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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.

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.”

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.

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)

Time Warner Cable Will Launch Wideband in North Carolina’s Triad Region

Time Warner Cable is finally getting around to announcing its DOCSIS 3 “wideband” broadband upgrades in the Triad region of North Carolina.  Already available in Charlotte, Time Warner will offer 30/5Mbps service for $10 more than its Turbo service, and 50/5Mbps will also be available for $99.95 a month.

Customers in High Point will be the first to get access to the service in the spring, while other Triad cities will get the service later this year, according to a news release from the cable company.

The Triad region was part of Time Warner Cable’s 2009 Internet Overcharging experiment, which would have tripled pricing for unlimited broadband service to $150.  An outcry from residents forced the company to shelve its plans.

Triad residents are not impressed by Time Warner’s foot-dragging ever since.

Stop the Cap! reader Gene in Greensboro hasn’t forgotten the cable company promised speed upgrades in 2009 as part of its usage cap experiment.

“Other cities in North Carolina that were not on the list for their ripoff pricing got the upgrades while Greensboro drags at the same speeds we’ve had for several years now,” Gene says. “I think this announcement has more to do with the imminent arrival of AT&T’s U-verse in some areas of the Triad.”

AT&T is slowly expanding its U-verse footprint in central North Carolina.

The state is currently embroiled in a political debate over Time Warner-sponsored legislation that would largely eliminate community-owned broadband competition across North Carolina.

“I would trade Time Warner and AT&T for Wilson’s GreenLight fiber in a second,” Gene says. “Both AT&T and Time Warner are playing a snail’s game of incremental upgrades in this state that makes us also-ran when compared to New York, New Jersey, or Connecticut.”

Time Warner Cable Broadband Pricing, North Carolina

Road Runner® Broadband (10 Mbps download, 1 Mbps upload)
Standalone $57.95/mo
With Broadcast/Basic Cable and/or Digital Home Phone $52.95/mo
With Digital TV $47.95/mo
Road Runner® Broadband Turbo (15 Mbps download, 1 Mbps upload)
Requires subscription to Road Runner® Broadband
Additional $9.95/mo
to Broadband rate
Road Runner® Broadband Extreme – Charlotte (30 Mbps download, 5 Mbps upload)
Requires subscription to Road Runner® Broadband
Includes Wireless Home Networking
Additional $20.00/mo
to Standard Broadband rate
Wideband Internet (50 Mbps download, 5 Mbps upload)
Includes Wireless Home Networking
$99.95/mo
Road Runner® Basic (1.5 Mbps download, 256 kpbs upload) $40.95/mo
Road Runner® Lite (768 kbps download, 128 kbps upload) $30.95/mo
WiFi Home Network (up to 4 computers) $9.95/mo

 

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

Phillip Dampier November 16, 2010 AT&T, Broadband Speed, Community Networks, Competition, Consumer News, Fibrant, Greenlight, MI-Connection, TWC (see Charter), Video Comments Off on 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.

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

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