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After Local Communities Reclaim Authority, Comcast Turns Up Speed In Colorado

On November 4th, voters in several Colorado communities decided to reclaim local authority to provide telecommunications services. As Coloradans celebrated their steps toward self-reliance, Comcast felt a little quiver in its cowboy boots. KMGH in Denver is now reporting that Comcast plans to double Internet speeds at no extra charge for some Colorado customers. Customers now signed up for download speeds of 25 Mbps or 50 Mbps will see their speeds double at no extra charge by the end of the year.

KMGH reporter Ryan Tronier also notes that the recent election may have played a part in Comcast's decision to turn up the speed:

While the doubling of internet speeds is great news for Comcast customers, the move may not be as benevolent as it seems.

Comcast's announcement comes on the heels of seven Colorado cities and counties deregulating restrictive internet laws during the midterm elections. 

As many of our readers know, SB152 was passed in 2005 and prevents local governments from establishing telecommunications utilities unless voters approve an exemption. Exemptions passing in Boulder, Wray, Yuma, Cherry Hills Village, Red Cliff, Yuma County, San Miguel County, and Rio Blanco County appear to have been inspired by similar ballot measures years prior in Centennial, Montrose, and Longmont. Longmont is well into deploying its FTTH network.

With President Obama's recent support for reclassification to Title II as part of a free and open Internet plan, and Comcast's ongoing bid to merge with Time Warner Cable, a number of factors are still unsettled. Comcast is inclined to strategically present tidbits like this as a way to sweeten public perception when they want something of value.

Internet Essentials, Comcast's program for low income families was unveiled at a time when the cable behemoth wanted approval for its NBC acquisition. CEO David Cohen has admitted that it was used as a bargaining chip and it has since proved itself to be as much an obstacle as a tool. Unfortunately, Internet Essentials customers will not be included in this speed increase. In a place like Colorado where local communities are asserting their independence from one of the most hated companies in America, turning up the speed for free is the least Comcast can do.

Nevertheless, this is the latest example of how municipal networks, or the possibility of them, can inspire positive behavior from incumbents. In Columbia, Missouri, the local business community could not get adequate services from CenturyLink.  After announcing its intention to explore municipal fiber resources for commercial uses, CenturyLink decided it would offer gigabit service to a limited number of properties.

Colorado Comcast customers can expect their free speed increases by the end of 2014. While the increases are great news for existing customers, they do nothing for competition or for rural folks who are not served by the cable giant. Comcast customers who live in Denver can thank voters in Boulder, Wray, Yuma, Cherry Hills Village, Red Cliff, Yuma County, San Miguel County, and Rio Blanco County for their faster Internet speeds.

Using the Franchise to Organize Against Comcast - Community Broadband Bits Episode 124

We first became aware of the Media Mobilizing Project through our work with the Media Action Grassroots. MMP has been working in Philadelphia to organize low income neighborhoods to improve access to the Internet and media more generally.

Hannah Jane Sassaman is the MMP Policy Director and joins us this week for Episode 124 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. We discuss how Comcast and other cable companies are failing our communities and how MMP is using upcoming franchise re-negotiations to organize for better Internet access and other community benefits.

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 Jessie Evans for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Is it Fire?"

Local Entities Coordinate to Deploy Fiber in Illinois

Several entities in northeast Illinois are hoping to improve connectivity, reduce costs, and spur economic development with a publicly owned $2.11 million fiber optic investment. 

McHenry County, the City of Woodstock, McHenry Community College (MCC), and Woodstock Community Unit School District 200 are working together to develop the McHenry County Broadband Fiber Network Consortium. The county's Emergency Telephone System Board will also will belong to the consortium. The purpose of the group will be to oversee and manage the network, reports an October 26th Northwest Herald Article.

The Woodstock City Council recently unanimously approved participation in the project and the proposed intergovernmental agreement. District 200 soon followed with unanimous approval on October 28th, and on November 6th the McHenry County Board also agreed unanimously to participate in the project. The agreement and details about the project are available in the Agenda Packet [PDF] from the November 6th County Board meeting.

Each entity expects to see significant savings as they eliminate leased lines. Woodstock's annual projected operational costs will be $33,784, reducing municipal connectivity costs by about $13,448 per year by eliminating leased lines. Woodstock will also enjoy the ability to budget from year to year without the threat of unpredictable rate increases from current provider Comcast. City Manager Roscoe Stelford told the Northwest Herald:

The potential economic development opportunities, allowing area businesses to buy and use the new network, alone makes the project significant, he said.

“Having that high-tech infrastructure in the City of Woodstock is going to be another feather in our cap for us to secure economic development opportunities,” Stelford said.

The network will bring a 10 gigabit fiber back bone from the MCC campus through downtown to the County Government Center. Laterals will branch out to municipal and school facilities. The current plan includes gigabit connections to 24 municipal buildings, public safety sites, schools, recreation centers, a library, a work force center, and an opera house.

Comcast now charges District 200 approximately $109,000 per year for connectivity. When leased lines are eliminated, the District will spend approximately $48,500 as their share for operational and management costs. In addition to saving over $60,000 per year, District 200 will be able to offer students future-proof infrastructure. From the Woodstock Independent:

“It’s an exciting position to be in, and there are other things we’ll see savings on,” said [school] board member William Nattress. “Technical refreshment, new applications will be easier and less expensive now that we have this backbone.”

District 200's share is the largest because it requires more connections. Budgetary uncertainties at the state level have created concern for District 200 so Woodstock and McHenry County will cover District 200's $806,526 share with an interest-free, four-year loan.

For the total project, McHenry County will be responsible for $760,526; Woodstock will contribute $386,624; MCC will provide $54,423; and the Emergency Telephone System Board will contribute $105,800.

The Northern Illinois University's Broadband Development Group will coordinate the project; the network may be up and running as early as summer 2015.

Small Town Volunteers in Massachusetts Begin Pole Inventory

Volunteers in Shutesbury will fan out this weekend to perform a "pole inventory blitz" reports the GazetteNet.com. The town of approximately 1,800 people sits near Leverett and faces many of the same difficulties with connectivity. 

Shutesbury and Leverett were working together a few years ago hoping to develop a solution to bring infrastructure to both communities. The two communities approached Verizon and Comcast asking for better connectivity, but their requests led to nothing. Eventually, Leverett became frustrated and broke out on their own. They are now deploying their own fiber network.

One of the first steps in determining the feasibility and costs to deploy a fiber network is accurately evaluating assets. Many local communities do not have an up-to-date inventory of utility poles or what entities own those poles. In Lake County, Minnesota, Frontier Communications asserted ownership of utility poles in the town of Two Harbors after fiber had been strung on those poles. Unfortunately, the county's records had not been revisited in some time and Frontier was able to produce records put ownership in question. The project was significantly delayed; planners eventually moved more fiber underground to avoid many of those poles. Pole inventories and due diligence, as in Shutesbury, help avoid delays and unanticipated cost increases. (Read all about Lake County's project in our recent report, All Hands on Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models For Exanding Fiber Internet Access)

Most Shutesbury residents use Verizon DSL, satellite, or dial-up and the community knows it needs better access. In an effort to obtain connectivity that will ensure fast, affordable, reliable services in the future, Shutesbury is taking inspiration from its neighbor. The city does not have any specific plans for a municipal network but is realistic about lack of interest from private investment.

The committee originally formed to work on the issue with Leverett began meeting again last April and has organized volunteers to get the process started. On November 8th, 60 volunteers will go out in teams of 3 in order to accurately collect information on utility poles in the 27.2 square-mile town. They will use a special iPad app developed by one of the Shutesbury Broadband Committee Co-Chairwomen, Gayle Huntress.

Asha Strazzero-Wild, another co-chairwoman of the Broadband Committee told the GazetteNet that the community is painfully aware of the lack of connectivity in Shutesbury:

“Everyone who’s involved in this is saying we need broadband and we need it yesterday.”

Boo! Share Your Comcast Horror Stories With Media Mobilizing Project

It was a dark and stormy night... A woman screamed! A shot rang out! You are gripped by the terror of your Comcast bill! No! No! Nooooo!

The Media Mobilizing Project knows how dealing with the most-hated company in America sends shivers up your spine. Now they want you to share your stories of terror at #Comcast HorrorStory. You can also find them on Facebook and relate your tales of bloodcurdling cable butchery.

More on the campaign:

Tell us your Comcast Horror Story! We at Media Mobilizing Project and CAPComcast.org know that many people have horrible times trying to get affordable rates and reliable service for their Comcast cable and internet.

In honor of Halloween, we want to hear your Comcast horror story! Did your bill make your blood boil? Does Comcast’s attempt to merge with competitor Time Warner Cable send chills down your spine? Tell us now, and on Halloween day we’ll share snippets from the top-10 scariest Comcast stories we see.

At the same time, we think it is "horror"-ble that Comcast pays less than 1/3 of the average taxes other PA businesses pay, with huge tax breaks on their headquarters in Philly -- while our City shutters public schools and cuts education to the bone.

You can also go to the CAPComcast.org website to share your story and sign their petition.

Can we handle the carnage? Only time will tell...

Comcast Seeks "True Gig" Trademark for a Network Incapable of Offering a True Gig

In a world yearning for a gigabit Internet connection, what do you do if your legacy cable network cannot offer it? If you are Comcast, you seek a trademark for the term "True Gig." (More coverage from Ars Technica on this.)

Comcast's cable network may soon (testing in 2015?) be capable of offering a downstream gigabit but will not be able to come close to a gigabit in the upstream direction. Nonetheless, apparently it is planning to advertise its service as a "True Gig," likely in competition with Google in Provo since it plans to swap the Chattanooga territory to Charter as part of the Time Warner Cable merger plan. (Comcast is certainly not fleeing that market with its tail between its legs for having been spanked so badly by the city's municipal network).

Lest we forget, the Comcast network is shared among many users; its ability to actually deliver a gig is dependent on whether your neighbors are using their connections. So unlike a gigabit on a fiber network, the Comcast "True Gig" will likely be an inferior experience to a modern fiber network.

Google, of course, actually offers a gigabit in both directions. The same is true of Chattanooga and most municipal gigabit offers - symmetrical because who wants to wait hours to upload to the cloud if you can download in seconds?

And in case you forgot, the "True Gig" is coming from the same company that has taken credit for all fiber deployments announced in 2014 - on the thin premise that everything happening after Comcast announced its proposed takeover of Time Warner Cable was caused by the proposed takeover.

To recap... Comcast does not yet offer a gigabit service but has tried to take credit for most of the communities that either have a gig or could soon get it. They are technically incapable of offering an actual symmetrical gigabit. And to the extent they may offer a gigabit in only one direction, it will be shared among hundreds of homes and generally inferior to a downstream gig delivered by a fiber network. Yet, they will market their service as a "True Gig."

If there are indeed parallel universes, I would like to to request reassignment to one where a Comcast move like this is treated as it should be ... like the funniest joke in the world. However - that planet probably would have already died laughing at AT&T's Fiber-to-the-Press-Release antics or the hilarious claim by some coin-operated-research-outfits that the Comcast - Time Warner Cable takeover would be pro-consumer. OK - bad plan, I admit it. But seriously, I'm not allowed to cuss in these posts, so give me a break.

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Cities in Kentucky and Massachusetts Want a Say In Comcast/Time Warner Cable Merger

As the feds continue to evaluate the wisdom of the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger, local communities in several states are attempting to throw a wrench in the federal approval machine.

In Worcester, Massachusetts, the City Council recently refused to approve the transfer of the city's cable television license to Comcast. In order to sweet-talk the federal agencies concerned the merger may create too much market concentration, Comcast has worked out a deal with Charter Communications to transfer customers in certain geographic areas. Charter is the current incumbent in Worcester. 

According to a Telegam & Gazette article, the City Council does not need to approve the transfer for it to take affect. Nevertheless, the City Council voted 8-3 on October 14 to urge City Manager, Edward M. Augustus Jr., not to approve the transfer of the license. If Augustus makes no determination, the transfer will automatically be approved.

The city can only examine the transfer based on four criteria including company management, technical experience, legal experience, and financial capabilities. Management and poor customer service are the sticking points for Worcester:

District 5 Councilor Gary Rosen said the City Council should not welcome Comcast to Worcester because of its "deplorable and substandard" customer service across the country. 

"It's a terrible company," he said. "In my opinion, they should not be welcome in this city. Comcast is a wolf in wolf's clothing; it's that bad. They are awful, no doubt about it. Maybe we can't stop it, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't speak out." 

A similar scenario is playing out in Lexington, Kentucky. The community is the second largest city served by Time Warner Cable in the state. They are concerned existing customer service problems will worsen if Comcast becomes their provider.

The Urban City Council drafted two resolutions denying the transfer. The resolutions had first reading on October 9. Customer service is, again, a point of contention.

According to an October 9 Kentucky.com article, the city proposed including a fine for poor customer service as part of the agreement.  The fine is in the current franchise agreement, but TWC will not agree to carry it forward into the next agreement. The two parties have been working on a new contract since the previous one expired in 2012.

From an October 7 article in Kentucky.com:

Vice Mayor Linda Gorton said the city held two public meetings and also asked for public input regarding issues with the city's cable provider.

The city received "reams" of negative feedback from citizens, she said "It's everything from equipment, to service, to cost or the inability to understand how costs are set."

Council members also want to ensure that the local cable office be open some evening and weekend hours so customers can seek help. They also want to include an existing provision wherein the provider maintains a studio for public access television.

"We want to keep these terms in our current agreement," Gorton said. "For our citizens, we are working hard to get a good franchise agreement."

Back in Worcester, community leaders recognize their limitations:

Councilor-at-Large Frederick C. Rushton said there is no question there is a need for better cable television service in Worcester, but added that federal laws are unfortunately geared more in favor of cable companies than consumers. 

"We can make it sound like we are taking on the big boys, but in reality this will go nowhere," he said. "People want better service but I'm not sure the council floor is the way to get better service. We are just bit players in a big play. It may feel good to vote this, but it may very well end up having no effect." 

Community Broadband Media Roundup - October 17

This week, cities took the stage and made some very important moves to restore their local authority. From cities resisting big media mergers, to those choosing to join the new Next Century Cities initiative, it is a good time to be a part of municipal government efforts. 

Broadband Cities

Boulder, CO officials are looking ahead at their Longmont neighbor's gig network and exploring ways to make sure their own businesses are not left in the dust. Boulder’s chamber is pushing for an approval of ballot issue “2C”. Gavin Dahl of Boulder Weekly writes that the ballot question would open the way for the city to offer competitive gig services, helping the city keep existing businesses happy, and entice others to move in.

But according to Boulder News’, Erica Meltzer, opponents still seem to have their heads in the sand; The libertarian Independence Institute says if there was a market for fiber in the city, “some business” will find a way.  Maybe they think competitive, affordable Internet will just appear.

Meantime, Columbia, Missouri government officials may be facing an uphill battle. The city is exploring how to light its dark fiber infrastructure. Opponents say the plan goes against state restrictions on the city offering such services directly to customers. We believe the move would encourage competition among ISPs that would otherwise not be able to operate because of a lack of capital required to build fiber networks.

Cities choosing to keep ownership of their fiber infrastructures is often a sound decision, and North Kansas City, Missouri residents may soon be appreciating the city’s most recent announcement. In an effort to “give back” to residents, LiNKCity officials say that beginning in 2015 residential customers can get free Internet service. The decision is thanks to a unique partnership with a server farm company. 

From GovTech’s Colin Wood:

“I don’t think I’ve seen anything like this, in fact,” said Chris Mitchell, adding that he guesses DataShack intends to boost profits by gaining more local businesses as customers, and will do so by offering additional services like cloud-based storage -- services the city did not offer.”

Add Baltimore to the list of cities that are “fighting for fiber,” according to the Baltimore Sun’s Scott Dance. The Baltimore Broadband Coalition is working to convince citizens and city officials to explore municipal fiber. Harlem entrepreneurs are exploring how gigabit speeds can be a boon to businesses and startups, but also have a positive community impact:

"A lot of the broadband announcements were around wireless ... and that has a ways to go in terms of being effective…  it's important for the community to understand that broadband is essential to lowering crime, increasing education opportunities and closing the wealth gap."

Just outside of San Antonio, the community of New Braunfels, Texas is moving forward with a feasibility study. And not one but three Connecticut communities are taking broadband futures in their own hands. Mayors from New Haven, West Hartford, and Stamford are banding together to solve the state’s broadband problems. GovTech’s Colin Wood tapped Chris Mitchell for insight:

“I watch with a sort of nervous excitement. It’s exciting to see these cities working together and recognizing that they have a need. But I get nervous because I feel like they’re going to get responses to their RFQ, and the easiest thing to do will be for some ISPs to commit to only building out some areas of town. And I think that’s dangerous fundamentally.”

Next Century Cities

Solidarity and learning from city successes and challenges are core values of the newly launched Next Century Cities initiative. Mayors and city leaders from all over the country converged on Santa Monica, to support each other in their broadband efforts. From Sandy, Oregon to Morristown, Tennessee, 32 cities announced their commitment to six basic principles that will help lead communities to self-determination in their broadband endeavors.

Before heading to Santa Monica, one of the major voices for broadband, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, spoke on a panel in Boston to urge cities to move forward independent of federal programs. Do yourself a favor and head to twitter, type #NCCLaunch and read the stream of comments. Then head to the initiative web page, watch the webcast, educate yourself and urge your city officials to take action.

Comcast/TWC Merger

Franchise agreements between cities and Time Warner Cable may be key to blocking Comcast and TWC’s proposed merger. More and more cities are standing up and demanding real choice in their communities; this week several stepped forward.

According to Ars Technica’s Jon Brodkin, city council leaders in Lexington, Kentucky say TWC’s refusal to address customer service complaints are the reason they are denying transfer of ownership. Consumer advocates like John Bergmayer hope others follow suit. 

"I suppose the broader question is whether a single municipality by itself can stop this merger. Maybe not, but it’s unlikely that any one town would be acting alone. If I were Comcast or Time Warner, I’d be looking nervously at my other franchise agreements in towns around the country, and at the states. Taken together these actions could imperil the merger—and might give the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] and DoJ [Department of Justice] even more incentive to act."

And city council leaders in Worcester, Massachusetts are attempting to block Comcast from entering the area this week as well, it seems “substandard customer service” is finally beginning to bite the company back. The Daily Dot’s Patrick Howell O’Neill has the story:

"It's a terrible company," City Councilor Gary Rosen said. "In my opinion, they should not be welcome in this city. Comcast is a wolf in wolf's clothing; it's that bad. They are awful, no doubt about it. Maybe we can't stop it, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't speak out."

Crawfordsville Municipal Network Purchased by Metronet in Indiana

Our Community Broadband Map documents over 400 communities where publicly owned infrastructure serves residents, business, or government facilities. We rarely hear of publicly owned systems sold to private providers, but it does happen once in a blue moon.

Accelplus, the fiber optic FTTH network deployed by Crawfordsville Electric Light & Power (CEL&P) in Indiana was sold earlier this year to private provider Metronet.

According to a July Journal Review article, the transition for customers began this summer with completion expected by the end of 2014. Metronet invested approximately $2 million in upgrades. Metronet will also offer voice services via the network; Accelplus offered only Internet and video.

In the past, we have found that networks that offer triple-play can attract more customers, increasing revenues. In states where munis cannot offer triple-play or administrative requirements are so onerous they discourage it, municipalities that would like to deploy fiber networks sometimes decide to abandon their vision due to the added risk. 

A November 2013 Journal Review article reported that the network, launched in 2005, faced an expensive lawsuit commenced by US Bank. Apparently the network could not keep up with the repayment schedule for Certificates of Participation, backed by network revenue, that financed the investment.

Metronet purchased Accelplus and its assets for $5.2 million. The City also provided some economic development incentives. When all is said and done, investors are settling for a total of $5.6 million and the City avoids a $19.6 million lawsuit.

A February Journal Review article reported:

Metronet will receive a 10-year, $24,000 per year lease from CEL&P on property currently used by Accelplus. Metronet can purchase that property for $1 after the lease expires. Accelplus manager John Douglas has segregated those areas and provided AutoCAD drawings to Metronet.

Furthermore, CEL&P will lease 72 strands of fiber to Metronet at the rate of $24,000 per year for 10 years as part of an indefeasible right to use agreement.

A 99-year lease agreement will also allow Metronet to have equipment on CEL&P utility poles. Metronet will monitor and maintain CEL&P equipment as part of the agreement.

Metronet, established in 2005, serves 14 communities in Indiana. They will acquire approximately 2,600 customers in Crawfordsville. When the transaction was approved by the City Council in November 2013, the Journal Review quoted Metronet leadsership:

“We think Crawfordsville is a great fit for us,” Metronet representative Steve Biggerstaff said. “This is a great day of celebration for us, as well. We commend you on your vision and we look forward to continuing providing a top-notch fiber network.”

Local Accelplus customer Roger Thacker, expressed dismay in his letter to the Journal Review. It seems his experience with a local, accountable, responsive publicly owned network raised the bar. Based on all the reports we have seen (and our own experience with Comcast), we emathize with Roger:

I like Accelplus over Comcast. When there is a problem I can call the local office and the problem is fixed that day, and you get a live person on the other end. Unlike Comcast you call a toll-free number and your call goes to another state or to Canada. Then it takes them a week to fix their Internet or cable. With Accelplus you call a local number and they are there. In my opinion Accelplus is successful. It is sad to see them sell out to an outsider. I just hope we get the same service as we did with Accelplus.

Verizon CEO: LTE Cannot Replace Fiber

Verizon Wireless CEO Dan Mead is not doing any favors for Comcast as it pursues approval to acquire Time Warner Cable. In August, he came out and publicly stated that no, LTE is not equal to fiber. The Verge quoted Mead, who was refreshingly honest about technical limitations and Comcast's motivations for making such outrageous claims:

"They're trying to get deals approved, right, and I understand that... their focus is different than my focus right now, because I don't have any deals pending," Mead said, a reference to the fact that Comcast is looking for ways to justify the TWC buy. "LTE certainly can compete with broadband, but if you look at the physics and the engineering of it, we don't see LTE being as efficient as fiber coming into the home."

A number of other organizations also try to educate the general public about the fact that mobile Internet access is not on par with wireline service. For example, Public Knowledge has long argued that "4G + Data Caps = Magic Beans." 

Our Wireless Internet Access Fact Sheet dispels common misconceptions, shares info about data caps, and provides comparative performance data between wireless and wired connections. While mobile Internet access is certainly practical, valuable, and a convenient complement to wired connections, it is no replacement. Wireless limitations, coupled with providers' expensive data caps enforced with overage charges, can never replace a home wired connection. Doing homework, applying for a job, or paying bills online quickly drives families over the typical 250 GB limit.

Speaking from experience, my own family of three routinely surpasses 250 GB per month and we are not bandwidth hogs compared to many other families in our social circle. Fortunately for us, the "enforcement of the 250GB data consumption threshold is currently suspended," as I am reminded every billing cycle.

Considering Mead's experience in both wired and wireless, how could any of us question his perspective:

Before moving to Verizon's wireless unit, Mead held executive roles in the company's landline business, responsible for traditional telephone service and high-speed internet to the home. "We know both sides of that pretty well," he continued. "So that may be a little bit of a stretch, and the economics are much different."