The Coming of a New Duopoly

For a very long time, detractors of UTOPIA have pointed to the wireless market as a shining example of how the private sector provides superior competitive choice and great consumer benefit. Now we’re watching as that example starts to look a whole lot like the wireline business, locked up in relatively few choices with little product differentiation between them. Once AT&T completes its purchase of T-Mobile (and nobody seriously expects the deal to fall through), two companies will control over 65% of wireless lines in the United States, both of which are nasty players in the wireline duopoly business. This is just the beginning.

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Salt Lake Tribune Employs Cable Industry Shill to Review UTOPIA Plan

The Salt Lake Tribune ran an article today about UTOPIA’s new business plan in which a Mr. Ron Rizzuto continually discounted it. The article cites that Mr. Rizzuto is a professor at the University of Denver; this is true. What is omitted, though, is much more telling. Mr. Rizzuto is a senior fellow at The Cable Center, an organization funded by the cable industry. Not only that, Comcast’s Executive Vice President, David L. Cohen, is a member of the organization’s board.

It’s not surprising that a cable industry shill would attempt to trash UTOPIA in the press. It’s not even surprising that he would attempt to portray himself as a dispassionate and disinterested third party. Both of these have been done time and time again, like when Heartland Institute’s Steven Titch did consulting work for Qwest and claimed it had no bearing on his harsh criticisms for iProvo and UTOPIA. If anything, I automatically expect some kind of conflict of interest to emerge from parties opposed to UTOPIA as so many of them will always act in their own financial best interests. (Utah Taxpayer’s Association, I’m looking at you.)

What is surprising, shameful, and downright embarrassing is that the Salt Lake Tribune didn’t spend the entire 2 minutes on Google required to find all of this out. Even if they did, they chose not to disclose it in their article. One of two things happened: they were either negligent in their journalistic duties or (and this is more likely) they are continuing to advance the position of the editorial board that UTOPIA cannot succeed. Whichever it is, I am deeply unimpressed.

It's not just XMission: Qwest hurting other providers too

Salt Lake City Weekly just ran a story on Qwest’s attempts to limit competition and it looks like XMission isn’t alone. The CFO of Fibernet, Lee Livingston, says they have also experienced getting cut off from newer infrastructure and getting their customers poached. Tellingly, the Qwest PR flack tasked with responding refused to dispute the accuracy of the recorded phone call with their rep, instead trying a weak sauce accusation that it had been fabricated or altered. (Hey Qwest? That’s pretty much an admission of guilt and makes you look petty.) Fibernet used to complain to the FCC about these problems and gave up after they got no results.

The short of it is that the new era of competition that was supposed to be ushered in by the Telecommunications Act of 1996 flamed out almost as fast as it arrived. Incumbents have been actively thwarting wholesale customers to lock the market back up while claiming that they still have sufficient competition. Open networks like UTOPIA are the last chance to correct this market imbalance. And yes, it will be expensive and painful. Most mistakes are.

The Smoking Gun: Qwest Caught Admitting That FTTN Eliminates Competition

Incumbent telcos haven’t exactly been thrilled at having to offer their lines at wholesale rates to competing ISPs, especially since landline revenues have been sliding into a ditch. While AT&T and Verizon can keep most of that revenue with a wireless division, Qwest has no such option and has struggled with making enough money to either reduce its staggering debt load or upgrade its network. Instead of offering, say, good service or a product that people want to buy, they instead figured out that rolling out FTTN would let them claim to no longer have a copper plant to share. Of course, they don’t admit so much in public, instead insisting that other ISPs are just too incompetent (heh) to handle their shiny new pipes.

Well, Xmission has called them on it with a recording of a Qwest agent saying flat-out that the point of FTTN has been to eliminate competition and bring all of those customers in-house. It’s pretty damning evidence that Qwest doesn’t want to compete based on the products and services they offer, but rather on locking out competition. Is it any wonder that we have fewer ISPs today than we did in 1997 and that the few remaining ones are on UTOPIA as a means of survival?

After much searching, Qwest finds the right shade of lipstick for the pig

In quite the surprise announcement today, Qwest announced that its efforts to dress the company up for sale over the last decade have finally paid off. CenturyLink, the result of a merger between ILECs CenturyTel and Embarq, is buying the company in an all-stock transaction. This comes not even a year after the merger that created CenturyLink, one in which CenturyTel purchased Embarq.

What remains to be seen is if this will improve Qwest’s long-ailing fortunes and legendary reputation for horrible customer service. I used to be a customer of Sprint Local in Las Vegas before it was spun off into Embarq and was always impressed with the service quality. The only reason I discontinued service was because Vonage was offering a very compelling feature set at a  more attractive price. I don’t know how much of Embarq has rubbed off on CenturyTel (or even what CenturyTel’s reputation is), but any amount of it would help.

That said, I wonder if the new company will have the billions of dollars required to update badly-neglected infrastructure. It’s no secret that Qwest carries a very heavy debt load and hasn’t exactly been speedy with the rollout of ADSL2+ services. They also have no wireless or video revenues to cross-subsidize construction… and neither does CenturyLink. As land lines continue to death spiral and cable turns up the DOCSIS 3.0 heat, I’m left wondering how the new company will fare too much better than the old one.

Good luck, guys. You need as much of it as you can get.

ALERT: Qwest Lobbyist Eric Isom Running for Utah House District 15

I’ve just found out that Qwest government affairs lobbyist Eric Isom is a candidate for Utah State Respresentative in District 15. You may remember him from numerous city council and legislative hearings where he spoke in opposition to UTOPIA and would frequently pull legislators and city council members aside for one-on-one conversations. There are three other Republicans vying for the nomination in that district and several Democratic opponents. I can’t state clearly enough how disastrous it would be for municipal broadband projects in the state to have an unofficial mouthpiece of Qwest elected to a state office. Isom has said that he will either resign from Qwest or transfer to a non-lobbying position, but I doubt that it would diminish the influence that it would have on his votes or proposed legislation.

House District 15 encompasses the western half of Kaysville along with significant portions of Layton and Syracuse. If you live in this district, it is critical that you talk to state delegates and attend the state convention to oppose his run for office. Let’s make this fight a top priority for anyone supporting UTOPIA!

UTOPIA Moving Forward in Brigham City

UTOPIA has obtained the approval of Brigham City to move forward with the plan to create a voluntary SAA to provide services to over 1,600 residences. Reports from the meeting were that the crowd was almost unanimously in favor of approval and the city council voted 4-1* in their favor. This means that residents who have opted in will be able to receive service in exchange for either a $3,000 connection fee up-front or paid over a period of 20 years via a city-backed bond. Anyone who has not signed up for service will not be expected to pay any part of this bond.

The good news is that with the number of homes participating, the entire city will be covered with service. Residents have until early December to opt to participate in the bond. Anyone who wishes to get hooked up after that will have to come up with the money up-front or join up with enough other residents to form a new bond. Best of all, the city will retain ownership of all portions of the network built under the SAA with the potential to get other portions of the network placed under city ownership in the future.

UTOPIA also picked up a new service provider, They’re the typical dial-up-come-DSL ISP that’s hit hard times as Qwest plays hardball. (While Qwest will deny it, they’ve been using the list of wholesale line orders from other service providers to poach DSL customers.) While it is unclear if/when plans to expand beyond its home town, it certainly is a good thing for residents of Brigham City to have even more competitive choice. This could also bring an additional 145 customers to UTOPIA beyond the 1600 that have already opted in.

As part of the launch, the long-delayed white label video product will be ready to go. (It’s about time since it was starting to feel like the Duke Nukem Forever of fiber networks.) Apparently the hold-up was Turner. UTOPIA wanted to transport the video signal over a secure fiber network to their headend and Turner was the only programmer who would have none of it. After much negotiation, UTOPIA had to get a dish to bring in Turner networks like TNT, TCM, CNN, and Cartoon Network. The packages are only going to come in a few basic flavors and I wasn’t able to get details on what VOD options, if any, will be included with it. The channel lineups are currently posted on their website if you want to take a look; it appears to be pretty complete to me.

So how is Qwest reacting? Just as you would expect them to. They have filed a GRAMA request with Brigham City to obtain the documents forming the SAA and may take legal action to stop it from forming. The problem here, though, is that UTOPIA is just a contractor in the middle of it all. Qwest will have to sue Brigham City to stop the SAA to, in effect, tell them that they can’t let their residents buy a fiber optic network of their own. (Yes, it’s as dumb as it sounds.) I sincerely hope Qwest will back off on this one.

(*Unsurprisingly, Ruth Jensen was the lone no vote and continued to parrot telecom talking points. She was also reportedly excessively harsh and unprofessional with the UTOPIA representatives at the meeting to the point of being called out by some residents. I’m also a bit concerned that she apparently didn’t know the difference between a voluntary SAA and an involuntary SAA. Isn’t that the kind of thing that a city council member should know?)

Qwest's Sneaky Stimulus Play

From reviewing the list of stimulus applicants, you’d think Qwest decided not to partake in the feeding frenzy. Think again. Instead of applying directly, Qwest chose to allow an intermediary to make the application, an intermediary that would then spend the money on Qwest infrastructure and services. I’m referring to the applications from the University of Utah.

You may think hey, what does the U plan to do with Qwest? The reality is that the application from the university was on behalf of UEN. UEN contracts with several companies to build and operate 10GbE and 1GbE links to educational facilities, but the lion’s share of the money goes to Qwest. Should the application get approval, it is nothing more than a hand-out to Qwest to build a network with taxpayer dollars and charge their normal exorbitant rates for service with no real strings attached.

I hope that whoever is reviewing NTIA applications at the state level sees right through this ruse.

An Evaluation of the Broadweave/Veracity Merger

I’ve spent the last week rolling over the proposed merger of Veracity and Broadweave as well as their proposal to Provo City upon which it is contingent. I’ve gotten  more information from Veracity and Broadweave on their position and talked to other people who’ve been keeping an eye on things. I’m still not sure if the deal is in the city’s best interests, but I don’t know that it’s necessarily rotten or the only option either.

Veracity’s proposal to the city is, for all intents and purposes, a loan of $1.5M over the next 18 months to reduce the bond payments to be paid back over the seven years following that at 5.1% interest. (Ironically, this is the amount Provo City would have paid on the bond had they kept the network.) Veracity has said it has pursued private financing for the deal and has been unable to secure it, though I imagine the terms were also not as favorable as what’s being proposed to the city. Under the proposal, Provo would use the energy reserve fund to make the payments, money that would have been earning 1% interest. Taxes wouldn’t increase to finance it nor would other budgets be cut into.

So why does Veracity want a loan to reduce the payments? They’re looking to buy time to move their Provo customers onto iProvo to slash costs and improve operating efficiencies. Not only does that cut Qwest transport out of the picture, but they can also sell services that would not have been easy to provide given the wholesale rates that Qwest charges. Moving those customers will cost a fair amount of money, so Veracity needs time to get it done.

Given Veracity’s financial state, I have my doubts as to whether or not they could secure private financing for this deal. They reportedly operate debt-free with a very healthy cash flow and I would hope that they presented the council with scenarios under which they use private financing combined with current revenues to accomplish the same ends. They have been opening the books to the city council and some staff for their review, but there also needs to be a Plan B. Right now, the proposal feels very “take it or leave it”.

This isn’t to say that I doubt Veracity’s capability. They’re an exceptional company offering exceptional service that I use in my job every day. Their management team is full of smart people and Broadweave has done a much-needed sweep of almost all of its management team. My reservations hinge on asking the city to extend their role in the financing of the sale.

So what’s the alternative? Broadweave is fast-approaching the date where the network will have to be returned to the city since investors aren’t willing to put any more money into it. If that happens, Provo will have several months of the reserve to use for paying off the bond while they regroup. It sounds like a worst-case doomsday scenario, but I don’t think it’s quite as dire as even I would have once predicted. Provo will still have a couple of options at their disposal.

The first option would be to resume control of the wholesale side and allow Broadweave to continue as the main retail provider. This option would only work if, after being relieved of the wholesale obligations, Broadweave would have sufficient funds to find new customers and finance install costs. There’s also the problems of re-staffing the NOC as a city department and relocating Broadweave to another office. It may also be very difficult for a single retailer to secure enough customers to cover the wholesale side of the operation

The second option would be to bring in new retail providers to compete with (or replace) Broadweave. If Provo entered into some kind of reciprocity agreement with UTOPIA that allowed a provider from one network to participate on the other, it would secure the residential contract on UTOPIA that Broadweave wouldn’t mind having and bring in a half-dozen new providers to Provo to scoop up new customers. This would also mean that at least two different head-ends on both networks would be competing for customers, a win-win for served residents. New providers, however, may be leery of making a deal with Provo after the way that they threw Mstar under the bus. Granted, Mstar wasn’t paying its bills and didn’t have much goodwill to cash in, but they were also bullied into the deal they got. In either scenario, Provo would have several months of lead time to figure out what to do and find a way to make the payments once again.

Provo isn’t necessarily locked into the merger option. If the council still wants to get out of the business, they believe that Veracity is good for the money, and they don’t have qualms about extending some more financing, they can go with the merger. If they want city money to result in a city asset, don’t have heartburn about doing the work to fix iProvo (now that we’ve seen that a private company wasn’t able to), and don’t think this is the last time they’ll be asked to extend their risk, there’s options for taking the network back.

No matter what happens, this should be an example of how difficult it is to try and undo the decision to get into the business of telecommunications. We’ve seen that a private company operating a closed network is not necessarily any more successful than a public entity operating an open network when in an overbuild scenario. We’ve also seen that self-financing means you aren’t really out of the business until the last red cent of the bond has been paid off. Any city thinking about jumping ship would do well to consider that it’s not an easy way out like the Reason Foundation and Utah Taxpayers Association claim it is.

Qwest Thinking VDSL2, Could Be Too Little, Too Late

The biggest black eye in Qwest’s attempt to bring their broadband offerings into the 21st century has been the abysmal 896Kbps upload speeds, even when using ADSL2+ and FTTN. According to some insider posts at DSLReports, that may change. According to the tipster, Qwest is looking at VDSL2 with plans to bump the upload speeds to 5Mbps with a new top tier pushing 40Mbps/20Mbps. Even so, it’s not enough to catch up to UTOPIA or even Comcast.

The real question is if Qwest can afford any kind of widespread deployment. Since the company couldn’t unload its long-haul operations for anywhere near the asking price, Qwest is where it always has been: too deep in debt, too cash poor, and hemmoraging landline customers to VoIP, cable, and wireless carriers. They halted the current ADSL2+ installs citing that the winter weather was preventing them from continuing the build, but we all know it’s cash flow issues. Like a lot of analysts, I think Qwest is going to continue to wither until they find a cash-rich investor looking for a fixer-upper.

And if Qwest is more-or-less at a standstill, what are the odds of Comcast dropping DOCSIS 3.0 tiers in Utah? Pretty slim unless you live in Provo or a UTOPIA city where fiber is prodding them forward. It’s no secret that Comcast has, to date, focused network upgrades most heavily on areas where Verizon’s FIOS is the king of speed. As half of the duopoly crumbles, you can expect more of the same from Comcast: ho-hum speeds, mediocre pricing, and lackluster customer service (their Twitter damage control unit customer service team notwithstanding).