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Mediacom Lawyers Slow Competition With Court Time, Resources


When big corporate incumbent providers fear a hint of competition from a new entrant, they pull out all the stops to quash any potential threat. One of the first lines of offense involves the courts. Iowa City now leases its fiber to Cedar Rapids based ImOn and to stop it, Mediacom is reprocessing an old argument. It didn't work the first time, but they are going for it anyway; this is another example of how cable companies try to hobble competitors; just stalling can be a "win."

A Lawsuit In Search Of An Offense

Mediacom has a franchise agreement with Iowa City to offer cable television services and it also provides subscribers the option to purchase Internet access and telephone services. As most of our readers are attuned to these matters, you probably already understand that just any old cable TV provider can’t come into Iowa City and set up shop. State and local law require them to obtain a franchise agreement, which often includes additional obligations in exchange for access to a community’s potential customer base.

According to a 2015 Gazette article, Mediacom provides annual payments for use of the public right-of-way, operates a local office, and provides free basic cable services to local schools and government buildings. These types of commitments are commonplace as part of franchise agreements and are small sacrifices compared to the potential revenue available to Mediacom.

ImOn started offering Internet access and phone services to Iowa City downtown businesses in January but the company does not offer cable TV services like it does in other Iowa municipalities. ImOn doesn't have a franchise agreement with Iowa City but Mediacom says that it should. They argue that, because ImOn has built a system capable of offering video service, it should also have to obtain a franchise agreement.


In August, U.S. District Court Judge Charles R. Wolle dismissed the case, stating in a nutshell:

"Although ImOn is constructing in Iowa City a system that may become capable of delivering cable programming, ImOn is not now delivering cable programming. Therefore, ImOn is not presently required to seek a cable franchise.” 

Blast From The Past

This isn’t the first time this argument has echoed off the walls of a courtroom. Back in 2005, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit dismissed a similar case between Time Warner Cable (TWC) and the city of North Kansas City. The situation was similar, except the city had not yet decided whether to invest in the required head end to provide video over the fiber-optic network they wanted to deploy. At the time, a Missouri law required a vote if the community planned to build and own a system in order to offer cable TV services. TWC wanted the use the court for a pre-emptive strike: to bar the city from using the network for video services stating that they could not do so because they had never held a vote.

TWC's argument revolved around the question of whether or not the city owned or operated a cable television facility, which was in violation of state law. Since the network was not offering cable services and there was no head end yet - in fact they didn't even know if they wanted to invest in one - what really mattered was whether or not North Kansas City owned a "cable TV facility" without prior voter approval. In other words, were they building a network that was capable of offering cable TV services?

As in Iowa City, the court determined that the issue was not “ripe.” From the opinion:

It is factually undisputed that the City's fiber-optic network is not connected to the required head end facility to receive such signals nor is there any plan to acquire it. Thus, Time Warner's statutory claim rests on a contingent future event:  the ownership or operation of a cable-television facility by the City;  therefore, Time Warner's claim that a vote is required under Missouri law is not ripe in that the City does not currently own or operate a cable-television facility because the planned fiber-optic network will not be capable of transmitting cable-television signals and because the City recognizes that in order for it to provide cable-television services a public vote would be required.


Let's not put the cart before the horse.

Jeff Janssen, vice president of sales and marketing for ImOn said in December that if the provider’s plans change, they will take the necessary steps:

“Franchise agreements are all around cable TV,” he said. “Once we decide, or if we decided to offer cable TV in Iowa City, we would get that franchise agreement, we are required to.”

Every Tool In The Anti-Competitive Toolbox

Mediacom has approximately 4,500 employees and, like the other large corporate providers, they have a highly qualified regiment of attorneys. Not likely they missed the similarities between the North Kansas City and Iowa City cases, but there’s more than one way to win.

Traditionally, winning means presenting the facts and proving to the judge that they fit into the law and that your interpretation of how they work with the law is more correct than your opponent's. For companies like Mediacom and TWC, however, winning can also mean delaying your opponents project to drive up their costs or cool subscriber interest. In other words, going after the fruit before it is "ripe."

Winning may also mean forcing the other side to give up and walk away by driving up their legal costs or making them lose progress when construction is delayed and subscribers lose confidence in the project.

Big incumbents have become masters at using the courts for sabotage schemes, no matter how frivolous the perceived infringement. They sue or threaten to sue over poles, attempts to streamline, and what services a city can and cannot offer. The state legislatures that have passed laws restricting local authority have only helped massive telecoms and cable companies abuse the courts by providing vehicles for their lawsuits. At the same time, they have forced local governments to waste citizen funds and stalled Internet access, typically to the communities most desperate for it.

You can read the Order for Summary Judgement, the Order Amending the Order (which appears to correct a typographical error), and the Notice of Appeal for more.

Iowa Knows Co-op Connectivity

Once again we return to Iowa to learn about community networks and high-speed connectivity. Home to municipal networks such as in Cedar Falls, Lenox, and Harlan, Iowa also grows publicly owned networks of a different kind - cooperatives’ networks. The Winnebago Cooperative Telecom Association (WCTA) provides next-generation connectivity to rural areas, and is now upgrading infrastructure in its service area. WCTA uses Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) technology to provide Internet access of 100 Megabits per second (Mbps). 

Small Towns and Cities To Get An Upgrade

WCTA is now installing fiber in Forest City, home to about 4,000 people and the county seat of Winnebago County.

WCTA General Manager Mark Thoma told the Globe Gazette’s Forest City Summit newspaper, “We have to work closely with the city. Kudos to the city crew for locating (all the utilities). It’s been going very well.”

WCTA intends to install their fiber underground in Forest City and the municipal utilities department is facilitating the cooperative’s efforts by locating current utilities infrastructure. Collaborating will enable WCTA to bury their fiber without disrupting other services.

This upgrade to fiber will replace the copper lines towns served by WCTA, where members still use DSL. Customers in rural areas received an upgrade to FTTH several years ago. 

Rural Areas First

In 2011, WCTA received $19.6 million American Recovery and Reinvestment (ARRA) award for a fiber broadband project in rural areas throughout its service territory. Half of the money was a grant, and the other half was a loan.

While finishing the fiber builds in these rural areas in 2015, WCTA automatically bumped up the speeds of all rural members. Previous top speeds of 15 Mbps jumped up to 100 Mbps via FTTH but the $65 per month subscription rate stayed the same. WCTA's fiber network speeds are symmetrical, so upload and download speeds are the same.

Cooperatives Have Annual Meetings

The WCTA 66th Annual Meeting takes place today; vaudeville performer Peter Bloedel of Minnesota will entertain the members as they decide on the future direction of the co-op. Governed by the people they serve, cooperatives should be invested in building a vibrant future for their communities. 

WCTA is just one of many cooperatives that has taken on a community network project. Last year, telecommunications co-op Wiatel began a $25 million fiber project in western Iowa. Cooperatives are proving to be a promising option in rural areas where big corporations like Comcast, Centurylink, or AT&T don't anticipate the profit margin they need for their shareholders.

To learn more about cooperatives and Internet access, visit our cooperative tag and check out the work of ILSR’s energy program: “Re-Member-ing the Electric Cooperative” on the potential of rural electric cooperatives.

Harlan Continues Bump Up To Fiber In Rural Iowa

With charming cornfields and bustling cities, Iowa is a Midwest hub of community networks. Harlan, the county seat of Shelby County, is located in west central Iowa. About 5,400 people live in the town, situated along the West Nishnabotna River. Back in the ‘90s, Harlan was one of several Iowa towns that built their own cable networks to deliver video and Internet services. In August, Harlan Municipal Utilities (HMU) announced it will continue upgrading to fiber, a project they started in 2012. Upon completion in early 2017, much of the town will have Internet access via fiber.

The Present: 2016-2017 Fiber Project

HMU announced the project on their website in early August. For more details, we spoke with Director of Marketing, Doug Hammer, previously a guest on our Community Broadband Bits podcast. 

During the fiber expansion, HMU will build out to the southern half of town, which is bounded by Highway 44 to the north, Highway 59 to the west, and the river to the east. The utility also intends to build out slightly north, into the center of town. The project will take approximately six months to complete. 

First, HMU will install conduit, the reinforced tubes which hold the fiber, to all their electric, gas, and water customers along major roads. Then, in the first quarter of 2017, they will bring fiber to homes and businesses. [Update: Those homes and businesses already receiving telecom services. Fiber to non-telecom customers will be connected if the property adds telecom services or when advanced metering applications are launched.]

The Past: Projects and Paperwork

By 1997, HMU was providing Internet service via a Hybrid Fiber-Coax (HFC) network. They financed the network with a grant from the Commerce Department and utility revenue bonds. Committed to affordable, high-quality service, the utility began to install fiber in certain areas in the north [Update: the northwest portion] of town in 2012.

A few years later, in May 2015, our Christopher Mitchell spoke with HMU representatives, including Hammer, at the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities (Community Broadband Bits Episode #151). They discussed how small ISPs handle paperwork and how the system can be improved. Small ISPs want to spend less time filling out forms and more time serving customers.

The Future: Smart-Grids and More

This fiber project provides the potential for new applications. Hammer specifically noted the possibility of developing a smart-grid for the electrical system, preventing outages and improving energy efficiency. Fiber connectivity can also boost home security systems and enable business to use new applications, such as cloud computing.

HMU will finish [this phase of] the project in 2017 and consider future fiber projects to better connect the northeastern section of town. For more information and updates about the project, including a map, check out the HMU website at

Preliminary Study Puts Charles City Back on Track to Digital Self-Determinism

Local officials in Charles City, a town of 7,500 in northeastern Iowa, approved a preliminary study of community broadband interest late last month. The study will determine whether additional funds should be allocated toward a more comprehensive study. This announcement comes on the heels of increased regional interest in the Iowa Fiber Alliance, a proposed multi-community fiber ring. 

The preliminary study will cost the city $18,500 and should be completed before the end of the summer. The Community Broadband Engagement and Education Project seeks to engage key community stakeholders, educate the public on high-speed community networks, and ultimately measure the interest of local residents, businesses, and government leadership. 

Third Time’s the Charm

Local interest in community networks has peaked twice in the past decade. In 2005, Charles City residents approved a referendum to create a telecommunication utility with a 62 percent majority. Under threat of losing revenues to a community network, incumbent Internet service providers (ISPs) promised local officials that they would improve the network. Stopgap measures from Mediacom and CenturyLink marginally improved local connectivity in the short-term, but Charles City residents soon realized that they hadn’t escaped the letdowns of the telecom octopus. 

Waverly, Iowa, a town of 10,000 residents, 30 miles south of Charles City, experienced a nearly identical letdown from Mediacom and CenturyLink in the 2000s, only to launch its own community network earlier this year. For rural county seats like Waverly and Charles City, a community network offers an opportunity to stimulate economic development and improve local quality of life. Historically, Charles City is a manufacturing town. The White Farm-New Idea Equipment Company produced tractors and employed up to 3,000 locals during the 1970s before closing its doors in 1993. With manufacturing jobs leaving town, local officials are looking for new ways to bring jobs to town and revitalize their local communities. 

In 2010, interest peaked again when the city conducted a community broadband survey and discovered strong local support for a municipal network. A 2014 Technology Action Plan assessed and outlined a more connected future for Charles City. City officials realized that Internet technology had changed significantly since 2010, however, and are evaluating their options in light of new innovations.

Munis On The Plains

Iowa is home to more than two dozen municipal networks. Thanks in part to their can-do attitude and their self-reliant streak, Charles City, Waverly, and many other Iowa communities have stopped waiting for incumbent providers and taken control of local connectivity. Charles City officials are enthusiastic about the upcoming feasibility study; council member Delaine Freeseman told Charles City Press that, “very interesting things could come out of this, long-term, for the city.”

Fiber in Lenox, Iowa

When community leaders in Lenox, Iowa, gathered together to examine the community's cable TV options in the 1980s, they probably didn't expect their decision to impact local Internet access. Fast-forward 30 years, and this town of 1,400 people now has one of the most sought after forms of Internet access infrastructure: Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH).

Lenox Municipal Utilities owns and operates a FTTH network that offers symmetrical speeds to hundreds of customers in town. It’s just one of many communities around the nation that have invested in this rugged, future-proof technology.

Same Utility, Changing Technology

We spoke with the Lenox Municipal Utilities General Manager John Borland who graciously provided some of the history of the network.

Since the early 1900s, Lenox has operated its own electric and water systems. These essential services enabled the community to thrive in the southern plains of Iowa. Eventually, a local entrepreneur decided to build and operate a TV system to ensure that the Lenox community stayed connected. In the 1980s, the town purchased the coaxial network from the owner who was ready to sell the system, but wanted to keep ownership within the community. Unfortunately, Borland didn’t know the identity of the entrepreneur whose investment eventually led to top-notch connectivity in this most unexpected place.

By the late 1990s, the network needed replacing, and nationwide, communities had already begun to realize the importance of Internet access. The incumbent Internet service provider, Frontier, offered dial-up and some DSL. Anticipating future need, Lenox decided to rebuild the entire network with fiber. 

Better Connectivity in the Community

In 2005, the community voted on a referendum to enable the utility to provide Internet service; it was one of many towns voting that year to ensure local control. The FTTH build cost about $1.5 million, which they funded through municipal revenue bonds.

Farmers Mutual Telephone Company ran a fiber line to Lenox, ensuring middle mile connectivity. By 2008, Lenox Municipal Utilities had the FTTH system up and running, bringing high-speed Internet to residents and businesses.

Now, Lenox Municipal Utilities offers triple play: television, telephone, and symmetrical Internet service, so upload and download speeds are equally fast. They also provide bundled packages for customers who want to purchase all three services. The network has about 450 customers for their Internet service, and several larger businesses have dedicated lines. 

Lenox is just one of the many small communities that offer next-generation high-speed connectivity in Iowa. For more stories about these self-reliant Iowa communities, check out our past stories in the Iowa tag.

Broadband Communities Regional Conference This Fall In Minneapolis

"Fiber For The New Economy" will be the theme of  Broadband Communities' annual regional conference which is scheduled from Oct. 18th to 20th in Minneapolis.

The conference will explore the hottest developments in fiber and economic development with panel discussions and workshop sessions on such topics as Google Fiber, incumbent and other provider deployments, and public-private projects, according to Jim Baller, the conference’s economic development chairman.

There will also be sessions about developments in “major verticals,” including health care, education and energy, adds Baller, who is also co-founder and president of the Coalition for Local Internet Choice

The conference will focus on broadband activities and projects in primarily Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Montana, as well as western Ontario and Manitoba. 

The Blandin Foundation is assisting Broadband Communities with content and conference planning, a move that means the Minnesota non-profit will have a much smaller fall event of its own, said Bernadine Joselyn, Blandin Foundation director of public policy and engagement. Blandin’s fall conference is scheduled for Sept. 13th and 14th in Duluth.  For further information, go to the event website.

Key facts on the Broadband Communities’ Conference

What: “Fiber for The New Economy”

Where: Radisson Blu Downtown Hotel, 35 S. Seventh St., Minneapolis, Minnesota  55402.

When: Oct. 18-20, 2016

Register online for the conference at the event website. Check back in the future with the main event page for more as the agenda is set.

Muni In Muscatine: Upgrades, Speeds Up, Outperforms

Cedar Falls may be the Iowa city famous for its Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network, but that won’t stop Muscatine. This small city of approximately 29,000 people is about to upgrade its aging network. For a little over a year, the municipal utility, Muscatine Power and Water (MP&W), has planned for the move to FTTH with funding from an interdepartmental loan. Now, FTTH is coming to Muscatine's MachLink Internet access service.

MP&W expects to break ground this year on this $8.7 million FTTH project and to finish building the network in 2017. Fiber will offer speeds much faster than those available on the existing hybrid fiber-coax (HFC) network. In anticipation, MP&W is increasing speeds for subcribers without raising rates.

More than a Year in the Making

The local newspaper, the Muscatine Journal, has closely followed the story. In late November 2014, MP&W announced the planned FTTH upgrade. MP&W is taking a slow and steady approach and planning to complete the upgrade in 2017. The latest Muscatine Journal article from this March emphasized how the large infrastructure project has many "interlocking" pieces that must fit together to make the project successful.

As we reported when MP&W announced the upgrade in 2014, a FTTH network will achieve immediate goals and help achieve a number of benefits. MP&W wants to improve residential services, reduce maintenance costs, and increase network reliability. Upgrading to FTTH will also contribute to long-term goals, such as encouraging economic development. Fiber is a future-proof technology, adapting to the increasing need for bandwidth from households, businesses, and institutions. MachLink will offer speeds of up to a Gigabit (1,000 Megabits) per second.

Outperforming Expectations

In the spirit of community, MP&W is increasing speeds without raising rates. MP&W announced that current customers will get twice the speed for no additional charge. Current MachLink subscribers with the fastest tier receive 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) download which will double, but Gigabit speeds will dwarf even that. Upload speeds have yet to be determined.

It’s a good move as the TV and Internet services in Muscatine are continuing to grow in popularity. The communications division has outperformed already high expectations according to the Muscatine Journal this January:

“A profit of $1.25 million was budgeted for the Communications Utility for 2015, but actual profit was $1.79 million. For December, actual profit of $214,638 outperformed the budgeted $120,136.”

Without this public network, those dollars could have all gone to absentee-owned providers - who wouldn’t be investing money to improve the network. Also, it’s important to note that publicly owned networks do not actually make a “profit” to be distributed among shareholders, but rather extra revenue is reinvested in other community projects, used to improve the network, to pay down debt, or put in a rainy day fund. Publicly owned network "shareholders" are people who live and work in the community served by the network.

The FTTH network will make current services even better. As Beecher Sykes, MP&W manager of telecommunications, told the Muscatine Journal in March,

“(Fiber is) an extreme benefit not only to customers but the community as a whole.” 

Spencer, Iowa, Keeps Building

This month, Spencer Municipal Utilities (SMU) will continue to expand the town’s fiber network. The steady incremental build will bring better Internet access to residents, business, and municipal facilities in the northwest Iowa town.

Incremental Approach

The Spencer Daily Reporter wrote about how SMU is connecting more residents with Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) one step at a time. The municipal utility broke the project into four phases.

Phases I and II included 2,700 homes and businesses. Phase III, which begins this month, will impact more than 1,100 homes and businesses. Phase IV will finish extending FTTH service to the rest of the city.

The project will replace the existing telecommunications infrastructure installed in the late 1990s. Curtis Dean of the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities described the network's history in our Community Broadband Bits podcast from 2012.

Evolving Needs, Changing Technology

Spencer Municipal Utilities marketing and community relations manager, Amanda Gloyd, said to the Spencer Daily Reporter:

"Just like internet service has evolved from dial up to digital service lines and cable modem, fiber will give customers the next level of service to continue to improve the way they live, work, and play and we are continuing to build out this service throughout the community of Spencer."

Spencer, like many other small towns, chose to invest in Internet network infrastructure so residents and businesses in this rural area could get fast, affordable, reliable services. Subscribers appreciate the excellent customer service that comes with their local, publicly owned network.


Before We Leave

In keeping with an Internet tradition, we want to mention Spencer's other sensation, Dewey the library cat. The little orange fluff-ball ended up in the public library's drop-box in 1988, and he was adopted by the library staff as "supervisor of staff." Dewey Readmore Books went on to become the publicity darling of the library cat tradition. He was featured in cat magazines, documentaries, and (of course) books.

Even though Dewey has passed on, cute cat videos will live forever, and Spencer's awesome FTTH will help keep his memory alive.

Photo of Dewey courtesy of the Spencer Public Library

Three Communities Make Big Moves Toward Municipal Fiber Networks

A March article in Broadband Properties Magazine spotlights three communities around the country that are making progress toward creating municipal fiber networks. The City of Centennial, Colorado announced that they have completed a feasibility study and a Master Plan detailing the city’s plans to develop a network. Additionally, the Cities of Indianola, Iowa and Rancho Cucamonga, California announced that they have begun studying the feasibility of starting their own municipal fiber networks. 

Indianola, Iowa

Indianola, Iowa is a city of about 15,000 just 20 miles south of Des Moines. As we wrote a few years ago, Indianola currently owns an open access Fiber-to-the Premise (FTTP) network which provides Gigabit speed Internet access, plus TV, and phone service to most businesses and select residents in Indianola. The study they recently commissioned will explore the feasibility of using this existing network for constructing a FTTP network to the entire community. 

Indianola built its existing fiber network, which they launched in 2012, out of frustration as CenturyLink refused requests from the community to upgrade their DSL network and the incumbent Mediacom began overcharging for their Internet services. Today, Indianola Municipal Utilities is the infrastructure owner and a wholesale provider of this fiber network while Mahaska Communication Group, an Iowa-based Internet Service Provider (ISP), performs the operations and maintenance services for the network. 

Rancho Cucamonga, California

The City of Rancho Cucamonga, California recently asked a private consulting firm to perform a study to determine the feasibility of creating a fiber optic network. City officials see a municipal fiber network in this city of just over 170,000 as a potential driver of economic development. The city is located about 45 miles east of Los Angeles.


Like Indianola, Rancho Cucamonga owns existing fiber-optic infrastructure. They city owns 25 miles of 96 strand fiber and 5 additional miles of vacant fiber conduit connecting to numerous municipal facilities. The city plans to first create a network for municipal buildings and businesses. Later, Rancho Cucamonga will integrate the network into the city’s traffic system and expand the network to serve residents.

Centennial, Colorado

The City of Centennial, Colorado released the results of a feasibility study and Master Plan in March. The study and plan detail a strategy to expand an existing 48-mile dark fiber infrastructure to create an open access network in this Denver suburb of 100,000.

The Master Plan calls for the city to spend $5.7 million to expand its existing fiber infrastructure and create a municipal fiber network that will provide vastly improved Internet access to all of the schools, libraries, local government and public safety organizations in Centennial. The city is also designing the network to run close to major business and residential areas and will have enough capacity to serve businesses and households. The city would serve as a wholesale provider and lease the network infrastructure on a non-exclusive basis to private ISPs that would provide retail services to subscribers. 

Centennial uses its 48-mile fiber infrastructure to facilitate operations of the city’s traffic signal equipment and to connect its government facilities to privately owned Internet networks. In 2013, Centennial residents voted overwhelmingly in support of a ballot question to reclaim local telecommunications authority that had been hijacked in 2005 when the state legislature passed SB 152. The voters’ 3:1 approval of that referendum opened the door to other possibilities for their publicly owned fiber.

Centennial’s Mayor Pro Tem C.J. Whelan, the chair of Centennial’s Fiber Steering Committee, described city’s vision for the network:

“This plan provides the roadmap for a future fiber-optic network infrastructure that will become a key resource of the city and ultimately enable Centennial to pursue improvements to public services and enhance economic development.”

City Councilwoman Stephanie Piko added.

“The city will now be in a position to partner with anchor agencies, such as school districts and public-safety agencies to offer better alternatives for their technology needs and improve their services to our residents.”

Sweet Sixteen: Waverly Utilities Hooks Up First Fiber Customers

This week in Waverly, Iowa, the local electric utility, Waverly Utilities, hooked up the first customers for its new Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network. It’s been a long time coming for the town of 10,000 people. 

16 Years Ago: A Vision

The community first had the idea back in 2000 when they voted to form a municipal telecommunications utility after incumbent providers proved a letdown.  Reacting to the vote, those incumbent providers improved their networks a bit, so Waverly Utilities decided to hold off on building a fiber network. 

In 2013, residents and businesses found that the incumbent providers were again not providing necessary connectivity. Taking matters into their own hands, they pushed to create a new, publicly owned network. By 2015, the community had secured revenue bonds for the $12 million project.

Today: A Reality

Waverly Utilities already has 1,100 customers signed up to receive the service, and more homes and businesses will be connected over the next three months. By July 1st, Waverly Utilities’ network will be fully operational, delivering the next-generation connectivity that residents have long been waiting for.

For more about Waverly's project, take a few minutes to listen to Chris interview Mike Litterer, who was serving as Interim General Manager of Waverly Light and Power in 2013. He talked with Chris during Episode #53 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.