Congress wants to stop metered Internet, but it's putting effort into the wrong end of the problem

Rep. Eric Massa of New York today introduced a bill designed to put a stop to metered billing plans at large ISPs. The gist of it is that any ISP with more than 2 million customers must get FTC approval before doing any kind of consumption-based billing. Certainly companies like Time Warner and AT&T have gotten out of control with their miserly caps, but this is putting effort into the wrong end of the problem.

This proposal is just more of the same: highly restrictive regulation for the incumbents that gets constantly gamed and does nothing to promote better service provider choices. Given that the status quo of telecommunications regulation hasn’t ended up working so well, why on earth would we even entertain this idea? Lunacy is doing the same thing and expecting different results.

We should instead be focusing on how to increase competitive choices in the marketplace so that consumers have the option to pick their service provider. I’m confident that the only reason any service provider can get away with ridiculously low caps is because consumers can’t flee to another service. Once there’s some more competitive pressure, we’ll see those prices drop like a rock. In fact, markets with 4 service providers have prices that average about 25% less than markets with just two providers.

Let’s make sure our Congresscritters start focusing on the right part of the story. Competition is good. Regulation? Not so much.

Is Twitter for Customer Service or Damage Control?

Comcast has gotten a lot of praise for their Twitter customer service team and I don’t doubt it’s been responsible for their sharply increased rating on the American Consumer Satisfation Index (ACSI). I’ve used their team myself to resolve problems that support doesn’t or get quick answers to service questions. While I think they’re doing a valuable job, their function has been misidentified as customer service.

In my mind, customer service starts the minute you initiate contact to resolve an issue. You have an expectation that when you call in, you’re going to walk away with some kind of resolution. When you get conflicting answers from a CSR or don’t get your problem resolved by tech support, you’re not getting good customer service. By the time you’re venting on your blog, on a forum, or on your Twitter account, the damage is done: you got poor service.

When the Twitter-based customer service ninjas swoop in to try and get the problem fixed, they’re in full-on damage control mode. This isn’t to say they aren’t doing a great job of cleaning up messes; they are. But the core problem, that the customer service team failed to deliver, still hasn’t been fixed. I often don’t bother calling in with problems because I know I’m going to spend half an hour rebooting everything to have them blame my router, demand escalation, sit on hold another 15 minutes, and then face getting disconnected. It’s a lot easier to either complain online or seek out the Twitter folks to get things done.

This lesson is an important one for other service providers as a lot of former Comcast customers I’ve spoken with have sworn off ever going back because of customer service issues. Many Mstar customers have been in the same boat. Even though XMission’s DSL service is slower than Comcast and sometimes a bit more expensive, customers are fiercely loyal because the service is, by all accounts, awesome. It’s not because they’re using Twitter, it’s because they don’t have to in order to resolve customer issues.

Facing the Sad Truth: UTOPIA's New Website Sucks as Much as the Old One

There really isn’t any nice way to say it. UTOPIA’s new website is about as bad as the old one. Updates are infrequent and hard to find. Some sections available on the old site have never materialized on the new site. And playing sound the minute the page loads violates Web Design 101. The new site is the same as the old site, just with a fresh coat of paint. I say this in an open forum not just to complain more loudly, but because I think UTOPIA could use suggestions from all of us. Here’s my list.

Get rid of the new website. Replace it with a real CMS like WordPress or Joomla. Custom themes for either rarely go over a grand and both systems are very easy to update. As a bonus, the built-in RSS functionality ensures that we stay up-to-date without having to go back and pick through the site a few times a month. That’s really irritating.

Update it frequently. Task someone with updating the site at least twice a month. More frequent is better, but I’m figuring you need to start with a low bar. An inactive website makes it look like you have an inactive organization. That doesn’t help the oft-repeated myth that UTOPIA is dead. Post anything. Press releases, maintenance announcements, success stories… it really doesn’t matter so long as it’s topical.

Purge the superlatives and marketing-speak. There’s stuff posted up there that’s either technically inaccurate or just plain loopy. Examples: “You also own your UTOPIA”, using “you’re” in place of “your”, “until the speed of light is surpassed”. It’s kind of sloppy and I’m sure that you can get a few guys in the office to cook up something a little better.

Be more open with data. Hiding data doesn’t help, it hinders. When the UTA, “Reason” Foundation, or any the other anti-UTOPIA entities speak up, we’re usually left with a bag of nothing in defense. Provo, for all of its failings, did a great job of providing regular and accurate data so that everyone (including myself) could measure the performance and offer up suggestions. On that note, I would strongly recommend getting it together on the service checking tool. It’s been well over a year since you started on it and plenty of other businesses have such features. The missing minutes from the board meetings are also a big black eye.

Get social. There’s no fan page on FaceBook and no Twitter account to proactively respond to complaints. This is 2009. Take the time to setup and use these tools. They may not reach the majority of your audience, but they make a world of difference in terms of image.

Have some suggestions of your own? Drop them in the comments section.

Egg on Your Face: Rep. Frank and the UTA Play Loose With the Truth

The UTA recently released a report that UTOPIA will be calling on tax pledges this year. They cite an April statement from Murray Mayor Dan Snarr as their sole evidence. “At this point in time, no tax dollars have been used on this project. That may change, and we may need to help pay for some of the operations until there are enough customers to cover expenses.” Rep. Craig Frank was all too willing to quickly attach himself to this report as solid truth. The problem for the UTA (and by extension Rep. Frank), however, is that this is their only evidence, this statement has been repeated over and over since the refinancing (elected officials need to hedge their bets), and there’s no way it would be possible for UTOPIA to call on pledge dollars anytime this year.

The facts are simple. UTOPIA does not have a bond payment due from operating revenue until June 2010. There is absolutely no possible way that they can legally call on the sales tax pledges this year as the UTA asserts. Elected officials have been saying the same thing as Mayor Snarr for the last year to cover their own butts in a worst case scenario. The UTA is just trying to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt without citing any new or relevant facts. It’s scaremongering, pure and simple.

If UTOPIA is really doing so poorly, how is it that they managed to sign on Integra Telecom, a company that measures its revenues in the hundreds of millions? Don’t you think a company of that caliber (which is likely going to bring in hundreds of thousands or millions in new revenue) would do their due diligence? And how is it that there’s no criticism for city-owner power or the horrendously botched sale of iProvo? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Seems like you folks like to reserve your criticism for easy targets.

The Top Ten Hardest Lessons Learned From Utah Municipal Networks

It’s amazing that a rural state nestled in the heart of the Mountain West is where we’re seeing some of the biggest innovations in community broadband. And yet the woes of UTOPIA and iProvo, the latter of which was sold to a private company last year, seem to be what’s making the front page news. Despite a series of missteps, the future of open wholesale access looks bright… so long as we’re willing to learn some hard lessons. Here’s what I’ve learned from watching Utah’s municipal networks.

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Why Cable Fears The Internet

If you’re a content distributor, odds are that you and the Internet aren’t really on speaking terms these days. The recording, movie, and publishing industries all blame it for sagging sales, declining revenues, and shuttering up operations, even in cases where it just isn’t so. (I’m looking at you, Hollywood.) The problem is that most of them fear what they don’t understand. For cable, though, they understand perfectly what the Internet is. That’s why they’re so terrified of it.

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Live Mesh and the Need for More Bandwidth

I’ve recently been playing around with Microsoft’s new Live Mesh Beta, a service that lets you sync files between multiple computers and allows you to RDP into any of them. So far, it’s been really great. I can edit a file on my work PC, open it up at home, then import it in a Windows XP VM. The integration is totally seamless and I’m looking forward to support for mobile devices being available Real Soon Now(TM).

It’s not that what Microsoft is doing is particularly remarkable. I have RDP access to my work PC and I can copy files back to my home PC from that. I can use VNC with a VPN connection to get back to my home PC and transfer files. I can share a folder from my home PC to make it available to my VMs. The trick is that all of those things aren’t exactly seamless or integrated, plus I don’t have the benefit of an online backup with version conflict control, things that Live Mesh offers.

Despite all of this convenience, I found myself frustrated with it this evening as I waited for 50MB worth of database changes and new files to get synced back into the cloud. I ended up waiting about 15 minutes for it to complete, time that I could have been getting work done. That’s when I got a very quantifiable taste of how poor broadband speeds translate into decreased productivity.

With the high price of bandwidth, the company I work for can only afford a 10M/10M pipe. It sounds like a lot until you realize that we have 150+ employees plus our customers trying to cram all of their data onto it including about a dozen teleworkers. It works out to around a single ISDN channel worth of bandwidth per employee. Granted, we’re not all using it at the same time, but a few large uploads or downloads can saturate it.

My home connection isn’t any better. I’ve gone with Comcast, the lesser of two evils, and a paltry 12M/2M connection costs as much as a 20M/10M connection from a UTOPIA provider. I can’t even imagine doing uploads on Qwest’s upload-crippled DSL. While Live Mesh takes the management frustration out of file syncing, it’s held hostage to my connection speed.

The demand for higher upload speeds is there, but don’t count on your local duopoly to come up with a product to meet it, at least not at a price that’s affordable. Phone companies have purposefully restricted their upload speeds to keep from cannibalizing lucrative T1 services, a technology that dates back five decades. Cable companies have no incentive to be more than a little bit better than the phone company; Comcast can claim over twice the upload speed of Qwest, but the connection is still useless for heavy-duty uploading. The “any color you want, as long as it’s black” business model ignores market needs, a direct result of our non-competitive telecommunications landscape.

This is why we need competing transport from UTOPIA. It’s about the only thing keeping Qwest and Comcast on their toes. A reader e-mailed me pictures today of frequent Comcast truck rolls in Brigham City in the small UTOPIA footprint up there. They’re spooked that someone built a better mousetrap and they should be. The product is better, you aren’t locked into a single provider if the service stinks, and you can use the cutting edge products without wasting your entire day transferring data back and forth.

Live Mesh isn’t the only example. I do backups with MozyHome and a large set of changes can take several hours to finish uploading. I don’t even really try streaming my media collection from a remote system anymore since the connection frequently hiccups and is only suitable for music, leaving my vast collection of ripped DVDs chained to my desktop and AppleTV. I don’t get to use my connection for everything I want, pure and simple. Not because I’m blocked, but because the service isn’t up to snuff. Net neutrality may be the cause celeb, but maybe we should be talking upload parity instead.

Net Neutrality Advocates Need to Stop Overusing the Term

Net neutrality is a real hot-button issue for a large swath of Internet users and for good reason. The happy accident of interconnected networks and free flow of information has lead to a lot of useful and creative uses of the world’s largest network. That said, it seems that far too many proponents have added a whole host of other issues under the banner of net neutrality, diluting its value and entangling what should rightfully be separate issues. In the words of Inigo Montoya, “you keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

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Thoughts on the Proposed Broadband Stimulus

It’s a definite Good Thing(TM) that we now have an administration willing to make telecommunications quality a big priority. America is embarrassingly behind the curve in both speeds and availability when compared to other industrialized countries. That said, I’ve got a lot of serious reservations as to how this is all going to play out.

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The Story Behind the iProvo Portals

A lot has been made of the issues with phone service on iProvo and the blame laid at the feet of World Wide Packets (now owned by Ciena). After getting a techincal overview of what’s going on with the devices, it appears that the blame is well-placed. As promised, earlier, here’s the explanation as to why the WWP portals are a big bucket of fail and how UTOPIA managed to dodge most of those issues.

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