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Muni Fiber Tennessee Twofer: Columbia and Pulaski - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 189

We cover a lot of Tennessee ground in this week's Community Broadband Bits podcast - episode 189 - from a cable network to muni Fiber-to-the-Home; Columbia to Pulaski. Wes Kelley, the Executive Director of the Columbia Power and Water Systems is our guest to talk about Columbia's cable and Pulaski's fiber.

He cut his teeth working with a Michigan community's public utility that ultimately decided not to get involved in telecommunications. But he moved on to build out a citywide fiber network in Pulaski before ultimately moving to Columbia, which was the last community in the United States to build a cable system (since then it has been all fiber).

He shares some of his lessons along the way, tips for customer service, and Columbia's plans for the future with their cable system. He also has some choice words for the big content owners that make the cable television business all but impossible for any reasonably sized cable operation.

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 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 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."

Seniors, Low-Income, Disabled Communities Pay the Price in St. Paul

For seniors, low-income residents, and the disabled in Saint Paul, Minnesota, a Comcast discount within the city's franchise agreement is not all it was cracked up to be. The Pioneer Press recently reported that, as eligible subscribers seek the ten percent discount guaranteed by the agreement, they are finding the devil is in the details - or lack of them.

This is a warning to those who attempt to negotiate with Comcast for better service. Comcast may make deals that it knows are unenforceable. 

"No Discount For You!"

For years, Comcast held the only franchise agreement with the city of St. Paul. In 2015, the city entered into a new agreement with the cable provider and, as in the past, the provider agreed to offer discounts for low-income and senior subscribers. Such concessions are common because a franchise agreement gives a provider easy access to a pool of subscribers.

It seems like a fair deal, but where there is a way to squirm out of a commitment, Comcast will wriggle its way out. 

Comcast is refusing to provide the discount when subscribers bundle services, which are typically offered at reduced prices. Because the contract is silent on the issue of combining discounts, the city of approximately 298,000 has decided it will not challenge Comcast's interpretation:

The company notes that the ten percent senior discount applies only to the cable portion of a customer's bill. Comcast has maintained that it is under no legal obligation to combine discounts or promotions, and that bundled services provide a steeper discount anyway.

Subscribers who want to take advantage of the discounts will have to prove their senior status and/or their low-income status. In order to do so, Comcast representatives have been requesting a copy of a driver's license or state issued i.d. 

CenturyLink Picks Up the Baton

In November, the city approved an additional franchise agreement with competitor CenturyLink. That agreement also provides that seniors, low-income households, and disabled residents are eligible to receive a ten percent discount. CenturyLink can, in the alternative, offer a discount of $5 off a subscriber's cable bill if a subscriber applies for the low-income discount. In order to receive this discount, the subscriber must prove they are enrolled in a public assistance program. CenturyLink is not compelled to provide both the $5 reduction and the ten percent discount under the terms of the agreement.

The CenturyLink contract states that bundling discounts will not forfeit the $5 discount but does not say the same for the alternative ten percent discount.

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Seniors on the Chopping Block

Discounts for low-income seniors are at risk in the CenturyLink contract reports the Pioneer Press. The contract offers the company an "out" by allowing it to exchange a senior discount to residents for free gigabit per second (Gbps) service at centralized locations. Rather than offering a ten percent discount to senior subscribers at their homes, CenturyLink can provide the high-speed connectivity to two St. Paul senior centers or to one senior center and a community center and present two training session per year on using the Internet.

My own parents, who are elderly and leave the house less frequently than they have in the past, depend on their Internet connection to stay in touch with their kids. A number of elderly folks are lower-income. Ten percent, a modest sum to a profit machine like Comcast, could be the tipping point for whether or not elderly people living on fixed incomes subscribe.

Would I rather have Mom trudging through the St. Paul snow to wait in line at the senior center to Skype in a noisy room filled with other seniors? No. Will Mom go to the senior center? Probably not. This trade-off is not equitable.

When You're All Lawyered Up, It's Easy to Break Promises

As franchise agreements expire across the country, communities like St. Paul will be negotiating new contracts or considering other options. Companies like Comcast and CenturyLink, backed by armies of lawyers, have turned backhanded negotiating into an art form. Cities like St. Paul employ smart, capable attorneys, but telecommunications is highly specialized; few communities have legal staff experienced in this field.

Lose The Big Companies, Gain Control

Contrary to the typical behavior of Comcast and CenturyLink, publicly owned networks have a history of lowering prices or increasing speeds for free. When we ask why, decision makers usually tell us they make the change because it's good for the community. Subscribers are the shareholders when a network is publicly owned.

Communities that invest in municipal networks shake off dependence on big providers like Comcast and CenturyLink. By investing in their own infrastructure, they spur economic development, save public dollars, and become more self-reliant. 

$117,000 Broadband Service Disaster From Charter

Shocking horror stories about incumbent ISPs reaching new lows for poor service are now so common that they have become routine. A story from Ars that recently went viral puts a human face on the frustration millions of Americans endure just trying to determine if Internet access is available where they choose to live. First, here is the gist of the story.

Cole Marshall, a work-from-home web developer, decided he wanted to build a new home on the outskirts of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. While scouting properties, he confirmed with local incumbent ISPs Comcast and Frontier online and by phone that they could offer sufficient Internet access to his favored lot.

When Marshall completed construction and contacted Charter, the cable company offered to provide the service only if he paid $117,000 to extend their network to his home. And Frontier? Frontier mislead him too, pricing the job at $42,000 to bring him the 24 Mbps service they’d promised they could provide. 

When all was said and done, Charter couldn’t provide affordable service at all. Marshall is now stuck with Frontier’s sloth-like DSL broadband speeds of 3 Mbps download / 1 Mbps upload for all of his small business needs. These speeds fall well short of the 25 Mbps download / 4 Mbps upload the FCC defines as “broadband.” 

Marshall’s story illustrates well the problems with existing broadband services in and around the city of Sun Prairie that led citizens and city leaders to recently pass a resolution to build a municipal broadband network in some areas within the city limits. While Marshall’s address is outside the purview of Sun Prairie’s planned network buildout, the potential for future expansion of this publicly-owned network may be Marshall’s only hope for a solution to his broadband connectivity problems.

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Frontier and Charter officials told Sun Prairie city leaders in June during the network’s planning phase that their plans to build a municipal network were misguided. At that same meeting, Frontier and Charter also warned that they would likely cut jobs if the city chose to build the municipal network.

When Alderman Hariah Hutkowski asked Frontier and Charter officials if they would build a fiber-optic network so the city wouldn’t have to, the incumbents offered no response. Hutkowski called them out:

“What I see is that you will provide just enough to people to make a profit, but our community has other needs, we have demands through schools, residents streaming service, and demand is moving toward higher capacity,” Hutkowski said.

The people of Sun Prairie, a city of about 31,000 just outside of Madison, simply want reliable broadband service from an organization that will operate with basic accountability to its customers. With the private ISPs refusing to provide that service, their pleas to stop a municipal network deployment ring hollow.

Marshall's story highlights at least two problems we see repeatedly across the United States. First, there is highly inadequate or nonexistent broadband service access at non-competitive rates across the country and private ISPs see no financial incentive to help. Second, it underscores common complaints about incumbent ISPs making terrible customer service errors that suspiciously resemble predatory bait-and-switch behavior. Once again, the consumer is caught in the middle as these two problems collide with disastrous results.

Call to Action! Sign People's Brief Supporting Network Neutrality

To try to stop the Network Neutrality rules established earlier this year, big cable has filed suit against the FCC in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Advocates have drafted a brief to let the court know that the people are not willing to give up Network Neutrality. In a matter of days, that brief will be filed with the court.

We urge you to read the brief and sign on to show your support. Then spread the word on social media, email, and word of mouth, so we can present the brief with as many signatures as possible.

From the Net Neutrality Brief website:

Without Net Neutrality, the big cable companies would control the Internet, and make it harder for us to access information that doesn't align with what's best for the companies' bottom lines or that disagrees with their political leanings. If Net Neutrality weren't the norm, we might even have been blocked from engaging in the online activism that helped secure the Net Neutrality rules that we're now working to defend! 

Read the brief. Sign the brief. Spread the word.

Spanish Fork Upgrading to Fiber in Utah

Spanish Fork Community Network (SFCN) recently announced it is upgrading its cable network to a fiber optic network. The network has already started improving services by increasing speeds for the highest tiers at no extra cost reports the Herald Extra.

Residents and businesses in the town of approximately 37,000 have relied on the municipal cable network since 2001. Over the past 14 years, the network has come to provide triple-play to 80 percent of Spanish Fork homes.

Officials kicked off construction on September 3rd:

“We’re excited this is the next step for the SFCN network," [SFCN Director John] Bowcut said. "We’ve always planned on doing fiber to the home, and now we’re in the fiscal position where we can go ahead and install that for our customers."

Customers who choose to remain with the lowest tier - 12 Mbps / 3 Mbps - will remain on the coax infrastructure, says Bowcut, but will be switched to fiber if they choose to upgrade to a higher tier.

The city made its last bond payment for the existing system this year and will use newly available funds from retiring the debt to fund the upgrade. Assistant City Manager Seth Perrins describes the early deployment as "soft" so officials can obtain a better understanding of cost demands, construction management, and how long the project will take. They estimate the project will be complete by 2020.

According to Bowcut, Premium service that is now 120 Mbps / 15 Mbps will transition into symmetrical gigabit service for around $68 per month. PLUS service, currently 60 Mbps / 10 Mbps, will be upgraded to 100 Mbps symmetrical for approximately $45 per month. The Starter tier at 12 Mbps / 3 Mbps will remain $35 per month. All three tiers offer discounts when purchased with TV service.

Read more about Spanish Fork, one of the early municipal networks, and listen to Chris interview John Bowcut during Episode #60 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. We have an updated interview with John ready for an upcoming podcast.

Happy Friday! New Funny or Die Video Spoofs Cable TV Bundles

Funny or Die offers up a new video, If Everything Was Bundled Like Cable, starring David Koechner. None of us like paying for stuff we don't use, and television channels are no exception. Here are some examples of that same model as it applies to other everyday activities.

"I don't like your way! Fix it!"


Comcast Merger Wrap-up and Anti-Monopoly Policy - Community Broadband Bits Episode 148

In the aftermath of the Comcast/TWC merger being effectively denied by the Department of Justice and Federal Communications Commission, we thought it was a key moment to focus on antitrust/anti-monopoly policy in DC. To discuss this topic, we talk this week with Teddy Downey, Executive Editor and CEO of the Capitol Forum as well as Sally Hubbard, Capitol Forum senior correspondent and expert on antitrust.

We start off with the basics of why the Comcast takeover of Time Warner Cable posed a problem that regulators were concerned with. From there, we talk more about the cable industry and whether other mergers will similarly alarm regulators.

We end with a short discussion of what states can do to crack down on monopolies and the abuse of market power. Along the way, we discuss whether DC is entering a new era of antimonopoly policy or whether this merger was just uniquely troubling.

We learned about Teddy and Sally from Barry Lynn at the New America Foundation, who we had previously interviewed for one of my favorite shows, episode 83.

Read the transcript from our discussion with Sally and Teddy here.

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

This show is 24 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Find more episodes in our podcast index.

Thanks to Persson for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Blues walk."

Seth's Tale of Comcast Woe Perfectly Illustrates Many Internet Policy Problems

Ideally, working from home allows one to choose the environment where he or she can be most productive. In the case of Seth that was Kitsap County in Washington State. Unfortunately, incompetence on the part of Comcast, CenturyLink, and official broadband maps led Seth down a road of frustration that will ultimately require him to sell his house in order to work from home.

The Consumerist recently reported on Seth's story, the details of which ring true to many readers who have ever dealt with the cable behemoth. This incident is another example of how the cable giant has managed to retain its spotless record as one of the most hated companies in America

Seth, a software developer, provides a detailed timeline of his experience on his blog. In his intro:

Late last year we bought a house in Kitsap County, Washington — the first house I’ve ever owned, actually. I work remotely full time as a software developer, so my core concern was having good, solid, fast broadband available. In Kitsap County, that’s pretty much limited to Comcast, so finding a place with Comcast already installed was number one on our priority list.

We found just such a place. It met all of our criteria, and more. It had a lovely secluded view of trees, a nice kitchen, and a great home office with a separate entrance. After we called (twice!) to verify that Comcast was available, we made an offer.

The Consumerist correctly describes the next three months as "Kafkaesque." Comcast Technicians appear with no notice, do not appear for scheduled appointments, and file mysteriously misplaced "tickets" and "requests." When technicians did appear as scheduled, they are always surprised by what they saw: no connection to the house, no Comcast box on the dwelling, a home too far away from Comcast infrastructure to be hooked up. Every technician sent to work on the problem appeared with no notes or no prior knowledge of the situation.

It was the typical endless hamster wheel with cruel emotional torture thrown in for sport. At times customer service representatives Seth managed to reach over the phone would build up his hopes, telling him that his requests were in order, progress was being made behind the scenes, that it was only a matter of time before his Internet access was up and running. Then after a period of silence, Seth would call, and he would be told that whatever request he was waiting for was nonexistent, "timed out," or in one instance had actually been completed.

Seth usually had to be the one to make the call to Comcast for follow up. There was one notable exception, however on February 26th:

Oh, this is fun. I got a call from a generic Comcast call center this morning asking me why I cancelled my latest installation appointment. Insult to injury, they started to up-sell me on all the great things I’d be missing out on if I didn’t reschedule! I just hung up.

In mid-March, Comcast discussed the possibility of building out its network to Seth's house but he would have to pay for at least a portion of the costs; he was interested. Pre-survey estimates were up to $60,000. A week later, Comcast contacted Seth and told him that they would not do the extension even if Seth paid for the entire thing. 

Comcast was not the only provider Seth contacted. When he first learned that Comcast did not connect his home, he contacted CenturyLink. He was told by a customer service tech he would be hooked up right away but the company called him the next day to tell him that CenturyLink would not be serving his needs. They were not adding new customers in his area. 

Nevertheless, he was charged more than $100 for service he never could have received. Seth had to jump through hoops to get his "account" zeroed out. CenturyLink's website showed that they DID serve Seth's address, reports the Consumerist and, even though they have claimed to have updated the problem, the error remained as of March 23rd.

Official maps created by the state based on data supplied by providers, are grossly incorrect. As a result, Seth's zip code is supposedly served by a number of providers. While that may be true on paper, it doesn't do Seth much good. A number of those providers, including Comcast and CenturyLink (as Seth is painfully aware) do not serve his home. Satellite does not cannot the VPN connection he needs due to latency inherent in satellite Internet connections. He is using cellular wireless as a last resort now, but only as a short term solution because it is limited and expensive.

Ironically, Seth's new home is not far from the Kitsap Public Utility District fiber network. Because state barriers require the Kitsap PUD to operate the network as a wholesale only model, however, Seth cannot hook up for high-speed Internet. He would only be able to connect if a provider chose to use the infrastructure to offer services to him.

Here we have the perfect storm of harmful state barriers, corporate gigantism, and  "incumbetence." From his blog:

I’m devastated. This means we have to sell the house. The house that I bought in December, and have lived in for only two months.

I don’t know where we go from here. I don’t know if there’s any kind of recourse. I do know that throughout this process, Comcast has lied. I don’t throw that word around lightly or flippantly, I mean it sincerely. They’ve fed me false information from the start, and it’s hurt me very badly.

This whole thing would have been avoided if only Comcast had said, right at the start, that they didn’t serve this address. Just that one thing would have made me strike this house off the list.

I don’t know exactly how much money I’m going to lose when I sell, but it’s going to be substantial. Three months of equity in a house isn’t a lot of money compared to sellers fees, excise taxes, and other moving expenses.

So, good bye dream house. You were the first house I ever owned, I’ll miss you.

But putting all the blame on Comcast ignores the failed public policy that allows Comcast to act like this. Providers like Comcast lobbied legislators and DC to ensure no map could be created that would be useful. The carriers have refused to turn over data at a granular level that would prevent these mistakes from happening. And whether it is the states, the NTIA, or the FCC, they have wasted hundreds of millions of dollars on maps that do little more than allow carriers to falsely claim there is no broadband problem in this country.

And we have utterly failed to hold our elected leaders to account for this corrupt system. Something needs to change - but it won't until people stand up and demand an end to these stories.

Click! Network Rates Set to Increase to Cover Retrans Fees

Tacoma's Click! network raised prices in 2010 in order to cover increases in retransmission fees for its television feeds. Fees have continually risen for Click! and other networks and, according to Tacoma's News Tribune, will continue to rise. The market is fundamentally broken, with small providers struggling to keep up as sports programming shoots through the roof and companies like Comcast merge with content owners.

In Tacoma, the situation was so bad it led to a fee dispute between KOMO and Click! network that resulted in a channel blackout on the network. The News Tribune pursued document requests early in 2014 to obtain copies of the retransmission agreements at the center of the dispute between the network and KOMO. The documents revealed that agreements with several broadcasters rewarded broadcasters significant increases in retransmission fees. Over a six year period, KOMO's rate increased 416 percent.

In a recent update, the News Tribune reports that the new contracts include yet another significant increase:

New contracts that took effect Jan. 1 show the broadcasters’ fees are rising far faster than inflation.

No fee has increased over the years more than that of Seattle broadcaster KOMO. In 2009, the broadcaster received only 31 cents per month per home from Click. That amount has soared this year to $2.43 — a 684 percent increase.

Had the broadcaster’s fee risen equal to inflation, KOMO would earn only 34 cents per subscriber — or approximately $78,000 for all of 2015.

Instead, the new fee structure will mean Click pays about $561,000 this year. That cost is likely to be passed down to the utility’s 19,250 subscribers.

Chris Gleason, speaking on behalf of Tacoma Public Utilities, said the utility board will now have to consider a 17.5 percent rate increase for 2015. The original plan was to incorporate a 10 percent increase in 2015 and a similar increase in 2016. Four other channels are instituting similar increases:

“We don’t really have a lot of bargaining power with these broadcasters,” Gleason said. “... We do negotiate with them but there’s not a lot of leverage for us.”

Escalating fees could accelerate the trend of “cord cutters” — people who don’t have a cable subscription and who watch shows online.

All providers must contend with these increases in retansmission fees but small networks are particularly hurt because they cannot afford to buy the entities that create the fees. Comcast can hedge against increasing prices by demanding an ownership stake in the channel or buying them outright.

The largest cable companies also have more leverage - a channel is more reluctant to go dark across Comcast's millions of viewers than the 20,000 on Click!. The idea that we can have a competitive market for these services while content owners hold all the cards is misguided and we believe the FCC and Congress should be addressing these problems before more small cable companies are forced out of the market.

The Other Half of Network Neutrality - Content Neutrality

We are pleased to bring you a guest post from Levi C. Maaia, president of Full Channel Labs and a graduate research fellow at the Center for Education Research on Literacies, Learning & Inquiry in Networking Communities (LINC) at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Levi is a strong advocate for local, family owned businesses and an open Internet without government or corporate gatekeepers.

The Other Half of Net Neutrality Regulation

The Internet was originally founded on principles of public service and education. In the past two decades, tremendous commercial potential has also been realized and the Internet is now the engine behind our new global economy. This potential, however, is predicated on the network’s original open and neutral methods of communication. 

Properly implemented net neutrality regulation has the potential to maintain a level online playing field for all 21st century industries, which rely on the Internet for all types of electronic communications and financial transactions. However, Chairman Wheeler's recent plan to enforce net neutrality through the invocation Title II authority ignores practices by some content providers that threaten the economic viability and expansion of affordable high-speed and gigabit access. A notable example of this practice is how online content is delivered under the ESPN3 brand.  

ESPN3 is an online-only sports television network owned by The Walt Disney Company and the Hearst Corporation. Unlike with other online video services such as Netflix and Amazon Instant Video – where consumers choose to pay for content and access it directly – ESPN3 streaming content is available only to customers of ISPs that pay per-subscriber fees to ESPN for each of their Internet customers. If an ISP refuses to pay these fees for some or all of its user base, all of its customers are blocked from accessing ESPN3’s online content. Through the imposition of this legacy cable TV licensing approach ESPN3 is attempting to force ISPs into negotiating content deals in the same way that cable TV providers must do for broadcast retransmission consent and cable network licensing fees.  

As cord-cutters drop their cable and satellite subscriptions in favor of online streaming, TV networks are scrambling to compensate for this lost revenue.  ESPN3 is doing so by imposing a cable TV-like payment structure on Internet delivery using a model that congress and consumers have decried for decades as inflexible and expensive. These additional costs are already being factored into Internet service pricing, as ESPN3 reaches deals with the Internet providers of tens of millions of customers. If ESPN continues to be successful with this model, we can expect that other content providers will follow suit and it may not be just the cable TV networks that adopt this method. ISPs might be compelled to negotiate per-subscriber fees for access to content across the Web.

The FCC’s Network Neutrality approach means that ISPs cannot demand payment from content owners to reach customers. However, it is silent on whether content owners can demand the ISP pay a fee for every subscriber on its system, regardless of how many subscribers actually desire the content in question.

Without content neutrality protection as part of the FCC’s regulatory approach, we may see the current a-la-carte, merit-based model of the Internet disappear in favor of a system where payment demands for content are forced on consumers by media giants. This would likely result in skyrocketing prices for Internet access akin to that of cable TV which has risen in cost more than four times the rate of inflation over the past 15 years! This could have a crippling effect on all industry, especially small businesses and startups. Practices like those by ESPN3 pose just as great a threat to broadband and fiber deployment, affordability and access as a lack of other aspects of net neutrality regulation do. 

Indeed, content neutrality is the other half of the net neutrality issue and it must be addressed. And much like the fundamental issue behind network neutrality, a few incredibly large firms with tremendous market power are the primary threat.

In 2004, Levi Maaia joined Full Channel, a family-owned broadband provider in Bristol County, R.I. Under his leadership, Full Channel successfully turned around a declining subscriber base while making its first forays into digital and high-definition television, IP telephony and renewable energy solutions.  

In 2008, he developed and launched Full Channel’s renewable wind energy initiative GreenLink through a partnership forged with sustainable energy provider People’s Power & Light. As a result, cable industry trade publication CableFAX honored Full Channel with its 2009 Top Ops Community Service Award.  In 2012, Levi formed Full Channel Labs, an online innovation and technology partner, which develops and supports advances in networking and digital technologies.