Friday, August 22, 2014

A tiny town in Maine takes on Time-Warner Cable and wins

Rockport, Maine isn't a very big town. With 3300 people, it hardly counts as a blip in a nation of 300 million. Struggling to get decent speeds from the government-protected, local private monopoly ISP, Time-Warner, the citizens of Rockport took matters into their own hands and built the network they wanted despite Time-Warner Cable.

In order to finance the construction of the network, they raised their own taxes. They voted twice to get the laws just right. Then they worked with a private firm to do the engineering and get it right. The total cost was about $60k, and it will only service 70 homes on a 1.2 mile network. But now they have a foundation to build upon should they decide to expand.

I've read about many other networks on a much larger scale, the most famous of which is the network built in Chattanooga, Tennessee, by the Electric Power Board (EPB). Such networks are becoming more common. Unfortunately, the bigger networks meet with all kinds of resistance from the incumbents. From legislation to litigation, community broadband gets hammered by private interests seeking to extend or maintain their private monopolies - that local governments protect through franchise agreements.

So I am surprised to see that this very small town was able to see their network through to completion. Perhaps it was easier because, if TWC didn't see enough money to build a decent network there, in Rockport, then perhaps it wasn't worth the fight to stop them, either. Rockport now has a network that provides symmetrical gigabit access for only $70 a month - far outperforming the TWC network that the carrier was unwilling to improve.

It might be cliche to say that the community broadband movement is the nightmare incumbent carriers were hoping to avoid, but it's here, that nightmare. Let's not forget that incumbent carriers were handed the monopolies they have, on a silver platter, more than 20 years ago. It was a gift that just kept on giving. But the cable and telco monopolies refused to give back. Worse, they refused to keep up with the rest of the world.

To add insult to injury, Comcast and Verizon throttled big internet players like Netflix and asked for more money to keep Netflix customers happy. The foot-dragging and anti-competitive practices of the incumbent carriers is very well documented. But we don't have to put up with it much longer.

Yes, they can file lawsuits, but they always lose. No community broadband project has ever been completely defeated by litigation. Oh, that'll slow them down, but eventually, they come back.

Yes, they can work with ALEC to write and pass legislation that stifles community broadband efforts at the state level, but look at what incumbent carriers like Comcast and Verizon are fighting: jobs, economic progress, better access to the worldwide community, a voice in government. Yes, Comcast would prefer its profits over a better economy.

In Missoula, Montana, they are also pursuing a fiber project. At the same time, Google Fiber has been investigating setting up shop there, too. But people local to the area are beginning to question the wisdom of getting involved with Google Fiber. Maybe they heard about Provo, and how Provo sold it's network to Google Fiber for a dollar and still has to pay off a mountain of debt left over from a failed network effort by Utopia. Had they waited, they might have had a chance to work with Macquarie Capital in a much better deal.

Community broadband isn't a fad. It is a rational response to incumbent service providers that have taken the public trust for granted. When citizens have been shorted by companies like Comcast, Verizon, Time-Warner and AT&T, those same citizens have every right to pool their resources in their local government to build a better network. Just like they did in Rockport, Maine.
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