Friday, April 23, 2010

Telecom Tremors

Yesterday was a long day. I took a day trip to the Front Range, and while the drive was fairly pleasant on the way over, the ride back was snowy and difficult over the passes. It still amazes me how one can encounter such variations in weather and landscape over a three hour drive.

The landscape of telecommunications in Colorado and elsewhere has seen some unsettled, and perhaps unsettling, moments over the last few days. The first was the media reports early in the week that the private equity firms that own Bresnan Communications were exploring the sale of the company, a major provider of telecom, cable, and Internet services on the Western Slope. 

I found good reporting about this in the Billings (MT) Gazette. Bresnan has a significant technology and human resource presence in the Billings area. According to a media analyst interviewed for the story, Bresnan is “a valuable property for a couple of reasons..It has an established network to deliver services and...established customer relationships, which again is valuable for a potential acquirer."

I've written in the past, and some readers seemed to have affirmed, that Bresnan is largely dependent upon cable giant Comcast for the lion's share of their cable programming. While the aforementioned media analyst also asserted that "private equity companies are generally the buyers" of cable companies, one cannot discount the possibility that Comcast may be interested in expanding its already robust Colorado coverage area through a buyout of Bresnan.

Right now Comcast is trying to haul in a much bigger fish, NBC Universal. Should that sale not pass regulatory muster (it's encountered a lot of vocal opposition already), perhaps they'll want to revisit expansion of their core business. It's definitely worth keeping an eye on.


Speaking of little fish and bigger fish, the acquisition of Qwest by CenturyLink (formerly CenturyTel) initially sounded to me like a piranha taking down a tiger shark. It seems that in telecom these days the leaner the organization, the more it is able to adapt and overcome obstacles similar to what the little ILEC (Incumbent Local Exchange Carrier) that could did today.

In truth, CenturyLink isn't so little; in their role as an ILEC they provide primary local phone service to a significant chunk of Colorado, surpassed only by Qwest in terms of area serviced. This includes the Collbran and Mesa areas of Mesa County. They swallowed up a competing ISP last year as well. Telecom analysts following the industry have taken notice of the company's growth over the last few years. 

The history of Qwest has been an interesting one, especially if you followed some of the moves that predated its creation. Philip Anschutz bought up railroads in the early 90's, so he could lay fiber optic cable along their rights of way, building a massive fiber network that Qwest was created to sell products and services over.

Along the way, they swallowed US West, became a real phone company, and perhaps bit off more than they could chew. Several consumer complaint cases and a financial scandal later, they are limping along, having been caught up with by other telecom providers who have also built out large fiber networks. 

Aside from the number of Colorado jobs that may go away as a result of the proposed merger, there is some light at the end of these cables. Less than 2 weeks ago, Qwest announced a new service initiative to link together traditional telephone networks with IP-based data networks. Yesterday, a friend on Facebook spoke briefly about a roundtable he attended in Boulder, concerning the transitioning of the state's 9-1-1 infrastructure to an IP-based platform. 

There's a lot happening out there, and CenturyLink seems to be positioning themselves to be on the cutting edge of it. Let's hope that consumer choice and competitive pricing aren't casualties of their largesse.


It's pretty strange when a wireless telephone network goes completely down, even stranger (and disconcerting) when two of them have significant problems the same day. That was the case yesterday with Verizon, and to a lesser extent with AT&T.

The strange thing about AT&T's outage was that it appeared to affect only their 3G data network, but for many iPhone users (including my son) this meant that the phone woudn't work. According to anecdotal reports from social media sites like Facebook, many whose iPhones weren't working figured out that if they changed their network settings to shut off the 3G portion, the phone started to work again. This was not reported in the media like the Verizon outage, so it's impossible to tell how widespread the problem was.


Telecommunications as an industry is integral to our society's ability to function. The lines between telephone, television, and data transmission are blurring to the point that all three can and do travel down one pipe. Watching how that one pipe, or set of pipes, are maintained, marketed, and mold themselves into a responsive element of the communities they serve is not only the job of the government, but also of every consumer who values choice in TV content, reliable and economical telephone service, and an uncompromised, neutral Internet.

Let's hope that things settle down a bit from this week, and all that's left is increased diligence and resolve on the part of all of us to assure that these services are provided in a manner that enables all of us to communicate, collaborate, and thrive.

Have a great weekend.

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