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Community Broadband Media Roundup - October 3, 2014

“The Times, they are a-changin” quoted Chairman Wheeler this week in St. Paul. And with it, must come faster Internet speeds if the United States is going to keep up in the competitive economy. Multichannel’s John Eggerton reported on Wheeler’s visit to the National Association of Telecommunications Officer and Advisors (NATOA) conference this week, where Wheeler channeled both Bob Dylan and Garrison Keeler. You can also read the full transcript of his remarks. 

Oh, dear US Representative Marsha Blackburn is at it again. This time with a letter to editor in The Tennessean. Blackburn provides the same arguments she presented previously. And yet, oddly enough, still no acknowledgment that the top donors to her campaign fund happen to be big telecom lobbyists. 

In other municipal networks news, Andrew Denney with the Columbia Tribune in Missouri covered the pushback his city is seeing from big telecom, after the city announced it might be interested in expanding its existing fiber network. 

“A CenturyLink spokesperson warned city officials that, “if the city proceeded with the idea, it would amount to a taxpayer-subsidized entity wading into competition with private business.” 

Our own Christopher Mitchell responded in the same article:

The fundamental motive is to make sure they limit competition to their benefit,” said Chris Mitchell, director of community broadband for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. 

Citizens Speak Out

ILSR cannot be in all places at the same time, so it’s important that people weigh in on these issues, comment, and contact elected officials. So we’re praising several people and organizations who have come out in support of these important issues.

As Megan Epler Wood writes in Burlington Free Press, 

“Local ownership is a viable means to protect Net Neutrality according to many leading experts. Municipal fiber networks not only foster competition with the ISPs, they create citizen empowerment. According to Christopher Mitchell director of Community Broadband Networks at the Institute for Local Self Reliance municipal fiber networks "ensure open access to the Internet regardless of what tolls the big cable companies charge."

Bill Nemitz’s message in the Portland (Maine) Press Herald couldn’t be clearer:

Don’t suffer with slow Internet, rural Maine!

The Dalles, Oregon editorial board staff weighed in on the success of their own community networks. The city paid off its fiber-optic network last month. 

“The plan to install a fiber-optic loop to bring better access to high-speed internet to The Dalles faced harsh skepticism at its beginning. But, time and again, that access has proved to be a valuable commodity. Its existence has provided an added attraction to help bring jobs and growth to the community, not least of which is the Google data center, which is in the midst of a massive expansion with more jobs promised.”

We like the sound of that!

From success stories, to cities that are touching their toes to the water— Jeff Buchanan wrote this for The Isthmus in Madison, WI:

“Fortunately for consumers, there's an alternative: Cities are tackling the connectivity problem by building municipal fiber-to-the-home networks. Political and business leaders in Madison seem to agree that the status quo is unsatisfactory. But they're split in how urgently they want to address the problem, with city hall favoring a wait-and-see approach and a younger class of technocrats wanting to implement short-term, low-cost solutions immediately.”

And Hartford Business journal’s editorial staff said this week that high speed Internet is now a “must” investment, not just a want. 

“While the average Connecticut resident doesn't need ultra-high-speed bandwidth to play movies or download music, high-tech companies — particularly the increasing number of businesses that rely on big data — need it to compete. But Connecticut's lack of a fiber-optic cable network makes it difficult and expensive for businesses to access high-speed Internet, putting them at a competitive disadvantage.”

Another self-proclaimed proponent of private industry is baffled by Republicans stance against broadband competition. Mike Montgomery wrote about his support for allowing municipalities the chance to build broadband networks on HuffPo. 

“Broadband takes big investment, but it also means big money for providers. And while I'm among those who believe private industry is best suited to build and maintain networks, I also find the states' rights argument fairly ridiculous. After all, who better to know what a community needs than a local government? If elected officials recognize a need for better broadband access in their state, shouldn't voters have the final say as to who gets to build and maintain its broadband networks?”

Comcast/Time Warner Cable Merger

This is what happens when Comcast decides you’re no longer making them enough money. They decide it’s time to pack up shop. Todd Shields reported in Bloomberg’s MSN Money that Comcast wants to relinquish its Detroit customers as part of its proposed merger with Time Warner Cable. But don’t worry, it would pick up two other markets…

“As it drops Detroit, Comcast would gain the nation’s top two markets, New York and Los Angeles. The $45.2 billion acquisition would enlarge Comcast by 7 million video customers. The castaways in Detroit, Minneapolis and elsewhere would belong to a new company, GreatLand Connections Inc., to be created in what the companies call a tax-efficient spinoff. The new company’s debt would exceed industry averages -- something that has raised concerns about service in those communities.” 

And Emily Steel wanted you to know that if you oppose the Time Warner Cable merger, Comcast thinks you’re guilty of extortion. We’re not making this up!

Meanwhile, The Consumerist’s Chris Morran covered a new era in the most hated company in America’s customer service department. Charlie Herrin became the new VP for “customer experience.” And while he promised that “our customers deserve the best experience every time they interact with us.” Morran broke down some of the so-called “manure spreading” this way: 

“Without competition, Comcast has no reason to actually back up this “we love our customers” sentiment. What are you going to do, switch to slow DSL service from your local phone company that hasn’t maintained its copper wire network in years? Or maybe you can get wireless broadband and pay the same amount as Xfinity for 1/70th the amount of data each month.

In spite of what Comcast and Time Warner Cable would have you believe, those are not alternatives.”

Last week, the other “big guys” said that a lack of competition just isn’t a problem. In our office, we like to talk about “CrazyTown”, where Big Telecom (and other nonsensical creatures) live; Jon Brodkin of Ars Technica, and The Consumerist’s Kate Cox give them a message from “Planet Reality.”

Game Politics, Brad Reed of the Boy Genius Report, and Electronista all wanted to make sure that people knew about the ridiculous claims of Comcast.

Kate Cox also reported on how two of the three FCC commissioners who voted against Net Neutrality now “don’t think the proposed rule is the right fit.” Here’s to seeing the light, let’s hope it lasts.

Verizon/AT&T

Infoworld recently reported that Moldova, Latvia, and Estonia continue to run Internet circles around the United States in terms of download speeds— that’s according to the UN Broadband Commission’s Annual report. But still, AT&T is unmoved— claiming that the reason our speeds are so slow is because no one wants faster speeds:

 "Given the pace at which the industry is investing in advanced capabilities, there is no present need to redefine 'advanced' capabilities. Consumer behavior strongly reinforces the conclusion that a 10Mbps service exceeds what many Americans need today to enable basic, high-quality transmissions," AT&T said in a filing on the FCC's proposal to raise the definition to 10Mbps. Verizon made similar arguments.”

Google’s ALEC Problem

From the “All Things are Connected” File— Google announced last week that it is pulling it’s support of conservative lobbying group “ALEC” over “literally lying” about climate change. Motherboard’s Sam Gustin and Jason Koebler, DSLReports’ Karl Bode, and Nicole Arce from Tech Times, reported on the announcement, along with dozens of others. Why? Because ALEC, or the American Legislative Exchange Council has come out in opposition to net neutrality and municipal broadband— and is in support of Comcast’s Time Warner Cable merger. 

And though we’re glad Google might be jumping to the other side of the fence on some issues, Network World’s Colin Neagle explained that Google is probably *not* pulling its support of ALEC because of municipal broadband public opinion.

“… it’s probably no surprise to hear that Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, and Time Warner Cable have all been ALEC members for years. It's in their interests.

But a Daily Beast report from August 2013 outed Google as a member of ALEC’s Communications and Technology Task Force, alongside several other tech companies, including Yahoo and Yelp. All three are also members of the Internet Association, whose stances on net neutrality and broadband are the polar opposite of ALEC's."

After the Daily Beast article unveiled Google’s affiliation with ALEC, dozens of activist groups pointed out the paradox in a public letter calling for the company to leave the organization. Google's only response came in a reply to Ars Technica’s request for comment: "we aren't going to be commenting on this letter."

So when a group like the Internet Association speaks out on a given issue, it doesn't necessarily mean that all of its member groups are giving it their full support. Some affiliations are more valuable in public, while others are only valuable in the dark.” 

Columbia Takes Next Step Toward Municipal Network Infrastructure

A consultant report recommends the City of Columbia tap into its existing fiber resources to develop an open access municipal telecommunications network. The City recently issued a request for proposals for a business plan to press forward with the recommendation, reports the Columbia Daily Tribune.

Last year the City, Boone County, and the University of Missouri jointly hired a firm to conduct a survey and analyze existing connectivity. An August Tribune article by Andrew Denney reported that the the community was found lacking in reliable connectivity. The survey indicated that 84% of businesses reported "moderate, severe, or total disruption of their business from Internet problems related to reliability or speed." The survey also revealed 84% of businesses contend with Internet speeds "insufficient for their business needs due to reliability and speed issues." The reasonable conclusion is that commercial Internet access in Columbia is too expensive, too slow, and too unreliable for local businesses.

The Columbia Water and Light Department (W & L) now leases its dark fiber to approximately 30 entities, reports the Tribune. The leases bring in approximately $876,000 per year. The consultant recommends expanding existing resources in order to entice more providers who want to serve last-mile customers.

The report also examined continuing the W & L dark fiber leasing program without significant changes and expanding the dark fiber leasing program by adding last-mile deployment. Maintaining the current dark fiber program will not require capital but won't stimulate the area's economic development possibilities either.

Expanding the dark fiber program would improve the broadband infrastructure situation because providers would be able to offer leases to customer premises rather than only within the middle-mile network. This type of change would not improve affordability because it would not increase competition.

The August Tribune article reported:

[The consultant] suggests if the city decides to light up its fiber network, it would be able to enter into public-private partnerships with service providers but remain a neutral party to providers. The network would increase competition by allowing users to access multiple providers over the city’s network, the consultants’ report said.

More recently, the Tribune reported:

[The consultant] estimates that the city would be able to develop a broadband network to serve businesses and organizations based in the “downtown core” for a price ranging between $2.5 million and $3.5 million, which the firm suggested could be paid through debt instruments like loans and bond sales.

At an August 18th City Council meeting, CenturyLink area operations manager Kevin Czaicki addressed the Council before they voted to instruct staff to move forward. In true incumbent fashion, Czaicki told the Council that a network would create financial challenges for the city. The Tribune reported:

Czaicki also said that, if the city proceeded with the idea, it would amount to a taxpayer-subsidized entity wading into competition with private business. “This violates the spirit of the law, if not the rule,” Czaicki said.

Last August, CenturyLink announced some properties in Columbia and Jefferson City would obtain access to gigabit service. Once again, the prospect of a municipal network appears to inspire private investment.

“We would be paving a road that currently, in our opinion, does not exist now,” [W & L Assistant Director Ryan] Williams said.

Read the PDF of the report Executive Summary online for more details.

New Report Details Local Government Efforts to Improve Minnesota Connectivity

In our latest report, All Hands On Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access, we analyze how local governments in 12 Minnesota communities are expanding 21st century Internet access to their citizens.

In 2010, the Minnesota legislature set a goal for 2015 - universal access to high speed broadband throughout the state. Even though we have the technology to make that vision a reality, large swaths of the state will not meet that goal. Nevertheless, local folks who have chosen to take control of their connectivity are finding a way to exceed expectations, surpassing the choices in many metropolitan regions.

Some of the communities we cover include:

  • Windom, which is one of the most advanced networks in the state, built their own network after their telephone company refused to invest in their community.
  • Dakota County showed how a coordinated excavation policy can reduce by more than 90 percent the cost of installing fiber.
  • Lac qui Parle County partnered with a telephone cooperative to bring high speed broadband to its most sparsely population communities.

We delved into networks in Anoka, Carver, Cook, Lake, and Scott Counties. The report also shares developments in the municipalities of Chaska, Buffalo, and Monticello. We tell the story of RS Fiber, located in Sibley and part of Renville County. These communities provide examples of municipal networks, a variety of public private partnerships, and "dig once" policies.

This week in Minnesota, the governor’s office began accepting applications for the state’s new $20 million initiative Border-to-Border program. We hope this new report will serve as a resource for potential applicants and other community leaders across the U.S. interested in taking charge of their broadband destinies.

Read and download the full report [PDF].

Media Roundup: Week of August 8

This week’s rumblings on municipal broadband held more reverberations from last week's announcement that the FCC would take up formal proceedings regarding Chattanooga, TN and Wilson, NC petitions. The message for preempting state laws is being amplified, first Business Insider wrote this piece on How “Gig City” Chattanooga is putting Big Cable on the ropes:

"Ultimately what it comes down to is these cable companies hate competition," said Chris Mitchell, the director of community broadband networks for the Institute for Local Self Reliance.

As director, Mitchell watches over issues like municipal networks, net neutrality, and the consolidation of cable companies, advocating for the public. "It's not about [cable's] arguments so much as their ability to lobby very well," he said.

And you know you’re making an impact when the Redditers jump on the train (or the choo choo? sorry…) Chattanooga mayor Andy Berke and EPB CEO Harold DePriest participated in a Reddit AMA (“Ask Me Anything”) online discussion, which got Front Page billing: 

Q: What would you say to the people that believe it’s unfair for private companies to compete with a public utility?

A: It is unfair - they have way more money than we do.

We believe that this is critical infrastructure for our community to thrive and grow. Many people might consider things like roads as critical infrastructure, but we include this as one of those things.

If the private sector won’t bring it to local communities, local communities should have the right to build it for themselves.

And here, the mayor talks about the familial relationship the companies had with city leaders before they built their network: 

Q: When establishing it, what were your interactions like with comcast, time warner, etc.? Did they try to stop it from happening? If so, how?

A: There were two main interactions. Our last mayor asked big telecom if they would bring gigabit to Chattanooga - and they said NO.

Lawsuits followed.

We won.

Then, as if on cue, CenturyLink responded with their typical weak claims that “they’re getting to it,” and similar “the check’s in the mail, we swear” type announcements. First in SeattleDenver, and then in Our Fair Twin Cities (Minneapolis/St. Paul). The giant claimed that soon, if not already, residents could be seeing 1 Gig speeds just like Chattanooga. But when we looked into it, CenturyLink’s site appeared to have no specifics or even potential locations where the fairy-Gigmother might eventually be working. 

“Who gets CenturyLink's new gigabit-per-second service, and when, depends on a number of factors, the company cautioned. Fiber to homes requires the existence of nearby fiber infrastructure, and for now this is present only in parts of the Twin Cities.” 

Rest assured, we’ll believe it when we see it.

And, finally this week Gizmodo adds in it’s 10 cents. The online tech magazine touted community broadband as an answer to net neutrality fears:

"But guess what: we don't have to rely entirely on the FCC to fix the problems with high-speed internet access. Around the country, local communities are taking charge of their own destiny, and supporting community fiber.

Unfortunately, those communities face a number of barriers, from simple bureaucracy to state laws that impede a community's ability to make its own decisions about how to improve its Internet access.

We need to break those barriers. Community fiber, done right, should be a crucial part of the future of the Internet.

CenturyLink's Website Wasn't Alerted to New Gig Service...

So I was reading Bill Schrier's article about CenturyLink's announcement about supposedly investing in a gigabit for some people in some cities. He includes a link where people can sign up for new announcements as they come. I already checked my address in Saint Paul but it isn't available. But I figured, sure, I'd like to know when it will be available. 

CenturyLink's website apparently didn't get the memo about the press release...

CenturyLink screenshot

And as usual, I have to give a hat tip to Karl Bode, who regularly notes these "fiber to the press release" announcements. If CenturyLink were really going to invest in something, it would have to disclose the new plan to investors. But it hasn't.

Davenport, Iowa, Releases RFP for Feasibility Study

Davenport recently issued an RFP, hoping to hire a vendor to complete a feasibility study. The community wants to learn more about connectivity options that build on its current fiber assets.

According to a May 2014 Government Technology article by Colin Wood, the city has installed fiber throughout the community over the past decade. CIO Rob Henry told Wood:

“For years, residents and businesses have been asking us to do this,” Henry said. “We always knew we were going to get to this point.”

Henry goes on to note that current services from incumbents in Davenport are not sufficient for economic development. The first step will be to connect businesses then follow with fiber to each premise.

Davenport's population is approximately 103,000. During the 70s and 80s, manufacturing was the predominent industry but today tech firms are moving into the area. It is considered part of the Quad Cities region, midway between Chicago and Des Moines from east to west and the Twin Cities and St. Louis from north to south.

According to the article, government facilities began using fiber first, with schools, hospitals, and parks following. The network saves Davenport $400,000 per year because the city serves its own telecommunications needs rather than buying service from a provider.

Wood reported that the city has spoken to CenturyLink and Mediacom; Chris told GovTech:

It’s good that Davenport is trying to cooperate with local Internet service providers (ISP), Mitchell said, but it’s unlikely to produce much substance because, in some cases, ISPs will attempt to starve the municipality for customers. “Every local government at first tries to work with incumbent providers,” said Mitchell, adding that, “my thinking is the city is not going to get a whole lot out of trying to work with them.”

The feasibility study will include several components, including a business case needs analysis, an evaluation of Davenport's current fiber optic capabilities, and recommendations. Bids are due in mid-July; the RFP is available online [PDF].

Santa Fe Ready to Improve Local Internet Choice

The City of Santa Fe is taking first steps to improve the community's Internet choice, quality, and availability. Recently, the City announced that it has chosen a partner for a middle mile investment and will move forward with the $1 million fiber deployment project.

CenturyLink and Comcast serve Santa Fe, home to approximately 70,000 people. Residents and businesses both complain about slow speeds and relatively high costs. Residents pay $50 per month for average speeds of 5 Mbps while nearby Albuquerque pays the same price for 10 Mbps, according to the Santa Fe New Mexican.

CenturyLink owns the sole fiber hut connecting the community with the Internet. The company also owns the line bringing access to the web to downtown, giving it control over data transmittal in the city. A city press release, reprinted at SantaFe.com in May 2013 described the problem:

Every home and most businesses already have two physical routes to the Internet: A telephone line and a television cable...But in spite of this abundance of pathways, there is a crucial missing link in the infrastructure, an enduring legacy of the former telephone monopoly. This missing link spans from the central telephone office to a location about two miles away where several fiber optic cables emerge from the ground after traversing many miles of road, railroad and countryside from remote junctions across the state. Absent this two-mile link, local providers have only one way to connect to the outside world, and must pay a steep toll on the data transmitted over it. 

The City recently announced that it would work with local ISP Cyber Mesa to build an independent line from downtown to CenturyLink's fiber hut. The City hopes the line will introduce much needed competition, encouraging better service and prices.

According to the plan, Cyber Mesa will run the City's fiber service for four years; after that other bidders can apply to manage the network. Three other companies bid on the project, including CenturyLink who told the City "not to waste money on the project." CenturyLink opposes the plan, of course, and Chris spoke with the New Mexican about what to expect from the incumbents:

Mitchell also warned that the city should not expect competition to flourish on its own, saying Internet giants such as Comcast and Century Link “have a lot of power to run competitors out of business.”

Mitchell warned that Comcast and Century Link have a history of opposing public Internet infrastructure projects through legislation, and that the city should expect resistance if it continues building such projects.

“They’re very happy with the market the way it is,” Mitchell said.

Citylink Logo

The project details have raised a few eyebrows from industry experts. While the plan to build another line will provide another path to the Internet, one of the bidders, CityLink Fiber, questions the wisdom of the plan:

[CityLink Owner John] Brown said that in his bid he proposed creating a 7-mile loop that would have accomplished the city’s goals and provided additional coverage and redundancy. The city didn’t bite, saying that he couldn’t complete the project within the funding limits, he said.

Brown said he could, but the city remained unconvinced and instead opted for Cyber Mesa.

He also questioned the need for running cable through Century Link’s central exchange, saying it was unnecessary and expensive.

We have been impressed with John Brown's work and are inclined to believe him. But regardless of the details, local businesses are hungry for better service. A local Web design firm owner, Damien Taggart, notes that large data files can take hours to transmit.

Smaller ISPs are also looking forward to an option beyond CenturyLink. Joel Yelich, president of a local wireless provider told the New Mexican:

“I certainly hope that is successful in some way,” Yelich said. “The more competition, the better.”

Multiple Minnesota Projects Submit "Expressions of Interest" to FCC

We reported in February that the FCC sought "expressions of interest" from entities that want a share of Connect America funds. The agency sought feedback on the need and desire for projects across the country from entities that have not traditionally received universal service funds. The FCC received over 1,000 expressions of interest.

Minnesota leads the U.S. in proposed projects. According to a recent MPR News Ground Level article, 62 expressions of interests come from Minnesota. Projects vary in size; some focus on a small number of homes while others plan to bring services to many people.

All of the proposed projects address gaps in rural broadband service. MPR noted that several of the expressions of interest describe community experience with CenturyLink, Frontier, and Mediacom. The RS Fiber cooperative wrote:

“The communities have approached all three providers [CenturyLink, Windstream, and MediaCom] and asked them to work with the communities to build the fiber network. They all refused. Then the communities offered to put up the money to construct the network and the providers could operate and eventually own the network. None of them were interested.”

The MPR article reports the FCC will likely offer approximately $86 million to the three incumbents to bring broadband to unserved and underserved areas. If they refuse, a long line of interested parties are waiting.

Minnesota's desire for broadband caught the attention of state lawmakers. A bill to earmark funds for rural broadband was introduced earlier this session and has received bipartisan support. From the MPR article:

Even if the Minnesota projects go nowhere with the FCC, they already may have had an impact here in the state.

For the first time, lawmakers here are considering whether to spend money on broadband infrastructure, and the idea has backing from Gov. Mark Dayton. But “there was concern from the governor and others there might not be enough interest,” said Christopher Mitchell, analyst with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “This answers that.”

CenturyLink Seeks Apartment Buildings for Gigabit in Portland

In the wake of Google's announcement that Portland could be one of the next communities for the Google Fiber network, CenturyLink is circulating an offer to select apartment buildings to apply for CenturyLink fiber.

This appears to be more than the standard fiber-to-the-press-release responses we often see from the big telephone companies that prefer to lobby, litigate, and lie rather than invest in next-generation networks. CenturyLink notes it has the "ability to do approximately 15 total" apartment buildings.

centurylink-promo-portland-2014.jpg

The promotional sheet claims CenturyLink will offer speeds "up to" 1 Gig for $79.95/month for 12 months. 100 Mbps runs $49.95 and 40 Mbps is $29.95 - each for 12 months. No mention of upload speeds but CenturyLink has demonstrated a real aversion to symmetry so users can expect far slower upstream than what modern municipal networks and Google fiber deliver.

The standard operating procedure in apartment buildings will be for CenturyLink to try to lock up the internal wiring to buildings and deny it to competitors. FCC rules make exclusive agreements with landlords unenforceable, but there are a host of tricks that incumbents use to prevent any competition and landlords getting a kickback often have little reason to encourage competition.

The CenturyLink copy notes that its fiber optic GPON option is "up to" more than 92 percent energy efficient than cable modem Internet access. I have to wonder how it compares to DSL energy efficiency and whether that number holds up better than the "up to" 12 Mbps claims they make on DSL circuits that seldom peak at 5 Mbps.

At any rate, it is more than we can expect in the many communities CenturyLink is serving where there the local government have done nothing to spur competition by investing in publicly owned assets that could form a municipal network or be used to entice independent service providers to enter the market. In particular, I would be curious where else CenturyLink is rolling out fiber to buildings without any upfront charges.

centurylink-portland-mdu-letter2014.png

Montrose Moves Toward Muni Network -Community Broadband Bits Podcast #95

Nestled in a valley in the Colorado rockies, the city of Montrose has voted overwhelmingly to reestablish local authority over whether to build a municipal fiber network. With nearly 20,000 people, Montrose does have cable service from Charter and DSL from CenturyLink but neither service is meeting local needs.

Virgil Turner, Director of Innovation and Citizen Engagement for the City, joins us in episode 95 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. We discuss the need for a better network and how the big cable and telephone companies have failed to meet local needs.

Montrose has all options on the table as it now plans to engage the public and determine how to move forward with possible investments to improve their access to the Internet.

View our other posts on Montrose here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 20 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

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