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FCC’s Tom Wheeler Promises to “Preempt” State Laws Banning Municipal Broadband

LUS Fiber if Lafayette, La., municipal broadband provider.

LUS Fiber is Lafayette, La., municipal broadband provider.

During remarks at the National Cable Show in Los Angeles, FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler promised he would stimulate more broadband competition by overriding state laws that presently restrict or ban municipal broadband networks.

“One place where it may be possible is municipally owned or authorized broadband systems. I understand that the experience with community broadband is mixed, that there have been both successes and failures. But if municipal governments—the same ones that granted cable franchises—want to pursue it, they shouldn’t be inhibited by state laws. I have said before, that I believe the FCC has the power – and I intend to exercise that power – to preempt state laws that ban competition from community broadband.”

After making the remarks, a debate has emerged over the exact definition of “preempt.” With at least 20 states limiting or banning community-owned broadband networks, the FCC would have to overturn or invalidate the state laws to render them moot.

At least one judge — Laurence Silberman — believes the FCC has the authority to take “measures that promote competition in the local telecommunications market or other regulating methods that remove barriers to infrastructure investment.” In a footnote, Silberman wrote that “[a]n example of a paradigmatic barrier to infrastructure investment would be state laws that prohibit municipalities from creating their own broadband infrastructure to compete against private companies.”

A FCC spokesperson, in response to inquiries about Wheeler’s remarks, was less conclusive.

“It’s too early to say how [Wheeler] will address existing state laws,” said the spokesperson.

That leaves open the question about whether the FCC intends to cancel existing state laws or simply prohibit new ones from being enacted. That distinction could make a tremendous difference in states like North Carolina, where a fierce battle over protecting municipal broadband was lost when Republicans took control of the state government. Telecom lobbyists, often working under the auspices of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have either directly banned municipal broadband networks from getting off the ground or placed so many restrictions on service to make projects untenable.

The Consumerist points out in Pennsylvania, municipal broadband is only allowed in communities if a telephone company does not provide any type of broadband to anyone in their service area. In Nevada, only towns with fewer than 25,000 people or counties with 50,000 can host community-owned broadband networks — numbers likely too low to sustain such a venture financially.

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Charlotte Lusts for Fibrant’s Fiber-to-the-Home Broadband Speed They Won’t Get Anytime Soon

fibrant_logo_headerA 2011 state law largely written by Time Warner Cable will likely keep Charlotte, N.C. waiting for fiber broadband that nearby Salisbury has had since 2010.

North Carolina is dominated by Time Warner Cable, AT&T and CenturyLink. Google and AT&T recently expressed interest in bringing their fiber networks to the home in several cities in the state, but neither have put a shovel in the ground.

Fibrant, a community owned broadband provider in Salisbury, northeast of Charlotte, not only laid 250 miles of fiber optics, it has been open for business since November 2010. It was just in time for the publicly owned venture, joining a growing number of community providers like Wilson’s Greenlight and Mooresville, Davidson and Cornelius’ MI-Connection. Time Warner Cable’s lobbyists spent several years pushing for legislation restricting the development of these new competitors and when Republicans took control of the General Assembly in 2011, they finally succeeded. Today, launching or expanding community broadband networks in North Carolina has been made nearly impossible by the law, modeled after a bill developed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

With fiber fever gripping the state, Fibrant has gotten a lot of attention from Charlotte media because it provides the type of service other providers are only talking about. Fibrant offers residents cable television, phone, and broadband and competes directly with Time Warner Cable and AT&T. Although not the cheapest option in town, Fibrant is certainly the fastest and local residents are gradually taking their business to the community alternative.

Charlotte, N.C. is surrounded by community providers like Fibrant in Salisbury and MI-Connection in the Mooresville area.

Charlotte, N.C. is surrounded by community providers like Fibrant in Salisbury and MI-Connection in the Mooresville area.

“A lot faster Internet speeds, a lot clearer phone calls,” said Sidewalk Deli owner Rick Anderson-McCombs, who switched to Fibrant after 15 years with another provider. His mother, Anganetta Dover told WSOC-TV, “I think we save about $30 to $40 a month with Fibrant and the advantages of having the speed is so much better.”

Julianne Goodman cut cable’s cord, dropping Time Warner Cable TV service in favor of Netflix. To support her online streaming habit, she switched to Fibrant, which offers faster Internet speeds than the cable company.

Commercial customers are also switching, predominately away from AT&T in favor of Fibrant.

“Businesses love us because we don’t restrict them on uploads,” one Fibrant worker told WCNC-TV. “So when they want to send files, it’s practically instantaneous.”

Fibrant offers synchronous broadband speeds, which mean the download and upload speeds are the same. Cable broadband technology always favors download speeds over upload, and Time Warner Cable’s fastest upstream speed remains stuck at 5Mbps in North Carolina.

AT&T offers a mix of DSL and U-verse fiber to the neighborhood service in North Carolina. Maximum download speed for most customers is around 24Mbps. AT&T has made a vague commitment to increase those speeds, but customers report difficulty qualifying for upgrades.

Time Warner Cable is a big player in the largest city in North Carolina, evident as soon as you spot the Time Warner Cable Arena on East Trade Street in downtown Charlotte.

Taxpayer dollars are also funneled to the cable company.

Time Warner Cable’s $82 million data center won the company a $2.9 million Job Development Investment Grant. Charlotte’s News & Observer noted the nation’s second largest cable company also received $3 million in state incentives.

When communities like Salisbury approached providers about improving broadband speeds, they were shown the door.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WCNC Charlotte Fibrant Already Provides Fiber 3-5-14.mp4

WCNC-TV reports that with Google expressing an interest in providing fiber service in Charlotte, Salisbury’s Fibrant has been offering service since 2010. (2:57)

“Our citizens asked for high-speed Internet,” says Doug Paris, Salisbury’s city manager. “We met with the incumbent providers [like Time Warner and AT&T, and that did not fit within their business plans.”

Salisbury and Wilson, among others, elected to build their own networks. The decision to enter the broadband business came under immediate attack from incumbent providers and a range of conservative astroturf and sock puppet political groups often secretly funded by the phone and cable companies.

Rep. Avila with Marc Trathen, Time Warner Cable's top lobbyist (right) Photo by: Bob Sepe of Action Audits

Rep. Avila, a ban proponent, meets with Marc Trathen, Time Warner Cable’s top lobbyist (right) (Photo: Bob Sepe)

Critics of Fibrant launched an attack website against the venture (it stopped updating in March, 2012), suggesting the fiber venture would bankrupt the city. One brochure even calls Stop the Cap! part of a high-priced consultant cabal of “Judas goats for big fiber” (for the record, Stop the Cap! was not/is not paid a penny to advocate for Fibrant or any other provider).

Opponents also characterize Fibrant as communism in action and have distributed editorial cartoons depicting Fibrant service technicians in Soviet military uniforms guarding Salisbury’s broadband gulag.

In January of this year, city officials were able to report positive news. Fibrant has begun to turn a profit after generating $2,223,678 in the revenue from July through December, 2013. Fibrant lost $4.1 million during the previous fiscal year. That is an improvement over earlier years when the venture borrowed more than $7 million from the city’s water and sewer capital reserve fund, repaying the loans at 1 percent interest. The city believes the $33 million broadband network will break even this year — just four years after launching.

Fibrant is certainly no Time Warner Cable or AT&T, having fewer than 3,000 customers in the Salisbury city limits. But it does have a market share of 21 percent, comparable to what AT&T U-verse has achieved in many of its markets.

Fibrant also has the highest average revenue per customer among broadband providers in the city — $129 a month vs. $121 for Time Warner Cable. Customers spend more for the faster speeds Fibrant offers.

Some residents wonder if Fibrant will be successful if or when AT&T and Google begin offering fiber service. Both companies have made a splash in Charlotte’s newspapers and television news about their fiber plans, which exist only on paper in the form of press releases. Neither provider has targeted Salisbury for upgrades and nobody can predict whether either will ultimately bring fiber service to the city of Charlotte.

Those clamoring for fiber broadband speeds under the state’s anti-community broadband law will have to move to one of a handful of grandfathered communities in North Carolina where forward-thinking leaders actually built the fiber networks private companies are still only talking about.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WSOC Charlotte Charlotte could gain from fiber optic network already in place 4-22-14.flv

WSOC-TV in Charlotte reports Salisbury customers are happy with Fibrant service and the competition it provides AT&T and Time Warner Cable. (2:12)

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The Washington Post’s Delusional Support of the Comcast-Time Warner Cable Merger Debunked

corporatewelfareIf you have started to confuse the Washington Post editorial page with that of the Wall Street Journal, you are not alone.

Under the stewardship of Fred Hiatt, WaPo’s editorial opinions have grown increasingly anti-consumer and pro-corporate at home and decidedly neoconservative abroad.

It’s the same newspaper that wholeheartedly supported the merger of Comcast and NBC-Universal in 2010. Let’s check whether they called that one right:

Entities that compete with NBC-owned cable channels fear that Comcast will relegate them to hard-to-find channel locations. Consumer advocates warn that Comcast will use its newfound power to raise subscription rates and stifle new voices on television and the Internet.

The same newspaper reported last week that Comcast refused to let Back9Network, a golf oriented network in direct competition with Comcast-owned Golf Channel, on its cable systems.

For years, Bloomberg TV — in direct competition with Comcast-owned CNBC — has been stuck in Channel Siberia, in some areas like Chicago dumped between Comcast’s promotional “barker” channel and “Leased Access.” CNBC enjoys Ch. 29, certain to attract more viewers than Bloomberg’s Ch. 102.

As Stop the Cap! reported yesterday, no cable company raises cable television rates more than Comcast, blaming programming rate increases that in several cases originate with Comcast-owned cable networks.

Regulators should scrutinize the proposed merger but should be skeptical of the critics’ claims. [...] Advocacy groups have been poor prognosticators of the effects of large media mergers.

The Washington Post’s editorial accuracy record has more than a few blemishes, from its 2003 declaration Colin Powell’s “evidence” of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was “irrefutable,” to suggestions that a wedding of Comcast and NBC Universal wouldn’t hurt anyone because the FCC was ready to manage any problems without pesky mandates or overbearing pre-conditions.

The FCC already requires cable operators to deal fairly with competitors. Its rules would require Comcast to give competitors access to NBC content on “reasonable” and “non-discriminatory” terms. The company would also be required to negotiate in good faith about carrying non-NBC channels. Competitors who believed that they were harmed by unfair dealing could have their complaints adjudicated by the agency. Critics of the Comcast-NBCU merger claim that these mechanisms are ineffective and slow. But the breakdown of the complaint system should not be used as an excuse to impose onerous conditions on one company. Instead, critics should push for an overhaul of the system.

The Bloomberg case, now three years old, remains unresolved. That should tell readers something about just how quickly the FCC gets around to dealing with these kinds of complaints. Comcast has been able to argue its decision to bury Bloomberg and keep Back9Network off its cable systems are examples of ‘good faith, reasonable decision-making that doesn’t discriminate.’ It sued to quash Net Neutrality, critical for online video competition, and won.

The Post editorial amusingly insists that Comcast’s merger plans should not be interrupted because of an ineffective complaint system that can’t or won’t promptly deal with Comcast’s ongoing abuse of the very non-discriminatory rules the editors declare as a reason to support the Comcast-NBCUniversal merger.

Many of the same fears of domination and manipulation were raised with the 2001 merger of AOL and TimeWarner; that megadeal crumbled after a few years. Comcast and GE, which will retain a 49 percent stake in NBCU, should be allowed to proceed, and regulators should do their jobs and watch the newly formed company carefully.

Phillip "The Post's Naivete is Showing" Dampier

Phillip “The Post’s Naivete is Showing” Dampier

The 2001 merger of AOL and Time Warner came at the last gasp of the dot.com boom. As the New York Times noted, “In May of 2000, the dot.com bubble began to burst and online advertising began to slow, making it difficult for AOL to meet the financial forecasts on which the deal was based. The world began moving quickly to high-speed Internet access, putting AOL’s ubiquitous dial-up service in jeopardy.”

The final unraveling of AOL Time Warner came about because the combined company, highly dependent on AOL (and its stock value), could not sustain its business model when nobody could figure out how to get paid for content in the online world. AOL’s dial-up Internet access business was also rapidly in decline as the country started moving towards broadband.

“The consumer has access to everything and now it’s going to be on a handheld device, so what I call the rolling thunder of the Internet started actually to eat its own, which was AOL,” writes the Times. “AOL was the Google of its time. It was how you got to the Internet, but it was using some old media business ideas that were undone by the Internet itself, and that’s why Google came along.”

The same sad story is not true for Comcast or Time Warner Cable (which was spun off from Time Warner, Inc. as an independent company as part of a restructuring in 2009.)

Both cable companies are in a better place than AOL-Time Warner:

  • AOL relied on dial-up and reseller access to some broadband providers — neither sufficiently lucrative to sustain AOL’s dot.com-days value. Comcast/TWC own their own broadband networks;
  • Verizon FiOS and AT&T U-verse are the only significant multi-city broadband competitors for the cable industry. U-verse remains challenged by its technological limitations and Verizon stopped expanding FiOS. Google Fiber has a totally insignificant market share and is likely to stay that way for several years. Google Fiber provides no competition in the northeast where Comcast and Time Warner Cable dominate;
  • Comcast and Time Warner Cable both oppose community-owned broadband competition and Time Warner has successfully managed to push legislation virtually banning network expansion in several states;
  • Comcast will both own and control the pipes and a significant amount of the content that crosses its broadband networks. At the time of the AOL-Time Warner merger, online video competition did not exist in a meaningful way.
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Big Telecom Sock Puppetry Too Often Comes Without Full Disclosure

Larry Irving Old Job: administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). New Job: Shill for Big Telecom companies

Larry Irving
Old Job: administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).
New Job: Shill for Big Telecom companies

Community-owned, publicly funded broadband networks are under renewed attack in various Op-Ed and guest editorial pieces popping up in newspapers around the country, often written by those with undisclosed industry connections as part of a larger effort to ban the networks.

The Hill in Washington, D.C. was one of the latest to go to print, publishing a hit piece attacking the “growing fascination with publicly funded broadband networks” and suggesting only the “private-sector” could deliver the best telecommunications networks.

In his piece, author Larry Irving stated, “the specter of governments operating broadband networks in competition with the private sector, or of state or local governments serving as both regulators and owners of competing broadband networks, could stifle investment or reduce private-sector access to capital.”

Irving added that “with the exception of bringing or improving service to remote geographies, I don’t see many problems that government-owned or -operated broadband networks will solve.”

Here is how The Hill described Irving: “CEO of the Irving Group and served for almost seven years as assistant secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information and administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).”

That is like describing Oscar Pistorius as a man embroiled in marital difficulties. It doesn’t begin to tell the whole story. Media Matters does:

Irving is more connected with the telecom industry than America is with fiber broadband. Irving is the founding co-chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance (IIA), an IRS 501(c)(6) telecommunications trade association whose purpose is to “prevent the creation of burdensome regulations,” according to documents filed with the IRS. IIA reportedly receives financial support from AT&T and includes members such as Alcatel-Lucent and TechAmerica, which lobbies on behalf of technology companies. The group’s 2011 IRS tax form — the most recent one available – states it received over $18 million in revenue.

the-hill-logoWhile The Hill noted that Irving heads the Irving Group, it did not disclose that the firm provides “strategic advice and assistance to international telecommunications and information technology companies.”

The Hill op-ed comes after the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, released a February 2014 report concluding that federally funded and municipal networks were faster and cheaper than comparable networks. Specifically, the GAO found:

  • “federally funded or municipal networks offered higher top speeds than other networks in the same community and networks in nearby communities.”
  • “prices charged by federally funded and municipal networks were slightly lower than the comparison networks’ prices for similar speeds.”
  • “according to small business owners, the improvements to broadband service have helped the businesses improve efficiency and streamline operations. Small businesses that use the services of these networks reported a greater ability to use bandwidth-intensive applications for inventory management, videoconferencing, and teleworking, among other things.”

Most of the industry’s initiatives against community broadband come through a close association with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) — a corporate funded group that provides ghostwritten bills to mostly Republican legislators for introduction in state legislatures across the country. One such bill virtually bans community broadband.

alec-logo-sm

Sponsored by corporate interests

ALEC is now under fire again for its annual “Rich States, Poor States” report, released this week. The publication, whose lead author is economist Arthur Laffer, is sold to the press as an objective, academic measure of state economic performance, but should instead be viewed more as a lobby scorecard ranking states on the adoption of extreme ALEC policies that have little or nothing to do with economic outcomes.

Internal documents obtained by The Guardian expose a close financial connection between the Koch Brothers and ALEC. It turns out the Koch family funds the production of “Rich States, Poor States,” which this year put deregulation friendly Utah at the top and ALEC-skeptical New York at the bottom. The report claims the state of Mississippi outperformed New York, a surprising and entirely false assertion. But getting ALEC model bills signed into law in Mississippi is far easier than getting them past New York’s Assembly and Senate.

Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker is a former ALEC member who signed 19 ALEC bills into law in his first two years in office, slashed government spending and controversially eviscerated state unions prompting mass protests in February 2011. Despite the fact Wisconsin still has one of the worst job creation records in the country, ranking 32nd nationally or 9 out of 10 in upper Midwest, ALEC has been kind to Wisconsin in its economic report, ranking the state 17th for its economic outlook.

Any state that permits publicly funded broadband networks to exist is in obvious economic peril in the eyes of ALEC (and member corporations including AT&T, Comcast, and Time Warner Cable.)

sockpuppetThe Center for Media and Democracy’s PR Watch suggests ALEC’s agenda for Big Telecom is to make life easy for your provider and more expensive for you. ALEC has three model telecom bills it pushes on state legislatures:

The ALEC “Municipal Telecommunications Private Industry Safeguards Act” is a “model” bill for states to thwart local efforts to create public broadband access. Promoted under the guise of “fair competition” and “leveling the playing field,” this big telecom-supported bill imposes regulations on community-run broadband that they would never tolerate themselves. Iterations of this anti-municipal broadband bill passed in 19 states to stop local governments in communities like Wilson, North Carolina from wiring their communities with fiber.

The ALEC “Cable and Video Competition Act” attacks municipal cable franchises and frees cable companies from oversight. The bill creates a single state franchising authority and releases the companies from requirements to wire the entire state, and allows companies to decide when — or if — to build out cable, and through that cable, to provide adequate internet access. In North Carolina, for example, the bill passed under the name “the Video Service Competition Act” in 2006 with the promise that deregulation would result in greater investment by cable broadband providers; but instead, the state is tied for last place in terms of the number of homes with a basic broadband connection. An estimated twenty-three states have enacted statewide video franchising laws in recent years. Additionally, bills like this one harm public access television stations, since cable companies no longer negotiate with individual jurisdictions and pay the franchising fees that fund public, educational, and government access television.

The ALEC “Broadband and Telecommunications Deployment Act” would give telecommunications providers access to all public rights-of-way, and make it harder for local communities to charge franchising fees or otherwise regulate providers. Cable and internet is largely wired via publicly owned “rights of way” — like under sidewalks or along utility poles — and traditionally, telecom providers profiting from the use of these public goods would be granted access in exchange for some sort of accountability, such as paying for access or providing services on a non-discriminatory basis to all customers willing to pay. This bill would largely eliminate local control over public rights-of-way in favor of telecommunications providers.

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Math Problem: The Telecom Industry’s Bias Against Fiber-to-the-Home Service

Phillip "Spending $6k per cable customer is obviously a much better deal than paying half that to build a fiber to the home network" Dampier

Phillip “Spending $6k per cable customer is obviously a much better deal than paying half that to build a fiber to the home network” Dampier

Math was never my strong subject, but even I can calculate the groupthink of American cable and telephone companies and their friends on Wall Street just doesn’t add up.

This week, we learned that cable companies like Bright House Networks, Suddenlink, and Charter Communications are already lining up for a chance to acquire three million cable customers Comcast intends to sell if it wins approval of its merger with Time Warner Cable. Wall Street has already predicted Comcast will fetch as much as $18 billion for those customers and pegged the value of each at approximately $6,000.

But for less than half that price any company could build a brand new fiber to the home system capable of delivering 1,000Mbps broadband and state-of-the-art phone and television service and start banking profits long before paying off the debt from buying an inferior coaxial cable system. Yet we are told time and time again that the economics of fiber to the home service simply don’t make any sense and deploying the technology is a waste of money.

Let’s review:

Google Fiber was called a boondoggle by many of its competitors. The folks at Bernstein Research, routinely friendly to the cable business model, seemed appalled at the economics of Google’s fiber project in Kansas City. Bernstein’s Carlos Kirjner and Ram Parameswaran said Google would throw $84 million into the first phase of its fiber network, connecting 149,000 homes at a cost between $500-674 per home. The Wall Street analyst firm warned investors of the costs Google would incur reaching 20 million customers nationwide — $11 billion.

“We remain skeptical that Google will find a scalable and economically feasible model to extend its build out to a large portion of the U.S., as costs would be substantial, regulatory and competitive barriers material, and in the end the effort would have limited impact on the global trajectory of the business,” Bernstein wrote to its investor clients.

dealSo Google spending $11 billion to reach 20 million new homes is business malpractice while spending $18 billion for three million Time Warner Cable customers is confirmation of the cable industry’s robust health and valuation?

Bernstein’s firm never thought highly of Verizon FiOS either.

“If I were an auto dealer and I wanted to give people a Maserati for the price of a Volkswagen, I’d have some seriously happy customers,” Craig Moffett from Bernstein said back in 2008. “My problem would be whether I could earn a decent return doing it.”

Back then, Moffett estimated the average cost to Verizon per FiOS home passed was $3,897, a figure based on wiring up every neighborhood, but not getting every homeowner to buy the service. Costs for fiber have dropped dramatically since 2008. Dave Burstein from DSL Prime reported by the summer of 2012 Verizon told shareholders costs fell below $700/home passed and headed to $600. The total cost of running fiber, installing it in a customer’s home and providing equipment meant Verizon had to spend about $1,500 per customer when all was said and done.

Moffett concluded Verizon was throwing money away spending that much on improving service. He wasn’t impressed by AT&T U-verse either, which only ran fiber into the neighborhood, not to each home. Moffett predicted AT&T was spending $2,200 per home on U-verse back in 2008, although those costs have dropped dramatically as well.

Moffett

Moffett

Moffett’s solution for both Verizon and AT&T? Do nothing to upgrade, because the price wasn’t worth the amount of revenue returns either company could expect in the short-term.

It was a much different story if Comcast wanted to spend $45 billion to acquire Time Warner Cable however, a deal Moffett called “transformational.”

“What we’re talking about is an industry that is becoming more capital intensive,” Todd Mitchell, an analyst at Brean Capital LLC in New York told Bloomberg News. “What happens to mature, capital-intensive companies — they consolidate. So, yes, I think the cable industry is ripe for consolidation.”

Other investors agreed.

“This is definitely a bet on a positive future for high-speed access, cable and other services in an economic recovery,” said Bill Smead, chief investment officer at Smead Capital Management, whose fund owns Comcast shares.

ftth councilBut Forbes’ Peter Cohan called Google’s much less investment into fiber broadband a colossal waste of money.

“Larry Page should nip this bad idea in the bud,” Cohan wrote.

Cohan warned investors should throw water on the enthusiasm for fiber before serious money got spent.

“FTTH authority, Neal Lachman, wrote in SeekingAlpha, that it would cost as much as $500 billion and could take a decade to connect all the houses and commercial buildings in the U.S. to fiber,” Cohan added.

Cohan was concerned Google’s initial investment would take much too long to be recovered, which apparently is not an issue for buyers willing to spend $18 billion for three million disaffected Time Warner Cable customers desperately seeking alternatives.

An investment for the future, not for short term profits.

An investment for the future, not short term profits.

Municipal broadband providers have often chosen to deploy fiber to the home service because the technology offers plenty of capacity, ongoing maintenance costs are low and the networks can be upgraded at little cost indefinitely. But such broadband efforts, especially when they are owned by local government, represent a threat for cable and phone companies relying on a business model that sells less for more.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), funded by Comcast, Time Warner, AT&T, Verizon, and other large telecom companies is at the forefront of helping friendly state legislators ban community fiber networks. Their excuse is that the fiber networks cost too much and, inexplicably, can reduce competition.

“A growing number of municipalities are [...] building their own networks and offering broadband services to their citizens,” ALEC writes on its website. “ALEC disagrees with their answer due to the negative impacts it has on free markets and limited government.  In addition, such projects could erode consumer choice by making markets less attractive to competition because of the government’s expanded role as a service provider.”

The Fiber-to-the-Home Council obviously disagrees.

“Believe it or not, there are already more than a thousand telecom network operators and service providers across North America that have upgraded to fiber to the home,” says the Council. “The vast majority of these are local incumbent telephone companies that are looking to transform themselves from voice and DSL providers into 21st century broadband companies that can deliver ultra high-speed Internet and robust video services, as well as be able to deliver other high-bandwidth digital applications and services to homes and businesses in the years ahead.”

Stephenson

Stephenson

In fact, a good many of those efforts are undertaken by member-owned co-ops and municipally owned providers that answer to local residents, not to shareholders looking for quick returns.

The only time large companies like AT&T move towards fiber to the home service is when a competitor threatens to do it themselves. That is precisely what happened in Austin. The day Google announced it was launching fiber service in Austin, AT&T suddenly announced its intention to do the same.

“In Austin we’re deploying fiber very aggressively,” said AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson. “The cost dynamics of deploying fiber have dramatically changed. The interfaces at the homes, the wiring requirements, how you get a wiring drop to a pole, and the way you splice it has totally changed the cost dynamics of deploying fiber.”

Prior to that announcement, AT&T justified its decision not to deploy fiber all the way to the home by saying it was unnecessary and too costly. With Google headed to town, that talking point is no longer operative.

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CenturyLink to Idaho Residents: You Don’t Need 1Gbps, DSL is Good Enough for You

centurylinkCenturyLink’s philosophy about offering gigabit fiber broadband speeds in Idaho can be summed up simply as “for business-use only.”

Jim Schmit, Idaho CenturyLink’s vice president and general manager, believes super fast broadband connections are overkill for homes and most businesses in the state.

“It’s like having a fancy sports car,” Schmit told the Idaho Statesman. “It might go 200 miles per hour, but what good does that do if the speed limit is 60?”

Schmitt’s attitude of broadband a-plenty is nothing new. In 2007, he told attendees of the Emerging Directions in Economic Development conference in Boise that “virtually all” Idahoans already had access to high-speed broadband. That was news to the audience, with about a quarter of the economic development professionals attending stating they represented a community that didn’t have it yet. Most of the questions related to how their communities could get the access they’d been told wasn’t available.

Seven years later, the Statesman reports more than a few homes and businesses in the region still rely on slow DSL, satellite and even dial-up access because faster options are just not available.

idahoIdaho could find itself a bystander in the growing movement to deploy gigabit fiber to the premise broadband, despite the fact CenturyLink already has fiber infrastructure available nearby.

“We’re getting to the point where, for businesses in most places, we’re within last-mile connections for most locations,” Schmit says.

CenturyLink is willing to extend its fiber, but only if that fiber line reaches businesses needing gigabit speeds. Residential customers need not apply.

Fiber optics can be found in several office buildings in downtown Boise, which has been good news for established tech companies that need more bandwidth. Three data centers are operational in the city and would likely not be there without fiber.

But for home-based entrepreneurs of future Internet startups, most will be forced to choose between CenturyLink DSL or cable broadband from providers like Cable ONE, which offer slower speeds.

Smaller broadband providers have begun to fill the gap left open by the lack of interest from cable and phone companies. While Google is showing interest in building fiber networks in a handful of U.S. cities, many more communities are realizing they will not get gigabit speeds anytime soon unless they build a publicly owned broadband network themselves or rely on much smaller-scale projects under development in the private sector.

Patrick Lawless, founder and CEO of Boise voice recognition software developer Voxbright Technologies Inc., sees opportunity providing a limited fiber network in Boise. Lawless has plans to build a 2.6-mile fiber-optic loop and deliver television, phone and broadband service to apartment and office buildings in a manner similar to Google’s. It’s a small early effort, limited to a handful of businesses and new residential buildings — mostly apartments and renovated former office buildings or hotels. He plans to charge $99 a month for a package including television, 100Mbps broadband, and phone service.

With the project’s small scope and uncertain cost, CenturyLink says it isn’t too worried about the competition. For now they will continue to bank on offering only the broadband speed they believe customers actually need, and it will be up to a competitor to prove them wrong.

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Most Cutting Edge Gigabit Broadband Networks are Community-Owned

Greenlight announces gigabit service for Wilson, N.C.

Greenlight announces gigabit service for Wilson, N.C.

Claims from critics that government-owned Internet Service Providers would bring ineptly managed, behind-the-times broadband are belied by the reality on the ground.

Network World highlighted several cities offering consumers and/or businesses gigabit broadband service from publicly owned Internet providers. All of them stand alone with no commercial competitor willing or able to compete on speed. In fact, most of the communities offering their own Internet service do so because incumbent cable and phone companies showed no interest in upgrading or expanding their services or offer them at prohibitive prices. For many of the towns involved, the only way to get 21st century broadband was to build it themselves.

Cable companies like Time Warner Cable scoff at the need for superfast broadband speeds, claiming customers are not interested in gigabit Internet. After the Federal Communications Commission issued a challenge for every state in the U.S. to reach 1Gbps Internet speeds in at least one community by 2015, then chief financial officer Irene Esteves said 1,000Mbps service was unnecessary and the cable company wouldn’t offer it because there was little demand for it.

While Esteves was telling reporters gigabit speeds were irrelevant, Time Warner Cable’s lobbyists were working behind the scenes to make sure none of their community-owned competitors offered it either, cajoling state officials to pass legislation that would effectively ban publicly owned broadband competition. Time Warner, along with other cable and phone companies evidently feel so threatened, they have successfully helped enact such bans into law in 20 states.

The record is clear. The best chance your community has of getting gigabit speeds is to rally your local government or municipal utility to offer the service you are not getting from the local cable/phone duopoly anytime soon.

Chanute, Kansas

The city of Chanute, Kan. is fighting back against incumbent phone and cable companies trying to ban municipal-owned ISPs in the state.

The city of Chanute, Kan. is fighting back against incumbent phone and cable companies trying to ban municipal-owned ISPs in the state.

With just 9,000 residents barely served by AT&T and the routinely awful Cable ONE, Chanute knew if it wanted 21st century broadband, it was unlikely to get it from the local phone and cable company. Chanute has owned a municipal fiber network since 1984 and has been in the Internet provider business since 2005. Now the city is working towards a fiber to the home network for residents while AT&T is lobbying Washington regulators to let the company scrap rural landline and DSL service across Kansas and other states.

The city is taking a stand against the latest effort to ban community broadband networks in Kansas. It’s a rough fight because Kansas lobbyists get to write and introduce corporate-written telecom bills in the legislature without even the pretext of the proposed legislation originating from someone actually elected to office. SB 304, temporarily withdrawn for “tweaking,” shreds the concept of home rule — allowing local communities to decide what works best for them. Instead, AT&T, Cable ONE, Comcast, Cox, and other telecom companies will get to make that decision on your behalf if the bill re-emerges in the legislature and passes later this year.

“We’re taking a leadership position to do something about it. I’d hate to sit here and keep bashing AT&T and Cable One. They don’t care. All they care about is paying dividends back to their stockholders,” Chanute’s utility director Larry Gates told Network World. “My feeling – this is mine, it’s probably not the city’s, but it’s mine – is I wouldn’t care if we ever made a dime on this network, as long as it would pay for itself. If it could increase and do the things with education, health, safety, and economic development – man, that’s a win. That’s a huge win.”

Chattanooga, Tennessee

The "headquarters" of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance is in the basement of this building in suburban Washington. It's a pretty small alliance funded by mysterious "private" donors.

The “headquarters” of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance is in the basement of this building in suburban Washington.

EPB Broadband is the best argument community broadband advocates have to counter Big Telecom propaganda that community-owned broadband is a failure waiting to happen. EPB has received national acclaim by delivering gigabit broadband to consumers and businesses that Chattanoogans can’t get from AT&T and Comcast. EPB is Chattanooga’s municipally owned electric utility and originally laid fiber to power its Smart Meter project to better manage its electric system. With near infinite capacity, why not share that network with the community?

EPB routinely embarrasses its competition by offering highly rated local customer service and support instead of forcing customers to deal with offshore call centers rife with language barriers. Customer ratings of AT&T and Comcast are dismal — rock bottom in fact — but that isn’t the case for EPB, embraced by the local community and now helping to foster the region’s high-tech economic development.

Santa Monica, California

Santa Monica City Net does not serve residential customers, but a lot of locals probably wish it did. Greater Los Angeles has been carved up between bottom-rated Charter Communications and never-loved Time Warner Cable. Time Warner customers in LA will soon get access to 100Mbps broadband. Businesses in downtown Santa Monica can already get broadband from City Net at speeds up to 10Gbps.

Lafayette, Louisiana

LUS Fiber has had a very tough battle just getting service off the ground. Its two competitors are AT&T and Cox, and the fiber to the home provider had to work its way through legal disputes and a special election to launch service. Even to this day, corporate front groups like the Taxpayers Protection Alliance are still taking potshots at LUS and other municipal providers. TPA president David Williams refuses to identify where the money comes from to fund TPA’s operations. It’s a safe bet some of it comes from telecom companies based on the TPA’s preoccupation with broadband issues. The group always aligns itself with the interests of phone and cable companies.

Cable and phone companies that fund sock puppet groups like TPA could have spent that money to upgrade broadband service in communities like Lafayette. Instead, they cut checks to groups like the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, headquartered in a basement rental unit in suburban Washington, D.C.

Burlington, Vermont

Burlington Telecom’s troubled past is a poster child for anti-municipal broadband groups. The provider’s financial problems are often mentioned by groups fighting public broadband. To be sure, there are successes and failures in any industry and inept marketing by BT several years ago hurt its chances for success. Its competition is Comcast and FairPoint Communications, which means usage-capped cable broadband or slow speed DSL. BT sells a gigabit broadband alternative for $149.99 a month for those signing a 12-month contract. Comcast charges $115 a month for 105Mbps service — about ten times slower than BT’s offering.

Tullahoma, Tennessee

The Tennessee Telecommunications Association is appealing to the state government to keep publicly-owned broadband competitors out of their territories.

The Tennessee Telecommunications Association is appealing to the state government to keep publicly owned broadband competitors out of their territories.

LighTUBe, the telecommunications branch of the Tullahoma Utilities Board (TUB), announced its gigabit Internet offering in May 2013, says Network World. The magazine suspects the provider is interested in commercial, not residential customers.

That no doubt comes as a relief to the Tennessee Telecommunications Association, which represents the state’s independent phone companies. Last month, more than a dozen executives from those companies invaded the state capital to complain that municipal providers were threatening to invade their territories and offer unwanted competition.

“We are particularly concerned about four bills that have been introduced this session,” says Levoy Knowles, TTA’s executive director. “These bills would allow municipalities to expand beyond their current footprint and offer broadband in our service areas. If this were to happen, municipalities could cherry-pick our more populated areas, leaving the more remote, rural consumers to bear the high cost of delivering broadband to these less populated regions.”

Among the companies that want to keep uncomfortable public broadband competition out of their territories: North Central Telephone Cooperative, Loretto Telecom, Twin Lakes Telephone Cooperative, Highland Telephone Cooperative, TDS Telecom, United Communications, Ben Lomand Connect, WK&T Telecommunications, Ritter Communications, Ardmore Telephone Company, and RepCom.

Bristol, Tennessee

Bristol is unique because its city limits are effectively in Tennessee and Virginia. Neither state has gotten much respect from incumbent telephone and cable companies, so BTES — the electric and telecom utility in Bristol — decided to deliver broadband service itself. The network is now being upgraded to expand 1Gbps service, and it represents an island in the broadband backwater of far eastern Tennessee and western Virginia and North Carolina.

closedCedar Falls, Iowa

Iowa has never been a hotbed for fast broadband and is the home to the largest number of independent telephone companies in the country. Cedar Falls Utilities is one of them and is trying to change the “behind the rest” image Iowa telecommunications has been stuck with for years. The municipal telecom provider has boosted broadband speeds and announced gigabit broadband last year.

Wilson, N.C.

Greenlight has been providing fiber to the home service for several years, and its presence in the middle of Time Warner Cable territory was apparently the last straw for the cable company, which began fiercely lobbying for a municipal broadband ban in North Carolina. Thanks to a massive cash dump by Koch Brothers’ ally Art Pope, the Republicans took control of the state government between 2010-2012. Many of the new legislators have an ongoing love affair with ALEC — the corporate front group — and treat its database of business-ghostwritten bills like the Library of Congress. What AT&T, CenturyLink, and Time Warner Cable want, they now get.

With a broadband ban in place, Greenlight can’t expand its territory, but it can increase its broadband speeds. Time Warner Cable tops out at 50Mbps for almost $100 a month. For $49.95 more you can get 1,000Mbps from Greenlight. Instead if competing, TWC prefers Greenlight to simply go away, and the North Carolina legislature has shown it is always ready to help.

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MassBroadband123 Fiber Network Completed; Now the Challenge of Last-Mile Funding Begins

axiamassbroadband123The Massachusetts Broadband Institute has completed construction and testing of the massive 1,200 mile fiber optic network designed to bring 21st century Internet connectivity to rural western and central Massachusetts now largely left out of the broadband revolution.

After spending $89.7 million in state and federal funds, the fiber project that started construction in 2011 has delivered a robust middle-mile network that, for now, will largely target and serve 1,400 schools, libraries, and government buildings — institutional users that have access to government broadband funding programs to pay for hookups to the fiber network. Finding the money to connect the 333,500 households and 44,000 businesses MassBroadband123 wants to reach is more difficult.

Steve Nelson, the legal/governance chair of the WiredWest Executive Committee, likens it to seeing big water mains being laid along roadways with no way to connect pipes to your house. The media may proclaim the network is complete, but in reality, there is a lot of work that remains to extend broadband service to the residents and businesses that need it most.

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick recently announced funding to support some of the costs of the all-too-critical “last mile” — bringing a connection from the existing fiber network to a home or business. Out of a $900 million bond bill for technology projects, a set aside of $50 million has been reserved for broadband. The bill is waiting for action by the Senate Committee on Bonding, Capital Expenditures and State Assets. If it passes, Nelson believes it will cover about half of the estimated $100 million needed to finish the last mile and begin offering service.

open

As with many publicly funded, open access broadband networks, private providers are usually invited to participate, but in fact rarely do. Despite calls from Rep. “Smitty” Pignatelli (D-Berkshire 4th District) for Verizon and Comcast to get on board, there is no sign either company is prepared to do so. Nelson says waiting for either company to solve the last-mile problem in areas where they’ve never shown much interest before is like “Waiting for Godot.”

wiredwest“It’s time to stop talking and waiting for Comcast or Verizon,” Nelson writes. “We the people of Western Mass. have the power to solve the last mile problem ourselves. Forty-two towns have formed WiredWest, a cooperative dedicated to bringing broadband home to our citizens.”

WiredWest is seeking federal rural broadband funding designated to support rural broadband projects like the one in western Massachusetts. The co-op may even issue a bond backed by participating communities that would allow WiredWest to borrow the needed funds to wire up customers.

Nelson is calling on fellow residents to support the project’s viability by signing up for service when it becomes available. He also urges participating communities to stay united under the WiredWest regional partnership.

“The regional solution WiredWest represents is the only way to achieve the economies of scale, operational efficiencies and cost-effectiveness to make such a network feasible and sustainable,” said Nelson. “It requires a large-enough base of customers and the support from many towns joining forces. A small town going it alone and building its own network is not a viable approach to the big challenge of building and operating such complex and costly infrastructure. It’s running a sled race with just one dog.”

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Kansas’ Cable Industry Ghostwrote New Anticompetition Bill That Could Hamper Google Fiber

Federico Consulting has the Kansas Cable Lobby as a paying client and works behind the scenes in the state legislature to push their agenda.

Federico Consulting has the Kansas Cable Lobby as a paying client and works behind the scenes in the state legislature to push their agenda.

A cable industry lobbying group wrote the bill introduced last week in the Kansas Senate that could dramatically restrict municipal broadband networks from launching and hamper Google Fiber from expanding its gigabit broadband network outside of Kansas City.

A Kansas Senate employee told Ars Technica the proposed bill – SB 304 was submitted for introduction in the state legislature by John Federico, president of Topeka-based lobbying firm Federico Consulting, on behalf of the Kansas Cable Telecommunications Association (KCTA). The cable industry trade association counts among its members: Cable ONE, Comcast, Cox Communications, and Time Warner Cable — the largest cable operators in the state.

Joshua Montgomery, a Kansan directly affected by the possible passage of SB 304, notes the legislation could also impact Google’s efforts to expand its gigabit broadband network outside of Kansas City, Kan., because the project relies on a close working relationship between local city officials and Google that would be prohibited under the bill.

“Even joint partnerships like the one between Google and Kansas City would be illegal under this bill.” Google Fiber, he pointed out, came to Kansas City after Google received what the Competitive Enterprise Institute called “stunning regulatory concessions and incentives from local governments, including free access to virtually everything the city owns or controls: rights of way, central office space, power, interconnections with anchor institutions, marketing and direct mail, and office space for Google employees.”

Federico denied the proposed legislation has anything to do with Google, telling Ars Technica Google never came up during KCTA board meetings. But Federico did admit the current bill’s definition of “unserved” is “overly broad.”

Federico evidently had enough sway with the Kansas Senate Committee to postpone a hearing on the bill scheduled for Tuesday until the bill can be “tweaked.”

“I don’t know about you, but I think we should all be concerned that the cable lobby is writing our telecommunications policy,” Montgomery said on his group’s Facebook page now organizing to oppose the bill.

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Kansas’ Senate Commerce Committee Members Well-Compensated by Big Telecom

lobbyist-cashThe Kansas State Legislature website makes it very difficult to find exactly who wrote and introduced Senate Bill 304, the laughingly titled, “Municipal Communication’s Network and Private Telecommunications Investment Safeguards Act.

In fact, the bill should be titled, “The Big Telecom Duopoly Protection Act,” because it makes it almost impossible for any publicly owned network to get off the ground and compete in the state of Kansas, even in places where the nearest cable or DSL connection is dozens of miles away.

Instead of naming names, the legislature’s website prefers to show the bill introduced by the Committee on Commerce, sponsored by the Committee on Commerce, and referred to the Committee on Commerce for further consideration. Since they apparently wrote and co-sponsored the bill, we don’t expect it will take them too long to rubber stamp their approval.

The Republican-dominated members of the committee are already well-acquainted with the state’s largest cable and phone companies, as their campaign donations from 2012 illustrate:

  • Sen. Julia Lynn (R), Chairperson: AT&T ($1,750), Comcast ($1,500), CenturyLink ($1,000);
  • Sen. Susan Wagle (R), Vice-Chair: Cox Communications ($1,750), AT&T ($1,500), Kansas Cable Telecommunication Association ($1,250), Comcast ($1,000), CenturyLink ($1,000);
  • Sen. Tom Holland (D), Ranking Member: AT&T ($1,000);
  • Sen. Pat Apple (R): AT&T ($1,000), Comcast ($1,000), Kansas Cable Telecommunication Association ($250), Time Warner Cable ($250), Verizon ($250), CenturyLink ($250);
  • Sen. Jim Denning (R): CenturyLink ($250);
  • Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau (D): AT&T ($1,000), Cox Communications ($1000), Kansas Cable Telecommunication Association ($250);
  • Sen. Jeff Longbine (R): AT&T ($2,000), CenturyLink ($1,750), Cox Communications ($500);
  • Sen. Jeff Melcher (R): CenturyLink ($1,000);
  • Sen. Robert Olson (R): AT&T ($1,750), Comcast ($1,500), CenturyLink ($1,250), Cox Communications ($750);
  • Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook (R): Comcast ($1,000).

Data: Project Vote Smart, 1/30/2014

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