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Seattleites Want More Than Rhetoric in Quest for Better Broadband

In a recent SLOG post from the Stranger, Ansel Herz commented on Mayor Ed Murray's recent statement on broadband in Seattle. Murray's statement included:

Finding a job, getting a competitive education, participating in our democracy, or even going to work for some, requires high speed internet access. I have seen people say online, "I don’t need a road to get to work, I need high speed internet." Seattle would never leave the construction of roads up to a private monopoly, nor should we allow the City’s internet access to be constructed and managed by a private monopoly.

It is incredibly clear to me and residents throughout the City of Seattle, that the City’s current high speed internet options are not dependable enough, are cost prohibitive for many, and have few (if any) competitive options.

The Mayor also hinted that if the City needs a municipal broadband network, he would "help lead the way."

As a Seattleite, Herz knows firsthand about the lack of connectivity options in the area. Herz writes:

This is both encouraging and disappointingly tentative language from the mayor. It seems to cast municipal broadband as a last resort. Municipal broadband is a no-f*cking-brainer. [our *]

Herz turned to Chris for perspective:

"I have seen this from many Mayors who talk about how someone should do something but we don't always see concrete actions because of the difficulty and the immense opposition from some powerful companies like Comcast," Christopher Mitchell, the Director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative, who's worked with cities across the country on this question, tells me.

Seattle doesn't know what to expect from a Mayor that Comcast tried to buy (we suspect they did not succeed but have nonetheless sent a loud message). It is encouraging to see that the issue has not simply disappeared, but Herz and his neighbors want more:

What are you waiting for, Ed? Progressive rhetoric (and retweeting people who want to see municipal broadband happen) is great, but commitment and action are even better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

American Enterprise Institute Scholar Calls DSL Obsolete

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Process Matters: Harold Feld's Guide to the Time Warner Cable/Comcast Merger

The proposed Comcast/Time Warner Cable deal will be on everyone's mind for many months to come. Thanks to Harold Feld, it is now possible to follow the process as it moves forward. Feld began a series of posts earlier this month that map out the review as it moves from the Department of Justice Antitrust Division to the Federal Communications, and finally to Congress. As Feld notes, the entire process will last six months at least and could run for more than a year. 

In addition to drawing a process map, Feld provides insightful subtleties on the purpose behind each step in the review. He also offers political analysis that may influence the outcome. Feld gets into the unique review process, burdens of proof, and relevant definitions at each stop along the way. Highly recommended, especially for law students.

Part I - Introduction

Part II - Antitrust Review at the DOJ

Part III - Federal Communications Commission analyzes public interest

Part IV - The proposal moves through the committee process and the public has a chance to express themselves to their elected officials (including lobbyists)

 

Krugman Calls out the Barons of Broadband

We should probably be thanking Comcast for its attempt to take over Time Warner Cable. It has inspired a shocking amount of vitriol against the cable monopolies, including an entertaining but NSFW video with strong language from Funny or Die.

Whereas people were largely content to mostly silently hate Comcast and Time Warner Cable separately, the idea of them officially tying the knot to screw consumers even more has apparently hit a tipping point. As I noted a few days ago, we are seeing a more communities considering their own networks to avoid being stuck with a Wall Street monopoly forever.

Paul Krugman was inspired to write "Barons of Broadband," which accurately reflects the modern dynamic:

The point is that Comcast perfectly fits the old notion of monopolists as robber barons, so-called by analogy with medieval warlords who perched in their castles overlooking the Rhine, extracting tolls from all who passed. The Time Warner deal would in effect let Comcast strengthen its fortifications, which has to be a bad idea.

Krugman talks about monopoly as well, reminding me of one of our most important podcasts - Barry Lynn, Monopoly Expert.

And the same phenomenon may be playing an important role in holding back the economy as a whole. One puzzle about recent U.S. experience has been the disconnect between profits and investment. Profits are at a record high as a share of G.D.P., yet corporations aren’t reinvesting their returns in their businesses. Instead, they’re buying back shares, or accumulating huge piles of cash. This is exactly what you’d expect to see if a lot of those record profits represent monopoly rents.

It’s time, in other words, to go back to worrying about monopoly power, which we should have been doing all along. And the first step on the road back from our grand detour on this issue is obvious: Say no to Comcast.

There is no public benefit to this merger - none. Meanwhile it will give even more power to a corporation already slowing our economy by refusing to invest in communities that desperately need better connections so businesses can remain competitive. Allowing this merger will be just another step in the direction of powerful corporate lobbyists officially running the country rather than unofficially.

In Fear of Comcast Warner Cable

It is hard to say just how bad of an idea it is for us to allow Comcast to buy Time Warner Cable. This is not just about consumers having to pay more, which they do every time we allow massive consolidation, but about access to information.

I can't help but think back to our conversation with Barry Lynn on monopoly a few weeks ago. People get so focused on consumer prices and a narrow view of competition that they miss important impacts of consolidation.

One impact is moving Comcast from the seventh biggest DC lobbyist to the fourth.

This consolidation is a recognition that the private sector simply will not provide meaningful competition for Internet access. Communities need to recognize what a do-nothing approach means: relying on a distant cable monopoly for the most important services of the 21st century.

If I had to guess what will happen - Comcast will buy Time Warner Cable but have to sell off some pieces to get approval. Comcast will grow larger and more powerful, making future mergers even more difficult to stop despite more and more evidence that these firms are strangling our economy. We can stop it - but will we? Specifically, will we force our representatives in DC to stop it?

Stay tuned to the organizations that are covering it well - Free Press, Karl Bode, Public Knowledge, Common Cause, and many others.

The Real Threats from Monopoly - Community Broadband Bits Podcast #83

When we think about the threat of monopoly, we almost always focus on how monopolies can raise prices beyond what is reasonable. But there are many threats from monopolies and many are much more dangerous to a free society than higher prices. This week, monopoly expert Barry Lynn joins us for the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Lynn is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and author of a book that I recommend very highly - Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction. Buy it a local bookstore or from an independent bookstore online.

We discuss whether companies like Comcast are correctly termed "monopoly" when they face some nominal competition and what the threat from monopoly is. Barry explains how both political parties have encouraged centralization even as both parties have had vocal opponents of such policies. And finally, we discuss how policies dealing with monopoly now are fundamentally different than they were for the vast majority of American history.

This is a great discussion - one of the most important we have done.

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 Haggard Beat for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Free People vs. Private Monopoly

A free people cannot permanently submit to the private monopoly of a necessity of life.

Crap Cable Threatens Cloud Services

For my money, the best headline of last week was "The U.S.'s crap infrastructure threatens the cloud." The rant goes on to explain just how crummy our access to the Internet is.

As a patriotic American, I find the current political atmosphere where telecom lobbyists set the agenda to be a nightmare. All over the world, high-end fiber is being deployed while powerful monopolies in the United States work to prevent it from coming here. Some of those monopolies are even drafting "model legislation" to protect themselves from both community broadband and commercial competition.

He nails a number of important points, including the absurdity of allowing de facto monopolies to write the legislation that governs them. However, Andew Oliver's article is a bit muddled on the issue of "monopoly." I have argued with several people that the term "monopoly" has historically meant firms with large market power, not the more stringent definition of "the only seller" of a good. It is not clear how Oliver is using the term.

Because of this confusion, you can come away from his piece with the firm idea that it is primarily government's fault we have a duopoly of crap DSL and less crappy cable. He repeatedly says "state-sponsored monopolies." However, no local or state government may offer exclusive franchises for cable or telecom services and the federal government hasn't officially backed monopolies for decades.

This is a key point that many still fail to understand - a majority seem to believe that local governments bless monopolies when local governments actually are desperate for more choices. This is why they fall all over themselves to beg Google to invest in their community or they build they own networks (over 400 communities have wired telecom networks that offer services to some local businesses and/or residents).

Poor laws and regulations have helped the massive cable and telephone companies to maintain their status - that is why they spend so much on lobbying and political contributions at all levels of government. They want to and have successfully corrupted the process, neutralizing the power of government to protect consumer interests and prevent a few firms from dominating the market.

wall-street.jpg

What is missing from the conversation is Wall Street's role. Wall Street abhors competition, particularly for something as essential as Internet access because rigorous competition drives down profit margins. Wall Street puts a massive premium on consolidation and preventing competition. It wants a few firms to control this market so they can regularly increase fees and increase shareholder value (at the expense of the rest of our economy).

It isn't JUST federal and state government policy that is rewarding the duopoly, there are a host of reinforcing factors. And while government did indeed establish monopoly for the phone system 100 years ago, it resulted in a fantastic universal service network - so those who might argue a government sanctioned monopoly was never a good idea have a high burden to prove it.

As to how we have moved from a monopoly service model to having choices... well, lobbyists have been paid a lot specifically to mangle that process to benefit a few corporations. Our government has been corrupted and we have to live with the effects every day. But even without government, we would almost certainly we stuck with a monopoly, perhaps even worse as we would lack the few consumer protections we still have.

I was heartened to see the Obama Administration block the AT&T - T-Mobile merger as it suggests that there is a spark of hope for antitrust rules to prevent further consolidation. Stopping consolidation is the first step to having real choices because massive corporations amass not just economy of scale advantages over rivals, but find it much easier to influence the rules in their favor and to disadvantage competitors.

Returning to a fact from Oliver's article, he pays $1500/month for 30 Mbps symmetrical fiber. If he lived in Monticello, he would pay $100/month for that business connection. Community owned fiber is not merely about the technology, it includes numerous other benefits including radically lower prices that help local businesses to succeed.

Photo courtesy of JSquish via Wikipedia Commons

Baltimore Once Again Considering Publicly Owned Options

Back in 2010, we reported on the City of Baltimore and its frustration with Comcast and desire to have a real choice for Internet access. Nothing came of the idea at the time but the Baltimore Business Journal reports that Baltimore is once again considering the possibility of a publicly owned network.

The Board of Estimates recently decided to hire Magellan Advisors to provide a study that will offer several options for the community of 619,000 residents. The study will cost $157,000 and will identify key anchor tenants, cost analysis, and risk assessment related to a municipal broadband network.

Given Baltimore's situation, we doubt very much that they will proceed with a full-on universal FTTH network. Rather, we expect to see Baltimore considering an incremental approach that starts by serving community anchors (schools, libraries, public safety, etc.) and also may make conduit and fiber available for local businesses or other ISPs. 

Comcast has no real competition in Baltimore, not because of the franchise as intimated by numerous factually incorrect articles covering this news, but because private companies are too intimidated by Comcast and its bag of dirty tricks to invest in a competitive system. No local government can establish a cable or Internet monopoly under federal law dating back to 1992.

According to the article, Baltimore already has some fiber assets:

A major part of what Magellan is being hired to study is what’s known as the city’s “fiber ring,” a 30-mile fiber optic cable network that supports the city’s public safety radio system. As the city prepares to make improvements to the system, [CIO Chris] Tonjes said the city also wants to add capacity through a process called “overbuilding” that would allow the city to lease some of the extra bandwidth to the private sector.

“We have a lot of ideas; a lot of people could lease it — a local Internet provider, a local cultural institution,” Tonjes said. “It could even be Comcast.”

Seattle ventured down this road for several years to no avail until Gigabit Squared came along. And Seattle had considerably more miles of fiber available. Even if Baltimore begins leasing its fiber to any entity that wishes to use it, there will still be no business case for expanding that fiber to residents. In the short term especially, the only beneficiaries will be businesses that spend enough on these services to attract interest from new ISPs. This is why Baltimore's plan should ultimately be geared toward the City being able to offer services, even if that is not anticipated for many years. It is the only way to guarantee everyone has access to fast, affordable, and reliable Internet connections.

Jason Hardebeck, the executive director of the Greater Baltimore Technology Council told the Business Journal that city leaders recognize the importance of robust connectivity to economic development.

“The city is woefully underserved with broadband and my opinion is that internet access is becoming a basic public utility or need, just like clean water,” Hardebeck said. “The current administration understands the need. I don’t know what we can do about the franchise agreement, but I think there’s real opportunities from a redevelopment standpoint. If you had access to ultra-high broadband inexpensively, that could generate activity you would not have anticipated.”