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Opelika Endures Silly Opposition to Municipal Broadband: Zombie Appliances, Internet Takeovers, Socialism

Citizens of Opelika, Beware!  Your city government wants to take over control of your appliances, censor and control the Internet, and plant the red flag of socialism at the new Kremlin building — the Opelika City Hall on South 7th Street.

Welcome to another classic battle against municipal broadband competition.  All of the usual players have assembled, and the opposition has a overstuffed bag full of tricks — many old, some new, to convince Opelika that bringing additional cable competition to the region is just the worst thing… ever.

The proposal: to spend $33 million dollars, financed by revenue bonds (not taxpayers), to build a fiber to the home platform to deliver 21st century broadband service and competition to incumbent, recently-bankrupt Charter Cable.  The city of Opelika itself would probably not get into the cable business directly.  It proposes to work with Knology, a credible cable overbuilder already providing cable and broadband services in Alabama, to manage the day to day operations and handle customers.

Why: (from the City of Opelika website) “For many years now – not only during Mayor Gary Fuller’s Administration, but during Barbara Patton’s Administration before him and even Mayor Freeman’s administration before her – numerous complaints were received from citizens about the high prices and poor service they were receiving, while others have complained that they can’t get any cable service in their neighborhoods at all.  After years of trying to get other cable/Internet providers to come into Opelika and give Charter Communications competition – to no avail – we decided that the best way to give our citizens competitive services was to offer competition ourselves.”  No surprises there.  Large cable operators have never challenged one another in their respective markets.  Why ruin a good thing by launching a price and services war?

The vote: A referendum on the question will be held this Tuesday, asking citizens to support the project.

Opposition to the project from some quarters has bordered on hysteria, especially from a so-called “consumer grassroots group” and a local website, Opelika’s Smart Grid, that has tried to scare residents into believing city officials are on the verge of taking control of residents’ air conditioners and ovens, unleashing Big Brother on a scale even the most paranoid haven’t even considered.

Stop the Cap! investigated the group claiming to represent the citizens of Opelika, and we came away with more questions than we originally asked.

The local media has accepted, without much challenge, the representations made by these groups opposed to the municipal project.  Few questions have been asked about who belongs to the groups and how they are financed.  As Stop the Cap! has seen over the past two years, opposition to municipal broadband projects usually comes from coordinated campaigns — a direct attack by lobbyists for the cable and phone companies, and efforts by political groups to demagogue such projects hoping to pick up citizen opposition on philosophical grounds.  If Americans for Prosperity, the Heartland Institute, Digital Society, or FreedomWorks is involved, you’ve got political astroturf in action.  Since many of these political groups are on the payroll of phone and cable operators, it’s just one more way to achieve the same thing — protection for America’s broadband duopoly.

Who is “Opelika’s Smart Grid” and the Concerned Citizens of Opelika?

Stop the Cap! has researched both “groups” and discovered they are essentially one and the same.  Some of the members of “Concerned Citizens” are also the authors, and primary participants on “The Opelika Smart Grid” website.  They are strongly anti-government, and their opposition to municipal services borders at times on the paranoid.  Neither group has more than a handful of loosely-associated members, but they do bring along those who share a common, mostly Libertarian/anti-government philosophy.  Think “tea parties against municipal broadband.”

Domain name records show the website was first registered July 4th, 2010 by William Mayfield who lives on 9th Street in Opelika.  Mayfield’s concern about the project’s capability to deliver “smart grid” technology to the local electricity provider prompted him to launch into some pretty far-out conspiracy theories about the implications of the project (taken from Google web cache):

The so-called smart-grid is a government controlled power and information distribution system that combines and monitors the activities of internet, phone and power usage of the customer.  This is the vision of socialists like Al Gore and would be a huge step forward for the watching “big brother”. We need to fight this very hard, very quickly.

[...]In government speak motivate = force. And if they determine that you are not worthy of receiving power for whatever reason, like being a reformed Christian, I can assure you they’ll find authority in the “Patriot Act ” to turn your lights out. While this may sound like borderline paranoid ramblings, keep in mind that history shows that the state always takes every chance to increase its power and ultimately uses that power against its own people. Let’s don’t give them the opportunity here.

Mayfield’s tentative writings on his Citizen 10/Limits on Government blog didn’t stay public for long.  That blog has since gone private and is now unavailable without an invitation.

Privacy is a major concern, not just for Mayfield, but for virtually all of these “concerned citizens” online.  Almost nobody is willing to divulge their real names.  In fact, very little about who backs and runs these groups has been disclosed.

Jack Mazzola claims to be a member of Concerned Citizens of Opelika and has become a de facto spokesman in the local press.  He claims he is “30 years old and have been a resident of Opelika for almost two years.” During that time, he evidently forgot to update his active Facebook page, which lists his current city of residence as Atlanta, Georgia.  Suspicious readers of the local newspaper did some research of their own and claim Mr. Mazzola has no history of real estate or motor vehicle taxes paid to Lee County, which includes Opelika.

The Smart Grid ‘Death Panels-Fear Factor’

Mayfield’s website spends most of its time scaring residents about the implications of municipal fiber as it relates to their electric bills, also ranting about the Kyoto Protocol, carbon footprints, government control of appliances, and socialism generally.  While appealing to anti-government and climate change skeptics, average residents pondering the mayor conspiring to turn off their air conditioners from his office might be a bit too over-the-top, so wild claims about spending increases and municipal broadband failures are included as well.

Most of the arguments made by “The Opelika Smart Grid” website and Concerned Citizens of Opelika obfuscate the larger and more important discussion about municipal broadband.  They have gained plenty of media attention with their claims and accusations, generating considerable controversy that has little to do with the actual proposal.  For cable and phone companies that oppose the project, that represents a gift that keeps on giving.  When city officials and proponents of the project are forced to spend time and energy debating and debunking some of the wilder claims, that’s time lost selling the project and successfully explaining it to constituents.  For many voters, demagoguery breeds doubt and delivers “no” votes.

Ultimately, for most Opelika residents, the real debate is over competition to area cable and phone companies, not whether Big Brother is going to tell you when you can use your hair dryer.

The Very Wrong Arguments Against Municipal Fiber

Mayfield’s website attempts to indict municipal fiber projects with a mix of incomplete storytelling, selective editing, and questionable sourcing.  The larger argument from the group is that municipal fiber projects always fail leaving taxpayers holding the bag.  But the examples provided tell a different story, ranging from ‘comparing apples and oranges,’ condemning systems facing the same financial challenges private providers are coping with during The Great Recession, or even attacking the viability of systems not even operating yet.

Some examples they mention and the part of the story they don’t:

  • The systems in Provo and Memphis didn’t serve a single residential customer.  They were commercial service providers only serving business customers;
  • The Burlington system got caught up in the banking crisis and is trying to restructure and refinance its operations;
  • The attack on the Bristol municipal fiber system comes from The Heartland Institute, a classic political astroturf operation and an outdated 2007 piece from a political blog.
  • The system in Davidson has been written about here before — it is not even municipal fiber.  It’s a formerly bankrupt Adelphia cable operation that required substantial rebuilding — spending the same sums Time Warner Cable and Comcast would have spent had they bought it.  The investment now has a chance to pay dividends… for residents, not Time Warner Cable, going forward.

The website even attacks a municipal fiber system in Salisbury, North Carolina that has yet to begin service.  Calling the project a failure is just a bit premature.  The “Smart Grid” folks were hard pressed to find credible sourcing for their attack on Fibrant, but finally settled for some fact-starved nonsense generated from, of all places, the John Locke Society.  What’s next — Atlas Unplugged: Ayn Rand’s Treatise on Synchronous Broadband?  The group attempted to downplay the connection to the John Locke folks by linking to a content aggregator– Scribd, instead.  Now that we’ve mentioned it, they could have credited us as well.

If you are suspicious about the viability of municipal fiber, simply ask yourself if they are such failures, why do phone and cable companies spend millions to lobby against them?  Why the blizzard of scare mailers, robocalls, astroturf opposition groups, and lawsuits — all to stop what many opponents continually claim are competitive and operational failures?

The answer is, most municipal projects, like co-ops and community owned utilities, are more than viable.  Ask the residents of Wilson, North Carolina who are enjoying the benefits of municipal broadband and cable service even if they don’t become customers.  Time Warner Cable didn’t raise rates on the residents of Wilson this year — the only place in the state not to face relentless rate hikes, all because of that community’s municipal provider keeping their competitors honest.  Those who do become customers enjoy far faster and more reliable broadband service than either the cable or phone company provides in the region.

Chattanooga, Tennessee is a lot closer to Opelika than Provo is, yet somehow “The Opelika Smart Grid” website missed the success story of EPB, a municipal provider delivering the fastest broadband service in the southern United States.  Folks in Lafayette, Louisiana have lots of nice things to say about their municipal provider — LUS Fiber, as well.

Who is Paying for All This?

One important clue that astroturf is being rolled over the municipal fiber debate is the lack of public disclosure about who is financing the muni-broadband haters.

Residents vaguely know the state’s cable companies are bankrolling some of the opposition in the media, taking out full page ads attacking the proposal in the local media “paid for by the ACTA.”  It’s up to readers to discern “ACTA” stands for the Alabama Cable Telecommunications Association, the cable industry’s lobbying group in the state.  Full disclosure that isn’t.

As far as “Opelika’s Smart Grid” website and the “Concerned Citizens” group, funding sources are more murky, if only because they go out of their way not to be specific.

Stop the Cap! posted a comment asking some questions about the website’s funding sources and backers as well as questioning some of their information.  Those questions have not been made public, much less answered, despite subsequent comments written after our own submission.  What are they hiding?

Another matter of concern come from the fact these “grassroots” groups have the ability to finance expensive radio ads.  They claim they are paid for by “concerned local citizens.”  That could easily include Charter Cable, the local phone company, or their representatives.  We don’t know because the owners of the website won’t say who those people are.  In a tight economy, would you be handing over hundreds, if not thousands of your hard-earned dollars to fight for Charter Cable and AT&T by paying for radio ads?  The cable and phone companies and their lobbyist friends sure would.

With no disclosure of real names, no direct statement that there is no industry money or involvement in these opposition websites, and way-too-convenient shared sourcing of “facts” with earlier industry “dollar-a-holler” movements, it would be a major mistake to simply give these “groups” or their arguments the benefit of the doubt.

As we’ve repeatedly uncovered in our own reporting, consumers do that at the peril of their wallets, learning only later they were suckered into opposing competition that could deliver significant savings and better service.

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Currently there are 14 comments on this Article:

  1. Jay Ovittore says:

    What is funny is that this is not even a purely muni-broadband project. They are in fierce opposition to a public/private partnership between Opelika and Knology.

    • I think the issue there is that Knology may want to enter the market with or without the city network. Only Knology is much more likely to follow their familiar pattern of starting with multi-dwelling units like apartment buildings and condos before entertaining individual homes with service.

      Knology alone is not Knirvana. Then again, I’ve heard from some Opelika residents about just how awful Charter is in Alabama. Sloppy service and high prices predominate. More than one resident told me the company “installed” service by tossing the cable line on their front lawn leading into their home and there is stayed… in one case for 22 months until “Massacre,” the family dog chewed it in half. Charter showed up four days after that… late, and installed it where it should have been installed in the first place. Then it fell off the pole. Nice.

      The Opelika media needs to ask some additional questions of the “opposition” to ascertain if they are actually local residents and if they have -any- financial interests or ties to the telecom industry.

      Then again, I usually dismiss any website’s veracity when it does not even use real names to stand up for what they are writing.

  2. Heath says:

    Heath is my real name. I am a real citizen of Opelika and I am also a computer technician and am very familiar with the few details the city has released. I am totally opposed. If you have any questions for the many locals that have legitimate and major concerns please contact me directly. It amazes me the name calling and the accusations from people that have not done their homework.

    • We pride ourselves on doing our homework, Heath. It’s just we spend less time in the realm of conspiracy theories produced by those reading Glenn Beck’s Must-Read book list and more time considering the practical realities of municipal fiber.

      You’ll find real, full names on the articles posted here, complete disclosures about who runs this consumer site and who pays for it, and fact-based reporting and commentary.

      It’s too bad many of the opponents of Opelika’s muni-broadband proposal cannot say the same.

      We posted an extensive list of comments and questions on the opposition website and that message remains censored and out of public view. Your comments here will never face that kind of tactic.

      I suggest you feel free to expand on whatever you’d like to say about the Opelika proposal here and allow readers to join the conversation.

  3. Heath says:

    Have you seen transparency on the side of the city? Do you value that as well. You say you know what we are voting on but even the city confuses it. The referendum we are voting on is worded:

    “Shall the City of Opelika, Alabama, be authorized to acquire, establish, purchase, construct, maintain, lease and operate a cable television system for the purpose of furnishing cable service to subscribers?”

    And the signs as you have shown in your article says “Vote Yes for cable competition”

    Do you think I am a conspiracy theorist for saying the vote is for more than cable tv?

    If so you are missing the few details that came out in the city council meeting that we all knew would be the case from the beginning. Did you know they are going to try and pay for this with bonds, and they are going to just throw in a multi-million dollar new power company facility that will be paid with the bonds that will result from a vote on cable tv. This was said by the Mayor in the meeting and was caught on camera by the local newspaper. These are the issues that we are trying to let the community see.

    In the meeting, there are many that speak, and signed their real names to speak including those associated with the site. They are easily available and well know in the city where this vote is actually taking place.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Heath. Let me answer some of your questions based on my familiarity with municipal broadband systems.

      I confess I was somewhat surprised to see a municipal broadband proposal in a state like Alabama, where I recognize the natural inclination among many citizens is for less government, not more (even to fund public works projects). But Opelika’s broadband issues are not uncommon across the former BellSouth territories (now AT&T). Opelika is a smaller city and got saddled with Charter Communications for cable service. Charter does not deliver the same level of service to the smaller cities in its footprint that it does in larger ones. Meanwhile, AT&T is s l o w l y expanding it’s U-verse service in larger parts of its service area, often on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis. AT&T promised major savings for consumers if telecom regulations were reduced or eliminated. In fact, those savings have turned out to be illusory for most consumers, especially after the promotional “new customer” pricing ends. Many residents of Opelika will wait a LONG time for U-verse to show up.

      What Opelika, and most other communities in this country end up with is effectively a broadband duopoly — the phone and cable company. Knology is better known for “overbuilding” an existing cable system’s service area in large multi-family dwellings where service can be deployed cheaply. Individual homes, especially in more rural neighborhoods, may never get service.

      With all this in mind, Opelika recognized it, like many other smaller cities, was going to be effectively stuck in a broadband backwater indefinitely. Promised competition never seems to actually become available to every citizen, the big savings promised never materialize, and the bills just keep going up and up.

      Opelika wants to follow cities like Wilson and Salisbury, in North Carolina — Chattanooga, Tenn., and Lafayette, Lous., in providing an alternative.

      Fiber to the home and business technology is a game-changer where introduced. Businesses and telecommuting workers love it, consumers can launch at-home businesses using the far faster speeds, and the local government can use the network to attract businesses to the area.

      The reason private providers will not deliver these services themselves is because there is no competitive reason to do so. Further, since the Return on Investment costs need to be expanded further out than what today’s Wall Street investors want to see (within three years), there is no way most cable or phone companies will ever deliver true fiber service to most communities.

      Opelika will sell revenue bonds, which are NOT taxpayer-financed. A revenue bond is sold to an investor who understands that bond will be paid back exclusively from revenues generated by the project. There is no taxpayer bailout and you cannot get saddled with the costs unless you choose to be a bondholder and the whole thing fails.

      I do not object to your concerns that the project will encompass more than broadband and cable TV. You also haven’t come here spinning wild claims that the government will be able to control your appliances and this is part of some grand Al Gore-backed conspiracy on cap ‘n trade and the Kyoto Protocol. I respect you for that. The opposition website does engage in this kind of rhetoric and hides behind pseudonyms. I don’t respect that.

      The reason most cities devote their time and attention to the cable TV issue is because that is most easily understood by the electorate at large, and frankly a good part of the revenue that will come to pay off those bonds will be from selling cable, phone, and broadband service. There isn’t enough room on a lawn sign to print the entire referendum.

      The exact text of the referendum is here: http://www.opelika.org/Sites/Opelika/Documents/Main/Resolution%20No.%20117-10%20%28Cable%20TV%29.pdf

      Nowhere in it do I see any reference to constructing a “power company facility.” I see information about expanding “smart grid” technology, which requires dedicated two-way networks between homeowners’ electric meters and the local power authority. This allows communities to introduce different pricing for time of usage, as well as letting homeowners log into a website to see precisely how much electricity they are consuming in near-real-time, and see the impacts of turning on and off appliances on their potential bill.

      As long as the meters are accurate, and the city doesn’t try and gouge consumers with power pricing, these systems are not inherently evil. However, I agree with the view these systems should be designed to deliver financial benefits to consumers as well as utilities.

      Unlike broadband, there are real costs associated with electricity generation and delivery, and consumers should be able to get a better handle on what appliances are sucking the life out of their wallets and be able to choose better ones to replace them. If the city wants to cut me a break for running the dishwasher after 10pm, I’ll take that too. If it turns out smart meters deliver all of the benefits to the utility, raising enormous extra revenue and not giving consumers any of the savings, I’ll be happy to fight right alongside you. One major difference between a municipally owned utility and a privately owned one is that I can vote out of office those who would rip me off. I am stuck with the private utility probably forever.

      I also assure you, because I have seen this MANY times before — the cable and phone companies are doing everything they can to try and make this about anything but competition for cable and phone dollars.

      By the way, virtually every municipal network I’ve encountered will happily sell wholesale access to any broadband provider that wants to use the fiber network at fair and reasonable prices.

      I look at these projects as public works — Opelika wants to build a public highway, only for data. They are not interested in running the day to day business. They just want to make sure Opelika has the resources to manage the 21st century digital economy which will become increasingly important to all of us.

  4. Tim says:

    “…but they do bring along those who share a common, mostly Libertarian/anti-government philosophy. Think “tea parties against municipal broadband.””

    Phillip, can we please dispense with political crap like that . I get enough of it watching the news and other programs. I am not affiliated with the Tea Party by the way. I just get tired of reading or hearing stuff like that. It really distracts from the story.

  5. Heath says:

    I’ll have to stop you at your first argument. We in Opelika have not “got saddled with Charter Communications for cable service.” A little over 10 years ago the local city council approved a 10 year exclusive contract for cable tv service. The lack of communication is not due to us being a small town and being less important. It is due to our city government making decisions for us.

    In this clip you will see a local citizen speak at the council meeting. (http://www2.oanow.com/news/2010/aug/10/opelika-public-hearing-eric-peatman-90980-vi-48902/) He and the council discuss in a portion of the clip, competition. The city has just said they are working to bring Knology when they then use Knology not being there yet as a reason to pass this.

    And to your point:

    The exact text of the referendum is here: http://www.opelika.org/Sites/Opelika/Documents/Main/Resolution%20No.%20117-10%20%28Cable%20TV%29.pdf
    Nowhere in it do I see any reference to constructing a “power company facility.”

    I would have to say, exactly! Why is none of this being mentioned?

    Starting at :30 in to this clip the Mayor explains his idea to include the 8-9 Million dollar facility in the bond. (http://www2.oanow.com/news/2010/aug/04/opelika-public-hearing-ira-weissinger-59495-vi-48588/)

    As to your point – “One major difference between a municipally owned utility and a privately owned one is that I can vote out of office those who would rip me off.”

    My understanding is that because our company is publicly owned and does not generate its own power it has no power to increase or decrease flat rates at the urging of elected officials. I was told by a spokesman from Alcatel-Lucent, A company trying to get the bid to install the telecom and sell the city all the hardware, that the federal government sets these rates. However, if you use the new tiered pricing structures that will be setup, optional or not, then you can be charged more for power during the times you want it and less during the times you don’t need it. I am not sure where you live but we have had multiple 100+ degree days recently and these are not uncommon. We also have some winters that have stretches of below freezing temps. The elderly, or anyone for that matter, don’t get to heat or cool their house at night to save money. The main sources of power consumption are not easily used only at night. Fridge, AC, Heatpump. The Washer and dryer are already mostly used at off peak hours when people are home from work. I’ll move on.

    Lastly, I understand your agenda (I use the word agenda in a non derogatory way). It’s simple enough and your website title makes it clear. I am a computer technician and I deal with telecoms on a daily basis. I know we all want faster speeds. The US is behind in the speed race. But, at what cost do we do this? If I want to start a company to provide these same services I am now, regardless of my income, experience or ability, having to compete against a company that will have the ability to regulate or even reject me. Others that are now in this same position; Charter, Knology, ITC Deltacom, AT&T, & Aerowire to name the ones I can think of off the top of my head that are currently competing in the area or in Knology’s case trying to get into the city.

    • Heath, exclusive cable franchise agreements were outlawed years ago. There may be a 10 year franchise agreement, but it’s not exclusive. But don’t expect another cable company to waltz in to compete. Outside of a handful of cable overbuilders like Knology, the major cable operators respect each others’ territories like the mob. :-)

      Knology may be willing to compete… in limited parts of Opelika. They’ll wire the major apartment complexes and condos, and then take years and years to wire individual homes (if they wire them at all). If the city provides and owns the infrastructure and then sells it to all-comers, that competition would arrive far sooner.

      Here in New York, where we pay among the highest utility rates in the country, we are very sensitive to arguments about time of day pricing if it delivers mountains of profit to utilities and no benefits to consumers. We’ve had a hot summer too, with temps in the 90s and get to enjoy incredible natural gas bills to heat homes in western New York winters where more than 100 inches of snow fall from November-March.

      I understand the concern that a municipality could theoretically unfairly compete against a private provider, but in practice that really isn’t happening. Larger cable companies have enormous pricing flexibility thanks to economy of scale. But they’ve faced little competition, so their profits have been gigantic over the years. Phone company competition is priced almost identically to the cable provider, especially after new customer promos expire. There is almost no possibility for a small business competitor in larger communities to succeed if they have to raise the money to build their own network. There are rural wireless providers which serve smaller areas, but many of them would be wiped out if universal DSL service was offered.

      I think of broadband increasingly as a utility, and honestly do not have a problem with the idea that a municipality can construct the infrastructure and allow all sorts of players to sell service on it. Like the public highways, UPS and FedEx use those roads as do trucking companies, the post office, and anyone else who wants to move products back and forth. The cable and phone companies understand if they lose duopoly control of the infrastructure, they’ll lose the ability to control what crosses those lines and at what price.

  6. Philip, excellent work exposing the astroturf approach. I have no doubt there are some people opposed to it Opelika, but they are not paying for the expensive media campaign by Charter designed to maintain their de facto monopoly.

  7. Ian L says:

    A couple of things here:

    1. I would consider myself to be of the Tea Party persuasion, however I have no problem with a municipal utility, as long as the services provided by it are optional, particularly with “luxury goods” like internet (I won’t do without it, but some folks will). I don’t like federal government impinging upon anything that’s not defined in the Constitution, but on a state or municipal level…well…I’m okay with that.

    2. The cable TV wording sounds like a franchise agreement of sorts, except from the city to itself. If Knology came to the city requesting overbuild privileges, this wouldn’t need a vote, but on the other hand that company would probably be slower to deploy services because they can’t finance an HFC build with revenue bonds, nor can they leverage the network to do smart grid stuff; they aren’t the power company.

    3. I’m guessing that the Opelika fiber system will be built and managed, on a plant/facilities side, by the city, and the city may even bill customers and install service where needed. Knology will leverage their agreements with broadcasters and cable operators to provide Opelika with a reasonably-priced wholesale channel lineup, and sell Opelika a chunk of bandwidth that can then be used to provide residents with fast, symmetric internet service. Knology will probably even provide the expertise to make sure digital phone services works the way it should. Just guesstimates of how such an arrangement would go down, but the way the referendum is worded I can’t imagine it being for a city-run wholesale network with Knology running on top as a featured carrier and doing billing etc. themselves.

    4. Hate to break it to the Opelika’s Smart Grid people but you don’t need fiber to do a smart meter build. Around here the electrical cooperative uses low-speed powerline networking, and the city uses 900MHz wireless for automated meter reading, and smart meters are just a step away from that. Heck, smart grid stuff can run on a cellular (AT&T, Verizon, etc.) connection!

    • “I would consider myself to be of the Tea Party persuasion, however I have no problem with a municipal utility, as long as the services provided by it are optional, particularly with “luxury goods” like internet (I won’t do without it, but some folks will). ”

      Some folks do without muni water and electricity – guess those are luxuries too.

      While we can find people who don’t need utilities, that does not remove the fact that without these utilities (including broadband now), communities have no future except perhaps a few vacation destinations where people want to be totally off the grid.

      “I don’t like federal government impinging upon anything that’s not defined in the Constitution, but on a state or municipal level…well…I’m okay with that.”

      Let’s get rid of the Interstate Highway system. What the hell are we doing with NASA?

      Find me a modern society without a government larger than that defined in the Constitution (as read by Tea Party types). We had small government – it came with child labor and practically no social mobility.

    • I don’t consider Internet a luxury good anymore. I could probably do without my wired phone before I’d give up the Internet.

      From what I have been able to find out, it seems Knology is putting in a major fiber cable to serve Auburn, Alabama — just a hop, skip, and jump away from Opelika. Part of that cable runs straight through Opelika, which must burn a few residents who have to watch construction crews install a cable that will never serve them.

      Auburn had this debate about cable competition earlier than Opelika, and Knology was willing to move in and provide some. But Auburn has the sprawling Auburn University, which means dorms and apartments, and I’ll bet these will be the first to get the service, which plans to launch in October. Opelika has a technical college in the northeast section, somewhat far away from the community center, and looks more like a challenge for Knology’s multi-dwelling unit approach.

      This is all familiar territory to Knology, which also bought PCL Cable in Athens, AL (I wish the folks in Georgia and Alabama would not have the same city/town names in both states :-) ) so I can see Knology’s business interests being served in eastern Alabama.

      But I also recall hearing very clearly on the conference call with Knology officials up in Lawrence, Kansas discussing their purchase of Sunflower Broadband that Knology is done with their expansion projects for 2010 outside of those already underway. It would be at least a year before anything tangible happened in Opelika, and then at least another year to kick it around and argue about a franchise agreement, and another year after that to get construction going. It would be 2014 before Knology managed to do much on their own.

      If Opelika does their request for bids by the end of the year, I could see some construction starting on their network by next spring. Wards will have to argue with each other over who gets service first, but at least some ground will be broken. With the recession, contractors are not exactly backed up, even with stimulus projects (which are almost all middle-mile or DSL expansion anyway).

      The fly in the ointment will be Charter and the Alabama Cable Association. If past experience proves true, the city will want to establish contact with the folks at EPB Fiber in Chattanooga and learn from them. Because lawsuits will probably fly to stall this project. I’d also be surprised if Charter didn’t announce a major upgrade of their own in the interim. Competition (or the serious threat of it) can do wonders for consumers.

      Opelika city officials can also do themselves a major favor by sitting down and meeting with the opponents who have concerns about the smart meter aspect of the project and see if some sort of reasonable understanding can be forged, preferably in a small informal private setting.

      I do understand some of the concerns about smart metering, especially time of day pricing. It won’t stop the anti-government crowd from complaining, but citizens do deserve to know EXACTLY what the city wants to do.

      Residents here in western NY are starting to contemplate this question – the local newspaper ran a special front page story on it this past weekend: http://www.democratandchronicle.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=20108080321

      Smart meters are a concern here as well, because NY’ers pay the third highest electric rates in the country.

      It also appears that Alabama Power and Light will be the subscriber contact point to arrange for service. That might make sense, but if I were the city, I’d want as little to do with the day-to-day support, billing, and marketing as possible. The one flaw I’ve seen with some municipal broadband providers is their clueless marketing. Burlington Telecom was the classic example. They didn’t leverage broadband speeds and pricing to kick Comcast’s butt, and gave few people a compelling reason to switch providers. The folks at EPB and Green Light in Wilson are much, much better at this.

      I also confess I am surprised this project passed by this margin, although only 18 percent turned out. I suspect Charter’s historical performance, service, and pricing was the real issue on the ballot, and a large number of local residents sent them a message yesterday.







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