In recent history, Baltimore has been locked in an effective monopoly of service provision for high speed internet access, with the major player being Comcast, and the only other option a small company called Port Networks, which functions on Comcast’s network. The stranglehold of network choices causes issues of speed and equity across the city.
Baltimore has operated under what is called the “Comcast Franchise,” defined as a non-exclusive agreement, since 2004. Comcast pays 60 cents per cable TV subscriber per month plus 5 percent of gross revenue for cable TV services for the right to use public property to deliver its product. Comcast is required to pay additional fees when using city conduit or poles. (Baltimore Sun, 9-22-16). The key is that it is non-exclusive, but we have not seen Verizon Fios, the other major provider of broadband internet come to the city. Comcast is operating on copper wire systems, unlike many regional cities and competitors with a fiber system, and thus the speeds are spotty and unreliable. (Source)
Comcast is popular for having one of the worst customer service experiences, and it turns out it extends to their agreement with Baltimore as well. In a recent editorial, The Baltimore Sun exposed just some of the issues with the “franchise” agreement, such as Comcast not adhering to agreed upon customer service wait times, and coding errors which lead to Comcast underpaying fees associated with the agreement. These fess could have gone to improving the network, but due to accounting errors may be hard to recover. (Baltimore Sun, 3-1-16).
Often thought to have been stopped by the city and the franchise agreement, Verizon Fios is believed to have made the business decision not to expand to the city, and has mostly stopped expanding its fiber networks nationwide. Even after citizen activism to try to encourage Fios to expand in 2013, they still would not commit to Baltimore. (Source)
One question we can now consider is whether Verizon’s refusal to expand their network to Baltimore city is now a violation of net neutrality rules, which essentially require the major service providers, as common carriers, to provide service equally. Does this apply to regional areas? Can Verizon be forced to adapt, or penalized because of the lack of effort? These are some new questions which will hopefully be answered soon, and we can encourage the FCC to look into this matter.
What are the options to prevent Baltimore from being left behind in broadband speed more than it is already? One option Baltimore considered in the past was building its own fiber network, but this didn’t get very far. Could Baltimore ultimately revisit building its own network? Will a change in leadership in the mayor’s office and city council bring a difference to the city? These important issues will likely unfold beginning this Fall, and we should all be paying attention (on our rather slow compared to everywhere else in the state internet connection.)
Emerging Media Graduate Student
Comcast’s Franchise w/ Baltimore ends December, 2016 & there are no competitors. Hearing December 1 at 6:30 PM at the War Memorial building across from City Hall.
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