Thursday, May 30, 2013

Frustrations with local broadband

When it comes to Internet access, I don't know what's worse. Predatory pricing or very poor customer service? Which should I pick today?

After reading through the Community Broadband website, I'm getting the sense that I'm missing out on something. I'm missing out on how our community can build something great, but that companies like Comcast and Centurylink would like to prevent that from happening.

Comcast and Centurylink both have a couple of proxies happy to do their bidding: The Utah Taxpayers Association and the American Legislative Exchange Council.

The UTA will crow about how wasteful it is for local governments to build network infrastructure as if Internet access were not some sort of utility. ISPs also have ALEC to help them write legislation custom to their needs.

One result of this unfortunate alliance is the law known as the Municipal Telecommunications Private Industry Safeguards Act. This law is designed to prevent municipalities from building their own networks when incumbent service providers are reluctant to provide better service at better rates. It was first passed in Utah and has become a model for use in 19 other states to prevent the citizens from getting their work done.

So here I am, perched at the edge of our community network but relegated to substandard service from Comcast or Centurylink. This might not have been the case if Qwest, now Centurylink, hadn't sued the Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency for use of the poles in my town. Get this, Qwest wanted to do discovery on more than 20,000 poles, one at a time.

Comcast delivers a great connection, but only for the price of that service plus phone service. If I get the TV service too, then they discount the cost of the Internet access again. Basically, they're really worried that they won't be able to finance a couple of summer homes for the members of the boards of directors if they can't charge what they want. Even if their prices rise faster than inflation. All told, if I used all of their services with a 25mbs connection, I'd be paying well over $100 a month.

Comcast does the loyalty department game to stay engaged with the customer. It works like this: start the customer off with a deep discount service. Then when the discount expires in 6 months, he will call and we'll keep tabs on what he's thinking of doing. I've played this for two years and I'm done. I went with Centurylink. I had no other choice.

Centurylink can offer a speed no faster than 5mbs. They guarantee 4mbs. Some days I get that, some days I don't. My modem is like Schroedinger's cat. I never really know what speed I get until I check on it. And if I check on it often enough, the speed goes up to max. If I miss a day or two, instead of reading 5.120mbs, it will be 4.x or even 3.x. What matters is that I have to spend time checking on my modem over and over again to make sure it's up.

I have service at a deep discount from Centurylink, too. But when the discount expires, I will be paying about the same price as Comcast for 1/4 of the speed. Centurylink and Comcast know what's going on. They can play tag team forever. And with the Utah Legislature at their beck and call, they won't have to worry for long about competition from municipal broadband.

I can tell you that at 4mbs per second or less, the World Wide Web is close to the World Wide Wait. Fat web-based applications run much slower. I often find myself looking at blank pages for a few seconds waiting for pages to load. This is what Comcast and Centurylink want. What else is there to think based on their behavior?

We are long past the time when the Internet is a luxury, merely a source of entertainment. Internet access is a necessity for work, public discourse and pretty much everything else online. It is a utility in the strictest sense of the term.

It is time to stop playing games and designate anyone and everyone who owns the pipes that carry the internet as common carriers. That would fix a large part of the problem.  Doing so would require  carriers to resell access to competitors at wholesale so that we can have real competition.

We also need to repeal ridiculous acts like the Municipal Telecommunications Private Industry Safeguards Act. This law Prevents the citizens from pooling their resources together to build infrastructure that shouldn't be private in the first place. Japan proved that with their open access model for Internet access deployment.

Until we make these two basic changes, the world will pass us by on a network that routes around us like damage.
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