Public Knowledge recently had me as a guest on their "In the Know" weekly podcast. Our interview is the last half of the show. The videos we reference in the discussion are embedded below.
We watch in frustration as the federal government, dressed as Charlie Brown asks AT&T, wearing Lucy's blue dress and smiling brightly, if she really will hold the football properly this time. "Oh yes, Charlie, this time I really will create all those jobs if you let us buy T-Mobile," says AT&T Lucy.
Over at HuffPo, Art Brodsky recently revisited AT&T's promises in California to create jobs, lower broadband prices, and heal the infirm if the state would just deregulate the cable video market -- which it did, 4 years ago. California upheld its end of the bargain -- wanna guess if AT&T did? Hint: Charlie Brown ended up on his back then too.
The answer comes from James Weitkamp (via Art's HuffPo post), from the Communications Workers of America, a union that all too often acts in the interests of big companies like AT&T and CenturyLink rather than workers:
"AT&T and Verizon have slashed the frontline workforce, and there simply are not enough technicians available to restore service in a timely manner, nor enough customer service representatives to take customers' calls. Let me share some statistics. Since 2004, AT&T reduced its California landline frontline workforce by 40%, from about 29,900 workers to fewer than 18,000 today. The company will tell you that they need fewer wireline employees because customers have cut the cord going wireless or switched to another provider, but over this same period, AT&T access line loss has been just under nine percent nationally. I would be shocked if line loss in California corresponds to the 40 percent reduction in frontline employees.
"Similarly, since 2006 Verizon California cut its frontline landline workforce by one-third, from more than 7,000 in 2005 to about 4,700 today. I venture that Verizon has not lost one third of its land lines in the state."
Note that AT&T, Verizon, and other massive incumbents like Comcast have been wildly profitable over this term.
The same trend holds in cellular wireless - as noted by the Wall Street Journal:
The U.S. wireless industry is booming as more consumers and businesses snap up smartphones, tablet computers and billions of wireless applications. But for...
You can also read this story over at the Huffington Post.
How can it be that the big companies who deliver some of the most important services in our modern lives (access to the Internet, television) rank at the top of the most hated? Probably because when they screw up or increase prices year after year, we have no choice but sticking with them. Most of us have no better options.
But why do we have so few choices? Government-sanctioned monopolies have been outlawed since the 1996 Telecommunications Act. Unfortunately, the natural tendency of the telecommunications industry is toward consolidation and monopoly (or duopoly). In the face of this reality, the federal government has done little to protect citizens and small businesses from telecom market failings.
But local governments have stepped up and built incredible next-generation networks that are accountable to the community. These communities have faster speeds (at lower prices) than the vast majority of us.
Most of these communities would absolutely prefer for the private sector to build the necessary networks and offer real competition, but the economics of telecom makes that as likely as donuts becoming part of a healthy breakfast. In most cases, the incumbent cable and telephone companies are too entrenched for any other company to overbuild them. But communities do not have the same pressures to make a short-term profit. They can take many years to break even on an investment that creates many indirect benefits along the way.
One might expect successful companies like AT&T and Time Warner Cable to step up to the challenge posed by community networks, and they have. Not by simply investing more and competing for customers, but by using their comparative advantage – lobbying state legislatures to outlaw the competition. As we noted in our commentary and video last week, massive cable and telephone companies have tried to remove...Read more
Rick Karr has produced a "can't miss" 15 minute video that shows what happens when telecommunications is treated more like infrastructure and less like a for-profit morass controlled by massive companies.
We can have universal, fast, affordable, and reliable access to the Internet but we choose instead to let companies like AT&T and Comcast dominate telecommunications to the detriment of our economy, innovation, education, and health care. It is a choice -- and one we desperately need to revisit.
This video is no longer available.
I have long been a fan of Larry Lessig's work, so I was proud to see him use our work as the foundation for his presentation at the 2011 Personal Democracy Forum. He talks about the fundamental right of communities to build their own networks as well as Time Warner Cable's successful purchase of competition-limiting legislation in North Carolina.
Update: You can also watch the video over at the Huffington Post, in our first post as a HuffPo blogger.
While we were battling Time Warner Cable to preserve local authority in North Carolina, we developed a video comparing community fiber networks to incumbent DSL and cable networks to demonstration the incredible superiority of community networks.
We have updated the video for a national audience rather than a North Carolina-specific approach because community fiber networks around the country are similarly superior to incumbent offerings. And community networks around the country are threatened by massive corporations lobbying them out of existence in state legislatures.
Feel free to send feedback - especially suggestions for improvement - to email@example.com.
Without further ado, here is the new video comparing community fiber networks to big incumbent providers:
We have an answer to the question of what a city gets when it commits the bare minimum to improving broadband access: more of the same. We were skeptical of Seattle's approach of using city-owned conduit to spur serious improvements to broadband and, it turns out, correct.
Only one company bid on the project, Comcast, a provider in much of Seattle already -- and a much maligned one at that. So Pioneer Square will have better access to the Internet, but from the dominant provider of high speed access in the City.
Seattle just helped Comcast consolidate its monopoly just a bit further. This is a small step forward for Pioneer Square, and a larger step backward for the City as a whole. With FiOS available in the suburbs, offering much faster and more reliable connections for the same prices, Seattle has done very little to stem the flow of techies to the burbs.
The RFP set certain requirements for use of the City's conduit, as noted in the Seattle Times article but one has to wonder if Comcast might be able to negotiate that down - few are better at exercising monopoly power than the Nation's largest cable and Internet provider.
Comcast is slated to pay $78,000 in one-time fees to cover part of the cable's installation, plus $4,057 in annual leasing fees, according to city documents.
The City elected a Mayor who promised to improve broadband access, but it seems the City Council is standing in the way of actually doing anything that would bring residents and businesses a meaningful choice in providers.
Photo, used under creative commons license, courtesy of Jeff Hathaway
Access Wisconsin, a group of telephone providers working with AT&T to kill a network essential for schools and libraries across the state, claims that using taxpayer money is unfair competition. It is a fascinating argument from a collection of companies that rakes in various state and federal subsidies.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported these statements from Access Wisconsin this week:
"This is by far the greatest assault we've ever felt from the University of Wisconsin Extension," said Mark Weller, president and CEO of Access Wisconsin, which represents 30 mostly small, rural telecommunications providers. "It's totally inappropriate.
"When services are available through the private sector at a competitive rate and we have to compete against yet another entity that is being funded by the taxpayers, that's just not fair."
Those statements came after increasing outrage around the state following the news that their lobbyists waited until the 11th hour to suddenly insert a provision into an omnibus bill that would kill WiscNet and require the state to return multiple broadband stimulus awards expanding telecommunications services in unserved areas.
But back in February of 2010, when Access Wisconsin was receiving a similar broadband stimulus award, it had a different attitude.
“The Recovery Act grant will bring fiber optic broadband to areas where it would otherwise be too expensive to build. There aren’t enough customers to justify the cost of the investment without the help of these funds," Weller said. “The federal grant, along with a 20% state match, is providing the kind of infrastructure for rural schools and libraries that will meet their needs for decades.”
The new fiber optic broadband connections will provide new education and economic opportunities in 380 largely rural communities across Wisconsin. Schools and libraries in those communities will gain dramatically expanded telecommunications access, while the installation of new infrastructure will help make broadband access available for businesses and residents.
Information Week has alerted Chief Information Officers (CIOs) that they need to pay attention to community broadband networks. Jonathan Feldman's column explains "What North Carolina's Broadband Battlefield Means to You."
The lessons have little to do with North Carolina and everything to do with the future of broadband Internet access. Community networks offer higher speed, more reliable, and more affordable connections to businesses and other entities than incumbent operators.
Feldman opens with a North Carolina business owner emailing him about wanting to duplicate Chattanooga's amazing broadband options and futuristic smart grid. Too bad North Carolina's Legislature just passed a bill to effectively prohibit NC towns from doing that.
MuniNetworks.org frequently decries the lack of choices among service providers, so it is gratifying to see Feldman make the same point:
Those of us who approve telecom budgets, whether in North Carolina or other states, know there really isn't a broadband marketplace. In contrast, we can choose among 50 providers of Web hosting services, and they're all trying to differentiate themselves based on quality and features. THAT'S a marketplace. What exists today in broadband telecom is essentially a choice between the telco and the region's cable operator.
And further on, a strong endorsement for communities that have made public broadband investments:
Unless you're a telecom carrier, you should be interested in doing business in a region where the government is building out next-generation broadband infrastructure. Whether you work for a large business that requires fiber optic capabilities (or "lambdas," which are virtual fiber pipes), or whether you simply need IP service, the lower price/performance levels of such regions are highly attractive.
Be aware of the telecom regulatory environment in any state your company is expanding into, especially as other states follow North Carolina's example. It may not be a make or break consideration, but it's one that you should bring up with your board when discussing site selection.
Feldman notes that these networks are not easy to build (a point that resonates with us - communities build these networks because they have to, not because they want to).
On June 1, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation held an oxford-style debate over the proposition: "Governments should neither subsidize nor operate broadband networks to compete with commercial ones."
Jim Baller and I spoke against the proposition while Rob Atkinson and Jeff Eisenach defended it during the 2 hour, 15 minute session. I was unable to be in DC and thus participated by the magic of modern telecommunications.
This is a long but valuable and unique discussion. We left talking points behind, actually responded to the points raised by the other side, and presented both sides of this debate in a reasonable manner. In short, this is exactly the kind of discussion we would elected officials to consider before legislating on the matter. But it very rarely happens -- nothing even remotely close to it occured in North Carolina when Time Warner Cable pushed its bill through the Legislature to enact a de facto ban on muni networks in the state.
You can watch it here.