Big ISPs and Elections

Before you stop reading, this blog isn’t about party politics – the elections I am talking about are those where citizens vote on building a fiber optic network in their community. The incumbents don’t seem able to pass up the chance to turn an election their way when competition is put onto the ballot.

The latest example of this is the upcoming election on November 7 in Ft. Collins, Colorado. Voters in that community will be voting on whether to amend the city charter to allow the city to build and operate a fiber optic network in the city. Colorado law makes this elections mandatory, but I’ve seen other cities hold voluntary elections on the issue so that they are certain that the citizens are behind their efforts to build fiber. A positive vote in Ft. Collins would allow the city to take the next step to investigate if they want to build a fiber network in the city.

Ft. Collins is a community of 59,000 homes and Comcast and the other incumbent ISPs have spent over $200,000 so far in advertising against the ballot measure – a phenomenal amount of money spent on a local election and the most ever seen in Ft. Collins.

As is usual for fiber ballot initiatives, the incumbents are fighting against the passage of the measure by spreading lies and misinformation. For example, in Ft. Collins they are saying that voting for the measure would preclude the city from making other infrastructure upgrades for things like roads. In fact, this ballot measure just gives the city the legal authority to explore fiber and it’s likely that they would have another election to approve a bond measure if they decide to float a bond for fiber – a decision that would be some time in the future.

The misinformation being floated in Ft. Collins is tame compared to some of the other ways that incumbents have tried to stop fiber initiatives. In Lafayette Louisiana the combination of Cox and BellSouth (now AT&T) were extremely aggressive in trying to stop the fiber initiative (including filing several lawsuits to stop the effort). But prior to the election when fiber was going to be on the ballot they called every home in the community with a push poll that asked ludicrous questions about the fiber project. An alert citizen recorded the push poll and it can be found here. This takes 30 minutes to hear the whole thing, but if you are interested in the tactics the big ISPs use to fight it, this is well worth a listen. There are some amazing questions in this poll, and the gall of this push poll might have been what pushed the election to pre-fiber. In Louisiana the city needed to get more than a 65% yes on the fiber initiative, and due to a strong community effort the ballot measure passed easily.

I also remember a similar election in North St. Paul, Minnesota, a small community surrounded by the city of St. Paul. When the city put a fiber initiative on the ballot Comcast sent busloads of people to the city who went door-to-door to talk people out of voting for fiber. They deployed the usual misinformation campaign and scared a community that had a lot of elderly citizens into voting against the fiber initiative, which narrowly lost at the polls.

There was a similar lection recently in Longmont, Colorado. When the city first held a vote on the same ballot measure as Ft. Collins, the money from the big ISPs defeated the ballot measure. The ISPs won using a misinformation campaign that talked about how the fiber effort would raise taxes. But the citizens there really wanted fiber, and so they asked for a second vote and in the second election there was a massive grass-roots effort to inform the community about the facts. The fiber initiative on the second ballot won resoundingly and the city now has its fiber network.

There are several lessons to be learned from these ballot battles. First, the incumbents are willing to make a sizable investment to stop competition. But what they are spending, like the $200,000 in Ft. Collins, is a drop in the bucket compared to what they stand to lose. Second, they always attack fiber initiatives with misinformation, such as scaring people about higher taxes. They don’t fight by telling what a good job they are doing with broadband And finally, we’ve seen the ISP efforts be successful unless there is a strong grass-roots effort to battle against their lies. Cities are not allowed by law to take sides in ballot initiatives during an election cycle and must sit quietly on the sidelines. And so it’s up to citizens to take on the incumbents if they want fiber. The big ISPs will always outspend the pro-fiber side, but we’ve seen organized grass-roots efforts beat the big money almost every time.

How We Love to Hate the Large ISPs

Poor-customer-satisfaction-272x300I have read a number of articles lately that reminded me of the love / hate relationship that Americans generally have with the large ISPs. Here is a summary of some of these stories.

Americans Pay More for Less Bandwidth. The Open Technology Institute at the New American Foundation recently released its third annual report where it compared US broadband speeds and prices in 24 US cities and in cities around the world. This report shows that speeds have increased in US cities since 2012, but on a cost per megabit delivered most US cities still fall to the bottom of the comparative list. The broadband winner is Seoul where a gigabit of data costs $30 per month followed by Hong Kong and Tokyo at $37 and $39. Contrast this to Verizon FiOS where 500 Mbps costs $300. Very few places in the US outside of Google, some municipalities and some Independent telcos offer an affordable gigabit service.

One of the more interesting comparisons made by the report is comparing the cost for buying 25 Mbps connectivity. The most affordable place for this was London at $24 followed Seoul, Paris, Tokyo, Copenhagen and Prague. The cheapest US City is Kansas City at $41, due to competition with Google. The US cities with Verizon FioS came in around $50. The lowest price in a US City not served by a fiber provider is San Francisco at $58 per month. Most US cities are over well over $60. Not surprisingly, the larger municipal networks like Chattanooga and Lafayette LA are at the head of the US affordability list after Google. The US is also the only country that charges monthly fees for a cable modem and the cable modem customer spends over $100 per year for the cable modem.

The report went on to note that 75% of US customers who can get 25 Mbps service have only one service option. The report concluded that around the world that one thing that holds down landline data prices is significant competition with cellular data. For example, in much of the rest of the world the monthly data caps on cellular phone plans are up to 40 times higher than they are in the US. But our low data caps and the relatively slow speeds of our cellular data networks means that cellular is not a good substitute here for a landline connection.

Customers Continue to Rate Large ISPs Poorly. The results of the annual American Customer Service Satisfaction Survey was recently released and showed that satisfaction with large ISPs is still quite low and is getting worse. This is an annual poll of 70,000 consumers and asks about a wide swath of large businesses. The composite satisfaction with all large ISPs was at 63 on a scale of 100, down from 65 a year ago, and which puts the ISPs at the bottom of the list of all industries. Within those numbers, Verizon FiOS held steady at a rating of 71. Time Warner did the worst dropping from a rating of 63 in 2013 down to 54 this year. Comcast was not far behind dropping from 62 to 57. Century link is the only ISP that improved slightly and went from 64 to 65. Both Cox and Charter dropped 4 points in the last year.

Consumers felt slightly better about their cable TV service and that got a composite rating of 65 compared to the 63 for broadband, But that rating is down from a 68 a year ago.  The ratings were down for every major cable provider compared to 2013. The highest ratings for cable were 69 by DirectTV and AT&T U-verse, while the lowest rating was again Time Warner with a 56.

What is probably the most disheartening about these ratings is that they are dropping year over year. Consumers already rate ISPs and cable companies at the bottom of their satisfaction list across all industries. One would think that would prompt them to improve. And perhaps to some degree they are improving some since speeds are slowly getting faster. But overall satisfaction continues to drop. One might think that price has a lot to do with this, particularly for the cable TV business where there are hefty rate increases each year. But prices have also started to creep up for data and several of the major ISPs are now planning on raising data rates a little each year.

AT&T U-verse Told to Change Advertising. The national Advertising Division (NAD) told AT&T to modify the way they advertise  U-Verse data speeds. AT&T has widely advertised the product as offering up to 45 Mbps and NAB found that in many markets this speeds was either not available or not widely enough available to justify the claim. NAB is a division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus and monitors national advertising claims of all sorts. The NAD recommendations are not mandatory, but since big companies participate in the Better Business Bureau they generally take heed of NAD findings. NAD has made similar findings against CenturyLink in recent years.

I guess it’s really not surprising that customers rate the large ISPs so poorly when you consider some of their practices. Many of them use poorly trained contract installers who don’t put a good face on their company. Many of these companies are notorious for not showing up for scheduled appointments, which is something that a lot of consumers never get over. This year we heard several recordings from Comcast reps who would not let customers drop service. And there is the annual and persistent rate increases.