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Chattanooga's Fiber Network Praised for Great Customer Service

One of the main differentiator's of community owned networks compared to the big cable and telephone companies is customer service. Being rooted in the community, vested in its success, and employing local residents just means better, more prompt service. A prominent Chattanoogan recently explained

My last shout-out is to EPB Fiber Optics.  This is not a paid commercial, just an opportunity for me to brag on some people who know what they’re doing.  I am the first to go on social media and complain about whatever store or business is guilty of subpar service.  It’s human nature, and it often makes for a good story.  I started using EPB for my cable, internet and phone service about a month ago.  I have encountered three problems during that time, none of them major, but all beyond my level of expertise.  Each time, I called their help line.  Each time, I spoke to local people who did not put me on hold for extended periods, nor did they force me to learn a new language.  They always solved my problem within five minutes.  My blood pressure thanks you, EPB.  This is how it’s done.

We hear these stories frequently with community owned fiber networks. It is hard to do a national study that quantifies the benefits of better customer service, but if we could, we have no doubt the locally owned networks would bury the national cable and telephone companies.

Community Fiber Is Not Just About the Fiber

The focus on community networks tends to linger on the technology - FTTH is much faster and more reliable than cable or DSL services. But community fiber is only partially about the superior technology, as evidenced by a recent story over at Broadband Reports - "Verizon has been Quietly Increasing FiOS Fees."

We don't see this behavior in Chattanooga, which has gone over four years without raising the fees for Internet access to telephone services. Community networks rarely increase their fees because the cost of delivering Internet and telephone services declines over time. Television prices go up, though less rapidly for community networks than big cable firms because the big firms demand a bigger margin.

Further, we see that Verizon has been sneaking its price increases into things like the router rental fee, as Comcast and most providers have long done. At one point, renting the Comcast modem cost me $2, then $5, now $7, and in some places $9 I hear. Per month. I bought my own now - took less than a year to payback. But my bill has gone up even more since then, so I didn't gain much.

Now Verizon is even charging for battery backup units:

In addition to price hikes, promotion cuts, the new gateway rental fee and the activation fee, Verizon also recently started charging users for the backup batteries in their ONT units, first charging users for backup battery replacement, then charging users to get any backup battery in the unit to begin with.

Anytime you hear someone arguing that munis should only be able to build their own networks where the private sector absolutely refuses, recall that community owned networks are not simply a consolation prize, they are often superior. Better customer service, lower rates over the long term, and more likely to invest in upgrades as needed - there is no good reason to condition this investment on the refusal of some other distant company to provide an inferior alternative.

AT&T Fails Big in Dallas, Makes Big Claims for Austin

Even though I regularly read examples of terrible customer service from the massive corporations like AT&T, Time Warner Cable, CenturyLink, and more, I apparently retain the capacity to be surprised as how bad they are. The Dallas Morning News recently ran this piece: "AT&T Never Misses An Opportunity to Miss An Opportunity."

In a neighborhood with poor access to satellite services and miserable with Time Warner Cable, people were thrilled when AT&T proclaimed it would be investing in U-Verse. Even though U-Verse is an amped-up DSL service that barely competes with cable connections, people who are fed up with Time Warner Cable were excited for a choice.

Lo and behold, right in the thick of the CBS-Time Warner fight, I received notices from AT&T that Uverse was now available in my neighborhood. This is something I’ve waited more than two years for. I was thrilled. Finally, there’s choice! Since receiving my first notice from AT&T in early August, I’ve been inundated with AT&T offers. Dozens of pieces of mail have arrived in my mailbox. Clearly, AT&T wanted my business.

And I wanted badly to give it to them. I phoned one day after receiving my first notice. I signed up immediately for service. The friendly sales person told me because of high demand, she couldn’t set an installation date for sooner than two weeks. Whatever. Fine. We agreed on August 19, somewhere between 9 and 11 a.m. I couldn’t wait.

Only they didn't show. They cancelled. And they cancelled the next appointment and put him off time and time again. But now he has a date of when he will be able to take service ... and I'm not making this up. 12/31/2036.

Those familiar with AT&T's announcement in Austin may think that it will take 23 years to upgrade Dallas because the massive corporation is focusing so much attention on Austin where they are kind of promising a gig.

Karl Bode has long been covering what he calls Fiber to the Press Release from AT&T.

The company has made it repeatedly clear that they aren't interested in investing a huge amount of money in fixed-line networks when the real money is in wireless and $15 per gigabyte LTE overages. While the company has made much of "Project VIP" network investment project, their investment numbers for that project have been a lot of smoke, mirrors and very fuzzy math.

However, local folks tell me that AT&T is indeed pulling permits and doing something differently - so this is not entirely smoke and mirrors. Just mostly.

And over at Stop the Cap, Phil Dampier has a deeper dive into AT&T's pool of obfuscation:

The five-county Austin–Round Rock metropolitan area has a population of 1,834,303 residents. Assuming AT&T managed to offer fiber service to 100,000 residents — and that is a generous figure, that represents only 5.5% of Greater Austin. The old U-verse is still a work in progress in several Texas cities, so it could take years for AT&T to deploy fiber in Austin. Expect AT&T to start with the low-hanging fruit — multi-dwelling units such as apartments, condos, and other similar buildings, some that already have existing fiber connections in place.

We still have no idea what AT&T is going to charge for its "Gig" ... which will start at 300 Mbps. Don't count on AT&T to suddenly invest in FTTH in your town - much better to take action however you can to solve your problems locally.

The First Honest Cable Company

This video is really making the rounds - I have seen it on multiple lists and many have forwarded it to me. I found it hilarous, but be warned that it features salty language that may be offensive to some and is probably NSFW.

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Charter Losing Money, Cuts Customer Support

A Stop the Cap! story about Charter cutting customer service positions makes a point we make too rarely. Not that customer service from the national cable and telephone companies is terrible and getting worse, but that some are constantly struggling to make a profit.

Investors don’t think too highly of the company either. Charter reported a wider third-quarter loss in November, losing $87 million compared with $85 million lost during the same quarter last year. Executives tell Wall Street the company was in chaos before new management under Tom Rutledge took over operations. Rutledge’s priorities are to invest in new set top boxes, convert more of its systems to digital, raise prices on services, cut back on promotions and retention offers, and centralize customer support operations.

Imagine that! When communities have to make investments and suffer losses, they are accused of failing. Charter is losing money (and recently emerged from a bankruptcy proceeding) and trying to make changes to correct its condition.

This is what happens to many firms in telecommunications. Only when it happens to those that are owned by communities, they are besieged with claims that such a situation is somehow proof that the public cannot own and operate networks.

Note that others, like Comcast, are actually lauded by Wall Street for operating in areas with so little competition that they can increase their rates at will -- hard not to make a profit in that case. Which is precisely why existing cable and DSL companies push laws to restrict local authority to build better networks.

Fibrant Network Gains Subscribers Despite Technical Difficulties

As we emphasize time and time again, communities build their own networks because they have to, not because they want to. North Carolina's Fibrant network in Salisbury is no exception and a recent technical headache is a reminder that no network is built without problems developing.

Fortunately, Salisbury's strong reputation for providing great, local customer service is helping as it deals with service interruptions that are the fault of the gear that runs the network. 

According to an Emily Ford article in the Salisbury Post, there have been several outages this month. While some outages are attributed to unreliable access gear, the city is still investigating to determine what other factors continue to cause problems. The network currently serves 2,160 subscribers, with 220 of them being commercial customers.

A November 9th Post article on an earlier outage, noted the problem with faulty equipment. A statement from Fibrant General Manager Mike Jury also attributed the outage to a lack of redundancy, which has since been repaired.

While Zhone has been the access gear supplier, Fibrant is now testing Calix equipment. Calix has long been a favored choice among community networks and has a very solid reputation. This is a reminder to communities of the importance of due diligence in choosing vendors -- make sure to talk to other community networks about their experiences with vendors. All equipment is subject to failure, so a key question should be how quickly different vendors respond with solutions to problems.

This technical problem comes on the heels of political problems as Salisbury has been targeted by Time Warner Cable for attacks. Readers will recall how Time Warner Cable successfully pushed the Legislature to pass H129 in 2011, a bill to neutralize publicly owned networks

Even though there have been recent outages, more people continue to take the service than to drop it. From the Ford article:

The week before the outage, 23 new subscribers signed up.

"Despite the outage, our customer base has grown," [City Manager Doug] Paris said, crediting Fibrant staff's dedication to customer service.

Jury said Fibrant's trials are to be expected, especially with a network built from scratch.

A 24-year veteran of the cable industry who took over Fibrant in March, Jury said Salisbury's network is so advanced he refers to it as "bleeding edge."

With no blueprint to follow, Fibrant is breaking new ground, he said.

 

MI-Connection Embraces New Strategies, Increases Speeds for Free

MI-Connection, the North Carolina community-owned network serving Davidson, Cornelius, and Mooresville, is upgrading network speeds and unveiling a new marketing campaign. MI-Connection was formed when a few towns north of Charlotte purchased the old, dilapidated Adelphia cable network out of bankruptcy and began rehabbing it.

According to David Boraks of the DavidsonNews.net:

The company on Dec. 10 will begin selling a new top speed internet service tentatively called “Warp Speed Broadband,” though the name could change. It will offer 60 mbps downloads and 10 mbps uploads. Customers can get it for $80 to $100, depending on whether they bundle it with TV and telephone.

Existing customers also will get faster speeds Dec. 10, at no extra charge (Download speed x upload speed): 8×4 becomes 10×5, 12×4 becomes 15×5, 16×4 becomes 20×5 and 20×4 becomes 30×10.

Notice that this community network offers faster upstream speeds than most privately owned cable networks -- because they recognize the importance of empowering subscribers rather than hoping they will just consumer video and do little else.

The DavidsonNews.net article also covered MI-Connection's last quarter financial audit report. The network has faced chronic financial problems but things continue to improve. From the article:

The financial report for the quarter that ended Sept. 30 showed that the company grew revenues in all three of its businesses – cable TV, telephone and internet. Altogether, revenues were up 6.5 percent from the first quarter a year ago, to $4,114,992. Expenses fell 8.7 percent, in part because of savings on what the company pays its high-speed internet providers.

The company’s earnings from day-to-day operations continued to grow.

A new marketing plan, dubbed "Straight Talk," will appeal to local ownership and include slogans like "If you owned a grocery store, wouldn't you shop there?" "Can you create jobs just by watching TV?" and "When your boss is everyone in town, your customer service had better be good." It will be interesting to see whether or not the appeal to community spirit helps increase subscribership.

North Carolina law is especially hostile to community owned networks and MI-Connection has struggled financially, in large part due to how poorly Adelphia (a private company) had maintained essential components. Competitive attacks from Time Warner Cable have aggravated the situation. StopTheCap reported in April that, in a rare instance of private overbuilding, the cable giant has begun serving the area and appears to be making a competitive grab for MI-Connections customers.

Stop the Cap

The situation has been difficult for MI-Connection but great for all consumers in the region. From the Stop The Cap article:

Other residents in nearby Cornelius are also getting prices substantially lower than residents in cities like Charlotte, where many residents have one choice for cable: Time Warner. 

Sam, a Stop the Cap! reader in the Morrison Plantation neighborhood, noted they skipped the last few rate increases from the cable company.

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

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

Once again we find that competition improves affordability, even in a state with some of the toughest restrictions.

Sam, quoted in the StopTheCap article makes an astute observation about the cable company's agenda:

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

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

Burlington Telecom Announces a Gig and Computer Repair Services

We have covered happenings at Burlington Telecom, both positive and negative, extensively. We are glad to report some interesting new developments of this Vermont municipal network. BT is rolling out faster connections and using its competitive advantage in customer service to offer some computer repair services. Joel Banner Baird at the Burlington Free Press reported:

Without cash reserves and promotional enticements available to BT’s commercial competitors, the fiber-optic Internet/phone/cable provider will focus on its strength in customer service, said interim General Manager Stephen Barraclough.

As our readers know, BT is in the midst of a pending lawsuit with Citibank, wherein the financial giant says the city still owes it $33.5 million. The network's troubles, including misuse of public funds by the previous Mayor, have hurt its ability to generate income and Burlington's credit rating has suffered.

While fixing PCs certainly won't pay mounting legal fees, it will make life easier for customers. Details include a $25 diagnostic fee and a rate of $45 per hour plus materials. More about the service is available on the PDF of the official anouncement.

A more recent announcement puts Burlington among the few communities with citywide access to a gig. Burlington Telecom is in the midst of upgrades and will be offering 1 Gbps service and 40 Mbps service starting on December 1, 2012. Both options are symmetrical.

40 Mbps - $99.99 per month

1 Gbps - $149.99 per month when committing for one year; or $199.99 per month with a month-to-month arrangement

burlington-gig-sheet.PNG

View a PDF of the official announcement flyer.

A gig for $150 to residential connections is one of the best deals we have seen in the nation and is far superior to what FairPoint DSL or Comcast Cable offer in town.

Initial Comcast Response to Sandy As Bad as Can Be Expected

We recently came across a post by Seth Clifford, a blogger whose parents' house in New Jersey was ravaged by Hurricane Sandy and is still in danger. In this time of climate change, when humans no longer know waht to expect from Mother Earth, it can be comforting to have a few solid truths on which to rely.

In this case, however, that solid truth isn't comforting at all. From Seth:

She was trying to explain to them that they stood to lose the entire house in an explosion and that the authorities were having trouble even reaching the area to cut the gas to prevent this. She mentioned that she wouldn’t be able to return the cable box and equipment because the storm had basically destroyed the area, and the house was perilously close to being destroyed completely as well.

Comcast’s reply to her?

We’re very sorry, but the price of the equipment will be charged to your account if you’re unable to return it.

That’s right: in the middle of a natural disaster, the worst our area has seen in decades, at a time when my parents have already lost one house and stand to lose the other, as well as everything in it (remember, it’s not a rental so it’s fully furnished and they live there for part of the year – there are family keepsakes, antiques, and the like) – at a time like this, Comcast has essentially told my mom “tough shit”.

We only wish that reporting this story was shocking, surprising, and rare but it isn't. Unfortunately, we see reports like this on a regular basis. Responses are also usually scripted and go something like this response to the Consumerist, which requested a comment:

Consumerist Logo

We have already reached out to apologize for adding to his parents’ difficulties and to ask for his parents’ contact information so we can call to personally apologize and assure them that we are handling the equipment without the need for them to do anything further. Please know we are working with our teams to ensure we handle all customer calls on a case-by-case basis with sensitivity to the devastating effects Hurricane Sandy had on so many of our local communities and residents. Again, we are of course notating his parents account to ensure they are not charged for equipment they can’t return.

Without the Consumerist to intervene, let's hope they are not compelled to wade through flood waters dressed in fireproof gear. Once again, Comcast lives up to our pitifully low expectations - way to go!

Fire Guts His Apartment, Verizon Demands $2,300 NOW

When we hear the news of a tornado, fire, flood or other natural disaster, most of us feel empathy for victims whose lives are disrupted by loss and upheaval.  But AT&T, Comcast, Charter, and CableOne have all been criticized for their callous behavior in the wake of disasters. Now we can add Verizon to the list.

In a recent DSLReports story, Karl Bode shares the story of Jarrett Seltzer, whose apartment and possessions were destroyed by a fire. Seltzer was a FiOS customer and, even though he called to cancel service and explain the situation, Verizon demanded he hand over $2,300 to cover the price of four cable boxes (each 6 years old) and an old FiOS router. Karl writes:

Seltzer notes that Verizon continued to bill him after learning about the fire, and his attempt to resolve this with Verizon has involved being on hold for several hours, being transferred fourteen times, while speaking to fifteen different Verizon support representatives.

We would like to report that Verizon had a change of heart, realized their callousness, and reached out to be more cooperative with Mr. Seltzer. Unfortunately, Verizon only eased up after Jarrett's video on YouTube began to get noticed.

As part of a longer response to DSLReports' request for comment, Verizon said this:

Even though this (customers are responsible for maintaining the equipment in good condition while in their possession) is a part of the terms of service with all of our customers, we need to be empathetic with our customers in such difficult situations.

So far, it sounds like we could have done a better job of communicating with him and been more helpful in addressing next steps. At the same time we are reviewing our internal processes to ensure we are providing appropriate consideration for customers in situations like these.

Jarrett's video sums up the situation:

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