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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."

Denver Suburb Seeks to Take Back Local Authority

Centennial is asking its voters to reclaim local authority this election. City leaders want to make better use of an existing fiber optic system but a 2005 Colorado state law pushed by a corporate telephone company precludes it. If the citizenry reclaims its local authority through referendum, the City can take the next step toward providing indirect services via its fiber network. 

We contacted City Council Member Ken Lucas to find out more about the ballot question. Centennial is a relatively young city that was incorporated in 2001 and has about 100,000 residents. Lucas told us that this ballot question is not only about using their fiber resources. The community of Centennial considers this a critical step toward maintaining a business friendly environment.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) provided grants to install the existing network for traffic control, security cameras, and public works monitoring. The City contributed only approximately $100,000 to the network, valued at $5 million. Traffic and public safety now use only two strands of the network that runs through the center of town. City leaders want to use the remaining 94 strands to improve access in the community. To see a map of the fiber and open conduit in Centennial, check out the City's PDF.

Approximately 94% of Centennial businesses and 85% of households are within one mile of the fiber backbone. Residents and business owners can now choose between Comcast or CenturyLink and rates are high. Lucas tells of one business owner who asked Comcast to provide 1 Gbps service to his building. Comcast offered to lease a line to the business at a high rate, but the customer would still have to pay $20,000 for installation.

Community leaders want to encourage more competition and, if they eventually develop the fiber, will explore open access models. Centennial knows their authority to invest in fiber infrastructure will influence economic development. City leaders want to attract high tech jobs to the Denver suburb.

The incumbents have not yet launched an expensive astroturf campaign or lobbied heavily against the ballot question as we saw previously in Longmont. This is the ballot question language:

SHALL THE CITY OF CENTENNIAL, WITHOUT INCREASING TAXES, AND TO RESTORE LOCAL AUTHORITY THAT WAS DENIED TO ALL LOCAL GOVERNMENTS BY THE STATE LEGISLATURE, AND TO FOSTER A MORE COMPETITIVE MARKETPLACE, BE AUTHORIZED TO INDIRECTLY PROVIDE HIGH-SPEED INTERNET (ADVANCED SERVICES), TELECOMMUNICATIONS SERVICES, AND/OR CABLE TELEVISION SERVICES TO RESIDENTS, BUSINESSES, SCHOOLS, LIBRARIES, NON-PROFIT ENTITIES AND OTHER USERS OF SUCH SERVICES, THROUGH COMPETITIVE AND NON-EXCLUSIVE PARTNERSHIPS WITH PRIVATE BUSINESSES, AS EXPRESSLY PERMITTED BY ARTICLE 29, TITLE 27 OF THE COLORADO REVISED STATUTES? 

Centennial does not want to compete with Comcast or CenturyLink - it wants to encourage other providers to compete with each other. Many communites express the same desire to improve telecommunications for their citizens without delivering the services themselves. However, many have found that they have to take an active role in order to ensure a real choice between slow DSL and modestly faster cable, each owned and operated by distant corporations.

Lucas told us that plans to use the fiber are far down the road. For now, the community wants to recapture the power the state preempted in 2005.

Shafter Network Expands To Serve Local Businesses in California

The community of Shafter enjoys savings, better public safety, and more educational opportunities with the municipal fiber network that we wrote about two weeks ago and discussed in last week's podcast. In 2006, Shafter spent $200,000 on its I-Net to serve local schools and government in the core of the downtown area. While the community had originally planned to build a FTTH network, the tumultuous economy dictated otherwise and the community adjusted its course.

The community is now expanding infrastructure to several areas closer to the edge of town in order to serve local business. With next-generation fiber infrastructure in place, Shafter expects to attract several providers interested in serving businesses over its open access network. Completion is scheduled for the fall of 2013.

A 25 mile fiber backbone ring is now under construction and will loop to two industrial areas near the edge of town. Both complexes sit very close to the two main railroad lines that run through the town and provide easy access to transport. In addition to the larger loop, one of the industrial areas, will contain a 10 gigabit ring and the city will light two separate commercial rings to provide 1 gigabit service. This phase of Shafter's project will cost $1.5 million and required equipment will cost another $600,000. The network is underground, with 99% in city road rights-of-way. The entire path travels through greenfield areas so there is almost no infrastructure to avoid or remediate. General fund dollars, rather than bonding, borrowing, or grants paid for the entire open access network.

We learned from IT Director Scott Hurlbert that oilfield services company, Baker Hughes, invested $70 million to build a campus in Shafter. AT&T serves the company now with copper lines but "they don't like it," says Hurlbert. A 2.1 million square feet Target distribution center sits nearby waiting to switch to the Shafter fiber network.

Ross Dress-for-Less is now developing a 1.7 million square feet distribution center in the area and will likely take service from AT&T and from a different provider over the Shafter fiber for redundancy. CenturyLink's longhaul fiber runs through the Union Pacific railroad line and Shafter's network will link to it for external connections. 

Hurlbert told us there will also be a separate ring in one industrial area that is only for city security cameras, traffic control and for commercial customers specifically requesting a redundant diverse path.

AT&T Lobbying Likely to Increase Wisconsin School, Library Telecom Costs

The University of Wisconsin recently withdrew from its contract with WiscNet, threatening the future of the network. Stop the Cap! reports the University bowed under pressure from Republican lawmakers and threats of litigation from the likes of AT&T, CenturyLink, and the Wisconsin State Telecom Association (WSTA). Costly litigation could interrupt UW's research and educational work and UW must consider its relationship with the legislature and the future of state funding.

Once again Republican legislators chose the powerful telecom lobby over taxpayers. WiscNet is a buyer coop that allows schools and libraries to keep their telecom costs lower by working together. Weakening WiscNet means the schools and libraries may have to pay higher fees just to maintain the same level of service. 

The telecom industry makes generous contributions to most Wisconsin lawmakers, but Republicans in particular have been enthusiastic about knee-capping any perceived threat to AT&T's monopoly in much of the state. With WiscNet in the cross hairs, ALEC legislators in Wisconsin can expect renewed campaign support. Senator Paul Farrow and Representative Dean Knudson, spearheading efforts to dismantle WiscNet, receive sizeable donations from WSTA, CenturyLink and TDS Telecom.

If WiscNet cannot recover from the loss of UW, local taxpayers will be the ultimate losers as they have to pay more to keep essential institutions connected. WiscNet provides economical broadband service to members all across the state and ample evidence suggest higher rates accompany private service. From the Stop the Cap! article:

Many of WiscNet’s members report that “going private” for Internet connectivity will more than double their costs. This was confirmed by Wisconsin’s Legislative Audit Bureau, which reported a member paying WiscNet $500 month for Internet service would face bills of $1,100 or more if provided by AT&T or other telecom companies.

But the benefits of WiscNet go far beyond higher costs (which are substantially higher than the example cited for larger institutions). WiscNet has enabled all manner of cost-sharing, including centralizing data storage. These are examples of how local governments and institutions can be responsible stewards of public dollars; unfortunately a majority of Wisconsin Legislators seem to believe the best use of public money is to pad the profits of AT&T.

We've written about these efforts in past years but it seems that AT&T is closer than ever to expanding its revenue from the taxpayers of Wisconsin, all with the blessing of state legislators who scream about wasted taxpayer dollars.