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EPB Celebrates 4th Anniversary With Free Speed Upgrades And Price Cuts; $69.99 for 1Gbps Service

epbEPB this morning celebrated its fourth anniversary by thanking Chattanooga residents for supporting the utility’s fiber network with a series of price cuts and speed increases.

Beginning today, EPB’s fiber broadband customers are getting the following upgrades and savings:

  • 50/50Mbps customers get a free upgrade to 100/100Mbps service with no change in their current price ($57.99/month);
  • 100/100 and 250/250Mbps customers get a free upgrade to 1,000/1,000Mbps service;
  • 1,000/1,000Mbps customers now paying $349 a month will see their bills slashed to $69.99 a month, a savings of $230 a month;
  • EPB’s business broadband customers will be contacted individually to coordinate the speed upgrades.

gig_speedsCustomers will see the new speeds provisioned within the next two weeks. At least 3,000 residential customers will be upgraded to gigabit service.

EPB also reported this morning it has 55,000 broadband customers.

EPB is one of the nation’s most successful municipal fiber providers and is proving itself a major challenger to Chattanooga’s cable competitor Comcast and incumbent phone company AT&T.

AT&T’s U-verse is the least capable network in Chattanooga, because its fiber-to-the-neighborhood technology currently limits AT&T’s maximum broadband speed in the city to 24/3Mbps. AT&T says it is working on doubling or tripling speeds, but it still leaves U-verse far behind Comcast and EPB.

Comcast has lost at least 47,000 customers in Chattanooga, estimates EPB CEO Harold DePriest. Comcast originally had 122,000 customers on the EPB grid when EPB launched fiber broadband. This year, Comcast has about 75,000 customers and is expected to see numbers decline further in 2014 to about 60,000 customers.

The best Comcast offers is 505/20Mbps service in select cities, with a price tag of $400 a month.

The best Comcast offers is 505/20Mbps service in select cities, with a price tag of $400 a month.

Neither Comcast or AT&T is competing on price for higher speed broadband in Chattanooga. Comcast charges $114.95 a month for 105/20Mbps service and offers 505/100Mbps service in a handful of other cities, for $399.95 a month. Comcast is also currently testing the reintroduction of usage caps and overlimit fees in several markets.

AT&T charges $65 a month for 24/3Mbps service — its fastest — with a 250GB monthly usage cap, currently not enforced. For $5 more, EPB customers get 1,000/1,000Mbps with no usage limits or overlimit fees.

EPB has been criticized by conservative groups, bloggers, and its competitors that argue municipal utilities have no business being in the broadband business. Most of these groups predicted EPB Fiber would deliver a costly failure for Chattanooga utility ratepayers. The utility has also come under repeated fire from the conservative editorial page in the Chattanooga Times-Free Press, often from ex-editorial writer Drew Johnson, who was fired in August.

DePriest can afford to take the criticism all in stride. He has been with the publicly owned utility for 42 years and has seen Chattanooga transformed from its old manufacturing roots into an increasingly high-tech city, thanks in part to EPB’s robust broadband infrastructure that has exceeded even EPB’s expectations.

EPB’s original business plan called for 28,000 customers to break even, with an estimated ceiling of 43,000 customers that would be willing to sign up. EPB has already passed both estimates with additional growth anticipated. DePriest even predicts EPB could surpass Comcast — the city’s biggest broadband and cable TV player — in market share by the end of next year.

Far from being a financial failure, EPB Fiber is now covering the $19 million debt payment incurred by the utility’s electric business, protecting Chattanooga residents from an electricity rate increase.

EPB is also making money offering advice to other cities who want to launch their own publicly owned fiber networks and avoid making costly mistakes. Consulting services will net EPB more than $1 million over the next three years.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/EPB EPB 4th Anniversary Speed Increases Price Cuts for Gigabit 9-17-13.flv

EPB CEO Harold DePriest announces speed increases and price cuts for customers to celebrate the utility’s fourth anniversary in the broadband business. (3 minutes)

Correction: The original story misreported Comcast’s upstream speed for its 505Mbps tier as 20Mbps. It is, as corrected above, 100Mbps.

When Do You “Need” Faster Speeds? When Competition Arrives Offering Them

broadband dead end“We just don’t see the need of delivering [gigabit broadband] to consumers.” — Irene Esteves, former chief financial officer, Time Warner Cable, February 2013

“For some, the discussion about the broadband Internet seems to begin and end on the issue of ‘gigabit’ access. The issue with such speed is really more about demand than supply. Most websites can’t deliver content as fast as current networks move, and most U.S. homes have routers that can’t support the speed already available.” — David Cohen, chief lobbyist, Comcast Corp., May 2013

“We don’t focus on megabits, we don’t focus on gigabits, we focus on activities. We go to the activity set to get a sense of what customers are actually doing and the majority of our customers fit into that 6Mbps or less category.” — Maggie Wilderotter, CEO, Frontier Communications, May 2013

“It would cost multiple billions” to upgrade Cox’s network to offer gigabit speeds to all its customers. — Pat Esser, CEO, Cox Communications, Pat Esser, chief executive of Cox Communications Inc., January 2013

“The problem with [matching Google Fiber speeds] is even if you build the last mile access plant to [offer gigabit speeds], there is neither the applications that require that nor a broader Internet backbone and servers delivering at that speed. It ends up being more about publicity and bragging. There has been a whole series of articles in the paper about ‘I’m a little startup business and boy it is really great I can get this’ and my reaction is we already have plant there that can deliver whatever it is they are talking about in those articles, which is usually not stuff that requires that high-speed.” — Glenn Britt, CEO, Time Warner Cable, December 2012

“Residential customers, at this time, do not need the bandwidth offered with dedicated fiber – however, Bright House has led the industry in comprehensively deploying next-generation bandwidth services (DOCSIS 3.0) to its entire footprint in Florida – current speeds offered are 50Mbps with the ability to offer much higher. We provision our network according to our customers’ needs.” – Don Forbes, Bright House Networks, February 2011

‘Charter [Cable] is not seeing enough demand to warrant extending fiber to small and medium-sized businesses — and certainly not to every household.’ — “Speedier Internet Rivals Push Past Cable“, New York Times, Jan. 2, 2013

Unless you live in Kansas City, Austin, in a community where public broadband exists, or where Verizon FiOS provides its fiber optic service, chances are your broadband speeds are not growing much, but are getting more expensive. The only thing innovative coming from the local phone or cable company is a constant effort to convince customers they don’t need faster Internet access anyway.

At least until a competitor threatens to shake up the comfortable status quo.

Time Warner Cable claims they are perfectly comfortable offering residential customers no better than 50/5Mbps, except in markets like Kansas City (and soon in Texas) where 100Mbps is more satisfying. Why is a glass Time Warner claims is full to the brim everywhere else in the country only half-full in Kansas City? Google Fiber might be the answer. It offers 1,000/1,000Mbps service for less money than Time Warner used to charge for 50Mbps service, and Google is also headed to Austin.

special reportAT&T scoffed at following Verizon into the world of fiber optic broadband, where broadband speeds are limited only by the possibilities. Instead, they built their half-fiber, half-Alexander Graham Bell-era copper wire hybrid network on the cheap and ended up with broadband speeds topping out around 24Mbps, at least in a perfect AT&T world, assuming everything was ideal between your home and their central office.

At the time U-verse was first breaking ground, cable broadband’s “good enough for you” top Internet speed was typically 10-20Mbps. Now that incrementally faster cable Internet speeds are available from recent DOCSIS 3.0 cable upgrades, AT&T is coming back with an incremental upgrade of its own, to deliver around 75Mbps.

It is still slower than cable, but AT&T thinks it is fast enough for their customers, except in Austin, where Google Fiber provoked the company to claim it would build its own 1,000Mbps fiber network to compete (if it got everything on its Christmas Wish List from federal, state, and local governments).

Are you starting to see a trend here? Competition can turn providers’ investment frowns upside down and get customers faster Internet access.

Wilderotter: Most of our customers are satisfied with 6Mbps broadband.

Wilderotter: Most of our customers are satisfied with 6Mbps broadband.

In rural markets were Frontier Communications faces far less competition from well-heeled cable companies, the company can claim it doesn’t believe most of its customers need north of 6Mbps to do important things on the Internet. If they did, where would they go to do them?

Where Comcast and AT&T directly compete, major Internet speed increases are a matter of “why bother – who needs them.” Comcast is more generous where it faces down Verizon FiOS. AT&T also knows the clock is ticking where Google Fiber is coming to town.

Verizon FiOS, Google Fiber, and a number of community-owned fiber to the home broadband networks like EPB in Chattanooga and Greenlight in Wilson, N.C. seem more interested in boosting speeds to build market share, increase revenue to cover their expenses, and make a marketing point their networks are superior. They respond to requests for speed upgrades differently — “why not?”

Verizon figured out offering 50/25Mbps service was simple to offer and easy to embrace. Two clicks on a FiOS remote control and $10 more a month gets a major speed upgrade for basic Internet customers that used to get 15/5Mbps service. Verizon management reports they are pleased with the number of customers signing up.

In Chattanooga, Tenn. EPB Fiber offered gigabit Internet service because, in the words of its managing director, “it could.” The community-owned utility did not even know how to price residential gigabit service when it first went on offer, but the costs to EPB to offer those speeds are considerably lower over fiber to the home broadband infrastructure.

Broadband customers in Chattanooga, Kansas City and Austin are not too different from customers in Knoxville, Des Moines, and Houston. But the available broadband speeds in those cities sure are.

LUS Fiber in Lafayette, La. changed the song Cox was singing about their ‘adequate’ broadband speeds. Earlier this year, Cox unveiled up to 150/25Mbps service to cut the number of departing customers headed to the community owned utility, already offering those speeds.

Convincing Wall Street that spending money to upgrade networks to next generation technology will earn more money in the long run has failed miserably as a strategy.

“Competitors have been overbuilding, investors are wondering where the returns are,” said Mark Ansboury, president and co-founder of GigaBit Squared. “What you’re seeing is an entrenchment, companies leveraging what they already have in play.”

With North American broadband prices rising, and some cable companies earning 90-95% margins selling broadband, one might think there is plenty of money available to spend on broadband upgrades. Instead, investors are receiving increased dividend payouts, executive compensation packages are swelling as a reward for maximizing shareholder value, and many companies are buying back their stock, refinancing or paying off debt instead of pouring money into major network upgrades.

That is not true in Europe, where providers are making headlines with major network improvements and speed increases, all while charging much less than what North Americans pay for broadband service.

UPC Netherlands is Holland's second biggest cable company and it is in the middle of a broadband speed war with fiber to the home providers.

UPC Netherlands is Holland’s second biggest cable company and is in the middle of a broadband speed war with fiber to the home providers.

In the Netherlands, the very concept of Google Fiber’s affordable gigabit speeds terrify cable operators like UPC Netherlands, especially when existing fiber to the home providers in the country are taking Google’s cue and advertising gigabit service themselves. UPC rushed to dedicate up to 16 bonded cable channels to boost cable broadband speeds to 500Mbps in recent field trials, without giving any serious thought to the cable operators in the United States that argue customers don’t need or want the faster Internet speeds fiber offers.

“We had to address it head on very recently because of the fiber (competition)” said vice president of technology Bill Warga. “The company is called Reggefiber in the Netherlands. What they’re touting is a 1Gbps service, [the same speed] upstream and downstream. We came out with 500Mbps service. We had to build a special modem because (DOCSIS) 3.1 chips aren’t out yet. We had to double up on the chips in the modem and put it out there because we had to have a competing product, if anything just in the press. That was a reaction but that tells you how quickly in a marketplace that something can move.”

Despite that, groupthink among cable industry attendees back home at the SCTE Rocky Mountain Chapter Symposium agreed that Google Fiber was a political and marketing stunt, “since the majority of users don’t need those types of speed.”

Who does need and want 500Mbps? Executives at UPC, who have it installed in their homes, admits Warga. But cost can also impact consumer demand. Currently, the most popular legacy UPC broadband package offers 25Mbps for €25 ($32.50). The company now sells 60/6Mbps for €52,50 ($48.75), 100/10Mbps for €42,50 ($55.25) or 150-200/10Mbps for €52,50 ($68.25).

Warga also admits the competition has put UPC in a speed race, and boosted speeds are coming fast and furious.

“They’ll come in and say they’re 100, or 101Mbps we’ll come back and say we’re 110 or 120, or 130Mbps,” Warga said. “It’s a bit of a cat and mouse game, but we always feel like we can be ahead. For us DOCSIS 3.1 can’t come soon enough.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WSJ Cable Broadband Speeds 1-13.flv

The Wall Street Journal investigates why cable companies are getting stingy with broadband speed upgrades while gigabit fiber networks are springing up around the country. (4 minutes)

Mowing the Astroturf: Tennesee’s Pole Attachment Fee Derided By Corporate Front Groups

phone pole courtesy jonathan wCable operators and publicly owned utilities in Tennessee are battling for control over the prices companies pay to use utility poles, with facts among the early casualties.

The subject of “pole attachment fees” has been of interest to cable companies for decades. In return for permission to hang cable wires on existing electric or telephone poles owned by utility companies, cable operators are asked to contribute towards their upkeep and eventual replacement. Cable operators want the fees to be as low as possible, while utility companies have sought leeway to defray rising utility pole costs and deal with ongoing wear and tear.

Little progress has been made in efforts to compromise, so this year two competing bills have been introduced by Republicans in the state legislature to define “fairness.” One is promoted by a group of municipal utilities and the other by the cable industry and several corporate-backed, conservative front groups claiming to represent the interests of state taxpayers and consumers.

Some background: Tennessee is unique in the pole attachment fee fight, because privately owned power companies bypassed a lot of the state (and much of the rest of the Tennessee Valley and Appalachian region) during the electrification movement of the early 20th century. Much of Tennessee is served by publicly owned power companies, which also own and maintain a large percentage of utility poles in the state.

Some of Tennessee’s largest telecom companies believe they can guarantee themselves low rates by pitching a case of private companies vs. big government utilities, with local municipalities accused of profiteering from artificially high pole attachment rates. Hoping to capitalize on anti-government sentiment, “small government” conservatives and telecom companies want to tie the hands of the pole owners indefinitely by taking away their right to set pole attachment rates.

The battle includes fact-warped editorials that distort the issues, misleading video ads, and an effort to conflate a utility fee with a tax. With millions at stake from pole attachment fees on tens of thousands of power poles throughout the state, the companies involved have launched a full-scale astroturf assault.

Grover Norquist’s Incendiary “Pole Tax”

Conservative Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform wrote that the pole attachment fee legislation promoted by public utilities would represent a $20 million dollar “tax increase” from higher cable and phone bills. Even worse, Norquist says, the new tax will delay telecom companies from rushing new investments on rural broadband.

Norquist

Norquist

In reality, Americans for Tax Reform should be rebranded Special Interests for Tax Reform, because the group is funded by a variety of large tobacco corporations, former clients of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and several wealthy conservative activists with their own foundations.

Norquist’s pole “tax increase” does not exist.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) provides guidelines and a formula for determining pole attachment rates for privately owned utilities, but permits states to adopt their own regulations. Municipal utilities are exempted for an important reason — their rates and operations are often already well-regulated.

Stop the Cap! found that pole attachment revenue ends up in the hands of the utility companies that own and keep up the poles, not the government. Municipal utilities stand on their own — revenue earned by a utility stays with the utility. Should a municipal utility attempt to gouge other companies that hang wires on those poles, mechanisms kick in that guarantee it cannot profit from doing so.

A 2007 study by the state government in Tennessee effectively undercut the cable industry’s argument that publicly owned utilities are overcharging cable and phone companies that share space on their poles. The report found that “pole attachment revenues do not increase pole owners’ revenue in the long run.”¹

The Tennessee Valley Authority, which supplies electricity across Tennessee, regularly audits the revenues and costs of its municipal utility distributors and sets end-user rates accordingly. The goal is to guarantee that municipal distributors “break even.” Any new revenue sources, like pole attachment fees, are considered when setting wholesale electric rates. If a municipal utility overcharged for access to its poles, it will ultimately gain nothing because the TVA will set prices that take that revenue into account.

Freedom to Distort: The Cable Lobby’s Astroturf Efforts

Freedom to distort

Freedom to distort

Another “citizens group” jumping into the battle is called “Freedom to Connect,” actually run by the Tennessee Cable Telecommunications Association (TCTA). Most consumers won’t recognize TCTA as the state cable lobby. Almost all will have forgotten TCTA was the same group that filed a lawsuit to shut down EPB’s Fiber division, which today delivers 1,000Mbps broadband service across the city and competes against cable operators like Comcast and Charter Cable.

One TCTA advertisement claims that some utilities are planning “to double the fees broadband providers pay to the state’s government utilities.”

In reality, cable companies have gone incognito, hiding their identity by rebranding themselves as “broadband providers.” No utility has announced it plans to “double” pole attachment fees either.

TCTA members came under fire at a recent hearing attended by state lawmakers when Rep. Charles Curtiss (D-Sparta) spoke up about irritating robocalls directed at his constituents making similar claims.

“What was said was false,” Curtiss told the cable representatives at the hearing. “You’ve lost your integrity with me. Whoever made up your mind to do that, you’re in the wrong line of work.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/TCTA Pole Attachment Fees Ad 3-13.flv

TCTA — Tennessee’s cable industry lobbying group, released this distorted advertisement opposing pole attachment fee increases.  (1 minute)

The Chattanooga Free-Press’ Drew Johnson: Independent Opinion Page Editor or Well-connected Activist with a Conflict of Interest?

Johnson

Johnson (Times Free Press)

In its ad campaign, the TCTA gave prominent mention to an article in Chattanooga’s Times-Free Press from Feb. 27: “Bill Harms Consumers, Kills Competition.”

What the advertisement did not say is it originated in an editorial published by Drew Johnson, who serves as the paper’s conservative opinion editor. Johnson has had a bone to pick with Chattanooga’s public utility EPB since it got into the cable television and broadband business.

That may not be surprising, since Johnson is still listed as a “senior fellow” at the “Taxpayers Protection Alliance,” yet another corporate and conservative-backed astroturf group founded by former Texas congressman Dick Armey of FreedomWorks fame.

Johnson’s journalism credentials? He wrote a weekly column for the conservative online screed NewsMax, founded and funded by super-wealthy Richard Mellon Scaife and Christopher Ruddy, both frequent donors to conservative, pro-business causes.

TPA has plenty to hide — particularly the sources of their funding. When asked if private industry backs TPA’s efforts, president David Williams refused to come clean.

“It comes from private sources, and I don’t reveal who my donors are,” he told Environmental Building News in January.

Ironically, Johnson is best known for aggressively using Tennessee’s open records “Sunshine” law to get state employee e-mails and other records looking for conflicts of interest or scandal.

Newspaper readers may want to ask whether Johnson represents the newspaper, an industry-funded sock puppet group, or both.  They also deserve full disclosure if the TPA receives any funding from companies that directly compete with EPB.

The Institute from ALEC: The Institute for Policy Innovation’s Innovative Way to Funnel AT&T and Comcast Money Into the Fight

Provider-backed ALEC advocates for the corporate interests that fund its operations.

Provider-backed ALEC advocates for the corporate interests that fund its operations.

Another group fighting on the side of the cable and phone companies against municipal utilities is the Institute for Policy Innovation. Policy counsel Bartlett D. Cleland claimed the government is out to get private companies that want space on utility poles.

“The proposed new system in HB1111 and SB1222 is fervently supported by the electric cooperatives and the government-owned utilities for good reason – they are merely seeking a way to use the force of government against their private sector competitors,” Cleland said. “The proposal would allow them to radically raise their rates for pole attachments to multiples of the national average.”

The facts don’t match Cleland’s rhetoric.

In reality, the state of Tennessee found in their report on the matter in 2007 that Tennessee’s pole attachment fees are “not necessarily out of line with those in other states.”²

In fact, some of the state’s telecom companies seemed to agree:

  • EMBARQ (now CenturyLink) provided data on fees received from other service providers in Tennessee, Virginia, South and North Carolina. In these data, Tennessee’s rates ($36.02 – $47.41) are similar to those in North Carolina ($23.12-$52.85) and Virginia ($28.94 – $35.77). Rates were lower in South Carolina.
  • Cable operators, who have less infrastructure on poles than telephone and electric utilities, paid even less. Time Warner Cable provided mean rates per state showing Tennessee ($7.70) in the middle of the pack compared to Florida ($9.83) and North Carolina ($4.86 – $13.64).

In addition to his role as policy counsel, Cleland also happens to be co-chair of the Telecommunications and Information Technology Task Force of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Members of that committee include Comcast and AT&T — Tennessee’s largest telecom companies, both competing with municipal telecommunications providers like EPB.

¹ Analysis of Pole Attachment Rate Issues in Tennessee, State of Tennessee. 2007. p.23

² Analysis of Pole Attachment Rate Issues in Tennessee, State of Tennessee. 2007. p.12

Chattanooga’s Gigabit Fiber Generates $400 Million in Local Investment, 6,000 New Jobs

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CBS Chattanooga Fastest Broadband in America 2-28-13.flv

Chattanooga’s gigabit fiber network demonstrates local government works. The fiber to the home network has already brought $400 million in investment dollars and more than 6,000 new jobs to the area. At the same time, both Comcast and AT&T are working to lobby state legislatures to ban these kinds of public networks from ever getting off the ground. CBS News profiles EPB Fiber. (6 minutes)

Comcast, AT&T Announce Rate Hikes for Chattanooga; Publicly Owned EPB Has Not

Phillip Dampier January 3, 2013 AT&T, Broadband Speed, Comcast/Xfinity, Competition, Consumer News, Editorial & Site News, EPB Fiber Comments Off
Image: schvdenfreude

Image: schvdenfreude

Chattanooga Comcast and AT&T U-verse customers will need to open their wallets a bit more in 2013 as both the cable and phone company have announced new rate hikes that are now taking effect. But not everyone will pay more. Customers of EPB Fiber, which offers up to 1,000/1,000Mbps broadband and is a service of the publicly-owned electric utility is keeping prices stable until further notice.

Comcast customers face new increases averaging 4% in 2013 — $5 a month for Triple Play customers, several dollars more for broadband, and around $1 for basic cable service. Customers on promotions are unaffected until the temporary pricing expires.

AT&T U-verse customers will see price increases as much as $9 a month for television and broadband service.

Chattanoogans who ditched both private providers for the public option are sitting pretty with absolutely no rate increases to pay at this time. Although negotiations with programmers are ongoing, and costs are rising, EPB says it won’t raise any rates unless it becomes absolutely necessary. The utility takes rate increases very seriously, bringing them directly to its board of directors for approval.

Comcast and AT&T said the introduction of new services and increased programming costs contributed to their need to increase rates. Comcast says it has kept rates for its Xfinity service stable since 2010, a claim that doesn’t explain away its 4% rate hike in January 2012. AT&T said its supplier and labor costs also contributed to price increases, which also includes a broadband television surcharge.

If this seems like déjà vu, it could be because both AT&T and Comcast raised rates exactly one year ago this month. AT&T was the worst offender last year, boosting TV prices between $2-5 a month, equipment fees by $4-7 a month for broadband, and a $3 rate hike for its unlimited calling landline service. In comparison, EPB said it had no immediate plans to raise TV, broadband, or phone prices last year either.

epb_fiber_optics

EPB Fiber is the only Chattanooga telecom provider not raising its prices.

Customers facing rate increases can find an easy way to avoid them: threaten to take your business somewhere else. Retention agents are on the lookout for customers considering moving to another provider, and will usually slash rates to keep your business. Don’t want to argue your way to a lower rate or just want to say goodbye to Comcast and AT&T? Stop the Cap! highly recommends EPB Fiber, the most technologically advanced option in Tennessee, priced fairly with a proven track record of reliability.

A lot of Chattanooga area residents have already considered their options:

“Comcast is complete garbage,” writes one former customer. “Horrible product, even worse customer service. My Internet went out daily. I switched to EPB as fast as I could and have never been happier. I wouldn’t have Comcast again if it was free for the rest of my life.”

Another former cable customer reminds Comcast competition makes all the difference. He switched to EPB as well:

“Keep your Xfinity Comcast, you treated me like dirt when there was no other choice for cable. Now that I have that choice, I’ll never consider you again.”

Debunking ALEC, Broadband Edition

Not long ago, the United States led the world in broadband connectivity. Now we are in 16th place, trailing most developed nations. We need broadband policies that connect our homes, schools, and business to the 21st century economy, but we’re pursuing public policies that are putting us in a hole, helping private telecommunications providers and harming the public interest. As the old adage goes, when in a hole, stop digging.

Why is this happening? One reason is that across much of the nation, commercial broadband companies are using their political and economic clout to stifle competition, particularly from municipalities. Individually and through trade groups and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the industry is bent on shutting down existing publicly-owned broadband systems and blocking the development of new ones.

ALEC’s argument, detailed in a recent Daily Caller op-ed by John Stephenson, director of its communications and technology task force, is based on distorted and inaccurate claims that would be laughable if they weren’t part of a coordinated strategy to radically transform policy state-by-state.

Stephenson suggests that Chattanooga, one of several cities cited in his piece, made a poor decision in building the nation’s most advanced citywide broadband network – one that has helped companies create literally thousands of new jobs in recent years. In fact, contrary to Stephenson’s claims that municipal broadband drive up property taxes and depresses municipal credit ratings, S&P just upgraded the Chattanooga public utility’s bond rating, stating, “The system is providing reliable information to the electric utility on outages, losses and usage, which helps reduce the electric system’s costs.”

The larger point is that those who want to revoke local decision-making authority for broadband often justify their position by insisting that they want to protect taxpayers from mythical threats. The only impact Chattanooga’s system has had on taxpayers has been to create more jobs, lower electricity bills, and enhance choices in the market. Indeed, Chattanooga’s EPB Fiber service is saving the public money. After a recent storm knocked utility customers offline, EPB’s fiber-optic Smart Grid brought those uses back online more quickly, saving the public an estimated $1.4 million in repair costs.

It’s no surprise that such nonsense emanates from ALEC, which acts as a clearinghouse for corporately-sponsored model legislation that puts corporate profits ahead of the public interest and often public safety. ALEC is backed by some America’s biggest telecommunications firms, including Comcast, Verizon, and Time Warner Cable. Through ALEC task forces, corporations craft model bills and find compliant legislators to introduce them as if they were the legislator’s own. As Common Cause and its allies have documented, ALEC’s influence is pervasive: from privatizing education to limiting voting rights with restrictive Voter ID bills, and endangering public safety with “Stand Your Ground” gun laws, no aspect of public policy goes untouched.

ALEC’s attack on local decision-making authority is consistent with its efforts to benefit big companies like Time Warner Cable and AT&T that want to restrict choices for residents and businesses. So far, the big cable companies have all but crushed competition in the private sector and have been attempting to stop communities themselves from building the essential infrastructure in which these companies have been slow to invest.

But the arguments used to revoke local authority are based on misleading or outright false claims. Stephenson even tries to scare readers, claiming (with no proof) that Marietta, Ga. lost $24 million on a municipal network. What actually happened was documented in a report from 2005. Marietta had a wholesale-only network using a far different business model than the one followed by most publicly owned broadband systems.  It was on a path to operate in the black when it was privatized for ideological reasons. Stephenson’s $24 million loss figure ignores all the revenues it generated as well as additional spillover benefits. That’s fuzzy math.

Stephenson’s claim that LUS Fiber lost money every day last year preys on reader ignorance of telecom business models. Any high-capital investment could be said to lose money “every day” in the early years. Long term investments take time to break even – after which, they make money “every day.” Verizon’s FiOS “lost” money every day for many years but is regarded by many as a smart long term investment.

Publicly owned networks overwhelmingly help public safety, schools, libraries and other community anchor institutions. While AT&T has been caught ripping off taxpayers by overcharging schools for their connections, Lafayette, LA. dramatically increased the capacity of school and library broadband connections at nearly the same price AT&T charged for far lower quality services. Lafayette’s network is one of the most advanced in the nation and has attracted hundreds of new jobs while saving millions for the community by keeping prices lower, as documented in our report Broadband at the Speed of LightIn response to Lafayette’s investment, Cox Cable prioritized that community for its upgraded cable network – compounding local benefits.

Lafayette isn’t alone – consider rural Chanute, KN., which connected its schools and the local community college with a gigabit wide area network at only $250 per location per month. The city’s municipal fiber network has helped preserve jobs that were at risk of leaving because the cable and telephone company were not meeting the needs of local businesses. Additionally, the network pays a franchise fee to the general fund every year.

And then there’s Wilson, N.C. Stephenson claims its fiber-optic network might be obsolete before it is paid off – a ludicrous scenario given the strong consensus the fiber-optic is and will remain the gold standard in networking for decades. Regardless, the network is generating benefits today – lower prices for consumers and the best connection available for the hospital and schools. Oh, and their network is operating in the black also.

These benefits are some of the reasons that the FCC’s National Broadband Plan called on Congress to ensure that all local governments could build networks. No one has suggested that every government should do so – but it should be a local choice, and that is what ALEC has been trying to remove. Largely thanks to ALEC, 19 states limit local authority to build networks. Rather than foster competition and innovation, these policies introduce new barriers to connectivity and deny choice to consumers. It is beyond time to remove these restrictions and let local communities decide for themselves if a network is a smart public investment given their unique situation.

This piece courtesy of the Common Cause Blog. The article was coauthored by Christopher Mitchell from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. He directs their Telecommunications as Commons Initiative. He is also editor of http://www.muninetworks.org/. Follow him @communitynets. 

Chattanooga’s Can-Do Broadband: Faster Speeds, Lower Prices While Others Hike Rates

While cable and phone companies make excuses justifying rate increases and usage caps, Chattanooga’s publicly-owned EPB Fiber network has been blowing the windows out with hurricane-fast gigabit broadband, and now they are cutting prices for some while boosting speeds for others.

At the recent Hackanooga event, EPB customers learned the fiber to the home provider was set to celebrate three years of service by delivering value for speed that Comcast and AT&T can’t touch:

  • 30/30Mbps customers will now receive 50/50Mbps service for $57.99 a month;
  • 50/50Mbps customers are now getting 100/100Mbps speeds for $69.99;
  • 100/100Mbps customers are now seeing 250/250Mbps service for $139.99;
  • 1000/1000Mbps service is getting a significant price cut: $299.99 a month, down $50.

In comparison, Comcast customers pay $115 a month for hardly-comparable 105/20Mbps service and they will nail you with a modem rental fee. Don’t call AT&T for 100Mbps speeds, they’ll call you. The U-verse platform can’t even achieve 30Mbps in its current configuration.

“This is the second time EPB has upgraded service to customers for free,” says Lisa Gonzalez from Community Broadband Networks. “In 2010, EPB upgraded 15Mbps service to 30Mbps.”

Gonzalez notes that if customers review their bills from Comcast, Time Warner Cable, AT&T, and others, they will find rate increases outnumber speed boosts. EPB Fiber has not increased broadband prices for three years.

Skeptics of community-owned broadband network might also take note: EPB Fiber CEO Harold DePriest reports the company has now passed 40,000 customers in the Chattanooga area and has made $4 million, despite original projections of a loss of $8 million in the third year of operation.

What makes the difference? Competitive broadband, phone, and television packages and customer support that easily surpasses what Comcast and AT&T offer in Tennessee. EPB is also Chattanooga’s municipal electric utility, so it understands the importance of keeping service up and running for customers. EPB is also heavily involved in the local community, and its revenue stays in southeastern Tennessee instead of being shipped back to Philadelphia (Comcast) or Dallas (AT&T). Comcast made it to #4 on the American Customer Satisfaction Index’s 15 most disliked companies roster. AT&T scored #3 on 24/7 Wall St.’s Most Hated Companies list.

EPB Faces Blizzard of Bull from Comcast, Tennessee “Watchdog” Group

Comcast is running “welcome back” ads in Chattanooga that still claim they run America’s fastest ISP, when they don’t.

EPB, Chattanooga’s publicly-owned utility that operates the nation’s fastest gigabit broadband network, has already won the speed war, delivering consistently faster broadband service than any of its Tennessee competitors. So when facts are not on their side, competitors like Comcast and a conservative “watchdog” group simply make them up as they go along.

Comcast is running tear-jerker ads in Chattanooga featuring professional actors pretending to be ex-customers looking to own up to their “mistake” of turning their back on Comcast’s 250GB usage cap (now temporarily paroled), high prices, and questionable service.

“It turns out that the speeds I was looking for, Xfinity Internet had all along,” says the actor, before hugging an “Xfinity service technician” in the pouring rain. “But you knew that, didn’t you?”

The ad closes repeating the demonstrably false claim Comcast operates “the nation’s fastest Internet Service Provider.”

“I see those commercials on television and I’m thinking, I wonder how much did they pay you to say that,” says an actual EPB customer in a response ad from the public utility.

It turns out quite a lot. The high-priced campaign is just the latest work from professional advertising agency Goodby Silverstein & Partners of San Francisco, which is quite a distance from Tennessee. Goodby has produced Comcast ads for years. The ad campaign also targets the cable company’s other rival that consistently beats its broadband speeds — Verizon FiOS.

EPB provides municipal power, broadband, television, and telephone service for residents in Chattanooga, Tennessee

Comcast tried to ram their “welcome back” message home further in a newspaper interview with the Times Free Press, claiming “a lot of customers are coming back to Xfinity” because Comcast has a larger OnDemand library, “integrated applications and greater array of choices.”

Comcast does not provide any statistics or evidence to back up its claims, but EPB president and CEO Harold DePriest has already seen enough deception from the cable company to call the latest claims “totally false.”

In fact, DePriest notes, customers come and go from EPB just as they do with Comcast. The real story, in his view, is how many more customers arrive at EPB’s door than leave, and DePriest says they are keeping more customers than they lose.

EPB fully launched in Chattanooga in 2010, and despite Comcast and AT&T’s best customer retention efforts, EPB has signed up 37,000 customers so far, with about 20 new ones arriving every day. (Comcast still has more than 100,000 customers in the area.)

Many come for the EPB’s far superior broadband speeds, made possible on the utility’s fiber to the home network. EPB also does not use Internet Overcharging schemes like usage caps, which Charter, AT&T, and Comcast have all adopted to varying degrees. Although the utility avoids cut-rate promotional offers that its competitors hand out to new customers (EPB needs to responsibly pay off its fiber network’s construction costs), its pricing is lower than what the cable and phone companies offer at their usual prices.

Comcast claims customers really don’t need super high speed Internet service, underlined by the fact they don’t offer it. But some businesses (including home-based entrepreneurs) do care about the fact they can grow their broadband speeds as needed with EPB’s fiber network. Large business clients receiving quotes from EPB are often shocked by how much lower the utility charges for service that AT&T and Comcast price much higher. It costs EPB next to nothing to offer higher speeds on its fiber network, designed to accommodate the speed needs of customers today and tomorrow.

The competition is less able. AT&T cannot compete on its U-verse platform, which tops out shy of 30Mbps. Comcast has to move most of its analog TV channels to digital, inconveniencing customers with extra-cost set top boxes to boost speeds further.

The fact EPB built Chattanooga’s best network, designed for the present and future, seems to bother some conservative “watchdog” groups. The Beacon Center of Tennesee, a group partially funded by conservative activists like Richard Mellon Scaife through a network of umbrella organizations, considers the entire fiber project a giant waste of money. They agree with Comcast, suggesting nobody needs fast broadband speeds:

EPB also offers something called ultra high-speed Internet. Consumers have to pay more than seven times what they would pay for the traditional service — $350 a month. Right now, only residents of a select few cities worldwide (such as Hong Kong) even use this technology, and that is because most consumers will likely not demand it for another 10 years.

Actually, residents in Hong Kong, Japan, and Korea do expect the faster broadband speeds they receive from their broadband providers. Americans have settled for what they can get (and afford). DePriest openly admits he does not expect a lot of his customers to pay $350 a month for any kind of broadband, but the gigabit-capable network proves a point — the faster speeds are available today on EPB at a fraction of price other providers would charge, if they could supply the service at all. Most EPB customers choose lower speed packages that still deliver better performance at a lower price than either Comcast or AT&T offer.

The Beacon Center doesn’t have a lot of facts to help them make their case. But that does not stop them:

  • They claim EPB’s network is paid for at taxpayer expense. It is not.
  • They quote an “academic study” that claims 75 percent of “government-run” broadband networks lose money, without disclosing the fact the study was bought and paid for by the same industry that wants to keep communities from running broadband networks. Its author, Ron Rizzuto, was inducted into the Cable TV Pioneers in 2004 for service to the cable industry. The study threw in failed Wi-Fi networks built years ago with modern fiber broadband networks to help sour readers on the concept of community broadband.
  • Beacon bizarrely claims the fiber network cannot operate without a $300 million Smart Grid. (Did someone inform Verizon of this before they wasted all that money on FiOS? Who knew fiber broadband providers were also in the electricity business?)

The “watchdog” group even claims big, bad EPB is going to drive AT&T, Comcast, and Charter Cable out of business in Chattanooga (apparently they missed those Comcast/Xfinity ads with customers returning to Kabletown in droves):

Fewer and fewer private companies wish to compete against EPB, which will soon have a monopoly in the Chattanooga market, according to private Internet Service Provider David Snyder. “They have built a solution looking for a problem. It makes for great marketing, but there is no demand for this service. By the time service is needed, the private sector will have established this for pennies on the dollar.”

Ironically, Snyder’s claim there is no demand for EPB’s service fall flat when one considers his company, VolState, has been trying to do business with EPB for two years. He needs EPB because he is having trouble affording the “pennies on the dollar” his suppliers are (not) charging.

Snyder tells “Nooganomics” his company wants an interconnection agreement with EPB, because the private companies he is forced to buy service from — including presumably AT&T, want to charge him a wholesale rate twice as much as EPB currently bills consumers. Snyder calls EPB’s competition “disruptive.”

Nooganomics calls EPB’s low priced service a “charity” in comparison to what AT&T and Comcast charge local residents, and the free market can do no wrong-website seems upset consumers are enjoying the benefits of lower priced service, now that the local phone company and cable operator can’t get away with charging their usual high prices any longer.

Deborah Dwyer, an EPB spokeswoman, told the website the company got into the business with state and city approval, followed the rules for obtaining capital and pays the taxes or payments-in-lieu of taxes as the same rate as corporate players. “We believe that public utilities like EPB exist to help improve the quality of life in our community, and the fiber optic network was built to do just that. One of government’s key responsibilities is to provide communities with infrastructure, and fiber to the home is a key infrastructure much like roads, sewer systems and the electric system.”

Snyder can’t dispute EPB delivers great service. He also walks away from the competition-is-good-for-the-free-market rhetoric that should allow the best company with the lowest rates to win, instead declaring customers should only do business with his company to support free market economics (?):

“If you are a free market capitalist and you believe in free markets, you need to do business with VolState,” Mr. Snyder says. “And if you’re highly principled, every time you buy from a government competitor, what you’re voting for with your dollars is, you’re saying, ‘It’s OK for the government come in to private enterprise and start to take over a vast part of what we used to operate in as a free market.’”

Perhaps Snyder and his friends at the Beacon Center have a future in the vinegar business. They certainly have experience with sour grapes.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Comcast Ad Welcome Back.flv

Comcast’s emotionally charged ad, using paid actors, was produced by advertising firm Goodby Silverstein & Partners. The commercial running in Chattanooga is a slight variation on this one, which targets Verizon FiOS. (1 minute)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/EPB Ad.flv

EPB uses actual customers, not paid actors, in its own advertising that calls out Comcast’s false advertising.  (1 minute)

Chattanooga: America’s First Gig City Opens the Door to Innovation, Jobs With U.S. Ignite

Chattanooga, Tenn. is teaming up with U.S. Ignite to leverage America’s first Gigabit broadband city as the home of super high speed broadband innovation.

Municipally-owned EPB’s fiber to the home network is already attracting big businesses and high tech jobs to southeastern Tennessee, but now it will become an incubator for America’s next generation of broadband applications and services. U.S. Ignite will use EPB Fiber’s network to help foster the creation of new digital applications that will transform health, education, public safety, and manufacturing and help keep America a leader in high tech innovation.

It took a public, community-owned utility with the vision of an American fiber optic future to make this possible. Cable and phone companies have unilaterally decided there is no need for gigabit broadband. Will community broadband and marketplace game-changers like Google ultimately be the salvation of America’s high speed future?

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Chattanooga US Ignite.flv

Learn more about Chattanooga’s broadband success story through this video, which also introduces U.S. Ignite’s new project. (3 minutes)

 

Chattanooga’s Gigabit Fiber Network Part of City’s Digital Transformation & Job Growth

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CNBC Business Booming in Chattanooga 5-29-12.flv

While telecom industry-backed groups dismiss community broadband as a waste of taxpayer dollars and an excuse for customers to watch illicit videos and steal content, CNBC reports Chattanooga’s infrastructure improvements, including their gigabit fiber network owned by public utility EPB are contributing to the city’s enormous economic growth and falling unemployment rate. Private companies are pouring into Chattanooga and find a city ready to welcome them and meet their digital needs. Community broadband: a waste of taxpayer money or exactly the right fuel to power American cities into the 21st century digital economy?  (2 minutes)

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