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Leading Critic of Community Network in NC Revealed to Be TWC Employee

It will come as no surprise to those familiar with this space that the leading critic of MI-Connection, a cable network in North Carolina owned by local governments, has been revealed to be an employee of Time Warner Cable. Hat tip to Stop the Cap! for bringing it to our attention last night.

We have long watched massive cable/phone companies flood public meetings (both honestly and surreptitiously) with their employees to give the perception of widespread opposition to a publicly owned network. So while this is nothing new, the practice must be highlighted as something community networks should be aware of -- much like the rampant abuse of the commenting system in the Salisbury Post, where any story that mentions the community fiber network Fibrant is slammed by a few people who post under many different identities to give the impression of widespread disapproval.

MI-Connection has been plagued by problems since buying a system that was in considerably worse shape than expected, thus requiring more capital to rehab and upgrade it. An additional problem has been the image damage done by relentless critics (noted last week):

Venzon [Chairman of Board for MI-Connection] said he’s frustrated because the publicly owned company still fights an image problem.

“With the improvements we made to the system, I thought that people would be lined up out the door,” Venzon said. “I thought they’d see this as ours, this is us, and it just bugs me that we get such poor PR out there. We have not won that battle.

And now we know that a major critic of the network works for Time Warner Cable, a company vociferously opposes muni networks as a threat to their de facto monopoly. It would not be as much of a story though if he hadn't denied his employment with TWC for so long in order for his attacks on the publicly owned network to be more effective.

MI-Connection board chair John Venzon posted the information in a comment on this website Friday. He said Mr. Stevens “has been active in using our publicly available information to turn our potential customers against us and to stir up fear, uncertainty and doubt about MI-Connection while hiding his motives. He does not live in our town or service area, so he does not ‘have a dog in the fight’ unless you consider who signs his paycheck. Could I attend competitors’ regular board meetings to see what they are doing?” Mr. Venzon asked in the comment.

Mr. Venzon also noted that Mr. Stevens has used the state’s open records law, or Freedom of Information Act, to obtain copies of “every communication between the towns, the board and management. So Time Warner does in fact sit in our meetings.”

Under North Carolina Law, those records are open, and the towns have known since they bought the system in 2007 that they had to operate under public scrutiny in a way their private competitors did not. Mr. Venzon acknowledged that, but said he’s unhappy about having a Time Warner employee following the company so closely. “In corporate America, this would constitute espionage. In our situation, it is free and legal. I find it deplorable,” he wrote.

Does it matter that Mr. Stevens is a Time Warner Cable employee? As editor of, it concerns me that Mr. Stevens hasn’t acknowledged his employment when we’ve asked, or when he has commented regularly on this site about MI-Connection.

Stop the Cap! sums it up well:

Indeed, Stevens’ efforts to hide his employer’s identity and his subsequent decision to bring his blog down after the cat was let out of the bag suggests there is nothing for Stevens or Time Warner Cable to be proud of in their relentless, often sneaky efforts to bring community-owned competition to its knees.  When it comes to protecting duopoly profits of local cable and phone companies in North Carolina, it’s total war on all fronts.


Time Warner Cable may claim that they have no say in what employees do in their spare time, but they keep very close tabs on these networks and absolutely knew that he was leading a fight against another community's network while lying about his motives and employment. TWC regularly labelled MI-Connection a "failure" in its efforts to pass a bill that would preempt local authority to invest in networks that could compete with TWC services.

This entire fiasco serves as a reminder of the massive disadvantages communities have in building their own networks. Companies like Time Warner Cable, which measure their revenue in the tens of billions, have effectively unlimited resources to attack communities who build their own networks. Big companies attack communities in the courts, legislatures, and the media -- while communities have little power to respond in any of those venues (communities don't have the funds to fight in the Legislature or the media and struggle to justify expensive, prolonged court fights). This is the reality in every state.

And in places like North Carolina, it could get a lot worse if the Governor allows h 129 to become law. It is on her desk now and whether she signs it or lets it pass by doing nothing, big companies like Time Warner Cable will have even more advantages while communities will effectively be barred from building their own networks.

Venturing Into the Rights-of-Way: I Own What???

This is the first in a series of posts by Rita Stull -- her bio is available here. The short version is that Rita has a unique perspective shaped by decades of experience in this space. Her first post introduces readers to the often misunderstood concept of the Right-of-way, an asset owned by the citizens and managed mostly by local governments.


In the process of knitting a baby blanket, a whole ball of yarn became tangled into this mess. . . .

. . . reminding me of the time, in the early eighties, when I was the second cable administrator appointed in the U.S., and found myself peering into a hole in the street filled with a similar looking mess—only made of copper wires, instead of yarn.


Why talk about yarn and copper wire in the same breath on a site dedicated to community broadband networks? Because it was the intersection of ‘art and cable’ that got me started in the ‘telecommunications policy’ arena, the same kind of thinking that continues today in our tangled telecom discussions: Is it content or conduit, competitive, entertainment, essential, wireless, landline, gigahertz, gigabits?

I transferred from the Recreation Department to launch the city’s cable office as an experienced government supervisor with a Masters in Theater. My employer and I thought cable TV was the ‘entertainment’ business and I had the requisite mix of experience and skills to manage one of the first franchises awarded in 1981.

Yikes. Imagine my surprise on discovering that cable was a WIRE LINE UTILITY using PUBLIC LAND, which each citizen pays TAXES to buy, upgrade and maintain! And, our three-binders-thick, cable franchise was a ‘legal contract’ containing the payment terms for use of our public rights-of-way, as well as protection of local free speech rights. I was thirty years old, a property owner who had never thought about who owned roads, sidewalks and utility corridors.

Rights-of-way are every street plus about 10 feet of land on each side. That land belongs to everyone in the community. Rights-of-way are a shared public asset—sometimes called part of our common wealth.

The reason we all own rights-of-way, over four million miles of it, is so essential services such as roads, water, gas, electric, and telephone are available, universally—another legal concept—new to me — meaning ‘used by and available to everyone’. We co-own roads and utility corridors to transport ourselves, our goods and services and now our information—essentials required for survival in a developed nation.

Local, state and federal governments manage land assets on our behalf, as follows:

  • 75.2%: 3 million miles of rights-of-way are managed by local governments—towns, cities, counties, villages, parishes, townships.
  • 20.5%: 820,000 miles of rights-of-way are managed by state governments.
  • 4.3%: 172,000 miles of rights-of-way are managed by the federal government.

Important Business Notes Regarding Rights-of-Way

  1. To be in business, phone and cable companies must locate their lines in public rights-of-way. Wireless companies must connect towers for ‘signal backhaul’ via landlines. So wireless carriers also use rights-of-way. Customers can’t buy cable, phone, mobile or any Internet services—can’t stream videos—without an Internet Service Provider (ISP) owning or buying ‘landline’ capacity.
  2. Telecom is a natural monopoly. The first telecom occupant in the rights-of-way gains tremendous advantage, making it difficult for competitors to finance duplicate infrastructure. In the past, when the threat of competition reared its ugly head, operators used their market dominance, as the incumbent in the rights-of-way, to drastically slash prices, retain customers and force nascent competitors out of business. Once the competitor is eliminated, rates can be doubled or tripled, leaving consumers without the option of changing providers.


Arguably, rights-of-way are the most valuable land asset in the nation. Now that you know you’re the proud owner of four million miles of rights-of-way, what do you think telecom occupants pay to use it?

Do you know that:

  • Phone companies generally hold hundred year leases, some in perpetuity, and pay nothing to use rights-of-way. Only the old basic phone rate is regulated. Offered in a duopolist market, most revenues are generated from unregulated phone-line services. Your phone company charges whatever it wants for business and residential service packages, late fees, security deposits, etc., while paying nothing to use your rights-of-way. This reality means that we, as taxpayers, subsidize phone companies by giving them free land.
  • Originally, cable operators, because they were offering entertainment services, set the precedent for paying a fair price to occupy rights-of-way. In the late 70’s/early 80’s, as a result of the mostly non-exclusive, franchise competitive-bidding wars, operators agreed to pay the following to use rights-of-way:
    • Up to 5% of gross revenues,
    • Dedicated institutional networks (I-Nets),
    • Public, education and government (PEG) access channels and funding for facilities, equipment, video production training.

From 1980-1985, thousands of local governments monitored the private sector’s deployment of millions of miles of coaxial cable plant in public rights-of-way. In this phenomenal five-year, local, public/private, collaborative undertaking to ‘cable the country for TV’, the U.S. became a ‘wired nation’, as envisioned in Ralph Lee Smith’s seminal book of the same name.

You Did It! … Or did you?

Don’t get all excited about local governments’ successful rights-of-way management – even though it resulted in cable operators wiring the country in five short years. And don’t kid yourself that local governments can effectively leverage their valuable land-use powers in negotiations with telecom incumbents.


  • Among the wealthiest and most powerful in the country, the telecommunications industry spends tens of millions of dollars, annually, lobbying to retain free use of rights-of-way land.
  • Once the country was wired in the early eighties, the cable industry spent the next thirty years lobbying federal and state legislatures to void franchises and eliminate as many payments for using community-owned rights-of-way as possible.

Legal Jargon

Creatively designed telecom regulations confound legislators, confuse consumers, and distort the national discourse. Current regulatory language contorts our understanding of what telecom is and its importance in our lives. Simply stated, telecommunications means the transporting of information on connected networks of boxes (engineering shorthand for computers and switches) and wires, located on poles or under streets.


Today we hear a cacophony of marketers, profiteers, duopolists and plain old crooks – purposely confusing us with: it’s voice - video – data - information – fiber – coaxial cable – wireless - WiFi – broadcast TV – satellite – streaming video - 4G - WiMax - radio – cell phone –- gigahertz – gigabits – megabits – digital - Internet – etc. The list goes on.

As fraught with engineering/marketing jargon as telecom laws are, none address the convergence of digital, Internet and fiber technologies — a convergence that means all information formats—voice, video and data are transported by the same myriad, interconnected wired and wireless networks.

The telecom industry’s lobbying goal is free use of rights-of-way to protect duopolist markets. Twenty states adopted franchising laws depriving local jurisdictions of regulatory authority, thus confiscating communities’ assets and reducing accountability to consumers.

The industry aggressively lobbies for state laws that prohibit or severely constrain jurisdictions use of rights-of-way, specifically to block deployment of next-generation telecom infrastructure: fiber-to-the-premise networks.

Wildly Escalating Telecom Costs for Public Services

When the industry lobbies for state laws that void in-kind services such as I-Nets, the cost can be enormous for the communities they serve. For example: Years ago, a California city, with a population of ninety-thousand, connected thirty municipal facilities, schools, colleges, universities, hospitals and libraries with its institutional network, provided as partial payment for rights-of-way use. When state franchising voided local requirements, the cable operator began billing the city $45,000 a month to use the institutional network. Over the fifteen-year life of the franchise, the operator expects to collect a whopping $8.1 million dollars from the city (thus the taxpayers), instead of paying to use the community’s rights-of-way.

Extorting Future Public Resources

Currently, the industry is lobbying states to PROHIBIT governments from building fiber-to-the-premise (FTTP) networks. Not only do telecom companies refuse to universally upgrade existing wire lines and provide I-Nets, they now want to prevent communities from becoming self-reliant by building their own networks (as in North Carolina and South Carolina, for instance).

Don’t be fooled into thinking that telecom regulations benefit some larger public goal. The U.S. lags behind developed nations in broadband deployment because we are not using rights-of-way to build FTTP infrastructure. We need to ‘catch up’ to competitor nations, where residents, as well as business, buy affordable, bidirectional broadband at gigabit speeds.

We must clean up our tangled regulatory mess, reclaim use of rights-of-way and build the FTTP networks needed to create jobs and compete in a global economy -- starting with JULIET (Joint Underground Location of Infrastructure for Electric and Telecom) [pdf]).

WOW! No Wonder Time Warner Cable is Pushing Bill to Limit Competition in NC!

Stacey Higginbotham at GigaOm has explained the entire reason Time Warner Cable and CenturyLink are trying to prohibit communities from building their own networks: North Carolina has some of the worst broadband in America! TWC and CenturyLink know how uncompetitive their services are! The story covers a new broadband map launched by


Look at these numbers!!

North Carolina has SEVEN of the worst 10 places to get broadband in the US. And these are the places in North Carolina that actually have broadband! Imagine how bad it is in the rural areas. Stunning to see the North Carolina Legislators conspiring to limit the ability of communities to invest in themselves when the private sector has no interest in next-generation networks, choosing instead to reap profits off of systems that barely meet the FCC's definition of broadband.

With such terribly uncompetitive services, of course Time Warner Cable and CenturyLink have run to the Legislature to ban the community networks that have stepped in to prevent lazy incumbents from killing the future of entire communities in the digital age. As we have been detailing (most recently here), the public is overwhelmingly opposed to Raleigh telling communities they cannot build the networks TWC and CenturyLink will not.

What more proof is necessary that the Legislators pushing H129 in North Carolina have sold out the citizens for a few massive companies that just happen to make large donations to their campaigns.

We previously charted the superiority of the community fiber networks in North Carolina, but this chart shows just how much the existing cable and DSL companies have left North Carolina communities behind.

See video

With New Hope, North Carolina Broadband Struggle Continues

On Wednesday morning, March 22, the House Finance Committee will again consider H 129, a bill from Time Warner Cable to make it all but impossible for communities to build their own broadband networks. But now, as noted by Craig Settles, the momentum is shifting.

Last week, advocates had a big victory when Representatives Faison and Warren successfully amended the bill (each with his own amendment) to make it less deleterious to communities. Unlike the sham voice vote in the Public Utility Committee, Chairman Setzer of the Finance Committee had a recorded vote, allowing citizens to hold their representatives accountable.

After these amendments passed, the TWC lobbyist signaled for an aide. Shortly thereafter, the committee decided to table the matter until this week -- when TWC will undoubtedly try to remove or nullify those amendments.

In the meantime, AT&T has announced bandwidth caps, yet another reason the state is foolish to pin its broadband future on cable and DSL companies.

Compare AT&T's movement to less-broadband with Wilson Greenlight's recent dramatic price decreases in its ridiculously fast broadband network, causing at least one couple to move there! Greenlight is owned and operated by the public power company owned by the city.

Greenlight has signed up its first residential customers with the highest Internet speed available in Wilson.

Vince and Linda Worthington, former Johnston County residents, moved to Wilson after finding out that they could have access to 40 Megabits per second Internet speeds at a lower cost than what they were previously paying.

"We always wanted the 100Mbps service," she said. "When the price came down, we jumped on it." Greenlight, the city of Wilson's fiber-optic broadband network, has close to 5,600 cable, Internet and telephone subscribers. Greenlight sells its 100 Mbps symmetrical service, with the same upload and download speeds, starting at $149.95 per month as part of a package. Greenlight's 60 Mbps start at $99.95, 40 Mbps at $74.95, 20 Mbps at $54.95 and 10 Mbps at $34.95. Greenlight's 40 Mbps is becoming increasingly popular with customers, said Brian Bowman, Wilson's public affairs manager.

To recap, the publicly owned networks are investing in faster and lower-priced networks while private companies are simply trying to maximize their income from the old networks. Good deal if you can convince the Legislature to outlaw your competition....

TWC and its proxy in the Legislature, Representative Avila, wanted this bill to fly through as quickly as possible -- which is why the Public Utilities Committee cut off discussion with a sham voice vote long before most members were ready. But as the public has learned more, they are opposing TWC's power grab quite loudly. This from a Winston-Salem Journal editorial:

Internet-service providers can't have it both ways. They can't delay bringing high-speed service to North Carolina communities but then turn around and lobby the legislature to deny local governments the authority to establish municipal service if their residents want it.


Had the private companies tried to make their argument 15 years ago, they might have deserved some sympathy. But not in 2011. The Internet and high-speed access to it have now been available in North Carolina homes for well more than a decade.
They ignored a market, and local governments stepped in to provide a critical service. The legislature should kill this bill.

In an op-ed, Mark Turner recalls the crucial role of non-commercial coops electrifying the state when private companies saw no profit in it. An excellent read

Mark Turner dot Net

Citing the economics, private Internet providers have been slow to invest in the high-speed infrastructure that would connect these rural communities. That has a lot to do with why North Carolina ranks a paltry 41st in the nation for broadband access, according to Census Bureau statistics.
Having been snubbed by the private providers, some communities like Wilson and Salisbury have taken the same approach as they did 66 years ago: opting to build their own state-of-the-art systems when the commercial providers refused. Now the General Assembly, through a bill sponsored by Rep. Marilyn Avila, R-Raleigh, aims to throw substantial roadblocks in the way of communities seeking to serve themselves.

Columnist Scott Mooneyham also recognized the similarities to electrification:

In many ways, the issues involved aren’t very different from when investor-owned electricity providers were unwilling to bring service to small town and rural North Carolina early in the 20th century.

By the 1930s, the federal and state government were taking steps to encourage rural electrification and the formation of electric co-ops, including providing loans needed for the construction of the systems.

One of the first electric co-ops in the country was formed by Edgecombe County farmers.

Perhaps North Carolina legislators ought to contemplate what the state might look like today if their predecessors had quashed the aspirations of those farmers, rather than giving them tax breaks.

For a more substantive review of what folks in North Carolina are saying about this bill, Stop the Cap! has a great run-down.

What can we expect in the hearings tomorrow? Well, more lies from the cable industry, as recently quoted in an article about the bill:

"I am confident, at some point, that the state law will address this," said Marcus Trathen, an attorney with the [cable] association. "We have never said that cities should be prohibited. If they compete, they should be subject to the same rules as private companies."

We have already detailed (at the bottom of this post) the many ways this bill will introduce bigger barriers and unique regulation for public networks that do not apply to companies like TWC, but let's quickly refresh with two examples.

  1. If Trathen wants the same rules, then TWC will abide by the open meetings laws and publish budgets, business plans, etc., for the public to review. And communities get to vote on kicking TWC out of town.
  2. This bill must be redrafted not to prohibit communities from offering service outside town. NC law makes it very easy for TWC to offer state-wide service and communities should not have a barrier to do similar.

There you go, anyone reporting the lie that this is "level playing field" legislation should be confronted with the facts.

Things are looking way up in terms of preserving local authority to build these networks. Thanks to the rapid and enormous public outcry (making phone calls to state Reps can make a big difference!), the bill was slowed down so the public could get a better sense of exactly what TWC and Avila were conspiring.

Salisbury's Fibrant, realized this bill posed an existential threat to its future (despite the public lies of Rep Avila who claimed it did not target existing networks) because the bondholders need to be repaid regardless of whether TWC convinces the Legislature to shut Fibrant down. They hired a lobbyist. This came after their Mayor worked long and hard to get the Legislature to understand what it was messing with.

At $5,000/month, the cost is a pittance compared to the damage of allowing TWC's bill to shut down Fibrant (to clarify, the bill currently does not threaten Fibrant due to Rep Warren's amendment -- but TWC will do everything it can to remove that amendment).

We have long maintained that these issues have little to do with partisan politics and Salisbury's new lobbyist proves that point.

Council committed to use Fetzer, the outgoing N.C. Republican Party chairman and a former mayor of Raleigh, for one month and could retain him throughout the legislative session, which ends in July.

Preserving local authority cuts across Republican/Democratic Party lines. What often matters far more is how much cable and telephone companies have contributed to election funds for candidates.

And finally, another opportunity to promote the video we produced showing why community networks are so important in North Carolina.

See video

Minnesota Cable Companies Fight to Stop Rural Lake County From Getting Broadband

Lake County's County-wide FTTH network has encountered more than its fair share of troubles but residents are excited at the prospect of having broadband access to the Internet. While some of its troubles came from their own confusion and misunderstanding that led to the falling out with their consultants, National Public Broadband, they are now in the cross hairs of a powerful cable industry group - the Minnesota Cable Communications Association.

The Minnesota Cable Communications Association joined the fray at the end of February, sending a massive data request to Lake County and all the governments within the project area. County Attorney Laura Auron said she “objected to the characterization” the cable industry advocate group made about the project. The MCCA wrote that is was “deeply concerned about the shroud of secrecy” about the project, calling efforts to get the project in line with state and federal rules “opaque.”

The association demanded to see the county’s business plan and contracts for the project. It also asked all the cities and townships in the joint powers association, a requirement under the Rural Utilities Service rules for grants and loans, to provide all information regarding the fiber project discussed at council and board meetings.

MCCA exists to protect the interests of its members -- fair enough. Too bad for the folks in Lake County that have no access to the Internet. Because a portion of the project will give the resident of Silver Bay and Two Harbors an actual choice (disrupting the monopoly of Mediacom), MCCA is using a common tactic to delay and disrupt the project: massive public records requests. All the while, MCCA pretends its core mission is advocating on behalf of the beleaguered citizens of Lake County.

We commonly hear from publicly owned networks that they have to deal with constant data requests from competitors. This goes far beyond any reasonable amount as incumbent companies use the requests themselves as a time suck attack against publicly owned networks as well as mischaracterizing any detail they can in an attempt to smear the network.

Communities should be ready for this onslaught. From what we can tell, it never really stops. This is another reason community projects should live in public to the greatest extent possible. Secrecy is not really an option and can consume more energy than community networks can spare.

MCCA is correct that Lake County should act transparently, but its interest lies only in casting doubt and disrupting this potential network because it threatens the monopoly of an MCCA member.

FairPoint Undermining Broadband Access in Vermont

In an op-ed, Tom Evslin discusses FairPoint and their opposition to a middle mile stimulus grant that would improve broadband access around the state. FairPoint had taken over Verizon's New England lines a few years ago. Verizon had a reputation for poor service but FairPoint took that to new levels before reorganizing under bankruptcy (yet another high-profile private sector failure).

FairPoint fought a middle-mile project in Maine and was eventually bribed into silence by the Legislature. Having learned the only lesson one can learn from such an experience, they are now fighting a middle mile project in Vermont.

Unfortunately FairPoint, the successor to Verizon for landlines in Northern New England, wants Vermont to choose between protecting a badly flawed FairPoint business plan or improving the economic future of Vermont’s rural areas. The choice is stark: use the federal “middle mile” stimulus grant already awarded to the Vermont Telecommunication Authority (VTA) to bring fiber closer to rural Vermonters and make wholesale backhaul and institutional broadband affordable in rural areas of the state or forfeit the grant and leave these areas without adequate business, residential and cellular service.

Vermont should move forward with its stimulus project to expand open access middle mile connections across the state. Appeasing FairPoint yet again is not only bad for Vermont's many underserved, it would further embolden FairPoint in its fight against any competition, public or private.

The VTA was formed to improve broadband access while not providing services directly. There is no reason it should not invest in these middle-mile networks. Quoting again from Evslin op-ed:

Now President of FairPoint in Vermont, Mike Smith said yesterday in an interview broadcast on WCAX that he never meant that the VTA should build fiber networks and provide middle-mile (backhaul) service. He thought it would be directing its efforts to cellular and to retail service. However, Act 79 which Mike was instrumental in getting through the legislature authorizes the VTA “to own, acquire, sell, trade, and lease equipment, facilities, and other infrastructure that could be accessed and used by multiple service providers, the state and local governments, including fiber optic cables, towers, shelters, easements, rights of way, and wireless spectrum of frequencies; provided that any agreement by the authority to sell infrastructure that is capable of use by more than one service provider shall contain conditions that will ensure continued shared use or colocation at reasonable rates“.

Moreover, the Act also says “Nothing in this chapter shall be construed to grant power to the authority to offer the sale of telecommunications services to the public.” In other words, the legislature specifically authorized VTA to be a wholesale provider and specifically forbad it to be a retail provider. The Legislature and the Governor meant the VTA to enable retail service by providing wholesale infrastructure.

FairPoint has been a disaster for Vermont - capitulating to its demands now will only reward it and ensure Vermont's citizens have no other option for the communications services they need.

A Few Loose Ends...

Too few posts on the blog this week - apologies.

But I want to make sure readers saw that the bill to strip North Carolina communities of the right to build broadband networks is no longer being fast tracked, an important victory that resulted from people making old-fashioned phone calls to voice their disapproval to elected reps. Thanks to all who called.

Keep calling. They need to know that this bill is totally unacceptable.

Craig Settles also discussed the victory.

I can't comment on it just now, but Stimulating Broadband broke a story about Mediacom continuing to harass Lake County. In order to protect their turf, they are willing to disrupt a project that will bring connections to thousands of people who have no other option.

Digging into H129: Another Bill in NC to Limit Local Authority and Broadband Competition

As we predicted, Time Warner Cable is pushing a new bill in North Carolina to limit competition and local authority to build broadband networks (Save NC Broadband is alive again). H129 purports to be An Act to Protect Jobs and Investment By Regulating Local Government Competition with Private Business - [download a PDF of the bill as introduced].

This bill is another example of state legislators refusing to allow communities to make their own decisions -- imposing a one-size-fits-all policy on communities ranging from the metro area of Charlotte to small communities on the coast and in the mountains. Many of the provisions in this bill apply tough constraints on the public sector that are not applied to incumbent providers, but this analysis focuses only on a few.

Let's start with the title:

An Act to Protect Jobs and Investment by Regulating Local Government Competition with Private Business

There is no support anywhere in this bill to explain what the impact of community networks is on jobs. Nothing whatsoever. There is a claim that "the communications industry is an industry of economic growth and job creation," but ignores the modern reality that that the communications industry goes far beyond the private sector. In fact, the recent history of massive telecommunications providers is one of consolidation and layoffs. It is the small community owned networks that create jobs; larger firms are more likely to offshore or simply cut jobs.

Certainly all businesses depend on communications to succeed. Unfortunately, they are often limited to very few choices because the of the problem of natural monopoly. This is why many communities have stepped up, including three in North Carolina (two of whom offer the offer the most advanced services in the state).

So what is the result of the community networks on jobs? Community Networks obviously create jobs merely by existing - they hire managers, sales staff, customer support reps, technicians, and etc. They create competition, which market theory tells us will result in lower prices for everyone in the market. And to date, no one has suggested that TWC or any other competitor in these communities has laid employees off. To the contrary, they are likely to hire more sales staff to go door-to-door to retain subscribers.

The effects of this bill will be to lower the number of jobs in North Carolina. Existing businesses will be less efficient because they have fewer choices. Companies like CenturyLink and TWC will have fewer incentives to invest in faster technologies or improve customer service.

A city-owned communications service provider shall meet all of the following requirements:

Provide communications service only within the jurisdictional boundaries of the city providing the communications service

If the purpose of this bill is to protect jobs and investment, it is hard to see how restricting competition will promote those goals. As much of the bill is concerned about cities abusing their inherent power as the local government, it is not clear why it is unfair for them to operate where they do not have of the supposed advantages of a local government.

Shall not price any communications service below the cost of providing the service… The city shall, in calculating the costs of providing the communications service, impute (i) the cost of the capital component that is equivalent to the cost of capital available to private communications service providers in the same locality and (ii) an amount equal to all taxes including property taxes, licenses, fees, and other assessments that would apply to a private communications service provider…

Requirements to impute costs are a goldmine for lawyers -- the costs included here vary and require judgment calls that will undoubtedly be challenged by lawyers employed by those opposed to the project. The entire process is an impractical accounting nightmare that is not meant to restore balance to the market but rather to discourage any community from even trying to comply. The Georgia Public Service Commission explained why this notion is poor policy:

Preventing anticompetitive practices, unfair competition, and abuse of market position does not mean that the Commission must impose conditions on every applicant which has some advantage not shared by every other applicant. The Commission is required to treat all LEC's [Local Exchange Providers – i.e. phone companies] equally, not make all LEC's equal. BellSouth and the large cable companies certainly enjoy better capital costs than a typical small business owner. Does this put the small company at a competitive disadvantage? Of course. Should the Commission determine which LEC has the highest capital costs and require that all other companies impute that amount into their rates to level the playing field"? Certainly not. If Marietta has to comply with expensive open records requirements or expensive municipal bidding requirements, should those costs be imputed into the rates of all private companies? Again, no. Similarly, if BellSouth has a large tax write-off one year, it would be ridiculous to require that they impute into their tax rates the taxes they did not have to pay merely because some other company may not have had a tax write-off that year.

The requirement not to price below the cost of providing the service is similarly hard to calculate - how does one calculate the individual charges in a bundle? Do subscribers have to pay $1500 for the first month to cover the cost of connecting the house to the network pass or can that fixed cost be spread across one year, two years, three years?

Monopoly board game

Requirements like these make the bill's true intent obvious: cripple any competition to TWC. Time Warner Cable is free to charge as it pleases -- it can use predatory pricing against competitors because it cross-subsidizes from its vast customer base (largely in uncompetitive areas) and has the many advantages inherent in incumbency.

A city-owned communications service provider shall not be required to obtain voter approval under G.S. 160A-321 prior to the sale or discontinuance of the city's communications network

This is a stunning overreach. Not only are communities effectively barred from building competitive networks, the community has little power to ensure an irreversible decision actually has public support. It is hard to understand how shutting down a popular network will save jobs.

The provisions of G.S. 160A-340.1, 160A-340.4, and 160A-340.5 do not apply to the provision of communications service in an unserved area.

This is undoubtedly a smart preemptive move against the argument that this bill will prevent communities from building their own networks where the private sector is not interested. The result is perverse -- a community with no private sector provider may choose to build its own network but a community with a deadbeat provider offering expensive, unreliable connections with technology from the last century cannot make that choice.

A city or joint agency subject to the provisions of G.S. 160A-340.1 shall not enter into a contract under G.S. 160A-19 or G.S. 160A-20 to purchase or to finance or refinance the purchase of property for use in a communications network or to finance or refinance the construction of fixtures or improvements for use in a communications network. The provisions of this section shall not apply to the repair or improvement of an existing communications network.

Recalling that I am not a lawyer, this section appears to be an attempt to prevent communities from using public-private partnerships (perhaps with a nonprofit organization) to build a network. Anyone with a better understanding of this section should comment below to clear this up.


We received a one-sheet [pdf] explaining the provisions of the bill, which states the bill "permits cities to provide phone, cable and broadband services in competition with private providers, subject to certain requirements…" Unfortunately, those "certain requirements are sufficiently onerous to ensure any community attempting to build a competitive network has the steepest possible hill to climb. Under present law, communities are already disadvantaged due to the inherent advantages of an incumbent. This bill greatly increases the power differential, protecting lazy incumbent providers while handcuffing communities.

Another talking points one-sheet [pdf] has a heading saying "Level Playing Field / Local Government Competition" and starts by saying cities can provide services on "roughly equivalent" terms as private providers. It then lists 4 things communities have to do, conveniently ignoring that the private sector fails to meet each of these. We have tackled the Level Playing Field Canard previously but here we go again:

  • Comply with laws and regulations applicable to private providers -- including the payment of taxes. - Of course, it is hard to calculate exactly how much these private providers actually pay in taxes due to the variety of tax breaks and their use of tax havens to avoid paying the taxes that normal non-massive companies have to pay.

  • Not cross-subsidize their competitive activity using taxpayer or other public monies - If we would ban cross-subsidies, that would be something! But no, this bans a specific form of cross-subsidization that the public sector may use while allowing the private sector to cross-subsidize at will. TWC can lower prices in Wilson while raising prices in Raleigh. AT&T can use profits from its wireless network to invest in U-Verse. But the community networks are limited to resources from their boundaries. Regardless of its merit as a rule, to suggest it levels the playing field is to ignore reality.

  • Not price below cost, after imputing costs that would be incurred by a private providers - Again, the private providers are not limited in their ability to price below cost (predatory pricing) and have little reason not to as they can cross-subsidize from nearby non-competitive areas.

  • Not discriminate against private providers in access to rights-of-way - Once again, we have a rule that should be applied to both sides. No entity should be allowed to delay the other in access to poles. But it is the private providers who have obstructed community networks from the poles.

This legislation will hurts jobs, investment, and the general competitiveness of the state in a digital economy. The General Assembly is doing Time Warner Cable a massive favor by shutting down the only threat of competition and the source of the best broadband networks in the state -- community networks.

I encourage readers to look in on Philip Dampier's long discussion about this bill and Karl Bode's shorter take on it.

Anti-H129 Graphic designed by Eric James. Monopoly photo used under creative commons license, courtesy of Jenn Vargas (foreverdigital) on flickr. Handcuffs also under creative commons, courtesy of nigel view on flickr..

Whose Internet? NC Communities Should Defend Freedom to Build Networks

Durham's Herald Sun published our op-ed about community broadband networks in North Carolina. Reposted here:

Who should decide the future of broadband access in towns across North Carolina? Citizens and businesses in towns across the state, or a handful of large cable and phone companies? The new General Assembly will almost certainly be asked to address that question.

Fed up with poor customer service, overpriced plans and unreliable broadband access, Wilson and Salisbury decided to build their own next-generation networks. Faced with the prospect of real competition in the telecom sector, phone and cable companies have aggressively lobbied the General Assembly to abolish the right of other cities to follow in Wilson and Salisbury's pioneering footsteps.

The decision by Wilson and Salisbury to build their own networks is reminiscent of the decision by many communities 100 years ago to build their own electrical grids when private electric companies refused to provide them inexpensive, reliable service.

An analysis by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance ( compares the speed and price of broadband from incumbent providers in North Carolina to that offered by municipally owned Greenlight in Wilson and Fibrant in Salisbury.

Wilson and Salisbury offer much faster connections at similar price points, delivering more value for the dollar while keeping those dollars in the community. For instance, the introductory broadband tiers from Wilson (10 downstream/10 upstream Mbps) and Salisbury (15/15 Mbps) beat the fastest advertised tiers in Raleigh of AT&T (6/.5 Mbps) and TWC (10/.768 Mbps). And by building state-of-the-art fiber-optic networks, subscribers actually receive the speeds promised in advertisements. DSL and cable connections, for a variety of reasons, rarely achieve the speeds promised.

Curbing innovation

The Research Triangle is a hub of innovation but is stuck with last-century broadband delivered by telephone lines and cable connections. In the Triangle, as in most of the United States, broadband subscribers choose between slow DSL from the incumbent telephone company and faster but by no means adequate cable broadband from the incumbent cable company.

A few DSL subscribers may have access to U-Verse, but most are waiting for someone in Texas (AT&T's headquarters) to authorize the upgrade to U-Verse (faster than typical DSL but much slower than full fiber-optics). On the cable side, someone in New York (Time Warner Cable's headquarters) decided to force subscribers in the Triangle to wait for cable upgrades long after many cities had received them.

Perhaps by the end of 2011, all businesses and residents in the Triangle will have access to the best broadband TWC and AT&T have to offer -- which is still inferior to that offered by Wilson, Salisbury, any community with Verizon's FiOS, and just about every major city in Europe or Asia.

The opposition

Under state law, communities can organize and build their own broadband networks to ensure their citizens have world-class access to the Internet. The argument for preempting this local authority features two diametrically opposed claims:

  • Communities should not build these networks because they always fail.
  • Communities should not compete with the private sector because they will drive the existing provider(s) out of business.

Interestingly, the preponderance of evidence actually weighs against both claims. The vast majority of community fiber networks have performed extremely well against great odds. After winning the costly, frivolous lawsuits filed against communities by incumbents, community networks have successfully competed against temporary, artificially low prices by competitors who use profits from non-competitive areas to subsidize their efforts to deny any subscribers to a new network.

The few community fiber networks that have struggled against these odds are presented as the norm by industry-funded think tanks that try to scare any community considering a broadband investment.

A public monopoly?

There are few, if any, instances where community networks have driven incumbents out of business. It is true that once a community network begins operating, incumbent profits decline, often because they lower prices and increase investments -- each of which greatly benefits the community. But even if that were not true, why should a local government in North Carolina care more for the profits of two massive out-of-state companies than for what is best for their citizens and the future of the community?

The incumbent lobbyists will say that local governments can just raise taxes to unfairly cross-subsidize the networks. The reality is that citizens enjoy having their taxes raised about as much as having their cable rates raised. Citizens have little recourse when cable companies raise their rates, but they can directly express their dissatisfaction with elected officials who arbitrarily raise their taxes, by voting them out of office.

Local control

Remember though, the argument here is not about whether any given community should build a network. Right now, communities make that choice themselves. For years, lobbyists have pushed the General Assembly to take that decision away, either directly or by creating a web of contrived obstacles.

On matters of essential infrastructure, communities should be free to decide whether they will build it or depend on others. For years, Mooresville and Davidson relied on Adelphia for cable access while the network fell into disrepair. In the wake of Adelphia's bankruptcy, they chose to take it over to avoid continued similar problems from TWC. In taking it over, they found it in even worse shape than expected, resulting in higher costs to fix it. This situation, fixing the failure of the private sector, is actually used by telecom companies to argue against public ownership.

There is a very good reason so many communities are considering a variety of broadband investments: private providers are not meeting their needs. The question is whether the General Assembly wants to let communities move forward as they choose, or let out-of-state companies decide the competitiveness of the state.

Mediacom Falsely Accuses Lake County Communities of False Statements

In a situation similar to the Frontier letters to Sibley we published last week, the cable company Mediacom has sent letters to Silver Bay and Two Harbors in Lake County to scare them into abandoning the rural county-wide FTTH network that they are building with federal broadband stimulus aid.

Interestingly, rather than sticking to the normal fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) campaign, Mediacom apparently based its threats on a draft previous version of the joint powers ordinance rather than the language actually passed by the resolutionsincluded in the current JPA. Whoops.  [See Update below]

Mediacom, perhaps you should focus on improving your networks rather than stifling potential competition.  Please send us copies of letters your community network has received from incumbent providers.

Without further ado, here is the letter [download pdf] sent to Silver Bay and Two Harbors on December 21, 2010 by Tom Larsen, VP of Legal and Public Affairs for Mediacom:

Re: Joint Powers Agreement with Lake

County Dear Mayor Johnson:

Mediacom prides itself in being one of America's leading providers of telecommunications services to small and medium sized communities. As you may be aware, Mediacom offers a highly competitive suite of high-speed Internet, cable television and phone services to homes and businesses throughout Silver Bay (the "City").

It has come to our attention that the City passed a resolution on November 15, 2010 approving a Joint Powers Agreement with Lake County (the "JPA"). Given the significant private capital that Mediacom has invested in order to make advanced telecommunications services available throughout the City, we were extremely surprised to learn that your resolution approving the the JPA includes the following finding in Section 4(e):

The Municipality hereby finds that the facilities composing the Project are necessary to make Internet and other communication services that are not and will not be available through other providers or the private market accessible and available on an equal basis to the residents of the municipality.

As Mediacom makes Internet and other communication services available on an equal basis to residents of the City, the finding contained in Section 4(e) is patently false. It appears that the JPA is an essential element in Lake County's ability to close on a $56 million loan and $10 million grant from the Rural Utility Service of the United States Department of Agriculture. Given that this outright false statement is being made by the City with the knowledge that it is both false and may be relied upon by the federal government when issuing $66 million to Lake County, the City may want to investigate whether it has incurred financial liability or criminal exposure by entering into the JPA. Mediacom plans to call this matter to the attention of the Office of Inspector General of the United States Department of Agriculture.

The JPA also appears to be an essential element in Lake County's ability to issue revenue bonds pursuant to Minnesota Statutes, Chapter 475. The JPA makes clear that it is your City's "need" for facilities that it supposedly does not "have" that is the justification for the revenue bonds. In fact, Section 6(a) of the JPA requires the City to make false representations that it will only be able to receive Internet and communications services if the revenue bonds are sold:

[A]dopt a resolution (i) evidencing its [the City's] intent to authorize the Issuer to undertake and operate the portion of the Project located within its jurisdictional boundaries, including a recital of the benefits to such Party [the City] from issuance of the Obligations to finance and operate the portion of the project located within its jurisdictional boundaries, (ii) making specific findings regarding the benefits of the Project, including the findings in Section 2 of this Agreement . . .

These false representations by the City may have also exposed it to significant legal liability from the purchasers of the County's revenue bonds on a theory of fraudulent inducement.

It is imperative that these material misstatements of fact be corrected. Accordingly, Mediacom requests that the City immediately take action to correct these false findings by rescinding or amending the JPA. We also request that the City immediately notify any and all affected municipalities (including Lake County), bond issuers, government agencies (including the Rural Utilities Service) or other persons or parties that the JPA contained material misstatements of fact and should not be relied upon.

Further, we request copies of all correspondence and/or information relating to the JPA possessed by the City, including a list of all municipalities, bond issuers, government agencies, or other persons or parties who may have been provided a copy of the JPA. Additionally, we request all materials, statements and/or other information which was provided to or considered by the City in connection with the JPA including the identity of any individuals making oral or written statements or representations to the City regarding the availability of Mediacom's Internet or other services offered in the City.

I appreciate your prompt attention to this matter. Please do not hesitate to contact me should you have any questions.

Tom Larsen

Lake County responded thusly [download pdf]:

Dear Mr. Larsen:

We have been provided with copies of the letters dated December 21, 2010, which you sent to the Cities of Silver Bay and Two Harbors in Lake County, Minnesota. We are sending this letter as a response.

First, let me point out that the Joint Powers Agreement (JPA) was not a condition precedent to the loan and grant of funds by the United States of America acting through the Rural Utilities Service. The Rural Utilities Service made the decision to award the loan and grant to Lake County well before the Cities of Silver Bay and Two Harbors decided to participate in the network through the JPA.

Second, it is regrettable that you did not have a current copy of the JPA to review. The current version of the JPA provides as follows:

The findings in section 2 are:

  1. It is in the best interests of the Municipalities to consent to the issuance of the Obligations by the Lake County HRA and the operation of the Project by Lake County.
  2. Each of the Municipalities will receive substantial benefit from the Project which will provide advanced voice, video and data services, accessible and available on an equal basis to residents of each of the Municipalities.

Section (6)(a) of the current version of the JPA states:

Each of the Municipalities will consider, if necessary and requested by Lake County, adopting an ordinance, or modify an existing ordinance to allow such Municipalities to issue an extension permit to Lake County pursuant to Chapter 238 of the Minnesota Statutes and all other applicable laws, rules, regulations and ordinances now or hereafter in effect. Each of the Municipalities further agrees to consider issuing an extension permit to Lake County if necessary and requested by Lake County in accordance with all applicable laws, rules, regulations and ordinances now or hereafter in effect.

As you know, Mediacom is a valued service provider in the Cities of Silver Bay and Two Harbors. Lake County’s network will be an open-access system, allowing Mediacom to reach additional consumers outside of the Cities of Silver Bay and Two Harbors without the risk and expense of expanding its cable system. It is a pity that you feel you have to resort to such heavy handed tactics, rather than choosing to continue to work in partnership with the Cities and join with Lake County to provide services on this new infrastructure.

If you have any further questions, please feel free to contact me.

[no-glossary]Russ Conrow[/no-glossary]
Special Assistant Lake County Attorney

Update: After I published this story, VP Tom Larsen contacted me to correct my claim that Mediacom based its objection on a draft:

Given that these are real documents (not “draft” as you described) that were signed by Silver Bay’s City Administrator and Mayor and approved by the City Council, I hardly think my letter can be characterized as false accusations.

Mr. Larsen is correct, the language was not a draft.  However, it was updated in a later version of the Joint Powers Agreement.  I have attached both version of the Joint Powers Agreement here for readers to view (Nov 15 and Nov 25).  Apologies for mischaracterizing Mediacom's actions.  However, we will continue to maintain that a cable network is no more a substitute for a FTTH network than an ultra-light airplane is a substitute for a Boeing 777.