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Fed up with Comcast, Baltimore City to study alternatives

August 16, 2013
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comcast-logoThe Baltimore Business Journal has a pretty amusing report about the city’s exploration of its “broadband strategy.”

Calling a $157,000 consulting contract the Board of Estimates approved Wednesday the first “major step toward improving Internet access for residents and businesses” since its effort to woo Google failed, the BBJ quotes Baltimore Chief Information Officer, Chris Tonjes making the right noises:

“I’m paying more here for lesser service, so I think one of the things we want to try to do is look at that, look at what [current companies] offer and try to incentivize people to offer more,” Tonjes said. “In the short term, we’re going to do a study. In the medium run, we’re going to try to renegotiate the cable franchise agreement. In the longer run we want to make it more profitable for providers to come in here and offer the expanded service.”

The city has been begging Verizon to bring the FIOS for years, and getting nowhere (as this cheeky report from DSL Reports accurately depicts).

Verizon rolled out a reported $23 billion in fiber optic cable last decade but was pretty much done as of early 2010. Baltimore City did not make the cut.

This is not a particularly new problem, nor is it unique to Baltimore. As Pulitzer-prize-winning former New York Times reporter David Cay Johnston reported in a book last year, pretty much everyone in the USA overpays for broadband. As Johnston found (and as DSL Reports ably summarizes):

•Americans pay four times as much as the French for an Internet triple-play package—phone, cable TV and Internet—at an average of $160 per month versus $38 per month.
•The French get global free calling and worldwide live television. Their Internet is also 10 times faster at downloading information and 20 times faster uploading it.
•America has gone from #1 in Internet speed (when we invented it) to 29th in the world and falling.
•Bulgaria is among the countries with faster Internet service.
•Americans pay 38 times as much as the Japanese for Internet data.

Yeah, and –wait!—Bulgaria!?

This is because of regulatory capture and monopoly pricing—enabled by policies that the cable, phone and other broadband providers have engineered via lobbyists, campaign cash, and graft.

The graft occasionally gets exposed. It takes the form of  jobs and the special contracts for politically-favored personnel.

The game is played thusly: If your relative cannot be placed on the city’s payroll, then a contractor is found who will find a place for him or her. The contractor will be reliant on city work or—as in the case of Midred Boyer’s UTech in the middle of the last decade—will be reliant on Comcast.

Former Mayor Sheila Dixon’s undoing began when she publicly badgered a Comcast representative, asking why UTech was not getting more work from the cable giant. That UTech employed Dixon’s sister Janice—but had no room on the payroll for any engineers or licensed electricians (and no actual office) is illustrative of the system in place.

And this is not to pick on Dixon, Baltimore, or even the Democratic Party. Comcast also (in)famously employed former First Lady Kendel Ehrlich to produce a nearly-invisible half-hour anti-drug show. She was paid $55,000 for the work.

In 2006, the Washington Post went into it in more detail:

Those hired by Comcast and its affiliates have included two members of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents, two sons of a key General Assembly committee chairman and former county executives from Prince George’s and Harford counties.

That this is the system we have is both understood and never acknowledged by all involved. And so you might be excused for thinking that “competition” in this game just might mean “competition to supply more low-profile ‘jobs’ to political relatives” instead of “competition between broadband providers to supply the best product at the lowest cost.”

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