Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Ma Bell tells El Dorado County: Go suck a satellite

Ma Bell has stiff armed much of El Dorado County clamoring for her to upgrade her aged and near obsolete copper cable plant to fiber optic to support improved voice service and wire line broadband Internet access. (See petition to AT&T)

Readers of this blog may recall the "Gut Check Time for Ma Bell" post on May 24 that included a link to AT&T's news release issued that day announcing the rollout of satellite-based broadband Internet service in AT&T's 13-state service area in a reseller arrangement with a satellite Internet service provider.

At that time, it wasn't clear if the service would be offered in El Dorado County. Now it's clear that it is: Direct mail postcards from AT&T pitching the satellite service have begun to hit El Dorado County mailboxes.

I expect many county residents and businesses aren't going to get excited over the service since they've long had the ability to go with satellite Internet providers at prices and speeds comparable to AT&T's offer. They're comfortable getting TV by satellite, but getting a second dish for Internet access? And after all, this is the Sacramento metro region, not the remote stretches of North Dakota or Alaska. Will we next have to get satellite phone service when the copper wire line system gives up the ghost?

By rolling out inferior satellite-based broadband (which by the way can't support voice over Internet protocol or gaming and lacks future growth capacity), AT&T is signalling it has no intention to upgrade its aged, antiquated El Dorado County wire line infrastructure anytime soon despite AT&T flackery in the Sacramento Bee in April promising county residents a number of broadband options by year end.

Bottom line, this is an unacceptable cop out. It's time for Ma Bell to decide if she really wants to be in the telecommunications business in El Dorado County or just another reseller like a Best Buy or Radio Shack, offering a service inferior to what she herself could provide. If she doesn't want to be here and serve El Dorado County's current and future telecom needs, then she needs to get out of the market and make way for other players who will.

Cable companies, telcos now in accord on state wire line TV franchises

Things are happening fast in Sacramento on legislation that would preempt local goverment jurisdiction over cable TV franchises and give it to the California Public Utilities Commission. The cable TV companies opposed the telco-proposed legislation fearing it would keep them under more restrictive local regulation while allowing the telcos to enter their markets under a less restrictive state franchise system.

John Hill reports in today's Sacramento Bee that the telcos and cable companies are now in accord over an amended version of the legislation that would permit both telcos and cables to opt out of local government control in favor of a PUC-issued franchise.

El Dorado County residents stuck on the wrong side of the digital divide with no broadband services likely care little about the regulatory rules. What's relevant for them is service choices and getting those choices ASAP.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Back to the future: U.S. Supreme Court accepts telco antitrust case

Many readers likely remember when AT&T agreed to be broken up into several regional, independent operating companies in 1984 under a consent degree to settle a federal anti-trust case.

When the feds splintered Ma Bell's progeny and cast them to the winds, they created a bunch of smaller monopolies in the process of breaking up a big one, plaintiffs allege in an anti-trust action that contends the regional operating companies are engaging in anti-competitive market conduct by agreeing to stay out of each other's territories.

The New York Times (registration required) reports today the U.S. Supreme Court has accepted the case, setting the stage for one of the new court's most far reaching decisions. The Times reports the case, Bell Atlantic v. Twombly, No. 05-1126, will be heard in the Supreme Court's next term which begins in October.

Regulatory uncertainty creates "double play" opportunity for Comcast expansion

As the big telcos including AT&T and Verizon battle it out in Sacramento with the cable companies over legislation that would preempt local government cable TV franchising authority, the cable companies have an opportunity under the current rules to expand and grab market share from the telcos.

In El Dorado County, Comcast is the franchisee. If Comcast's executives were smart and aggressive, they would put the pedal to the metal and dramatically expand in the county while AT&T is distracted down in River City fighting for the right to go around county authorities with a state authorized franchise. It's a strategy right out of the 1980s business bestseller In Search of Excellence that advised a bias for action to gain competitive market advantage.

Earlier this month, this blog reported Comcast plans to launch digital phone service across central California from Chico to Fresno as early as first-quarter 2007. Digital phone service -- and most certainly high speed Internet -- would likely be wholeheartedly embraced by El Dorado County residents who have for years experienced noisy and unreliable voice service over AT&T's aging copper cable plant and who lack broadband access to boot.

It's a compelling double play opportunity that Comcast could play out under the county franchise agreement provided both the county and Comcast waive a provision in the agreement requiring new subscribers outside Comcast's current service area to subsidize expansion costs. And it would likely produce a high take rate and rapidly expand Comcast's customer base in the county.

Comcast should step up to the plate and take advantage of the political uncertainty distracting its would be competitors now that Comcast going into full telco mode and expanding beyond its core entertainment service business model. A "triple play" bonus would be Comcast's ability to sell these newly acquired "double play" customers television programming services.

Friday, June 23, 2006

No fiber optic in Pleasant Valley: Just a conduit

A reader reports from the field: Fiber optic cable is being placed in the trench for the El Dorado Irrigation District's Pleasant Oak water main replacement project.

EID clarifies: No fiber is being installed -- just a conduit for possible future fiber optic cable deployment.

I guess that's a start. But I'm sure Pleasant Valley and Sly Park area residents and businesses would prefer the whole fiber enchilada now so they can get out of dial up hell and also enjoy reliable and high quality voice telephone service.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

May 2006: 72% of U.S. households with Internet used broadband connections

That's according to the results of a Nielsen//NetRatings survey reported today in Adweek. The survey found the 72 percent figure is up 15 percentage points compared to May 2005 (57 percent). New broadband users tend to be former dial-up users, as dial-up penetration dropped by 15 percentage points over the same period of time, going from 43 percent to 28 percent.

Much of El Dorado County continues to bring up the rear, stuck in the 28 percent category not out of a preference for dial up, but for lack of broadband Internet access. For too many in the county, it's still Al Gore's Internet, frozen in time where it stood when Gore assumed the vice presidency in 1993 and dial up was the only way to get Internet access.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Writer suggests threat of eminent domain to spur telcos, cable companies to compete

Maybe the incumbent network providers--the Verizons, Comcasts, AT&Ts--can be made to compete; threatening to seize their stagnating networks via eminent domain is just one creative idea to get them to do this. A truly competitive, non-neutral network could work, but only if we know its real economic value. If telcos or cable charge too much, someone should be in a position to steal the customer. Maybe then we'd see useful services and a better Internet. Sounds like capitalism.
Andy Kessler in The Weekly Standard.

In the public policy realm, this is what would be known as the nuclear option -- a final, overwhelming and extreme solution. Local governments have a number of interim measures they can take to encourage preferred outcomes to serve the best interests of the citizenry or discourage those things deemed harmful to the public interest.

As Mr. Kessler notes, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's recent Kelo ruling upholding local governments' broad authority to exercise eminent domain in the name of economic progress, it wouldn't be a major leap of logic to argue that just as governments exercise emiment domain to acquire rights of way for roads and highways, they might also do the same for telecommunications systems.

Just like roads and highways, these systems are key infrastructure vital to a community's economic health and well being and therefore, it could be reasonably argued, the public interest in them outweighs the financial interests of those who own them.

Local governments throughout the U.S. have already gone into direct competition with telcos and cable companies with their own municipal broadband systems. Perhaps in the post Kelo environment, they'll also begin to consider forming telecommunications redevelopment agencies to take over aging phone and cable systems. A key advantage to this strategy is that it eliminates an entrenched monopolistic provider that refuses to upgrade its systems to make broadband widely available, but by its very presence casts a chilling effect on the market, discouraging the entry of competitors.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Verizon exec: Broadband is vital infrastructure

"I think broadband infrastructure is as important as highways and airports and any other type of infrastructure the state needs, now and for the future," said Timothy J. McCallion, Verizon regional president.
McCallion, quoted in this Sacramento Bee article today on the multi-million dollar lobbying battle between telcos and cable companies over video franchise rules, is absolutely correct. Wonder if his competition, AT&T, gets this?

So far, there's no indication that it does in El Dorado County, where large areas of the county remain relegated to dial up and unable to get broadband Internet access. If AT&T can't or won't deliver this vital part of the county's infrastructure, perhaps Verizon will.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Beyond DSL: Rural consumers want "triple play" services

This new study by the National Carriers Exchange Association (NECA) finds consumers in rural areas expect telcos to provide more than DSL. They're looking beyond DSL -- an interim technology designed to allow broadband to work over copper-based cables -- to their future needs for higher bandwidth to support multiple Internet protocol-based services known in the industry as a "triple play" of high speed Internet, voice, and video. That finding is relevant to El Dorado County, where much of the copper cable system is deteriorated and unable to support DSL services anyway.

The results are not surprising since telcos have broadly promoted triple play as the emerging product standard and are taking on cable companies for the right to sell video Internet Protocol Television (IPTV). The question is will they invest the estimated $11.9 billion to upgrade their networks to deliver minimum speeds of 8 Mbps in order to offer triple play services?
This study goes beyond NECA’s previous examinations of the challenges of bringing broadband to rural America. In The Packet Train Needs to Stop at Every Door, NECA looks at the transformation occurring in rural networks toward Internet Protocol (IP) technology to meet evolving customer expectations for “triple play” multimedia services—a combination of voice, data and video.
These services are driving the need for much higher delivery speeds in the “last mile.” The study examines issues affecting a rural consumer’s ability to access advanced services comparable to those available to urban consumers. Among
these issues are the continuation of stable funding mechanisms to encourage needed network investment
in rural America and emerging issues associated with the delivery of multimedia services. Availability of these services may be a key to increased “take” rates for broadband. These are among the subjects that must be addressed to ensure the packet train arrives on time in rural America.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Another WISP entering El Dorado County

NuTel Broadband Corporation, a broadband wireless managed services provider based in Cranbury, NJ, announced it plans to deploy wireless "mesh" broadband networks in Sacramento, Chico, San Jose and El Dorado County as part of a 14-state rollout.

The rollout is targeting underserved suburban and rural subscribers and small-to-medium sized businesses in regions where broadband wireless network services have been limited or generally unavailable, according to NuTel.

NuTel CEO Joe Fiero says unlike most wireless broadband systems that utilize a copper cable-based data line to connect them to the Internet, NuTel uses fiber optic cable as the system "backhaul," providing a minimum throughput of 45 Mbps, offering plenty of bandwidth for future growth. It will also offer proprietary network VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) that allows subscribers to make digital voice telephone calls over the system.

Fiero says NuTel expects to offer 192/192 kbps Internet connectivity for $14.99 a month, 1.5/1.5 mbps for $34.99, and a bundled Internet and unlimited digital voice calling product at $59.99 per month.

In hilly terrains like El Dorado County, wireless faces a major technological challenge since it requires a clear, unobstructed line of sight to reach end users. Not NuTel's "mesh" system it's deploying in conjuction with Santa Clara-based SkyPilot Networks, which Fiero says is based on a "close spaced node topology that gives us the ability to saturate the coverage area."

Given the many underserved areas of El Dorado that are clearly within NuTel's stated target market such as parts of Placerville, Garden Valley, Camino, Pollock Pines, Pleasant Valley and Mosquito, I asked Fiero when NuTel would be deploying in these areas. Unfortunately despite their starkly underserved status with no broadband services, Fiero didn't have good news.

Turns out parts of Folsom and El Dorado Hills are running short of DSL connections from AT&T (AT&T isn't confirming this) and NuTel will roll out there first, eventually making its way east up Highway 50. Fiber optic cable is also more readily available in Folsom and EDH at this time, Fiero explains.

Memo to Mr. Fiero: fiber is also available farther up the hill. Those who have been stuck on the wrong side of the digital divide surrounding Placerville will surely be watching with interest to see if NuTel can get its system off the ground on the western edge of the county during this initial deployment and if it lives up to its stated mission of providing service in underserved areas where broadband is not available.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The world's going broadband, but El Dorado County still stuck with dial up

The days of dial-up Internet access are nearly done as global demand for broadband booms according to research firm IDC, reports Reuters in this USA Today story.

Worldwide high-speed, or broadband, subscriptions will almost double in five years to nearly 400 million in 2010 from about 205 million in 2005, fueled by cheaper prices, increased customer choice and the growth of devices and applications built for the use of broadband, IDC said in a study made public Monday.

For many El Dorado County residents, however, the reports of the demise of dial up Internet access will provoke rueful laughter as they continue to struggle with sluggish dial up connections with no indications of relief for the foreseeable.

Monday, June 12, 2006

AT&T customer service lacking

There have been complaints about poor quality telecom service from AT&T such as long service outages and noisy or crossed lines and for too many in El Dorado County, no wire line broadband Internet service.

Apparently customer service in this day of voice mail jail and transfers to busy signals and outsourced customer service reps half a world away in India leaves something to be desired as well. Carol Anne Ogdin, a Placerville correspondent of this blog, shares this account of her recent experience:
Well, now that SBC has absorbed AT&T and assumed that venerable name, they're engaging in the same brand destruction they've been perpetrating on themselves through previous name changes. Each new name change brings progressively worse service.

Today, I tried to call AT&T to talk about my bill and my business DSL service. After slaving through their "voice mail jail" and listening to numerous self-promoting (and lengthy) announcements...then assuring me my call was really "important" to them, I was informed by the voice mail I'd be answered by the next available agent. Whereupon, I was connected directly to a permanent "busy" signal.

I tried again. same result. A third time...same result.

On the fourth try, I actually was informed I was now in the queue, and "an agent would be with me in a moment." Three minutes later, I reached a human who actually informed me she was incompetent to help me, but she'd take my telephone number and name and have someone call me a day or two!

Fifteen minutes wasted, just so I can leave a callback number! Gee, most companies have automated equipment to take voice mail, why not AT&T? This is how AT&T (nee SBC, nee Southwestern Bell) wants to treat its customers: Mere irritants to their single-minded focus on making money to fatten executive wallets.

I wonder if I'll ever get a call back.

Oh, how I wish I had a choice for telephone service! I'd be happy to pay anyone else for customer service, accurate bills, reliable service...and true broadband, not some inadequate satellite-based substitute.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

AT&T, Comcast expanding, upgrading in greater Sacramento area

The Sacramento Business Journal reports AT&T and Comcast are gearing up to spend billions on expanding and upgrading their networks in the greater Sacramento region -- which ostensibly includes El Dorado County where both companies have a presence.

AT&T said it will invest up to $1 billion to "push fiber closer to our customers' homes," according to company spokesman Gordon Diamond.

Meanwhile, Comcast, which had previously positioned itself as an entertainment company, is going into full telco mode. Comcast plans to launch digital phone service across central California from Chico to Fresno as early as first-quarter 2007, said spokeswoman Erica Smith.

Readers of this blog will recall that AT&T spokeswoman Vanessa Smith told the Sacramento Bee in late April that AT&T is committed to expanding broadband offerings in El Dorado County in 2006. As for Comcast, the company isn't saying whether it has any plans to expand its rather limited footprint in the county this year or next.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Another supervisor candidate calls for better Internet access in El Dorado County

Yet another of five candidates in the District 4 county supervisor race says he wants to expand Internet access in El Dorado County. Alarm company owner Todd Schwenk wants Internet "easily accessible to rural residents," according to today's Mountain Democrat. (The newspaper does not provide the article on line).

As with fellow candidate Wendell Smith who took out a full page ad in the paper on Friday calling for the county to "add DSL and cell service" to improve the county's business environment, I applaud the goal. But specifics are needed, not just appealing rhetoric. How do these candidates propose to accomplish their goals and how quickly? There's a longstanding surplusage of talk on this issue and a glaring deficit of action.

Many El Dorado County residents are outraged and desperate for broadband access ASAP after being stuck with dial up modem access that was state of the art technology when Bill Clinton was starting his first term as president but impractical for today's Internet. Read some of their comments accompanying their signatures on this on line petition calling on AT&T to upgrade its infrastructure to fiber optic or divest its holdings in the county and you'll get a sense of what I'm talking about.

My concern is politicians exploiting the genuine frustrations of these folks through sloganeering merely for short term political gain with no follow through. A concrete plan of action from these or any other supervisorial candidates -- if there's a runoff after Tuesday's election -- would go a long way to alleviate my concerns.

Seen any service improvements lately?

Readers of this blog should recall AT&T's promise several weeks ago in Bob Walters' Sacramento Bee column to expand broadband Internet access in El Dorado County this year. But is the big telco following through? What about the quality of your phone service? Has it gotten better?

If you've recently been offered wire line broadband service where there was none before or you've noticed better quality and reliabilty for voice service, click on "Post a comment" and tell others so we can determine if AT&T is matching its words with actions.

You don't need to provide your name and address, but a general location such as "2000 block of El Dorado Road" would be informative.

Telcos pocketed $200B in rate charges and taxpayer subsidies but failed to deliver promised broadband network, author claims

  • By 2006, 86 million households should have been rewired with a fiber optic wire, capable of 45 Mbps, in both directions. -- read the promises.
  • The public subsidies for infrastructure were pocketed. The phone companies collected over $200 billion in higher phone rates and tax perks, about $2000 per household
E-book, $200 Billion Broadband Scandal.

Friday, June 02, 2006

El Dorado supe candidate calls for broadband, wireless expansion: Where's the beef?

Wendell Smith, a candidate for the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors, ran a full page ad in today's Mountain Democrat newspaper that lays out his campaign platform. Under the "Strengthen business" plank, Smith calls for the county to "add DSL and cell service."

It's a laudable goal, but is it meaningful or just more election sloganeering from another do nothing politician trolling for votes on the eve of next week's election? I'm admittedly skeptical and lean toward the latter.

Why? I sent Smith email several months ago soon after he declared his candidacy and was profiled in the Mountain Democrat. Smith told the newspaper El Dorado County needs reliable high speed Internet services. I let him know about the on line petition drive urging AT&T to upgrade its aging copper wire based system to fiber optic -- which would support Smith's purported goal of expanding broadband Internet access in El Dorado County -- or to divest its holdings in the county and let someone else do the job.

I didn't even got the courtesy of a response. I wonder if Smith even cares about the concerns of the 160 El Dorado County residents who signed the petition to date?

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Comcast going telco?

Most El Dorado County residents are likely aware that Comcast has a somewhat limited presence in the county and has traditionally offered TV programming, describing itself as an entertainment provider.

Now the big cable company could be morphing into a telco, going head to head with AT&T and Verizon. Comcast COO Steve Burke told the “D: All Things Digital” conference in Carlsbad California that within five years, Comcast will be primarily providing meat and potatoes wire line telecommunications services: digital voice and Internet access. Burke told the conference that Comcast expects to have 25 million Internet and voice accounts, significantly larger than its current base of 21.5 million video subscribers.

Click here for the report in Multichannel News.
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