Small American Town Rejects Comcast Broadband

. . . While the FCC and AT&T claim everything is hunky dory

By Kieren McCarthy in San Francisco Dec 12, 2018 | Original article from The Register is here.

Just how much do you hate Comcast? Enough to spend $1 million of your own money to escape its clutches?

That was the question facing the small town of Charlemont, Massachusetts, which boasts just 1,300 residents and which, back in 2015, decided it wanted to install its own municipal broadband fiber network. Fast forward three years and lots of research and financial modeling, and the townsfolk were given a choice: take an offer from Comcast to rollout broadband and pay $450,000 for fast internet access, or build out a network themselves and pay more $1 million more.

Amazingly, the town voted – narrowly – in favor of raising their own taxes and pay for their own fiber network. Why? Well, aside from the fact that Comcast only promised to offer coverage of "up to 95 per cent" of their inhabitants, when the municipal broadband plan would offer blanket coverage, there was the fact that the town’s broadband committee calculated that the municipal option may end up being less expensive.

Pure internet access would cost between $50 and $105 from Comcast but between $80 and $100 for municipal – depending on what percentage of the town signs up. While that doesn’t account for Comcast’s magic fees – like its $11 a month modem "rental" – slower speed internet users could be tempted to go with Comcast. But an internet phone add-on would cost $23 a month municipal and between $26 and $48 a month for Comcast. And "triple play" – internet, phone and TV – would be $156-170 a month from Comcast but $142 for municipal.

One very big underlying issue underlying it all is that the town would own its network. And no one but no one trusts Comcast to do what it says.

Haters Gonna Hate

At the bottom of the cost-benefit analysis that the town created are three critical components:

  1. Comcast Customer Service – which the doc notes that Comcast was "voted the #15th Most Hated Company in America" this year and even took the top spot of "#1 Most Hated Company in America" the year before.

  2. Net neutrality has a mention: "Federal guarantees of network neutrality have been repealed, which allow internet service providers, such as Comcast, to prioritize certain content on their network and slow down or potentially block other content, such as competitive over-the-top TV services."

  3. Under "Less Control Over Network Buildout" that "under the Comcast option, the Comcast network would be built under a grant agreement between the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) and Comcast. Charlemont is not a party to this agreement and would not be directly involved in the oversight of the network build out."

Under the municipal approach the town will

"contract with WG+E and other firms to build and operate the municipal network . . . The town would also select the ISP and operator for the completed network… and the town would be able to switch vendors in the event of poor service or lower cost to the town."

The measure passed with 56 per cent rejecting Comcast’s offer and for the next 20 years, households in Charlemont will have to pay an average of $133 per household each year to cover the cost of the build out.

It’s a remarkable example of small-town America standing up to a corporate giant but it remains to be seen whether it acts as a template or a warning to other towns across the country. If nothing else, by putting all its work out there, Charlemont have given the US a blueprint for municipal networks. Comcast executives are going to be having crisis meetings over this one.

Meanwhile at the FCC and AT&T

Of course, while everyone else is desperately trying to get out from under the corporate giants, the FCC and the biggest giant of all are assuring everyone that all is fine.

"The FCC just approved policies today that would provide more funding for rural broadband in return for providers delivering 25/3 speeds," the FCC’s press guy pointedly email us.

The federal regulator decided today to "update the Connect America Fund programs providing support for small, rural providers . . . to deliver faster broadband speeds and expanded coverage in rural areas," the release argues. "In return for additional funding, the FCC will require providers to expand availability of service offering downloads of at least 25/3 Mbps service, compared to the current 10/1 Mbps standard."

In other words, do exactly what WISPA CEO was complaining about: use government money to boost current offerings to the "new" broadband standard.

And AT&T? Well, it used the news today to announce the rollout of its fiber network to 12 new areas – all of them, of course, in metropolitan areas and not a rural area in sight.

Which is, of course, why Charlemont decided to raise its own taxes to escape Comcast; why WISPA is frustrated that the big boys are being funded to compete with its members; and why the FCC’s hands-off policy approach is contributing to, rather than fixing, the problem.