Thursday, April 02, 2009

Greensboro in the bottom three: A call to action for city council and economic developers

[Correction: This title of this post refers to three cities affected. The number is four: Greensboro, Rochester, Austin and San Antonio.]

Who says Greensboro isn't unique? Thanks to Time Warner Cable (TWC) we are about to have a distinction reserved for only three other U.S. cities: We will soon be a place where TWC charges you for how much internet you use.

Greensboro subscribers to Time Warner Cable's internet service currently, like other cities, pay a flat rate for broadband access, but thanks to TWC's new CEO, Glenn Britt, Greensboro will soon find itself saddled with a nearly one-of-a-kind competitive economic disadvantage. Under Britt's plan, Greensboro's TWC customers could spend "potentially $100 or more extra" (MyFox8) for monthly Internet access. Downloading a Netflix or Hulu movie "could cost $1 to $4 more".

According to Business Week, Greensboro will be the Guinea Pig for TWC's attempt to "upend a longstanding pricing strategy among Internet service providers." This is a serious affront to Greensboro's economic viability and demands all hands on deck.

If ever Greensboro was serious about inspiring innovation, attracting creative young people and fostering prosperity in industries of the future, it must recognize that impeding access to broadband internet in a way like only three other U.S. cities is a big, bold, speedy move to the bottom. It is the modern equivalent of being one of only a few cities where citizens must pay a fee for every mile they drive. Nobody would move to such a place. No business would expand to such a place. No energetic college student is going to stay in such a place after graduating.

This move demands swift and decisive action from Greensboro's leaders. This cannot be met with genteel, sleepy contemplation. Here is what Greensboro's leadership should begin doing today:


1. Review Time Warner's Franchise Agreement: The first thing to determine is what happens if the original signatory to the agreement (Time Warner) transfers the service operations, as they have done, to another entity (the recently spun-off stand alone Time Warner Cable). Does the city have room to renegotiate the franchise agreement since it is no longer dealing with the original franchisee?

2. Determine if this change is justified and allowable According to generic franchise agreements (I have a request in to the City for a copy of the specific agreement), the cable franchisee must meet certain pricing and technological guidelines. According to a TWC spokesperson on a WGHP video segment last night (I cannot find it online), TWC says it needs to institute this new pricing to keep up with demands on its infrastructure. TWC should be made to come before City Council and demonstrate that that is true. Just as traffic engineers present to council empirical data that shows car traffic versus road capacity, the provisioning of broadband internet relies on technology that also utilizes empirical data to measure traffic and capacity. City Council should ask to see to their satisfaction that TWC's reasons for its actions are, in fact, legitimate.

3. Ask/Require That TWC Postpone Implementation: If allowed by the franchise agreement, City Council should direct the City Attorney to advise TWC not to go forward with this new pricing until the City has had ample time to make the above inquiries. If the City cannot make such a demand, it should request that TWC not go forward until the City has had a chance to explore the issue.

4. Get Serious About Municipal WiFi. (Municipal WiFi: "Turning an entire city into a Wireless Access Zone, with the ultimate goal of making wireless access to the Internet a universal service."). This has come up before. Some city council members have responded that they think this is the kind of thing that should be left to the private sector. We see what that has earned us.

In this day and age, broadband internet access is critical infrastructure. It is no different than roads. Recognizing opportunity in adversity, Greensboro should begin serious efforts to become a thoroughly modern city and, instead of being one of the bottom three for internet access, catapult itself into the top ten. This is not pie in the sky, it is a serious proposal ripe for a city serious about economic development. It is within our grasp; and it's not just for the big boys. It has come to fruition in cities like Corpus Christi, TX, Saint Cloud, FL and Tempe, AZ, where some of the networks biggest fans are police and firefighters who use it to better respond to crises. Even rural Greene County, NC has implemented remarkably successful public wifi.

The cost of such an endeavor appears, at first glance, for a city the size of Greensboro, to be about $10M to $30M. We are preparing to spend $26M on a walking trail around downtown. These two things are not mutually exclusive, but really, which is the smarter investment? It need not be all our money either. Tech experts are noting that federal stimulus money is ripe to support municipal wifi projects. Greensboro is also covered by North Carlina's Golden Leaf Foundation, possibly giving us access to additional outside funding. There may well be other funding sources too. City Council needs to adopt a can-do attitude, avoid looking for excuses and proactively try, with all its might, to make this happen.


1. Lobby Time Warner Cable. Put whatever resources you have at your disposal into convincing TWC that, while they have been a good corporate citizen, this action is an aggressive move on Greensboro's economic health. Convince them that not only is the macroeconomic climate unfavorable for this kind of experiment, but that Greensboro, still trying to recover from a decade of the death of old-world industry; Greensboro, with one of its big economic hopes trimmed and delayed and; Greensboro, with unemployment at 11% and climbing is not the place for TWC to try this experiment.

2. Lobby Verizon/Others With Better Technology. Aggressively lobby companies like Verizon to look at Greensboro as a market for their next generation Fiber Optic Internet Service (FOIS). It is faster than TWC's internet access and carries unlimited capacity for all practical purposes. It is already available in other markets. Greensboro would eat it up.


Anonymous said...

TW does this and I go to DSL.

Dave said...

what dsl is available in the area?

Ticker said...

If you have Verizon, which I see on line that you do, switch to that and bundle your service of telephone, cable and HSDSL . It is a bargin.
The other alternative for TV viewers is to switch to Dish or Direct. I did here in Texas and love it. There are also other groups such as AT&T that offer cable now as well as DSL to it customers. Not as cheap as Verizon but works well.

Fortunately most places in towns the size of G'boro have more than one service as an option since the deregulation that occurred in Texas when Bush was Governor. People were tired of being held prisoner by telephone companies that owned maybe 100 miles of lines and could charge any rate they wished. Same went with electrical and gas. Now we have a choice . When one raises the rates switch. It won't happen in NC that I can see anytime in the near future since the utilities have the reigning party in their pockets.

Roch101 said...

Thanks, Ticker. As far as I am aware though, Verizon only serves Greensboro as a cell phone provider.

BrianR said...

Time Warner now has a state franchise. Once another group applies to "compete" with TW in Greensboro, such as AT&T, it is likely they will cancel any agreements with your municipality. If they haven't already. This is what TW did in Chapel Hill as of March 31. Please call your town manager and ask for answers. This loss of local control is the result of a state cable franchise law pass almost two years ago. Research NC Senate bill 1004. It would prevent all muni , like Greensboro, from providing broadband making you more dependant on TW.

Roch101 said...

Hi Brian,

TWC has not yet ended their franchise with Greensboro nor applied for one in Greensboro from the state. But their agreement with Greensboro ends this October and your point is essentially correct, that for all practical purposes, the City of Greensboro has no effective regulatory control.


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