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Seniors, Low-Income, Disabled Communities Pay the Price in St. Paul

For seniors, low-income residents, and the disabled in Saint Paul, Minnesota, a Comcast discount within the city's franchise agreement is not all it was cracked up to be. The Pioneer Press recently reported that, as eligible subscribers seek the ten percent discount guaranteed by the agreement, they are finding the devil is in the details - or lack of them.

This is a warning to those who attempt to negotiate with Comcast for better service. Comcast may make deals that it knows are unenforceable. 

"No Discount For You!"

For years, Comcast held the only franchise agreement with the city of St. Paul. In 2015, the city entered into a new agreement with the cable provider and, as in the past, the provider agreed to offer discounts for low-income and senior subscribers. Such concessions are common because a franchise agreement gives a provider easy access to a pool of subscribers.

It seems like a fair deal, but where there is a way to squirm out of a commitment, Comcast will wriggle its way out. 

Comcast is refusing to provide the discount when subscribers bundle services, which are typically offered at reduced prices. Because the contract is silent on the issue of combining discounts, the city of approximately 298,000 has decided it will not challenge Comcast's interpretation:

The company notes that the ten percent senior discount applies only to the cable portion of a customer's bill. Comcast has maintained that it is under no legal obligation to combine discounts or promotions, and that bundled services provide a steeper discount anyway.

Subscribers who want to take advantage of the discounts will have to prove their senior status and/or their low-income status. In order to do so, Comcast representatives have been requesting a copy of a driver's license or state issued i.d. 

CenturyLink Picks Up the Baton

In November, the city approved an additional franchise agreement with competitor CenturyLink. That agreement also provides that seniors, low-income households, and disabled residents are eligible to receive a ten percent discount. CenturyLink can, in the alternative, offer a discount of $5 off a subscriber's cable bill if a subscriber applies for the low-income discount. In order to receive this discount, the subscriber must prove they are enrolled in a public assistance program. CenturyLink is not compelled to provide both the $5 reduction and the ten percent discount under the terms of the agreement.

The CenturyLink contract states that bundling discounts will not forfeit the $5 discount but does not say the same for the alternative ten percent discount.

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Seniors on the Chopping Block

Discounts for low-income seniors are at risk in the CenturyLink contract reports the Pioneer Press. The contract offers the company an "out" by allowing it to exchange a senior discount to residents for free gigabit per second (Gbps) service at centralized locations. Rather than offering a ten percent discount to senior subscribers at their homes, CenturyLink can provide the high-speed connectivity to two St. Paul senior centers or to one senior center and a community center and present two training session per year on using the Internet.

My own parents, who are elderly and leave the house less frequently than they have in the past, depend on their Internet connection to stay in touch with their kids. A number of elderly folks are lower-income. Ten percent, a modest sum to a profit machine like Comcast, could be the tipping point for whether or not elderly people living on fixed incomes subscribe.

Would I rather have Mom trudging through the St. Paul snow to wait in line at the senior center to Skype in a noisy room filled with other seniors? No. Will Mom go to the senior center? Probably not. This trade-off is not equitable.

When You're All Lawyered Up, It's Easy to Break Promises

As franchise agreements expire across the country, communities like St. Paul will be negotiating new contracts or considering other options. Companies like Comcast and CenturyLink, backed by armies of lawyers, have turned backhanded negotiating into an art form. Cities like St. Paul employ smart, capable attorneys, but telecommunications is highly specialized; few communities have legal staff experienced in this field.

Lose The Big Companies, Gain Control

Contrary to the typical behavior of Comcast and CenturyLink, publicly owned networks have a history of lowering prices or increasing speeds for free. When we ask why, decision makers usually tell us they make the change because it's good for the community. Subscribers are the shareholders when a network is publicly owned.

Communities that invest in municipal networks shake off dependence on big providers like Comcast and CenturyLink. By investing in their own infrastructure, they spur economic development, save public dollars, and become more self-reliant. 

Modest Investment Yields Results in Steamboat Springs - Community Broadband Bits Episode 163

When Steamboat Springs resolved to improve Internet access for key community anchor institutions and businesses, they decided to make an economical investment in a carrier neutral facility to allow multiple ISPs to invest and compete with each other. In episode 163 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, Tim Miles explains what that means and how they did it.

Tim is the Technology Director at Steamboat Springs and South Routt School Districts in Colorado. He tells us about the poor connectivity the community had from CenturyLink and how they opened a bottleneck to encourage more investment. In part because of how Colorado limits local authority to build networks, they formed the Northwest Colorado Broadband Cooperative with the local Chamber of Commerce.

They are already seeing benefits in the form of lower prices for anchor institutions and reduced outages - Tim describes just how painful those outages had been when there was no local Internet choice.

Read the transcript from this discussion here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

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 other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to bkfm-b-side for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Raise Your Hands."

More Feasibility Studies in Colorado and Ohio

Two more communities in Ohio and Colorado are seeking information through broadband feasibility studies.

The Aspen Daily News recently reported that Pitkin County has already completed phase one of its feasibility study. This past spring the primary Internet path coming into Aspen via CenturyLink fiber was severed causing widespread outage for 19 hours. The first half of the feasibility study sought ways to introduce a redundant path.

The first option was a 100 percent fiber solution and a hybrid fiber/microwave solution was proposed as an alternative. For option A, the consultants recommended a fiber backbone along Highway 82 with fiber lines running into Redstone, Marble, and Snowmass. Microwave could serve nearby Fryingpan Valley. Option B would travel the same route but make more use of microwave.

Early cost estimates:

Estimated operating costs for option A would be more than $122,000 per year, while option B would cost just over $92,000 annually. Yearly maintenance costs for the fiber-only model were projected at just under $62,000, and the hybrid model would run more than $123,000.

A survey or residents in several communities in Pitkin County indicated most are not happy with speeds or reliability of current Internet access. Approximately half of the region does not have broadband as defined by the FCC at 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload

[One of the consultants] said that according to the survey, customer satisfaction in the area is “significantly low.” It also noted that 34 percent of responders said they run a business out of their home, and an additional 10 percent replied that they will start up an in-house business within the next three years.

Adams relayed that more than half of respondents felt that the county should build some sort of “state-of-the-art communications network.”

“It’s clear that the residents would like to see the county do something,” he said.

County Commissioners chose to instruct staff to pursue a $150,000 matching grant from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs to help fund the second half of the feasibility study. The second phase ail focus on developing a financial plan and business models for a middle-mile network.

In Hancock County, Ohio, a collaborative effort between the county, the Findlay City Schools, and Findlay will investigate expanding a planned school fiber network.

The Courier reports that County Commissioners voted to hire a firm that will complete a study to create route plans, building entry sites, and project strategy. The Findlay and Hancock County governments hope to take advantage of the asset and connect government offices for more affordable, fast, and reliable voice, video, and data. There are 31 locations where the the city and county have indicated they would like to extend the fiber.

A local hospital is also expressed an interest in connecting its facilities, notes Martin White, Director of Information Technology at the Findlay City Schools.

Hancock County will contribute $7,894 toward the study and Findlay's share will be $8,855. The study should be complete in 5 weeks. Regardless of the outcome, the schools will deploy the network, reports the Courier:

White said the district plans to move forward with the project even if there is no other local interest. However, the fiber optics loop needed to connect Findlay schools puts the network within reach of city, county and hospital buildings, White said.

Schools can be jumping off points for wider I-Nets and even networks that extend out to business customers. In Ottawa, Kansas, the community built off a school fiber optic network to bring more affordable connectivity to a nearby college and an agricultural cooperative.

AT&T, Comcast, Lies Hurt Homeowners

As of this January, the FCC defines broadband as 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream, but in some rural areas in the United States, people are still struggling to access DSL speeds of 768 kbps. In a few extreme cases, individuals who rely on the Internet for their jobs and livelihoods have been denied access completely. 

The sad state of affairs for many Americans who subscribe to the major Internet service providers like AT&T and CenturyLink was recently chronicled in an article on Ars Technica that examined AT&T’s stunning combination of poor customer service, insufficient infrastructure, and empty promises to subscribers. It tells the unfortunately common story of the little guy being systematically overlooked by a massive corporation focused solely on short-term profit maximization. 

Mark Lewis of Winterville, Georgia, and Matthew Abernathy of Smyrna, Tennessee, are two examples of AT&T subscribers who, upon moving into new homes, found that not only were they unable to access basic DSL speeds, but that they had no Internet access whatsoever. Alternatively citing a lack of DSL ports and insufficient bandwidth, AT&T failed to provide Lewis Internet access over the course of nearly two years. As for Abernathy, the corporation strung him along for 9 months without providing DSL, forcing him and his wife to rely on a much more expensive Verizon cellular network to go online. 

The struggle that Lewis and Abernathy, as well as others cited in the article, face speaks to the larger problem of individuals relying on large, absentee corporations for their Internet access. Though AT&T has claimed that it intends to expand broadband access to rural and underserved communities, it hasn’t lived up to that promise. Ars Technica estimates that even if AT&T’s merger with DirecTV is approved, which the company says would facilitate the construction of new copper lines in underserved regions, 17 million subscribers would be stuck with slow DSL connections or no Internet at all. 

This isn’t the first time that a company like AT&T has been called out for promising broadband service and failing to deliver it. Ars Technica reported on a similar story in April of this year. And tales of Comcast’s incompetence are also easy to find. 

For residents of rural communities who rely on the Internet for work, the paucity of broadband options can even be a legitimate reason for individuals to sell their houses and move, which — spoiler alert — is what Lewis eventually did:  

With no wireline Internet available, Lewis and his wife have relied on Verizon Wireless service. This has limited Lewis’ ability to work at home. Luckily, they won’t be there much longer — Lewis, his wife, and their kids are putting their house on the market and moving to Massachusetts, where he’s secured a new job at a technology company. 

The new job is "the main reason we're moving," he said. "But in the back of my mind this whole time, I'm saying we can't continue to live here."

And while things turned out OK for Lewis and his family, limited broadband access in rural communities remains an obstacle for many. Individuals and communities should continue to demand accountability from their ISPs, who have for too long reneged on their not-so-ambitious broadband promises.

Co-Mo Cooperative Facing Off With Subsidized CenturyLink in Missouri

Parts of rural central Missouri have some of the fastest Internet service available thanks to fiber service from Co-Mo Electric Cooperative and United Electric Cooperative. The two have worked together to bring gigabit FTTH to cooperative members in central Missouri. Now that they have proven that people and businesses want high capacity connectivity, CenturyLink is about to enter the scene. The company plans to use millions of dollars in Connect America Funds (CAF) to build in areas already served by the cooperatives.

After years of planning and hard work, Co-Mo and United are not taking the threat lightly. They have filed challenges with the Wireline Competition Bureau but CenturyLink's Inside-the-Beltway power has thus far served them well. The Wireline Competition Bureau denied a challenge by Co-Mo and United but the decision appears to contradict established policy. Co-Mo and United recently appealed to the FCC asking them to review the Bureau's Order allowing CenturyLink to use over $10 million in CAF. [Read the Application for Review here.]

CenturyLink argues that Co-Mo and United are not providing voice services because they are working with a third party, Big River Telephone Company, to bring VoIP to members. If this were true, it could disqualify them as providers and lend credence to the argument that there are census blocks in the area that are not served. Because Co-Mo and United install, take phone orders for subscribers, and service phone switches, they should qualify as a provider of land line voice services. 

CenturyLink also asserted that census block information showed areas unserved even though those areas now have access to fiber connectivity from Co-Mo and United. General Manager of Co-Mo Connect Randy Klindt told us that the timing of their build prevented Co-Mo from providing an active customer in each block, but that service is available to people who live there. Even though it is not a requirement, Co-Mo and United now have detailed information that prove people in those census blocks can, and do, take FTTH service.

Co-Mo and United waged successful challenges for similar CAF awards to AT&T and Windstream. CenturyLink appears determined to use tax subsidies to build what will likely be only a fraction of the speed and reliability of Co-Mo or United Cooperative networks infrastructure. Unfortunately, CenturyLink's usual modus operandi - offering cheap intro rates to lure customers away from local providers like Co-Mo and United - could harm new investment in high speed networks.

Klindt also summed up the larger policy concern in an email:

The commission’s directive was to ensure that CAF support should not be used to build broadband in areas already served by an unsubsidized competitor...This money should be used in legitimate unserved areas, not areas with gigabit residential service available.

Learn more about Co-Mo Cooperative and their fiber network, Co-Mo Connect, in episode #140 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast where Chris interviewed Randy Klindt.

Santa Fe's Targeted Fiber Investment - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 152

After Santa Fe found its residents and businesses were often paying the same rates for connections at half the speed of peers in Albuquerque, the City began investigating the local broadband market. This week on Community Broadband Bits, Sean Moody joins us to discuss the situation and what Santa Fe is doing to spur more investment.

Sean works in the Economic Development Division of the City as a Special Projects Administrator. He explains the bottleneck in middle mile access that allowed CenturyLink to charge higher rates for backhaul than are common in similar communities.

The City decided to invest $1 million in a new fiber link that would bypass the choke point and allow various independent companies to have a better choice for access to the wider Internet. Along the way, the City partnered with the state for additional benefits.

Read the transcript from our discussion here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 25 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 other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Persson for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Blues walk."

Small Texas Town Don't Need No Stinkin' CenturyLink

The people in Kemp, population 1,100, have officially said "adios" to CenturyLink and now give their business to a local wireless provider, reports Government Technology. According to the article, the community grew tired of slipshod service and repeated service interruptions:

At one point, the city lost its Internet connection for five days. “That was the last straw because that was detrimental to us, because we depend on the Internet so much more, especially with our phone system," said [City Administrator Regina] Kiser. "We had just gone with the voice over IP [Internet protocol] when our system went down for five days, so you try to call city hall about various things, including the police department, and there was no phone. So, that was horrible.”

After a year of requests from the municipality for better service went unheeded, government officials decided it was time to make some changes:

“If you’re a government entity and you call in, they send you into cyberspace somewhere and your phone just rings and rings and rings, and I guess there’s just not any commission to be made on cities from what I’m understanding,” Kiser said. “This problem’s been going on for about a year, as far as not having the power we need to run our court program. So we tried, but it was just impossible to deal with CenturyLink.”

Kemp now works with One Ring Networks, where they receive service for a rate of $450 per month. There was no installation charge and in exchange, One Ring Networks is able to expand its network in the community. It now has the opportunity to sell service to residents and businesses in Kemp.

Unlike the typical "up to" speeds the big incumbents offer, One Ring Networks claims it "carves out" 5 Mbps download and upload for each subscriber, says Kris Maher from One Ring Networks:

“With the other carriers, that 10 Mbps by whatever is a best effort service, which means it can go up to 10 Mbps, but 10 Mbps isn’t guaranteed. Ours is right at 5 and it’s always going to be at 5, no matter who else is on our network.”

Kiser notes that residents are happy with their new provider and that, despite a brief delay caused by inclement weather, the upgrade was a simple task:

“CenturyLink’s been the only game in town for so long, they took advantage of the situation and they’re probably freaking out now that they have some competition for the first time,” Kiser said.

Longmont's NextLight Offers Businesses, Residents Third Fastest Internet In the U.S.

Ookla finds the third fastest Internet access in the U.S. is located in Longmont, Colorado, reports the Times Call. NextLight, Longmont's gigabit municipal fiber network, is the source of the increase in speeds, driving Longmont's Internet access speeds far beyond any other service in the state.

Ookla clocks average download speed in Longmont as 105 Mbps, which includes all providers in the community. Incumbents Comcast and CenturyLink are dragging down NextLight's average download speed of 221 Mbps. Statewide, Colorado's average is 40 Mbps.

According to the article:

Ookla shows Internet speeds in Longmont shooting up in January and February, when LPC crews began hooking up customers to NextLight in earnest. 

NextLight continues to attract residential and business customers. In February, NextLight announced it would be hiring more install crews to meet the high demand for connections. Places without the speed, affordability, and reliability NextLight can offer will find themselves at a disadvantage as economic development increasingly relies on next-generation networks.

The Times Call spoke with Bret McInnis, vice president for information technology for Circle Graphics. The local business switched from CenturyLink to NextLight because it needed better connectivity. Before taking service from NextLight, their maximum capacity connection was 50 Mbps download or upload and it wasn't enough:

Because the images for the canvases use high-resolution photos, they are sent in large files that can range from 100 to 300 megabits in size. The company prints anywhere from 5,000 to 20,000 canvases a day during the busy holiday season.

"We've got more bandwith," McInnis said, standing in front of the five tall black towers of computing equipment that make up the business's data center. "So the NextLight fiber feeds right into this and we used to see peaks with CenturyLink ... you would see periods when we were bursting at our capacity."

Switching to NextLight, McInnis said, means employees can download and upload the high-resolution images much more quickly.

"Now, we can't really overuse it and you don't see peaks like you used to," McInnis said. "That reduced latency, which means we get the files faster, which means we can print faster and get it to the customer faster. So that's the end result."

Tom Roiniotis, Longmont Power and Communications Manager, notes how the Ookla recognition brings the community one step closer to a  critical goal:

"One of the reasons we're doing this project is to strengthen us from an economic development perspective," Roiniotis said. "There are people who access this (Ookla) information when deciding where to locate." 

Ammon Brings Local Connectivity to Idaho Schools as State Education Network Goes Dark

The City of Ammon's municipal fiber network recently stepped in to provide primary broadband access for School District 93 as the state's educational network went dark reports Local News 8. Watch the video of local coverage below.

When a judge ruled last year that the Idaho Education Network (IEN) contract between the state Department of Administration was void, an education broadband crisis loomed across the state. As the drama played out, however, local networks such as Ammon's muni, have come to the rescue to keep students connected.

Ammon Mayor Dana Kirkham described an attitude characteristic of municipal networks:

"I think it's just something we do in the spirit of collaboration, and I think that's always important because when we talk about the school district and the city it's all the same people, and so anytime we can keep costs down it benefits everyone involved," Kirkham said.

CenturyLink and Education Networks of America (ENA) were providers under the contract voided last year. As CenturyLink and ENA cut off service to schools, forcing them to negotiate their own contracts, they have discovered better, more affordable broadband from local providers like Ammon.  A recent Idaho State Journal reported on several school districts:

The state, under the now-void IEN contract, had been paying Education Networks of America more than $6,000 a month for a 20 Mbps Internet service to Rockland School District. The school district will pay less than a third of that cost for a new 100 Mbps service next year.

The State Journal also discovered that numerous school districts had used fiber optic service from local providers but were forced to switch to slower service in order to obtain the IEN reimbursement. In order to get the reimbursement, West Side School District had to switch from fiber from Direct Communications, a local company, to a slow copper T1 connection from CenturyLink:

Once the IEN contract was in place, the Idaho taxpayers were saddled with paying over $8000 a month for outdated copper service to that same location.

[Direct Communications Marketing Director Brigham] Griffin said Preston [School District] was in the same boat. It had been getting fiber-optic Internet from Direct Communications, but had to switch to copper to have the state pick up the tab.

“Preston School District will now receive double their previous speed for about a fifth of the monthly cost,” Griffin said.

Though it is incredibly frustrating to see how Idaho has hurts its schools while funnelling extra tax dollars to CenturyLink, it is not as rare as you might think. Many states have these kind of "deals" with the large phone companies. We have long covered the depressing story in Wisconsin, where AT&T has successfully lobbied to hobble WiscNet, an arrangement that brings tremendous cost savings to local budgets and better connections to schools. 

This is more evidence for a point we have long made: building better networks does not necessary have to cost a lot more. We spend so much money inefficiently that eliminating these crony capitalism deals would free up significant funds to be spent more wisely.

In Ammon, Mayor Kirkham summed up the situation:

"This is always an argument for local control so whenever you have local control, then you aren't at the mercy of the decisions being made higher up the ladder and so this is one of those instances where you see that being played out," Kirkham said. 

Video: 
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