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Community Broadband Media Roundup - July 25

Massachusetts

Leyden opens broadband discussions with MBI by Shelby Ashline, The Recorder

 

Tennessee

Tennessee needs more competition between Internet providers, according to state report by Emily Siner, Nashville Public Radio

But almost all businesses — more than 90 percent — reported that they're not happy with their current options for getting online and aren't finding affordable alternatives.

The study says one of the keys to better internet in Tennessee is increasing competition, noting that businesses with more internet options had much faster speeds. It recommended that the state to reduce regulations, making it easier for more companies to provide internet in more places.

Tennessee study shows state remains a broadband backwater thanks to AT&T lobbyists, clueless politicians, and protectionist state law by Karl Bode, TechDirt

Broadband is a key part of today's infrastructure by Johnson City Press

 

General

Are Public-Private Partnerships the best path to municipal broadband? by Jen Kinney, Next City & Public CEO

Municipal broadband has become a key issue among those who believe internet access is increasingly central to individuals’ and cities’ prosperity...Developing such networks can be prohibitively expensive, however, so more and more municipalities are turning to public-private partnerships to finance and build them. A new report by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) takes a look at what makes those deals successful — and what causes them to fail.

Rural and urban America divided by broadband access by Jack Karsten and Darrell M. West, Brookings Institution

There's an obvious way to create more jobs by Susan Crawford, BackChannel

Nearly 80 community-based providers delivering Gigabit broadband to rural communities by Telecompetitor

Discussing (Ranting) Consolidation - Community Broadband Bits Episode 209

In celebration of Independence Day, we are focused this week on consolidation and dependence. At the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, we are very focused on independence and believe that the consolidation in the telecommunications industry threatens the independence of communities. We doubt that Comcast or AT&T executives could locate most of the communities they serve on a blank map - and that impacts their investment decisions that threaten the future of communities.

So Lisa Gonzalez and I talk about consolidation in the wake of Google buying Webpass and UC2B's partner iTV-3 selling out to Countrywide Broadband. And we talk about why Westminster's model of public-private partnership is preferable to that of UC2B.

We also discuss where consolidation may not be harmful and how the FCC's order approving the Charter takeover of Time Warner Cable will actually result in much more consolidation rather than new competition.

Read the transcript from this show here.

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

This show is 18 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 download this mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Fifes and Drums of the Old Barracks for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Cork Hornpipe."

Ammon's Network of the Future - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 207

On the heals of releasing our video on Ammon, Idaho, we wanted to go a little more in-depth with Bruce Patterson. Bruce is Ammon's Technology Director and has joined us on the show before (episodes 173 and 86). We recommend watching the video before listening to this show.

We get an update from Bruce on the most recent progress since we conducted the video interviews. He shares the current level of interest from the first phase and expectations moving forward.

But for much of our conversation, we focus on how Ammon has innovated with Software-Defined Networks (SDN) and what that means. We talk about how the automation and virtualization from SDN can make open access much more efficient and open new possibilities.

Check out Ammon's Get Fiber Now signup page or their page with more information.

Read the transcript from this show here.

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

This show is 27 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 download this mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Forget the Whale for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "I Know Where You've Been."

Calories? Carbs? Data Caps? ISP Nutrition Labels From BroadbandSearch

Depending on where you live, you may be able to choose between two or three big name ISPs. No matter which one you ultimately select, you might face some difficulty obtaining the kind of service you deserve. If you know what to expect, it’s easier to prepare yourself and, in the event you DO have a choice, pick the one that’s right for you.

BroadbandSearch has likened transparency in the telecommunications industry to nutrition information on food packaging. They have produced a set of “Nutrition Labels” for your Internet access diet.

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They describe the project:

We believe that anything that makes buying broadband Internet service easier is a good thing, and for that reason we've created these ready-made broadband nutrition labels to help you choose from the biggest providers in the nation. 

Here is Comcast’s Xfinity label, a big provider in our Minneapolis area.

Of course, rates from Xfinity and other providers vary from place to place and they offer introductory deals that depend on a number of factors. For more on how BroadbandSearch obtained their data, check out their Sources page.

Now that the FCC’s network neutrality rules have been challenged and upheld in the Appellate Court, providers are required to be more transparent. These labels can help them share the information that subscribers need to make informed decisions. Check out the complete set at BroadbandSearch.

OK, Just What Does Open Access Mean Anymore?

In our experience, just about every community considering building a community network considers open access. They want to enable new choices for services and often would prefer the local government avoid directly competing with existing service providers, for a variety of reasons. However, we are only tracking 30 open access networks on our just-released Open Access resource page.

Many of the communities that start off enthusiastic about open access ultimately decide to have a single service provider (themselves or a contractor) to have more certainty over the revenues needed to pay operating expenses and debt. We believe this will change as the technology matures and more communities embrace software-defined networks (SDN) -- but before tackling that topic, we think it is important to discuss the meaning of open access.

On a regular basis, I get an email from one deep-thinking person or another that says, "That network isn't really open access." They almost always make good points. The problem is that different people embrace open access for different reasons - they often have different expectations of outcomes. Understanding that is key to evaluating open access.

How Many ISPs?

One of the key questions centers on how many providers a household is likely to be able to choose from. Various factors, including the network architecture and economics of becoming a service provider, will influence this outcome.

Some communities simply seek to avoid a monopoly network - they are focused on the idea of potential competition. For instance, we believe Huntsville's model and agreement with Google can be considered open access because any party could lease fiber from the utility to compete with Google. However, we believe the costs of doing so by using that network architecture make robust competition unlikely.

If Google is a strong competitor in Huntsville, they will likely not face significant competition from other ISPs on the utility fiber though AT&T and Comcast will still use their networks to compete. But in the event that Google is not a strong competitor, the door will be open to other ISPs to give people a better choice. It is extremely unlikely that this arrangement would give residents many choices for Internet access, but it is an improvement over the one or two pathetic incumbent options most of us face. Google is left with an incentive to meet user expectations, knowing that it could face competition if people are unsatisfied.

The UTOPIA model has resulted in many more choices for both businesses and residents, but most of those businesses are offering similar services at similar prices. The fact that it does not carry a "marquee" provider like Google or a national cable company on it may make brand awareness (and therefore marketing) more difficult, but it also provides opportunities for excellent local firms like XMission to thrive.

Simultaneous Services

This leads into a second question: can a premise subscribe to multiple service providers simultaneously or do they have to choose one? This may sound like a dumb question at first - why would you want to subscribe to two different ISPs? Aside from perhaps wanting video or phone services from one and Internet access from another, many are hoping to see more innovation on this front. We have written frequently on Ammon, Idaho, because they are doing some of the best work in this regard.

The ability to offer simultaneous services depends greatly on the underlying technology. Not all FTTH networks can give ISPs the tools they need to have confidence in delivering a high quality product reliably to their subscribers. Communities that want to ensure they have this capacity should pick a consultant that deeply understands these issues and has worked previously on open access.

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The Holy Grail among those who prioritize this flavor of open access is to make it very easy for network subscribers to manage their own subscriptions - changing providers on the fly (and again, see Ammon for a model). This approach would allow ISPs to specialize and greatly encourage innovation, particularly for niche services. You might subscribe to an ISP that specializes in great connections for video games while also having a part of your connection dedicated to a home alarm system and still be able to initiate a high quality teleconference for health care that wasn't transported on the public Internet.

Market Entry Costs and Consequences

A key question about open access comes down to market entry costs. How much will it cost an ISP to serve potential subscribers? In Huntsville, the costs of building drops suggests it will still cost hundreds of dollars per sub, which is less than the $1,000+ per sub that it would likely cost to build a network from scratch.

We would generally expect that the lower the cost for an ISP to connect subscribers, the more ISPs would be on the network. However, there is an initially surprising problem that can arise when the cost to offer services is very low, something occasionally called "ruinous competition." This is used to various levels of seriousness but represents a common economic problem: if a product has little differentiation (like an ISP offering only Internet access), then subscribers are likely to decide on the ISP based solely on cost. Over time, ISPs will cut prices until the margin all but disappears, which runs most of the providers out of business (or they consolidate) and the competition effectively disappears.

One of the key points of the “ruinous competition” problem is whether ISPs are effectively providing the same thing (generic Internet access) or services (home security, remote backup, help desk, telemedicine, etc.). To the extent that they are offering different kinds of services, we can avoid that problem. However, it is not clear that most networks today are technically capable of allowing service providers to differentiate their services in any significant way, which is again why Ammon's forward-thinking software-defined networking approach is so important.

Like other aspects of technology, open access will evolve with innovation. For now, open access means different things to different people who are often seeking different outcomes.

Tennessee Potential Partnership Between Morristown Muni and AEC Co-op - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 203

In Tennessee, this month marks 10 years of Morristown Utility Systems delivering fiber-optic triple-play service to the community, including great Internet access. But those living just outside the city and in nearby cities have poor access at best. MUS General Manager and CEO Jody Wigington returns to our show this week and we also welcome Appalachian Electric Cooperative (AEC) General Manager Greg Williams to discuss a potential partnership to expand Morristown services to those that want them.

As we have frequently noted, Tennessee law prohibits municipal fiber networks from expanding beyond their electric territories. The FCC decision repealing that favor to the big cable and telephone company lobbyists is currently being appealed. But Tennessee also prohibits electrical co-ops from providing telephone or cable TV service, which makes the business model very difficult in rural areas.

Nonetheless, MUS and AEC have studied how they can team up to use the assets of both to deliver needed services to those outside Morristown. We discuss their plan, survey results, the benefits of working together, and much more.

Read the transcript from this show 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.

You can download this mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Forget the Whale for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "I Know Where You've Been."

Meeting the American Cable Association - Community Broadband Bits Podcast Episode 202

The American Cable Association (ACA) represents over 800 small and medium-sized cable companies around the United States, including many municipal cable and fiber-optic networks. This week, we talk with ACA President and CEO Matt Polka about what they do and how small cable companies are vastly different from the big companies like Comcast and Charter.

We spoke after it was clear Charter's merger with Time Warner Cable would be approved, but before this article in Ars Technica effectively missed the point of Matt Polka's objection to the competition requirement in the merger. In our interview, we discuss the larger problem - that the federal government consistently puts its thumb on the scale to benefit the biggest cable companies at the expense of smaller ones. Forcing Charter to compete with Comcast would be a far bigger benefit to communities than having it take over small cable networks.

We wrap up with a discussion about how smaller companies, which includes all municipal networks, are disproportionately impacted by regulations that do not distinguish between the biggest providers (that tend to cause the majority of problems) and the smaller providers (that bear the brunt of regulations designed for reigning in the problems caused by the big carriers).

Read the transcript from this show here.

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

This show is 29 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 download this mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Forget the Whale for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "I Know Where You've Been."

Data Cap Problem Grows...And Grows...And Grows

A recent Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article (requires subscription) chronicles the increasingly problematic effect of data caps on the quality of residential subscribers' Internet access experience.

Also known as a bandwidth cap, a data cap is a monthly bandwidth usage limit Internet Service Providers (ISPs) sometimes impose on subscribers at their standard monthly rates. While some ISPs charge customers more for exceeding their monthly bandwidth caps, in other cases ISPs may even cut off a customer’s service completely.

The problem is also harming companies like Netflix and Sling TV who are losing customers who can’t justify paying for a high capacity video streaming service that’s only available until they hit their data caps partway through the month. In response, Netflix lowered the video quality for users on ISP networks that use data caps as a way to help them avoid the limitations. The plan worked, but in the process Netflix angered customers, who blamed both the ISPs and the streaming service for the lowered video quality.

It's Not All About The Money

The problem goes beyond the extra fees charged to customers who use a lot of data. The WSJ article cites two Internet users who’d like to join the growing number of “cord cutters” who are dropping television service for Internet-based video. As one man put it:

“I wouldn’t have regular TV if not for the data cap,” he says. “Comcast has got me by the throat.”

Another added:

“I was planning to cut the cord when my DirecTV contract is up,” he says. “This is essentially a ploy to keep people from cutting cable in my opinion.”

An increasing number of subscriber complaints and suspicions about the accuracy of measuring bandwidth usage heighten concerns.

Feds Take Notice

The Government Accountability Office released a report at the end of 2014 expressing their concern about ISPs abusing the use of data caps. At the time, the FCC said that they had not received enough complaints about the problem to merit action. In 2015, as this new WSJ article notes, the FCC received an unprecedented number of complaints about data caps. The problem is only getting worse as household bandwidth usage continues to grow.

To Cap Or Not To Cap? That Is The Question

Providers like Comcast will sometimes offer unlimited usage for an additional monthly fee. Recently, both Comcast and AT&T announced they will raise data caps; Comcast will also increase the price of unlimited usage to $50 per month. Experts speculate the move is a reaction to FCC limits imposed on the Time Warner Cable/Charter Communications merger. From a recent POTs and PANs article:

First, the FCC just required that one of the conditions for Charter’s purchase of Time Warner is that they impose no data caps on customers for seven years. In making that statement the FCC said that they had serious concerns about ISP data caps if those same ISPs also owned video programming, like Time Warner. In such cases, the ISP imposing data caps is favoring their own content over Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu delivered over the Internet.

Seventy percent of all homes in the U.S. have access to one or fewer ISPs offering service that meets the FCC's definition of high-speed Internet access - 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload. Data caps are a natural result of the control incumbent ISPs have in markets with insufficient competition.

"Inconsistent With Its Mission"

Limits on bandwidth usage are generally not a problem for municipal network users as publicly owned networks are known to reject the use of data caps. A statement from Vermont's EC Fiber reflected a common philosophy:

An uncapped internet environment encourages entrepreneurs and economic growth. Despite the trend toward instituting data caps among commercial internet providers, ECFiber believes that caps are inconsistent with its mission as a community network. An unconstrained online environment frees businesses and individuals to be creative and innovative.

April 21st Webinar: "Municipal Broadband: Competition, Opportunity, or Both?"

A diverse panel of telecom industry experts will gather on April 21st for a webinar to discuss the emerging partnership role of private Internet Service Providers (ISPs) within the growing municipal broadband movement.

Featured speakers at the webinar, hosted by the leading telecom industry blog Telecompetitor, will include:

  • Doug Dawson, President - CCG Consultants: Doug Dawson has nearly 40 years of experience providing support for the planning, fund-raising, technical and operational aspects of creating broadband networks. Dawson is also the author of POTs and PANs, a daily blog covering current issues in the telecom industry.
  • Mark Mrla, Business Unit Manager -  Finley Engineering: Mark Mrla is involved in the design, budgeting, scheduling, and implementation processes for power, telecommunications and technology projects for clients of Finley Engineering. 
  • Dan Olsen, Project Manager - Finley Engineering: Former General Manager for Minnesota's WindomNet, Dan has firsthand experience making a fiber network a reality. When the webinar is over, check out Episode #64 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast and listen to Chris interview him about WindomNet.

The hour-long webinar, sponsored by Finley Engineering, will air live on Thursday, April 21st from 2:00 - 3:00 pm Central Standard Time (CST). You can register to participate in the webinar on the Telecompetitor Website. Even if you cannot attend the webinar live, the organizers encourage you to register for the webinar because your registration instructions will include information about accessing Telecompetitor’s on-demand archives.

Once you register, you will receive instructions via email on how to join the discussion. The live discussion begins here on April 21st.

Knowledge Is Power

These discussions are essential for communities to learn the pros and cons of partnerships with ISPs. A growing number of local communities are watching as places like Westminster, Maryland, and Huntsville, Georgia, take smart approaches with potential partners. On the other hand, public private partnerships are fraught with risk. We encourage every community to carefully examine the facts, look at the options, and proceed with caution.

A New Cooperative Model for Fiber to the Farm - Community Broadband Bits Podcast Episode 198

When we launched this podcast in 2012, we kicked it off with an interview from Minnesota's farm country, Sibley County. We were excited at their passion for making sure every farm was connected with high quality Internet access.

After the project took a turn and became a brand new cooperative, we interviewed them again in 2014 for episode 99, but they hadn't finished financing. They broke ground 2015 and today we discuss the model and the new Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) case study that details how they built it.

City of Winthrop Economic Development Authority Director Mark Erickson and Renville-area farmer Jake Rieke are both on the board of RS Fiber Cooperative and they join us to explain how their model works.

We at ILSR believe this model could work in much of rural America, in any community that can summon a fraction of the passion of the citizens from Sibley and Renville counties. Having watched this project for all the years it was being developed, I cannot express how impressed I am with their dedication. And because they own it, I'm thrilled to know that no one can take it away from them.

Read the transcript from this show here.

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

This show is 35 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 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."