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Community-Owned MI-Connection Launches Speed War That Benefits North Carolina

Phillip Dampier November 8, 2012 Broadband Speed, Community Networks, Competition, Consumer News, Editorial & Site News, MI-Connection, Public Policy & Gov't Comments Off on Community-Owned MI-Connection Launches Speed War That Benefits North Carolina

A community-owned cable system that critics called “a municipal broadband failure” is proving to be anything but as it aggressively launches a broadband speed war and is narrowing its losses on the road to profitability.

MI-Connection is the community-owned cable system serving Mooresville, Davidson, and Cornelius, N.C.

Originally acquired in 2007 from bankrupt Adelphia Cable, MI-Connection has been a favorite target for municipal broadband critics who have painted the operation as an experiment gone wrong and a financial failure. But the system’s latest financial results and its forthcoming free broadband speed upgrades tell a different story.

Residents will see major boosts in their broadband speeds for no additional charge in December thanks to a broadband service upgrade. Meanwhile, competitor Time Warner Cable has announced new fees for cable modem rentals that will raise many customer bills by $4 a month. (MI-Connection does not charge customers a rental fee when they have just one cable modem on their account.)

The speed increases will provide the fastest download-upload speed combination in the area, thanks to faster upstream speeds. These upgrades launch Dec. 10:

  • 8/4Mbps service upgrades to 10/5Mbps
  • 12/4Mbps service upgrades to 15/5Mbps
  • 16/4Mbps service upgrades to 20/5Mbps
  • 20/4Mbps service upgrades to 30/10Mbps

Also on that date, MI-Connection will launch its fastest Internet tier yet, tentatively dubbed Warp Speed, offering 60/10Mbps service with a free wireless router for bundled customers, selling faster service at up to $20 less per month than what Time Warner charges:

  • $99.95/month broadband service only
  • $89.95/month when bundled with one other service
  • $79.95/month when bundled with phone and television service

Warp Speed will be the fastest residential broadband available in Mecklenburg and Iredell counties.

MI-Connection hopes accelerating improvements in broadband will also accelerate additional earnings. MI-Connection continues to earn the bulk of its revenue from television, with broadband and phone lagging behind. But the biggest growth in revenue year over year comes from broadband service.

Last summer, MI-Connection reached another milestone — it delivered its first cash payments back to the communities that took a chance on owning and running their own telecommunications provider. Although the total amount of $277,000 was modest, and the company still has to pay down debt incurred from purchasing and upgrading the cable system, it was a symbolic victory against anti-government, anti-municipal broadband naysayers.

More elusive is tracking the amount of money saved by residents finding Time Warner Cable and area phone companies ready and willing to offer stunning rate cuts in customer retention efforts.

Stop the Cap! has tracked some of those offers over the past several years, based on reader input.

Time Warner Cable’s retention department has offered North Carolina customers with active competition in their area prices as low as $100 a month (after taxes and fees) for triple play packages that include a free year of Showtime and 30/5Mbps broadband. Customers who only want broadband and television have been able to negotiate rates averaging $70 a month, especially after pointing out MI-Connection provides a year of its own phone, broadband, and TV service for $89.99 a month, including three free months of HBO.

“Year after year, renewing these prices just takes a phone call mentioning you received a flyer from MI-Connection offering more for less,” says Stop the Cap! reader Sam, who we contacted this morning for an update on our earlier story in April. “Whether you stay with Time Warner or switch to MI-Connection, you can easily save dozens of dollars a month just mentioning one provider to the other.”

Courtesy: Davidson News

Sam remains a Time Warner Cable customer based on what he calls “a simple matter of economics and what my wife wants to spend.” But he still supports the fact MI-Connection is there, even though it has created some early headaches for Mooresville, Davidson, and Cornelius.

“The conservatives have demagogued MI-Connection to death to win seats in local government but recently have stopped attacking it as an outright failure and are now claiming they want to make it successful so they can sell it off in a few years, probably to their pals at Time Warner,” Sam reflects.

“At the rate MI-Connection is cutting their losses, it might actually be profitable then,” Sam argues. “Selling it would be stupid. But a lot of the current crowd is hellbent on selling it no matter what, mostly for ideological reasons, and after Time Warner buys it for cheap, we’ll all pay even more when they put the rates back up.”

Critics of MI-Connection have help from various astroturf groups, backed largely by telecommunications companies who oppose government involvement in broadband. Particularly notorious is the “Coalition for the New Economy,” which issues negative reports about municipal broadband while burying the fact the group is funded in part by AT&T, Time Warner Cable, and other Big Telecom lobbyists.

The “Coalition” issues various reports mostly summarizing news accounts about community broadband that highlight struggles and ignore successes, while concluding that community broadband is interfering with private providers trying to hurry upgrades into neglected areas.

“A report from some group that lies never brought better broadband access to anyone in North Carolina,” Sam said. “MI-Connection has become a thorn that must be pulled from Time Warner’s backside because MI actually does provide better service.”

Time Warner Cable’s War on North Carolina’s MI-Connection; Price-Slashing, Overbuilding

Phillip Dampier April 23, 2012 Community Networks, Competition, Consumer News, Editorial & Site News, MI-Connection, Public Policy & Gov't Comments Off on Time Warner Cable’s War on North Carolina’s MI-Connection; Price-Slashing, Overbuilding

At a time when cable operators are more reluctant than ever to overbuild into another operator’s territory, something very strange is going on in central North Carolina.

Time Warner Cable is moving into the neighborhood — one already receiving service from a community-owned cable operator.  That would be like Time Warner moving into one of Comcast’s service areas.  For some reason, those large cable companies completely avoid competing head-to-head, but where community-owned provider MI-Connection has managed to sign up around 15,000 customers for service, Time Warner Cable has also arrived.

As a result, customers north of Charlotte, in communities around Davidson and Mooresville, are getting some amazing prices for cable television, phone, and broadband.  Time Warner will even deliver an offer right to your front door.

Susan Wagner in Mooresville got her deal when she threatened to cancel Time Warner Cable and return to MI-Connection.

“(Time Warner) gave everyone a really good offer when they first came in and then drove up the price after a while,” Wagner told the Charlotte Observer.

When Wagner called to cancel, Time Warner sent an employee to her door offering to slash her cable bill by $50 a month, enough to keep her business.

Other residents in nearby Cornelius are also getting prices substantially lower than residents in cities like Charlotte, where many residents have one choice for cable: Time Warner.  Sam, a Stop the Cap! reader in the Morrison Plantation neighborhood, noted they skipped the last few rate increases from the cable company.

“You just call and tell them the rate is too high and as soon as they find out you have MI-Connection as an alternative, they lower the price,” he said. “My niece in Charlotte can’t get the same deal even when we gave her the details — it’s only good in areas where MI-Connection operates.”

That leaves Charlotte residents paying $35-50 more a month than savvy customers further north can have for the asking.

“It sounds like predatory pricing to me when the company offers a special low price that people like my niece are probably subsidizing on their higher bill,” Sam suspects.

The Observer reports Time Warner is also laying cable in other neighborhoods, such as Heritage Green, where the cable company is soliciting business from MI-Connection subscribers door-to-door.

MI-Connection’s CEO, David Auger, formerly from Time Warner Cable himself, claims he’s unconcerned about Time Warner’s aggressive overbuild of his service area.

But the state’s largest commercial cable company has been signing up some of MI-Connection’s current customer base and successfully holding its existing customers in place with significant discounts on service.  Since last July, MI-Connection signed up 667 new customers, but also lost 577 others, most likely to Time Warner Cable.

MI-Connection was launched from the ashes of a bankrupt Adelphia Cable system acquired by the communities of Mooresville and Davidson.  After investing in a needed system upgrade, the community owned provider relaunched service nearly identical technically to other cable systems.  Unlike Wilson and Salisbury, where new fiber-to-the-home systems were built, MI-Connection offers a more traditional cable package.

That makes competition with Time Warner Cable more difficult, but the community provider is trying.  Time Warner Cable’s regular pricing in the area runs $68.49 a month for 85 basic channels.  MI-Connection sells 86 channels for $61.99.  But when customers call Time Warner to complain about their higher prices, the cable operator dramatically lowers them to keep the customer’s business.

“The regular price only matters until you call and complain about it,” says Sam.

There have been complaints, but many of them are less about the cable bill and more about politics.  MI-Connection has not come cheap either town, which had to cover some of the costs of a needed system upgrade and service installation, estimated to run about $1,000 for every new customer signed.

Last fall, mayoral challenger Vince Winegardner made local government involvement in broadband a political issue, saying the purchase of the cable system was a mistake.  He lost his bid, but the system’s money needs remain a frequent topic of discussion in all of the communities involved in MI-Connection, and earlier this year the company company asked for $1.1 million from Davidson and Mooresville to ride out the rest of the fiscal year.

Time Warner’s recent interest in invading a fellow cable operator’s service area and slashing prices for those customers has raised the question whether their overbuild is about competition or predatory pricing to drive MI-Connection out of business.

Wagner doesn’t seem to mind either way, telling the Observer it is a “win-win” for her, scoring a lower cable bill with Time Warner.

But Sam isn’t so sure the savings will last.

“It seems pretty clear to me that Time Warner isn’t hurrying to compete with Comcast or Charter — just MI-Connection and that makes me suspicious,” Sam says. “After spending all that money to ban community broadband in the state, they now seem to be trying to drive out of business the handful of companies that were exempted.”

“My niece is probably paying for this right now on her cable bill too, and once MI-Connection is out of the way, those prices will shoot right back up,” Sam concludes.

Mooresville, N.C. Revokes Time Warner Cable’s Easement Agreements; Possible Trespass Cited

Phillip Dampier June 2, 2014 Community Networks, Competition, Consumer News, MI-Connection, Public Policy & Gov't Comments Off on Mooresville, N.C. Revokes Time Warner Cable’s Easement Agreements; Possible Trespass Cited
Mayor Atkins

Mayor Atkins

A North Carolina community concerned about alleged abuse of homeowners’ private property rights by Time Warner Cable has revoked all of the company’s easement agreements, exposing the cable operator to lawsuits from residents.

Mayor Miles Atkins observed Time Warner crews burying fiber optic lines on the property of local residents, well outside of the rights-of-way established by the local government along town-maintained streets.

The Charlotte Observer reported Atkins also personally witnessed crews burying cables outside his home — on a street where there is no right-of-way for utility companies.

Like many towns in North Carolina, Mooresville never established rights-of-way on older streets where above-ground utilities were installed decades earlier. Agreements with the owner of the utility pole governs the cables attached. In Mooresville, this generally includes electric, telephone, and two cable companies — Time Warner Cable and the community-owned MI-Connection, formerly owned by Adelphia Cable. Most rights-of-way and easement agreements in Mooresville cover buried cables.

Mooresville senior engineer Allison Kraft notified Time Warner Cable that the town has revoked all of its easement agreements with the company until Time Warner can prove it placed its buried cables only within the approved town rights-of-way.

If the cable company is found to have placed cables without permission on a homeowner’s private property, the resident can sue for damages and force the company to remove the offending line.

mooresvilleOne Mooresville resident was suspicious of the town’s motives, however.

“I’m sure the town’s ownership of a competing cable company had nothing to do with their decision,” said Mooresville resident Scott Turner.

But Charley Patterson is happy the town is taking action, suggesting utility violations of easement boundaries are rampant.

“During the building of our church’s new parking lot, we found not one but several utilities that had buried cable in areas well out of the easement boundaries,” Patterson wrote. “There were seven utilities with buried cable. Our construction progress was dramatically impacted trying to identify where and who had buried the cable. And some had the gall to try to tell us that we had to pay for them to relocate when they were 20 to 30 feet on our property, not at all in the easement.”

North Carolina’s GOP Senate Candidates Fall All Over Themselves Attacking Net Neutrality

Net Neutrality = Socialism?

Net Neutrality = Socialism?

The four leading candidates in North Carolina’s Republican U.S. Senate primary, including one heavily backed by the state’s largest telecom companies, all said Monday they oppose Net Neutrality and would not allow the federal government to intervene in the business interests of cable and phone companies.

Dr. Greg Brannon, Heather Grant, Rev. Mark Harris, and current state House Speaker Thom Tillis all agreed during an hour-long televised debate that the government had no business telling companies like Time Warner Cable and AT&T how to manage Internet traffic.

Thom Tillis, who became speaker of the house in 2011, is heavily backed with financial contributions from AT&T, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon. While speaker, Tillis supported the Time Warner Cable-backed bill to ban community-owned broadband networks in the state and helped shepherd the legislation through the General Assembly.

Tillis told viewers that North Carolina customers already have a choice of Internet Service Providers so there is no reason for the government to interfere.

“The last thing we need is the government to tell cable providers and Internet providers how fast or slow the content needs to be,” Tillis said.

Tillis was honored in 2011 as ALEC's "Legislator of the Year" and received an undisclosed cash reward.

Tillis was honored in 2011 as ALEC’s “Legislator of the Year” and received an undisclosed cash reward.

Last year, Tillis was accused of having a secret business relationship with Time Warner Cable by Rep. Robert Brawley (R-Iredell), who resigned his chairmanship of the Finance Committee over the matter.

Brawley’s district is served in part by MI-Connection, a community-owned cable company that was prevented from expanding by a state law restricting municipal broadband.

“You slamming my office door shut, standing in front of me and stating that you have a business relationship with Time Warner,” Brawley wrote in his resignation letter. “MI-Connection is being operated just as any other free enterprise system and should be allowed to do so without the restrictions placed on them by the proponents of Time Warner.”

Dr. Brannon said without the Constitution giving direct authority for the federal government to regulate broadband, it cannot legally get involved. There was no broadband service to regulate when the Constitution was signed on September 17, 1787.

“The worst thing in the world we could do is for the federal government to put in barriers to make things fair,” Brannon said. Any attempt to impose fairness on Internet traffic would be a clear-cut case of socialism, Brannon added.

Grant and Harris both agreed with the others.

The four candidates are vying for the Senate seat held by Democrat Kay Hagan. She holds a different view.

“I support Net Neutrality because it speaks to the values central to our American Democracy – free speech and equal opportunity,” Hagan said in 2008. “With an open Internet, we can ensure communities throughout the state of North Carolina and the nation receive equal access to the Internet as well as the information contained there, to help ensure our country can compete on a global level.”

[flv]http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/UNC-TV NC GOP Senate Debate 2014 – Net Neutrality – Free Market or Socialism 4-30-14.flv[/flv]

Watch occasionally incoherent remarks from four Republican candidates debating the Internet and Net Neutrality as part of the North Carolina Senate primary. (4:31)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taxpayer dollars are also funneled to the cable company.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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