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Port of Lewiston Crossing Bridges: Network Forges Ahead

Port of Lewiston’s open access dark fiber network continues to move toward completion. Construction crews are burying fiber lines at multiple project sites around Lewiston. In the past few weeks, the network crossed to the north side of Clearwater River via the Memorial Bridge, where it will link to Whitman County’s fiber network. 

A recent article from the Port of Lewiston listed completed sections of the network, 

“So far, it reaches major employers such as St. Joseph Regional Medical Center, Lewis-Clark State College, Regence and the Vista Outdoor plant at 11th and Snake River avenues.”

The article also outlined the projects to be completed by September 1st,

“They will reach the industrial district by the Lewiston-Nez Perce County Regional Airport, Clearwater Paper, Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories and the Southway Bridge. At the bridge, the lines will connect with an Asotin County network built by the Port of Clarkston.”

Questions From The Past

Memorial Bridge is only the first of two bridge crossings necessary for the completion of the Lewiston-Whitman-Asotin fiber network. The Southway Bridge crosses the Snake River to Asotin County. Conduit access rights stalled construction progress across the river. We wrote about the negotiations in a story from earlier this summer.

Readers may recall that there was a question with Centurylink's right to have conduit on the bridge and whether or not they owned the conduit or where the provider's potential ownership rights ended. To iron out the details, the Port of Lewiston filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the bridge builders.

The Lewiston Tribune (also reprinted in 4-Traders) reported that the Port of Clarkston has reached an agreement for conduit access on the Idaho side of the Southway Bridge, 

“CenturyLink granted the Port of Clarkston use of one its 20 conduits on the Washington side of the bridge, enough room to meet the community's needs for as many as 60 years, Port Manager Wanda Keefer said… Ideally, the lines will be live by Sept. 1 to accommodate a customer… Before that can happen, CenturyLink needs to iron out issues with Asotin and Nez Perce counties and the cities of Lewiston and Clarkston, which own the bridge.”

The bridge was built in the 1980s and no one has been able to locate documentation that describes the length of Centurylink's easement on the bridge. Centurylink pays $0 for the use of the bridge, which is another issue that may be re-examined as the parties move forward. According to a local official, the Port of Lewiston has not yet come to an agreement with the involved parties, but negotiations are making progress.

Connecting And Competing

Thus far, the Port of Lewiston has spent roughly $600,000 on the network infrastructure project designed to promote competition among Internet service providers and spur economic development. "We think it's going to provide connectivity to our community so we can compete with almost anywhere in the world," [Port Manager Wanda] Keefer said.

For Rural Pinetops, Being A Gigabit Community Means Business In North Carolina

Unless you live in a rural community, you probably assume becoming a Gigabit community is all about the miracles of speed. Speed is important, but so is Internet choice, reliable service, and respectful customer service. It’s also about being excited as you consider future economic opportunities for your rural town.

Businesses Struggling With Old Services

Before Greenlight began serving Pinetops, the best community members could get was sluggish Centurylink DSL. Suzanne Coker Craig, owner of CuriosiTees, described the situation for her business:

Suzanne used to be a subscriber to Centurylink DSL service at her Pinetops home, but years ago she just turned it off. “We weren’t using it because it used to take forever; it just wasn’t viable.” She now has Greenlight’s 40 Mbps upstream and downstream service. “It’s just so very fast,” she said.

Her business, a custom screen printing shop, uses an “on-time” inventory system, so speed and reliability is critical for last-minute or late orders:

“We work with a Charlotte company for our apparel. If we get our order in by 5 p.m. from here, the next day it will be delivered. That’s really important for business.” Before Greenlight, Suzanne described how “We had been sweating it out.”  Suzanne’s tee-shirt store only had access to 800 Kbps DSL upload speed. She would talk to the modem. “Please upload by 5 p.m. Please upload.” Now she can just go home and put her order in at the last minute. “We are comfortable it will upload immediately….It’s just so much faster. Super fast…Having Greenlight has just been very beneficial for our business.” 

She also subscribes to Greenlight from home and her fiber connection is able to manage data intense uploads required for sending artwork, sales reports, and other large document transfers. As a Town Commissioner, Suzanne sees Greenlight service in Pinetops as more than just a chance to stop "sweating it out."

“I just see a brighter future for our town now,” she reflected. “It’s a neat selling point. It’s difficult in small rural areas to get good technology-based companies. This now opens the door for us to recruit just those kinds of businesses…It’s hard to imagine a business that does not need Internet access.” 

Without Reliability, Speed Is Nothing

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Brent Wooten is a sales agent and Manager for Mercer Transportation, a freight management business with an office in tiny, rural Pinetops, North Carolina. Pinetops is now served by Wilson’s community-owned, Gigabit fiber network, Greenlight.  Brent’s work, moving freight across the country via trucks, requires being on time; he’s an information worker in a knowledge economy.  “I am in the transportation business,” said Brent. “Having reliable phone and Internet are critical to running my businesses.” Being off line means losing businesses and never getting it back.

Before Greenlight came to town, Brent’s business paid Centurylink $425 per month for a few phone lines, long distance, an 800 number, and Internet access at 10 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 1.5 Mbps upload. He was also wasting hours and even days each month trying to get his Internet fixed. “Every time they would tell me the problem was my equipment. It was always my fault.” But Brent had an IT expert on hire. “Never once was the problem actually my equipment.” He described long waits to reach customer agents whose heavy foreign accents made communication difficult and about the company’s unresponsive office hours. “I was told they could send someone the next afternoon, but I needed the network to work now....”

Brent’s experience with Greenlight was the complete opposite. When Brent’s corporate office changed the location of their backup servers, Greenlight staff were helping him at 6:00 a.m. and at 10:00 p.m., and were on the phone within seconds of his call. “It is a very refreshing situation for me -- the consistency of service, and the responsive and respectful customer service by local workers.” 

Internet Choice

When Greenlight came to the community, Centurylink changed their tune. Within hours of his business phone being ported to Greenlight, a Centurylink representative called him. “He offered to cut my current prices in half and double my Internet speed, from 10 to 20 Mbps…My Centurylink 10 Mbps speed never tested at more than 6 Mbps.”

Brent chose to keep his Centurylink phone service, but he kept his 25 Mbps symmetrical Greenlight Internet service because upload speed is critical to his business. “My computer screens don’t freeze up anymore. Greenlight service is flawless. The sheer speed of fiber is amazing and they are available 24 hours a day, I am served by local workers, it is saving me money and I get better service.” 

Greenlight brought Brent residential telephone and internet choice for the first time in more than a decade. “Greenlight saves me $140 a month at home,” he bragged. When Greenlight’s marketing director first arrived at Brent’s house, he learned Brent was being charged twice for his internet service. Brent had an in-law suite attached to his house where his mother used to live. “The Centurylink representative on the phone said I needed to have a second DSL account.” Not with Greenlight.

An Odd Way Of Competing

Brent described how he had been a Centurylink residential customer since 1989. “When I called to cancel my home telephone service, the woman just gave me my confirmation number and told me to have a nice day.” No attempt was made to keep Brent’s residential business.  “They did the same thing on my mom’s phone line. She had telephone service since before 1968.” When she passed away, Brent called to disconnect her line. “The person on the other end of the line did not even offer condolences.” He compared that to the human touch that originates from a service company that is community owned: “Greenlight’s installers even cared enough about my welfare to tell me they had discovered a water leak under my house when doing the installation. They told me they would have tried to fix it for me but they did not have the right tools.”  

The Intangibles

How do you put a value on the intangibles?  For Brent Wooten, Greenlight fiber service has not only strengthened his ability to do business, but has given the community a sense of hope that didn’t exist before access to fiber.

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“As a citizen and Town Commissioner, I am extremely excited to have the opportunity to have access to this service, and super excited about future opportunities that it will make available to us. It is an example of hometown people who care about serving you and bringing a higher quality of living to the community...It gives a sense of hope for Eastern North Carolina ... not just lip service.” 

Will It Last?

On August 10, 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed the FCC ruling that permitted Greenlight to expand to its fiber-optic service to Pinetops. What this means for these businesses and residents who now rely on fast, affordable, reliable Internet access remains to be seen. Along with Suzanne, Brent, and the rest of Pinetops, we hope Greenlight is able to continue to serve this rural community. They are using fiber to reach for new economic development opportunities and in only a few months, the community of 1,300 is optimistic about a future with better connectivity.

Preliminary Study Puts Charles City Back on Track to Digital Self-Determinism

Local officials in Charles City, a town of 7,500 in northeastern Iowa, approved a preliminary study of community broadband interest late last month. The study will determine whether additional funds should be allocated toward a more comprehensive study. This announcement comes on the heels of increased regional interest in the Iowa Fiber Alliance, a proposed multi-community fiber ring. 

The preliminary study will cost the city $18,500 and should be completed before the end of the summer. The Community Broadband Engagement and Education Project seeks to engage key community stakeholders, educate the public on high-speed community networks, and ultimately measure the interest of local residents, businesses, and government leadership. 

Third Time’s the Charm

Local interest in community networks has peaked twice in the past decade. In 2005, Charles City residents approved a referendum to create a telecommunication utility with a 62 percent majority. Under threat of losing revenues to a community network, incumbent Internet service providers (ISPs) promised local officials that they would improve the network. Stopgap measures from Mediacom and CenturyLink marginally improved local connectivity in the short-term, but Charles City residents soon realized that they hadn’t escaped the letdowns of the telecom octopus. 

Waverly, Iowa, a town of 10,000 residents, 30 miles south of Charles City, experienced a nearly identical letdown from Mediacom and CenturyLink in the 2000s, only to launch its own community network earlier this year. For rural county seats like Waverly and Charles City, a community network offers an opportunity to stimulate economic development and improve local quality of life. Historically, Charles City is a manufacturing town. The White Farm-New Idea Equipment Company produced tractors and employed up to 3,000 locals during the 1970s before closing its doors in 1993. With manufacturing jobs leaving town, local officials are looking for new ways to bring jobs to town and revitalize their local communities. 

In 2010, interest peaked again when the city conducted a community broadband survey and discovered strong local support for a municipal network. A 2014 Technology Action Plan assessed and outlined a more connected future for Charles City. City officials realized that Internet technology had changed significantly since 2010, however, and are evaluating their options in light of new innovations.

Munis On The Plains

Iowa is home to more than two dozen municipal networks. Thanks in part to their can-do attitude and their self-reliant streak, Charles City, Waverly, and many other Iowa communities have stopped waiting for incumbent providers and taken control of local connectivity. Charles City officials are enthusiastic about the upcoming feasibility study; council member Delaine Freeseman told Charles City Press that, “very interesting things could come out of this, long-term, for the city.”

CityLink Telecommunications in Albuquerque Prefers Open Access - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 208

A small telecommunications company in Albuquerque embodies much of the philosophy that has powered the Internet. And CityLink Telecommunications President John Brown credits Vint Cerf for some of that inspiration.

John Brown joins us for episode 208 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, where we talk not just about how enthusiastic he is for open access, but how he writes open access requirements into contracts to ensure CityLink would continue to operate on an open access basis even if he were struck down by an errant backhoe.

We also discuss the Internet of Things and security before finishing with a discussion of how he thinks the city of Albuquerque should move forward with his firm to save money and improve Internet access across the community. We also touch on Santa Fe's decision to work with a different company in building their short spur to bypass a CenturyLink bottleneck.

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 36 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."

Dark Fiber Available In Lewiston But Rivers Slow Expansion

The Port of Lewiston’s dark fiber network is up and running and now has connected a commercial customer, reports 4-Traders, but achieving the maximum reach has hit some resistance.

Warehousing and distribution company Inland 465, is operating a 150,000 square-foot warehouse and obtaining Internet access from First Step Internet, which leases dark fiber from the Port of Lewiston’s network. Community leaders hope this is the first of many commercial customers.

Last summer the community announced that they intended to deploy an open access dark fiber network to spur economic development opportunities. The network plan called for a connection to nearby Port of Whitman’s fiber network, which has operated for more than a decade.

Bumps On Bridges

According to 4-Traders, the Port of Lewiston is encountering issues deploying over the optimal route for expanding to serve more commercial clients. The community is near the Clearwater and Snake Rivers and must cross bridges en route to connect with nearby networks in the ports of Whitman County and Clarkston. Both communities have their own fiber networks and would like to connect to Lewiston’s new infrastructure. The collaborations would allow a larger loop and better redundancy for all three networks.

The Port of Whitman has an agreement with Cable One to use the provider's hangers on the bridge across the Clearwater River. In exchange, Cable One is allowed to access certain Port of Whitman County conduit on a different bridge. The state of Idaho issued the permit to Cable One to allow them to install the hangers and now the Port of Whitman County is applying to the state to have those same permits issued in its name. Once the Port of Whitman County has the permits, the Port of Lewiston will be able to use the hangers to connect to the Port of Whitman County network.

CenturyLink's Conduit...Or Is It?

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In order to achieve the maximum reach, Port of Lewiston officials and Port of Clarkston officials will have to contend with a less-than-eager CenturyLink. There is ample conduit space on the Southway Bridge that crosses the Snake River, but the incumbent provider controls all of it. The 20 conduits on the bridge are legacies from the time when it was part of AT&T. 

Clarkston Port Manager Wanda Keefer told 4-Traders that CenturyLink is only using five of the 20 conduits and the Port of Lewiston would like to take advantage of that empty space to link up to the Port of Clarkston’s fiber-optic network. Before they can do that, however, they have to learn more about CenturyLink’s rights to be on the bridge and where on the bridge any potential ownership may end. In order to obtain that information, the Port of Clarkson filed a Freedom of Information Act with the bridge builder, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. 

The Wires Have To Go Somewhere

The situation in Idaho underscores the importance of access to rights-of-way and fiber routes, be it bridge, boulevard, or pole. New York State, filled with bridges and opportunities to host dark fiber over waterways, has its own Bridge Authority that deals with such issues. In Minneapolis, the Park and Rec Board are stalling deployment of a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network as a local ISP seeks to bury conduit in boulevards that are off limits due to protective agency policy.

Occasionally, incumbents take advantage of pole ownership or dispute pole position to delay municipal networks as a sabotage strategy. Frontier did as much in Lake County, Minnesota.

According to Clarkston's Keefer, however, there are agreements in place that all the ports consider priority. Port of Lewiston and Port of Clarkston have set a September 1st target date for having the connections linked and communicating.

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."

ISP US Internet Gets More Respect Than Rodney Dangerfield - Community Broadband Bits 194

In Minneapolis, a small and privately owned ISP has been steadily building fiber across the city and developing a stunning reputation for great customer service, low and predictable pricing, and generally being a great company to do business with. Co-founder Travis Carter of US Internet joins us for episode 194 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

We discuss their approach to building networks, especially their philosophy around customer service and just how poorly some of US Internet's competitors treat their customers. As a small firm that is carving out its own path in a world of giants, its experiences are important lessons and points of consideration for community networks.

We also discuss how US Internet interacts with local governments. Though the company has high praise for Minneapolis, it discusses where some of the challenges have been in navigating local government zoning and permitting. Travis also offers some advice based on how smart investments and a well-organized approach to leasing fiber have helped US Internet to begin expanding in suburb Saint Louis Park.

USI coverage map is available here. For more information on USI's pricing, see their website for Fiber-to-the-Home and telephone service.

We plan to have Travis back on in the future again, so if you have questions you would like us to ask, please tell us!

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 30 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."

Seniors, Low-Income, Disabled Communities Pay the Price in St. Paul

For seniors, low-income residents, and the disabled in Saint Paul, Minnesota, a Comcast discount within the city's franchise agreement is not all it was cracked up to be. The Pioneer Press recently reported that, as eligible subscribers seek the ten percent discount guaranteed by the agreement, they are finding the devil is in the details - or lack of them.

This is a warning to those who attempt to negotiate with Comcast for better service. Comcast may make deals that it knows are unenforceable. 

"No Discount For You!"

For years, Comcast held the only franchise agreement with the city of St. Paul. In 2015, the city entered into a new agreement with the cable provider and, as in the past, the provider agreed to offer discounts for low-income and senior subscribers. Such concessions are common because a franchise agreement gives a provider easy access to a pool of subscribers.

It seems like a fair deal, but where there is a way to squirm out of a commitment, Comcast will wriggle its way out. 

Comcast is refusing to provide the discount when subscribers bundle services, which are typically offered at reduced prices. Because the contract is silent on the issue of combining discounts, the city of approximately 298,000 has decided it will not challenge Comcast's interpretation:

The company notes that the ten percent senior discount applies only to the cable portion of a customer's bill. Comcast has maintained that it is under no legal obligation to combine discounts or promotions, and that bundled services provide a steeper discount anyway.

Subscribers who want to take advantage of the discounts will have to prove their senior status and/or their low-income status. In order to do so, Comcast representatives have been requesting a copy of a driver's license or state issued i.d. 

CenturyLink Picks Up the Baton

In November, the city approved an additional franchise agreement with competitor CenturyLink. That agreement also provides that seniors, low-income households, and disabled residents are eligible to receive a ten percent discount. CenturyLink can, in the alternative, offer a discount of $5 off a subscriber's cable bill if a subscriber applies for the low-income discount. In order to receive this discount, the subscriber must prove they are enrolled in a public assistance program. CenturyLink is not compelled to provide both the $5 reduction and the ten percent discount under the terms of the agreement.

The CenturyLink contract states that bundling discounts will not forfeit the $5 discount but does not say the same for the alternative ten percent discount.

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Seniors on the Chopping Block

Discounts for low-income seniors are at risk in the CenturyLink contract reports the Pioneer Press. The contract offers the company an "out" by allowing it to exchange a senior discount to residents for free gigabit per second (Gbps) service at centralized locations. Rather than offering a ten percent discount to senior subscribers at their homes, CenturyLink can provide the high-speed connectivity to two St. Paul senior centers or to one senior center and a community center and present two training session per year on using the Internet.

My own parents, who are elderly and leave the house less frequently than they have in the past, depend on their Internet connection to stay in touch with their kids. A number of elderly folks are lower-income. Ten percent, a modest sum to a profit machine like Comcast, could be the tipping point for whether or not elderly people living on fixed incomes subscribe.

Would I rather have Mom trudging through the St. Paul snow to wait in line at the senior center to Skype in a noisy room filled with other seniors? No. Will Mom go to the senior center? Probably not. This trade-off is not equitable.

When You're All Lawyered Up, It's Easy to Break Promises

As franchise agreements expire across the country, communities like St. Paul will be negotiating new contracts or considering other options. Companies like Comcast and CenturyLink, backed by armies of lawyers, have turned backhanded negotiating into an art form. Cities like St. Paul employ smart, capable attorneys, but telecommunications is highly specialized; few communities have legal staff experienced in this field.

Lose The Big Companies, Gain Control

Contrary to the typical behavior of Comcast and CenturyLink, publicly owned networks have a history of lowering prices or increasing speeds for free. When we ask why, decision makers usually tell us they make the change because it's good for the community. Subscribers are the shareholders when a network is publicly owned.

Communities that invest in municipal networks shake off dependence on big providers like Comcast and CenturyLink. By investing in their own infrastructure, they spur economic development, save public dollars, and become more self-reliant. 

Modest Investment Yields Results in Steamboat Springs - Community Broadband Bits Episode 163

When Steamboat Springs resolved to improve Internet access for key community anchor institutions and businesses, they decided to make an economical investment in a carrier neutral facility to allow multiple ISPs to invest and compete with each other. In episode 163 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, Tim Miles explains what that means and how they did it.

Tim is the Technology Director at Steamboat Springs and South Routt School Districts in Colorado. He tells us about the poor connectivity the community had from CenturyLink and how they opened a bottleneck to encourage more investment. In part because of how Colorado limits local authority to build networks, they formed the Northwest Colorado Broadband Cooperative with the local Chamber of Commerce.

They are already seeing benefits in the form of lower prices for anchor institutions and reduced outages - Tim describes just how painful those outages had been when there was no local Internet choice.

Read the transcript from this discussion here.

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

This show is 20 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to bkfm-b-side for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Raise Your Hands."