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Payoff: Big Telecom Cuts Big Checks to Legislators Who Outlawed N.C. Community Broadband

The Republican takeover of the North Carolina legislature in 2010 was great news for some of the state’s largest telecommunications companies, who successfully received almost universal support from those legislators to outlaw community broadband service in North Carolina — the 19th state to throw up impediments to a comfortable corporate broadband duopoly.

Dialing Up the Dollars — produced by the National Institute on Money in State Politics, found companies including AT&T, Time Warner Cable, CenturyLink, and the state cable lobby collectively spent more than $1.5 million over the past five years on campaign contributions.  Most of the money went to legislators willing to enact legislation that would largely prohibit publicly-owned competitive broadband networks from operating in the state.

North Carolina consumer groups have fought anti-community broadband initiatives for the past several years, with most handily defeated in the legislature.  But in 2010, Republicans assumed control of both the House and Senate for the first time since the late 1800s, and the change in party control made all the difference.  Of 97 Republican lawmakers who voted, 95 supported HB 129, the corporate-written broadband competition ban introduced by Rep. Marilyn Avila, a legislator who spent so much time working with the cable lobby, we’ve routinely referred to her as “(R-Time Warner Cable).”

Democrats were mostly opposed to the measure: 45 against, 25 for.  Stop the Cap! called out those lawmakers as well, many of whom received substantial industry money in the form of campaign donations.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Community Fiber Networks Are Faster Cheaper Than Incumbents.flv

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance pondered broadband speeds and value in North Carolina and found commercial providers lacking.  (3 minutes)

Telecommunication Company Donors to State Candidates and Political Parties in North Carolina, 2006–2011
Donor 2006 2008 2010 2011 2006–2011 Total
AT&T* $191,105 $159,783 $149,550 $20,000 $520,438
Time Warner Cable $81,873 $103,025 $96,550 $30,950 $313,398
CenturyLink** $19,500 $143,294 $109,750 $30,250 $302,744
NC Telephone Cooperative Coalition $103,350 $94,900 $89,250 $2,500 $290,000
Sprint Nextel $67,250 $17,500 $12,250 $3,250 $100,250
Verizon $8,050 $10,950 $24,250 $2,500 $45,750
NC Cable Telecommunications Association $10,350 $12,500 $500 $0 $23,350
Windstream Communications $0 $0 $1,500 $0 $1,500
TOTAL $481,478 $541,952 $483,600 $90,450 $1,597,481

*AT&T’s total includes contributions from BellSouth in 2006 and 2008 and AT&T Mobility LLC. **CenturyLink’s total includes contributions from Embarq Corp.

According to Catharine Rice, president of the SouthEast Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors, HB 129 received the greatest lobbying support from Time Warner Cable, the state cable lobbying association — the North Carolina Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCCTA), and CenturyLink.

Following the bill’s passage, the NCCTA issued a press release stating, “We are grateful to the members of the General Assembly who stood up for good government by voting for this bill.”

CenturyLink sent e-mail to its employees suggesting they write thank you letters to supportive legislators:

 “Thanks to the passage of House Bill 129, CenturyLink has gained added confidence to invest in North Carolina and grow our business in the state.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CenturyLink Frustration.flv

A CenturyLink customer endures frustration from an infinite loop while calling customer service. Is this how the company will grow the business in North Carolina?  (1 minute)

Consumers Pay the Price

In North Carolina, both Time Warner Cable and AT&T increased prices in 2011.

After the bill became law without the signature of Gov. Bev Purdue, Time Warner Cable increased cable rates across North Carolina.  CenturyLink’s version of AT&T’s U-verse — Prism — has seen only incremental growth with around 70,000 customers nationwide.  The phone company also announced an Internet Overcharging scheme — usage caps — on their broadband customers late last fall.

Someone had to pay for the enormous largesse of campaign cash headed into lawmaker pockets.  For the state’s largest cable operator — Time Warner Cable — another rate increase handily covered the bill.

In all, lawmakers received thousands of dollars each from the state’s incumbent telecom companies:

  • Lawmakers who voted in favor of HB 129 received, on average, $3,768, which is 76 percent more than the average $2,135 received by the those who voted against the bill;
  • 78 Republican lawmakers received an average of $3,824, which is 36 percent more than the average $2,803 received by 53 Democrats;
  • Those in key legislative leadership positions received, on average, $13,531, which is more than double the $2,753 average received by other lawmakers;
  • The four primary sponsors of the bill received a total of $37,750, for an average of $9,438, which is more than double the $3,658 received on average by those who did not sponsor the bill.

Even worse for rural North Carolina, little progress has been made by commercial providers to expand broadband in less populated areas of the state.  AT&T earlier announced it was largely finished expanding its U-verse network and has stalled DSL deployment as it determines what to do with that part of its business.

In fact, the most aggressive broadband expansion has come from existing community providers North Carolina’s lawmakers voted to constrain. Salisbury’s Fibrant has opted for a slower growth strategy to meet the demand for its service and handle the expense associated with installing it.  Wilson’s Greenlight fiber to the home network supplies 100/100Mbps speeds to those who want it today.

In Upside-Down World at the state capitol in Raleigh, community-owned providers are the problem, not today’s duopoly of phone and cable companies that deliver overpriced, comparatively slow broadband while ignoring rural areas of the state.

Key Players

Some of the key players that were “motivated” to support the cable and phone company agenda, according to the report:

Tillis collected $37,000 from Big Telecom for his last election, in which he ran unopposed. Tillis was in a position to make sure the telecom industry's agenda was moved through the new Republican-controlled legislature.

Thom Tillis, who became speaker of the house in 2011, received $37,000 in 2010–2011 (despite running unopposed in 2010), which is more than any other lawmaker and significantly more than the $4,250 he received 2006–2008 combined. AT&T, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon each gave Tillis $1,000 in early-mid January, just before he was sworn in as speaker on January 26. Tillis voted for the bill, and was in a key position to ensure it moved along the legislative pipeline.

The others:

  • Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger received $19,500, also a bump from the $13,500 he received in 2008 and the $15,250 in 2006. He voted for the bill.
  • Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown received $9,000, significantly more than the $2,750 he received in 2006 and 2008 combined. Brown voted in favor of the bill.
  • Democratic Leader Martin Nesbitt, who voted for the bill, received $8,250 from telecommunication donors; Nesbitt had received no contributions from telecommunication donors in earlier elections.

The law is now firmly in place, leaving North Carolina wondering where things go from here.  AT&T earlier announced it had no solutions for the rural broadband challenge, and now it and other phone and cable companies have made certain communities across North Carolina don’t get to implement their solutions either.

What You Can Do

  1. If you live in North Carolina, check to see how your elected officials voted on this measure, and how much they collected from the corporate interests who supported their campaigns.  Then contact them and let them know how disappointed you are they voted against competition, against lower rates, against better broadband, and with out of state cable and phone companies responsible for this bill and the status quo it delivers.  Don’t support lawmakers that don’t support your interests.
  2. If you live outside of North Carolina and we alert you to a similar measure being introduced in your state, get involved. It is much easier to keep these corporate welfare bills from becoming law than it is to repeal them once enacted.  If you enjoy paying higher prices for reduced service and slow speeds, don’t get involved in the fight. If you want something better and don’t appreciate big corporations writing laws in this country, tell your lawmakers to vote against these measures or else you will take your vote elsewhere.
  3. Support community broadband. If you are lucky enough to be served by a publicly-owned broadband provider that delivers good service, give them your business.  Yes, it may cost a few dollars more when incumbent companies are willing to slash rates to drive these locally owned providers out of business, but you will almost always receive a technically superior connection from fiber-based providers and the money earned stays right in your community. Plus, unlike companies like CenturyLink, they won’t slap usage caps on your broadband service.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Time Warner Cable -- Fiber Spot.flv

What do you do when your company doesn’t have a true, fiber to home network and faces competition from someone that does?  You obfuscate like Time Warner Cable did in this ad produced for their Southern California customers. (1 minute)


Fibrant Turns a Service Outage to Its Advantage and Wins a Major New Customer

Fibrant, a community-owned fiber-to-the-home provider in Salisbury, N.C., has discovered the importance of redundancy. A major service outage knocked out phone and broadband service for several hours Monday, due to a fiber cut between Concord and Salisbury.  Fibrant’s provider, DukeNet, restored service after four and half hours by rerouting around the cable cut, but the incident left Fibrant looking for a backup provider to reduce the chance such a service outage will occur again.

City Manager Doug Paris, who was instrumental in getting Fibrant up and running in Salisbury, said the incident underlined the need to have redundancy to keep customers online.  While the city asks DukeNet for an explanation of the most recent service outage, Salisbury is taking bids for backup service.

Redundancy is a lesson virtually every service provider learns — commercial or otherwise.  What company has not suffered a significant service outage from an errant backhoe or construction crew severing a vital fiber link? Without a backup provider, service fails and customers howl.  Those companies experiencing multiple outages soon learn having a second provider can keep service disruptions to a minimum and more importantly make them invisible to customers.

Salisbury is located northeast of the city of Charlotte, N.C.

Paris told the Salisbury Post the city’s intent to contract with a second supplier has its benefits. A large educational institution has now signed up for service, with several potential new business customers considering Fibrant as well.

Fibrant has won a 13% market share in Salisbury, supplying phone, Internet, and cable TV to more than 1,700 customers.  Fibrant offers the fastest broadband service in the city and competes primarily with Time Warner Cable.  It also faces perennial opposition from anti “government broadband” critics, many nipping at the provider for political reasons.

Opponent John Bare has compared Fibrant to welfare, opposing it because it is not operated by the private sector.

But Fibrant has kept its competitors on their toes, forcing both the local cable and phone company to offer cut-rate deals for new customers and those threatening to switch.  Those low prices and retention deals have cut into Fibrant’s projected share of business in the community, but city officials note the customers who do sign up stay with the provider.  Fibrant has a 99% customer retention rate.

Fibrant’s biggest challenge remains its start up costs and debt.  The provider spends nearly $1,350 for each residential installation, for which it charges customers nothing unless they depart within a year of signing up.  Fibrant recoups installation and network construction costs from customers over time.  But the company does have plans to more aggressively market its service to Salisbury’s 34,000 residents in light of competitive offers from cable and phone companies.  Fibrant manages to win around 30 new customers a week.

Salisbury’s fiber network does not pitch customers “teaser rates” that rise considerably after the promotion expires. It prefers to market its superior speeds and service, and notes all of the revenue earned by Fibrant stays in the local community instead of being pocketed by Wall Street banks and investors.


Salisbury’s Fibrant Faces Unprecedented Demand for Service Legislators Want to Restrict

The Faith Baptist Church was told to live with Windstream's slow speed DSL or pay Time Warner Cable a $20,000 installation fee.

Despite claims from some in the state legislature that restricting fiber optic broadband development in communities like Salisbury is good for consumers and businesses, an increasing number of both are telling reporters a different story.

Faith Baptist Church, in the aptly-named community of Faith, N.C., can’t wait to sign up for Salisbury’s community fiber network — Fibrant.  They believe in a faster broadband experience the local phone company cannot deliver.

Casey Mahoney, a church member, told the Salisbury Post the church wants to ditch its slow speed DSL service from Windstream and cannot afford the $20,000 installation fee Time Warner Cable wants to charge the congregation to extend its broadband service to the church building.

If some in the state legislature have their way, the church will have a long, perhaps infinite wait for a fiber optic future.  A large number of legislators in the Republican-controlled state Senate are leaning towards voting for a bill custom-written by and for the state’s largest cable company — Time Warner Cable.  The legislation would micromanage community-owned broadband networks right down to the streets they would be allowed to deliver service.  Those terms, perhaps unsurprisingly, would not apply to the state’s largest cable and phone companies.

H.129, moving towards a hearing in the Senate Finance Committee Wednesday, would cement today’s marketplace for years to come — a duopoly Mahoney thinks makes Time Warner Cable’s $20,000 installation fee feasible.

He told the Post, “When you only have one company available in an area, that’s when they can say, ‘It will cost you $20,000 — take it or leave it.’ ”

Not everyone supports the cable industry’s efforts to lock down competition from community-owned providers.  Several local officials who represent underserved communities across the state are upset the legislation is being railroaded through the legislature with almost no discussion.


“I am disappointed that the General Assembly is giving consideration to taking this right away from us without a single conversation taking place,” Kannapolis Mayor Bob Misenheimer complained to Sen. Andrew Brock (R), who serves Davie and Rowan counties.

Misenheimer is particularly upset cable operators want the right to restrict the service areas Fibrant can serve, and not allow the fiber network to expand service into Kannapolis.  In fact, Brock’s office has received similar communications from the Faith town board and mayors from Rockwell, Landis, China Grove, Granite Quarry, Spencer, Cleveland, and Concord — all who want to be included in the Fibrant service area.

“Isn’t it simply amazing that Fibrant is being bashed as a failure-waiting-to-happen by the sponsors of this bill while mayors across two counties are absolutely clamoring to get the service to their residents,” said Stop the Cap! reader Andy Brown who lives near Landis.  “How can Marilyn Avila and Tom Apodaca have the slightest bit of credibility on this issue when you see town leaders literally falling all over each coveting a service that these legislative-Friends-of-Time-Warner-Cable have predicted is a certain failure?”

“I want Fibrant in Landis myself, if only for the competition,” Andy shares.  “You know, the kind of competition legislators are supposed to support.”

Andy describes efforts underway to distort the record on H.129 in hopes of whipping up consumer support for it.

“There are some silly stories being told attacking community networks like Fibrant on local media websites, including the ridiculous claim communities will be required to sign up for the service if it comes to town,” Andy reports.  “These come from some of the same people who also claim fiber optic cables suffer from rot problems, wireless broadband is faster than fiber optics, and that Fibrant is part of the Obama Administration’s plan to socialize the Internet.”

“If these people want Windstream DSL or are happy paying annual rate increases far beyond the rate of inflation year after year, don’t sign up for Fibrant — but don’t dictate away that option for me,” Andy said.  “The only ‘takeover of the Internet’ I see is by Time Warner and CenturyLink.”


Salisbury’s Fibrant Proposes Near-’Turn-Key’ Headend Network for Community Fiber Projects


Fibrant, Salisbury, N.C., community-owned fiber to the home network, shares advice to other communities considering building their own self-reliant, locally-owned broadband networks: work together and outsource the headend.

Christopher Mitchell from Community Broadband Networks alerted us to a video from TelecomTV interviewing Michael Crowell, Fibrant’s Director of Broadband Services.  In it, Crowell shows off Fibrant’s GPON fiber network and explains what the city has learned from the experience of building its own network.

Ironically, a significant part of Fibrant’s network came cheap thanks to Windstream.  It seems what the residents of Salisbury won was also a loss for those living in Concord, N.C.

Crowell explains Concord was served by a small independent phone company — Concord Telephone.  They had decided to build their customers an advanced fiber to the home network similar to Fibrant, until the company was sold to Windstream.  Windstream has no interest in delivering world-class fiber broadband to Concord (or anywhere else), and left Concord with dismal DSL, selling the fiber network equipment to Salisbury dirt cheap — for around 10 cents on the dollar.

But not everything has come so easy to Fibrant, says Crowell.  One of the company’s largest expenses is its headend, which receives, monitors, and distributes the hundreds of video channels Fibrant customers receive.

“What we think would be a better model going forward is for the other cities and counties to do what is called an open access network.  They build and maintain the fiber but get other providers to provide the service,” Crowell said.

Crowell proposes allowing the state’s two largest municipal broadband projects — Wilson in the east and Salisbury in the central-west part of the state, handle the headend, as well as customer service calls and billing on behalf of other communities interested in building their own municipal fiber networks.  Both cities can deliver bulk feeds of video channels to different parts of the state and that saves other communities from spending money to hire employees to monitor redundant, expensive equipment.

That is more or less what is happening further south in Opelika, Ala., where work is underway constructing a fiber to the home network.  But in Opelika, city officials have decided to let cable overbuilder Knology run the network.

Knology’s network is already up and running in nearby Auburn, according to Royce Ard, general manager for Knology.  Ard told WRBL TV:

“We met our scheduled date for installing our first Auburn test customers and the test is progressing nicely. We will begin adding our first paying customers by the end of October,” Ard said. “Initially, our services will be available in a limited number of neighborhoods, but as we build out our network we will contact homeowners and let them know when services are available in their area.”

Knology projects being able to offer service to its first Opelika customers by the second quarter of 2011.

“Knology is very excited about entering the Opelika market,” Ard said. “The technology that we are deploying in the Auburn/Opelika markets will allow us to offer consumers a much better product than they have today. This, along with Knology’s commitment to customer service, will greatly improve the overall experience for consumers in Auburn and Opelika.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Salisbury Discusses Motivation Behind Fibrant on TelecomTV 12-16-10.flv

Fibrant’s Michael Crowell, interviewed by TelecomTV, walks viewers through Fibrant’s fiber network and discusses community-owned fiber networks.  (7 minutes)


N.C.’s Fastest & Cheapest Broadband Comes from Community-Owned Networks Some Want to Ban

A new report proves what Stop the Cap! has advocated for more than two years now — communities seeking the fastest, most-modern, and most aggressively priced broadband can get all of that and more… if they do it themselves.

The concept of community self-reliance for broadband has been dismissed and derided for years among small government conservatives and corporately-backed dollar-a-holler groups who claim government can’t manage anything, but when it comes to broadband in the state of North Carolina, the evidence is in and it is irrefutable — Tar Heel state residents are getting the most bang for their broadband buck from well-managed and smartly-run community-owned broadband networks.

Christopher Mitchell from the New Rules Project — part of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, gathered evidence from North Carolina’s different broadband providers and found the best broadband services come from local communities who decided to build their own fiber networks. instead of relying on a handful of cable and phone companies who have kept the state lower in broadband rankings than it deserves.

North Carolina is undergoing a transition from a manufacturing and agricultural-based economy that used to employ hundreds of thousands of workers in textile, tobacco, and furniture manufacturing businesses.  In the last quarter-century, the state has lost one in five jobs to Asian outsourcing and America kicking the tobacco habit.  Its future depends on meeting the challenges of transitioning to a new digital economy, and major cities like Charlotte, Raleigh, and Greensboro have risen as well-recognized leaders in engineering, biotech, and finance.

But for rural and suburban North Carolina, success has been hindered by a lack of necessary infrastructure — particularly broadband for small businesses and entrepreneurs.  It becomes impossible to attract high tech jobs to areas that are forced to rely entirely on low speed DSL service, if that is even available.

In communities like Wilson and Salisbury, long frustrated by area providers not delivering needed services, a decision was reached to build their own broadband infrastructure — modern fiber to the home networks worthy of the 21st century.

Mitchell’s report charts the benefits available to every resident, as communities with state-of-the-art fiber networks consistently deliver the most robust service at the lowest prices, all without risk to local taxpayers.  Better still, when the network construction costs are paid back to bondholders, future profits generated by the community-owned systems will be plowed back into local communities to reduce tax burdens and keep service state-of-the-art.

“Comparing the tiers of residential service from Wilson or Salisbury against the providers in the Raleigh area shows that the communities have invested in a network that offers far faster speeds for less money than any of the private providers,” Mitchell concludes.  “Whether communities in North Carolina are competing against other states or internationally for jobs and quality of life, they are smart to consider investing in a community fiber network.”

Mitchell’s report arrives just a few weeks after voters handed North Carolina’s General Assembly to GOP control for the first time in more than a century.  Both cable and phone companies in the state modestly suggest that is good news for their legislative agenda, which is an understatement equal in proportion to the historic handover of control of both the House (67-52) and the Senate (31-19).  The top items on the agenda of incoming members is a checklist of conservative activist favorites, including a war on unions, mandatory ID cards for voting, opting the state out of recently enacted health care reform, an eminent domain constitutional amendment, sweeping deregulation reform to favor business interests, and redistricting to “restore fairness” in future elections.

The state’s big cable and phone companies are convinced with a list like that, they can come along for the legislative ride and get their agenda passed as “pro-business reform.”  That means a much larger fight in 2011 for the inevitable return of corporate protection legislation banning exactly the kinds of municipal networks that are delivering North Carolina better, faster, and cheaper broadband.


Happy Rate Increase Tuesday: Time Warner Cable Back for More from North Carolinians

Time Warner Cable customers in North Carolina are getting rate hike letters from the cable company that foreshadows what other Time Warner Cable customers around the country can expect in the coming months.

For residents in Charlotte and the Triad region, Time Warner is boosting prices for unbundled customers an average of six percent, which will impact customers not on promotional plans or who are not locked into a “price protection agreement.”

The rate increases particularly target standalone service customers.  Those with the fewest services will pay the biggest increases.  Those who subscribe to cable, phone, and broadband service from the company will suffer the least.

A Time Warner Cable spokesman claimed the company is just passing on the cost of programming.

WXII-TV in Greensboro reported that for many customers already struggling with their bills, they don’t want to hear anything about a price hike.

“I think it’s ridiculous at this time with the economy — it’s hard to make it as it is,” one customer told the station.

“I wish there was a better option out there, but it’s about the only thing you can get,” said another viewer.

Time Warner has been developing pricing models that increasingly push customers towards bundled packages of services.  Standalone broadband service saw dramatic price increases in many areas in 2010, and the company’s most aggressive new customer promotions encourage customers to take all three of its services.

But broadband customers need not expose themselves to inflated broadband prices for standalone service.  Most Time Warner Cable franchises offer Earthlink broadband at comparable speeds at prices as low as $29.95 per month for the first six months.  When the promotion expires, customers can switch back to Road Runner at Time Warner’s promotional price.

Time Warner does face competition in some areas of North Carolina from AT&T U-verse, which offers attractive promotional pricing for new customers.  But the phone company’s broadband speeds come up short after Time Warner boosted speeds across much of the state.  The cable company now delivers Road Runner at speeds of up to 50/5Mbps.  AT&T tops out at 24Mbps, and not in every area.

When a competitor can’t deliver the fastest speeds, they inevitably claim consumers don’t want or care about super-fast broadband.

“We are focused on offering the broadband speeds that our customers need, at a price that they can afford,” said AT&T spokeswoman Gretchen Schultz.

Greenlight promotes its local connection to Wilson residents

Some North Carolina consumers are watching AT&T’s slower speeds and Time Warner’s price hikes from the sidelines, because they are signed up with municipal competitors.

Residents in Wilson with Greenlight service from the city don’t have to sign a contract to get the best prices and obtain service run and maintained by Wilson-area employees. The provider has embarked on a campaign to remind residents that money spent on the city-owned provider stays in the city.

In Salisbury, Fibrant is making headway against incumbent Time Warner as it works through a waiting list for customers anxious to cut Time Warner’s cable for good.  Fibrant customers are assured they’ll always get the fastest possible service in town on a network capable of delivering up to 1Gbps to businesses -and- residents.

MI-Connection, the rebuilt former Adelphia cable system now owned by a group of local municipalities is managing to keep up with Time Warner with its own top broadband speeds of 20/2Mbps.  The system is comparable to a traditional cable operator and does not provide fiber to the home service.  Its 15,000 customers in Mooresville, Cornelius and Davidson are likely to stay with the system, but it is vulnerable to Time Warner’s bragging rights made possible from DOCSIS 3 upgrades.  Since Time Warner does not provide service in most of MI-Connection’s service area, city officials don’t face an exodus of departing customers.

But that could eventually change.  Some MI-Connection customers have reported to Stop the Cap! they have begun to receive promotional literature from Time Warner Cable for the first time, and there are growing questions whether the cable company may plan to invade some of MI-Connection’s more affluent service areas.  Cable companies generally refuse to compete with each other, but all bets are off when that cable company is owned by a local municipality.

For most North Carolina residents, AT&T will likely be the first wired competitor, with its U-verse system.  To date, U-verse has drawn mixed reviews from North Carolina consumers.  Many appreciate AT&T’s broadband network is currently less congested than Road Runner, and speeds promised are closer to reality on U-verse compared with Road Runner during the early evening.  But some AT&T customers are not thrilled being nickle-and-dimed for HD channels Time Warner bundles with its digital cable service at no additional charge.  And for households with a lot of users, AT&T can run short on bandwidth.

“We have five kids — three now teenagers, and between my husband’s Internet usage and me recording a whole bunch of shows to watch later, we have run into messages on U-verse telling us we are trying to do too much and certain TV sets won’t work until we reduce our usage,” writes Angela.  “AT&T doesn’t tell you that you all share a preset amount of bandwidth which gets divided up and if you use it up, services stop working.”

Angela says when she called AT&T, the company gave her a $15 credit for her inconvenience, and the company claims it is working on ways to eliminate these limits in particularly active households.  For now, the family is sticking with U-verse because the broadband works better in the evenings and she loves the DVR which records more shows at once than Time Warner offers.  Their U-verse new customer promotional offer saves them $35 a month over Time Warner, at least until it expires.

“From reading about Fibrant and Greenlight on your site, my husband still wishes we lived in Salisbury or Wilson because nothing beats fiber, but at least what we have is better than what we used to have,” she adds.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WXII Greensboro TWC Raising Rates 11-16-10.flv

WXII-TV in Greensboro reports of Time-Warner Cable’s rate hikes for the Piedmont Triad region of North Carolina.  (2 minutes)


Fibrant Blows Past Time Warner Cable: 200/200Mbps Planned, 50/50 Already Available

Fibrant ruins Time Warner Cable's Speed Party by delivering faster service at a lower price, without the cable company's rate increase notice sitting in Charlotte-area mailboxes.

Residents of Salisbury, N.C. are going to get some of the state’s fastest broadband speeds as the community-owned broadband provider prepares to introduce 200/200Mbps service, leaving Time Warner Cable’s Road Runner service behind in the dust.

Time Warner Cable enjoyed a few moments in the spotlight last week announcing free speed upgrades for the Charlotte region, which includes Salisbury.  But Fibrant’s fiber to the home network is well-equipped to turn Time Warner’s temporary speed advantage on its head.

Last week, the cable operator promoted the introduction of its new maximum speed 50/5Mbps Road Runner Wideband service, which carries a monthly price of $99.95.

But Salisbury city officials were unimpressed, claiming Fibrant already offers 50/50Mbps service — they just haven’t advertised it.

Assistant City Manager Doug Paris said Fibrant’s top available speed is 10 times faster than the cable giant’s when uploading.

“We’re cheaper, and we’re faster,” Paris told the Salisbury Post.  Fibrant sells the 50Mbps service for $85 a month, about 15 dollars less than Time Warner Cable’s slower Wideband service.

City officials also weren’t surprised that Time Warner announced faster Internet speeds the day after Fibrant launched.

“We’ve seen this in every other city that has invested in fiber optics,” he said. “They are trying to match our speeds, but they can’t.”

The Salisbury Post needs a few cans for its message boards, filled with anonymous lunacy.

Time Warner Cable claimed its new speeds were not in response to Fibrant but were part of a service upgrade for the entire Charlotte area, a claim every cable company makes in response to new competition on their doorstep.

Fibrant’s upstream streams are dramatically better than those offered by Time Warner Cable, which uses an inferior network architecture not currently capable of delivering the same upstream and downstream speeds to consumers.  Cable broadband networks are constructed with the assumption most users will download far more than they upload, so the networks emphasize downstream speeds.  Time Warner Cable has dramatically increased those download speeds, but has been forced so far to limit uploads to just 5Mbps.

Fiber to the home networks like Fibrant do not suffer those limitations, and the city plans to exploit that in their marketing.

Fibrant has the capacity to provide up to 1 gigabit per second upload and download, Paris said. Forthcoming are plans offering 100/100 and 200/200Mbps service, with prices yet to be determined.

Fibrant continues to have a waiting list of several hundred area residents waiting for service, but you wouldn’t know it from the raucous anonymous postings on the Post’s website.  Virtually all of the anonymous comments about Fibrant have been negative and wildly uninformed, to the point of hilarity.  From a Korean War veteran talking about eating blueberries and living life in the Windstream DSL slow lane (and loving it) to comments proclaiming fiber optics as woefully slower than WiMax, the Internet trolls have managed to prove why an increasing number of newspapers have learned to adopt “real names-only” posting policies or have just turned the comment section off altogether.

For those fans of  Time Warner Cable, the price of that love is about to go up.

Time Warner is mailing notices to Charlotte area customers announcing broadband rate hikes for some customers this December.  Time Warner customers who bundle their services or are on price protection promotions will be exempted from the rate increases… for now.


Charlotte, N.C. Gets Speed Boost Same Week Fibrant Arrives; TWC Recaptures Speed Leader Status

Charlotte, N.C. Time Warner Cable customers can thank city officials in nearby Salisbury for finally provoking Time Warner Cable into boosting speeds for residents across the region.  Just as community-owned Fibrant was opening its doors for business promoting its new fiber to the home service, the area’s dominant cable company managed to steal some of their thunder.

Time Warner Cable this week announced the entire Charlotte service region, which encompasses Salisbury, is getting a free broadband speed upgrade this week.

“We substantially increased our download speeds and essentially doubled upload speeds for all of our Turbo and Standard Internet service customers,” said Mike Smith, area vice president for Time Warner Cable’s Charlotte operation.

Product Name New Speed Old Speed
Turbo Internet 15/1Mbps 10Mbps/512kbps
Standard Internet 10/1Mbps 7Mbps/384kbps

The announcement allows Time Warner Cable to maintain its position as the fastest downstream Internet provider in the Charlotte region because Fibrant’s marketing department decided that 25Mbps service was fast enough.  No, it’s not, and Time Warner Cable showed them up.

Salisbury is located northeast of the city of Charlotte, N.C.

“This service upgrade demonstrates our commitment to deliver enhanced value to our customers. We are satisfying their thirst for more throttle,” said Smith. To access the new speeds, customers need to reboot their cable modem which is easily accomplished by leaving it unplugged for about one minute.

The company is also introducing two speed tiers in Charlotte this week. Customers will have the option of purchasing or upgrading to DOCSIS 3 Wideband Internet or Road Runner Extreme service. Wideband Internet–the fastest residential Internet experience in Charlotte–provides customers with speeds up to 50 Mbps downstream and 5 Mbps upstream for $99.95 per month.

Road Runner Extreme delivers speeds up to 30 Mbps downstream and 5 Mbps upstream for as low as $64.95 per month when bundled with any other Time Warner Cable Service.

As Stop the Cap! has strongly advised all municipal providers — there is not much point in providing fiber to the home service if you are not willing to capitalize on its benefits.  Offering a maximum speed of 25Mbps just is not going to cut it, as Time Warner Cable demonstrates.

Fibrant’s pricing models are also endangered by this week’s developments.  Road Runner Extreme delivers 30Mbps downstream for $65 a month (admittedly a bundled price) while Fibrant offers 25Mbps service for the same price (standalone service).  Fibrant still kills Time Warner on upload speed, but that’s a distinction that could be lost among many potential customers, and is easily solved by boosting download speeds as well.

Fibrant must immediately consider speed upgrades for their existing tiers to assure its value proposition and launch a new super-premium speed tier that can show off fiber to the home’s true capacity to deliver the best possible Internet speeds in the region.


Salisbury Launches Fibrant Service Bringing Fiber-Fast Broadband to More North Carolinians

The city of Salisbury on Monday “soft-launched” its fiber to the home service Fibrant to the community of 27,000.  Fibrant joins Wilson’s GreenLight system in giving residents a real choice between Time Warner Cable and phone companies like AT&T, Windstream and CenturyLink.

But the launch did not come without controversy.

The system has drawn some complaints from beta testers about set top DVR boxes that are not working as expected, video channels that are not ready for launch, a porn channel controversy, and some negative anonymous comments that suspiciously draw from the well of telecom talking points complaining about Fibrant’s business model.

Yet Fibrant’s eager group of more than 100 beta testers may quickly become the service’s first paying customers, delighted with the exceptionally faster broadband speeds finally available in the community.

Salisbury, North Carolina

Indeed, some of the biggest complaints are that Fibrant didn’t arrive sooner and the speeds are not fast enough.  The city-owned service is still fighting its way to wire fiber optic cable on utility poles where its competitors have engaged in foot-dragging to move their existing cables to make room for Fibrant.  The company’s waiting list for sign-ups now numbers well into the hundreds.

Local media has been buzzing about Fibrant’s published pricing, which undercuts Time Warner Cable’s regular prices but not its promotional deals.  The cable company recently launched a national promotion marketing broadband, cable, and telephone service for $99 for the first year.  That’s about $45 cheaper than a comparable “deluxe” package from Fibrant.

Fibrant marketing director Len Clark told the Salisbury Post they cannot compete with those special deals.

“We can’t afford it,” he said.

But many municipal providers have turned these promotions upside down and told their potential customers their pricing does not come with tricks, traps, or temporary discounts that expire exposing customers to much higher prices down the road.

EPB, the utility provider in Chattanooga, has been successful with everyday pricing that beats Comcast and delivers far better service — faster broadband speeds, better picture quality, and no annoying Internet Overcharging schemes.

Clark hopes Salisbury residents will take notice that their temporarily higher prices include better quality service and faster broadband.

Also important: the money earned by Fibrant stays in Salisbury and could eventually help defray city expenses.

The Post explains the differences between the cable company and Fibrant:

The $99 special includes Road Runner High Speed Online with a download speed of 7 megabits per second and upload speed of .384 Mbps. For a limited time, subscribers can upgrade for free to Road Runner Turbo, boosting their Internet speed to 10 Mbps for downloads and .512 Mbps for uploads.

Fibrant’s standard Internet speed of 15 Mbps for both downloads and uploads is twice as fast as Road Runner High Speed Online and 50 percent faster than Road Runner Turbo. Fibrant customers can go faster — 25 Mbps up and down — for an additional $20 per month.

Both Time Warner’s $99 special and Fibrant’s comparable package offer about 150 TV channels. High definition is free for Time Warner subscribers, while Fibrant customers must pay more.

Time Warner’s package does not include a digital video recorder. Fibrant’s does.

However, people who sign up for the $99 Time Warner special this month get Showtime for free, Dan Ballister, director of communications for Time Warner Cable Charlotte said. Next month, it could be a free DVR, he said.

Time Warner’s phone service offered in the $99 deal has about a dozen features, including the popular caller ID that appears on the TV screen. Fibrant’s phone service offers 17 calling features.

Some area consumers and businesses expressed concern about Fibrant’s broadband speeds topping out at just 25Mbps, which is slow in comparison to many other fiber to the home providers.  They are also concerned the company did not more aggressively price services at launch.

Many municipal providers have learned from the mistakes of others who have tried to engage in all-out pricing wars with large cable companies.  Most cable companies can cross-subsidize rates to ridiculously low, predatory prices to win such pricing wars, making them untenable for municipal providers with bonds to pay back.  But at the same time, municipal providers are in serious danger or obliterating the marketing benefits fiber brings by not showcasing fiber’s capabilities and giving customers the motivation to throw their current provider overboard.  We urge Fibrant officials to consider reducing the price or increasing the speed of Fibrant’s 25Mbps service, which appears too expensive and slow priced at $65 a month.  It needs to be at least $10 less a month to make it an attractive alternative to Time Warner’s inevitable future speed upgrades in the area to 10/1 standard service and 15/2 for “turbo” service, commonly found wherever fiber competes.  Remember, Time Warner also markets “Speedboost” to consumers as though those temporary speeds are delivered consistently.

As EPB quickly learned, the “wow” factor can drive sign-ups, and they doubled their broadband speeds to get more bang for the buck.  Fibrant needs to remember the valuable marketing lesson of driving customers towards “sweet spot” premium tier pricing customers feel they got for a steal.  If 15Mbps service is $45 a month, how many would spring for 20 or 25Mbps for just $5-10 more?  Time Warner learned this selling their “turbo” speed package.  And most importantly of all, Fibrant risks harming their own argument fiber optics brings new businesses and jobs when their current price schedule shows speeds topping out at just 25Mbps.  Admittedly those are residential service offerings, but we encourage them to deliver faster speeds, especially to businesses.

Fibrant's Price List (click to enlarge)

Fibrant even hides the names of its adult channels

The controversy about Fibrant carrying porn pay per view channels also popped up in the local media and drew complaints from conservative residents upset with their local government accommodating such programming.

Fibrant handily dealt with the controversy, noting tax dollars do not pay for Fibrant, it needs to compete with cable and satellite providers who offer such content, and Fibrant has gone beyond the competition in masking even the names of the channels to those who do not want such pay per view programming in their homes.

Time Warner Cable readily provides not only the names of the adult channels they carry, but also includes program titles that leave absolutely nothing to the imagination.  And who can forget Time Warner accidentally promoted its adult content on a free on-demand children’s channel earlier this year.

Fibrant officials also said the right thing telling residents they absolutely do not want to be in the business of telling people what they can and cannot watch.  It’s a personal decision, and the provider will go out of its way to make sure customers who do not want such material coming into their homes need not see a single bit of evidence it’s there.

That goes a long way to ameliorating a politically sensitive issue.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WBTV Charlotte Fibrant Porn Controversy 10-12-10.flv

WBTV-TV covered the controversy of Salisbury’s Fibrant service carrying adult pay per view programming.  (3 minutes)

A vocal minority of comments left on the Post‘s website have also attacked the service with a considerable amount of false information.  Some are upset with a $360 installation fee that actually will only be charged to a customer leaving within the first year of service.  Others invented monthly fees that don’t exist, and one actually wrote:

“The field is already crowded enough with Windstream, Time Warner, AT&T and a slew of decent wireless ops. The existing internet providers offer far better deals. Fibrant which was supposed to have high speed fiber optic, really doesn’t. Fibrant’s download speeds are not as fast as Time Warner and higher end Windstream. Fibrant doesn’t seem to want to compete pricewise or service wise–so why bother?”

Of course, Fibrant’s matched upstream and downstream speeds leave Windstream’s DSL gone with the wind.  Time Warner Cable currently delivers standard speeds half that of Fibrant’s lowest speed service (and as you can see in the video below doesn’t even actually deliver that), and AT&T’s U-verse maxes out under the best conditions at real world speeds below what Fibrant can deliver.  Anyone who has used wireless broadband knows speed is the first thing sacrificed.  Unlimited, unthrottled wireless broadband is second.  Fibrant needs some social networking to put out these kinds of BS brushfires before they become accepted memes.  Stop the Cap! helped, at least for today.

Meanwhile, Time Warner Cable officials used Fibrant’s launch to, once again, draw false connections between local government funds paying for a cable system that duplicates existing services.

Back to the Post:

Time Warner is still surprised by “municipal overbuilds,” or city-owned fiber optic networks like Fibrant in Salisbury and Greenlight in Wilson, Ballister said.

“It’s just interesting that during these economic times, when city and county budgets are being cut back, that they would want to spend millions of dollars providing services that are already out there,” Ballister said.

Salisbury borrowed $33 million to launch Fibrant.

Cities have an unfair advantage in offering communication services, Ballister said.

“We’re all for competition, as long as people are on a level playing field,” he said.

Cities pay no property or income taxes. They can operate the utility at a loss and cross-subsidize from other areas of government, Ballister said.

“They can level taxes on citizens to recover their operating costs,” he said.

Fibrant is expected to operate at a loss for three years and have a positive cash flow by year four. It will take longer to make a profit, Clark said.

Eventually, Fibrant is supposed to generate revenue for the city.

Cities in the fiber optic business also can hike the fees their competitors must pay to get access to their subscribers, Ballister said.

“They are the gatekeepers to rights of way and pole attachments,” he said.

The company has no specific examples of fee hikes to hurt Time Warner, but “these are valid concerns that exist right now,” Ballister said.

It’s ironic Ballister complains about utility pole fees considering Fibrant is currently a victim of Time Warner’s slow progress making space on those poles to accommodate the city’s fiber optics.  No vendetta by city officials is apparent, as they patiently wait for the cable company to handle its responsibilities.

Ballister should not be surprised the city of Salisbury did for itself what Time Warner Cable refused to do in the community.  Just like in Wilson, Salisbury city officials pleaded with the cable company to deliver improved service in the community but it fell on deaf ears.  Many sections of the city center cannot access reliable broadband from the cable company to this day.  But most of them can now get service from Fibrant.  Cable companies like Time Warner have spent millions of subscriber dollars trying to legislatively ban networks like Fibrant, fearful of the competition they can bring.

Salisbury Assistant City Manager Doug Paris notes the enormous amount of money poured into North Carolina’s state legislature trying to ban projects year after year.  That Time Warner money could have made a real difference for residents and small businesses in Salisbury and other parts of North Carolina if used to improve service, not fight competition.

Kirk Knapp of Tastebuds Coffee and Tea doesn’t care what Time Warner does with the money at this point, so long as he can finally be liberated from them.  He told the Post he feels “held hostage by Time Warner.”

“Time Warner has the worst customer service I have ever dealt with,” Knapp said in an e-mail to the Post.

“Fibrant may have these same kind of issues, however I can actually go to the source to deal personally with someone who is vested in the community, not spend two hours on the phone and never solve the problem as I do with TWC,” he said.

“Even if pricing is higher, I would make the change. Price is important, but quality and service is tantamount.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Fibrant Intro 11-2-10.flv

Folks from the Walser Technology Group, Inc. in Salisbury gave an informal introduction of Fibrant on its YouTube channel, including a very revealing speed test comparing broadband service from Fibrant with Time Warner Cable.  (7 minutes)


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