We are running a guest commentary today. Eric Null is a third-year law student at Cardozo Law School in New York City. He is passionate about corporate and intellectual property law, as well as technology and telecommunications policy. Follow him @ericnull or check out his papers. While researching a paper about municipal broadband networks, I was struck by the tremendous benefits that municipal networks can provide. It can be the first high-speed Internet link for an area without broadband, or it can provide some much-needed competition in areas that currently have access to broadband, but for some reason that existing access is unsatisfactory (e.g. price, service). Municipalities, in theory, can run the network for the benefit of the public rather than with a vicious profit maximization motive. Indeed, municipal networks bring many benefits. But first, a little history. In the United States, cable providers have set up regional monopolies for themselves, and “competitors” such as DSL and satellite are characterized by slower connection speeds and it is arguable that they are actual substitutes to cable access. Certainly within the cable industry, any “competitive” cable company attempting to compete with incumbents is met with high costs of building new infrastructure and lack of customer base. Municipalities can pick up where smaller, private entities cannot succeed. Municipalities have had a long history of investing in critical infrastructure, and they have the mentality for long-term planning that private companies simply cannot enjoy. A large company like Verizon likely has to justify any expansion of its network to its investors and ensure them that the venture will return a profit relatively quickly. Not so with municipalities; a city network allows its citizens to benefit indirectly (and directly) over the long-term. Thus, city governments can be a formidable competitor in the telecom and cable industries. Some states, regrettably, have banned or restricted the practice. In Nixon v. Missouri Municipal League, the Supreme Court interpreted so-called vague language in the Telecom Act of 1996...Read more
Many complain about gridlock in Washington, DC, but I sometimes subscribe to the cynical counter-reaction that gridlock is great. It is when the Democrats and Republicans agree that Americans should beware.
Though this may or may not be true about politics, it is certainly true when applied to two of the most hated industries in America: cable television companies and DSL companies like AT&T. When they come to agreement, you can bet that prices are going up for the rest of us.
In our coverage of AT&T's bid to limit broadband competition in South Carolina by revoking local authority to build networks for economic development, we have thus far ignored the position of the cable companies.
We took a tour through the newsletters of the South Carolina Cable Television Association over the course of 2011, which is when AT&T introduced its H.3508 bill.
Unsurprisingly, the cable companies are thrilled at the prospect of limiting competition in communities by cutting off the ability of a community to build a network when the private sector is failing to meet their needs. From the 1st Quarter newsletter [pdf]:
The SCCTA has been actively following the AT&T-backed legislation that would amend the Government-Owned Telecommunications Service Providers Act. House Bill 3508 would impose the same requirements on government-owned broadband operations that are currently imposed on telecommunications operations.
Of course, H.3508 goes far beyond applying the "same requirements." It enacts a host of requirements that only apply to public providers, which are already disadvantaged by being much smaller than companies like Time Warner Cable and AT&T. We have long ago debunked the myth of public sector advantages over the private sector.
H3508, the AT&T backed legislation, has been our dominate piece of legislation in 2011.
Even after the bill was shelved...Read more
We have long been arguing that the telephone and cable companies are not sufficiently investing in the connections needed by communities.
Quarter after quarter, companies offering DSL see decreases in their lines as subscribers jump to cable or fiber-optic alternatives (where available, which is not many places). Recall that AT&T's CEO himself believes DSL to be obsolete.
As this trend continues, most communities will find that a single cable company has a monopoly on high speed broadband access and those willing to settle for slower, less reliable alternatives will have a choice between DSL and wireless options. Susan Crawford has written about this, terming it the Looming Cable Monopoly.
The main reason is that cable is cheaper to upgrade to higher capacity connections than the telephone lines. Unfortunately, due to the reality of natural monopoly, the big cable companies will almost certainly continue to dominate in their communities. It is just too hard and risky for other businesses to challenge their market power.
This is why smart communities are evaluating all their options and determining if a long term public investment in fiber-optic infrastructure would generate enough benefits to justify the high upfront cost.
It's a new year, but most of us are still stuck with the same old DSL and cable monopolies. Though many communities have built their own networks to create competition and numerous other benefits, nearly half of the 50 states have enacted legislation to make it harder for communities to build their own networks.
Fortunately, this practice has increasingly come under scrutiny. Unfortunately, we expect to see massive cable and telephone corporations use their unrivaled lobbying power to pass more laws in 2012 like the North Carolina law pushed by Time Warner Cable to essentially stop new community broadband networks.
The FCC's National Broadband Plan calls for all local governments to be free of state barriers (created by big cable and phone companies trying to limit competition). Recommendation 8.19: Congress should make clear that Tribal, state, regional and local governments can build broadband networks.
But modern day railroad barons like Time Warner Cable, AT&T, etc., have a stranglehold on a Congress that depends on their campaign contributions and a national capital built on the lobbying largesse of dominant industries that want to throttle any threats to their businesses. (Hat tip to the Rootstrikers that are trying to fix that mess.)
We occasionally put together a list of notable achievements of these few companies that dominate access to the Internet across the United States. The last one is available here.
As you read this, remember that the FCC's National Broadband Plan largely places the future of Internet access in the hands of these corporations. On the few occasions the FCC tries to defend the public from their schemes to rip-off...Read more
Louis CK, the comedian responsible for the FX show "Louie" and for making people laugh at his brutally candid assessment of how much his young daughter's opinion about anything matters, has bypassed the major studios, channels, and cable distribution systems to sell one of his concerts directly to his fans.
For $5, they can easily download it and can then put it on any medium they choose. Some have put it up on pirate sites so others can use it without paying. But more than enough have paid to make it well worth his while -- as explored by the NY Times media critic, David Carr:
While I was talking with him on the phone Thursday night, he checked his Web site and about 175,000 people had bought his special through PayPal. He expected 200,000 total downloads by the weekend, which meant he would have grossed $1 million. After covering costs of about $250,000 for the live production and the Web site, that’s a $750,000 profit. And he owns the rights, and the long tail of buyers, in perpetuity. The transparency of the enterprise, including its cost in relation to how many people bought in, was the subject of media coverage all last week.
“O.K., so NBC is this huge company and they have all these studios and these satellites to beam stuff out,” he said, “but on the Web, both NBC.com and LouisCK.com have the same amount of bandwidth. We are equals and there are things you can do with that. This has been a fun little experiment.”
His "fun little experiment" demonstrates the threat posed by the Internet to the old business models of cable companies and content owners like Viacom and Disney. And this is why Comcast's purchase of NBC is worrisome.
Comcast is still fighting for the authority to prioritize some sites over others - it wants to violate the historic principle of network neutrality that prevents a service provider from interfering with what sites a subscriber visits. If Comcast had its way, it would require a taste of the action from Louis CK or could...Read more
I encourage readers to visit Doc Searls post "Broadband vs. Internet" for a discussion about things that matter regarding the future of Internet access for most Americans.
The Internet is no more capable than the infrastructures that carry it. Here in the U.S. most of the infrastructures that carry the Internet to our homes are owned by telephone and cable companies. Those companies are not only in a position to limit use of the Internet for purposes other than those they favor, but to reduce the Net itself to something less, called “broadband.” In fact, they’ve been working hard on both.
There is a difference between the Internet and "broadband." Broadband is a connection that is always on and tends to be somewhat faster than the dial-up speeds of 56kbps. Broadband could connect you to anything... could be the Internet or to an AOL like service where some company decides what you can see, who you can talk to, and the rules for doing anything.
The Internet is something different. It is anarchic, in the textbook definitional sense of being leaderless. It is a commons. As Doc says,
The Internet’s protocols are NEA:
- Nobody owns them.*
- Everybody can use them, and
- Anybody can improve them.
Because no one owns it, few promote it or defend. Sure, major companies promote their connections to it (and when you connect to it, you are part of it) but they are promoting the broadband connection. And the biggest ones (Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, Time Warner Cable, etc) will do anything to increase the profits they make by being one of the few means of connecting to the Internet -- including charging much more and limiting what people can do over their connection, etc.
This is one reason the connections from major corporations are so heavily tilted toward download speeds -- they want consumers to consume content. Just about every community network built in the last 3-4 years offers symmetrical connections by contrast.
Last I heard, the fastest cable offering in the upstream direction was 12Mbps. Cox, our cable provider in Santa Barbara, gives us about 25Mbps down, but only 4Mbps up. Last time I talked to them (in June 2009), their plan was to deliver up to 100Mbps down eventually, but still only about 5Mbps up. That...
Susan Crawford published an excellent essay in the New York Times presenting her Looming Broadband Monopoly argument as a discussion of the coming digital divide between those with access to next-generation networks and those without.
These numbers are likely to grow even starker as the 30 percent of Americans without any kind of Internet access come online. When they do, particularly if the next several years deliver subpar growth in personal income, they will probably go for the only option that is at all within their reach: wireless smartphones. A wired high-speed Internet plan might cost $100 a month; a smartphone plan might cost half that, often with a free or heavily discounted phone thrown in.
The problem is that smartphone access is not a substitute for wired. The vast majority of jobs require online applications, but it is hard to type up a résumé on a hand-held device; it is hard to get a college degree from a remote location using wireless. Few people would start a business using only a wireless connection.
She identifies the problem as a lack of competition in the market while highlighting the role of lobbying from the wealthy cable companies to keep it that way:
The bigger problem is the lack of competition in cable markets. Though there are several large cable companies nationwide, each dominates its own fragmented kingdom of local markets: Comcast is the only game in Philadelphia, while Time Warner dominates Cleveland. That is partly because it is so expensive to lay down the physical cables, and companies, having paid for those networks, guard them jealously, clustering their operations and spending tens of millions of dollars to lobby against laws that might oblige them to share their infrastructure.
In this essay, her preferred solution is better federal regulation that would require companies that own networks to share parts of their infrastructure with competitors (to significantly reduce the problems of natural monopoly). Unfortunately, she did not explicitly discuss the solution of the communities building their own networks - a topic she has discussed at great length elsewhere in very positive terms. Her essay ties in nicely with the paper we...Read more
An excellent article drawing wide lessons from the referendum battle in Longmont between the community and Comcast.
The city of Longmont, Colo., built its own 17-mile, million dollar fiber-optic loop in the mid-1990s. The infrastructure was paid for by the local city-owned electric utility, though it offered promise for bringing broadband to local businesses, government offices and residents, too.
For years, though, the network has been sitting largely unused. In 2005, Colorado passed a state law preventing local governments from essentially building and operating their own telecommunications infrastructure.
Behind the law was, not surprisingly, the telecom lobby, which has approached the threat of municipal broadband all across the country with deep suspicion and even deeper pockets. Companies like Comcast understandably want to protect their corner on the market from competition with city-run non-profits. What’s less understandable is the route their interests have taken: Residents and state legislators from Colorado to North Carolina have been voting away the rights of cities to build their own broadband, with their own money, for the benefit of their own communities.
Ever since the towns of Mooresville and Davidson purchased and began fixing the failed Adelphia franchise in their part of North Carolina, private sector purists have tried to portray their efforts as a disaster. MI-Connection has had some serious difficulties amid higher than expected costs, but just reported a promising increase in revenues.
At their monthly board meeting at Davidson’s Town Hall on September 22, Transition Manager David Auger said that, from July through September, the system had increased its voice customers by 48 percent over the first quarter last year, its video customers by 296 percent and its data customers by 2,248 percent. 83 days of the gains, said Auger at the time, were actual, and 9 were projected, since September was not yet over.
The final customer numbers, which the system released today, showed that the last few days of September growth activity exceeded projections: voice customers grew by 60 percent over the first quarter last year, video customers by 319 percent, and data customers by 2257 percent.
This network was targeted time and time again by Time Warner Cable and its allies in pushing the anti-competitive bill that has effectively stopped any investment in next-generation networks in the state by killing local authority to make broadband investments.
They regularly blamed the network's problems on the local governments owning it while providing no context -- the network was in terrible shape because its prior private-sector owner saw little reason to invest in it. The network is now far superior because the local governments care more about encouraging economic development and creating local jobs than producing a quick profit for out-of-state shareholders.
As MI-Connection continues to correct its problems, Davidson's government is remarkably open and transparent. You can read just about all the documents relating to the network, finances, and history here.