Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Sunflower Broadband to be sold to out-of-state conglomerate?

Big changes might be coming to the world of broadband cable and internet in Lawrence, Kansas. According to a report in the cable industry newspaper Multichannel News, Georgia-based broadband firm Knology is close to finalizing a deal to acquire Sunflower Broadband.

This would probably mean some big changes to the broadband market here in Lawrence. It would also mark the end of Sunflower Broadband as a local, independent entity. Buyouts happen all the time in the world of business, but I still pause to shed a few tears for the demise of another independent, local, family-owned business - especially one that has always "punched above its weight" by being technologically ahead of the curve of many much larger companies over the years - both positive (cable internet, DOCSIS 3, digital cable and HD support) and negative (bandwidth caps).

So, what will the buyout mean for the local Lawrence broadband market?
Well, new logos on the bills and a new sign on the building for sure, but beyond that, who knows?

I browsed Knology's corporate web site and was actually pretty unimpressed. To put it mildly, Knology is well behind Sunflower both geographically and technically. Knology offers service in rural areas much smaller then Lawrence, like Storm Lake, Iowa and Dothan, Alabama. They also offer service in a few towns that are equal or larger then Lawrence like Charleston, South Carolina.

Technically, Knology is well behind Sunflower in what they offer customers in other cities. Top internet speeds (albeit cap-free) are only in the 8-10 megabit range, five times slower then Sunflower's new DOCSIS 3 offerings. On the television side, while it varies from city to city, Knology generally offers only 30 or so HD channels, which is less then half of what Sunflower offers. Knology offers a rudimentary DVR, but nothing like Sunflower's multi-room options.

Perhaps Knology is interested in buying Sunflower to learn how to offer more advanced services, knowledge they can take to their other markets. I don't know, but it seems like this is a case of a large buggy-whip manufacturer buying out a smaller company that makes automobiles.

My prediction is that for Lawrence broadband customers of Sunflower, not too much will actually change. Obviously, Knology is not going to reduce the service levels that Sunflower already offers. Perhaps they will make positive changes. Some folks are already speculating that the change in ownership might mean the elimination of bandwidth caps for internet, and perhaps the adjustment of the speed tiers (as long as we are dreaming, how about maybe raising the ridiculously low 1 megabit upload speed on the high-end plans?)

On the TV side, I noticed that nothing on Knology's site referenced support for the critical cable cards which are essential for TiVo use. However, the FCC requires cable cards to be supported so I doubt there would be any changes here. Of more concern would be an end to Sunflower's refreshing and fairly unique policy of not encrypting the majority of digital QAM channels. This very consumer-friendly attitude allows Sunflower customers to use a variety of independent and PC-based DVRs. However, most cable companies don't allow this, encrypting all non-premium "basic" channels except the over-the-air networks. Hopefully, Knology won't change this, but my guess is that they will.

Another question is what will happen with customer service. Will it still be local, and will great features like live Twitter support remain? I really hope Knology enters Lawrence with a very light hand and allows the good things about Sunflower Broadband - including all of its employees - to keep doing what they are doing.

UPDATE: Broadband blog "Stop the Cap" has some additional coverage of the impending sale.

UPDATE 2: A great analysis of the potential effects of the sale by Dave Greenbaum.


  1. Interesting breakdown of the pros and cons of the seemingly likely sale. I'm apprehensive that the customer service bar will stay as high as Sunflower has set it. A decade ago Sunflower had notoriously disdainful customer service, but since AT&T moved into Lawrence, it's been nothing short of a shining example of quality responsiveness. Hopefully Knology does indeed enter with a light hand and not much more than the name changes.

    Even if that's the case, I can't see how this is anything but ominous for the Journal-World. Sunflower has a been a boon to the otherwise sinking newspaper ship. Unless some of the money from this sale is set aside as a foundation to support the newspaper over the longterm, I don't see how the Journal-World survives post-Knology sale. That Dolph Simons is still alive during a sale bodes well for that kind of prospect. Otherwise, I hope the Kansas City Star sees fit to serve Lawrence as a primary market—maybe even purchasing the LJW—with more than just a page or two of "metro" coverage.

  2. Some reviews of Knology.

  3. As a former employee of Sunflower and a broadcast veteran I have two thoughts. Service will be cut back. They are going to look for ways to improve the bottom line. That means eliminating people. I can't imagine that a lot of the locally produced programs, including the news will survive. The Simons didn't mind supporting a program that didn't make money. I'd be shocked if these guys operate the same way.