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Community Broadband Media Roundup - February 20

Next week the FCC will make a landmark decision that will affect the future of community networks. Here's a roundup of stories.

Hate Your Internet Service Provider? You Should Have Feb. 26 Circled on Your Calendar by Daniel B. Kline, Motley Fool

The state of city-run Internet by Allan Holmes, Center for Public Integrity

The Center and Reveal revisited Tullahoma, Tennessee and Fayetteville, North Carolina, where state laws restrict municipal broadband growth. 

How Will the Fight over Public ISPs and Net Neutrality Play Out? by Larry Greenemeier, Scientific American

In an effort to sort through these and other issues impacting how people will access and use the Internet for years to come, Scientific American spoke with Lev Gonick, CEO of OneCommunity, an ISP for Case Western Reserve University, University Hospitals and another 1,800 public-benefit organizations in northeastern Ohio. 

“The idea of local governments taking it upon themselves to improve community broadband speeds has caught on in recent years, particularly in towns and cities that host major universities craving greater network bandwidth.”

Idaho: 

Judge's ruling worsens Idaho's high school Internet headache by Bill Roberts, Idaho Statesman. We have long argued that throwing money at the biggest carriers is poor policy and a waste of taxpayer dollars.

A deadline for the loss of service looms as officials scramble for solutions.

Iowa:

Providers: Iowa's broadband expansion will take time, money by Barbara Rodriguez, News Tribune

Illinois:

Search still on for immaculate reception by Rich Warren: News-Gazette: Champaign, Illinois

“The FCC may truly blast open the cable industry to competition by overruling laws in Tennessee and North Carolina, which could create a precedent in the remaining 20 states that restrict municipal/public Internet providers. Unfortunately, huge corporations, such as Verizon, threaten to fight this in court to the bitter end.”

Maine:

Town weighing options to create a fiber optic broadband network by Robert Levin, Mount Desert Islander

The town will spend up to $20,000 to study the feasibility of constructing its own fiber optic network to link town buildings, schools and possibly private businesses and residences to high-speed broadband Internet.

Massachussets:

Baker pledges $50 million for Western Mass. broadband by Jack Newsham, Boston Globe

Missouri:

Schaefer seeks to block Columbia from creating high-speed Internet utility by Rudi Keller, Columbia Tribune

In a letter to committee Chairman Eric Schmitt, a coalition of private companies and industry associations said the bill would hinder economic growth, especially in rural areas where private companies are reluctant to invest.

“These communities should be free of artificial barriers, including the cumbersome, time-consuming, expensive, and ambiguous requirements” of Schaefer’s bill, said the letter, signed by Google, Netflix, the Telecommunications Industry Association and the American Public Power Association, among others.

Minnesota:

Broadband appetite grows in Upper Minnesota River Valley by Tom Cherveny 

Green Isle, Townships Nearing Final Phase for Fiber Project OK by Belle Plaine Herald

Ohio:

Cleveland seen pioneering a new kind of smart growth, Internet driven development: the Mix by Robert L. Smith, The Plain Dealer 

Tennessee:

TUB rural broadband gets another hearing  by Marian Galbraith

Texas:

EUB member proposes municipal-owned fiber-optic network by Matt Dotray, A-J Media

West Virginia:

W.Va. bill to build $78M rural broadband network advances by Eric Eyre, West Virginia Gazette

Oh Snap! House buckling to Frontier, Republican delegate alleges by Eric Eyre , West Virginia Gazette

“No wonder they’re called Frontier, Those are the kinds of speeds you’d expect on the American frontier in the 17th century,” Smith said in a press release.  

“I may be alienated by my party in the end, but right is right, and wrong is wrong. [Internet companies] ought to be held accountable for what they’re providing.”

Opinion:

Editorial: Let cities compete for broadband: Our view USA Today

Why should they be powerless as big companies route the information superhighway around them?

Editorial: Broadband development holds possibilities by Watertown Daily Times

Broadband is better as a public-private partnership By Ben Franske, MinnPost 

 

Internet and Education:

Technology at their fingertips, but lacking Internet

Students have access to the gadgets, but when Internet is lacking at home, they may fall behind. 

 

Comcast:

Comcast agent tells customer that data caps are “mandated by law” by Jon Brodkin, Ars Technica

Comcast forced to clarify that "there is no law" requiring data caps.

Cable customer service “unacceptable,” says cable’s top lobbyist

Former FCC Chairman Michael Powell loves cable, but facts are facts.

Comcast Ghostwrites Letters From Elected Officials to FCC

It is common knowledge that Comcast and a number of political leaders enjoy special relationships. Nevertheless, it was still a bit shocking to see the level at which Comcast's army has infiltrated the political process as uncovered in a recent Verge article.

Comcast, Time Warner Cable, AT&T, and CenturyLink lawyers and lobbyists often write legislation for lawmakers to introduce. This past summer, the puppetry went one step further when Comcast crafted letters supporting the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger. Those letters were then submitted to the FCC from the offices of a number of politicians known to receive support from the cable giant. We applaud both Comcast and their pet lawmakers for their efficiency!

The Verge was also able to obtain email threads that document how lobbyists drafted letters of support and sent them on to local elected officials, who then made insignificant changes in the signature line or transferred the exact language on to official stationery before sending it on to the FCC.

We have taken the liberty of presenting some of the letters below. You can see a few email exchanges that detail the conversation between Comcast lobbyists and political staff.

The Verge spoke with Michal Copps, former FCC Chairman, who now advises at Common Cause:

"When a mayor of a town or a town councilman or a legislator writes in — we look at that, and if someone is of a mind already to approve something like this they might say: ‘ah-ha, see!’" says Copps, who is now an advisor at Common Cause and opposes the merger. "These letters can be consequential, there’s no question about that."

The comment process has been tainted because Comcast has also used gentle nudging to obtain support from organizations benefitting from its charitable foundation. Columbia Professor Tim Wu has studied the potential merger:

"I think they have failed to meet their burden of persuasion that this will make life better for the average American consumer…What does the average American consumer care about? They care about prices being too high. Comcast could have said this merger will lower prices and committed itself to lower prices but it has made no sign that it will do this." 

Wu, who reviewed the documents obtained by The Verge, said that the new information "confirms the impression that evidence that the merger is in the ‘public interest’ is simply being manufactured."

"It’s sort of become an amusement park where the fake stuff outnumbers the real stuff," Wu says. "The fact is a lot of telecom issues are pretty obscure, they often don’t get the public very excited. So what do you do? You buy it."

Apparently, these elected officials did not expect their constituents to notice that they supported one of the most unpopular proposed mergers in history. In order to set the record straight, we encourage constituents to contact them and let them know that you do not support the merger, as they claim you do.

We also suggest that you let them know that you do not cotton to the idea that they let lobbyists put words in their mouths, regardless of the issue.

Most importantly, remember this incident the next time you enter the voting booth.

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 124

Thanks to Jeff Hoel for providing the transcript of Episode 124 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast with Hannah Jane Sassaman on using the franchise to organize against Comcast. Listen to this episode here.

 

00:04:

Hannah Jane Sassaman: Internet Essentials is a really important example of why letting big companies like Comcast own all of the infrastructure that lets us communicate and determine the policies that let us communicate is exactly the wrong idea for the next generation.

00:20:

Lisa Gonzalez: Hello there. Welcome again to the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. This is Lisa Gonzalez.

Hannah Jane Sassaman, Policy Director for Media Mobilizing Project, joins Chris today. The project is centered in Philadelphia, where a significant amount of the population is trapped in the digital divide. As most of our listeners know, Comcast offered Internet Essentials a few years ago to sweeten their NBC merger proposition. The program was supposed to get more lower-income people online, but it has had dismal results. In this interview, Hannah describes how the Media Mobilizing Project discovered Comcast's immense political clout in Philadelphia that went far beyond exposition as a cable TV and Internet provider.

As the community discovered how the multibillion-dollar corporation was taking advantage of them, animosity grew, and they decided it was time to hold Comcast's feet to the fire. Philadelphia's franchise agreement with Comcast is coming to an end, and the Media Mobilizing Project saw this is an opportunity to demand Comcast finally pay its fair share. They have begun a grassroots movement to pressure local officials to require any new agreement to include more affordable services for local citizens, a requirement that Comcast pay its fair share in taxes, and that Comcast employees should receive the benefits they deserve. The Media Mobilizing Project provides more detail on the platform at its website capcomcast.org. Here are Hannah Jane Sassaman and Chris, discussing efforts to tell Comcast to support its home town.

01:58:

Chris Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell. And today I'm speaking with Hannah Jane Sassaman, the Policy Director for Media Mobilizing Project in Philadelphia. Welcome to the show.

02:12:

Hannah Jane Sassaman: Thank you so much.

02:13:

Chris: I'm excited to have you on. Always like guests from Philly. I love going back there to visit friends. And I grew up in Allentown, so I'm a big fan of the cheesesteak, which is only possible to get in the Philadelphia area.

02:25:

Hannah: Next time you're here, I'll make sure you get the best one in town.

02:28:

Chris: Is that Jim's?

02:29:

Hannah: This place, Tony Luke's, that has -- puts this incredibly garlicky, oily, broccoli rub on their cold pork sandwiches, and other great stuff on their cheesesteaks. It's something that most folks out-of-town don't know about. But it's definitely the best cheesesteak and the best cold pork in town.

02:44:

Chris: All right. Well. I'm very glad to learn that. I look forward to that, next time I'm in town. And, now that we have our listeners starting to be really interested in what's going on in Philadelphia, why don't you tell us a little bit about the Media Mobilizing Project?

02:58:

Hannah: Sure. So, Media Mobilizing Project is a group that focuses on communications rights as a tool to end poverty. We live in the poorest big city in the United States. Philly is the poorest of the top ten big cities. And there's millions of people in this region that really struggle to get by. That struggle to get their kids into good schools, that struggle to get good jobs in healthcare, that are struggling against immigration issues, and many other issues. But they're isolated from each other, and it's really -- people feel really alone. So we do everything from really intensive media trainings to help people break the digital divide, to get online. We produce stories that really unite people across color lines, across communities of origin, across age. And we focus really hard, as well, on the structure of the media system that either lets us tell those stories or keeps us from telling those stories.

So, we've done everything from win $20 million for the city of Philadelphia from a big stimulus package that let us build 77 computer labs with community partners across the city. We produce very high quality video work that helps taxi workers win workman's compensation, that's helped Head Start parents -- we authorized the Head Start program to keep their kids in preschool. And we focus really hard on the relationships between things like the shuttering of our Philadelphia School District's schools, the closing of hospitals, and the ability for us to tell those stories, in the city where Comcast is headquartered. So, it's about the relationship between everyday things that we go through and our ability to connect with each other to solve the problems facing people in America today.

04:42:

Chris: Well, working in those communities, I have to assume that you're very familiar with the Comcast Internet Essentials program -- a program that, if you listen to Comcast, you know, is the solution for making sure that people that have children in the home are able to access the Internet so they can be educated and have all the tools that all the other kids have. What's been your experience, and the community's experience, with that program?

05:10:

Hannah: Internet Essentials is a really important example of why letting big companies like Comcast own all of the infrastructure that lets us communicate and determine the policies that lets us communicate is exactly the wrong idea for the next generation. So, back in 2011, as your listeners probably remember, Comcast was trying to merge with NBC-Universal -- which, you know, instinctively seems like a pretty -- pretty bad idea. It's a lot of monopolization in one industry. But executives at Comcast, led by David Cohen, the Executive VP there, told Congress that if they were allowed to merge with NBC, that they would get two million families online -- two million people online that weren't online before, with $10 a month Internet, a subsidized refurbished computer, and training to learn how to use it. Only, in 2011, something like 500 families in Philly were using it -- in a city where many, many families were eligible.

And the issue was that Comcast put a ton of barriers in front of low-income families to be able to use the service. They set it up so that if you owed Comcast any money, any back bills, or if you had old equipment at your house, that you had to pay that off, you had to return the equipment, in order to get online. They would check your credit. And these are issues that folks living in poverty struggle with all the time. The program was also only available to families where the kids were enrolled initially just in public schools. They expanded it after that to private, parochial, other kinds of schools. And those kids had to qualify for the free or reduced-price lunch programs. So that meant that millions of people that didn't qualify for those programs but still couldn't afford an unpredictable Comcast bill every month -- folks with disabilities, seniors, folks who were out of work, who needed Internet connectivity to get a job -- were just cut out of the picture, completely.

There was a really good piece, done by a reporter named Alan Holmes, who works for the Center for Public Integrity, studying the impact of Comcast's discount program's lack of availability to folks who were out of work, and to seniors, for example. And so, I think what really matters is that Comcast PRETENDS that that program really fixes the digital divide. They look at like a kind of charity. When really what we need is regulated and legislated change.

We shouldn't let Comcast have it both ways, saying: Please don't regulate us. Please let us merge with Time Warner Cable, for example. Please let us, you know, prevent cities like Pittsburgh, cities like Scranton, other cities in Pennsylvania from building their own competitive networks. Let us have a monopoly in every city where we work. Don't charge us any taxes. Comcast, you know, pushes very hard with its lobbying dollars to demand all these things. But then really doesn't actually get poor people online. Currently around the United States, only 12 percent of eligible families are using this program. And in Philly, that number is even lower: it's 9 percent. That's in Comcast's home town.

So, when we look at breaking the digital divide, and making sure everyone has the ability to advocate for their future, to learn, to apply for jobs, we can't trust big companies to do it on their own. We have to make sure that we're building the competitive market, that we are protecting communities' right to build their own solutions, to truly make that happen.

08:29:

Chris: You actually left out some other incredibly troubling details for even those who are able to figure out that there's this program out there that they could sign up for. I mean, there's the issue that Comcast just hasn't done a good job marketing it, in Philadelphia or anywhere. Oftentimes, when people call in, once they've learned about it, perhaps from a church group or something, they'll get a customer service representative who has no idea what they're talking about. And then, if they navigate the barriers, a few months later, they get one device that can connect to the Internet. You know, it's really -- the program is so incredibly limited. And, as Alan -- I believe Alan Holmes -- showed, it's still a profit center for Comcast. They're not even ...

09:09:

Hannah: That's right!

09:09:

Chris: ... losing money on it. You know, it's one of those things where -- You know, I hate to say, you know, oh, Comcast SHOULD be losing money on it. Well, the question should be, is it meeting the needs? And it's not. And on top of it, Comcast is just finding a way of sucking more money out of these communities that don't have it to give.

09:25:

Hannah: That's right. Comcast earned $18 million a year off this discount Internet program. Which is, I think, pretty disgusting. And I think the point that you brought up, Chris, about how this is really something that they're not even promoting well is quite right.

I was working with a school, a public school here in Philadelphia, named Constitution High. It's a magnet school, focused on history, focused on social studies, that in Old City, that's in the birthplace of the American democracy. It's literally a block and a half away from the Liberty Bell. I went and visited that school, and worked with a teacher there named Miranda Thompson and a number of students. And they said that Comcast had come in, in 2011, and done a huge dog-and-pony show at the school. They brought the Mayor. They brought the Philadelphia Eagles, football players. They brought a lot of cameras. They shut the second-floor bathrooms so only Comcast employees could use it, none of the kids could use it. They did this big dog-and-pony show to launch Internet Essentials. And all the students got in return were ten laptops for the school, of which -- six of which were broken the next year. I saw a pile of dead brick laptops.

And when Miranda did a survey, of over 150 students she interacts with during the day -- she just did a, you know, not a scientifically significant one, but talked with all of the kids she saw for a school day. Only three of those kids were signed up for the Internet Essentials program. And this is a school where two-thirds of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. And so, what we're looking at is, Comcast's putting forward this program to try to merge with Time Warner Cable, to cover and paper over their merger with NBC. And because of the really clear analysis that -- and the great media coverage that we've gotten -- that a number of advocates and students and community advocates have gotten around the paucity of this program, Comcast has started to improve it a little bit.

Like, for example, they removed that provision that was saying that if you owed them any money that you couldn't get online. They said that if that bill was over a year old, they would cancel it. They literally called it an "amnesty." Which I found to be incredibly telling about Comcast's hubris. Comcast thinks they've got the power to grant "amnesty" to people in the United States who are poor. They literally think that they have that control. Really what we need is an amnesty from the closed, monopolized, completely-out-of-control market that prevents the Internet from being an affordable utility, like it is in millions of other communities around the world. And so, I think that there's more and more analysis, both in our everyday communities as well as in Congress and at the FCC, that we need competitive, local broadband networks, as well as strong restrictions on what Comcast can charge our communities, to make sure that everyone gets online.

12:14:

Chris: One of the challenges of having those competitive systems, of course, is that it is incredibly difficult to organize around opposition to Comcast. For whatever reason. People are furious with Comcast, they hate their cable company. And yet, it's difficult to get them to recognize that there's an alternative. You've started to do this. You've identified that there IS an opportunity to organize around. And that's the franchise renegotiation. Because Comcast needs approval from the city to be offering its services. And this is true in about half of our states that have local franchising still. So why don't you tell us a little bit about what you're working on?

12:52:

Hannah: Last year, in 2013, we noticed -- we were working with -- we work with poor people's organizations, unions, all the time. To help them tell their stories, and to help unite their stories, as I described before. We were working with a coalition that was trying to expand paid sick days -- that was trying to make sure that the 200,000 workers in Philly, that don't even have one paid day off a year -- people who work in restaurants, do child care -- get it.

13:18:

Chris: This is a tangent that I really want to just cover briefly. It's really personal to me. I worked developing film for Ritz Camera, back when there was Ritz Camera stores. And ...

13:29:

Hannah: Yeah.

13:29:

Chris: ... you know, this was an hourly job. And there was no paid sick time. If I got sick, and I took a day off of work, I was expected to have a note from the doctor to justify ...

13:39:

Hannah: Yup.

13:39:

Chris: ... So, not only did I not get paid, and I didn't earn enough to actually have medical care -- to have health insurance -- I sure wasn't going to go to the doctor if I was ill. I was going to wait a while. But this is something that a number of cities have been looking at. Health care policy is not something we typically talk about. But Comcast really inserted themselves into this debate in Philadelphia, which I just found astounding.

14:00:

Hannah: Totally, Chris. Your Ritz Cameras story is indicative of what millions of people in this country go through -- hundreds of thousands here in Comcast's home town. So, we noticed, in 2013, that the biggest lobbyist against that bill in Philly City Council, to try to kill it, was Comcast. They spent more than any other lobbyist, talking to all of the members of Council about why they didn't think it should pass. And we thought that was an outrage. And also a really important thing to tell this city: that this company that claims to be a hometown hero was fighting the poorest people's right to have even one paid day off, to take care of a sick parent, or sick child, or themselves. It's just astounding to us.

And so, we work with national groups and local organizations. We got about 60,000 petition signatures, telling our City Council to listen to us, not to Comcast. We took them around City Hall, surrounded by TV cameras. And we -- I really believe that we moved the votes of a bunch of those different City Council members to vote "yes" when they otherwise would have voted "no." We got a majority of Councilors to pass a bill, but it was one vote short of a veto-proof majority. That bill was vetoed by our mayor.

We found out that Comcast was paying about a third of the taxes that other Pennsylvania-headquartered companies were paying. Here in Pennsylvania, they pay 3.4 percent in income taxes in a state where 10 percent is the average. We found that in their big downtown headquarters, they pay basically nothing in their -- on their huge building in property taxes. Which is particularly egregious because our school district depends on property tax to survive. And after we've been, you know, starved, in our school district, by our governor, by our mayor -- we just shuttered over 20 schools here in Philly, and schools opened this year without guidance counselors, nurses, sports, arts, you know -- it's a really a really telling thing when we have a company like Comcast not supporting the city where it actually lives.

We found that the new headquarters that they're building, they're getting $40 million in subsidies, right out of the gate, to build that building. And it's not like they're going to be providing jobs to low-income Philadelphians. They're going to try to import fancy techs and, you know, world-class employees, as they describe it, from outside of our community.

And we also found that executives at Comcast were actively pushing to break our teachers union, to -- instead of Comcast paying more in taxes to support the schools, Comcast was trying to force our teachers to pay more for, you know, subsidizing a school district, which is absolutely at rock-bottom bankruptcy.

It really seemed like a perfect time to focus on how can we ask the question, what is Comcast's responsibility to the city that has given so much to it, in a time of economic crisis? But we're the fourth-biggest cable market in the country, as well as Comcast's headquarters. So we're no joke. And then, we found that Comcast's 15-year deal, that they signed with the city of Philadelphia, in order to provide cable connectivity -- Comcast, because they dig up our streets, they have to pay what's called a franchise fee to the city of Philadelphia. And what that fee is -- it's calculated based on 5 percent of their gross cable receipts, every year. So that's not broadband, and that's not voice-over-IP. It's not the triple play. It's just their cable receipts.

And they also have to provide funding and some channel space for public-access television, which is vitally important. We do a lot of work on our local access channel, PhillyCAM. But we were looking at that franchise deal, saying why wouldn't we work to make it politically necessary and possible? That if Comcast is going to get another 15-year deal, that they have to actually pay their fair share. Even though it's not legally necessary for Comcast to, for example, pay another 5 percent on top of that 5 percent in cable receipts. Or to expand that Internet Essentials program we were talking about earlier, to create promotions for millions of other people in our region to access it. Or to pay for every piece of technology in the Philadelphia public schools, and provide free connectivity to them and their families, for example, for the life of the franchise. All of these things seem morally obvious. But they're not legally required.

But we -- but the negotiation, in order to get a franchise, is just that. It's a negotiation between the city of Philadelphia and Comcast. And we're working with thousands of people across the city, we're working with members of City Council, we're working with the technical office here in the city, to say that Comcast should not get a new franchise unless it pays its fair share. Unless it really makes sure that the rates for the service that it provides are affordable. So hundreds of thousands more people get online. That the resources that Comcast provides start to meet its deep, deep profits.

Like the fact that they don't pay enough in taxes, here in Philadelphia, is egregious. And that competition is something that can happen over the next 15 years. That we open up the franchise, look at either what the legal provisions are there, or what the political realities are that prevent other competitors -- fiber, um, you know, high-speed wireless -- from coming to Philadelphia -- that we get those kicked out, so we build the competition we need, so consumers truly get an affordable, high-speed, viable service. And Comcast has to bring down their prices to match it.

So that's -- those are the demands we're going to try to attach to this franchise. We're going to be bringing hundreds of people to public hearings around this, which should be announced any day now. It should be happening before the end of 2014. And we'll be working to make sure that low-income people, that local entrepreneurs, that people who represent the schools are telling their Council members that Comcast shouldn't get a new deal unless the true communications and resource needs of the city are met. And we think that this is a model that people can follow all around the United States.

Right now, Comcast is attempting to merge with Time Warner [Cable]. They're also trying to divest from a number of cities that they've served for years. Like Detroit, for example. They're trying to pick [pull] up states in Detroit so when they -- if and when they merge with Time Warner Cable, the amount of homes that are being served by Comcast falls under a cap of around 30 percent of American homes, so the Department of Justice won't consider them a monopoly. So they're leaving cities like Detroit. They're leaving, like, the Twin Cities region. In order to get Manhattan. In order to get Los Angeles. So when those cities are looking at new franchises that Comcast is trying to ram through, so they look kosher to the Department of Justice, they should also be looking at what are the different provisions they can attach to a franchise that make Internet more affordable, that make the resources the community needs far more on the table, and that builds the future of competition, which can keep communications prices down for millions of people.

21:02:

Chris: All right. Well, thank you so much for coming on the show.

21:04:

Hannah: Thank you, Chris.

21:05:

Lisa: Hannah left us with a few other suggestions for communities who may be in a similar situation. She suggests capcomcast.org to review in detail some of the demands the Media Mobilizing Project is putting together for the Philadelphia franchising negotiations. They have a number of resources, including video, and a petition we encourage you to sign and submit. You should also take a moment to contact your own elected officials and let them know that you support this type of strategy to improve connectivity in your community. Hannah also recommends trying to connect your local officials to elected officials in places where community networks have already had a positive impact. We have hundreds of examples at muninetworks.org . Lastly, she suggests following events at the FCC, and commenting to show your support for proposals that encourage community networks, local control, and network neutrality.

Send us your ideas for the show. E-mail us at podcast@muninetworks.org . Follow us on Twitter. Our handle is @communitynets . This week we want to thank Jessie Evans for the song, "Is it Fire?" licensed through Creative Commons. And thanks for listening.

Ting to Offer Fiber Internet Service in Charlottesville

Comcast may be an ISP Goliath, but a new David will soon move to Charlottesville. Tucows Inc., recently announced that it plans to begin serving as an ISP in the area and will eventually expand to other markets.

In a Motherboard article, CEO Elliot Noss said:

"At the simplest level, we'll be offering a lot more product for the same price, and a much better customer experience. We want to become like a mini Google fiber."

The company began in the 1990s and is known for registering and selling premium domain names and hosting corporate emails accounts. Two years ago they ventured into wireless cell service and were immediately praised for their top notch customer service and no-frills billing. Tucows promises to fill the customer service gap left by incumbent Comcast, one of the most hated companies in America.

Tucows will operate its Internet service under its cellular brand, Ting. It will take over existing fiber infrastructure owned by Blue Ridge InternetWorks and will begin serving customers as early as the first quarter of 2015. Ting hopes to be able to charge less than $100 per month for gigabit fiber service. Comcast charges $90 per month for 50 Mbps and CenturyLink charges $40 per month for 10 Mbps in Charlottesville.

As far as "fast lanes" go? From the Motherboard article:

Noss said that the company is dedicated to net neutrality as a "sensible business practice" and said "it's our responsibility to make sure content like Netflix is fast on our network. We're not looking for content providers to pay us in a double-sided fashion."

Ting reaffirms that philosophy on the Ting Blog:

Tucows believes very strongly in the open Internet. Up until now, there wasn’t a whole lot we could do but educate, agitate and contribute. Getting into fixed access, owning our own pipe, is an opportunity for us to practice what we preach when it comes to the open Internet and net neutrality.

Noss told Motherboard the company is looking beyond Charlottesville and taking input from an interested public at their website. They will first look at partnering, buying infrastructure, and leasing fiber from local governments. From the article:

"The one thing we won't do is spend a lot of time convincing people of the need for a fiber network,” he said. “We think that's a waste of time, and I think people already see the value.”

"Stop Mega Comcast" Coalition; Philly Comcast Subscribers Speak Out in New Video

As days go by, an increasing number of organizations, companies, and individuals go on record opposing the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger. The DOJ has already spent significant time analyzing the proposal and the FCC has been taking comments for months. On November 3rd, a new coalition, "Stop Mega Comcast," announced that it was jumping into the fray. 

Engadget reports that the group includes both consumer groups and competitors, including Dish Network and Public Knowledge:

"This much power concentrated in the hands of one company would be frightening even for the most trustworthy of companies," Public Knowledge's CEO Gene Kimmelman said in a statement. "And Comcast is definitely not that."

Certainly the people of Philadelphia could attest to the fact that Comcast is "not that." As we reported in episode #124 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, the Media Mobilizing Project is working in Comcast's hometown to compel the cable giant to give back to a city it has already taken so much from.

Hannah Jane Sassaman described for us how the community is using franchise negotiations as leverage for better prices, better services, and more accountability from Comcast. Their project, CAPComcast, recently released this video wherein people straight from the Comcast service center describe their frustrations with the incumbent.

Video: 
See video

Community Broadband Media Roundup - November 30, 2014

This week in community broadband, more communities are adding broadband to the list of essential utilities, and many of them are turning to Chattanooga as a model “gig city.”

As Times Free Press’s Dave Flessner reports, the great thing about Chattanooga's approach is that it’s not just about Internet. In fact, the broadband boom is really an unintended benefit of the city’s cutting edge smart grid, which keeps the city’s lights on and powers the economy as well. 

"What we're going to try to do is bring some of the brilliant people from Warner Bros., Fox, Disney and IBM down here to Chattanooga to help them get their heads wrapped around this notion that you've got to stop worrying about scarcity," [Annenberg Innovation Lab director Jonathan] Taplan said.

Last year, T-Bone Burnett, a Grammy Award winner, performed "The Wild Side of Life" from a Los Angeles studio with Chuck Mead, a founder of the band BR549 who was on stage in Chattanooga.

"They sang a song together over 2,000 miles apart," Taplin said. "That's the power of gigabit Internet. I think we're just beginning to think of the possibilities of what this thing can do."

And Android Authority’s William Neilson Jr. explores the desire for faster connections and more choices.

“Isn’t it amazing how much faster broadband speeds are in parts of the country where there are a number of broadband options available to residents? How many times am I going to write an article detailing a broadband provider telling a city that they don’t need “fast” speeds even though the city is universally angry at their lack of broadband options?”

Of course, we see the product of how increased competition brings better service even more clearly in communities that have municipal networks, not just in Google's Kansas City network. It is an outcome that all communities can achieve if they regain the authority to do so. 

In the beginning, Lafayette, Louisiana created its own utility system. And it was good. Steve Stackhouse Kaelble goes back to the very beginning of municipalization of utilities in his research on public power this week:

Lafayette is just one community, but it provides a great illustration of the forward-thinking mindset that led many American municipalities into the utility business. In some cases, local leaders got a glimpse of the future and worked to bring it to their communities ahead of the curve. In other cases, they found that the profit-driven business model that works so well in much of the American economy had left them behind when it comes to certain kinds of services.

The fruits of these local efforts are America’s public power communities — places where local governments and other public entities have taken charge to deliver services their communities need to prosper.

Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner is making her list and hoping for smarter sensors this Christmas. On Miner’s wish list: municipal broadband, and other essential smart grid infrastructure projects. The mayor requested close to a billion dollars in grant money from Gov. Cuomo for economic development in greater New York. It’s unclear if Syracuse is high enough on Cuomo’s list: 

Reality check: … [Miner is] well aware it's not terribly compelling to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on stuff you can't see. It's an "eat-your-peas'' approach that aligns with Miner's view of the role of government, versus the "shiny toys'' approach favored by Cuomo and the Buffalo Billion… Whether by accident or design, the mayor's plan leaves us wanting more. Think of it as an opening bid. Who's willing to push her vision farther?

And while all of these cities are moving forward with community broadband efforts of some kind, Jason Meyers with Light Reading spoke with the city’s Chief Technology Officer, Mike Mattmiller and noted that despite Seattle’s reputation as a tech leader, it is lagging in the gigabit connecitivity. Mattmiller suggests that a public-private partnership is still desired, depending on how a new study turns out.

Bozeman, Montana residents are urging leaders to help drive down prices and improve Internet speeds this week. Kenneth Silvestri voiced his opinion in the Bozeman Chronicle.

We could continue to be beholden to the monopoly imposed by the telecommunications companies, or we can invest in our future by laying the groundwork for a technology infrastructure that serves the community and expands access.

Sahara Devi seconded that sentiment in Bozeman, and we hope you will do the same in your own communities. When lawmakers on both sides of the isle hear your views on competition, local authority, and economic development, it is hard to back down from taking steps to increase local choices and better connectivity. 

Wi-fi

New York City and Seattle are both looking into wi-fi neighborhoods, with varying success. Last week a Seattle councilwoman announced her backing of Wi-Fi in tent cities, which would help serve the city’s homeless population. This week, T.C. Scottek with The Verge dug in to NYC’s effort to connect parts of the city with Wi-Fi.

One of the biggest problems is that LinkNYC will be funded by advertising, and as the Daily News correctly points out, the poorest neighborhoods in the city aren't worth as much to advertisers as tourist-packed Times Square. That's a reality that makes sense for profit-seeking businesses to build around, but not so much for public-facing utilities that ought to provide reasonably equal levels of service to everyone.

And “Mat Catastrophe” with Charleston City Paper lamented his city’s decision to let Comcast supply the bandwidth for the city’s new Wi-Fi-in-the-parks initiative. It seems Catastrophe is concerned that Comcast may not have the city’s residents real Internet interests at heart. 

… if you're hanging out in one of Charleston's lovely parks and you have a burning desire to do whatever it is you want with a free internet connection, by all means do so. But just don't believe for one second that it really makes the city more livable for any more than a small fraction of Holy City residents. And never forget that it's just another way that public money is siphoned into private hands.

If you want the City of Charleston to really make a name for itself, then you should support the idea of repealing the state law against municipal broadband providers and advocate for whichever mayoral and city council candidates are willing to take up that fight and move Charleston in the right direction in the 21st Century.

Corporate Monopolies and Mergers

Verizon claims it would *not* to sue the FCC to block net neutrality rules. But only if the commission promises it will not reclassify broadband providers as utilities. More and more citizens are making the connection between corporate monopolies and our poor broadband choices. Activists rallied in Brooklyn this week. Jay Cassano reported about the social justice argument for Waging Non-Violence.

Most concretely, the merger could result in higher prices for broadband Internet service, which would hit those who are economically disadvantaged the hardest.

'The merger could really negatively affect people who already have trouble accessing the Internet right now,” said Kevin Huang, campaign manager at Fight for the Future. 'When it comes to cable and Internet, the cost of service is crucial. It’s incredibly important for marginalized communities to participate in the 21st century ecology, but the prices for reliable Internet services have been going up.'”

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.

Read the transcript of this episode here.

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.”