By way of Paul Rolly’s frequent gossip column, it’s come to light that UTOPIA has been soliciting bids for doing a marketing campaign. One of the biggest problems that UTOPIA has had with getting new users signed up has been a lack of information about availability and benefits of the service. The plan to date was always about getting providers to take care of the marketing, but the only one doing a major push was Mstar who rapidly burned through cash, did a crash-and-burn, and left a sour taste about the network in subscribers’ mouths.
I’m glad UTOPIA is going to take marketing seriously, but like so much that they do, details are sparse at best. Maybe the next thing they can tackle is opening up a bit.
An anonymous tipster pointed out that Provo is currently soliciting Requests for Qualifications for iProvo. The RFQ itself is very specific in stating that while it’s looking for companies who could take over the network, nothing in it should be construed to imply that the city actually anticipates getting the network back at this time. Based on Veracity’s particular situation, I’d be disinclined to believe otherwise.
So what does it mean? I’m guessing that the city doesn’t want to be caught unprepared yet again (*cough*HomeNet*cough*Mstar*cough*Broadweave*cough*) should the worst happen. One bitten, twice shy. If you think your ISP has the chops to take it over should the need arise, you’ve got until February 28 to get your name on the list. For what it’s worth, I’ve asked Veracity if they had anything to add, but I haven’t heard back from them yet. If/when I do, I’ll be sure to add it up here. I’d imagine, though, that this story is about as cut and dry as it seems.
Read the RFQ for yourself: Telecom_Network_RFQ_Final
When the Salt Lake Tribune published their story as to what’s going on with Prime Time Communications, they noted that they were unable to reach anyone for comment. Yours truly, however, scored a 40-minute phone interview with Bryon Wentzlaff, one of their VPs. From the sounds of things, it’s just one more example of why telecom is a tough business to break into no matter who you are. Prime Time hit a point where they were not making money and didn’t project doing so for the foreseeable future.
Looks like I’m a little late to the reporting party, but better late than never: Prime Time is getting booted from UTOPIA. Apparently the company filed bankruptcy for the MSTAR subsidiary on September 3 after having pulled $2.2M out of itmonths earlier. (Yeah, I’m not sure where the money came from either.) This is after several of their other developments did the same earlier this year. Customers started losing phone service not long after that filing. After racking up $1M in unpaid bills (sound familiar?), UTOPIA wants to kick Prime Time and customers are being advised to seek other service providers.
With how heavily the company depended on private developments and how much work had to be done to fix the badly-tarnished MSTAR brand, this isn’t too surprising. The upshot is that with over a dozen other providers and at least a few offering video, nobody is entirely out in the cold.
One of the more interesting parts of UTOPIA’s new plans via the Utah Infrastructure Agency (UIA) is to have cities start taking over billing operations directly. In the past, service providers operated all of the billing and then remitted payment to UTOPIA for the wholesale transport. That arrangement works well for most providers, but every now and again, you get an Mstar that racks up a huge debt to UTOPIA. While the step to diversify the video offerings so that no provider can hold triple-play over their head, it only gives UTOPIA a hammer to cut off the deadbeats, not a way to get their money. So, in an effort to make sure that UTOPIA always gets their cut and isn’t giving any provider a free loan, it looks like they’re going to consolidate billing into the UIA which will then disburse the money to both UTOPIA and the service providers.
I have some mixed feelings on this. Sure, it sucks when a crappy company like Mstar takes the network for a multi-million dollar ride. And it would suck if a company decided to not pay their bills for a month or two and leave UTOPIA holding the bag. I can certainly see how this improves the cash flow on their side. On the other side, billing is a way for providers to differentiate their customer service. I know a lot of people who have sworn off Qwest because their bill couldn’t ever come out quite right. I also wonder if providers will be hot on the idea of a third-party provider collecting the money and delaying the cash flow on their side. It also raises the issue of what happens when there’s non-payment by the customer. Instead of the provider having to pay UTOPIA anyway while they seek payment (or, more likely, shut off service), UTOPIA is left holding that bag. Granted, it’s a lot less than if a provider stops paying their bills, but it’s something worth thinking about.
In any event, this seems like an overall positive move with a few caveats. If nothing else, UTOPIA is working its tail off to try and protect itself from these kinds of financial problems.
I just got the heads up from Prime Time Communications that they are now running a blog to report on issues related to the Mstar transition. In addition to a “mea culpa” over the video transition issues (including the loss of local channels and problems with the new STBs), they offer up hints that new pricing tiers will be available June 1. I imagine that will be to bring the pricing in line with the updated offerings from other providers. If you’re a Prime Time Communications/Mstar subscriber (or just want to keep tabs on what they’re up to), go check it out.
I had a conversation today with Bryon Wentzlaff of Prime Time Communications and he answered a few questions on the STB replacement in progress. By his figures, about 1800 boxes were replaced leading up to the termination of signals from Broadweave that occurred on Sunday. That was all done in the last two weeks just after Prime Time inked the final deal to purchase MSTAR.
He also said there are still around 900 boxes left to replace, most in student housing. Part of the problem is that they didn’t have enough boxes to complete all of the replacements, but those are supposed to arrive in the Wasatch Front tomorrow morning and a team of 30 installers will be replacing them as fast as they can over the next two weeks. I know that’s small consolation to those of you looking at a blank screen after months (or years) of video issues with MSTAR, but have some patience with them. Replacing 2700 boxes in a month is no small feat.
A forum poster on DSLReports isn’t too happy with Prime Time Communications. S/he reported had an STB swap last week that resulted in a loss of channels, frequent pixelation and/or tiling, and being downgraded from a dual-tuner DVR. They’re also reporting issues with out-of-sync audio and video with the new Aminet 530 STB. Given the rather hasty swap from the iProvo headend to the Prime Time one in St. George it’s not surprising to find a few bumps in the road but after years of MSTAR’s video issues, it’s very ill-timed.
Any readers out there with similar issues or pointers on how to fix it? Or, better yet, would someone from Prime Time like to reach out to give this guy a hand?
Good news out of UTOPIA: the video product will be ready to launch as early as next week. Service providers will reportedly have a list of prices and channel lineups by Saturday in preparation for reselling to customers. I don’t have a list of the channel line-up, but I would bet it’s going to be competitive with both cable and satellite providers. Now that MSTAR/Prime Time won’t be the only video game in town, you’ll be free to grab triple-play any way you want it.
Speaking of Prime Time, the word on the street is that they’ve been rushing to upgrade all of the MSTAR STBs ahead of being cut off from Broadweave’s headend on May 1. With just two days left, sources tell me that some customers may experience a loss of service since there’s been so little time to do the swap. My understanding is that Prime Time is going to use their headend out of St. George rather than use UTOPIA’s new MPEG-4 headend. Have some patience with them.
After months of rumors that Mstar has been looking to be acquired, it looks like Prime Time Communications, the newest provider, is the suitor. This gives Prime Time an instant customer base on UTOPIA and strengthens Mstar’s position as a triple-play provider. It comes at a cost, however. Now that Prime Time is the only triple-play provider, it means we’ll have to wait for UTOPIA’s wholesale video product, rumored to be ready next month, to see triple-play competition. I hope this means we’ll see rapid customer additions instead of the steadily eroding customer base that was Mstar’s hallmark for the last year.