Long List of Public Interest Groups Sign on to Free Press Letter Opposing Comcast Time Warner Cable Merger

The Free Press announced that more than 50 public interest groups, including the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, signed on to its letter in opposition to the Time Warner/Comcast merger.

The letter, addressed and delivered to Attorney General Eric Holder and FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, begins:

The proposed Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger would give one company enormous power over our nation’s media and communications infrastructure. This massive consolidation would position Comcast as our communications gatekeeper, giving it the power to dictate the future of numerous industries across the Internet, television and telecommunications landscape.

In the press release, Craig Aaron, President and CEO of the Free Press, stated:

“The question before the FCC is whether this deal serves the public interest. The answer is clear: A bigger Comcast is bad for America.

“Merging the nation’s two biggest cable-Internet providers would turn Comcast into our communications gatekeeper, able to dictate the cost and content of news, information and entertainment. We need an Internet and video marketplace that offers people high-quality options at prices they can afford — not a near-national monopoly determining what we can watch and download.

“In the past four years, Comcast has raised basic cable rates in some markets by nearly 70 percent. Its top lobbyist has admitted that the price increases will continue to skyrocket if the merger goes through. And that's about the only thing Comcast has said about this deal that you should believe.

“The growing chorus of groups opposing this takeover knows the truth. The only rational choice is for the FCC and Justice Department to reject this merger."

 

New York Times Covers Fiber and Economic Development

In a recent New York Times article, reporter Kate Murphy shined a light on fiber's increasing role in economic development. Murphy discussed several of the same networks we have followed: Wilson, NC; Chattanooga, TN; Lafayette, LA; and Mount Vernon, WA.

Murphy acknowledged that successful companies are moving from major metropolitan areas to less populated communities out of necessity:

These digital carpetbaggers aren’t just leaving behind jittery Netflix streams and aggravating waits for Twitter feeds to refresh. They are positioning themselves to be more globally competitive and connected.

Murphy notes that countries where governments have invested in critical infrastructure offer more choice, better services, and lower rates. She also points to successful local initiatives, often in less populated communities where large private interests have not invested:

Stepping into the void have been a smattering of municipalities that have public rather than private utility infrastructures. Muninetworks.org has a map that pinpoints many of these communities. They are primarily rural towns that were ignored when the nation’s electrical infrastructure was installed 100 years ago and had to build their own.

Murphy spoke with several business owners that moved from large metropolitan areas to smaller communities because they needed fiber. For a growing number of establishments, fiber networks are the only kind that offer the capacity needed for day-to-day operations. Information security firm, Blank Law and Technology, moved to Mount Vernon to take advantage of its open access fiber network. It helps when customer service representatives live in your neighborhood:

“We investigate computer malfeasance and have to sift through terabytes of data for a single case,” Mr. Blank said. “The fiber connection is the only reason we are in Mount Vernon and the customer service isn’t bad because all you have to do is walk down the street and knock on the door at City Hall.”

Voters Approve Local Telecommunications Authority in Montrose, Colorado

By a 3,982 in favor and 1,397 opposed, the voters in Montrose decided on April 1st to take back local authority for telecommunications services. The state revoked the community's ability to establish a telecommunications utility in 2005. 

Jim Branscome covered the election results in the Daily Yonder. Branscome, a resident of Montrose, knows the local broadband situation:

Internet service here is currently a hodgepodge. Some of us depend on broadcast towers, some on DSL from CenturyLink and some on cable service from Charter. Service is generally at less than 10MB. It’s expensive, and customer service is erratic.

Community leaders state that they want to encourage fair competition and ensure every one has the opportunity to fast, reliable, affordable connectivity. 

In addition to ensuring that local businesses are in a position to compete with any large corporations that might attempt to establish a major share of the market, Turner said the city also wanted measures to enable lower income households to benefit from the advantages of gigabit speeds and capacity. “We don’t want to create two levels of society here, those who are connected and those who are not,” he said.

While Montrose is a long way from getting every person connected, the community is discussing the idea of financing a network with revenue bonds. 

This election result demonstrates Montrose's desire to be in control of their own connectivity. They understand the need to think of the future. From the Daily Yonder article:

It used to be that if a town wanted to prosper, it needed a river, then a railroad, then an Eisenhower Interstate highway, and then a cell phone tower. Today it needs to be a “gigabit city.”

American Enterprise Institute Scholar Calls DSL Obsolete

For the second time this year, one of the major defenders of the cable and telephone companies has admitted that DSL cannot provide the Internet access we need as a nation. This admission validates our research as well as that of Susan Crawford and others that show most Americans are effectively stuck with a cable monopoly.

On April 7, 2014, the Diane Rehm show hosted another discussion on telecommunications policy with guests that included Jeffrey Eisenach, the Director of the Center for Internet, Communications, and Technology Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.

During that show, Eisenach stated, "The vast majority of Europeans still only have DSL service available, which we in the United States consider really almost an obsolete technology now."

Interestingly, Eisenach and others have repeatedly claimed that there is no market failure in the US - that we have plenty of choices. But most Americans have to choose between what most now admit is an obsolete DSL product and cable. Eisenach would add 4G LTE as another competitor, but as we have noted many times, the average household would have to pay hundreds of dollars per month to use their LTE connection as a replacement for DSL or cable.

The average household uses something like 40-55 GB of data per month. Given the bandwidth caps from LTE providers, the overage charges quickly result in a bill of approximately $500 or more depending on the plan. This is why the overwhelming majority of the market uses mobile wireless as a complement, not substitute to wired networks.

We are left with one conclusion: there is no meaningful competition or choice for most of us in the residential telecommunications market. And no real prospect of a choice either as the cable companies only grow stronger.

This is not the first time Eisenach admitted that DSL is insufficient for our needs. Back in January, on Diane's show, he again used Europe's dependence on DSL as evidence that it was falling behind: "They are reliant on these 20th century copper networks which have real limits on the amount of speed that they can deliver."

Even those who only want the private sector to deliver services are starting to admit that the existing providers are failing us. What more do communities need to take an active role in ensuring their needs are met?

Advice for Starting a Community Network - Community Broadband Bits Episode #94

The Community Broadband Bits podcast this week focuses on what people can do to start building a grassroots effort for a network in their community. John St Julien of Lafayette, Louisiana, returns to the show to discuss what they did and ideas for others to follow.

John was last on the show for episode 19, where we focused more on the specific approach used in Lafayette.

We discuss the early challenges and ideas for how to engage others, who may be the best people to approach, and how to maintain a sense of progress during what may be a very challenging organizing effort.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 20 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Valley Lodge for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Sweet Elizabeth."

Crain's New York Business: New York City Conduit Jam Packed

Crain's New York Business recently published an article on the crowded conduit under New York City. The article complements the April 7 edition of This Week in Crain's New York podcast, hosted by Don Mathisen.

Empire City Subway (ECS), the crumbling subterranean network of conduit for telephone wires constructed in 1888, is so crowded underground construction crews regularly need to detour to reach their destination. Routes are no longer direct, adding precious nanoseconds to data delivery - a significant problem for competitive finance companies.

Verizon owns ECS and, according to the article, does not operate with competitors in mind:

But businesses that lease space in the ECS network for their own fiber-optic cable say that Verizon doesn't worry about keeping the system clear for others. Conduits are filled with cables from defunct Internet providers that went belly-up after the dot-com bust in 2000. Verizon itself left severed copper wire in lower Manhattan ducts after installing a fiber-optic network following Superstorm Sandy. (The company says the cables could be easily removed, if needed.)

Stealth Communications spent an extra $100,000 in March to re-route its fiber from Rockefeller Center to Columbus Circle. Conduit was so congested along the planned route, the independent ISP needed to go 6,500 feet out of its way. The re-route added almost two weeks to the project.

Crain's contacted Chris Mitchell from ILSR:

"It's foolish to think that we can just leave it to the market to use this limited space under the street efficiently," Mr. Mitchell said. "The fiber needs are tremendous, and if New York over time can expand access to a lot of fiber at low cost, we'll see all kinds of [innovation]."

He added that New York might be best served by the public-utility model embraced by Stockholm and Santa Monica, Calif., and under consideration now in Baltimore, in which the city builds a fiber backbone. Internet service providers lease access to that fiber at low cost and compete to offer specialized services as part of the "last-mile" connection to the home or business.

Possible solutions being considered include municipal fiber to lower income neighborhoods, requiring changes from ECS, and stringing fiber along aboveground transportation tracks. The ultimate goal is to create conditions that will increase competition

But something must be done to improve ECS, industry veterans say; otherwise, the conduits will only become harder to use. "The more you have to get around, the more cable you put in the street," said Brad Ickes, president of independent provider Optical Communications Group. (OCG and Verizon have been locked in a legal dispute since 2008.) "And then everything gets more congested, because everyone is going that way."

Diffraction Analysis Offers Free Webinar on FTTH, April 15th, 11 a.m. Central

On April 15th, Benoit Felten and his organization, Diffraction Analysis, will host a free webinar to discuss results from their latest study. The study, Why Consumers Love FTTH – The FTTH Consumer Experience Study, delves into the fiber experience in Sweden. Here are some preliminary findings from the report:

  • In Sweden a huge majority FTTH users (75%) think their broadband is better than before they had fibre.
  • 67% of Swedish broadband users think broadband over fibre is ‘Very Good’, but only 13% think the same of DSL.
  • Swedish FTTH subscribers use video-communication over the Internet five times as much (25%) as DSL users.
  • In Sweden 59% of FTTH users think fibre broadband is sustainable. Only 44% of DSL users think the same of DSL.
  • In Sweden, 59% of DSL users find their broadband price excessive vs. only 32% for FTTH users.
  • For FTTH users in Sweden, quality of broadband is the 1st criterion after home price when choosing a new home.

He recently spoke at the 2014 Broadband Communities Summit in Austin, Texas. Felten also spoke on Smart Cities and Infrastructure at the FTTH Conference in Stockholm, Sweden, in February. Chris interviewed Felten in episode 21 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast back in 2012, when the two discussed the famous network in Stokab. 

You can register for the free webinar at GoTo Meeting. The event starts at 11 a.m. Central on April 15th.

Gothenburg Considering FTTH in Nebraska, Survey Responses Needed

As the "Pony Express Capital of Nebraska," Gothenburg understands the value of speed. City leaders are now investigating the possibility of bringing a FTTH network to the community. Initiative leaders are asking the town's 3,500 residents to complete a broadband survey before April 15th.

According to a recent article in the Gothenburg Times, local schools will soon be surpassing the community's current telecommunications capabilities. The school district is considering a one-to-one Chromebook initiative:

Angie Richeson, an integrated technology integration specialist and Dudley Elementary librarian, said current telecommunications infrastructure has a glass ceiling.

“We can’t get bigger or faster without changing the infrastructure,” she said. “And speed is an issue in our community.”

Community leaders also want economic development benefits that flow from a fiber network. Four Fortune 500 companies operate in Gothenberg. CenturyLink, currently providing last-mile connectivity, has no plans to upgrade.

Nathan Wyatt, Chair of the Fiber Infrastructure Committee of the Gothenburg Improvement Company (GIC) recently told the Times:

"Right now the infrastructure that exists in Gothenburg is like the dirt roads. We don't have the fastest most direct infrastructure available that would give us the fastest speeds available. And as websites get more complex. We're going to need more data and more broadband to give our residents a better experience and we also need it to recruit businesses," said Wyatt.

GIC is a coalition of local businesses working to recruit new commerce to Gothenburg. Wyatt told the Times in another article that a local provider would be ideal:

“Can you imagine calling a local number to get service on your Internet, phone and cable?” he asked.

Wyatt said the GIC doesn’t want a call center but someone that people know and recognize in the community who would service the network.

Initiative leaders have already launched an aggressive grassroots campaign, "Get Up to Speed Gothenburg." The campaign Facebook page includes pics of information sessions, quotes from business owners, and promotional videos. Wyatt told the Times:

“Now we’re going 35 mph and with fiber optics, we could go 100 miles per hour,” he said. “As a community, soon we will need to drive 1,000 mph and new infrastructure will prepare us for this reality.”

Nebraska law makes many forms of municipal ownership difficult but we hope they are able to meet their local needs and wish the state would get out of their way.

Network Progressing in "Sugartown" Michigan

Last summer we reported on Sebewaing, the community of 1,700 in the tip of the "thumb" in Michigan. At the time, Sebewaing Light and Water (SLW) was exploring the possibilities of deploying its own FTTH network. Like other small communities, Sebewaing could not get the service it needed from large corporate providers. We recently caught up with SLW's Superintendent, Melanie McCoy, to get an update.

The community released its RFP [PDF] and received responses from two bidders. McCoy tells us that in Michigan, such a low response rate allows the municipality to deploy its own network, so SLW decided to proceed.

The construction bid for the fiber backbone went to Earthcom, located in Lansing. Air Advantage successfully bid to supply bandwidth and the headend. Calix will provide the customer premise equipment that will offer data and voice services.

Sebewaing's network is 90% aerial and the final estimate is $1-2 million. The network will provide 1 gig capacity with the potential to expand to 10 gigs. Because the utility has its own poles and in-house expertise to handle labor, SLW is able to perform make-ready work themselves, lowering the final cost of the deployment. SLW will use an interdepartmental loan from its electric, water, and wireless utilities to fund the investment. According to McCoy, the RFP responses were both about $1 million higher than the final estimate.

In 2003, SLW began providing wireless Internet access to residents in Sebewaing so staff has experience as a broadband utility. They also installed a small fiber loop in the downtown area to serve businesses and municipal facilities. The old fiber loop will be retired because it has fewer strands and has been maxed out for some time.

The new fiber will replace connections between fifteen public facilities, including wells, public safety, and administration buildings. Each facility currently pays only $15-25 per month to be connected, saving thousands in yearly fees for leased lines from incumbents. Rates will not change, even though the new network will offer higher capacity.

Bandwidth is currently purchased as part of a consortium that includes the school district. The district purchases bandwidth through a link to the Merit Network, the Michigan statewide fiber network that reaches educational and research facilities.

When SLW finishes the installation, it will work primarily with Air Advantage, a wireless and fiber provider specializing in connecting rural customers in the area. SLW will maintain the connection to the Merit Network for redundancy.

Pricing for connections is still being determined, but SLW anticipates more speed for less. According to McCoy, SLW sees this venture as another way to serve the public. The network will provide an essential service and will also boost economic development. Sebewaing, nicknamed "Sugartown," has a thriving sugar beet industry but when the auto industry took a downturn, the local economy suffered. To date, no other industry has stepped in to fill the gap.

Local establishments are ready to make a switch. Businesses and residents, frustrated with poor service from incumbents AT&T and Comcast, are already asking to be connected. McCoy also notes that the network is expected to offer telecommuting opportunities for a number of people. For example, an astronomer from the University of Michigan, located about 2 hours south, anticipates a possible move to the area. The rural night sky is ideal for his work but he needs a high capacity connection to share data with colleagues.

The Huron Daily Tribune spoke with McCoy in January, who hinted at more developments in Michigan:

Because of the many benefits involved in a FTTH project, other municipalities around the Thumb and in other areas are watching what Sebewaing is doing, McCoy said. The town could very well become the model for FTTH systems for rural areas all over the state, and beyond.

Consumerist Sounds Off on Internet Essentials and Comcast's Hidden Agenda

In a Consumerist article, Kate Cox takes a look at who is benefitting the most from Comcast's Internet Essentials program and - guess what - it is Comcast.

The program has brought Internet access to a number of people who may not otherwise have been able to get online and that's a good thing. According to Comcast, 300,000 families are receiving 5 Mbps download for the program's $9.99 monthly rate. All considered, that is 300,000 families who might otherwise not have Internet access at all.

But Cox noticed how the gigantic cable conglomerate pulls the program out to dazzle politicians whenever they need a little public opinion boost. In August 2013, Comcast announced it was extending the program:

Comcast, meanwhile, is not acting out of a sense of charity or philanthropy. They’re satisfying federal requirements to help bring broadband access to the poor. And Internet Essentials is only available where Comcast already operates — so Comcast isn’t spending a dime to run infrastructure to any place where it doesn’t already exist.

They sure get to benefit from looking philanthropic, though. Community outreach is a huge part of Comcast’s extensive lobbying efforts. And in looking to gain the blessing of federal regulators on their impending buyout of Time Warner Cable, “benefit to the community” is one of their best cards to play.

Cox notes the significant obstacles to signing on to the program, as we did in 2012. She also notes that families who need the program most are not always the ones who are able to find the information to enroll:

The other barrier is the enrollment process itself: Internet Essentials is separate from Comcast’s standard service. It uses a different website and phone number for enrollment and information. Consumers who call Comcast’s regular line and try to ask for the cheap internet generally get shunted into some kind of promotional triple-play package. Comcast representatives don’t redirect callers to the other phone number.

So the consumers most likely to be able correctly to sign up for Internet Essentials are high-information consumers who have the time and resources to use the internet to research how to get the best choice in internet access. And the target user of Internet Essentials is a lower-information consumer, potentially with education and/or language barriers, who doesn’t necessarily have the time and resources, or internet access, to do all the research over best choices.

Once a household no longer has a child who qualifies for free and reduced lunches, that household no longer qualifies for Internet Essentials.
Cox also comments on the service itself:

The other main problem with Internet Essentials is that it’s crap. A download speed of “up to 5 Mbps” is, by the standards of 2014, painfully slow. Those fancy online educational tools that are supposedly the main benefit of the program? Many of them don’t work so well on that connection.

In other words, Comcast is giving their low-income customers access to what they pay for — not access on par with what most other Comcast customers can buy. It’s both a fifth of the cost and a fifth of the service.

Last year, John Randall from the Roosevelt Institute came to a similar conclusion:

Comcast's Internet Essentials program does more to benefit Comcast's customer acquisition, public relations, and lobbying departments than to help people in America who need high-speed Internet access at a reasonable price. The reality is that the program is a cleverly designed customer acquisition program that benefits Comcast's bottom line. 

The Internet Essentials program, while offering a temporary respite to a small segment of low-income families, draws attention away from the real solution - policies that ensure affordable, reliable, and fast Internet access to all. As long as we continue to allow the consolidation of some of the most hated companies in the country, Internet Essentials is the best we can expect.