of take rate expectations.

One of the reasons Greenlight may be growing is its attention to local needs, as illustrated by the network finding a way to televise local football matches that otherwise would not have been available.

However, the Wilson Times story goes into much greater detail regarding the competition from Time Warner Cable. As we regularly see, Time Warner Cable is engaging in what appears to be predatory pricing to retain customers and starve Greenlight of new subscribers.

A lesson to other community networks, Wilson is documenting the deals TWC uses to keep subscribers. All communities should keep these records.

"Time Warner Cable's market tactics include anti-competitive pricing that interferes with Wilson's ability to secure customers through normal marketing," the application [for broadband stimulus] states. "TWC offers below-market rates to customers seeking to switch to Greenlight, locking them...

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Posted October 28, 2010 by christopher

I was doing some research on the cost of business broadband services in the Twin Cities when I encountered one of the stark differences between local networks accountable to the public and the massive telcos (in this case, Qwest).

I was compiling some numbers on broadband costs and had just gotten through a very quick and efficient chat with Xmission - a service provider on the UTOPIA network.

For some reason, I thought getting similar information from Qwest would also be easy, particularly as we are in the middle of Qwest territory up here in Minnesota. But Qwest's website couldn't tell me what services are available in our area because it was convinced our address and phone number was outside their 14-state operating territory. Our office is in Minneapolis, which is certainly within the Qwest territory.

So I picked up the phone to call Qwest and find out what was available. After 4.5 minutes (which is a long time when one is already annoyed) listening to Qwest advertising in between being assured that my business was VERY important to them, I was connected to a rather friendly woman who tried to help.

For another four minutes, she tried to locate my building to tell us what services are available. She noted several times, as they all do, that the system was slow today and she was waiting for it to update. As a side note, this is the direct consequence of consolidation and the supposed economy of scale that results from bigness: we wait on hold to eventually talk to people across the country (or globe) while they wait for the computer to give us some probably inaccurate information because no one has any actual idea where services are available.

Alas, she found our address and was sorry to report that they only had slow services available for us because they have not yet lit the additional fiber necessary to offer services faster than 5Mbps down and .896Mbps upstream. Perhaps by the end of the year. Our office is located at the edge of the University of Minnesota in a dense area -- hardly the kind of place you would expect Qwest to struggle to offer decent connections.

I'm glad the customer service person was so pleasant because we spoke for almost ten minutes while waiting for their computers to find the information she needed to tell me. The experience certainly did not do anything to change my opinion of a company that has long offered poor...

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Posted October 25, 2010 by christopher

Fibrant has decided to offer premium adult content to subscribers that choose to receive it. Salisbury's approach and response offer a window into the benefits and responsibilities inherent in building a triple-play network that offers services directly.

As a gesture to those who are publicly opposed to such content being available, the channel listings do not show up to the subscriber by default -- which is to say that you cannot even see the scrambled channel unless you take action to tell Fibrant you would like the option of purchasing adult content.

The reason for offering the adult content? Much like the reason most community networks get involved in television at all: it helps pay the bills. The margins on premium content are high and competitors also offer these options locally.

However, a number of people are morally opposed to such content -- this has been a particularly sensitive issue in both Utah and the South more generally. Opponents to community networks generally take this opportunity to rally some opposition to the network in general.

Years ago, we wrote about a similar situation in Burlington, Vermont, because they carried the Al-Jazeera English international news channel.

The lesson we draw from these situations is that running a community fiber network is not all about creating economic development and educational opportunities. There are many issues that may be confronted, and some are messy First Amendment discussions. When a community takes responsibility for its future, it really has to take responsibility for its decisions.

When Comcast or Time Warner Cable chooses the channels, these problems may lurk under the radar because no one expects TWC or Comcast to take community needs or desires into account when they choose their channel lineup.

But when the network is owned locally and accountable to the public, the public has a voice in the decisions governing the network. Controversy on adult content on television may well subside over time, as few are actually proposing to censor the same content delivered via words, photos, and video over the Internet. The Salisbury Post editorialized a similar point:

While there’s no perfect choice here, there is this reality: Even if...

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Posted October 18, 2010 by christopher

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 October 13, 2010 by christopher

In a TNR Review, Larry Lessig uses The Social Network to explain why we must maintain an open Internet. This fits exactly into our recurring theme on MuniNetworks.org that rules and structure matter greatly.

The full review is excellent and worth reading, but this is the key for our purposes (it comes toward the middle of the article):

Instead, what’s important here is that Zuckerberg’s [Founder of Facebook] genius could be embraced by half-a-billion people within six years of its first being launched, without (and here is the critical bit) asking permission of anyone. The real story is not the invention. It is the platform that makes the invention sing. Zuckerberg didn’t invent that platform. He was a hacker (a term of praise) who built for it. And as much as Zuckerberg deserves endless respect from every decent soul for his success, the real hero in this story doesn’t even get a credit.

Too few appreciate how revolutionary the Internet is because one does not have to ask permission to create content and distribute it via the Internet. However, there is a lot of money to be made and power to be had by forcing creators to ask permission -- this is what big companies like Comcast and AT&T want to do. They want more control over the Internet to further their interests.

The tragedy—small in the scale of things, no doubt—of this film is that practically everyone watching it will miss this point. Practically everyone walking out will think they understand genius on the Internet. But almost none will have seen the real genius here. And that is tragedy because just at the moment when we celebrate the product of these two wonders—Zuckerberg and the Internet—working together, policymakers are conspiring ferociously with old world powers to remove the conditions for this success. As “network neutrality” gets bargained away—to add insult to injury, by an administration that was elected with the promise to defend it—the opportunities for the Zuckerbergs of tomorrow will shrink. And as they do, we will return more to the world where success depends upon permission. And privilege. And insiders. And where fewer turn their souls to inventing the next great idea.

Prior to an important decision in 1968, one had to ask...

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Posted October 11, 2010 by christopher

David Rosen and Bruce Kushnick discuss the ways in which telephone companies have bilked Americans for over $300 billion - increasing their profits while failing to deliver the services they promised.

The scam was simple. Starting in 1991, Verizon, Qwest and what became AT&T offered each state -- in true "Godfather" style -- a deal they couldn't refuse: Deregulate us and we'll give you Al Gore's future. They argued that if state Public Utility Commission (PUCs) awarded them higher rates and stopped examining their books, they would upgrade the then-current telecommunications infrastructure, the analog Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) of aging copper wiring, into high-speed and two-way digital optical fiber networks.

State regulators, like state politicians, are seduced by the sound of empty promises -- especially when sizable campaign contributions and other perks come their way. Hey, what are a few extra bucks charged to the customer every month for pie-in-the-sky promises? And who cares about massive tax breaks, accelerated depreciation allowances and enormous tax write-offs? The promises sound good on election day and nobody, least of all the voter, reads the fine print.

Few have the expertise necessary to decipher the many scams these companies have pulled as ineffective public utilities commissions do little to safeguard the public interest. This is the larger problem with embracing regulation as a solution for ensuring essential infrastructure benefits the many rather than the few. PUCs are inevitably "captured" by the industries they are supposed to regulate (think BP Gulf Oil Spill). Public ownership is a structural solution that offers fewer opportunities for massive companies to game the system to their exclusive advantage.

The article offers some in depth examples of how this regulation system has failed.

New Jersey state law requires that by 2010, 100 percent of the state is to be rewired with 45-mbps, bi-directional service. To meet this goal, Verizon collected approximately $13 billion in approved rate increases, tax break and other incentives related to upgrading the Public Switched Telephone Networks. To cover its tracks, Verizon submitted false statements year after year, claiming that it was close to fulfilling its obligations. For example, in its 2000 Annual Report, it claimed that 52 percent of the state could receive "45-mbps in both...

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