David Rodeback's Blog
Local Politics and Culture, National Politics,
Wednesday, June 21, 2006
Broadband: Hindsight and AFCNet's ISPs
Is the ISPs' tempest at last week's American Fork City Council meeting and a related hearing too little, too late? What could they have done sooner?
Note: This post has been edited since its original posting. There is only one substantive change: I have removed a couple of lines describing the demeanor of one ISP owner at the City Council meeting. I think individual behavior at a public meeting is fair game for comment, but in this case I have embraced a reader's objection and decided that in this case, describing it does not serve my larger theme.
They say hindsight is 20/20, but I am skeptical. I could believe 20/30 or 20/40, perhaps. My own hindsight in some things is probably a lot better than my actual, uncorrected vision. According to my optometrist, the latter is more like 20/furlong or 20/parsec. It is only through the miracles of modern technology that the lenses in my glasses are less than a quarter-inch thick. But hindsight itself still is not 20/20.
That said, let's take up the topic of American Fork's municipal broadband, the discussions of it at last week's City Council meeting and the preceding hearing, and the Internet Service Providers (ISPs).
In my voluminous recent commentary on AFCNet and municipal broadband generally, I have said little about the ISPs which inhabit the system. State law prevents the City from being a retailer of Internet services; the big telecom companies spent something like a billion dollars a while back, lobbying state legislatures to pass such laws. So the City provides the infrastructure and the ISPs provide the retail service, hosting, advertising, and so forth. The ISPs collect customer payments and pass on a healthy chunk of the money to the City -- at least they're supposed to. Some of them aren't very good at either collecting the money or sending the City its share.
Understandably, representatives from most or all of the ISPs were at the hearing and Council meeting on June 13. None was at the prior work session when things were discussed, despite that being a public, officially noticed meeting, too. What the ISP guys had to say was interesting but raised some serious questions in my mind. The general tenor of my questions is, Where were the ISPs three months ago -- or five, or seven, or 12, or 24? Given the troubles they were seeing even two years ago and more, why didn't they act more aggressively to avert the problems? And is their current tempest too little, too late?
The ISPs complained that evening of these obstacles:
I'm sure there are at least two sides to each of these issues, and reality is more complex than my summary, but generally I'm with the ISPs, here. I think all four of these are serious problems. But are the ISPs not joining the battle rather late?
Here's Where the Hindsight Comes In
Three of the four problems the ISPs report are years old. Given that these obstacles have been interfering with their livelihood for years, I wonder why the ISPs didn't do at least the following a long time ago, escalating from one step to another as each successive step failed to lead to a solution:
Perhaps most or all of these would have been fruitless under the previous administration. Assuming, arguendo, that this is true, I wonder: Why did the ISPs not do the following between August 2005 (the beginning of serious campaigning by candidates for City offices) and January of this year (the new administration's first month)?
Five and a half months into the new administration, the ISPs' efforts are still too little, and they are quite likely too late. If the City sells the system -- which I believe is not yet a fait accompli (first a little Latin, now a little French) -- it's likely that the buyer will not renew the ISPs' contracts when the time comes, and they will be out of business. If the City decides to retain ownership of the system, the ISPs which pay their bills may survive for a while, but the others likely will not. (There's something appropriately Darwinian about that.)
Please note that my thinking that the ISPs have been out to a multiyear lunch politically does not mean I think they have failed in other respects. Quite the opposite. For example, my own ISP, AFConnect, has put my old DSL provider, AT&T, absolutely to shame in the area of customer service. In fact, the customer service has been the best I've seen anywhere in a long time. And my Internet connection does the same, both in speed and reliability.
Stay tuned. My foresight is worse than my hindsight, but next time I'll tell you what I think, hope, and/or wish, where AFCNet's future is concerned. I'll also grapple with temptation to offer a few relevant details about some of that bad City staff work I carped about the other day.
David Bradshaw (Founder of ISP UTwire, who sold off his customers a year ago) comments (6/23/06):
I did almost all of the points you have listed in your blog. You make it sound like we didn't do almost everything you have listed.
One of the many problems I faced as an ISP was trying to get the city to do anything. Mayor Barratt left us a legacy, [Chief of Staff] Melanie [Marsh] and [Budget Officer] Cathy [Jensen], and Mayor Thompson has not been willing to get rid of this legacy. To get anything done is next to impossible, because nobody can decide on anything. They all just run you in circles until you give up. The current framework that ISPs are forced to work in is flawed in many ways and deserves a longer post.
If you ask somebody a question and they say, "I don't know the answer to that, can I get back to you in a week?" that is another way of saying, "I am keeping you in the dark and stalling until you give up." If I had an employee say, "I don't know the answer to that, can I get back to you in a week?" I would say, "Nope, you are fired. I will give you the reason a week from now."
I have just one question, why won't a city fire anybody? You won't hurt their feelings; maybe you will force them try to make a living in the real world.
I hope I don't sound hostile.
David Rodeback replies (6/23/06):
I would have been stunned if most or all of the ISPs didn't do some of the things I listed in my first list, at least. Some did more than others, but I'm pretty certain that they all stopped short of at least two or three steps on that second list. I haven't comprehensively polled the members of the City Council and Mayor, or each of the ISPs, but some of the things I listed I would certainly have heard of or seen anyway, if they had happened.
David Bradshaw comments (6/23/06):
Did this: "Complain in writing to the system's manager at the City, supplying actual data, specific references to contract language, etc."
Did this: "Complain in writing to his supervisor (whom they are painting as the villain in much of this)."
Did this: "Complain in writing to the next level: all five City Councilors and the Mayor simultaneously." We ( Tom and I ) went around [Chief of Staff] Melanie [Marsh], and presented directly to city council some ideas on how to fix the network and desperate changes we wanted. Two days later Tom was fired. Tom was the old diretor of broadband. They hired him to tell them what was wrong. Melanie fired him because he kept going behind her back and hooking up business with fiber. He also went behind her back one time too many and presented directly to the City Council (after one year of trying to work with her to get these ideas before the City Council).
Did not do this: "Supply the same information and copies of the letters (and official responses, if any) to the press." Why would they care? You really think the press wants to hear an ISP complain?
"Rally their customers to the cause, providing them the necessary information about the problems and facilitating their communication with City officials." -- The best I could do was educate my customers through a forum.
"Get together, hire legal counsel, and file suit against the City for materially breaching their contract. (The problem with this is that their own noses would have to be clean, in the sense that they couldn't be behind in their own payments to the City, as some of them are.)" -- This would not work. [Another ISP] was always trying to do this with no luck. By the way, the old ISPs (Lane and me) did not have a problem paying on time. I paid on time and was not behind.
As far as your points after 2005 I was mostly gone. The best I could do was send out an email to my old customers urging them to vote for Shirl [LeBaron] and Heidi [Rodeback]. The new ISPs were a little out of it so I tried my best to politic. I realized the train was going to wreck back when Mayor Barratt and the City Council would not listen to anybody. I also realized it when I couldn't get anybody to listen.
I prepped Tyler to talk to the Mayor, etc, but who knows if Tyler did that. He is a pretty busy guy now that he bought up all the customers. I also let Tyler know that this city internet was going downhill.
I also made Tyler aware of one large flaw in the contract. The flaw that the new owner can cut out the ISPs of all their hard-earned customers. So Tyler bought up AFConnect and UTwire and has worked directly with several City Council members. Unfortunately, most people involved are true government employees. It's like watching a bunch of idiots play hot potato. Nobody wants to get things done.
David Rodeback replies (6/23/06):
My thinking in suggesting the news media is that if they could be persuaded that it was a story (probably not too difficult) then the City might have been more amenable to . . . something. As to legal action, sometimes good lawyers acting responsibly (even well short of filing suit) can accomplish things. Of course, that costs a LOT of money, and there's no guarantee of success.
David Bradshaw comments (6/24/06):
I don't have exact time frames on my efforts. But I sent e-mails and made multiple visits with Lynn Yocum, Thomas Whitchurch, Melanie Marsh, Mayor Barratt, Keith Blake, Shirl LeBaron. The written communication was not very formal, just e-mails or a piece of paper with some good ideas written out as I would try to talk with these people.
If you ask the listed people if I ever harrassed them, they will probably say I was unrealistic or had bad ideas. The main problem I had was trying to explain my ideas to them. You would be surprised how low the IQ is among some of these people.
The response I got was, "We can't do that. Check back in a few months." I had lots of great ideas, and would always get blank stares. For example, I couldn't get the old City Council to agree to any ownership protection. Keith Blake and several others said in a number of words, "If we sell the network according to the contract (which we can't change), the new owner will have to decide if they want to renew your contract and allow you to keep your customers."
The City has been trying to secretly sell the network since the summer of 2004. I had lunch with one of the guys they were talking to about selling off the network. I talked him out of buying the network, but I am sure there were others looking at buying it. So it has been a real threat for a long time.
Without some ownership protection very few ISPs of any quality will stick around. What the City gets left with are people that will take the risk. I think the kind of ISP that will put up with this is a very underqualified ISP or bargain hunter.
David Rodeback replies (6/24/07):
I have to agree about the intellects civil service often attracts One of the surest indicators, to my mind, is that they are not comfortable with, and may even be hostile to, the swirl of ideas (bad, good, great ideas -- so what if some were bad, it takes all kinds) one tends to encounter among people with active minds. No one is more adamant than I that in the previous administration, the suffocating fog started at the very top. By contrast, Mayor Thompson is by no means a perfect mayor, but I know him fairly well as one who tends to listen and is inclined to think.
Copyright 2006 by David Rodeback.