As I was writing this article, fellow writer Dick Conoboy forwarded me a notice from the City of Bellingham saying CenturyLink was asking for a modification to their TV franchise agreement. Specifically, they wanted to end their TV services in Bellingham. Five years ago, the CenturyLink franchise agreement was finalized, and former city council member Roxanne Murphy and the City Council in general were gushing all over CenturyLink and the work our COB staff members did with them. But instead of building real infrastructure, CenturyLink told us in no uncertain terms that if they didn’t get 20% coverage for their new TV service they would leave within five years, leaving us with the same obsolete DSL service most of their customers still “enjoy.” Today, it looks like they are making good on their threats. Now the question is, will the COB beg them to stay, or will the the City do the right thing and build real infrastructure? Only time will tell. Still, my question is, why did we ever molly-coddle a company that came into our community with threats instead of a thank you? The answer is that the city may have made a small amount of money off of the TV services, however in the modern age almost no one wants traditional TV service, so this plan was always doomed to failure as we tried to tell the COB before they signed the agreement. Here’s the problem:
As I’ve mentioned before, we have been going around town testing broadband connections, and before I just jump into this article, I’d like to give you a few basics for reference. CenturyLink is a Louisiana based company that is rebranding itself as Lumen, largely because they are in so many class-action lawsuits that they are trying to make people forget who they are. Not only are they being grilled because they’ve been lying about their billing practices, but they were also recently involved in a nationwide loss of 911 services, too. I hesitate to say they are the most corrupt telecom in America, with so many options to choose from, but they just might be. I could write an entire article on telecom corruption, but I want to focus on the testing. I will continue to refer to them as CenturyLink since they haven’t made the switch to Lumen in Bellingham yet. In the county, a company name Ziply (formerly Frontier) is offering a pretend fiber service that is similar to CenturyLink’s pretend fiber service. Unfortunately, in both cases, the service is nothing like a proper fiber service, and their services aren’t available everywhere in the county.
So why do these companies continue to pretend they are offering fiber connections? Simply because they take advantage of the biggest issue facing technology in America: a lack of basic technological education. The obsolete CenturyLink DSL/Fiber scheme is highlighted in the book “Fiber” by Susan Crawford.
The scheme is about spurring interest in their obsolete DSL services, not building out real infrastructure. So, what about the handful of customers who are getting their obsolete DSL/Fiber service; what do they actually get? According to a recent admission by the CEO of AT&T, they get an obsolete technology. Worse, it doesn’t perform well and is totally unreliable. In fact, I’ve met people who have switched to CenturyLink’s pretend fiber service only to switch back to Comcast’s terrible service, because sadly, it was slightly more reliable.
So why are they telling customers they are getting fiber, and what is their service really? The CenturyLink pretend fiber service you’ve seen marketed as “1 Gig B-Ham” sounds pretty nice, doesn’t it? They say they’ll give you a Gigabit service (1,000 Mbits up and down) for under $70 a month, but the reality is very different. The CenturyLink/Lumen/Ziply systems are what we call hybrid DSL/Fiber systems. Meaning there is a very small amount of fiber in the system, but most of it is still obsolete DSL. Remember, DSL, or “Digital Subscriber Line,” utilizes the standard copper phone lines that already run to your home. While a few isolated sections in town may get decent service speeds, the best that’s been reported is that some momentarily get less than half that, but the connections don’t hold up to testing and these speeds are short lived. Many users get connections that have so much old DSL technology mixed in them that they basically only get obsolete DSL. Most users are still getting obsolete DSL but being drawn into a false sense of choice because CenturyLink is not Comcast. Well let’s dispel this myth. You don’t have a real choice, you have the illusion of choice. Your “choice” is between one overpriced, under-performing service you hate and another provided by companies with terrible customer service records and that won’t change until we get a public fiber-optic network.
Let me give you some numbers for reference. On a proper fiber connection you should get 1,000 Mbits down and up with less than 50 ms latency. Of course latency is also based on distance, but this is what I’ve tested on proper fiber connections. Modern fiber can get even lower latencies, basically 0 latency in the right conditions. In the tests we’ve run of the hybrid obsolete DSL/fiber systems, the results are truly pitiful. One site I tested, on CenturyLink’s pretend Gig service, is getting only 25 Mbits down (1/40th of the paid-for speed) and 100 Mbits up (1/10th of the paid-for speed) with at least 200 ms latency (see graphic above). Please recall that we are testing these connections on-site using proper network load tests and the results you get from sites like speedtest.net are virtually worthless and produce results that are designed to benefit the big telecoms. You may be saying, “That’s a pretty good upload speed,” until you see that the service randomly turns itself off for a few seconds every few minutes, then it drops to zero as seen in the picture above. A real fiber service would be consistent and reliable. This fluctuation makes it very hard to do anything that requires constant performance such video conferencing (Zoom meetings), online classes, gaming, etc. Yet the speed of these processes all have profound impacts on our economy, education, and our ability to grow as a community in a modern world, especially during a pandemic.
Even a 10 Mbit fiber connection would outperform our Comcast, CenturyLink/Lumen/Ziply connections because those providers services are based on outdated, obsolete, technology. While Comcast uses copper to your home and shared neighborhood hubs, CenturyLink uses all obsolete DSL for most of the connection, then tries to fool you into believing you’re getting fiber by giving you a teensy bit of it. They are laughing all the way to the bank. So please don’t believe the big telecom hype. They are lying to us. There is no service equivalent to fiber, fiber is simply the best and we need properly built fiber-optic networks, no matter what the big telecoms tell you.
Here’s how it works. Like any snake oil salesperson they come to your home and tell you you’re getting what you want: fiber. And for the first few meters from your home to a distribution point, you might be. But once you reach that distribution point, you are almost definitely having your signal travel over obsolete DSL (copper phone line) for much of it’s journey. Finally, it is converted back to fiber at God knows what point. It’s the service equivalent of a Tootsie Pop: a thin cherry coating, with a big fat turd in the middle. Would that be a Turdsey Pop? Making matters worse, since CenturyLink doesn’t have a local office here, there is a good chance your signal terminates in Seattle. Only they know for sure, but the testing seems to show that is most likely the case. So while Comcast gives you obsolete tech from your home all the way back to their office, CenturyLink tries to trick you into thinking you’re getting fiber when you are not. It’s deceitful false-advertising and should be illegal.
Frustratingly, the COB was aware of all of this but chose to spend five years negotiating with CenturyLink, trying to make the relationship work, and begging them for this garbage service. The City should have been working on real infrastructure or, at the least, allowing Open Access to our existing network and establishing a Dig Once Policy. In fact, our public works and IT directors fought these commonsense policies tooth and nail, and they still do.
As I mentioned in my last article, the COB is still dragging their feet on creating the Broadband Advisory Group and the process is already rife with corruption, as many big telecom executives are vying for positions on the panel. In recent communications with Michael Lilliquist and Mayor Fleetwood, we debated the idea of having telecoms in the group at all, but that is a topic for another entire article. Our officials just don’t seem to understand that they can get all the expertise they need without allowing telecoms into the group. Telecoms can still present to the group and make their positions clear, but there is simply no good reason to have them on the board. The board can get plenty of expertise without inviting horrible conflicts of interest. As Gene Knutson observed when I interviewed him years ago, “The big telecoms are hard to work with.” So unfortunately, we’re confirming once again that having COB staff spend years negotiating with the big telecoms was a totally wasted effort and our community got next to nothing for it. CenturyLink didn’t even try to get us anything like a real fiber service. They just lied to us instead. However, before we just blame CenturyLink, remember that the COB was referring as many people as possible to CenturyLink, so they were in on the lie too.
My concern goes back to the lack of technological education across our community and how big telecoms have always taken advantage of that lack of knowledge. With companies like CenturyLink out there lying to our citizens and selling them fake fiber services, many people believe they’ve already tried fiber and it’s not that great after all. Trust me, you haven’t. CenturyLink lied to you, the COB wasted five years negotiating with them, and the result is that we still need a real public fiber service and we are decades behind the rest of the developed world. So it’s time we as a community admit that to ourselves, fire the people who wasted five years clinging to CenturyLink, and start building real infrastructure. We need to bring 21st Century technology to our community so we can compete in the modern world and help address virtually all our social and economic concerns.