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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consultant Argues Never Used Financing Mechanism Also Won't Work in Palo Alto

I was troubled to see Broadband Communities publish an odd and misleading story about Palo Alto in the May-June issue [pdf]. Authored by Stephen Blum of Tellus Venture Associates, a consultant that has been hired by Palo Alto in the past, it showed a remarkable level of ignorance about community owned fiber networks and broadband more generally.

The title alone, "Can FTTP Work in Palo Alto?" is just odd. Why exactly would FTTP not work in Palo Alto? It works in hundreds of other cities and towns, most of whom are less well positioned than Palo Alto for such a venture. A more honest title would have been "Consultant Argues Never Used Financing Mechanism Also Won't Work in Palo Alto." Blum made a very good case for that narrow argument but fails to lay out any convincing evidence that a variety of other models are doomed.

Parts of the article can only be called cable and DSL boosterism - such as repeating the talking point that AT&T's U-Verse and Comcast already offer "high levels of service at competitive rates." Competitive to what? Neither can deliver the speeds offered by modern fiber networks and are only "competitive" if one ignores the much slower upstream speeds, higher prices, lesser reliability, problems of oversubscription, and poor customer service one gets from those providers.

Reminds me of "Slick Sam" from Lafayette and the "functional equivalence" between DSL and FTTH.

Blum apparently knows better - that Palo Alto residents are "happy" with the existing services because they have not spontaneously marched down El Camino Real demanding faster speeds at lower prices. This is the wrong measure - reminiscent of the now oft-quoted Henry Ford line that if he asked people what they wanted, they would have said "faster horses."

The number of specific errors in this piece are many, and have been well documented by those familiar with the history of Palo Alto's studies. I want to focus on just a few. Let's start here:

Overall, 79 percent of households would have to pay $3,000 apiece to fully fund FTTP construction costs.

YIKES! Cue the foreboding music! Palo Alto has something like 25,000 households. If 20,000 of them paid $3,000 then the City would have $60 million in addition to its present $14 million dark fiber reserve - a staggering $74 million of theoretical money that has nothing to do with anything. I know of no network that has been built in this manner.

This is an absurd measure for whether a network is feasible. Networks are not financed in this way, partially because, as the author adroitly notes, it doesn't appear likely to work. Community owned networks are financed using a few common methods, most often revenue bonds issued by the utility. Palo Alto's past studies of this approach reflected a desire to avoid that path and the results of those studies in no way determine whether a city owned FTTH network is feasible in 2013 given the present assets and environment.

The user-financed model remains a peculiarity and quite possibly will have a role to play in the future (though almost certainly not to finance the entirety of a system). Palo Alto would be crazy to hinge its decision of whether to invest solely on the feasibility of each home owner paying its full connection cost up front.

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In examining the likelihood of success for Palo Alto, it makes sense to consider similar communities that have made the investment:

Although there were some apparent FTTP successes (for example Bristol, Va., and Cedar Falls, Iowa), cities that had more in common with Palo Alto, such as Alameda and Provo, Utah, were failing.

There is nothing "apparently" successful about Cedar Falls or Bristol. They are unambiguously stunning successes, with take rates north of 70 percent and have led to thousands of jobs. And both can deliver a gigabit anywhere in town at a moments notice at rates a fraction of what major carriers charge. But he believes Alameda (with an older HFC cable system) and Provo (having to deal with strict state laws not present in California) are more relevant comparisons. There are some 140 other citywide networks that might be more relevant, but Blum ignores them.

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He ultimately concludes that Google's experience in Provo will somehow inform local government decisions around network investments. This is some of the worst advice I have read. First of all, Google's costs are different than any other firm, let alone a local government because it already runs one of the largest fiber networks on the planet (possibly the largest). The most brilliant engineers on the planet work for Google. It doesn't publish its costs and is a private sector firm with far different motivations and incentives than a local government.

In short, there might not be a worse comparison than Google for a local government evaluating its own plan for meeting long term telecommunications needs.

All of this being said, Palo Alto could rationally choose not to invest in a FTTH network. It would have to compete against Comcast and AT&T, who engage in predatory tactics while federal regulators ignore potential Sherman Anti-Trust violations.

Given the many wonderful aspects of the community, particularly for people who don't like winter, maybe DSL and Comcast cable will be good enough for the heart of Silicon Valley. That is their choice, not mine (my wife and I love Minnesota winter). I just hate to see such an imbalanced and inaccurate case made suggesting it could not work.

New York Times on Internet in America, Genachowski Legacy

Eduardo Porter has an important column today in the business section of the New York Times, "Yanking Broadband From the Slow Lane." He correctly identifies some of the culprits slowing the investment in Internet networks in our communities.

The last two paragraphs read:

Yet the challenge remains: monopolies have a high instinct for self-preservation. And more than half a dozen states have passed legislation limiting municipalities from building public broadband networks in competition with private businesses. South Carolina passed its version last year. A similar bill narrowly failed in Georgia.

Supporting these bills, of course, are the nation’s cable and telephone companies.

Not really "supporting" so much as creating. They create the bills and move them with millions of dollars spent on lobbyists and campaign finance contributions, usually without any real public debate on the matter.

Eduardo focuses on Google Fiber rather than the hundreds of towns that have built networks - as have most of the elite media outlets. Google deserves praise for taking on powerful cable and DSL companies, but it is lazy journalism broadly that has ignored the networks built by hundreds of towns - my criticism of the press generally, not Eduardo specifically.

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The person who deserves plenty of criticism is former FCC Chairman Genachowski. From the article:

According to the F.C.C.’s latest calculation, under one-third of American homes are in areas where at least two wireline companies offer broadband speeds of 10 Mbps or higher.

We have 20 million Americans with no access to broadband. The rest are lucky to have a choice between two providers and even then, most still only have access to fast connections from a single provider.

When the National Broadband Plan was unveiled, we were critical of it and believed it would do little to improve our standing. Even its architect, Blair Levin, is annoyed at how Genachowski failed to implement even the modest proposals put forth.

Back in the NYT piece, we find this:

Mr. Genachowski contends that broadband deployment is on the right track. He points to the growing number of high-speed broadband deployments like Google Fiber and municipal projects around the country, as well as to AT&T’s announcement that it will expand the footprint of its U-verse network — the number of homes to which service is available — to 33 million. This uses fiber part of the way and, AT&T claims, can attain up to 75 Mbps.

Absurd. First of all, the supposed AT&T expansion is playing with numbers. If anyone actually gets U-Verse from this new deployment, it will be fewer than 1.5 million people but we really have no way of knowing because neither the states or the FCC really keeps track of these deployments. They just take AT&T's word for it.

As for 75 Mbps, talk about cherry picking data. Most people live far enough away from the DSLAM or have old enough copper wires that they will not even come close to that number. And this is only for downstream - the upstream capacity remains a fraction of that. This is a fantasy in a fantasy but these numbers are repeated by media sources because they come from AT&T.

I'm rather surprised Genachowski did not also take credit for AT&T's pretend fiber press release in Austin or the overblown CenturyLink pilot in Omaha. Communities engaged in the hard work of building a network received scant attention until they had a ribbon cutting where Chairman Genachowski would appear suddenly supportive and trying to take some measure of credit.

FCC Revolving Door

Genachowski likely felt more comfortable with AT&T, CenturyLink, and a few other big corporations because they share his preference for press releases rather than doing the hard work that needs to be done. We look forward to seeing which of these firms he joins as a lobbyist of some sort ... after a stint at a nonprofit to make it less obvious, of course. Wouldn't want to be as obvious as former FCC Commissioner Baker.

Lest I go too far in attacking our former FCC Chairman, we do remain thankful that once in awhile he did stand up the big corporations and meekly request a reasonable concession.. Most recently, he spoke out against legislation in Georgia to revoke local authority to build networks. For years, FCC Commission and acting Chair Mignon Clyburn has fought to preserve local authority and we were pleased to see her get some backup from the then-Chairman. He didn't actually use his power to actually do anything, but it was nice of him to think of us.

As we move forward with the new FCC under Chairman-nomineer Wheeler, we hope to see real progress on expanding fast, affordable, and reliable Internet access to everyone. Given his industry background, we cannot help but be nervous. And the utter disaster Obama has been for a public interest media and telecom agenda does not help either.

As this NYT article confirms, communities are smart to pursue their own strategies in solving this problem, not waiting for DC to sort anything out. And if DC can be bothered to take any action on telecom, it would be smart to start by removing barriers for communities that want to invest in themselves.

Pay Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain: Listen to AT&T's CEO, not Lobbyists

AT&T lobbyists in Georgia and South Carolina are arguing that local governments should not be allowed to build the networks that communities need, suggesting that the private sector is primed to make the necessary connections. But AT&T's CEO had a different message for investors a few weeks ago, in an earnings call on January 26:

The other is rural access lines; we have been apprehensive on moving, doing anything on rural access lines because the issue here is, do you have a broadband product for rural America?

We’ve all been trying to find a broadband solution that was economically viable to get out to rural America, and we’re not finding one to be quite candid. The best opportunity we have is LTE.

Whoa! LTE is what you more commonly hear called 4G in mobile phone commercials. The best they can do is eventually build a wireless network that allows a user to transfer just 2GB/month. That is fine for hand-held devices but it does nothing to encourage economic development or allow residents to take advantage of remote education opportunities.

But even the CEO admits they are not bullish on LTE as the solution:

[W]e’re looking at rural America and asking, what’s the broadband solution? We don’t have one right now.

Some may be wondering about "U-Verse" -- AT&T's super DSL that competes with cable in the wealthy neighborhoods of bigger cities. U-Verse cannot match the capacity or quality of modern cable networks but is better than older DSL technologies. But U-Verse is not coming to a rural community near you.

For those who missed the fanfare last year, AT&T's U-Verse build is done. AT&T's lobbyists have probably forgotten to tell Georgia and South Carolina Legislators that the over 20 million AT&T customers without access to U-Verse are not going to get it. But CEO Stephenson made sure investors weren't worried about AT&T continuing to invest in its wireline infrastructure:

In wireline, our U-verse build is now largely complete, so we have in place an IP video and broadband platform that reaches 30 million customer locations, which gives us significant headroom now to drive penetration.

Translation: AT&T will now focus on upselling customers in markets with U-Verse. If it doesn't run through your neighborhood already, you aren't getting it.

The rest are stuck on dial-up or DSL that AT&T's CEO has previously called obsolete (correctly). While AT&T's CEO has been honest about its inability to solve real broadband deployment gaps, AT&T's lobbyists have tried to advance a bill with the ludicrously low broadband definition of 200kbps and even more absurdly, the even slower definition of 190kbps.

The business model of AT&T and other big cable and DSL companies simply does not work in much of rural America. The question is why any state would foreclose the possibility of communities being self-reliant when major companies like AT&T candidly admit they have no solution and the best they can do is deliver an obsolete product.

State legislators need to pay more attention to what AT&T's CEO says and less what AT&T's lobbyists say.

Fast, affordable, and reliable access to the Internet is essential for communities to thrive in the digital age. Not every community wants to build a community networks and most undoubtdly won't. But that is decision they should make locally. Pending legislation in Georgia and South Carolina would take this decision out of the hands of these communities by enacting a host of new regulations on public networks that do not apply to the private sector. As in North Carolina, these bills effectively revoke local decision-making authority by creating impossible hurdles for communities that are already disadvantaged in the modern economy.

The Internet is More Important than Broadband

I encourage readers to visit Doc Searls post "Broadband vs. Internet" for a discussion about things that matter regarding the future of Internet access for most Americans.

The Internet is no more capable than the infrastructures that carry it. Here in the U.S. most of the infrastructures that carry the Internet to our homes are owned by telephone and cable companies. Those companies are not only in a position to limit use of the Internet for purposes other than those they favor, but to reduce the Net itself to something less, called “broadband.” In fact, they’ve been working hard on both.

There is a difference between the Internet and "broadband." Broadband is a connection that is always on and tends to be somewhat faster than the dial-up speeds of 56kbps. Broadband could connect you to anything... could be the Internet or to an AOL like service where some company decides what you can see, who you can talk to, and the rules for doing anything.

The Internet is something different. It is anarchic, in the textbook definitional sense of being leaderless. It is a commons. As Doc says,

The Internet’s protocols are NEA:

  • Nobody owns them.*
  • Everybody can use them, and
  • Anybody can improve them.

Because no one owns it, few promote it or defend. Sure, major companies promote their connections to it (and when you connect to it, you are part of it) but they are promoting the broadband connection. And the biggest ones (Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, Time Warner Cable, etc) will do anything to increase the profits they make by being one of the few means of connecting to the Internet -- including charging much more and limiting what people can do over their connection, etc.

This is one reason the connections from major corporations are so heavily tilted toward download speeds -- they want consumers to consume content. Just about every community network built in the last 3-4 years offers symmetrical connections by contrast.

Last I heard, the fastest cable offering in the upstream direction was 12Mbps. Cox, our cable provider in Santa Barbara, gives us about 25Mbps down, but only 4Mbps up. Last time I talked to them (in June 2009), their plan was to deliver up to 100Mbps down eventually, but still only about 5Mbps up. That’s competitive as long as all you want is “content delivery.” But what about when you want to live “in the cloud,” and all your data is elsewhere? In the long run you’ll need a lot more upstream as well as downstream capacity for that. Internet service optimized for media delivery (where TV especially wants to go) won’t cut it. But then, most people aren’t looking at that. They’re looking at TV on their iPads over broadband, and thinking that’s way cool enough.

So here we are, smack up against what John Perry Barlow warned us about in Death From Above, way back in early 1995. There he wrote, “The cable companies and Baby Bells have a model for developing the next phase of telecom infrastructure which, were it applied to the design of physical superhighways, would have us building them with about five thousand lanes in one direction and one lane in the other.”

This is where Bob Frankson comes in, reminding us that the big cable and phone companies are good at billing, not connecting. Their methods and procedures are optimized to maximize their revenues, not to maximize the benefits of the Internet or anything else. Back to Doc:

The division is between what communications wonks crudely characterize as “net-heads” and “bell-heads.” Think of conflict as one betwee any and only. Net-heads want the Net to support anything. Bell-heads want communications systems optimized only for the businesses they prefer — namely, their own — and to avoid even talking about the Internet. (Bell-heads have never been comfortable with the Net, because it was not made to bill. TV and telephony are easy to bill, and so is “content” in general. Thanks to Apple’s and Google’s pioneering work —mostly in league with the operators — so now are apps.)

Community Broadband generally sides with the net-heads. The focus tends to be on what is best for the community as a whole, rather than what is good for a single company or industry. After all, if a community had a choice between one business providing 5,000 jobs and 500 businesses each providing 10 jobs, they would be crazy to opt for the single employer.

Verizon had been the only major company investing in next-generation networks with its FiOS deployment. It is done expanding -- unless you live in one of the wealth neighborhoods or suburbs that got it, you won't. AT&T has even ceased its pathetic U-Verse upgrades, even as they spend millions to prevent communities from building their own, much better networks. Communities that want to be relevant in 10 years take notice -- and take a good hard look at building a locally owned network that responds to the needs of the community.

Doc Searls photos used under creative commons license, courtesy of Flickr's Irisheyes

AT&T CEO Admits DSL is Obsolete

In a Q&A following a speech at the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, AT&T CEO Randal Stephenson candidly called DSL obsolete. This echoes not only our view, but that of hundreds of communities who have built their own networks upon realizing they cannot be competitive in the modern world with DSL.

Interestingly, AT&T still has millions of customers that use its DSL product. And it has announced its super-DSL offering called U-Verse is finished -- no doubt surprising many state-house policymakers that AT&T had convinced they would invest in communities.

The context of his comment was that DSL is no longer competitive with cable in broadband capacity (and often reliability) -- something we documented in our video comparing different types of networks. We would argue that U-Verse itself is not competitive with cable due to its greatly constrained upstream speeds -- even worse than cable networks typically experience.

So, to recap -- we have yet another admission from the private sector that it is delivering obsolete broadband services to our communities. How can there be any surprise that so many more communities are considering building their own networks to create economic develop, increase quality of life, and generally be competitive in the digital economy.

If AT&T can barely keep up with the investment necessary for our communities, how can far less profitable companies like CenturyLink and Frontier? They can't. But that doesn't stop them from advertising the hell out of their obsolete networks. Smart communities will choose self-determination rather than betting on last-generation networks run by distant, unaccountable corporations.

Community Fiber Group in San Francisco Organizes for Network

An article in the San Francisco Bay Guardian about public opposition to AT&T's further cluttering the right-of-way with 726 metal boxes to start delivering their super DSL U-Verse alerted me to people getting organized for community fiber.

AT&T's U-verse upgrade would enable it to offer connection speeds three times faster than current service — but not nearly as fast as what fiber proponents envision. Several members of the tech industry interviewed by the Guardian cautioned that another AT&T upgrade might be necessary after less than a decade to keep pace with technological advancement.

Ha! Considering that AT&T U-Verse tops out at 24Mbps downstream (if you are lucky and live close to the key electronics) and a piddling 1.5 Mbps upstream, it is already obsolete. Cable networks offered considerably better performance last year -- suggesting that AT&T should stop wasting everyone's time in SF with this approach.

We have previously written about efforts to use the City's fiber to bridge the digital divide and the SFBG article introduces us to new ideas using that asset.

Meanwhile, Board of Supervisors President David Chiu recently asked DTIS to examine the possibility of leasing excess capacity on city-owned dark-fiber infrastructure, which is currently in place but not being used. This could boost bandwidth for entities such as nonprofits, health care facilities, biotech companies, digital media companies, or universities, Chiu said, while bolstering city coffers. "There are many places in town that need a lot more bandwidth, and this is an easy way to provide it," he said.

Sniezko noted that other cities have created open-access networks to deploy fiber. "This is really effective because it's a lot like a public utility," she explained. "The city or someone fills a pipe, and then anyone who wants to run information or service on that pipe can do so. They pay a leasing fee. This has worked in many places in Europe, and they actually do it in Utah. In many cases, it's really cool — because it's publicly owned and it's neutral. There's no prioritizing traffic for one thing over another, or limitation on who's allowed to offer service on the network. It ... creates some good public infrastructure, and also allows for competition, and it sort of revives the local ISP. Chiu's proposal is a little bit in that vein, it sounds like. But he hasn't released a lot of details on it yet, so we're still looking."

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The article links to a newish web site SF Fiber, which has some impressive people involved, including Tim Pozar. They are also on twitter and Facebook.

An article on SF Fiber about potentially leasing city fiber mentions that the City has some conditioned fiber (where they are restricted in how they can use it) as well as unconditioned:

There may be some complexities to this process, as the city network sometimes uses underground conduit from utilities, which may be restricted to government or educational use, but it also possesses miles of unrestricted assets — notably fiber under MTA trolley and bus lines, and conduit in the AWSS, San Francisco’s emergency firefighting water network.

Once again, we like to point to Santa Monica as a great example communities can look to for expanding unconditioned fiber networks, the smart approach that leaves the most flexibility for the future.

After a long time, it seems that there is new energy behind expanding publicly owned fiber in San Francisco, including from a candidate for mayor. We hope that if he wins, he doesn't disappear on the issue like Seattle's Mayor seems to have …

Defending Public Access on the Television Channels

The trend of more people subscribing to broadband as well as cable incumbents (also AT&T with U-Verse) wage war on local public access television stations, some have been questioning whether we even need PEG channels on the television anymore. We do. If anything, the increase in capacity of networks should translate into greater opportunities for local shows to find a local audience.

Rob McCausland, a champion for community media, recently wrote about the the vast majority of communities that cablecast one or more public meetings - a trend that must be expanded.

Of the 254 largest cities cablecasting their government meetings, 197 of them (78%) do so on channels that they themselves manage. Nonprofit organizations manage those channels in 20 of those cities, while the cable companies manage them in 28.

These channels provide a crucial public service -- allowing the public to oversee their local government. If anything, we should not be considering decreasing access to this content, we should be finding ways to deliver it on-demand on the television. Ultimately, this programming should be available on all devices -- mobile, computer, television, and should be available as streaming and downloadable podcasts.

National Carriers Kill Jobs, They Do Not Create Them

The Media and Democracy Coalition has released a short paper detailing the many ways in which cable and phone companies have failed America. These companies use their market power to gouge residents and businesses, putting a drag on our economy. Meanwhile, the biggest ones are massively profitable and refuse to invest in the networks necessary to keep America competitive with peer nations.

We recently wrote about how privately owned networks tend to consolidate and reduce competition rather than reducing prices. The lesson is as clear as it has always been throughout human history: allowing a select few to control essential infrastructure is a recipe for economic calamity.

From the paper:

It’s good for our economy when companies make money and hire workers. But while small businesses continue to struggle in this economy, the cable and phone companies achieved extremely healthy profit margins. If the Great Recession didn’t stop these ISPs from making big profits, how could they be hurt by sensible consumer protections to keep the net operating just like it always has?

Well, seeing as how seat belts destroyed the automobile industry... and then air bags also destroyed the automobile industry... and CAFE standards destroyed the automobile industry.... wait -- all of these predictions were false. Perhaps we should not base important policy decisions upon the dire predictions of self-interested parties who are obligated to put self-interest ahead of the public interest.

I was saddened to see that the paper suggest "we need" the private companies to build these networks. Point of fact, not only do we not "need" them to do it, we "need" to wake up to the fact that even when they do the best they can, it is second best to networks built by those who put the public interest first. Compare the networks of communities like Salisbury, NC; Monticello, MN; Lafayette, LA; and Chattanooga, TN, to the joke AT&T calls U-Verse and the stronger offers of FiOS. The private sector cannot be trusted to build the infrastructure we need.

Addendum: I should note that while infrastructure must be managed in the public interest, I do believe the private sector should have a strong role as service providers operating on top of an open access platform. It is only by managing the fiber network in the public interest that independent service providers can compete on a level platform, creating the benefits of a truly competitive market.