Tag: "competition"

Posted June 21, 2010 by christopher

Powell, a small community in Wyoming, has bought its own network from the investors who financed it [Powell Tribune], eighteen years ahead of schedule. For a short history of Powellink, see Breaking the Broadband Monopoly.

The decision, unanimously agreed to by City Council, came from the realization that the City's reserves were earning very little interest while they were paying a higher interest rates to those who financed the network. So they decided to invest in themselves.

Under the new agreement, Powellink will become a fifth enterprise for the city, joining the electric, water, waste water and sanitation enterprises. The other four enterprises will loan Powellink the $6.5 million, and payments from service providers using Powellink — such as TCT — will go back to the enterprises to pay off the loan.

City Administrator Zane Logan had previously told me that he thought Powellink was a much better approach to attracting jobs to the area than the approach frequently used by communities - tax breaks to companies in return for creating jobs. In the Powell Tribune article, he explained how this approach allows Powell to be more self-reliant.

Logan said he believes the new agreement will help Powell during a difficult economic climate. The state cut its funding of cities and towns this year, and sales tax revenues are down.

“We’re trying to help ourselves and not be dependent on the state,” he said. “The Legislature is saying cities need to take care of themselves, and I like to think that Powell is doing that.”

Local cooperative TCT had the right to another four years of exclusive operation as the sole service provider but gave that up, meaning the network will now be open access. In return, TCT does not have to guarantee revenue to the City (as it agreed to do in each year it was an exclusive service provider).

These changes come about as Cablevision bought Bresnan, the cable incumbent that had radically lowered rates to compete with Powellink. It will be interesting to see how Cablevision continues or changes company policy in Powell.

Photo courtesy of Ernie Bray...

Posted June 15, 2010 by christopher

Lafayette Utilities System has filed a complaint with the FCC following what seems to be a rather arbitrary decision by the National Cable Television Cooperative (NCTC) to deny Lafayette as a member. This is a crucial issue for communities that want to build fiber-optic networks, so we will dig in and offer an in-depth explanation.

It all starts with the business model. Fiber-optic networks are fantastically expensive and are expected to be financed entirely with revenues from subscribers. Though communities typically want fiber-optic networks for the broadband capacity, they find themselves having to offer cable television services also to ensure they will attract enough subscribers to make the debt payments on the network.

Unfortunately, cable television services are the most difficult and expensive part of the triple-play (broadband, telephone, cable tv). A community network has to sign deals with different content providers in order to put together its channel lineup. Even a community network with 100,000 subscribers has little power over the companies with channels like ESPN, the Disney Channel, Discovery, MTV, Food Network, and others. Thus, it will have to pay more for those channels than massive networks like Comcast that have many millions of subscribers and therefore a stronger negotiating position. LUS has noted that video programming is the "largest single on-going cost" it incurs in the network.

Enter the NCTC. By forming a cooperative, many small providers (public and private) were able to gain negotiating power over content owners and even hardware manufacturers to cut costs to members by buying in bulk. In recent years, the size of NCTC rivaled that of major national providers like Charter and Cox cable. All three parties stood to gain by bringing Cox and Charter into NCTC in 2009. The addition grew NCTC significantly -- only Comcast has more subscribers currently.

The advantages of NCTC are quite significant and worth reiterating because it is a reminder of the ways in which massive private companies have the playing field tilted in their direction. Without access to NCTC, communities have to pay more for the same content and equipment (NCTC savings may start at 15%-20%. From the complaint:

NCTC market power also enables it to obtain much bigger, better, more flexible, and less costly packages, than any individual small cable...

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Posted June 4, 2010 by christopher

It's fast and it's symmetrical. Chattanooga, the nation's largest muni FTTH network will be offering the fastest residential package in the country by the end of the month: 150 Mbps.

Chattanooga's Electric Power Board (EPB) is ahead of schedule in the fiber rollout, planning to offer triple-play services to all 145,000 residential customers in its electrical territory by the end of the year. Dave Flessner at the Chattanooga Times Free Press covered this story and the paper posted a short audio clip of EPB President Harold DePriest at the press conference.

EPBFi is up to almost 10,000 customers, a number expected to double by the end of the year.

Comcast is responding to this aggressive muni network:

Comcast Corp. remains Chattanooga's biggest video provider and has also increased the speed of its Internet offerings and the number of high-definition television channels and movies it provides for its subscribers.

Tennessee, home to the famous Tennessee Valley Authority that brought the electrical grid the mountains long neglected by the private sector, continues to value public ownership of infrastructure:

Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey likened EPB's broadband expansions to what the Tennessee Valley Authority brought to the region during the Great Depression.

"What is happening today is equivalent to electricity coming to the valley in the 1930s," he said.

I'm guessing this 150Mbps plan is the first of more impressive announcements to come out of Chattanooga as they take advantage of this key community asset. The 150 Mbps press release is available here.

The article also noted a major economic development win in Bristol Tennessee - a $20 million newspaper printing plant that would not have been possible without their muni network. This testimonial is located toward the bottom of the page.

Hyatt [company VP] acknowledged that the high-speed data transfer and reliable fiber optics were the main reasons for locating the facility in the park. This service is essential as companies move deeper into the information age, especially with...

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Posted May 13, 2010 by christopher

UTOPIA, the open access FTTH network in several cities of Utah, has been seeking some $20 million to continue adding new subscribers to the network. The cities involved seem to be on board, committing to the funding following recent successes.

Mayor Mike Winder, of West Valley City - one of the UTOPIA cities, makes the case for digging deeper to lend money to the network:

UTOPIA's good news is that since June 2008, it's added over 3,500 new customers and reached about 10,000 subscribers, the number of service providers on the network has grown from three to 12, and national voices — from Google to the New York Times — are trumpeting the virtues of an open-fiber network.

The plain and simple fact is that these towns have already committed to the project; they are vested in its success. Now under better management, perhaps his whole town will have access to fastest speeds available in the country:

Only 23 percent of my city has UTOPIA fiber, and there are homes and businesses that want access to the speed of light. After weighing the issue for months, I've concluded that we need to bring UTOPIA fiber to the rest of West Valley City, and just as importantly, to grow UTOPIA to profitability. I will be encouraging my council and my colleagues in UTOPIA cities around the state to join me in charging forward.

A press release from UTOPIA announces ambitious plans:

The new plan anticipates adding about 20,000 more customers over the next several years. “We’ve known for a long time that UTOPIA needs a much larger customer base, and a good mix of business and residential customers, to make the books balance,” says Murray Mayor Dan Snarr. “Our cities are already obligated to the network for years to come, so we need to grow to critical mass rapidly, based on a plan to ensure long-term financial health.”

And Orem's mayor reiterated UTOPIA's philosophy (noting that the NY Times have called for open access networks):

Governments build roads, and allow FedEx and UPS to compete on...

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Posted May 7, 2010 by christopher

Time Warner, AT&T, and other incumbents have radically changed their strategy to prevent broadband competition in North Carolina via new restrictions that are being debated in the Legislature currently. This switch in strategy offers more proof that they stand on no principle aside from protecting their monopoly.

The famous HB 1252 in North Carolina is back... but different. In the past, the telcos and cablecos have argued that municipal broadband networks are unfair to them because the city could use tax dollars in some way to build the network (ignoring that most publicly owned networks do not use any tax dollars). Now, these companies are pushing a bill to require financing backed by taxpayer dollars. Seems like an odd switcheroo.

As one might expect from companies like AT&T and Time Warner, who have no respect for the public process, the bill was kept top secret until debated in committee, giving only the side filled with monied interests and lawyers an opportunity to prepare. The bill (that we have made available here as there is no official version yet) would not just place significant restrictions on new publicly owned networks, but would also handcuff existing networks like Salisbury and Greenlight in Wilson.

To reiterate, this bill will damage the most advanced broadband networks available in North Carolina today. Sounds like North Carolina wants to take up Mayor Joey Durel in Lafayette on his offer to welcome the businesses moving from North Carolina to Lafayette with a big pot of gumbo.

Fascinating that after an FCC Commissioner noted that the US Broadband Plan recognizes the right for communities to build their own broadband infrastructure, North Carolina is deciding it prefers to preclude any broadband competition, sticking with its last-century DSL and cable. Just fascinating.

The Salisbury Post has been watching and recently published a scathing editorial against the bill. This is one paragraph, but the whole editorial is well worth reading.

Yet, if the HB 1252's intent becomes reality, such areas will be severely hobbled in their near-term ability to tap into the broadband revolution. Private...

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Posted May 1, 2010 by christopher

Paul Venezia is one of the few who noted a recent Lessig presentation that discusses broadband policy. Larry Lessig's presentation offers an excellent short history of broadband and telecom history - from the beginning of AT&T to the National Broadband Plan. The video runs an hour, but should be essential viewing for anyone who wants to understand why the U.S. continues to fall behind international peers in broadband. Lessig's answer is that we have lost our independence. Large corporate interests dominate the federal government as well as the state legislatures, resulting in a government that too often bends to their will. Lessig's presentation covers the essential role of government in forcing AT&T to open the phone network (paving the way for fax machines, Sports Illustrated football phones, and eventually dial-up modems). Key takeaway: the owner of a network makes the rules and determines who is allowed to use it and under what circumstances. Among other issues, he offers the most accessible explanation of what happened with the FCC/Comcast court ruling that has (temporarily - we hope) rendered the FCC unable to stop carriers from telling users what sites they can visit or adjusting the speeds to some sites based on the carriers' business model. He notes his disappointment with the National Broadband Plan - where the Obama "reality-based" Administration chose to ignore reality and take the easy road of not challenging powerful incumbent telecom interests. Toward the end, he raises the chilling prospect of the federal government instituting a form of the PATRIOT ACT on the Internet in the future. Watching this reminded me that we believe government has an essential role in building and owning infrastructure but we strongly support Constitutional checks against the government getting too involved in policing content. This is an excellent presentation - particularly for those who are not as familiar with the history of the AT&T, the FCC, Carterphone, and the competition we briefly had among service providers in the days of dial-up.

Posted April 27, 2010 by christopher

Susan Crawford recently posted "The Gentlemen's Agreement," noting that major cable companies have divided the national market and tend not to compete with each other (they actually help each other in some circumstances).

Though bad for everyone not named Comcast or Time Warner, this division is actually a historic accomplishment:

Even J.P. Morgan couldn’t get independently-owned railroads to agree not to compete with one another in the late 19th century. Not that he didn’t try. In 1890 one of Morgan’s associates was excited by the prospect of a Western Traffic Association that would include a director from each railroad and set uniform rates: “Think of it - all the competing traffic of the roads west of Chicago and Saint Louis placed in the control of about 30 men!” But the effort fell apart because some of the independents insisted on cutting rates and invading each other’s territories.

Cable and fiber-optic networks, as with railroads, have natural barriers to entry because the costs of building a network are very high; entrenched incumbents have nearly all the advantages should any competitor have the resources to surmount the barrier of sky-high upfront capital costs. In short, the market cannot self-regulate. We have a number of choices:

  1. Do nothing, let Comcast, et al. do as they please.
  2. Regulate: Hope the FCC or other Federal Agencies can stand up to the corporate lobbyists and regulate in the public interest.
  3. Provide a Public Option

We prefer the public option route - communities can build their own networks and remain independent of corporate control of infrastructure.

However, many communities have chosen to do nothing -- some in hopes the federal government will get its act together and reign in the power of these companies as the U.S. falls behind international peers in broadband metrics.

Verizon's FiOS has brought fiber to the home in some cities (with many cities courting the company), but some quickly found FiOS comes with significant trade-offs. Karl Bode details some of these - like Boston being shunned because it wanted Verizon...

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Posted April 23, 2010 by christopher

David Pogue, a NY Times Tech columnist, recently wrote about a partnership between cable companies to share Wi-Fi access points:

I, a Cablevision customer, can now use all of Time Warner’s and Comcast’s hot spots in these three states. If you have Time Warner’s Road Runner service at home, you’re now welcome to hop onto Cablevision’s Optimum hot spots wherever you find them, or Comcast’s Xfinity hot spots. And so on. It’s as though all three companies have merged for the purpose of accommodating your Wi-Fi gadget, hugely multiplying the number of hot spots that are available to you.

The companies call this kind of partnership “the first of many.”

Now, I think this development is fantastic. It hits me where I live. It’s free. It’s fast and reliable. I love it.

He goes on to ask, what's in it for them? Apparently, David Pogue has little understanding of how dominant firms work together to cement their power and limit competition.

He then put up a post with an answer from an insider:

“David, widely available WiFi makes our service better, and more useful and valuable,” he wrote. “And we don’t compete directly with TWC or Comcast for high-speed Internet customers; we compete with phone companies that offer a wide array of services, including data plans over increasingly over-burdened and sluggish cellular networks for an extra $60 per month."

Bingo. Big cable companies do not compete with each other - one suspects these companies have tacitly divided the national cable market with an understanding that they will not overbuild each other. The barriers to entering the cable/broadband market are already substantial: any new network requires a massive upfront capital expenditure. This Wi-Fi partnership with cable incumbents makes that barrier even larger.

Let's imagine that a city wants to build a publicly owned network that will compete with one of these companies. Customers of the private incumbent have Wi-Fi access all over the place, across three states - and probably more to come. The incumbent gets the benefit of investments from other cable cos in the partnership.

Any guesses on whether the publicly owned network will be...

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Posted February 2, 2010 by christopher

Catharine Rice gave a terrific presentation detailing the ways Time Warner has responded to the municipally-owned Greenlight fiber-to-the-home network: raising the rates on everyone around them and cutting great deals to Wilson residents. I saw the presentation on the Save NC Broadband blog which also has a link to her slides - make sure you follow along with the slides. She details how Time Warner has raised rates in towns around Wilson while lowering their prices and offering better broadband speeds in Wilson. Once again, we see that a community building their own network has a variety of benefits: a superior modern network that is community owned, lower prices on the last-generation network from the incumbent, and some investment from the incumbent. Now the question is whether Wilson's residents will be smart enough to support the publicly owned network in the face of Time Warner's low low prices - a recognizing that a few short years of low prices (for low quality) are not worth abandoning the publicly owned network and the benefits it has created in the community.

Cable pricing in the Raleigh-Durham-Cary NC Market from City of Wilson, NC on Vimeo.

Posted January 17, 2010 by christopher

Last month, the Daily Yonder offered a short history of Universal Service in telecommunications in the U.S. Due to the high costs of providing services in many areas of the country, private network owners have never demonstrated an interest in providing universal service, leading to various government initiatives to expand access to telecom networks.

One of the reasons we support publicly owned networks is because we strongly believe in universal service. Universal access to fast and affordable broadband is an important goal for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is its potential to democratize and enhance educational opportunities.

Readers of this site undoubtedly recognize why fast and affordable access to broadband is important to people in rural areas. What is often forgotten is why people who already have access to such broadband should care about extending access to those who don't yet have it -- aside from simply caring about fellow Americans.

There are actually self-interested reasons why everyone should support extending networks into rural areas. Perhaps the best reason is something called the "network effect" which refers to the principle that the value of a network increases as more users join. One example of this is the telephone, where a telephone network becomes more valuable as more people are on it - allowing subscribers greater access to each other.

Another benefit rooted in self-interest is analogous to benefits of rural electrification. When publicly owned electrical networks electrified the country-side, new markets were created as people with electricity began buying appliances, creating a demand for more products and services. Though the effect may not be as strong with broadband, the new technologies will create new markets, creating more opportunities for everyone.

I do not suggest these self-interested motivations are the sole or best reasons for universal service, but I also want to make sure they are part of the discussion because we all benefit by ensuring everyone has access to these essential infrastructures.

To return to the Daily Yonder piece, it notes the beginning of universal service (and also the importance of "interconnection"):

The concept a universal service originated in the...

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