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Consumerist Sounds Off on Internet Essentials and Comcast's Hidden Agenda

In a Consumerist article, Kate Cox takes a look at who is benefitting the most from Comcast's Internet Essentials program and - guess what - it is Comcast.

The program has brought Internet access to a number of people who may not otherwise have been able to get online and that's a good thing. According to Comcast, 300,000 families are receiving 5 Mbps download for the program's $9.99 monthly rate. All considered, that is 300,000 families who might otherwise not have Internet access at all.

But Cox noticed how the gigantic cable conglomerate pulls the program out to dazzle politicians whenever they need a little public opinion boost. In August 2013, Comcast announced it was extending the program:

Comcast, meanwhile, is not acting out of a sense of charity or philanthropy. They’re satisfying federal requirements to help bring broadband access to the poor. And Internet Essentials is only available where Comcast already operates — so Comcast isn’t spending a dime to run infrastructure to any place where it doesn’t already exist.

They sure get to benefit from looking philanthropic, though. Community outreach is a huge part of Comcast’s extensive lobbying efforts. And in looking to gain the blessing of federal regulators on their impending buyout of Time Warner Cable, “benefit to the community” is one of their best cards to play.

Cox notes the significant obstacles to signing on to the program, as we did in 2012. She also notes that families who need the program most are not always the ones who are able to find the information to enroll:

The other barrier is the enrollment process itself: Internet Essentials is separate from Comcast’s standard service. It uses a different website and phone number for enrollment and information. Consumers who call Comcast’s regular line and try to ask for the cheap internet generally get shunted into some kind of promotional triple-play package. Comcast representatives don’t redirect callers to the other phone number.

So the consumers most likely to be able correctly to sign up for Internet Essentials are high-information consumers who have the time and resources to use the internet to research how to get the best choice in internet access. And the target user of Internet Essentials is a lower-information consumer, potentially with education and/or language barriers, who doesn’t necessarily have the time and resources, or internet access, to do all the research over best choices.

Once a household no longer has a child who qualifies for free and reduced lunches, that household no longer qualifies for Internet Essentials.
Cox also comments on the service itself:

The other main problem with Internet Essentials is that it’s crap. A download speed of “up to 5 Mbps” is, by the standards of 2014, painfully slow. Those fancy online educational tools that are supposedly the main benefit of the program? Many of them don’t work so well on that connection.

In other words, Comcast is giving their low-income customers access to what they pay for — not access on par with what most other Comcast customers can buy. It’s both a fifth of the cost and a fifth of the service.

Last year, John Randall from the Roosevelt Institute came to a similar conclusion:

Comcast's Internet Essentials program does more to benefit Comcast's customer acquisition, public relations, and lobbying departments than to help people in America who need high-speed Internet access at a reasonable price. The reality is that the program is a cleverly designed customer acquisition program that benefits Comcast's bottom line. 

The Internet Essentials program, while offering a temporary respite to a small segment of low-income families, draws attention away from the real solution - policies that ensure affordable, reliable, and fast Internet access to all. As long as we continue to allow the consolidation of some of the most hated companies in the country, Internet Essentials is the best we can expect.

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)

 

To Overbuild or Underbuild? A Rural Policy Conundrum - Community Broadband Bits Podcast #91

Lisa Gonzalez and I, Christopher Mitchell, are back in studio for a short conversation about the implications of a municipal network or a coop receiving subsidies from government to engage in overbuilding, where it builds a fiber network in an area already served by slow DSL and cable networks.

This has become an important issue as Minnesota considers a fund that would encourage networks in areas currently unserved and possibly underserved.

We discuss the economics, fairness, and practial realities of both allowing "overbuilding" and disallowing it as Minnesota features two similar networks that have come to different conclusions, to the advantage and disadvantage of different local stakeholders.

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 13 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 Valley Lodge for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Sweet Elizabeth."

History of the Quickly Subverted 1996 Telecommunications Act - Community Broadband Bits Episode 89

If all had gone according to the plan behind the 1996 Telecommunications Act, we would have lots of competition among Internet service providers, not just cable and DSL but other technologies as well. Alas, the competing technologies never really appeared and various incarnations of the FCC effectively gutted the common carriage requirements at the heart of the Act.

Earl Comstock joins us today to explain what they had in mind when they spent years developing the goals and text of the Act. A staffer to Senator Stevens - and yes, we discuss the legacy of Senator "series of tubes" Stevens and you might be surprised when you learn more about him - Earl helped to craft the Act and then had to watch as the FCC and Courts misinterpreted it.

At the heart of our conversation is what they believed would be necessary to achieve the goals of expanding access to telecommunications service to all.

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 30 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 Valley Lodge for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Sweet Elizabeth."

Overview of Stockholm's Stokab - Community Broadband Bits Episode #88

Having just returned from a short trip to Sweden, Lisa Gonzalez and I discuss what I learned and how Stockholm has become one of the most connected cities on the planet.

We talk about how Stockholm built a massive dark fiber network that has enabled competition at the service layer, the status of telecommunications in Sweden, and what lessons we can learn in the U.S. from their experience.

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 15 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 Valley Lodge for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Sweet Elizabeth."

Santa Monica's Telecommunications Master Plan

In 1998, Santa Monica created a Telecommunications Master Plan that has guided it for the past fifteen years in building an impressive fiber network connecting all community anchor institutions and many business districts. We have just released a case study detailing this effort, entitled: Santa Monica City Net: An Incremental Approach to Building a Fiber Optic Network.

Below, you will find the original Master Plan and Exhibits. Santa Monica got it right - this document can still be a model today for communities across the United States. This document is particularly important for local governments that do not have a municipal electric department because it offers an alternative model run out of the IT department.

FCC to Investigate Barriers to Community Networks

We are supportive of the announcement today from the Federal Communications Commission. We salute the FCC for beginning to examine how state level barriers against municipal networks deter investment in the networks both communities and the nation desperately need.

From the statement:

The Commission will look for opportunities to enhance Internet access competition. One obvious candidate for close examination was raised in Judge Silberman’s separate opinion, namely legal restrictions on the ability of cities and towns to offer broadband services to consumers in their communities.

The FCC has a history of encouraging states not to pass such laws (Commissioner Clyburn, previous FCC Chair, former Commissioner Copps) and the National Broadband Plan made recommendation 8.19: "Congress should make clear that Tribal, state, regional and local governments can build broadband networks."

Even if communities choose not to build their own networks, having that capacity changes the dynamic of the big cable and telephone companies - something Franklin D. Roosevelt described as the "birch rod" in the cupboard (regarding municipal electricity):

But on the other hand the very fact that a community can, by vote of the electorate, create a yardstick of its own, will, in most cases, guarantee good service and low rates to its population. I might call the right of the people to own and operate their own utility something like this: a "birch rod" in the cupboard to be taken out and used only when the "child" gets beyond the point where a mere scolding does no good.

With the recent network neutrality decision from the Circuit Court, the FCC has a very clear path to ensure all local governments can decide locally whether such an investment is wise, rather than being preempted by a state legislature that may have been misled by powerful lobbyists.

We are calling on our readers, local governments, and all concerned citizens to applaud the FCC decision to examine these barriers. One thing you can do to help is to reach out to Senators and your representatives in DC. Make sure they know you support a local decision-making process rather than one-size-fits-all rules dictated by those in the capital.

If you want more background on Section 706 and municipal networks, listen to our recent podcast interview with Harold Feld.

We are also cheered by the continued stated committment of the FCC to preserving the open Internet and hope this process will achieve that end. We continue to believe that properly classifying Internet access as a telecommunications service and appropriate forbearance for unnecessary regulations is the best approach for safeguarding the Internet. However, we recognize the intense pressure by some of the most powerful corporations in DC not to take that route. Our work is cut out to ensure there are no loopholes that would damage the Internet.

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.

Fork in the Road For UTOPIA: Forward or Backward? Community Broadband Bits Episode #85

The Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency, which we have written about many times, is at a crossroads. An Australian corporation specializing in infrastructure is prepared to infuse $300 million into the project but the Utah Legislature may prohibit it from expanding and even from using existing connections outside member cities.

We asked Jesse Harris of Free UTOPIA and Pete Ashdown of XMission to join us for Community Broadband Bits Episode #85 to sort out the stories.

Jesse explains the potential Macquarie investment and how the bill HB60 could hurt both that deal and more broadly, connectivity in the area. Pete Ashdown discusses how he learned of the bill and what it would mean to his business if the network were able to be expanded.

We previously spoke with Pete Ashdown and Todd Marriott about UTOPIA in Episode 3 of this podcast.

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 15 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 Fit and the Conniptions for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Kansas Community Benefits from Community Owned Networks

Even though the Kansas cable lobby have temporarily retracted their competition-killing telecom bill, we still want to highlight the benefits of preserving full home rule, local authority by focusing on a number of communities, including Chanute, Ottawa, and Erie.

Chanute

We have reported on Chanute's municipal network for years. The community leveraged its electric utility assets and incrementally built an extensive publicly owned gigabit fiber network. Over several decades, the community expanded its network to serve schools, libraries, local government, and businesses. Chanute took advantage of every opportunity and created a valuable asset with no borrowing or bonding.

Several business, including Spirit AeroSystems, chose to locate in Chanute because of its incredible fiber network. Spirit brought approximately 150 new jobs. The network also retained jobs when incumbents refused to provide needed upgrades to local businesses. Rather than leave town, the businesses connected to the City's network and increased their productivity. 

Former City Manager J.D. Lester referred to municipal broadband as “the great equalizer for Rural America,” saying: “You don’t have to live in Kansas City to work there.” (See our case study Chanute's Gig: One Rural Kansas Community's Tradition of Innovation Led to A Gigabit and Ubiquitous Wireless Coverage [PDF])

Kids in Chanute have access to connectivity other schools can only dream about. The local community college has expanded its distance learning program with higher capacity broadband. Free Wi-Fi hotspots are all over town; money otherwise sent to distant providers stays in the community. Chanute has invested in a WiMAX wireless system that serves public safety all over the region, not only in town. Their other utilities use the network for automatic metering and SCADA applications, saving energy and allowing customers the chance to reduce utility bills.

Chanute Logo

In addition to savings public dollars by reducing the cost of municipal connectivity, the broadband utility generates $600,000 and contributes 5 percent of that to the general fund.

Community leaders recently began planning for a FTTH expansion to bring fiber Internet to every home in town. If SB 304 finds its way into the books, those plans will be derailed and residents will be left with slow cable and DSL access.

Erie

Erie, southeast of Chanute, also utilizes Chanute's extensive fiber network for affordable school connectivity. When it was time to upgrade, Erie approached incumbent Cox. Cox's proposal for 100 Mbps to the high school alone was $5,000 per month. With its microwave network, Chanute is able to provide Internet service to the Erie community where already fiber connects the school facilities. Chanute serves Erie's high school, grade school, administration offices, and the bus barn where students learn auto mechanics. Like Chanute schools, Erie is guaranteed 100 Mbps but able to burst up to 300 Mbps when capacity allows. Erie pays only $5,100 per month and 80% of its connectivity fee is reimbursed by the federal E-rate program.

Ottawa

Inspired by Chanute's success, nearby Ottawa launched its fiber network in 2013. Ottawa joined forces with its school district and county government. Ottawa used an existing patchwork school district and county fiber, linking them together as a community network backbone. Each entity retained ownership of their resources but shared fiber strands with the City.

Ottawa businesses were dissatified with services from incumbents who were not interested in upgrading. Choices were expensive and slow T1s or an uber expensive DS3. Multiple appeals to incumbent AT&T yielded no results.

Schools, the area community college, and a farmers' cooperative connect to the network for better capacity and lower prices than AT&T will offer. The school district has cut its connectivity fees in half from $6,000 per month to $3,000 per month, by switching to Ottawa as a service provider. They now receive double the speed they used to purchase because the community network takes a much different approach than AT&T. From our April 2013 article on Ottawa:

Ottawa followed Chanute's example by providing a floor instead of a ceiling as the foundation for service. In other words, customers contract for minimum capacity but are allowed to burst to whatever capacity is available at any given time. For example, the School District will soon connect with a minimum 250 Mbps with the ability to burst to 500 Mbps.