Comcast-Backed Lobbyist Insists Seattle Doesn't Want Faster, Cheaper Broadband

from the you'll-take-what-we-give-you-and-like-it dept

For much of the last decade, Seattle has explored the idea of building its own ultra-fast broadband network. Most of that motivation was fueled by the sub-standard service provided in the region by regional telco Qwest (now CenturyLink), which in turn resulted in regional cable operator Comcast not working very hard. After scrapping several fiber plans and shuttering its Wi-Fi network, Seattle last year announced it was working on a new 1 Gbps plan with the help of Gigabit Squared. Gigabit Squared calls itself a “digital economic development corporation” that promised Seattle residents last summer they’d “bring limitless possibilities to Seattle” in the form of 1 Gbps broadband connections.

The effort didn’t turn out particularly well, with Seattle suddenly scrapping the project, after Gigabit Squared failed to do much if any work or pay $52,250 owed to the city for city labor. As such, Gigabit Seattle dies with a whimper amid the quiet resignation of a Gigabit Squared co-founder, leaving Seattle in the same spot it has been for years: relying on incumbent broadband providers with absolutely no interest in competing on price.

Bad business plans are bad business plans, and while there are many examples of community broadband efforts succeeding (from Chattanooga to the public-private efforts of Google Fiber), the incumbent broadband industry simply loves to make sure they celebrate implosions like Seattle’s latest as proof it’s futile to push back against entrenched duopolies.

Right on cue, enter Ron Main of Comcast-backed cable lobbying group Broadband Communications Association of Washington, who in an editorial in the Seattle Times tries to convince Seattleites that relying on anyone other than Comcast was a fool’s errand, and that the services Comcast already offers should be good enough for anyone:

…Comcast offers a 105 megabits-per-second (Mbps) download speed across its entire service area in Seattle and Washington state. Despite this widespread availability of high-speed broadband, residential use of this service is low. Only 5 percent of residents currently subscribe to this service, according to the company.

Omitted, of course, is that because Comcast sees no serious competition in the city (CenturyLink struggles to provide most users 6 Mbps on DSL, much less 100 Mbps), they’re allowed to charge rates that make those speeds unappealing. Comcast does, for example, offer 505 Mbps in some markets — but at $400 a month, plus a steep early termination fee higher than $1,000, as well as a $250 activation fee and a $250 installation fee. Compare that to 1 Gbps service from Google Fiber at $70 a month and no fees. Still, Main continues with what has become a broadband-industry mantra of sorts, insisting that because nobody is buying existing expensive offerings (when they’re available at all), users simply must not want them:

The fact is residential demand for speeds greater than what is now available is very limited. Most people take service around 20 Mbps to 50 Mbps. This is fast enough for typical residential uses, from streaming movies and working from home to Skyping with family. Higher speeds of 1 to 10 gigabit-per-second service are available to local businesses and large institutions.

In other words, the broadband industry is doing good enough in the broadband industry’s humble opinion, and efforts to try and do better (or perhaps — gasp — exceed expectations) are unnecessary. Comcast has spent much of the last year pretending that the United States leads the world in broadband, and when you combine that sort of raw, blistering denial with can’t do attitude and regulatory capture, you get the kind of painful mediocrity the U.S. broadband industry is famous for.

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Comments on “Comcast-Backed Lobbyist Insists Seattle Doesn't Want Faster, Cheaper Broadband”

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45 Comments
Arsik Vek (profile) says:

So, I have Comcast’s Performance internet plan, which (I am told) accords me 25mbps. I have, at no point, ever breached 3mbps. Why in the name of all that is good, would I want to pay them more money so that they can fail to deliver a greater percentage of what I pay for? If they actually delivered 25mbps, I would probably take one of the many, many calls they irritatingly make to me asking me to upgrade to their 50mbps plan.

ltlw0lf (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Just checking… are you sure you’re not confusing bytes with bits

Doubtful. Most companies advertise Mbps and most speedcheck sites do the same. Even so, most companies also advertise “up-to” and from personal experience, my ISP advertised “up-to” 50 Mbps for my $73.00 a month connection fee, and I am lucky if I get 15 Mbps sustained (I just got 18.88 Mbps when I checked now.) I am lucky if I get above 10 Mbps at night or on the weekend…oversubscribed lines and all (remember, cable is a shared medium.) For the first couple milliseconds, I get 50 Mbps, but then it drops way down. Most of the speedcheck sites show that my connection is average for my ISP, at 15 Mbps, even though they promise up to 50 Mbps.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

This could be down to the con of ‘to-node broadband’. This is the concept that lots of residences share a node (in some cases, as high as a 1:500 node:residence ratio). What they’re offering is the to-node speed, which is then shared amongst the residences attached to that node – thus, you’re payiong for 50Mbps, but are only recieving 15Mbps.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I don’t have any proof but a friend of mine used to work for century link in the network department. A lot of times they would over load the support bandwidth with the number of people. As an example, you are paying for 50Mbs and they have a 1Gbs network in that area. They will load 60 customers on that with the 50Mbs since they “usually won’t” all be pulling 50Mbs at the same time or 3Gbs. But when the customers are pulling that much, then you are only getting 15-20Mbs as the system balances the load. I found out in my area, nearly everyone is on century link. I went with Comcast and usually will get my advertised speed that I am paying for since the area isn’t densely populated.

Derek Kerton (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

As a telecom guy, I can tell you that they ALL do this. But it’s not as nefarious as you think. That’s just how network planning is done, and it’s not just done that way by greedy corporates, but that’s how university researchers would suggest networks be built.

Network capacity is always designed based on expected average use. It is not built to handle the peak load of each user using their full individual capacity. This is just like roads planning, hallway planning in buildings, seating planning in theaters, etc.

To build based on peak load would waste resources, and the price of the service would normally go up as a result.

Now, that said, it is a marketing choice of the ISPs if they claim you can get 50mbps, when they always oversubscribe the networks. However, you’ll probably find an asterisk with an “up to” and a “Best effort” disclaimer.

PS. to the guy getting slow Internet, you should consider buying a DOCSIS 3 modem online, and installing it yourself. Two reasons: if you currently have a DOCSIS 2 modem, you may get better performance from the more recent technology, EVEN if your provider uses DOCSIS 2. Second, most of us pay a $7/mo lease for our cable modem, where if you buy it once for $90, you can save money.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

“it is a marketing choice of the ISPs if they claim you can get 50mbps, when they always oversubscribe the networks. However, you’ll probably find an asterisk with an “up to” and a “Best effort” disclaimer.”

Yes, this is a core of the issue. Asterisks or not, I consider this lying.

The honest thing to do is to advertise the swing: your connection speed will range from x to y, with an average peak-time speed of z.

Gabriel J. Michael (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

Seems to me the main complaint from this article is not delivering slower than advertised speeds, but the claim that there is no demand for faster service.

That claim is based on pricing in a non-competitive market. We have no idea what demand would look like in a truly competitive market.

If you give me monopolistic control over anything, I can make demand disappear overnight by raising prices high enough.

ltlw0lf (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

PS. to the guy getting slow Internet, you should consider buying a DOCSIS 3 modem online, and installing it yourself. Two reasons: if you currently have a DOCSIS 2 modem, you may get better performance from the more recent technology, EVEN if your provider uses DOCSIS 2. Second, most of us pay a $7/mo lease for our cable modem, where if you buy it once for $90, you can save money.

I have a brand new Motorola SURFboard SB6121 modem I bought for $70. Didn’t help much.

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 False Economies and Cutting Corners (to: Derek Kerton, #23).

I’ve done some “costing-out” exercises. What they come down to is that the center of the network has virtually unlimited economies of scale. The basic underlying components, such as a length of optical fiber, or a transistor on a chip, switch at T-bit rates or better, and there simply aren’t that many places where you can assemble a million people to use the hardware. I should add that truly long-distance telecommunications is brutally competitive, and so is telecommunications access for data centers. It is only in the quasi-monopolistic world of domestic Internet Service Providers that people spout such casuistry as the justification of under-provisioning for reasons of economy.

I’ve made rough estimates of the cost of a big switching center, on the assumption that the telecommunications company takes a leaf from Google’s server center design practices, and sets up a massively redundant array of small-office-grade switches, rather than commissioning a special switch from Cisco (). Small-office-grade switches can be priced from catalogs, even if the telecommunications company does not follow Google’s practice of buying discarded desktop computers. The kinds of figures I keep coming up with, for everything upstream from the subscriber loop, are on the order of two and three dollars a month per subscriber. If you are in the position of being paid four dollars per subscriber, and getting to keep whatever you save from that sum, it might be rational to under-provision the network, but that is only your local rationality operating.

() It has been demonstrated that you can sell five-hundred-dollar toilet seats to the Air Force, but that proves nothing.

The main costs of telecommunications have to do with individual subscriber loops, because those are not shared, and one might add, with the provision of right-of-way and ducts for the cable, which, in most cases, is at least ten times as expensive as the cable itself. Your analogy of highways is profoundly false. A ten-lane highway costs vastly more than a dirt road, but an ordinary optical cable is already the equivalent of a ten-lane highway. The limiting factor is not the cable’s capacity, but the number of people it can be routed to because they live close enough to each other.

There is such a thing as false economy. For example, if you were working for a Chinese subcontractor making I-Pads, you might become very insistent on the economic importance of paying the little Chinese girls twenty-two cents an hour instead of twenty-three cents. However, from the standpoint of Apple, that is a false economy. When the story gets out, complete with video of one the the girls being whipped for not working fast enough, it will inevitably do far more economic damage to Apple than was ever saved on wages.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

Your web browser’s download speed report isn’t a reliable indicator of your actual link speed, and you shouldn’t use it for that.

That’s what Arsik Vek might be doing though, and I’m sure lots of other people. And it is a reliable enough indicator of how fast you can actually download the file. If every time you go to download something you’re getting, let’s say 2-3MB/s, that is probably your real world effective connection speed. If sometimes you get 200KB and sometimes 3MB then you can’t conclude anything.

The real problem is taking 3 somethings per second and comparing it to 25 somethings per second without realizing they’re different somethings.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

People may do it, but it’s wrong. It’s affected by too many things that have nothing to do with network speed, including what other programs or services you have running at the same time.

A larger sample, such as noticing the speed over many uses over time, does tell you how fast you can download things in that browser, on that machine as it’s currently configured — but that still only hints at your actual connection speed. It doesn’t measure it.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Re:

A larger sample, such as noticing the speed over many uses over time, does tell you how fast you can download things in that browser, on that machine as it’s currently configured — but that still only hints at your actual connection speed. It doesn’t measure it.

But that is a more useful measurement than “actual connection speed”. I don’t care if my actual connection speed is 100 Mbps if the rate at which I can download stuff is 24. Other than maybe that points to a problem with my computer or browser that may be solvable.

Arthur Moore (profile) says:

Typo?

Sorry if I’m a bit confused, but when you switched from 105Mbps to 505 it threw me off. Those cost of the faster connection make it seem like it’s not a typo, but following right after the quote about 105Mbps was a little confusing.

Still, wan’t to bet that all of those service plans are “up to…” and don’t include any guarantees about speed or downtime?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

If we just keep waiting lobbyists will make sure nothing ever happens. No, we need to participate in the political process and force regulators to start repealing all of their monopolistic laws. Yes, this won’t be popular with regulators that enjoy nice campaign contributions and revolving door favors in exchange for scamming us over. But we must be more aggressive in letting them know that they are supposed to serve us, the public. If we let them then they will continue to step all over us.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Well of course people don’t need or want faster net connections for reasonable prices, why, the internet worked just fine for years with a 56K connection didn’t it?

The idea that faster speed opens the door to new and innovative businesses and services, services that would be incomprehensible and considered impossible at current connections speeds, is nothing more than fool’s gold, simply a trick by those dirty pirates(since the only reason anyone would ever need a faster connection is for piracy obviously), and should be dismissed as such.

/s

Just Sayin' says:

unrealistic

“Compare that to 1 Gbps service from Google Fiber at $70 a month and no fees”

This is an unrealistic comparison, as Google is pretty much eating the costs of setting up this network against future ad and search revenue increases. Their pricing has nothing to do with the actual costs related in offering such a service in the given area, just a nice number that makes them look good. You only have to look at the current costs of peering alone, and you can understand that the service makes no real economic sense in the US at the price they are offering it. Google is playing loss leader with this service, and they have billions of dollars to play with to do it.

It should also be pointed out that last mile costs for fiber to the home is still quite high, these guys for Seattle were looking for $350 per install (wiped if you signed up for a year). If you look at costing concepts like:

http://www.ictregulationtoolkit.org/en/toolkit/notes/PracticeNote/2974

You will see that the costs to actually physically set up the network are very high, and are unlikely to be recouped in any decent time. Also, the “public” networks run the risk of ending up like every other “public” service, under funded, under maintained, with expensive labor and slow processes to maintain the infrastructure. The collective governments are having a hard time to keep clean water running and roads from crumbling, handing them another huge investment with long term ongoing maintenance costs is NOT a really good idea.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Google Fiber

Unsurprising, the current ISP’s have got to be panicking, faced for the first time in a long while with some actual competition, I imagine they’re throwing money around like crazy to shut Google’s efforts down before they’re faced with the choice of ‘provide decent service at a decent price’, or ‘lose all your customers to a company willing to offer decent service’.

Just Sayin' says:

Re: Re: Google Fiber

Actually, they are facing disloyal competition, Google taking billions of cash to “buy” a market out from under the incumbent providers isn’t going to do anyone any good in the long run. That’s the sort of action that gets anti-trust regulators hard on the job!

(you can insert the Kent Brockman ant overlords image here if you need to).

Anonymous Coward says:

Lets also not forget

Utah Bill Would Prevent Regional Fiber Networks From Growing

http://tech.slashdot.org/story/14/02/05/2230226/utah-bill-would-prevent-regional-fiber-networks-from-growing

and

Kansas To Nix Expansion of Google Fiber and Municipal Broadband

From the bill:
Except with regard to unserved areas, a municipality may not, directly or indirectly:
(1) Offer to provide to one or more subscribers, video, telecommunications or broadband service; or
(2) purchase, lease, construct, maintain or operate any facility for the purpose of enabling a private business or entity to offer, provide, carry, or deliver video, telecommunications or broadband service to one or more subscribers.”

http://tech.slashdot.org/story/14/01/31/0155202/kansas-to-nix-expansion-of-google-fiber-and-municipal-broadband

Though, thanks to public backlash

Kansas Delays Municipal Broadband Ban

http://yro.slashdot.org/story/14/02/04/198206/kansas-delays-municipal-broadband-ban

Nick (profile) says:

Re: Utopia, pffft

Hah, I came in to these comments specifically to point out both Google’s attempt to install fiber into provo (the next city south), and also the Utopia project: (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Utah_Telecommunication_Open_Infrastructure_Agency).

Unfortunately, the actual city that could make use of fiber connection – Salt Lake – has adamantly refused to opt into either Utopia, nor did it lobby for Google’s fiber. And now, with this law, legislators are acting as if fiber optic infrastructure is a disease, trying to quarantine its spread.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Utopia, pffft

acting as if fiber optic infrastructure is a disease

It is… to the current, entrenched ISP services who would either have to upgrade their services while downgrading their prices, or die off and be replaced, and you can bet the politicians they’ve boug- I mean ‘made generous donations to in the past’ see it just the same.

Mark (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Utopia, pffft

ANY bi-directional speed over 2mb is stupid. a waste of time, money, equipment, BANDWIDTH and effort, to residential cutomers. UPSTREAM is for keep alives, packet re-requests and page refresh. residential customers dont send out JACK, it’s all coming in! so what if “uptopia” can give you a ton of worthless upload speed? BIG DEAL! you are listening to the used car salesman of the internet! even governor herbert referred to utopia as a rat hole on his radio program. nearly ALL call centers are operated with DSL internet, even the companies that sell other forms, like cable, radio, fiber, run the business on DSL. When time warner went down, it was the ENTIRE country, (except thier DSL call center) because it is a SHARED loop. what if our country was all TW. we would have been DARK for hours! dont ask the used car salesman what is the best car on the lot! he is DRIVING it, not selling it! over time, DSL wins, always

Droppo says:

stone age service

I just moved here from Houston and the difference I see in cable and Internet service is ridiculous. We feel like we are back in time somehow. We expected better in what is supposed to be a tech savvy part of the country. Home of Microsoft and Boeing! Comcast cable and internet are services I would have gotten in Houston eight years or ten years ago. When did things get better in Texas? As soon as competition was allowed in a Comcast dominated region. It really does feel like I am living in the past hearing people talk about the Comcast monopoly and poor service. The answer doesn’t have to be a local government controlled network though. Just letting other groups in like AT&T would help considerably. We switched to them as soon as we could and were much more pleased with internet but especially their UVerse cable service. They didn’t charge nearly as much and their cable box was actually a modern piece of equipment. I cringe every time I turnmy tv on here Iin Seattle. It’s embarrassing.

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