The Comcast/NBCU merger poses a real threat to the future of innovation, competition, and the open Internet. Put simply: size matters. The larger Comcast gets, the more market power it has and the more all other markets that depend on broadband and media will be distorted.
Susan Crawford knows this better than most and explains why everyone should be concerned about it.
As we've harped on time and time again:
The crucial thing to understand is that high-speed Internet access to the home really is a crushingly-expensive natural monopoly service to install. The telephone companies haven’t found a way to make this work, because it’s so much more expensive to dig up the streets to install fiber than it is to upgrade cable electronics to DOCSIS 3.0. So they have backed off. The cable industry has made its investment, and is ready to reap its rewards of scale and high fixed costs - secure in the knowledge that no competition is coming after it, and having divided up the country neatly among its members. Meanwhile, the telcos are steadly losing fistfuls of money.
As Morgan once said of railroads, “The American public seems to be unwilling to admit . . . that it has a choice between regulated legal agreements and unregulated extralegal agreements. We should have cast away more than 50 years ago the impossible doctrine of protection of the public by railway competition.” In the cable world, we are deep into unregulated extralegal agreements, and competition is not going to rescue us.
The longer communities wait to build this important infrastructure, the harder it will be. It is hard to imagine national candidate speaking more stridently about the important of the open Internet than did Obama and even he bowed to the pressure of the private Internet access providers. While we should pressure the federal government to regulate in the public interest, we must take responsibility for our future at the local level with smart investments.
When a debate between candidates for Wilson's sheriff proved too popular by far for the scheduled venue, Greenlight stepped in to televise it.
Jon Jimison, Wilson Times editor, said his phone has been ringing off the hook since the debate at Fike High School was announced. Fike holds a little more than 900 people. With the tickets snapped up on the first day of availability, televising the debate was what Jimison wanted.
"We're very happy the city and Greenlight are partnering with us on this event," Jimison said. "By having the debate aired on Greenlight it exponentially increases access to the debate so more residents can see it for themselves."
Greenlight is the community fiber network built by Wilson's public power company and is owned by the City.
Wilson is fortunate to have a publicly owned network able to step in and televise the network. In many towns, the incumbent is a private company that has little interest in helping out in such a situation. Thousands of towns do not even have a local cable presence they can call on if they were in this situation -- big carriers continuously consolidate and shut down local service centers to save money.
I recently visited Sibley County, Minnesota, where they are considering a publicly owned fiber-to-the-farm network. The programming they see on their TV comes from another state - Iowa! This is yet another reason communities should have networks that are directly accountable to them.
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...Read more
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...
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...Read more
Back in 1998, the Braintree Electric Light Department (Massachusetts) built an HFC network for remote monitoring of their electrical services. In 1999, they extended the network to become the first broadband provider in town.
With about 1,500 Internet customers solely from word-of-mouth advertising, BELD staff looked to expand the offerings from its HFC network. In 2000, a cable television plan and $3.5 million bond issue were approved at Town meeting. State-of-the-art digital cable service was launched before the end of that year, and by the end of 2001, BELD was serving 4,000 cable and nearly 3,000 Internet customers.
As a measure of their success, citizens just voted BELD Broadband the top ISP of the area for the 3rd year in a row ...
The town also voted the department Best Cable TV Provider (for the second year) and Best Phone Service in 2010, casting votes via BestOfSurveys.com with Market Surveys of America, an independent survey company and member of the Better Business Bureau.
You can follow BELD Broadband on twitter.
The nation's newest community fiber network (FTTH) is launching in Salisbury, North Carolina, in the next month. Fibrant, a $29 million project financing by general obligation bonds, is slightly behind schedule but way ahead of the cable and DSL competition.
The City Council has approved the network's pricing in anticipation of hooking up customers in October. Some 70 people have been testing the network, but it will soon be available to everyone in the community. The basic tier of broadband speeds is 15Mbps and they have a second tier at 25 Mbps. The network is capable of much faster speeds but these are the tiers they will start with, making them the fastest basic tier available in North Carolina.
They are offering over 460 television channels, of which 100 are HD. HD quality over fiber-optics tends to be the highest quality viewing experience (though not everyone can tell, depending on their level of obsession with picture quality) but the first year or so of video service on Fibrant may suffer from occasional problems as they iron out the quirks of the new system. Reports of the broadband and voice services are tremendously positive.
They have made it clear that they cannot get into a price war with incumbents (Time Warner Cable and AT&T) and cannot beat the "promo" prices these companies offer for the first x months. However, Fibrant's rates are 7-10% lower than the regular rates of the incumbents and will come with local, superior, customer service.
Big companies like Time Warner Cable often claim they are at a disadvantage relative to these municipalities but the reality is that the massive scale of national cable and phone companies give them many more advantages to offer lower prices for their services (which tend to also be lower in quality).
“If you get deal you can’t refuse from someone else, just thank Fibrant for it because you wouldn’t have gotten it if we hadn’t been here,” Clark [Fibrant Marketing Director] said.
Fibrant aims for a 30% take rate (4400 subscribers) by the end of year 3 and a positive cash flow in year 4. Pricing and channels lineups are available at the end of this Salisbury Post article. Subscribing to the service has no installation fee...Read more
Though this article may appear on first glance to be unrelated to broadband networks that put community needs first, Susan Crawford discusses the damaging effects of large scale companies like Comcast using market power to prevent competition. Scale is a very important part of any discussion about competition and broadband policy.
The Comcast/NBCU merger is aimed right at competition — avoiding any series of steps that might result in having dumb (but big) pipes serving the areas where Comcast now has dominion, and avoiding having Comcast’s pipe itself made dumb. If the merger goes through as Comcast proposes, the new NBCU will have the power in Comcast’s market areas (where it routinely has a 60 percent-plus share of local pay-TV customers) to raise other pay-TV providers’ (satellite, small cable, telephone, nascent online distributors) costs of doing business substantially.
This will mean, among other things, that competing aggregators of online video who don’t have reasonable access to crucial NBCU content (particularly sports) won’t have the power to constrain Comcast’s prices. Comcast ties access to online video content it controls to a cable subscription, and Time Warner does the same thing with its content. Many of the other pay TV providers will cooperate in this plan, which goes by the nickname “TV Everywhere”. This means that independent online aggregators don’t stand a chance — because consumers will be used to getting highly-branded online video for “free” as part of their bundle from their ISP, they won’t be willing to pay for an independent service.
For those who hope that technological change will unseat the market power of an even larger Comcast, think again:
Wireless? Well, the laws of physics tell us that wireless just doesn’t have the capacity of a fast wired cable connection. It will be a complementary service, not a substitute. Wireless is much less efficient in its use of spectrum and faces much harsher signal environments than signals do inside a controlled cable environment, and so the overall number of bits that can be conveyed in a given amount of time in a mobile environment is much lower than that possible in cable systems. We love mobility, but for watching live video, we’ll still prefer wired cable.
The giant cable operators generally do not compete with each other in major metropolitan areas in the US. (The one exception is New York City, which is so...
A recent article discussing testimony from the President of the industry trade group, National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) reminded me once again that Congress and the FCC have utterly given up on true broadband competition for millions of of Americans.
As with the broadband stimulus funds being handed out by the Commerce Department, NCTA is concerned that the USF money not go to overbuild its members. "It would be a poor use of scarce government resources to subsidize a broadband competitor in communities--including many small, rural communities -where cable operators have invested risk capital to deploy broadband services," McSlarrow says.
This seems like a common sense argument. Why would we want to subsidize broadband for those who already have a single option (underserved) when others have no choice at all (unserved)? Unfortunately, building networks to solve the problem of the unserved is all but impossible without simultaneously serving some who are underserved. This is because the unserved are often in areas so remote and expensive to serve, there is no sustainable business model to serve only them.
So the idea that we could somehow only target the unserved with networks is extremely suspect. Unless we want to endlessly subsidize networks in these areas (which companies like Qwest emphatically want because they would likely collect those subsides endlessly), we need to encourage sustainable networks that reach across those already served, underserved, and unserved.
He added that it also might discourage the incumbent from continuing to risk that capital. "Government subsidies for one competitor in markets already served by broadband also might discourage the existing provider from making continued investments in its network facilities.
I certainly respect this argument up to a point. But when it comes to essential infrastructure, we know that most existing providers (particularly absentee-owned massive companies) are delaying investments in network facilities anyway because the lack of true competition allows them to delay making the investments more common in our international peers (where true competition exists, often as a result of smarter government policies than we can muster here). The principle of self-...Read more