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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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Anti-Community Broadband Bill Introduced in Kansas; Legislating Incumbent Protection

What company is behind the effort to ban municipal broadband in kansas.

AT&T is a frequent backer of anti-community broadband initiatives, as are some of the nation’s biggest cable companies.

The Kansas Senate’s Commerce Committee has introduced a bill that would make it next to impossible to build publicly owned community broadband networks that could potentially compete against the state’s largest cable and phone companies.

Senate Bill 304 is the latest in a series of measures introduced in state legislatures across the country to limit or prohibit local communities from building better broadband networks that large commercial providers refuse to offer.

SB 304 is among the most protectionist around, going well beyond the model bill produced by the corporate-backed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). At its heart, the bill bans just about any would-be competitor that works with, is run by, or backed by a local municipality:

Sec. 4. Except with regard to unserved areas, a municipality may not, directly or indirectly offer or provide to one or more subscribers, video, telecommunications or broadband service; or purchase, lease, construct, maintain or operate any facility for the purpose of enabling a private business or entity to offer, provide, carry, or deliver video, telecommunications or broadband service to one or more subscribers.

For purposes of this act, a municipality offers or provides video, telecommunications or broadband service if the municipality offers or provides the service:

  • Directly or indirectly, including through an authority or instrumentality:
  • Acting on behalf of the municipality; or for the benefit of the municipality;
  • by itself;
  • through a partnership, joint venture or other entity in which the municipality participates; or
  • by contract, resale or otherwise.
Tribune, Kansas is the county seat of Greeley County.

Tribune, Kansas is the county seat of Greeley County.

This language effectively prohibits just about everything from municipally owned broadband networks, public-private partnerships, buying an existing cable or phone company to improve service, allowing municipal utilities to establish broadband through an independent authority, or even contracting with a private company to offer service where none exists.

The proposed legislation falls far short of its intended goals to:

  • Ensure that video, telecommunications and broadband services are provided through fair competition;
  • Provide the widest possible diversity of sources of information, news and entertainment to the general public;
  • Encourage the development and widespread use of technological advances in providing video, telecommunications and broadband services at competitive rates and,
  • Ensure that video, telecommunications and broadband services are each provided within a consistent, comprehensive and nondiscriminatory federal, state and local government framework.

Proponents claim the bill is open to allowing municipalities to build broadband services in “unserved areas.” But upon closer inspection, the bill’s definition of “unserved” is practically impossible to meet anywhere in Kansas:

“Unserved area” means one or more contiguous census blocks within the legal boundaries of a municipality seeking to provide the unserved area with video, telecommunications or broadband service, where at least nine out of 10 households lack access to facilities-based, terrestrial broadband service, either fixed or mobile, or satellite broadband service, at the minimum broadband transmission speed as defined by the FCC.

Even the FCC does not consider satellite broadband service when it draws maps where broadband is unavailable. But this Big Telecom-backed bill does. Even worse, it requires would-be providers to prove that 90 percent of customers within a “census block” don’t have access to either mobile or satellite broadband. Since satellite Internet access is available to anyone with a view of the southern sky, and the most likely unserved customers would be in rural areas, it would be next to impossible for any part of the notoriously flat and wide open state to qualify as “unserved.”

Each rectangle represents one census block within one census tract that partially covers Greeley County. Under the proposed legislation, a community provider would have to visit every census block to verify whether a private company is capable of providing service, including satellite Internet access.

Each rectangle represents one “census block” within a larger “census tract” that partially covers Greeley County. Under the proposed legislation, a community provider would have to visit each census block to verify whether a private company is capable of providing broadband service, including satellite Internet access.

To illustrate, Stop the Cap! looked at Greeley County in western Kansas. The county’s total population? 1,247 — the smallest in the state. Assume Greeley County Broadband, a fictional municipal provider, wanted to launch fiber broadband service in the area. Under the proposed bill, the largest potential customer base is 1,247 — too small for most private providers. Still, if a private company decided to wire up the county, it could with few impediments, assuming investors were willing to wait for a return on their investment in the rural county. If SB 304 became law, a publicly owned broadband network would have to do much more before a single cable could be installed on a utility pole.

Census Block 958100-1-075, in downtown Tribune, has a population of 10.

Census Block 958100-1-075, in downtown Tribune, has a population of 10.

To open for business, Greeley County Broadband would have to spend tens of thousands of dollars to independently verify its intended service area — the county — is unserved by any existing broadband technology, including satellite and mobile broadband. The authors of the bill intentionally make that difficult. Just one census tract in Greeley County (#9561), encompassing the county seat town of Tribune (pop. 741) has dozens of census blocks. Some are populated, others are not.

Greeley County Broadband now has several big problems. Under the language in the bill, a municipal provider must first define its service area entirely within its borders — in this case Greeley County — and base it on contiguous census blocks. That means if pockets of qualifying potential customers exist in a census block surrounded by non-qualifying census blocks, Greeley County Broadband cannot include them in its service area.

Census Block 958100-1-075 — essentially at the intersection of Broadway Ave. and West Harper St., right next to City Hall — has a population of 10. AT&T Mobility’s coverage maps show Tribune is covered by its 3G wireless data network (but not 4G). That census block, along with every other in the area, would be disqualified from getting municipal broadband the moment AT&T upgrades to 4G service, whether reception is great or not. It doesn’t matter that customers will have to pay around $60 for a handful of gigabytes a month.

But wait, Verizon Wireless declares it already provides 4G LTE service across Greeley County (and almost all Kansas). So Greeley County Broadband, among other would-be providers, are out of business before even launching. Assuming there was no 4G service, if just two of those ten residents had a clear view to any satellite broadband provider, Greeley County Broadband would not be permitted to provide anyone in the census block with service under the proposed law. Under these restrictions, no municipal provider could write a tenable business plan, starved of potential customers.

Kansans need to consider whether that is “fair competition” or corporate protectionism. Is it a level playing field to restrict one provider without restricting others? If competition promotes investment in technologically challenged rural Kansas, would not more competition from municipal providers force private companies to finally upgrade their networks to compete?

In fact, the bill introduced this week protects incumbent cable and phone companies from competition and upgrades by keeping out the only likely competition most Kansans will ever see beyond AT&T, Comcast, or CenturyLink’s comfortable duopoly – a municipal or community-owned broadband alternative. Providing the widest possible diversity is impossible in a bill that features the widest possible definition of conditions that will keep new entrants out of the market. Community-owned networks usually offer superior technology (often fiber optics) in communities that are usually trapped with the most basic, outdated services. While the Kansas legislature coddles AT&T, that same company wants to mothball its rural landline network pushing broadband-starved customers to prohibitively expensive, usage capped wireless broadband service indefinitely.

verizon 4g

Seeing Big Red? The areas colored dark red represent the claimed coverage of Verizon Wireless’ 4G LTE network in Kansas. Under SB 304, these areas would be prohibited from having a community-owned broadband alternative.

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Charter Stiffs Montana With Bottom of the Barrel Broadband; Slow Speeds, Packet Loss

montanaMontana is among the bottom three states for Internet broadband performance and the state can partly blame Charter Communications for its poor service.

Net Index rates Montana so low because the state relies on slow speed DSL and cable broadband service provided by smaller players who either lack the will or resources to invest in improved service.

Among the worst providers: Charter Cable, which often suffers from capacity and connectivity problems in the state.

“Right now with Charter we are experiencing significant packet loss going out to major networks in the country,” Joshua Reynolds, president of JTech Communications in Bozeman told NBC Montana. “Its gotten so bad recently that he can’t connect to our file server and download files,” said Reynolds.

Reynolds said Charter’s slow service is now affecting his company by preventing an out-of-state employee from doing his job.

Brit Fontenot, director of economic development for the city of Bozeman is surprised Montana didn’t rank dead last. Fontenot told the television station local cable and phone providers are not investing in more reliable fiber optics to solve capacity slowdowns. The city is exploring taking matters into its own hands.

chartersucks“The future is a ring, a community ring connecting around the community that allows data to be transmitted both internally and externally,” said Fontenot.

The city is now engaged in dialogue with local business leaders to get comments on the quality of local Internet service.

Charter Cable is the second worst-rated cable company in the nation, according to Consumer Reports.

Speed ratings in Montana range from serviceable to painful. The fastest average speeds are around 15Mbps and the worst are just above 3Mbps.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/NBC Montana State Broadband Third Worst 1-27-14.flv

NBC Montana surveys the broadband situation in Montana and the results are not good. (1:39)

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US & Canada Agree: Our Internet Providers Are Bad for Us and We’re Falling Behind

Phillip "Free Trade in Bad Broadband" Dampier

Phillip “Free Trade in Bad Broadband” Dampier

Sure we’ve had our cultural skirmishes in the past,  but on one thing we can all mostly agree: our largest cable, phone, and broadband providers generally suck.

Outside of hockey season, Canada’s national pastime is hating Bell, Rogers, Vidéotron, Telus, and Shaw. The chorus of complaints is unending on overbilling, bundling of dozens of channels almost nobody watches but everybody pays for, outrageous long-term contracts, and bloodsucking Internet overlimit fees. In fact, dissatisfaction is so pervasive, the Conservative government of Stephen Harper spent this past summer waving shiny keys of distraction promising Canadians telecom relief while hoping voters didn’t notice their tax dollars were being spent by the country’s national security apparatus to spy on Brazil for big energy companies.

The Montreal Gazette is now collecting horror stories about dreadful service, mysterious price hikes, and promised credits gone missing on behalf of readers fed up with Bell and Vidéotron.

Rogers Cable, always thoughtful and pleasant, punished a Ottawa man coping with multiple sclerosis and cancer with a $1,288 bill, quickly turned over to a collection agency after his home burned to the ground. It took headlines spread across Ontario newspapers to get the cable company to relent.

Things are no better in the United States where the American Customer Satisfaction Index rates telecom companies worse than the post office, health insurers airlines, and the bird flu. National Public Radio opened the floodgates when it asked listeners to rate their personal satisfaction with their Internet Service Provider — almost always the local cable or telephone company.

The phone company Canadians love to hate.

The phone company Canadians love to hate.

Many responded their Internet access is horribly slow, often goes out, and is hugely overpriced. In response, the cable industry’s hack-in-chief did little more than shrug his shoulders — knowing full well American broadband exists in a cozy monopoly or duopoly in most American cities.

Breann Neal of Hudson, Ill., told NPR she has one choice — DSL, which is much slower than advertised. Hudson is Frontier Communications country, and it is a comfortable area to serve because local cable competition from Mediacom, America’s worst cable company, is miles away from Neal’s home.

“There’s no incentive for them to make it better for us because we’re still paying them every month … and there’s no competition,” Neal says.

Samantha Laws, who gets her Internet through her cable provider, says she also only has one option.

“It goes out at least once a day, and it’s been getting worse the last few months,” Laws says. She works with a pet-sitting company that handles all of its scheduling through email and the company website. At times she can’t do her job because of the unreliable connection.

Chicago is in Comcast’s territory and the company is quite comfortable cashing your check while AT&T takes its sweet time launching U-verse in the Windy City. AT&T isn’t about to throw money at improving DSL while local residents wait for U-verse and Comcast doesn’t need to spend a lot in Chicago when the alternative is AT&T.

comcast sucksWhere there is no disruptive new player in town to shake things up, there is little incentive to speed broadband service up. But there is plenty of room to keep increasing prices for a service that is becoming as important as a working telephone. Companies are using broadband profits to cover increasing losses from pay television service, investing in stock buybacks, paying dividends to shareholders, or just putting the money in a bank, often offshore.

NPR’s All Things Considered:

“[For] at least 77 percent of the country, your only choice for a high-capacity, high-speed Internet connection is your local cable monopoly,” says Susan Crawford, a visiting professor at Harvard Law School. She is also the author of Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age.

Crawford says that today’s high-speed Internet infrastructure is equivalent to when the railroad lines were controlled by a very few moguls who divided up the country between themselves and gouged everybody on prices.

She says the U.S. has fallen behind other countries in providing broadband. At best, Crawford says, the U.S. is at the middle of the pack and is far below many countries when it comes to fiber optic penetration. Given that the Internet was developed in the U.S., she says the gap is a result of failures in policy.

“These major infrastructure businesses aren’t like other market businesses,” Crawford says. “It is very expensive to install them in the first place, and then they build up enormous barriers of entry around them. It really doesn’t make sense to try to compete with a player like Comcast or Time Warner Cable.”

So Crawford is calling for is a major public works projects to install fiber optic infrastructure — a public grid that private companies could then use to deliver Internet service.

Powell

Powell

That’s an idea met with hand-wringing and concern-trolling Revolving Door Olympian Michael Powell, who made his way from former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission during the first term of George W. Bush’s administration straight into the arms of Big Cable as president of their national trade association, the NCTA.

Powell, well compensated in his new role representing the cable industry, wants Americans to consider wireless 3G and 4G broadband (with usage caps as low as a few hundred megabytes per month) equivalent competitors to the local cable and phone company.

“I think to exclude [wireless] as a substitutable, competitive alternative is an error that leads you to believe the market is substantially more concentrated that it actually is,” Powell says.

Of course, Powell’s new career includes a paycheck large enough to afford the wireless data bills that would shock the rest of us. All that money also apparently blinds him to the reality the two largest wireless providers in America are AT&T and Verizon — the same two companies that are part of the duopoly in wired broadband. It’s even worse in Canada, where Rogers, Bell, and Telus dominate wired and wireless broadband.

Although America isn’t even close to having the fastest broadband speeds, Powell wants you to know the speeds you do get are good enough.

“I think taking a snapshot and declaring us as somehow dangerously falling behind is just not substantiated by the data,” he says. He says it is like taking a snapshot of speed skaters, where there might be a few seconds separating the leaders, but no one is “meaningfully out of the race.”

last placeThat is why we still celebrate and honor Svetlana Radkevich from Belarus who competed in the speed skating competition at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics. She made it to the finish line and ranked 33rd. Ironically, South Korea ranked fastest overall that year, taking home three gold and two silver medals. In Powell’s world, that’s a distinction without much difference. You don’t need South Korean speed and gold medals when Belarus is enough. That argument always plays well in the United States, where Americans can choose between Amtrak or an airline for a long distance trip. Who needs a non-stop flight when a leisurely train ride will get you there… eventually.

There are a handful of providers uncomfortable with the mediocre broadband slow lane. Google is among them. So are community broadband providers installing fiber broadband and delivering gigabit Internet speeds. EPB in Chattanooga is among them, and it has already made a difference for that city’s digital economy neither AT&T or Comcast could deliver.

Unsurprisingly, Powell thinks community broadband is a really bad idea because private companies are already delivering broadband service — while laughing all the way to the bank.

If a community really wants gold medal broadband, Powell says, they should be able to have it. But Powell conveniently forgets to mention NCTA’s largest members, including Comcast and Time Warner Cable, spend millions lobbying federal and state governments to make publicly owned broadband illegal. After all, cable companies know what is best.

All Things Considered recently asked its fans on Facebook, “How satisfied are you with your Internet service provider?” Many responded that they didn’t like their Internet service, that it often goes out and that their connection was often “painfully slow.” Listen to the full report first aired Jan. 11, 2014. (11:30)
You must remain on this page to hear the clip, or you can download the clip and listen later.

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Wall Street Asking Questions About AT&T’s GigaPower: 1Gbps vs. 45Mbps U-verse

ovumA Wall Street research firm is asking questions about the “mixed messages” AT&T is sending consumers over its broadband offerings.

Ovum Research senior analyst Kamalini Ganguly said AT&T’s fiber to the home (FTTH) network in Austin — set to upgrade customers to 1Gbps next year — is likely to confuse AT&T and its shareholders over the future direction of AT&T’s current fiber to the neighborhood (FTTN) upgrade effort, dubbed Project VIP.

Having spent eight years deploying the U-verse FTTN service, a year ago AT&T chose to expand household coverage and upgrade speeds. That effort, called Project VIP, is still ongoing and until now has reflected AT&T’s projection that 45Mbps downstream (and 6Mbps upstream) should be good enough for the majority of its customers.

att gigapowerAT&T says it intends to boost part of its Project VIP footprint to 75Mbps or 100Mbps with VDSL2 vectoring, but the extent of this is unknown. It has also deployed a small amount of GPON FTTH in greenfield markets, typically designed to support 80–100Mbps to each household. Also as part of Project VIP, it plans to reach 1 million businesses with symmetric 1Gbps FTTH.

However, the GigaPower offering in Austin will be AT&T’s first 300Mbps or 1Gbps mass-market FTTH offering targeting consumers, not just businesses, in a major market. It is also a symmetric offering, meaning upstream will be 1Gbps as well. Those speeds are far higher than what Project VIP will deliver to the majority of consumers. The jump from 45/6Mbps to 1/1Gbps for consumers raises questions around its strategy. The cost issue looms large. Deploying 1Gbps point-to-point FTTH will continue to cost much more than GPON FTTH, which in turn still costs a lot more than FTTN – even with vectoring. AT&T needs to explain better what has changed from last year in the business case for FTTH over FTTN.

Wall Street is asking questions because AT&T has repeatedly denied its fiber project in Austin has anything to do with Google’s intention to offer a similar fiber network in Austin next year and everything to to do with its general broadband strategy. There is increasing skepticism about AT&T’s veracity on that point, particularly after AT&T announced pricing that was suspiciously similar to what Google charges its fiber customers in Kansas City and is likely to charge in Austin. Ovum’s researchers also took special note of AT&T’s intention to “examine its customers’ browsing habits in order to generate incremental revenues with targeted ads and commercial offers.”

There is evidence Google is proving a growing market disruptor, turning cable and telco industry pricing models upside down where the search engine giant threatens to compete. Industry plans to charge premium prices for incrementally faster broadband speed tiers is at risk with Google’s gigabit offer, priced at just $70 a month. Comcast charges up to $300 a month for considerably less speed. Community owned fiber broadband providers are increasingly adopting Google’s pricing model themselves. EPB in Chattanooga reduced the price of its 1Gbps tier from $300 to $70 earlier this year.

“By accepting a ceiling of $70, AT&T may be making it harder to break even,” writes Ganguly. “We may see lower prices cascading down for all broadband services. AT&T runs the risk of de-valuing its own broadband business and ultimately that of others too. On a more positive note, demand for 1Gbps was seen as questionable when prices were unaffordable for consumers and when multiple HD streams can be supported by 40–50Mbps. With these price levels however, demand may spike and boost the business case for 1Gbps.”

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