Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Community broadband is the future

Most of us are familiar with Cable internet access and DSL from our phone company. I have a choice of both, but how much of a choice is it, really? The phone company, Centurylink, says that it can provide no more than 5 megabits per second. And of that, they only guarantee 80%. I tried it and it was really horrible. I spent a lot of time rebooting the modem, babysitting it, and calling the phone company for better service. Eventually, I gave up.

I also have Comcast. Comcast provides much better service, but it's more expensive. What is very interesting to me is that the double-play plans between the two, cost roughly the same, but Comcast offers 25mbs and up for about the same price that Centurylink charges. On this side of the street, Comcast has no competition at speeds greater than 5mbs. This is not really a choice in the market and it seems to me that Centurylink has ceded the market to Comcast on this side of the street.

I struggled for a year and a half to get Comcast to connect to my home after I moved here. Long after I got that connection, Centurylink sales boys would come by my house trying to sell their service. All they had to do was say that the max speed for their service was 5mbs and I was done. They say that they're going to roll out fiber, but I don't see that happening here. I live in a low value neighborhood. Curiously, Centurylink just announced Gigabit fiber for 16 cities, including Salt Lake City, but I'm not holding my breath.

I think that the pressure for better service has been mounting due to a few very well publicized events. Many of us have already heard about Google Fiber - gigabit service, up and down, for about $70 a month in the cities where it is being deployed. This has been a kick in the pants for the incumbents where it has been deployed. Instead of milking profits and taking their sweet time, incumbent carriers now have to compete with Google in a few select cities.

The really big news is community broadband. You won't see much about it in the mainstream press because, well, Comcast and other big telecom companies hold very large if not controlling interests in the major media companies. They understand that in order to maintain their market share while keeping profits high, they must control the media. Having a monopoly on internet access just isn't enough these days. They need control of the media to hang on to that monopoly.

With more than 400 communities running their own networks, in defiance of the incumbents that failed to meet their needs, the cat is out of the bag. Cities like Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Wilson, North Carolina are using existing public utility infrastructure to hang their gigabit fiber on. These utilities provide better service to what would be Comcast or Verizon customers. They don't have any of the rent seekers skulking around in the board rooms, trying to milk money from Netflix or Google, either. Community broadband is all about net neutrality.

Here in West Valley City, the local government is moving step by step to recharge the Utopia network in partnership with Macquarie, a world class construction financier. Macquarie has the money and the experience to build fiber out to every home and business in this city and provide gigabit service to us at a very reasonable cost. This is a very big deal in the sense that if approved, it's not a question of if, but when. The proposed agreement requires that everyone is hooked up within 30 months, so no matter where you live in West Valley City, you'll get connected in 30 months.

Many smaller towns are operating that way, too. With private telecoms, it's a guessing game as to when your house will be hooked up. Calling, checking, calling again - yeah, that was me. I did that on a periodic basis to see if Comcast was ever going to come to my house. It wasn't until I met a very enterprising sales person in Comcast that I finally got it. Without my persistence, I'd still be bitching about Centurylink. Luckily, I found someone interested in the challenge of getting me hooked up.

One of the early initiatives of the Obama Administration was the National Broadband Map. This map has been built to give us an idea of what to expect in our future or present neighborhood in terms of availability and speed. This effort was fiercely opposed by the incumbent service providers. They said that such a map would compromise proprietary information - their customer base. The reality is that they don't like exposure, I mean, transparency. It's not fair if consumers can choose their residence based on the availability of high speed internet access, it seems.

More than 400 cities across the nation have figured out a way around the incumbent providers. They have community broadband systems that not only do the job, they do it well. Some are public, some are public/private, but the vast majority of those consumers are quite happy with their service and are pleased that they no longer have to wait on a Wall Street bean counter to get better speeds and service in their neighborhood.

Community broadband is inevitable. As more and people see internet access as a utility, just like electricity and water, the justification for privately owned monopolies like Comcast and Verizon will make less sense. Someday, we'll look back and wonder what we were thinking.
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