A New Era for Flagstaff Telecom
Fueled by its takeover of Qwest, Louisiana-based CenturyLink has been growing like wildfire. But in a state that’s had more than enough wildfires recently, will this and Suddenlink’s recent acquisition of NPG Cable mean Flagstaff business and residential telecom customers will get an improvement on speeds of high speed Internet? Up until now, the best most people have been able to get is 10-15Mbps download speeds – if they are lucky.
It has been reported nationally that one of CenturyLink’s main marketing strategies will be to target customers with “more attractive bundles.” Bill Unkovich, a former Qwest employee for 10 years, is the new market development manager for CenturyLink in Flagstaff. Unkovich is keen to stress that CenturyLink will be continuing and accelerating the program for deploying new fiber-to-the-node (FTTN) crossbox sites – 15 of which Qwest had already installed in town since January. These FTTN sites will allow download speeds of up to 40 Mbps, although how much speed you get will depend on how close you are to a crossbox. Unkovich says that two of his important tasks are to work on CenturyLink’s branding and to create new sponsorship opportunities. He says that the company wants to be an integral part of the community – as evidenced by new deals signed with the Pepsi Amphitheatre and NAU’s Skydome. He also thinks that customers will benefit from CenturyLink’s partnerships with Direct TV and Verizon, such as the latest deal on an offer to new Direct TV subscribers of an all NFL-game package for $34.95/month. Unkovich is optimistic that customer services will improve with the new local operating model and says the company will have sales reps for Flagstaff and Prescott, as well as a kiosk in Prescott Mall.
Flagstaff’s business community is hopeful things will improve. Ben Schorr, CEO of Roland Schorr, an IT consultancy firm with offices in Flagstaff, is cautiously optimistic at the prospect of new and improved telecom services in town. He has not met anyone yet who actually gets the promised 40 Mbps. Schorr thinks that slow Internet speeds have been hampering Flagstaff’s business community – especially, he says, when its more and more about the “cloud,” the term given to the provision of computation, software, data access, and storage services over the Internet. Schorr says that it is difficult to use such services when bandwidth is restrictive: “you can do it with download speeds of 10 Mbps, but it is better with 45 Mbps, especially if you have a lot of people in your office all sharing the same supply pipe.”
Schorr hopes that CenturyLink and Suddenlink will offer more competitive prices for business customers. He is seeing a lot of his clients going to voice-over-IP, i.e. bringing in one line for the Internet and running their phones off the same line. Between that trend and the vast increase in use of services like Netflix, Schorr says we may see Internet carriers start doing away with unlimited data plans. Some companies are starting to put caps on plans for residential use, although they may be slower to impose limits on business customers who pay higher rates.
Joe Bodin, who runs Flagstaff Central.com, Inc., has many clients who rely on Internet sites for business. He says unless businesses are using their own website domain name for their email, many users may be faced with changing their email addresses, if not right away, then very probably soon. But the big question Bodin asks is “are these new companies really going to put in the new equipment needed to significantly improve speeds, not only in the center of town, but also in outlying areas like Doney Park and Kachina Village?” Those customers pay the same rates but don’t necessarily get the same service.
David Russell, network telecommunications manager for NAU, was in a meeting last month where the new CenturyLink team in Flagstaff made an executive presentation to representatives from NAU, the City, County and Flagstaff School District officials. While CenturyLink is not NAU’s Internet provider, they do provide all university connections to the public telephone network and a critical link to NAU’s Internet provider in Phoenix. Russell says that NAU representatives took the opportunity to stress their concern about Flagstaff’s dependency on a single span of fiber to Phoenix for the city’s entire Internet link and requested that CenturyLink address this issue by providing an alternate back-up line. That way, if the link goes down, as it did around five years ago during a construction accident along the I-17 corridor, Internet and phone service for the entire city will not be disrupted. Options for an alternate pathway include Albuquerque or Prescott.
Dan Spoelman is the vice president of operations for SuddenLink. He says that the company just upgraded service in town, moving their residential customers from 6 Mbps to 10 Mbps and those on 10 to 15 Mbps, with no increased charge to customers. They also have no plans to increase prices on currently offered products – although new pricing will be introduced for new services they will be offering. Spoelman says SuddenLink is a company specializing in bringing big market communication services into smaller sized communities like Flagstaff, Lake Havasu and Bullhead City. They have just replaced all their laser nodes – the point at which signals are converted from digital to light – for all business customers in all neighborhoods. This allows the company to offer more capacity and higher speeds. Residential customers can now get a top download speed of 15 Mbps – and they will be increasing what they offer to 50 Mbps by the end of October. Glen Clark is statewide manager for the business side of things. He says that they have a separate product line up for commercial customers with increased speeds over what NPG Cable offered. Clark says that they also have service level agreements that offer a different platform for business customers needing the highest grade of service.
Apparently, SuddenLink’s added bandwidth has been successful in alleviating the slowdown issues that customers using modem systems used to experience when many users were all logged on at once. The company has a control center where they watch usage to try and balance service provisions to alleviate congestion – and they’ve not been seeing any congestion since the recent upgrades.
Lori Pappas, SuddenLink’s marketing segment manager, says that with a 10Gb access to the outside world, they have the largest connection to the wider Internet in town. Pappas is excited that they are now pairing agreements with all major Internet search engines and gaming sites. That means when a user connects from Flagstaff, they never leave SuddenLink’s network, going directly to the company’s server in San Jose, which apparently makes things a lot faster – particularly for gamers. She says that they also have residential video enhancements in the pipeline and will be adding over 20 HD channels and 15 new digital channels, plus Video on Demand to residential customers soon. This will make thousands of movies (in standard, HD and 3D formats) available – often before Netflix does. Pappas says over half the content will be free of charge to customers. FBN