Tag: "competition"

Posted November 24, 2009 by christopher

We are seeing increasing evidence that competition alone is not sufficient to keep prices low. Though some communities (Monticello, MN; Powell, WY) have seen major prices drops as a result of competition from a publicly owned network, other communities have seen only price freezes or more modest increases when compared to non-competitive areas.

In Lafayette, Cox has just raised prices despite the new competition in the community.

Despite the recession, we have seen Comcast, Qwest, and others continue to profit handily as people scrimp to continue connecting to the Internet. The best method of ensuring Internet access becomes or remains affordable is with a network that is directly accountable to the community - one that puts community needs ahead of profits.

Posted November 16, 2009 by christopher

As we have noted previously, Longmont, Colorado, has seen a number of private companies attempt to offer Wi-Fi broadband and then go out of business. As Colorado preempts local authority by requiring a referendum by the city before it can offer services itself, Longmont recently had a vote to authorize telecommunications services. Voters defeated the option.

As is common in these referendums, voters were blanketed with reasons to vote against it as incumbents (Qwest and Comcast) spent $200,000 opposing competition whereas the city is prevented by law from advocating for a ballot measure.

Now the Wi-Fi network will be auctioned off in pieces because it cannot pay taxes.

Ohio-based DHB Networks owes the Boulder County treasurer’s office $87,000 in unpaid business personal property tax, and the county demanded the company cease operations unless it pays those taxes.

DHB also owes the city of Longmont. Longmont-based RidgeviewTel is running the network, at least until the Wi-Fi equipment is auctioned off Thursday — at which point, 400 to 600 customers will be without Internet access, RidgeviewTel CEO Vince Jordan said.

Though the city already has fiber assets that could be used for backhaul as well as other expertise it could use in continuing to run the network, it cannot step in to run a network that would be useful to the community:

While the city can step in and operate the system, it would be only for municipal needs — such as police, fire and utility services — and not to provide Wi-Fi to customers.

“Our hands were always tied,” Roiniotis said. “We could buy the system and operate it, but only for our own purposes. We can’t provide the retail part of it.”

The city’s hands also were tied when it came to campaigning. State law bans governments from spending public money to campaign for or against local ballot questions.

Though 400-600 people may not seem like a lot of people to leave stranded, many of those on the network were the ones that needed a low cost alternative. This is one of the reason some hoped for a last minute resolution to the...

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Posted October 22, 2009 by christopher

For another real-world example of how companies respond to public entry into the telecom market (as opposed to theoretical arguments about crowding out investment), let's look back down to Lafayette and how cable incumbent Cox responded:

“Cox froze the cable rates in Lafayette, and they didn’t freeze the rates in other areas,” said Terry Huval, director of LUS, a municipally owned utility company which fought major incumbent opposition before building an FTTH network in Lafayette and starting to offer service earlier this year. “We figured our citizens saved over $3 million in cable rates even before we could offer them service.”

I have yet to see a cable company leave a market or reduce investment following the introduction of a public competitor. The opposite tends to happen - they increase investment and often drop prices or leave them lower than in surrounding, non-competitive areas. Often, the rates are not really advertised but if you call from the competitive area, they will offer a better deal:

Trae Russell, communications manager for EATEL, the local telephone franchise in Ascension, La., and some surrounding communities, had seen the same thing happen in his area, when EATEL started offering FTTH-based services in 2006. In fact, EATEL went so far as to take out an ad in the Lafayette newspaper, alerting cable customers there to the discounts that Ascension customers were getting and forecasting similar lower rates in Lafayette once the LUS network was in the works.

“It was an incredibly bold move on our part,” Russell said. “Cox came in with an incredibly aggressive promotion for TV service with every bell and whistle you could imagine. We couldn’t figure out how they could even make money on it. So we took out an ad in the Lafayette newspaper that basically said, ‘Hey Lafayette, look at the great prices you are going to get from Cox.’ Cox was not amused.”

This is also a lesson for those who want to build a public network. Don't expect to win just because you have a better service and you offer lower prices from what was available before a competing network is built. The incumbent has often already paid off its network. Additionally, incumbents are often larger companies that pay less for their television contracts, so they can lower prices farther than one might...

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Posted October 19, 2009 by christopher

We occasionally look in on Seattle's broadband discussions because they are the largest city in the U.S. in which there is something approaching a serious discussion about a publicly owned community fiber network. They have a mayoral candidate who makes it a high priority and their Chief Technology Officer, Bill Schrier, both gets it and has an excellent staff that understands the benefits of such a network.

Glenn Fleishman has just interviewed Bill Schrier about the network and subsequently discussed the public need for broadband in specific neighborhoods due to extreme market failure. I like Glenn's style - he asks difficult questions and pushes for real answers. That said, I still want to push back on one of his statements because I think it instructive:

Government is often criticized for eliminating competition, inefficiently providing private services, and removing the profit motive. However, market failures are often where governments are asked or begged to step in, and, when accomplished correctly, can provide new opportunities for private enterprise.

Glenn is absolutely right both in capturing some of the criticisms leveled at public networks as well as noting that publicly owned broadband tends to occur in the most difficult environments. Contrary to telco rhetoric, local government officials tend not to want to jump into telecommunications efforts unless they see it as vital for the community. They are busy enough and these networks take years of planning, public hearings, and lots of loud attacks from the very companies that refuse to build the needed networks.

But look at the first two items that Glenn notes government is accused of: eliminating competition and inefficiently providing services. How is it that it can do both? Governments cannot coerce people into using the network and federal regulations prevent the local government from abusing its authority over the rights-of-way for the public network. Local governments can use untaxable bonds but private companies get depreciation, tax incentives, and can cross-subsidize from the nearby communities where they charge monopoly prices.

As for removing the profit motive - this is hardly a criticism. Infrastructure should not be controlled by any entity with a profit motive - it is the foundation of all other markets. If...

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Posted October 9, 2009 by christopher

We finally have a realistic estimate of the cost of bringing 100Mbps to every home in America... and Light Reading labeled the cost "jaw-dropping."

Want to provide 100-Mbit/s broadband service to every U.S. household? No problem: Just be ready to write a $350 billion check.

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) officials shared that jaw-dropping figure today during an update on their National Broadband Plan for bringing affordable, high-speed Internet access to all Americans. The Commission is schedule to present the plan to Congress in 141 days, on Feb. 17.

Don't get me wrong, I agree that $350 billion is a lot of money. On the other hand, we spent nearly $300 billion on surface transportation over 4 years from 2005-2009. $350 billion buys a fiber-optic network that will last considerably longer. Additionally, such a network will generate considerably more revenue than a highway. In fact, these networks will pay for themselves in most areas if they can access to low-interest loans.

Consider the comments of Deputy Administrator Zufolo (of the Rural Utilities Service) from my recent panel at NATOA:

Zufolo explained the RUS decision to use its $2.5 billion in funds primarily to subsidize loans and not provide grants, as the agency's best opportunity to make the more efficient use of the federal money and have maximum impact. Because the default rate on RUS loans is less than 1% and the subsidy rate is also low, only about 7%, it costs the government only $72,000 to loan $1 million for rural network development, she said.

Let's say that RUS decides to embark on getting 100 Mbps to everyone in a rural area - some of the projects will be riskier than the standard portfolio, so let's assume it costs the federal government $100,000 to loan $1 million (makes it easier math too). In order to spur the $350 billion investment for these networks, the government would have to put up $35 billion.

But it would probably be more than that because some areas - Montana, Alaska, Wyoming, and other beautiful places will need...

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Posted October 6, 2009 by christopher

The Minnesota Independent took Pawlenty's Administration to task last week for its decision to give more money to the telecom company front group Connected Nation. To be clear, this is not the money for infrastructure (yet - time will tell how the state encourages the feds to allocate the grants). This was the mapping money.

Peter Fleck, of PF Hyper blog, put it well:

“My understanding is that we have allowed the companies that have not provided the needed broadband coverage in our state to steer the broadband mapping process itself because of a stated need for confidentiality. That need is questionable,” said Fleck.

“And it puts the state in a position where if the maps show there is no problem with broadband coverage, then we won’t need legislation, regulation, or any other policies and it creates the risk that the telecom industry can continue to provide inadequate coverage to underserved areas — usually areas of low-density and low-income. And because of the inadequacy of these maps, eventually we will have to undertake broadband mapping again at taxpayer expense. To me, this is an irresponsible use of public money.”

The story also quotes me and links back to our story on Connected Nation in Minnesota.

I want to note that states and federal agencies can demand more in terms of better maps and data transparency. It is somewhat disingenuous to lay the blame solely at the doorstep of this telecom-front organization when elected officials refuse to demand more from an industry that has long retained legions of lobbyists. Make no mistake, Connected Nation's conflict of interest is a serious problem, but we need our elected officials to stand up to the telecommunications companies and demand better mapping data. We had higher hopes from the NTIA, but clearly that was misplaced.

More recently, Sharon Schmickle of MinnPost wrote about plans for a publicly owned network in Cook County, Minnesota. It touches on the major issues that many communities face when deciding whether to build...

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Posted October 2, 2009 by christopher

At a general discussion yesterday at the NATOA National Conference down here in New Orleans, I was stunned to hear someone from the muni world accept the idea that some municipalities do not want to compete with the private sector. I say stunned, not because I'm surprised to hear that some towns do not want to provide telecommunications services in competition with the private sector, but because towns "compete" with the private sector in many ways that go unnoticed.

Police and education are two examples in which every community provides services in competition with the private sector (security guards and private schools). Most communities have libraries - taking sales away from hard-working bookstores. Some towns provide municipal golf courses or public swimming pools. There are many ways in which it is acceptable for the public sector to "compete" with the private sector.

The problem with accepting the blanket statement that the public should not compete with the private sector is that it 1) is factually inaccurate and 2) suggests that to provide telecommunications services would be a substantial deviation from the historic role for municipal and local governments.

The truth is that local governments have long stepped in, where necessary, to ensure the community has everything it needs to be successful. Interestingly, this has included both municipal liquor stores and lumber yards in many remote communities. Properly posed, the question is not whether communities should deviate from their historic role of avoiding competition with the private sector, but whether telecommunications falls into that area that communities have long elected to serve when a community need is unmet.

This is a question with which most communities will wrestle, but they should do so on honest terms. Though providing telecommunications services in some communities may be novel, they have long "competed" with the private sector in other generally accepted areas. Communities will come down on both sides of providing services and time will tell if they made the right decision for their community.

Posted August 14, 2009 by christopher

FairPoint's lobbyists in Maine have gone on the offensive, arguing that another group attempting to get stimulus funds is competing unfairly. FairPoint, you may remember, has already accomplished the improbable: it took over the dilapidated networks in New England from Verizon and made them worse. The charge of unfair competition, even if it were true, would be silly because FairPoint has proven it cannot provide these important services.

Karl Bode put Fairpoint in its place:

Even if the company was competing directly with UMS, at least Maine residents could be certain the University will even exist a year from now. But as it stands, Fairpoint isn't competing with the University of Maine. They're competing with a public private partnership of which the University is only a member. Applications for Federal funds are open to public entities and private companies. Given recent history, giving taxpayer dollars to somebody other than the regional dysfunctional incumbent might not be the worst idea in the world.

Bangor Daily News argues that rural Maine cannot afford to fight over who will expand broadband access. Unfortunately, Bangor Daily News' why-can't-we-all-just-get-along approach ignores the very real damage Fairpoint has already done to the state. Their suggestion that these competing networks just "be merged" seems like a call for open access but ignores the need for Fairpoint to maximize profits (right after it gets out of bankruptcy) rather than invest in communities.

The larger point is ominous: the idea that large institutions should suffer with whatever crummy service Fairpoint provides (at the high prices they will provide it) in order that Fairpoint can expand its poor DSL service to rural areas, misses the important point that Fairpoint cannot and will not offer the services that Maine needs. As Mayor Joey Durel of Lafayette suggested, maybe Maine should just send its jobs down to Lafayette, where they are building the necessary infrastructure for the future.

...

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Posted July 31, 2009 by christopher

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 directed the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to develop a national broadband strategy. FCC invited comments and then invited replies to those comments in summer 2009. The Free Press Reply Comments deserve to be singled out for revealing some of the lies of large telecommunications companies like Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, Qwest, and others. It also describes many of the ways that these companies harm the communities that are dependent on them for essential services. I've highlighted some passages below that show the ways in which these companies put profit above all else. These companies claim that regulation discourages investment and deregulation (allowing a higher degree of concentration or larger monopolies) encourages increased investment in better networks - an incredibly self-serving claim that Free Press shows to be false on pages 13-29.

Competition -- meaningful and real competition -- and not regulation is the primary driver behind investment decisions. Where meaningful competition exists, incumbents are compelled to innovate and invest in order to maintain marketshare and future growth. Where competition is lacking -- such as it is in our broadband duopoly -- incumbents will delay investment, knowing full well they can pad their profits on the backs of captured customers who have no viable alternatives. (Page 14)

Regulations like open access and non-discrimination encourage competition and should be strengthened. Free Press offers an in-depth explanation of how Verizon has dumped millions of customers on other companies that clearly could not handle the burden.

Verizon began the purging of less lucrative areas with the sale of Verizon Hawaii to the Carlyle Group in 2005, a company that had no previous experience in operating telecommunications services. By Dec. 2008, the company, now called Hawaii Telecom, had lost 21% of customers and filed for bankruptcy. (Page 26)

Verizon then sold most of their New England lines to Fairpoint, which is currently heading for bankruptcy. Fairpoint's customers are not the only ones suffering - the independent companies that resell services over that infrastructure are also suffering because Fairpoint is utterly unable to meet its obligations.

Most recently, Verizon announced that it intends to sell-off mostly rural areas in...

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Posted June 26, 2009 by christopher

Anyone who tells you that UTOPIA is a "success" or that it is a "failure" is probably minimizing important problems or victories for the network. The Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency, like so many other things in life, is a mixed bag.

For those new to UTOPIA, it is a large multi-community full fiber network that operates by only selling wholesale access to service providers. Due to a law designed to protect incumbent service providers under the guise of protecting taxpayers, UTOPIA cannot offer any services itself and is strictly open access.

For a variety of reasons - that have not and likely will not be repeated by other communities - the network has not yet met expectations. The costs have been greater than expected and the network does not yet cover its entire intended territory (some 16 communities and 140,000 people).

However, where it does operate, it is blazing fast. The service providers offer the fastest speeds at the lowest prices (see a service comparison). It has offered a tremendous competitive advantage to the businesses and communities in which it operates.

Last year, Lawrence Kingsley wrote "The Rebirth of UTOPIA" that explored where the network went wrong and how it has also succeeded. Perhaps most notably, he notes that the churn rate (people switching to other networks) is ridiculously low at .5% - a common trait to community owned networks.

Last month, Geoff Daily reported on how UTOPIA is "Transforming Failure Into Success." They have greatly improved their marketing practices - which has historically been a large barrier to success. This is an important lesson for all - even though there are very few competitors in the broadband market, they do fight fiercely for subscribers. Broadband is competitive like boxing, not like a marathon.

But the news coming out of Utah is not all cheery. Jesse, the resident UTOPIA expert, has recently explained some of the current financial problems and their origin.

Perhaps the most important lesson to take away from UTOPIA is that plans always go awry. I have yet to find a community that did not have unexpected problems along the way to building their networks. Communities that take...

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