The changes keep on coming in the Lawrence Internet market.
The largest Internet service provider in Lawrence has just announced that it is removing all of its usage caps from its Internet service packages, as the company changes its name from Knology to WOW! That means customers no longer will be charged for going over their usage limits, according to a press release by the company.
Englewood, Colo.-based WOW purchased Knology back in July, but it had not converted Knology over to the WOW brand until today. Signs for the company around town are being changed today, according to WOW.
But the changes related to Internet usage caps are likely to garner more attention from hard-core Internet users. The caps had generated concern among many users because customers’ standard monthly rates could rise depending on how much Internet usage they had in a particular month.
The change in the cap policy comes at a time when both private and public officials have been talking about shaking up the city’s Internet service provider market.
A city-hired consultant recently completed a report that found that current broadband offerings in Lawrence generally are “costlier, slower and more limited than in other comparable communities.” City officials had the report commissioned because they have been interested in possibly allowing private companies to have access to a growing ring of fiber optic cable owned by the city.
On the private front, Lawrence-based Wicked Broadband — formerly known as Lawrence Freenet — has made a proposal to the city to further tap into that ring of fiber. (Ring of Fiber: Johnny Cash used to sing that song in his old age.)
At their meeting tonight, city commissioners will receive a request from Wicked for low-cost fiber leases with the city, and a one-time $500,000 grant to help the company build new broadband infrastructure in the city. The request is part of a pilot project Wicked is launching to bring to one Lawrence neighborhood the same type of superfast Internet service that Google Fiber is bringing to Kansas City. If successful, Wicked Broadband wants to extend the high-speed broadband project to all of the city.
So, we’ll see what cards the folks at WOW start playing in what appears to be an increasingly competitive game in Lawrence. Consumers, I suspect, will be keeping an eye on whether the competition starts having an impact on rates.
Costlier, slower, more limited: It is bringing back memories of the teacher comment section on my report cards.
Well, this is a report card of sorts, and "costlier, slower, more limited" is the key phrase in a new study of the city’s Internet broadband market. A consulting team hired by Lawrence City Hall found that the current broadband offerings in Lawrence generally are “costlier, slower and more limited than in other comparable communities.”
Fixing that situation, however, won’t be easy. Every once in a while the idea of the city owning and operating its own high-speed Internet broadband network is brought up. In other words, the city would jump into the Internet service provider market, and compete with the likes of Knology, AT&T and others. But the city would do it with high-speed, fiber-optic cable that runs directly to homes and businesses, as opposed to the slower, more traditional copper telephone and cable lines that serve much of Lawrence.
The idea is a recurring dream for technology geeks. But the latest numbers indicate it may be nothing more than a dream for quite some time. The consultants, CTC Technology & Energy, estimate that it will cost upwards of $70 million to build and deploy such a system in the city. That’s not an impossible number — it's about $25 million more than what the city is spending for a library and a recreation center — but the consultants are urging caution in the matter. Their analysis indicates the city would have to capture at least 50 percent of the entire market share in Lawrence to break even. That would be a tough number to reach, the consultants predict.
But there are other ways the city can make itself a more desirable high-speed Internet city – which not surprisingly, the consultants said will be very important in the future. Here’s a look at some of the recommendations:
• The city could spend around $320,000 to $640,000 to complete a 17-mile ring of fiber-optic cable around the city. The fiber would allow city, county, school and university facilities access to higher-speed Internet connections. The consultants say that alone is worth the cost of the project. But if built in the right way, excess capacity on the fiber ring could be leased out to private companies that have an interest in competing against the two large Internet providers in the city — AT&T and Knology. The report found there are at least three companies that have expressed an interest in such an idea: Level 3, Kansas Fiber Network and Wicked Broadband, which already leases some fiber from the city.
• New development regulations could be written that would require builders to install more fiber-optic infrastructure as a part of their projects. Loma Linda, Calif., has created development regulations that require “cable pathways, fiber connections and internal fiber wiring” be installed as part of any major residential or commercial building project. Sandy, Ore., goes even further. It requires developers to install conduit all the way from the public right-of-way to the home, and then deed that conduit to the city. The idea is that when fiber-optic projects reach a neighborhood, the most expensive part of the process already will be complete, courtesy of developers. The report estimates any new regulations would be a “small burden” to developers. We would see about that, but usually new regulations for developers produce something a bit larger than a “small debate” at City Hall.
• Sucking up to Google may be a good idea. The Google Fiber project in Kansas City is all the buzz in the tech world. The consultants said the city should at least make a more serious effort to have Google consider expanding the project to Lawrence. Google recently did announce that it was expanding the service to Olathe. The consultants reached out to the community manager for the Google Fiber project, and she asked that the city send a formal letter of interest to enter into discussions with Google about an expansion.
As for what the report had to say about Lawrence’s existing broadband providers, it wasn’t much different than what many ordinary folks say. The report found AT&T’s offerings are more limited than in several other comparable communities. With Knology, the consultants found the company’s base pricing is reasonably competitive with other markets, but its use of data caps on many plans makes it less competitive. The report didn’t provide any analysis of the recently-announced pilot project by Wicked Broadband to extend fiber to at least one neighborhood in Lawrence.
The report made several other recommendations and findings, but they were of a technical nature that went beyond my “costlier, slower and more limited” mind.
City commissioners will get a chance to digest the report soon. The City Commission is expected to formally receive the report and discuss possible next steps in the next several weeks.
It is fair to say that there already has been quite a bit of pot-stirring lately when it comes to providers of high-speed Internet service in Lawrence.
First, The World Company (the parent company of this Web site) sells Sunflower Broadband — the longtime, locally owned dominant provider of Internet service in the city — to Knology. Then, Knology sells itself to Colorado-based Wide Open West, which apparently has marketing people who drink a lot of caffeine because it officially goes by the name WOW!. Just to keep you on your toes, though, Knology hasn’t yet changed its name to WOW! here in Lawrence.
Meanwhile, the Internet provider Lawrence Freenet changed its name to Wicked Broadband and has begun expanding its service. (Its marketing people must drink whatever you drink while watching a marathon of the Wizard of Oz, because its tagline is “faster than a flock of flying monkeys.”)
And speaking of flying monkeys, there is Google. (That’s how they get all those search engine results, you know.) The world’s new corporate giant picked Kansas City, Kan., and then Kansas City, Mo., to launch its Google Fiber project, which promises to bring Internet service that is so fast that my wife would be able to deplete the entire inventories of online shopping sites with the single push of a button. The proximity of that project generated chatter in Lawrence about what it needs to do to keep up with the Jones of the broadband world.
Well, it is still a bit early to say that the pot is about to be stirred again — but there is an entity out there that is fiddling with the spoon. You may be surprised who it is: the city of Lawrence.
When it comes to valuable infrastructure, the city these days owns far more than roads, waterlines, parks and such. It also has large amounts of fiber optic cable or underground conduits to accept fiber optic cable.
At their Tuesday evening meeting, city commissioners will be asked to begin advertising for a consultant that can help the city determine how to best leverage its valuable fiber optic holdings.
What that will lead to is still uncertain. But a city staff memo points to a recent initiative in Seattle as an example of what other cities are trying to do with their fiber optic networks. One of the goals in Seattle is to increase competition among service providers.
It will be interesting to see if the city uses its fiber optic network in a way designed to lower the price of broadband services in the city. I don’t even know how the price of broadband services in Lawrence stack up to those in other communities. But I bet you tech companies thinking about moving to this area do.
The city already has been playing that game a bit. The folks at Wicked Broadband — mostly when it was Lawrence Freenet — have used city infrastructure to expand their service in town. The city and Wicked have an agreement that says Wicked will make efforts to provide low-cost Internet service to people who can’t afford it. According to the company’s Web site, 10 percent of a customer’s monthly service fee “helps bring Internet access to low-income households.”
The city has a fiber optic network or conduit that stretches all the way to Tee Pee Junction in North Lawrence to 23rd and Iowa in south Lawrence to the East Hills Business Park in eastern Lawrence and to west of the Sixth Street and South Lawrence Trafficway in west Lawrence.
But the city also wants a consultant to look at all the traffic signals, light poles, water towers and other city-owned structures that could accommodate equipment for wireless Internet service. Does the city have the infrastructure in place to create a wireless Internet cloud over the city? Given that until recently I kept going to The Raven to try to buy this Facebook everybody was talking about, I’m not the guy to ask. But a city-hired consultant is. We’ll get a read on Tuesday about how serious city commissioners are about being tech players in the community.
Knology set to drop WGN, RFD TV and other networks from cable lineup; Baker files plans for $1.2 million wetland education center; study finds Lawrence has among the lowest development fees in the region
News and notes from around town:
• Oh my. Fans of Cubs baseball and country music are in for a shock. Lawrence’s Knology cable television system is set to drop several channels, including the Cubs’ WGN network and RFD TV, a network that shows country music and programming aimed at a rural audience.
Knology’s top Lawrence official confirmed to me that the company is in the process of dropping WGN from its cable lineup effective Dec. 31.
But there are other changes coming before then. Beginning tomorrow, Knology will drop RFD TV, Family Net and the TV Guide Channel, which shouldn’t be confused with the guide button that is on your cable remote. That on-screen guide will continue to be in place.
Debra Schmidt, system manager for Knology Kansas, told me the decisions have been difficult but are part of a much bigger picture of what is going on in the cable industry.
The big players in the cable industry — think ESPN and Food Network and such — are gaining more and more leverage over cable companies all the time. The big programming companies bundle their popular networks together with their less popular networks and require cable providers to take the whole bunch or none at all. As a result, fees that the cable companies must pay to the big-time programmers have been increasing.
Schmidt said in order to control costs, Knology has had to make some tough decisions about dropping some smaller cable networks that don’t have such leverage.
The folks at RFD TV are not taking the decision sitting down. An executive with RFD TV recently flew into Lawrence to discuss the issue with Lawrence city commissioners, and the mayor did send a letter to Knology asking it to reconsider its decision to drop RFD TV. But Schmidt said the change will continue as planned.
Two other channels also will be dropped from the system beginning tomorrow: Blue Highways, a network that features older music and tends to lean towards the Americana side of things; and Family Net TV.
It looks like some of the shows on the networks are available for viewing on the Web sites of the networks.
• Here’s another sign that the South Lawrence Trafficway actually is going to get built, and no this one doesn’t involve icicles in Hades. (Don’t worry, though, that still applies to the Cubs and the World Series.)
Baker University has filed plans at the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Department to build a $1.2 million wetland education center near the wetlands that the university is creating as part of the mitigation efforts for the South Lawrence Trafficway project.
The plans call for a 10,000-square-foot wetland education center that will have a large display area, two classrooms, a kitchen, a gift shop and office space. The project also calls for a 3,000-square-foot maintenance building for the property. The project is set to be built near the main entrance of the wetlands area, which is at 1365 North 1250 Road.
Roger Boyd, Baker’s director of the wetlands, told me he expects the new building can accommodate up to 170 people at a time for presentations and other related activities. Baker is betting that the education center will draw interest from the general community, but particularly will be a popular place for school field trips.
“The display area will have a lot of exhibits about what to look for when you are out here, and about why wetlands are important,” Boyd said.
Baker already has moved a new house to the site, which will provide a place for the resident manager of the wetlands to live. I believe the house came from just east of Haskell Avenue and was one of the handful of houses that are in the path of the trafficway.
The wetland center and the restoration or creation of about 300 acres of new wetlands are being funded by the Kansas Department of Transportation to compensate for the loss of about 60 acres of wetlands that will be lost to the SLT project. As part of the mitigation plan, Baker will receive about $9 million as an endowment to manage the wetland property.
Baker, Boyd said, hasn’t yet received that money, but is expected to in fall 2013. Boyd said the university wants to begin the planning and approval process now so construction on the center could begin in March 2014 with an opening in fall 2014.
“I’m still pinching myself,” said Boyd, who has been officially overseeing the care of the wetlands since 1982 and has been wrapped up in all the legal wrangling of the SLT project. “I’m still having a hard time believing that it actually is going to happen.”
• While we’re talking about projects that have taken a long time to develop in Lawrence, there is a new study out that refutes some perceptions about Lawrence’s business-unfriendly environment.
A group of business students at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and the Society for Industrial Office Realtors have released a new report that looks at the amount of fees cities in the area charge for commercial and industrial development projects.
Lawrence ended up being one of the clear-cut bargains in the area. Lawrence had the third lowest fee total in the office building category and the second lowest total in the industrial building category.
In both cases, the fees charged in Lawrence were more than $200,000 less than what were charged in the most expensive communities. Interestingly, the highest fees charged were in two communities often touted as being more business-friendly than Lawrence: Overland Park and Lenexa.
The authors of the study submitted actual architectural site plans to the planning department of each city, and asked the department to provide a fake invoice for fees that would be due on the project. The first project was for a $9.6 million, 60,000-square-foot office building on a 10-acre site. Here’s a look at the total development fees for each community:
— Blue Springs, Mo.: $98,092 l — Columbia, Mo.: $46,801 — Gardner: $145,428 — Grandview, Mo.: $92,479 — Independence, Mo.: $79,179 — Kansas City, Mo.: $130,751 — Lawrence: $48,057 — Leawood: $98,181 — Lee’s Summit, Mo.: $130,991 — Lenexa: $261,318 — Liberty, Mo.: $117,091 — North Kansas City, Mo.: $122,411 — Olathe: $188,972 — Overland Park: $248,773 — Riverside, Mo.: $37,760
The second project was for a $10 million, 100,000-square-foot warehouse industrial building on about 15 acres of property. Here’s a look at those fees:
— Blue Springs, Mo.: $100,919 — Columbia, Mo.: $71,894 — Gardner: $199,423 — Grandview: $86,091 — Independence, Mo.: $185,869 — Kansas City, Mo.: $134,650 — Lawrence: $48,768 — Leawood: $110,962 — Lee’s Summit, Mo.: $115,729 — Lenexa: $334,873 — Liberty, Mo.: $160,887 — North Kansas City, Mo.: $169,282 — Olathe: $267,881 — Overland Park: $337,482 — Riverside, Mo.: $44,360
This group did the same study in 2010, and the results were much the same: Lawrence was near the bottom in terms of fees charged.
The findings could be spun a couple of different ways in Lawrence. One is that leaders could tout how aggressive Lawrence is in trying to attract business to the community. But another viewpoint might be whether Lawrence is charging too little for development fees, causing general taxpayers to subsidize a service that is supposed to be supported by fees. The city has done some studying on that question and doesn't believe it is the case. Many of the fees — especially in Johnson County — are impact fees for roads, parks and even art that Lawrence simply doesn't charge.
The entire study raises an interesting question: How much do development fees play into the decision making of developers? I haven’t done all the math, but I suspect many of these communities with higher fees have had higher job growth rates than Lawrence has. I know many of them have a greater percentage of business and industry as a part of their tax base than Lawrence does.
So, how does this play into the mantra that Lawrence is unfriendly to business? Well, if you hear people saying that Lawrence charges outrageous fees — and I hear that sometimes — you might want to take those comments with a grain of salt.
But it also is worth remembering there are a couple of different types of development processes in Lawrence. The one studied here is for a developer that is proposing to build on a shovel-ready site. There are a few shovel-ready commercial and industrial sites in Lawrence, but it would be interesting to see how our inventory stacks up against other communities. My guess is we have less.
Often, development of any size in Lawrence requires a developer to rezone a piece of property to fit his or her needs. When people think of some of the more high profile business squabbles or rejections in Lawrence — such as Wal-mart of several years ago, Lowe’s more recently or plans for an industrial park near the Lawrence Municipal Airport — those often had zoning issues attached to them.
So, what I’m saying here, is I don’t think this study is going to end the debate about whether Lawrence is adequately business-friendly enough. Imagine that — a debate in Lawrence continuing on.
• Town Talk is taking a day off tomorrow, and I plan on debating no one. (Although that will require me hiding from my family all day in my basement, but I’m willing to give it a try.) Town Talk will return on Monday.