Tag: "competition"

Posted October 18, 2010 by christopher

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...

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Posted October 15, 2010 by christopher

In all the talk of the need for competition in broadband (or in the mobile space), there is remarkably little attention paid to the difficulties in actually creating competition. A common refrain from the self-interested industry titans (and their many paid flacks) is: "keep the government out of it and let the market decide."

Unfortunately, an unregulated market in telecom tends toward consolidation at best, monopolization at worse. Practicioners of Chicago economics may dispute this, but their theories occur in reality about as frequently as unicorn observations. In our regulatory environment, big incumbents have nearly all the advantages, allowing them to use their advantages of scale to maintain market power (most notably the ability to use cross-subsidization from non-competitive markets to maintain predatory pricing wherever they face even the threat of competition).

The de-regulatory approach of telecom policy over the past 10 or more years has resulted in far less competition among ISPs, something Earthlink hopes to change with a condition of the seeming inevitable NBC-Comcast merger. Requiring incumbents to share their lines with independent ISPs is one policy that would greatly increase competition - but the FCC has refused to even entertain the notion because big companies like AT&T and Comcast are too intimidating for the current Administration to confront.

In the Midwest, Windstream is cutting 146 jobs as part of its acquisition of Iowa Telecom. When these companies consolidate, they can cut jobs to lower their costs... but do subscribers ever see the savings? Not hardly. The result is less competition, which leads to higher prices. Consider that Comcast is the largest cable company, but they are known better for their poor record of customer service than low prices enabled by economies of scale.

We need broadband networks that are structurally accountable to the community, not private shareholders located far outside the community. The solution is not more private companies owning broadband infrastructure, but more private companies offering competing services over next-generation infrastructure that is community owned by coops, non-profits, or local governments.

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Posted September 20, 2010 by christopher

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...

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Posted September 5, 2010 by christopher

We previously covered Qwest's admitted attempts to drive out competition in Utah, but the story has continued with the personal story of another subscriber forced to leave his independent service provider for Qwest's services.

I called XMission and they said the speed problem was with Qwest. I called the Utah PSC and got an expert on the line who explained the Telecommunications Act of 1996. He confirmed Qwest being able to choke out other ISPs on substandard speed-limited connections, while Qwest offers much higher speeds than our earlier DSL if Qwest is ISP. We sadly switched, after calling XMission and commiserating with them about this monopolistic practice. The PSC acknowledged this seems anti-competitive, but it’s the law. Who made such a law for Utah!?

As we have said on numerous occasions, without community broadband networks, the future of broadband competition is quite bleak... at least in the U.S. Canada's telecom regulator has shown far more courage than our FCC.

Posted August 31, 2010 by christopher

Last year, when the Berkman Study (pdf) by Harvard (commissioned by the FCC) revealed the secret behind impressive broadband gains in nearly every country over the past decade, we hoped the FCC would learn something from it. Maybe it did, and maybe it didn't -- what is clear is that it did not have the courage to embrace pro-competition policies.

Canada's telecom regulator, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has shown more courage in confronting powerful interests that want to monopolize the future of communications.

They have decided to require the big telecom carriers share their network with independent ISPs in an open access type arrangement.

Until this decision, the established telecom companies could "throttle" third-party services, by slowing them down or limiting downloads.

In Canada, these huge companies also claim that such regulations will decrease their investment in next-generation networks, likely a hollow threat. Regardless, it is a strong argument for public ownership of essential infrastructure. How many communities should be denied next-generation communications because some massively profitable global company is having a snit with the regulator?

Far better for communities to be self-determined, by building their own networks. When networks are run as infrastructure, they are open to independent service providers, just as the roads are open to shipping companies on equal terms.

Canada's regulator has made a difficult decision - but as Karl Bode reminds us, let's wait to see if they actually enforce it.

Posted August 9, 2010 by christopher

A few thoughts on the Google-Verizon talks and behind closed doors FCC stakeholder meetings with industry...

First, neither the FCC nor Google is likely to defend the interests of the vast majority of us and the communities in which we live. Companies like Verizon don't dump millions in lobbyists and lawyers on a lark - they do it because that level of spending gets them access and action. Google, its don't-be-evil mantra notwithstanding, remains a company that looks out for its interests first.

And Google's interests may well be ensuring that its content is always in the "fast lane" despite their historic approach of pushing for an open internet where no business can simply pay to get get a higher level of service from an ISP.

This is not an "abandon all hope" post about network neutrality. The FCC has substantially changed course on this issue many times (largely due to massive public pressure - thank you to Free Press for organizing so many folks), so I still have hopes that it will enact regulations to preserve the open internet.

However, these regulations are certainly not the best approach. It is a messy approach to solving a problem that fundamentally comes down to the fact that network owners operate essential infrastructure in the private interest rather than the public interest.

We don't have to worry that national bakeries are going to be prioritized over local bakeries in access to the roads they need to make their deliveries. UPS, FedEx, and the US Post Office do not have to engage in separate agreements in every community over who gets to use the roads and what speeds they can travel on them. When it comes to roads, the rules apply to all like vehicles equally (which is to say that all big trucks are treated like big trucks and passenger cars are treated like passenger cars).

If I lived in Chattanooga, Monticello, Lafayette, Brigham City, Bristol (TN or VA), Wilson, perhaps soon Opelika, or dozens of other communities with publicly owned broadband networks, I would be watching this ongoing network neutrality fight with a rather bemused expression because my network is democratically accountable to the community and that offers far greater accountability than anything that will...

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Posted July 23, 2010 by christopher

A Qwest sales person admits on tape that Qwest is trying to eliminate competition by purging the network of independent ISPs. Listen to the conversation here.

Customer: "Qwest is trying to eliminate competition?"

Customer Service Rep: "In a way."

Undoubtedly, Qwest will (if it has not already) disavow this quote and suggest the CSR just didn't know what she was talking about. But they are clearly trying to remove competition - something we have witnessed in the Twin Cities of Minnesota as the good ISPs (for instance, IP House) are slowly strangled because they are not permitted resell the faster circuits. Additionally, I believe allegations that Qwest deliberately allows more congestion on lines they resell than lines where they are the sole retailer.

Our office uses IP House and we have never had anything but good experiences with them. But we need a faster services, so we can choose between slightly faster options with Qwest or much faster options with Comcast. We have no choice but to take service from a crappy massive company if we want to maintain productivity.

Some would claim that we have additional choices because USIW runs a Wi-Fi network in Minneapolis (subsidized by the City) but the network's speeds cannot compare to Comcast and it is far less reliable than the wired network alternatives (though Qwest's reliability in some areas may actually be worse).

I found this story via the Free UTOPIA blog but it links to the original source on Xmission - a UTOPIA service provider and DSL resellter.

Posted July 21, 2010 by christopher

Last month, Mark Sullivan wrote a column expounding on the obvious: deregulation of broadband service providers has failed to produce the promised competition, Americans pay more for less than peers in other countries, and this is an area where smart government policy would benefit everyone.

When it comes to broadband, I’m a socialist. Why? Because broadband service in the United States is currently provided by a cableco/telco duopoly, and, as such, is slower and more expensive than in most of the developed world, studies show. Because I don't believe the FCC can fix that lack of competition within the current regulatory framework, despite the ambitious goals set forth in its National Broadband Plan. Because a reasonably-priced alternative to cable or telco broadband might be just the thing to bring competition to the industry and spur U.S. broadband cost and quality to world-class levels. Because our connectedness increasingly dictates our our economic standing in the world: Broadband is as important to us as the interstate highway system--a public works project--was to Eisenhower-era America.

Good column.

Notice that the commenters at the bottom pile on against the idea - though they clearly have little idea what they are talking about. There has been no discussion of the government taking over networks owned by the private sector and there is little reason to believe local government would be more likely to violate privacy than a company motivated solely by profits ... in fact, I would argue the private sector is considerably more likely to violate privacy than local governments.

As for Brett Glass, his comments long ago proved that he lives in a fantasy world. In his small town, there are 9 broadband competitors! Well, at least we know where the competition is - it surely is not present in my community.

Posted July 16, 2010 by christopher

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-...

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Posted June 28, 2010 by christopher

In an editorial about the LUS Fiber lawsuit against NCTC, the local Lafayette paper made the following observation:

We've had our own reservations about LUS Fiber to the Home, based on concerns about a government enterprise encroaching on a market in which private-sector entities were already providing service. But LUS has, from all available evidence, enhanced the competition in the local marketplace in terms of both price and technology.

Those who claim community broadband networks decrease competition and incumbent investment do so against all empirical evidence.

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