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America’s Worst Rated Companies: Charter, Time Warner, Cox, Cablevision, Verizon, Comcast…

charter downNine of the ten lowest ranked firms in America are cable and telephone companies, according to a new report from research firm Temkin Group.

A poll ranking customer service at 235 U.S. companies across 19 industries found cable companies dead last, quickly followed by Internet Service Providers (often those same cable operators).

Participants were asked to rate their satisfaction with different companies on a scale of “1” (very dissatisfied) to “7” (completely satisfied). Not very many participants gave high marks to their telecommunications service provider. Temkin’s resulting net satisfaction score found familiar names in the cable and telephone business scraping the bottom.

America’s worst provider? Charter Communications, which managed an embarrassing dead last 22 percent satisfaction score for television service. Time Warner Cable managed second worst for television at 25%, followed by Cox and Cablevision’s Optimum service (both 28%). Bottom rated Internet service came from Qwest (now CenturyLink), Verizon (presumably DSL), and Charter — all scoring just 31%.

Oddly, Temkin’s survey participants gave top marks to the long-irrelevant AOL for Internet service, which may mean those dial-up customers don’t know any better. Highest marks in television service went to Bright House Communications, which ironically depends on Time Warner Cable for most of its programming negotiations.

temkin bottom rated

Most suspect the ratings show long-term customer dissatisfaction with endless rate increases, poor customer service and reliability, and lack of choice in an increasingly expensive television lineup.

The Temkin Group gathered its data from an online survey of 10,000 consumers in the U.S. during January 2013, all asked to rate their experiences with companies over the past 60 days.

History Lesson: Qwest v. The City of Boulder – Helpful to Municipal Broadband Cause?

Phillip "It worked for Qwest so why not community broadband" Dampier

Phillip “It worked for Qwest so why not community broadband” Dampier

While doing research on another story, I recently uncovered a fascinating legal case that set an important precedent on whether it is right for a community to hold a referendum before authorizing a new telecommunications provider to offer service in a community.

Opponents of community-owned broadband networks routinely claim such services are “undemocratic” because they can exist without the majority support of the community they propose to serve. In 2001, Qwest (now CenturyLink) ran into just such a “majority-rules” provision in Boulder, Colo. that companies like AT&T and Time Warner Cable advocate should be a law everywhere.

A provision in Boulder’s Charter required that voters in a municipal election approve any cable franchise before it was granted by the city. Wishing to avoid the cost of such an election, Qwest sued the City of Boulder and asked for summary judgment to declare the policy unlawful. Chief Judge Lewis Babcock found Qwest’s argument compelling enough to invalidate the city’s mandatory referendum provision.

Qwest argues that the language in [U.S. Federal Law] 47 U.S.C. § 541 regulating franchising authorities is in direct conflict with [Boulder’s] § 108’s mandatory election provision. I agree.

First, the Act provides guidance to, and restrictions on, “franchising authorities.” Section 541’s requirements are directed toward franchising authorities. See 47 U.S.C. § 541(a)(1), (3), (4). Under the statute, a “franchise” is “an initial authorization, or renewal thereof,” issued by a franchising authority to construct or operate a cable system. 47 U.S.C. § 522(9). A “`franchising authority’ means any governmental entity empowered by Federal, State, or local law to grant a franchise.” 47 U.S.C. § 522(10) (emphasis added).

Here, Qwest approached City officials to seek franchise approval. The City granted a revocable permit to Qwest, and agreed to “grant a cable television franchise authorizing [Qwest] to provide cable television service within the City for a term of years” once an affirmative vote by the qualified taxpaying voters occurred. There is no evidence that the City negotiated the franchise in any manner, or put any additional restrictions or caveats on the franchise beyond voter approval. City officials follow the will of the voters with no additional scrutiny or decision-making. Thus, the City has abdicated franchising authority to the City’s voting citizens. These voters cannot, by the plain terms of the statute, be a “governmental entity empowered by Federal, State, or local law to grant a franchise.” 47 U.S.C. § 522(10). Therefore, direct conflict between the federal and local laws exist, as it is impossible for the franchise to be granted by a governmental entity as required by the Act, and simultaneously granted by the voters as required in § 108.

Second, § 541 imposes numerous and specific requirements on franchising authorities. The statute forbids exclusive franchises, see § 541(a)(1); unreasonable refusals to award additional competitive franchises, see id. at (a)(1); requirements that have the purpose or effect of prohibiting, limiting, restricting, or conditioning the provision of a telecommunications service by a cable operator, see id. at (b)(3)(B); ordering a cable operator or affiliate thereof to discontinue the provision of a telecommunications service, discontinuing the operation of a cable system by reason of the failure of a cable operator to obtain a franchise or franchise renewal, see id. at (b)(3)(C)(i)-(ii); or requiring a cable operator to provide any telecommunications service or facilities as a condition of the initial grant of a franchise. See Id. at (b)(3)(D).

A franchising authority has affirmative requirements as well. It must assure that access to cable service is not denied to any group of potential residential cable subscribers because of the income of the residents of the local area in which such group resides, see id. at (a)(3); and allow the applicant’s cable system a reasonable period of time to become capable of providing cable service to all households in the franchise area, see id. at (a)(4)(A).

However, by allowing voters unfettered and unreviewed discretion to grant or reject a franchise, § 108 is in conflict with virtually every provision in § 541. Because only WOWC has received a franchise, voters could effectively grant WOWC an exclusive franchise simply by refusing to vote affirmatively for a second operator. See id. at (a)(1). Voters could unreasonably refuse to award an additional competitive franchise, as they could deny a franchise for any reason or for no reason. See id. Qwest correctly argues that § 108 “provides voters with the unfettered and unreviewable discretion either to grant or deny a cable television franchise for any reason, or for no reason at all.”

Qwest (now CenturyLink), is Idaho's largest Internet Service Provider.In brief, the judge found cable franchises are granted or denied at the municipal level by local government, not through referendums. The City of Boulder was effectively abdicating its responsibility under federal law to manage the franchising process itself. There is no provision in federal law that allows citizens to directly vote a cable franchise agreement up or down, although voters can use the ballot box to remove local officials who do not represent the will of the majority.

More importantly, the judge recognized that turning the process over to local citizenry could unintentionally hand an incumbent provider a monopoly just by voting down any would-be competitor. Why would local citizens oppose competition? As we’ve seen in the fight for community broadband, incumbent providers will spend millions to keep would-be competitors out with a variety of scare tactics and propaganda. Providers have suggested community networks are guaranteed financial failures, will result in yards being torn up to install service, might result in local job losses, and will raise taxes whether residents want the service or not.

Judge Babcock also found that laws that could limit effective competition to incumbent cable companies are in direct conflict with the 1992 federal Cable Act:

The legislative history clearly supports the proposition that Congress was focused on fostering competition when passing the 1992 Act. The Senate Report regarding the Act states, “[I]t is clear that there are benefits from competition between two cable systems. Thus, the Committee believes that local franchising authorities should be encouraged to award second franchises.”

[…] Given the clear intent of Congress to employ § 541 as a vehicle for promoting vigorous competition, I conclude that § 108 is in conflict. Section 108 serves only to provide a significant hindrance to the competition that Congress clearly intended to foster. It forces the potential franchiser to spend money, time, advertising, and logistical support on an election. Thus, § 108 “stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress.”

Perhaps the time has come to raise similar challenges in states where legislatures have passed community broadband bans or placed various impediments on providing service. If Qwest can successfully argue that such rules are designed to limit competition, local communities can certainly argue the panoply of anti-competition laws that were written by and for incumbent cable and phone companies deserve the same scrutiny.

Referendums are an inappropriate way to approve the entry of new competitors.

Why Google Chose Provo as the Next Google Fiber City

google fiberTo many, Provo, Utah might seem an unusual choice to follow on the heels of Google’s earlier announcement its gigabit fiber network was headed to Austin, Tex.

Provo is only the third largest community in Utah — Salt Lake City and West Valley City are bigger — and the community already has a fiber network called iProvo. So why build another one?

Google won’t have to.

But first some background:

iProvo was envisioned a decade ago as a public-private partnership — a fiber to the home network owned by the public with private service providers using it to sell broadband and other services . iProvo taught an early lesson about municipal broadband — large cable and phone companies routinely boycott participation in any network they do not own and control themselves.

In 2003, the president of Qwest’s Utah division made clear their intentions: “Fiber optic’s capabilities are way more than what most consumers need in their homes. Why provide a Rolls Royce when a Chevrolet will do?”

Comcast, the dominant local cable operator, also “went ballistic” according to former mayor Lewis Billings.

iProvo can be yours for just $1.

iProvo can be yours for just $1.

“One hired a PR firm and a telemarketing company to make calls to citizens,” Billings recalled. “They also placed full-page ads and ultimately hired people to picket City Hall. It was a bruising fight.  My favorite picket sign had a piece of telephone wire taped to it and read that I and one of my key staff members were, ‘a Twisted Pair.’”

With both Qwest and Comcast wanting nothing to do with the project, smaller independent ISPs had to fill the gap. It was a difficult sell, particularly because Qwest and Comcast blanketed Provo residents with a misinformation campaign about the network and pitched highly aggressive retention offers to keep customers with the phone and cable company. iProvo has been in financial distress ever since.

Former Provo city councilwoman Cynthia Dayton remembers being on the council when iProvo was approved and believes the public-private network was a decade before its time.

“Ten years ago it was worth the vote on iProvo,” she told the Daily Herald. It was one of the most difficult decisions but it was for the future.”

More than a year ago, Google noticed the city of Provo issued a request for proposals on what to ultimately do with iProvo.

Google became interested because Provo is seen as a city with hundreds of technology start-up companies and maintains a vibrant tech hub. The city also ranked highly for the enormous value it places on connectivity and community — something the approval and construction of iProvo demonstrated.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Provo Google Fiber 4-13.mp4

Why Provo? Google considers the city’s rankings. (1 minute)

iprovo_logo.jpg.pagespeed.ce.grIF_VVvuACity officials and Google executives began quietly talking more than a year ago about Google buying the public-private network. A key selling point: the city was willing to let the operation go for a steal — just $1.00. In return, Google promised to invest in and upgrade the network to reach the two-thirds of Provo homes it does not reach. Google says iProvo will need technology upgrades in the office, but the existing fiber strands already running throughout the city are service-ready today.

Val Hale, President of the Utah Valley Chamber of Commerce, said a quick “back of the envelope” estimate put Google’s anticipated investment in iProvo network upgrades at $18 million, according to the Deseret News. Unfortunately, taxpayers will still need to pay off about $40 million in bonds the city accumulated for iProvo’s initial construction costs.

Curtis

Curtis

Current Mayor John Curtis says he has made the best out of a difficult situation.

“We have maximized what we have here today,” said Curtis. “It’s about maximizing what we have. I believe in the long-term it will pay dividends many times greater than what we paid into it, but it’s going to take a while to realize that dream.”

Google promised free gigabit Internet service to 25 local public institutions including schools, hospitals, and libraries. Residential customers will be expected to pay $70 a month for 1,000Mbps service or get 5Mbps broadband service for free up to seven years.

Google’s investment in Provo is anticipated to be far lower than in Austin and Kansas City — cities where it needs to build a considerable amount of fiber infrastructure from scratch. With existing fiber already in place in Provo, Google’s gigabit service will be available by the end of this year, at least six months faster than in Austin.

With reduced construction costs, Google will only ask new customers for a $30 activation fee, far less than the $300 Google will ask Austin and Kansas City residents to pay if they do not sign a multi-year service contract or only want basic 5Mbps service.

Google sees the opportunity to use its fiber network in an ongoing effort to embarrass other broadband providers into investing in speed upgrades.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KSL Salt Lake City Google Fiber Coming to Provo 4-17-13.flv

KSL in Salt Lake City reports Google Fiber is coming to Provo. Last year Google began talking with the city to acquire its iProvo municipal fiber network.  (3 minutes)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KSTU Salt Lake City Google Fiber coming to Provo 4-17-13.flv

KSTU in Salt Lake City reports taxpayers are still on the hook for around $40 million in bond payments to cover the construction costs of iProvo. But Google Fiber will stop other Internet providers from “cheating everyone” says one local Provo resident.  “[Other ISPs] give you the slowest connection possible and charge you a ridiculous amount for it,” said Haley Cano. (4 minutes)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KTVX Salt Lake City Google Fiber in Provo 4-17-13.mp4

KTVX in Salt Lake had some trouble navigating the difference between a gigabit and a gigabyte, and confused what Google services will be sold and which will be available for free in this report, but the ABC affiliate covered the unveiling with both city and Google company officials on hand.  (2 minutes)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KTVX Salt Lake City Google Fiber Details in Provo 4-18-13.mp4

This morning, KTVX did a better job in this interview with the mayor of Provo and Google’s Matt Dunne, who says Google believes speed matters and current ISPs simply don’t offer enough.  A key factor to attract Google’s interest is a close working relationship with the cities that want the service. (2 minutes)

CenturyLink Criticized for Installing Phone Lines Atop Roadways, Inside Pavement Cracks

Phillip Dampier March 14, 2012 CenturyLink, Consumer News, HissyFitWatch, Public Policy & Gov't, Qwest Comments Off

Phoenix-area officials are discovering CenturyLink, the area’s largest phone company, has gotten a little too creative with landline repairs, installing replacement lines across public streets, on fences, and in one case even wedged between a pavement crack.

CenturyLink calls them “temporary telephone lines,” run as quick fixes to get service up and running again. Local officials call them a nuisance, and question what CenturyLink’s definition of “temporary” means.

The Arizona Republic found CenturyLink phone lines strung across the asphalt on Knox Road in Gilbert, where they remained in place for about a year, with vehicle traffic driving right over the cables.  When the newspaper sent photos to the phone company asking why, they were gone within 24 hours.

CenturyLink’s Alex Juarez explains:

“CenturyLink is not required to bury or hang wires in any specific amount of time, but we make every effort to remove temporary lines as quickly as possible. … Repairing a damaged or malfunctioning underground or suspended cable takes time. CenturyLink uses temporary wires to restore service while we work to repair the permanent cable. Restoration of service is a priority. We place lines where they will be safely out of the way.”

A "temporary" phone cable installed along the top of a wire fence.

Gilbert local officials dispute that, having previously notified CenturyLink the phone company was in violation of town regulations.  Gilbert prohibits any utility wiring on its streets, and had received public complaints about temporary phone lines a year ago.  Town spokeswoman Beth Lucas told the newspaper she was surprised the company was back at it again.

“We do not allow those kind of lines, and they can interfere with a variety of work,” including street sweepers, she said. “For a utility to be in a right of way, whether on a permanent or temporary basis, the company would need a permit, which means approval during the planning review process with staff.”

The problem with temporary wiring is that CenturyLink is not obligated to report where the lines have been installed, which can create a public nuisance, possible danger to public safety, and frustration for construction crews that often cut the cables without realizing they were there.

Chandler’s streets Superintendent Rex Hartmann noted city paving contractors cut off phone service for an undetermined number of customers when they discovered CenturyLink had force-wedged a communications cable into a pavement crack, covered up with sealant.  When the roads were repaved, the cable was severed.

Hartmann also doesn’t buy CenturyLink’s claim the lines were “temporary.”  He’s found several that were left so long, the “temporary” cable itself was cracked and brittle.
Phoenix city officials think prohibiting temporary lines from being scattered across the ground or pavement makes common sense.
Spokeswoman Sina Matthes says those kind of installations represent tripping hazards for pedestrians and residents, and the city requires temporary repairs to be replaced by permanent ones within two weeks.

Telco’s Ethernet Over Copper Can Deliver Faster Speeds, If You Can Afford It

Ethernet over Copper is becoming an increasingly popular choice for business customers stuck in areas where companies won't deploy fiber broadband (Graphic: OSP Magazine)

With Verizon and AT&T effectively stalling expansion of their respective “next generation” fiber and hybrid fiber/coax networks, and independent phone companies fearing too much capital spent improving their networks will drive their stock prices down, telephone companies are desperately seeking better options to deliver the faster broadband service customers demand.

The options over a copper-based landline network are not the best:

  • ADSL has been around for more than a decade and is highly distant dependent. Get beyond 10,000 feet from the nearest switching office and your speeds may not even qualify as “broadband;”
  • DSL variants represent the second generation for copper-broadband and can deliver faster speeds, but usually require investment to reduce the amount of copper between the customer and the switching office;
  • Fiber networks are more expensive to build, and some companies are using it to reduce, but not eliminate copper wire in their networks. But companies traditionally avoid this solution in rural/suburban areas because the cost/benefit analysis doesn’t work for shareholders;
  • Ethernet Over Copper (EoC) is increasingly the solution of choice for independent phone companies because it is less expensive to deploy than fiber and can quickly deliver service at speeds of up to 50Mbps.

Unfortunately for consumers, EoC is typically way above the price range for home broadband.  Most providers sell the faster service to commercial and institutional customers, either for businesses that have outgrown T1 lines or where deploying fiber does not make economic sense.  Some companies have tried to improve on DSL by bonding multiple connections together to achieve faster speeds, but Ethernet is quickly becoming a more important tool in the broadband marketing arsenal.

With phone companies pricing EoC service from several hundred to several thousand dollars a month, depending on the speed of the connection, they hope to remain competitive players against a push by the cable industry to more aggressively target business customers.  In more rural areas, phone companies lack cable competition, so they stand a better chance of success.

Fierce Telecom‘s Sean Buckley published an excellent series of articles outlining the current state of EoC technology and what phone companies are doing with it:

  • AT&T: Inherited EoC from its acquisition of BellSouth, and barely markets it. Instead, AT&T uses it as a quiet solution for challenging customers who cannot affordably be reached by fiber.  AT&T will either deliver the service over copper, copper/fiber, or an all-fiber path depending on the client’s needs.
  • CenturyLink: No phone company is as aggressive about EoC as CenturyLink. When CenturyLink acquired Qwest, interest in the technology only intensified. EoC is a CenturyLink favorite for small businesses that simply cannot get the speeds they need from traditional DSL.  Most EoC service runs up to 20Mbps.
  • Verizon: Verizon’s network is the most fiber-intense among large commercial providers, so EoC is not the first choice for the company. However, it does use it to reach multi-site businesses who have buildings and offices outside of the footprint of Verizon’s fiber network/service area.
  • Frontier: In the regions where Frontier acquired Verizon landlines, EoC has become an important component for Frontier’s backhaul traffic. EoC has been deployed to reach cell tower sites and handles broadband traffic between central office exchanges and remote D-SLAMs, used to let the company sell DSL to a more rural customer base.  Frontier looks to EoC before considering spending money on fiber service, even for commercial and institutional users.
  • Windstream: EoC is the way this phone company gets better broadband speeds to business customers without spending a lot of money on fiber. Small and medium-sized customers are often buyers of EoC service, especially when DSL can’t handle the job or the company requires faster upstream speeds.  Windstream markets upgradable EoC capable of delivering the same downstream and upstream speeds and can deliver it more quickly than a fiber project.
  • FairPoint: Much of this phone company’s EoC efforts are in territories in northern New England acquired from Verizon.  FairPoint targets small and medium sized companies for the service, especially those who have remote offices or clinics that need to be interconnected. FairPoint has also gotten more aggressive than many other companies working with ADSL2+ or VDSL2 to deliver faster broadband to office buildings and complexes more economically than fiber.
  • SureWest: This company is strong believer in fiber to the premises service, so its interest in EoC has been limited to areas where deploying fiber makes little economic sense. In more out-of-the-way places, EoC is becoming a more common choice to pitch businesses who need more than traditional broadband.
  • Hawaiian Telcom: HawTel uses copper-based EoC to provide connectivity across the diverse Hawaiian Islands.  Speeds are generally lower than in mainland areas, partly because HawTel still relies heavily on traditional copper-based service. But fiber-based EoC is increasingly available in more densely populated areas.

Customers “Probably Don’t Need Higher (<1Mbps) Speed,” Editorializes N.M. Newspaper

Sometimes you can’t please some people no matter what you do.

Kit Carson Electric Cooperative’s $64 million fiber-to-the-home expansion project will finally bring 21st century broadband speeds to northern New Mexico. The electric co-op intends to deliver broadband speeds up to 100Mbps to 20,000 largely rural residents and businesses in Taos, Colfax, and Rio Arriba counties who have had limited access to cable broadband or live with speeds often less than 1Mbps from CenturyLink-delivered DSL.

“It’s a whole new ballgame for rural New Mexico,” shares Stop the Cap! reader Raul. “But the pinheads at the local weekly newspaper are ringing their hands over the project, suggesting only businesses deserve 100Mbps while the rest of us should be satisfied with speeds under a megabit per second.”

Indeed, editors at the Sangre de Christo Chronicle are wringing their hands over the project:

But many of us in the Kit Carson service area already have Internet service — and we’re completely happy with it. Kit Carson CEO Luis Reyes, Jr. said a large portion of the organization’s electric customers are currently under-served by other providers with Internet speeds of less than one megabit (1,000 kilobits) per second.

We have no reason to doubt that, but many of these customers probably don’t need the higher speeds. For the Internet customers who use the Internet for email, Facebook, news and other basic functions, Kit Carson’s prices will be most important. Most of us will not pay more for faster Internet speed we don’t need, but we will consider switching to a local provider if it offers identical or better service and prices.

“CenturyLink barely delivers DSL today, and has shown no interest in investing substantially in northern New Mexico, and outside of concentrated built-up areas there is no cable competition,” Raul says. “Kit Carson is the only local concern that has shown any real interest in making our community better, and the local newspaper is complaining about it.”

Proposed service area for Kit Carson Electric's new fiber to the home network serving northern New Mexico.

Kit Carson Electric’s project will provide a true fiber-to-the-home service bundling television, telephone, and broadband service — a substantial upgrade over what the telephone company has on offer.  With speeds far beyond what cable and phone providers in New Mexico are accustomed to providing, the region stands to benefit from entrepreneurs building digital economy businesses over a broadband network that can actually help, not hinder online development.

Currently, area residents pay CenturyLink up to $55 a month for 1.5/1Mbps DSL service.  Residents are so excited by the prospects of much faster speeds at significantly lower prices, Kit Carson Electric has developed an innovative stop-gap service for residents still waiting for direct fiber connections — fiber-to-wireless service.  New and existing customers can sign up for the service for a $100 installation fee and choose from three service tiers:

  • 3Mbps — $29.95/month
  • 7Mbps — $39.95/month
  • 10Mbps — $49.95/month

A three year contract is required (early termination fee is $200).  But customers who eventually obtain Kit Carson Electric’s fiber service will automatically satisfy their contract requirement.

“Kit Carson’s wireless project already blows away CenturyLink’s speeds and pricing, and that is for inferior wireless,” Raul argues. “The Chronicle doesn’t have a clue.”

We can’t understand the newspaper’s concerns either.  Kit Carson Electric has already demonstrated their prices (and interest) in northern New Mexico is superior to that of CenturyLink, owner of former Baby Bell Qwest, which serves New Mexico.

Republican Sen. Jeff Bingaman is thrilled with Kit Carson’s broadband initiative.

“This major investment in broadband technology is exactly the kind of project I had envisioned when I voted for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act,” U.S. Senator Jeff Bingaman said. “This grant is not only creating jobs now in northern New Mexico, it is laying the groundwork to attract new businesses, improve healthcare services and create new education opportunities in the future.”

The electric co-op has been successful operating non-profit businesses selling propane, telecommunications, and economic development space.  The fiber project will also allow the electric utility to deploy “smart grid” technology to increase the efficiency of their electric service.

A groundbreaking ceremony at the broadband project’s command center held this past summer also coincided with a public emergency communications network upgrade which will increase the efficiency and reliability of first responders and other emergency and public safety agencies.

CenturyLink Sales Reps in Oregon Harrass Residents With Suspicious Questions, They Call Police

Phillip Dampier November 9, 2011 CenturyLink, Competition, Consumer News, Qwest, Video 1 Comment

The pushy door-to-door salesman is back, and he’s working for CenturyLink.

Lake Oswego (Ore.) residents have been the unwelcome recipients of repeated doorbell ringing by a small army of young CenturyLink salespeople.  Described by some residents as “rude,” “pushy,” and intrusive, the salespeople pelted would-be customers with questions about how many televisions and computers were found within their homes, and what kind of telecommunications services they had.

Some residents were so alarmed by the aggressive and suspicious sales tactics, they called police.

“They were persistent, they came to my door four times,” Lake Oswego resident Betty Endress, who lives in a private gated community, told KOIN-TV. “We have a ‘no solicitation’ policy.”

Endress refused to open the door because, in her words, it was CenturyLink — a company nobody had heard of.

In fact, CenturyLink acquired Qwest, the former Baby Bell that predominately serves the mountain west states.

CenturyLink admits the aggressive sales force belongs to them.  They are being sent into neighborhoods where the company recently upgraded its broadband service, trying to lure customers away from the cable competition.  But one South Portland resident was so alarmed when three salespeople showed up on his doorstep all at once, he called 911.

Telecommunications providers have been victimized by some criminals who represent themselves as company employees to force their way into residential homes to commit crimes.  CenturyLink says concerned residents should ask to see CenturyLink branded identification badges, uniforms, and a copy of the license permitting them to pursue door-to-door sales.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KOIN Portland Door-to-door sales scare in Lake Oswego 11-7-11.mp4

Residents in private, gated communities told KOIN-TV in Portland they’d prefer not to be visited by CenturyLink salespeople on their doorsteps, whether the sales force holds a business license or not.  (3 minutes)

 

Broadband Life in Idaho: Bears Rubbing Against Towers Knock Out Internet Service

(Courtesy: Pando Networks)

Bears who fancy a good rub up against wireless Internet transmission towers were blamed for knocking out service for customers in the Potlatch area one day, a problem unique to rural communities who make due with whatever broadband access they can find.

Such is life in rural Idaho, deemed by Pando Networks to be America’s slowest broadband state, with average Internet speeds of just 318kbps.

Stop the Cap! reader Jeff in Pocatello is happy the big city New York Times has noticed Idaho’s online challenges.

“Please take notice of this newspaper article about our online experience here in Idaho,” Jeff writes. “While it underplays the near-total failure of our state legislature to recognize there -is- a broadband problem here, at least the rest of the country will understand just how bad Internet access remains in rural America.”

Jeff should know.  Pando Networks calls Pocatello America’s slowest Internet city.  It’s no surprise why.  Pocatello residents are stuck between a rock — the infamous Internet Overcharging leader Cable ONE (incidentally owned by NY Times‘ rival The Washington Post), and a hard place — Qwest/CenturyLink DSL.

Nobody does Internet Overcharging better than Cable ONE, which baits customers with high speed access and then ruins the deal with an $8 monthly modem rental fee, infamously low usage caps and a two-year contract plan that subscribers call a ripoff.

“Cable ONE never heard of a square deal because they break every consumer rule in the book,” Jeff says. “Although the company pitches speeds up to 50Mbps, they tie it to a two-year contract that only delivers one year at that speed.  After 12 months, they reduce your speed to just 5Mbps for the entire second year, and if you cannot convince the customer service representative to renew and reset your 50Mbps contract for an additional year, there is nothing you can do about it.”

THE Internet Overcharger

Cable ONE has written the book on usage limits.  Customers paying for “blazing fast 50Mbps speed” get to consume a maximum of just 50GB per month (100GB for triple play customers) before overlimit fees of $0.50/GB kick in.  Other Cable ONE plans include daily usage limits of just 3GB, which can make Netflix viewing difficult.

“Cable ONE makes you ration your Internet like satellite providers do, and it’s very irritating because they tease you with fast speeds you literally cannot use unless you are willing to pay a lot more,” Jeff says.

The alternative for most Idahoans is DSL, if Qwest/CenturyLink provides it.  In many areas, they don’t.

“You can be a mile out of Pocatello’s city center and be told there is no DSL, and those that do get it often find it working at 1-3Mbps,” he adds.

In a country now rated 25th in terms of Internet speed, Idaho is comparatively a bottom-rated broadband disaster area.  The state secured 11 federal broadband grants to deliver some level of service in communities across the state, at a cost of $25 million.

The Slow Lane

But ask some local officials about the quality of broadband in Idaho and you find a lot of denial there is even a problem.

The Times got a brusque response to their inquiries about broadband service from the executive director for the Bannock Development Corp., a business development group.  Gynii Gilliam told the newspaper things were just fine, at least for large businesses in cities like Pocatello.

“The last thing I need is a report that says we don’t have the capacity and speed, when I know it exists,” Gilliam said. She noted that Allstate Insurance was opening a $22 million call center in Pocatello and that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has a service center there. “We have not lost any business because of Internet speeds,” she said.

Which proves the old adage that you can have just about anything, for the right price.  The disparity between residential and business broadband — urban and rural — is particularly acute in mountain west states like Idaho.  Verizon was considering rural Wyoming for a multi-billion dollar high speed Internet data center, until it found it could purchase an alternative already up and running elsewhere.  Meanwhile, much of the rest of Wyoming has no Internet, slow speed wireless or DSL, or limited cable broadband in some larger communities.

Even Gilliam admitted her home broadband account was nothing like the service Allstate Insurance was likely getting.

“It feels like it’s moving in slow motion,” she told the Times. “A lot of times I’ll start downloads and not complete them.” She said she was happy as long as she could get e-mail.

But not everyone is satisfied with an Internet experience limited to occasional web browsing and e-mail.

Qwest (now CenturyLink), is Idaho's largest Internet Service Provider.

“With countries like Latvia getting better broadband than we have, it’s only a matter of time before we start to lose even more jobs in the digital economy over this,” Jeff says. “This is one more nail in the coffin for rural economies in the west, which are being asked to compete with bigger cities and eastern states that have much better infrastructure.”

Pando found the northeast and mid-Atlantic states, excepting Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, have the best broadband speeds in the country.  The mountain west has the worst.

Rural states like Montana, the Dakotas, eastern Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah are the least likely to have widespread access to cable broadband, which can typically offer several times the Internet speed found in smaller communities with DSL service from dominant provider Qwest (now CenturyLink).  CenturyLink claims 92 percent of their customers have some access to broadband, but didn’t say at what speeds or how many customers actually subscribe to the service.

In Idaho, cost remains a factor, so CenturyLink is planning to sell low-income households a discounted DSL package.  Speeds and pricing were not disclosed.

Jeff says the real issue is one of value.

“Some in the Times article blame lack of access, while others claim it’s all about the cost, but it’s really more a question of ‘is it worth paying this much for the service we actually get’,” Jeff says.

“Cable ONE is simply deal-with-it Internet, with usage caps and contract traps that leave customers feeling burned, but their only other choice is Qwest, and they show few signs of caring about delivering fast broadband in this state,” Jeff says.

“I believe CenturyLink Idaho’s vice president and general manager Jim Schmit when he says, ‘We’re in business to make a profit,’ Jeff concludes. “There isn’t a lot of profit in selling Internet service in rural mountain states, so the company simply doesn’t offer it where they won’t make back their investment quickly.”

“The question is, should profit be the only thing driving broadband deployment in the United States?  If you answer ‘yes,’ Idaho is the result.  If you answer ‘no,’ and think it is an essential utility, profit shouldn’t be the only consideration.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Cable ONE Countdown High Speed Internet.flv

Cable ONE’s ad for 50Mbps leaves out a lot, including the 50GB usage cap and two-year contracts that downgrade service to just 5Mbps for the entire second year.  (1 minute)

Astroturf and Industry-Backed, Dollar-a-Holler Friends Support Telco’s USF Reform Plan

So who is for the ABC Plan?  Primarily phone companies, their business partners, and dollar-a-holler astroturf friends:

American Consumer InstituteSourceWatch called them a telecom industry-backed astroturf group.  Karl Bode from Broadband Reports discovered “the institute’s website is registered to ‘Stephen Pociask, a telecom consultant and former chief economist for Bell Atlantic [today Verizon].”  The group, claiming to focus “on economic policy issues that affect society as a whole,” spends an inordinate amount of its time on telecommunications hot button issues, especially AT&T and Verizon’s favorites: cable franchise reform and opposition to Net Neutrality.

Anna Marie Kovacs:  Determining what is good for Wall Street is her business, as founder and President of Regulatory Source Associates, LLC. RSA provides investment professionals with analysis of federal and state regulation of the telecom and cable industries.

Dollar-a-holler support?

Consumer Awareness Project: A relatively new entrant, CAP is AT&T’s new darling — a vocal advocate for AT&T’s merger with T-Mobile.  But further digging revealed more: the “group” is actually a project of Washington, D.C. lobbying firm Consumer Policy Solutions, which includes legislative and regulatory advocacy work and implementation of grassroots mobilization.

That is the very definition of interest group-“astroturf.”

Randolph May from the Free State Foundation supports "state's rights," but many of them want no part of a plan his group supports.

Free State Foundation: A misnamed conservative, “states rights” group.  Leader Randolph May loves the ABC Plan, despite the fact several individual states are asking the FCC not to impose it on them.

Hispanic Technology & Telecommunications Partnership:  Whatever Verizon and AT&T want, HTTP is also for.  The group was embroiled in controversy over its unflinching opposition to Net Neutrality and love for the merger of AT&T and T-Mobile.  Its member groups, including MANA and LULAC, are frequent participants in AT&T’s dollar-a-holler lobbying endeavors.

Robert J. Shapiro: Wrote an article for Huffington Post calling the ABC Plan worth consideration.  Also worth mentioning is the fact he is now chairman of what he calls an “economic advisory firm,” which the rest of the world calls a run-of-the-mill D.C. lobbyist firm — Sonecon.  It comes as no surprise AT&T is a client.  In his spare time, Shapiro also writes reports advocating Internet Overcharging consumers for their broadband service.

Indiana Exchange Carrier Association: A lobbying group representing rural Indiana telephone companies, primarily owned by TDS Telecom.  It’s hardly a surprise the companies most likely to benefit from the ABC Plan would be on board with their support.

Indiana Telecommunications Association: A group of 40 telephone companies serving the state of Indiana.  For the aforementioned reasons, it’s no surprise ITA supports the ABC Plan.

Information Technology and Innovation Foundation:  Reuters notes this group received financial support from telecommunications companies, so lining up behind a plan those companies favor comes as little surprise.  ITIF also believes usage caps can deter piracy, so they’re willing to extend themselves way out in order to sell the telecom industry’s agenda.

Internet Innovation Alliance:  Another group backed by AT&T, IIA also funds Nemertes Research, the group that regularly predicts Internet brownouts and data tsunamis, which also hands out awards to… AT&T and Verizon.

The Indiana Exchange Carrier Assn. represents the phone companies that will directly benefit from the adoption of the ABC Plan.

Bret Swanson:  He penned a brief note of support on his personal blog.  When not writing that, Swanson’s past work included time at the Discovery Institute, a “research group” that delivers paid, “credentialed” reports to telecommunications company clients who waive them before Congress to support their positions.  Swanson is a “Visiting Fellow” at Arts+Labs/Digital Society, which counted as its “partners” AT&T and Verizon.

Minority Media & Telecom Council: Tries to go out of its way to deny being affiliated or “on the take” of telecom companies, but did have to admit in a blog posting it takes money from big telecom companies for “conference sponsorships.”  Some group members appear frequently at industry panel discussions, and mostly advocate AT&T’s various positions, including strong opposition to reclassify broadband as a utility service.

MMTC convened a Broadband and Social Justice Summit earlier this year that featured a range of speakers bashing Net Neutrality, and the group’s biggest highlighted media advisory on its website as of this date is its support for the merger of AT&T and T-Mobile.  Yet group president David Honig claims he can’t understand why some consumer groups would suspect groups like his of engaging in dollar-a-holler advocacy, telling The Hill, “We’ve seen no examples of reputable organizations that do things because of financial contributions. It’s wrong to suggest such things.”

Mobile Future: Sponsored by AT&T, Mobile Future curiously also includes some of AT&T’s best friends, including the Asian Business Association, LULAC, MANA, the National Black Chamber of Commerce, and the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Montana Independent Telecommunications Systems: Primarily a group for Montana’s independent telephone companies, who will benefit enormously from the ABC Plan.

What major corporate entity does not belong to this enormous advocacy group?

The National Grange:  A group with a long history advocating for the interests of telephone companies.  Over the years, the National Grange has thrown its view in on Verizon vs. the RIAA, a request for Congress to support industry friendly legislation, a merger between Verizon and NorthPoint Communications, and USF issues.

The Keep USF Fair Coalition was formed in April 2004. Current members include Alliance for Public Technology, Alliance For Retired Americans, American Association Of People With Disabilities, American Corn Growers Association, American Council of the Blind, California Alliance of Retired Americans, Consumer Action, Deafness Research Foundation, Gray Panthers, Latino Issues Forum, League Of United Latin American Citizens, Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition, National Association Of The Deaf, National Consumers League, National Grange, National Hispanic Council on Aging, National Native American Chamber of Commerce, The Seniors Coalition, Utility Consumer Action Network, Virginia Citizen’s Consumer Council and World Institute On Disability. DSL Prime helps explain the membership roster.

Taxpayers Protection Alliance:  One of the tea party groups, TPA opposes higher USF fees on consumers.  The ABC Plan website had to tread carefully linking to this single article favorable to their position.  Somehow, we think it’s unlikely the group will link to the TPA’s louder voice demanding an end to broadband stimulus funding many ABC Plan backers crave.

TechAmerica: Guess who is a member?  AT&T, of course.  So is Verizon.  And CenturyLink.  TechAmerica call themselves “the industry’s largest advocacy organization and is dedicated to helping members’ top and bottom lines.”  (Consumers not included.)

Tennessee Telecommunications Association: TTA’s independent phone company members stand to gain plenty if the ABC Plan is enacted, so they are happy to lend their support.

Rep. Terry's two biggest contributors are CenturyLink and Qwest.

Representative Greg Walden (R-Oregon):  His top five contributors are all telecommunications companies, including CenturyLink, Pine Telephone, and Qwest.  He also gets money from AT&T and Verizon.  It’s no surprise he’s a supporter: “We are encouraged by the growing consensus among stakeholders as developed in the ‘America’s Broadband Connectivity Plan’ filed with the Federal Communications Commission today, and we hope that consensus will continue to grow.”

Representative Lee Terry (R-Nebraska): He co-signed Rep. Walden’s statement.  Rep. Terry’s two biggest contributors are Qwest and CenturyLink.  Now that CenturyLink owns Qwest, it’s two-campaign-contributions-in-one.  And yes, he gets a check from AT&T, too.

Representative Steve Scalise (R-Louisiana): “Today’s filing of the ‘America’s Broadband Connectivity Plan’ is welcomed input on the intercarrier compensation and Universal Service Fund reform front,” Scalise said.  Now Scalise is ready to welcome this year’s campaign contribution from AT&T, which he has not yet reportedly received.  In 2008, Scalise received $13,250.  In 2010, $10,000.  This cycle, so far he has only been able to count on Verizon, which threw $2,500 his way.  Scalise voted earlier this year to overturn the FCC’s authority to enact Net Neutrality.

USTelecom Association: The only news here would be if USTA opposed the ABC Plan.  Included on USTA’s board of directors are company officials from: Frontier Communications, AT&T, CenturyLink/Qwest, Windstream, FairPoint Communications, and Verizon.  That’s everyone.

Wisconsin State Telecommunications Association:  Their active members, including Frontier Communications, are all telephone companies inside Wisconsin that will directly benefit if the ABC Plan is enacted.

‘Measuring Broadband America’ Report Released Today: How Your Provider Measured Up

The Federal Communications Commission today released MEASURING BROADBAND AMERICA, the first nationwide performance study of residential wireline broadband service in the United States.  The study examined service offerings from 13 of the largest wireline broadband providers using automated, direct measurements of broadband performance delivered to the homes of thousands of volunteers during March 2011.

Among the key findings:

Providers are being more honest about their advertised speeds: Actual speeds are moving closer to the speeds promised by those providers.  Back in 2009, the FCC found a greater disparity between advertised and delivered speeds.  But the Commission also found that certain providers are more likely to deliver than others, and certain broadband technologies are simply more reliable and consistent.

Fiber-to-the-Home service was the runaway winner, consistently delivering even better speeds than advertised (114%).  Cable broadband delivered 93% of advertised speeds, while DSL only managed to deliver 82 percent of what providers promise.  Fiber broadband speeds are consistent, with just a 0.4 percent decline in speeds during peak usage periods.

Cable companies are still overselling their networks.  The FCC found during peak usage periods (7-11pm), 7.3 percent of cable-based services suffered from speed decreases — generally a sign a provider has piled too many customers onto an overburdened network.  One clear clue of overselling: the FCC found upload speeds largely unaffected.

DSL has capacity and speed issues.  DSL also experienced speed drops, with 5.5 percent of customers witnessing significant speed deterioration, which could come from an overshared D-SLAM, where multiple DSL customers connect with equipment that relays their traffic back to the central office, or from insufficient connectivity to the Internet backbone.

Some providers are much better than others.  The FCC found some remarkable variability in the performance of different ISPs.  Let’s break several down:

  • Verizon’s FiOS was the clear winner among the major providers tested, winning top performance marks across the board.  Few providers came close;
  • Comcast had the most consistently reliable speeds among cable broadband providers.  Cox beat them at times, but only during hours when few customers were using their network;
  • AT&T U-verse was competitive with most cable broadband packages, but is already being outclassed by cable companies offering DOCSIS 3-based premium speed tiers;
  • Cablevision has a seriously oversold broadband network.  Their results were disastrous, scoring the worst of all providers for consistent service during peak usage periods.  Their performance was simply unacceptable, incapable of delivering barely more than half of promised speeds during the 10pm-12am window.
  • It was strictly middle-of-the-road performance for Time Warner Cable, Insight, and CenturyLink.  They aren’t bad, but they could be better.
  • Mediacom continued its tradition of being a mediocre cable provider, delivering consistently below-average results for their customers during peak usage periods.  They are not performing necessary upgrades to keep up with user demand.
  • Most major DSL providers — AT&T, Frontier, and Qwest — promise little and deliver as much.  Their ho-hum advertised speeds combined with unimpressive scores for time of day performance variability should make all of these the consumers’ last choice for broadband service if other options are available.

Some conclusions the FCC wants consumers to ponder:

  1. For basic web-browsing and Voice-Over-IP, any provider should be adequate.  Shop on price. Consumers should not overspend for faster tiers of service they will simply not benefit from all that much.  Web pages loaded at similar speeds regardless of the speed tier chosen.
  2. Video streaming benefits from consistent speeds and network reliability.  Fiber and cable broadband usually deliver faster speeds that can ensure reliable high quality video streaming.  DSL may or may not be able to keep up with our HD video future.
  3. Temporary speed-boost technology provided by some cable operators is a useful gimmick.  It can help render web pages and complete small file downloads faster.  It can’t beat fiber’s consistently faster speeds, but can deliver a noticeable improvement over DSL.

More than 78,000 consumers volunteered to participate in the study and a total of approximately 9,000 consumers were selected as potential participants and were supplied with specially configured routers. The data in the report is based on a statistically selected subset of those consumers—approximately 6,800 individuals—and the measurements taken in their homes during March 2011. The participants in the volunteer consumer panel were recruited with the goal of covering ISPs within the U.S. across all broadband technologies, although only results from three major technologies—DSL, cable, and fiber-to-the-home—are reflected in the report.

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