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CenturyLink Threatens to Pull Plug on Idaho Schools Broadband Network, Cutting Off High Schools Statewide

Broadband... by Boss Hogg.

Broadband… by Boss Hogg.

CenturyLink has given the state of Idaho until Sunday to come up with as much as $4.2 million or it will cut off Internet access to more than 200 Idaho public high schools, potentially leaving some without Internet access for the rest of the school year.

State officials in Boise warned school officials they are on their own if the statewide Idaho Education Network (IEN) goes dark on Sunday, leaving administrators scrambling for alternative Internet Service Providers in a state dominated by CenturyLink.

Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill told nearly 200 Idaho public school trustees Monday that the state’s broadband project will go dark Feb. 22. Districts will need to carry out their own emergency plan immediately if they want broadband access for the rest of the school year.

“This is terrible. We apologize,” said Senate president pro tem Brent Hill, speaking to nearly 200 public school trustees on Monday.

“You need to have a plan in case Internet is shut off on Sunday,” added Will Goodman, technology chief for the state Department of Education. “You need to be prepared if that plan goes into place for the rest of the school year.”

Syringa Networks sued Idaho in late 2009, arguing the state illegally blocked it from the $60 million broadband contract to favor the politically connected Education Networks of America and CenturyLink. Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s administration made certain the request for bids was tailored towards the ultimate winners — close friends of Otter and Idaho’s political class. The cronyism did not extend into the courtroom, however, and after several years of legal back and forth, a judge affirmed what many suspected: the contract was illegal and declared void.

followthemoneyState law prohibits using taxpayer dollars to pay for illegal contracts, and CenturyLink has kept the network running without payment in hopes their friends in the state legislature will bail IEN out. But after months of inaction, CenturyLink announced that without immediate payment, it will cut off the network this weekend.

The prospect of hundreds of high schools losing all Internet connectivity led to seething editorials in some state newspapers.

“Students were faux poster-children on what turned out to be just another example of putting the well-connected on the public dole, while simultaneously lauding the result,” wrote the editors of the Twin Falls Times-Union. “Contracting is broken in Idaho. Corruption is too easily accepted as day-to-day business.”

The newspaper advocates writing off IEN and starting over by giving control of broadband connectivity back to local communities across Idaho, where corruption does not predominate:

The IEN is a pile of rubble. It can’t be salvaged. Only a total rebuild will suffice.

Tell the districts that rely on IEN to go find a provider. Take that $4 million sitting in the bank, targeted for the providers, and start a reimbursement fund for schools. Let local officials run it. The courts will figure out what the providers are owed for the past service. Idaho has failed and, with its culture of corruption, can’t be trusted.

As of this afternoon, it seems the state legislature is preparing to force taxpayers to cover the costs of schools switching to alternative providers. Idaho officials have approved a nearly $3.6 million stopgap measure to maintain broadband connectivity for the rest of the school year by using other providers, assuming they can be found.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KTVB Boise Idaho lawmakers approve 3-6M for broadband access 2-17-15.flv

KTVB in Boise reports Idaho taxpayers will be on the hook to cover public school Internet costs after CenturyLink pulls the plug on a statewide educational broadband network this weekend. (2:28)

Missouri Representative Introduces Community Broadband Ban Bill to Protect AT&T, CenturyLink

Rep. Rocky Miller (R-Lake Ozark)

Rep. Rocky Miller (R-Lake Ozark)

A Missouri state representative with a track record of supporting AT&T and other telecommunications companies has introduced a bill that would effectively prohibit community broadband competition in a bid to protect incumbent phone and cable companies.

Rep. Rocky Miller’s (R-Lake Ozark) House Bill 437 would strictly prohibit the construction of public broadband networks in any part of Missouri served by a private provider, regardless of the quality of service available or its cost, without a referendum that includes a mandated question observers consider slanted in favor of existing providers.

HB437 would banish community broadband networks as early as September unless services were already up and running. The bill would effectively stop any public broadband network intending to compete against an existing phone or cable company within the boundaries of a city, town, or village offering any level of broadband service. It would also require communities to schedule a referendum on any project budgeted above $100,000, and includes ballot language that implies public broadband projects would duplicate existing services, even if a private provider offers substantially slower broadband at a considerably higher price. (Emphasis below is ours):

“Shall [Anytown] offer [broadband], despite such service being currently offered within Anytown by x private businesses at an estimated cost of (insert cost estimate) to Anytown over the following five-year period?”

Miller’s proposal would also require voters to approve a specific and detailed “revenue stream” for public broadband projects and if the referendum fails to garner majority support, would prohibit the idea from coming up for a second vote until after two years have passed, allowing cable and phone companies to plan future countermeasures.

yay attThe proposed bill also carefully protects existing providers from pressure to upgrade their networks.

Miller’s bill defines “substantially similar” in a way that would treat DSL service as functionally equivalent to gigabit broadband as both could be “used for the same purpose as the good or service it is being compared to, irrespective of how the good or service is delivered.”

In other words, if you can reach Rep. Miller’s campaign website on a CenturyLink 1.5Mbps DSL connection and over a co-op gigabit fiber to the home connection, that means they are functionally equivalent in the eyes of Miller’s bill. Residents voting in a referendum would be asked if it is worthwhile constructing fiber to the home service when CenturyLink is offering substantially similar DSL.

Among the telecom companies that had no trouble connecting to Rep. Miller to hand him campaign contributions: AT&T, CenturyLink, Comcast, and Charter Communications

The Coalition for Local Internet Choice was unhappy to see yet another state bill introduced designed to limit competition and take away the right of local communities to plan their own broadband future.

“The state of Missouri is the latest legislature to attempt to erect barriers to the deployment of broadband networks that are critical to the future of its local economies and the nation, via House Bill 437,” said a statement released by the group. “High-bandwidth communications networks are the electricity of the 21st century and no community should be stymied or hampered in its efforts to deploy new future-proof communications infrastructure for its citizens – either by itself or with willing private partners.”

cell_towerThe group urged the Missouri legislature to reject the bill.

In 2013, Miller hit the ground running in his freshman year to achieve his campaign pledge of “getting the government out of the way of economic development.” In the Missouri state legislature, Miller strongly supported AT&T’s other state legislative priority: deregulation of cell tower placement. Miller traveled around Missouri promoting HB650, an AT&T inspired bill that would strip away local oversight powers of cell sites.

The issue became a hot topic, particularly in rural and scenic areas of Missouri, where local officials complained the bill would allow haphazard placement of cell towers within their communities.

“[The] bill inhibits a city’s ability to regulate cell towers as we have in the past,” Osage Beach city attorney Ed Rucker said. “The process we have in place has worked, and has worked well.”

Had HB650 become law, Osage Beach residents would today be surrounded by six new cell towers around the city, with little say in where they ended up. The bill Miller supported would have also eliminated a requirement that providers repair, replace, or remove damaged or abandoned cell towers, potentially leaving local taxpayers to pick up the tab.

Miller claimed the legislation would allow expansion of wireless broadband across rural Missouri and remove objectionable fees. HB650 would limit municipal fees to $500 for co-locating an antenna on a pre-existing tower and $1,500 for an application to build a new tower. Local communities complained those limits were below their costs to research the impact and placement of cell towers.

“That cost is an inhibitor to broadband,” Miller countered. “It’s beginning to look like the fees are an impediment to the expansion of broadband.”

Miller did not mention AT&T’s interest in cell tower expansion is also connected to its plan to retire rural landline service in favor of its wireless network, saving the company billions while earning billions more in new revenue from selling wireless landline replacement service over its more costly wireless network. The cell tower bill was eventually caught up in a legal dispute after a court ruled the broader bill that included the cell tower deregulation language was unconstitutional on a procedural matter.

J.D. Power & Associates Tie Vote! Hemorrhagic Fever vs. Comcast vs. Time Warner Cable

jd powerLove can be a fickle thing.

Take Comcast’s affair with J.D. Power & Associates, for example. In Comcast’s filings with regulators, it is very proud that J.D. Power cited Comcast for the most improvement of any cable operator scored by the survey firm. Comcast touted the fact it had managed to increase its TV satisfaction score by a whopping 92 points and Internet satisfaction was up a respectable 77 points. (Comcast didn’t mention the fact J.D. Power rates companies on a 1,000 point scale or that it took the cable company four years to eke out those improvements.)

Last month, J.D. Power issued its latest ranking of telecommunications companies and… well, the love is gone.

If customer alienation was an Olympic event, J.D. Power awarded tie gold medals to both Comcast and Time Warner Cable for their Kafkaesque race to the bottom.

The survey of customer satisfaction largely found only dissatisfaction everywhere in the country J.D. Power looked. While Comcast likes to cite its “customer-oopsies-gone-viral” blunders as “isolated incidents,” J.D. Power finds them epidemic nationwide.

skunkThe highest rating across television and broadband categories achieved by either cable company was ‘Meh.’ J.D. Power diplomatically scored both cable companies on a scale that started with “among the best” as simply “the rest.” Customers in the west were the most charitable, those in the south and eastern U.S. indicated they were worked to their last nerve.

“The ability to provide a high-quality experience with all wireline services is paramount as performance and reliability is the most critical driver of overall satisfaction,” said Kirk Parsons, senior director of telecommunications, in a statement.

Having competition available from a high-scoring provider also demonstrates what is possible when a company actually tries to care about customer service. In the same regions Comcast fared about as popular as hemorrhagic fever, WOW! Cable and Verizon FiOS easily took top honors. Even AT&T U-verse scored far higher than either cable company, primarily because AT&T offers very aggressive promotional packages that include a lot for a comparatively low price.

Other cable and smaller phone companies didn’t do particularly well either. Frontier and CenturyLink both earned dismal scores and Charter Cable only managed modest improvement. The two satellite television companies did fine in customer satisfaction for television service, but it was the two biggest phone companies that managed the best scores for Internet service. Among cable operators, only independents like WOW! (and to a lesser extent Cox) did well in the survey.

If J.D. Power is the arbiter of good service Comcast seems to claim it to be, the ratings company just sent a very clear message that when it comes to merging Comcast and Time Warner Cable, anything multiplied by zero is still zero.

J.D. Power ranking (Image courtesy: Reviewed.com)

J.D. Power ranking (Image courtesy: Reviewed.com)

CenturyLink Unfazed by AT&T/Verizon’s Rural Wireless Broadband; ‘Caps Too Low, Prices Too High’

centurylinkCenturyLink does not believe it will face much of a competitive threat from AT&T and Verizon’s plans to decommission rural landline service in favor of fixed wireless broadband because the two companies’ offers are too expensive, overly usage-capped and too slow.

Both AT&T and Verizon have proposed mothballing traditional landline service in rural areas because both companies claim wireline financial returns are too low and ongoing maintenance costs are too high. In its place, both companies are developing rural fixed wireless solutions for voice and broadband service that will rely on 4G LTE networks.

CenturyLink does not traditionally compete against either AT&T or Verizon because their landline service areas do not overlap. But as both AT&T and Verizon Wireless continue to emphasize their nationwide wireless networks, independent phone companies are likely to face increased competition from wireless phone and broadband services.

CenturyLink isn’t worried.

“About two-thirds of our customers can get access to 10Mbps or higher [from us and] that continues to increase year by year,” CenturyLink chief financial officer Stewart Ewing told attendees at Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s 2014 Global Telecom & Media Conference. “Our belief is that with the increasing demands customers have for bandwidth — the Netflix bandwidth requirement — just the increasing amount of video that customers are watching and downloading over their Internet pipes, we believe will drive customers to using a provider that basically has a wire in their home because we believe you will get generally higher bandwidth and a much better experience at lower cost.”

Ewing

Ewing

CenturyLink customers consume an average of slightly less than 50GB of Internet usage per month, and that number is growing. Ewing said that CenturyLink has long believed that as bandwidth demand increases, wireless becomes less and less capable of providing a good customer experience.

“At this point, we don’t really have any concerns because people on the margin — the folks that don’t use much bandwidth — probably use a wireless connection today to download,” Ewing said. “But as the bandwidth demands grow, the wireless connection becomes more and more expensive and that could tend to drive people our way. So as long as we have 10Mbps or better to the customers, we don’t really think there is that much exposure.”

CenturyLink does not measure the difference in Internet usage between urban and rural residential customers, but the company suspects rural customers might naturally use more because alternative outlets are fewer in number outside of urban America.

“Folks in rural areas might actually can use Internet more for buying things that they can’t source [easily], but it’s hard to really count,” said Ewing. “I think our customers in the rural areas probably are not that much different from folks in urban areas.”

Prism is CenturyLink's fiber to the neighborhood service, similar to AT&T U-verse. It is getting only a modest expansion in 2014.

Prism is CenturyLink’s fiber to the neighborhood service, similar to AT&T U-verse. It is getting only a modest expansion in 2014.

CenturyLink’s largest competitor remains Comcast, which co-exists in about 40% of CenturyLink’s markets. The merger with Time Warner Cable won’t have much impact on CenturyLink, increasing Comcast’s footprint in CenturyLink territory by only about only 6-7%. CenturyLink believes most of any new competition will come in the small business market segment. Comcast’s residential pricing is unlikely to attract current CenturyLink customers in Time Warner Cable territory to consider a switch to Comcast if the merger is approved.

Ewing also shared his thinking about several other CenturyLink initiatives that customers might see sometime this year:

  • Don’t expect CenturyLink to expand Wi-Fi hotspot networks. The company found they are difficult to monetize and is unlikely to expand them further;
  • Any change in the FCC’s definition of minimum broadband speed to qualify for federal broadband expansion funds would slow rural broadband expansion. Ewing admitted a 10Mbps speed minimum is considerably more difficult to achieve over DSL than a 4 or 6Mbps minimum;
  • Don’t expect any more merger/acquisition activity from CenturyLink in the Competitive Local Exchange Carrier business. CenturyLink shows no sign of pursuing Frontier, Windstream, FairPoint, or other independent phone companies. It is focused on expanding business services, where 60% of CenturyLink’s revenue now comes;
  • CenturyLink fiber expansion will primarily be focused on reaching business offices and commercial customers in 2014;
  • CenturyLink will only modestly expand PrismTV, its fiber-to-the-neighborhood service, to an additional 300,000 homes this year. The company now offers the service to two million of its customers, with 200,000 signed up nationwide. Last year, CenturyLink expanded PrismTV availability to 800,000 homes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taxpayer dollars are also funneled to the cable company.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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