Tag: "charter"

Posted June 20, 2013 by christopher

It has been about a year since we checked in on FiberNet Monticello, a city-owned FTTH network about 40 miles northwest of Minneapolis. At that time, the network was generating insufficient revenue to meet debt payments, the private company operating the network (HBC) was stepping down, and Gigabit Squared was kicking the tires.

Since then, Gigabit Squared and Monticello decided against a partnership and the City ceased making payments to bondholders. Previously, the City had covered the difference between revenues and debt payments by borrowing from the City's liquor store fund, a municipal enterprise fund.

Monticello had financed the network with unbacked revenue bonds, meaning investors understood from the start that the full faith and credit of taxpayers would not "make them whole" in the event that the network did not create the revenues necessary to pay back the bond. Because Monticello chose that financing method, it had to pay a higher interest rate - those who buy bonds understand the differences in risk with different types of bonds and rates.

However, the City has been negotiating with bondholders for a settlement to avoid potential lawsuits over the telecom utility and because this is a typically what how these situations are worked out. Bondholders will "take a haircut" in the parlance of finance rather than risk a total loss.

Last week, Monticello City Council approved a $5.75 million proposed settlement in addition to the remaining funds left in the reserve fund, totaling approximately $8 million from an outstanding bond of $26 million. Final resolution may take many more months, but the major arguments seem to be worked out.

This means that Monticello will own and continue to operate FiberNet Monticello. It also means that rather than having a network financed by revenue bonds, the network will have benefited from City funds from the liquor store and will almost certainly be re-financed with other City funds. Monticello could issue a bond for the new $5.75 million but to my knowledge, no one has suggested that.

Thus far, the impact on...

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Posted April 26, 2013 by lgonzalez

We spoke with Opelika Mayor Gary Fuller in episode 40 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast and learned all about the community's FTTH project. Local residents and businesses decided to go beyond the substandard services they received from Charter Cable and build their own municipal network. At the time of the interview, Opelika Power Services (OPS) was well into construction and is now testing the network, according to an article in the article in the Opelika-Auburn News.

Steve Harmon, director of OPS, said there are between seven to eight test sites in the city that are basic residences receiving these services. Throughout the trial run, OPS will monitor what services are working efficiently and which ones have problems that need to be fixed.

“We’re getting feedback from those people and we are working on fine-tuning the system’s channel configurations,” Harmon said.

As this stage, test sites do not have telephone capability, which will be part of triple-play service from OPS. Harmon noted that service will not be offered until all issues are resolved. That being said, OPS expects launch to be in late spring or early summer.

The community faced one of Charter's misinformation campaigns, but citizens still approved a referendum to bond $41 million for the network and smart grid project. Since then, Opelika has moved forward steadily with network construction and construction of a network hub facility

From the OPS News website:

“This is a most exciting time in the life of our community.  Opelika is about to become the first city in Alabama to have fiber to the user.  Very soon we’ll fully deploy smart grid along with telecommunications that include video (cable TV), ultra-high speed internet and telephone service.  The...

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Posted April 2, 2013 by christopher

Opelika Mayor Gary Fuller and Jennifer McCain, partner of the Motive Group discuss why this Alabama town is the first to build its own fiber optic network in the state.

In short, Opelika had long been fed up with the services offered by Charter Cable and Charter was not amenable to meeting the community's needs. They decided to build a FTTH network that would meet Smart Grid needs as well as delivering telephone, television, and Internet access. Due to state law, they had to hold a referendum to offer television services. Despite a misinformation campaign, the community overwhelmingly supported building a community owned network.

Toward the end of our discussion, Mayor Fuller offers some thoughts on what it takes for an elected official to commit to an expensive investment where one has to pay all the costs and stand for re-election before the benefits start to accrue. In short, it takes courage. And having the unanimous support of the City Council is helpful also!

Read the transcript from our conversation here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 30 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed. Search for us in iTunes and leave a positive comment!

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

Find more episodes in our podcast index.

Thanks to D. Charles Speer & the Helix for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Posted February 26, 2013 by lgonzalez

As the Georgia legislature considers HB 282, a bill that will restrict local governments from investing in telecommunications networks, we are continuing coverage of the communities that will be harmed by passage of the legislation.

Should the restrictions become law, existing networks will not be able to expand. No expansion means fewer opportunities to reap the benefits that flow naturally from community networks. While this means few residents will receive access in places like Thomasville and Moultrie, it also means fewer businesses will receive access in places where networks exclusively serve commercial customers and government offices. 

LaGrange's IT Director, Alan Slaughenhaupt, told us a little about its municipal network that began in 1996. The community decided to build its own network when no private provider would. The first goal was to get the K-12 schools connected. Bonds funded the network build out and were paid off within five years. At the time, the city partnered with ISN (Later Earthlink) to get the schools connected. LaGrange now partners with Charter Communications to bring connectivity to students.

The LaGrange network now connects hospitals, most city, county, and state government facilities, and provides connectivity for businesses.  Alan describes how a T1 connection cost local businesses $2,300 per month in 1996. Now, thanks to competition created by the community owned network, local businesses can pay just $100 for a connection with better capacity. The municipal network serves about 400 commercial customers.

Kia Logo

Alan explained that the automaker Kia moved a manufacturing facility near LaGrange in 2009 that used Just-In-Time inventory control. It needed a high-speed connection between the main plant and suppliers that LaGrange could deliver.

The move created 2,500 new jobs at the factory, each paying between $14.90 and $23.50 per hour. Along with the positions in the factory, came 3,000 auto-related jobs with suppliers located near the facility. Today, Kia has moved its main manufacturing to a different location and a different network, but its suppliers...

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Posted December 5, 2012 by christopher

A Stop the Cap! story about Charter cutting customer service positions makes a point we make too rarely. Not that customer service from the national cable and telephone companies is terrible and getting worse, but that some are constantly struggling to make a profit.

Investors don’t think too highly of the company either. Charter reported a wider third-quarter loss in November, losing $87 million compared with $85 million lost during the same quarter last year. Executives tell Wall Street the company was in chaos before new management under Tom Rutledge took over operations. Rutledge’s priorities are to invest in new set top boxes, convert more of its systems to digital, raise prices on services, cut back on promotions and retention offers, and centralize customer support operations.

Imagine that! When communities have to make investments and suffer losses, they are accused of failing. Charter is losing money (and recently emerged from a bankruptcy proceeding) and trying to make changes to correct its condition.

This is what happens to many firms in telecommunications. Only when it happens to those that are owned by communities, they are besieged with claims that such a situation is somehow proof that the public cannot own and operate networks.

Note that others, like Comcast, are actually lauded by Wall Street for operating in areas with so little competition that they can increase their rates at will -- hard not to make a profit in that case. Which is precisely why existing cable and DSL companies push laws to restrict local authority to build better networks.

Posted July 11, 2012 by lgonzalez

We have followed events in Opelika's network project for almost two years. In addition to creating a smart-grid for its municipal electric utility, the City plans to offer triple-play services. We previously covered Charter Cable's astroturf campaign to oppose the network and how the campaign failed when Opelikans passed the referendum.

This week, the 27,000 residents of Opelika saw their efforts begin to materialize at a ground breaking ceremony at the site of the new Opelika Power Services Facility. Chris Anthony, of the Opelika-Auburn News covered the story:

Site work is well under way on the $3.7 million facility, which leaders say will be an integral part of the fiber-optic network being built throughout the city. In addition to housing the administrative office and warehouse, the facility will also be the home of Opelika Power Services’ fiber hub.

Mayor Gary Fuller notes how the people of Opelika entered the business of municipal utilities over one hundred years ago, when the community purchased the then-private electric utility. He spoke about how the people of Opelika carry on that self-reliant streak with their new fiber network.

According to, Beth Ringley, Interim Director of Opelika Power, 90% of the fiber is installed underground throughout the city and should be nearly completed by the end of the summer. The $41 million project is scheduled for completion in the spring of 2013 and the first customers are expected to connect at that time.

“It’s a big, big day for the city of Opelika,” Mayor Gary Fuller said. “It’s important for our future.”

Two videos offer further coverage of this new community network.

These videos are no longer available.

Posted June 29, 2012 by christopher

Monticello faced a number of key decision moments throughout the history of its FiberNet. Given the recent changes in management and decision not to make up the different between debt service and revenues, some may be wondering if proceeding with FiberNet was the smart decision.

It was 2008 and the economy hadn't entered its death spiral. Monticello had overwhelmingly voted by a 3:1 margin for the local government to bond for and build the network.

When Monticello was beginning to sell its bonds, the incumbent telephone company (TDS) filed a lawsuit against the City, with the extremely dubious claim that Monticello did not have the authority to do what other cities in Minnesota had done. Courts later tossed it, finding that the TDS suit had no merit and making TDS reimburse Monticello for some of its costs due to the frivolous suit.

But the goal was never to win the lawsuit, it was to delay and harass. Monticello had to wait a year to begin building its network. Though TDS had previously maintained that its DSL was just fine for the needs of residents and busineses, it began pulling permits to significantly upgrade its DSL to a FTTH product. (TDS has steadfastly maintained, while investing more in Monticello than any other Minnesota community, that community networks result in less investment from incumbents.)

At any rate, Monticello had a decision. It faced an expensive court case and the City's action was apparently driving TDS to improve its poor network. Monticello could have backed down in the face of TDS' bullying.

And if it had? From what we have seen elsewhere, this is our best guess:

TDS Telecom Logo

TDS could have delayed its upgrades or changed its mind entirely when the economy tanked. If it continued with upgrades, it would likely have made some token investments but not lowered its prices because the threat of actual competition was removed. It certainly wouldn't have unveiled broadband tiers that were superior on speed and price to those in Minneapolis / St Paul metro area.

If they had unveiled a high-speed option like the 50/20 Mbps package, they likely would have priced it sufficiently high that few took it and then would have used that as...

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Posted June 8, 2012 by christopher

Monticello has been all over the muni broadband news lately, in the wake of a letter it sent to bondholders [pdf] alerting them that the City would no longer make up the difference between the revenues produced by the system and the debt payments. This came shortly after the company managing the network decided to step down.

Over the next year, the reserve fund will make up the difference while the City and bondholders come to some sort of an agreement.

The Star Tribune today published a good synopsis of the situation:

City administrator Jeff O'Neill said that the city has no intention of abandoning FiberNet's 1,700 customers, including about 130 businesses.

"This system isn't going anywhere," he said. "We're not going out of business."

Despite the problems, he said the city has one of the fastest Internet systems in the country that has driven down prices and improved services by providing competition.

The article also notes that prior to the City-owned network, the telephone company (TDS) provided very poor DSL service that was harming area businesses with slow and very unreliabile phone and broadband services. Without FiberNet Monticello, we don't know how many businesses would have been forced to relocate to be competitive in the digital economy.

We decided to dig a little deeper to get a sense of what Monticello has received for its investment and difficulty. We previously examined the prices charged by Charter cable in town and found that households taking that deal were saving $1000/year.

monticello-goodbadugly_0.jpg

We also noted that Charter was almost certainly engaging in predatory pricing. After talking with other networks, we would guess that Charter is losing between $30 and $50 (conservatively) per subscriber per...

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Posted May 30, 2012 by christopher

In a surprise move, HBC has announced it will end management of FiberNet Monticello, though the actual time frame has not been announced. FiberNet Monticello is a FTTH network approximately 45 miles northwest of Minneapolis. HBC has been operating the publicly owned network, offering triple play services, since inception.

FiberNet Monticello has had a particularly rough road since citizens overwhelmingly voted to build it to create a locally owned alternative to cableco Charter and incumbent telco TDS. TDS landed the first blow against the network with a frivolous lawsuit. Though the courts tossed it out, the proceedings took a year and slightly added to the interest rate Monticello had to pay on its debt.

Since then, TDS invested in its own FTTH connections and Charter engaged in a vicious bout of predatory pricing in their attempt to drive competition out of Monticello.

Throughout it all, the City and HBC worked together to deliver the best broadband and customer service in the area. However, the network has not met its revenue targets (largely due to time lost from the lawsuit) and that has led to discussions about how to ensure the network would become financially self-sufficient as rapidly as possible.

HBC's performance in Monticello has actually been impressive given the anti-competitive tactics of Charter and TDS. If you want to know why we have no cable or broadband competition in America, look no further than the refusal of state and federal agencies to investigate predatory pricing tactics used to deny subscribers to FiberNet Monticello.

Regardless, elected officials in Monticello were not happy with the status quo (covering FiberNet shortfalls from the liquor store fund) and new management will offer an opportunity to chart a new course. Though HBC has decided to withdraw, FiberNet Monticello retains most of its staff and may even be better motivated to meet this challenge. From the City's press release (also below in full):

The City of Monticello would like to express appreciation to HBC for the key role they played in successfully developing and delivering high quality and reliable video, voice and internet service to the community. The HBC legacy in Monticello includes the development of a well-trained FiberNet Monticello staff and the establishment of a strong and loyal customer base, which...

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Posted April 2, 2012 by christopher

When a tornado rips your town apart and destroys your home, should you have to pay extra fees to your cable provider? Of course not. But we continue to see these news stories about massive cable companies ripping off people who are just trying to find the energy to get by day to day.

Last year, we saw reports about Charter Cable telling Alabama tornado victims they had to "find" their cable boxes or pay for them.

According to the friend, Glenda Dillashaw, a Charter representative told her that Spain would need to find his cable box or be charged $212 for its loss.

Fortunately, when Spain followed up with Charter after receiving another bill, the representative told him not to worry about it, suggesting that either Charter has an ambiguous policy to deal with it or Spain found a customer support person who's heart had not yet been crushed by soul-numbing job of being a customer support representative for a massive cable company.

At least one other company has a formal policy in place for these situations:

Bright House Networks, whose service area includes hard-hit Pratt City, also expects its customers to file claims under homeowners' or renters' insurance to pay for lost or destroyed cable boxes. "That's how we normally handle it," spokesman Robert L. Smith said.

Fascinatingly, an article in Michigan claims Comcast does not have a policy in place for these situations. Following recent tornados in Michigan, Comcast customers who lost their homes were given the option of paying a cancellation fee or paying a reduced "vacation" rate for a service they could not use.

Comcast Logo

Katherine Pfeiffer and Kathy Crawford soon found that residents were being told that they would be responsible for damaged or lost cable boxes and modems.

Initially residents were told their accounts with Comcast would be put on “vacation” status, where a monthly fee of between $15 and $20 would be charged.

Comcast is supposedly "working on a solution" for these people.

The hubris of this massive companies is unreal. People who are waiting to hear if their home is repairable or has to be destroyed should not be confronted by the...

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