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VCRs Officially Dead; Last Manufacturer of VHS Recorders Calls It Quits

Phillip Dampier July 21, 2016 Consumer News, History 1 Comment
How many of these do you still have in your basement or attic?

How many of these do you still have in your basement or attic? And more importantly, Be Kind, Rewind! (Image: Wikipedia)

The days of the Video Cassette Recorder (VCR) are coming to a quiet end as the last known manufacturer of the once-ubiquitous device announced it will stop making new machines at the end of July.

The VCR had its place in about 90 percent of U.S. homes just ten years ago. Although introduced to the consumer market in the late 1960s, the VCR remained a toy of the wealthy through much of the 1970s. It would take 10 years after that — the 1980s — for VCRs to become easily affordable and in enough homes to inspire a multi-billion dollar video rental industry with household names like Blockbuster. CNN even considered the VCR one of the most important cultural icons in its series The Eighties.

Like most new technology, the arrival of the VCR threatened everything, according to enterainment industry executives. Years of litigation dragged out issues like the right for consumers to make recordings of over-the-air stations to capture their favorite shows. Ad-skipping, courtesy of the fast-forward button, would “ruin” free television. Viewers might even build video libraries of shows and share them with friends and neighbors! At one time, some major companies in Hollywood even favored the imposition of a tax on blank videocassettes that would cover their losses from home recording. Copyright questions were finally settled in 1984, when the Supreme Court ruled home taping on a not-for-profit basis was perfectly legal. Hollywood survived despite this.

vcr_toshibaConsumers had a choice between two incompatible standards – the Sony Betamax, which promised superior video quality or JVC’s VHS format, a standard that allowed for longer recordings and was supported by just about every electronics manufacturer other than Sony. Some consumers owned both, but most settled for one or the other, and the VHS tape had a decisive advantage – extended recording time and near universal accessibility. It would eventually dominate in sales. More than 30 years later, recordings made on Betamax and VHS machines are still viewable, and turn up on video websites, often showcasing television as it used to look like in the 1970s and 1980s.

The VCR became so popular, it was a significant part of our lives. Pornography on videotape became a major issue during the Reagan Administration. But an even more pervasive problem was the flashing 12:00 time on your grandparent’s unconfigured VCR and the piece of black electrical tape used to conceal it. Videocassette clubs became as common as the record clubs that were around decades earlier. Parents used the VCR as an electronic babysitter to entertain children. Movie rental night was also the best way to watch your second, third, or fourth choice movie, as popular titles were cleared off shelves early in the evening. Rental fees, late fees, and “be kind, rewind” fees were also issues. But the worst nightmare of all was the horror of discovering a hopelessly unwound and tangled videocassette inside the machine, or worse, your child’s lunch.

What the VCR was invented for.

What the VCR was invented for: time-shifting

First generation VCRs were replaced with Hi-Fi and even SuperVHS models, which improved recording quality. Consumers bought second and third units for their bedrooms. Blank videocassettes were everywhere, often available hanging on a rack next to the checkout line.

The VCR was technology America took for granted… until the arrival of DVDs in 1995, just a decade after the VCR really got popular. There was simply no comparison. The DVD blew away videocassette video quality and offered easy accessibility, compact storage, and a longer lifespan. Just five years after the DVD showed up, it outsold all videotape formats combined. The pay television industry completed the hatchet job on the VCR with the introduction of the Digital Video Recorder (DVR) (Personal Video Recorder, or PVR, in Canada). The DVR was designed around the fact most consumers used VCRs to time-shift television programming, not build a personal library of recordings. With a DVR, a customer could quickly record their favorite shows and store them digitally, erasing unwanted shows with the push of a button.

The DVR still shows years of life, but the DVD’s days are likely numbered as cloud storage and on-demand video streaming make the need to collect and organize a library of shows and movies obsolete. Why buy it if you can stream it?

Manufacturers and retailers have noticed the shifting trends and the VCRs that were originally for sale in the 1980s were largely replaced by DVD players in the 1990s. Today, even DVD players are slowly being replaced in favor of devices like Roku or portable tablets.

Until this month, at least one manufacturer – Funai of Japan – still had a small niche market keeping VCRs in homes where owners spent decades amassing vast video libraries of movies and TV shows. Unfortunately, Chinese manufacturers of the parts needed to build a VCR have increasingly lost interest. So has Funai.

“We are the last manufacturer” of VCRs “in all of the world” — 750,000 units were sold worldwide in 2015, down from millions decades earlier, said Funai, which sold them under brand names like Sanyo, among others. This last holdout made VHS machines. Sony threw in the towel on making Betamax VCRs back in 2002. It stopped manufacturing blank tapes this year.

The infamous 8-track tape, just one of many orphaned recording media formats.

The infamous 8-track tape, just one of many orphaned recording media formats.

At some point in the next 10-20 years, the videocassette could represent one of the largest orphaned recording formats around. As little as 20 years from now, as your kids and grandchildren unearth strange plastic boxes from the attic or basement, they will wonder what they are and how to play them. Preservationists are concerned about the inevitable – discovering playable videocassettes have outlived the players required to watch them.

It isn’t the first time. Wire recordings still turn up in some attics. To the uninformed, they are nothing more than a spool of ordinary wire, except someone recorded sound on them sometime in the first half of the 20th Century. Even more common, open reel or reel-to-reel tapes wound on large plastic spools. This was the audiophile’s choice during much of the vinyl era, where the alternative was the obnoxiously awful 8-track tape or the hissy audio cassette.

If a radio broadcaster lived in your home, you might still find a few Fidelipac cartridges that slightly resemble 8-track tapes. These were commonly used to store continuous loop/always ready to go commercials and jingles. RCA developed its own version of the “Stereo Tape” in 1958 that came and went faster than the DuMont television network. In 1962, Muntz tried a Stereo Pak 4-track tape that went over like a yellow jacket swarm at a summer picnic. In 1966, the two track PlayTape format showed up and the only place you were likely to ever encounter it was inside certain Volkswagen automobiles. In 1977, someone had the brilliant idea of taking reel-to-reel size tape and loading it into a giant cassette-like shell. The Elcaset was born with a gigantic price tag. Unfortunately for the inventors, most consumers thought regular cassettes sounded good enough.

From the 1970s on, videotape was where it was at, and early formats were likely wound on spools or inserted into cartridges with strange-sounding names like U-matic. TV station personnel knew about these formats, but most consumers didn’t.

Making audio sound better in the 1980s brought three more attempts to recreate the portable cassette-like experience in a digital format. In 1988, Digital Audio Tape (DAT and R-DAT) arrived. It promised CD audio quality recordings. The record industry promised to destroy it at all costs because it could make perfect digital copies, great for bootlegging and pirating. It never emerged from niche status. The same was true for Sony’s bizarre MiniDisk, introduced in 1991. A sort of recordable CD-like disk placed inside a computer disk-style cartridge, it won some market share in Japan, but was never more than a curiosity in North America. If record companies didn’t release albums on these formats, they tended to tie quickly. Helping it along to the grave was copy protection technology, which irritated some users. In the end, the MiniDisk was deemed irrelevant after MP3 players arrived.

Philips of the Netherlands and Sony of Japan made one last effort before the MP3 rage with their 1992 introduction of the Digital Compact Cassette. Its main selling point was that players were backwards compatible and could also play ordinary cassettes (the things most consumers were starting to shove into drawers and shoe boxes the moment digital audio formats like MP3 took off). Too little, too late, and although Philips had a small loyal following for their players in Holland, you now have a better chance of finding blank digital cassettes stuffed into the back of drawers than you will ever have encountering a player to play them on.

Sony PlayStation Vue Adds 9 New CBS Local Stations to Lineup

vue

Sony PlayStation Vue has added live streams of CBS stations in nine new markets, expanding the reach of CBS-affiliated stations on the cable TV online alternative.

Effective immediately, subscribers can watch these CBS affiliates if you are located within the local coverage area (thanks to Cord Cutters News):

  • lineup playstationCalifornia: KFMB San Diego
  • Florida: WPEC West Palm Beach
  • Michigan: WWMT Grand Rapids/Kalamazoo
  • North Carolina: WBTV Charlotte
  • Ohio: WKRC Cincinnati, WOIO Cleveland
  • Pennsylvania: WHP Harrisburg
  • Texas: KEYE Austin
  • Utah: KUTV Salt Lake City

PlayStation Vue isn’t just for game consoles, available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Google Chromecast, Roku, Amazon Fire TV/Stick, and also available on the PlayStation Vue mobile app (iOS/Android). A seven-day free trial is available to U.S. viewers.

The service appears to be a more direct competitor to traditional cable television, offering a substantial number of traditional cable networks and an increasing number of local over the air stations:

PlayStation Vue Packages:

  • Access: 55+ channels, including an assortment of cable, movie and sports channels for $29.99 per month ($39.99 if local stations are provided)
  • Core: 70+ channels and regional sports networks for $34.99 per month ($44.99 if local stations are provided)
  • Elite: 100+ channels, including all channels noted above plus Epix Hits and two other entertainment channels for $44.99 per month ($54.99 if local stations are provided)

Showtime is available a-la-carte. In smaller cities without live local station streaming, the service offers on-demand access to selected network shows.

CenturyLink: Usage-Based Billing That Makes No Sense, But Will Earn Dollars

followthemoneyCenturyLink will begin a usage-based billing trial in Yakima, Wa., starting July 26 that will combine usage caps with an overlimit fee on customers that exceed their monthly usage allowance. The trial in Washington state may soon be a fact of life for most CenturyLink customers across the country, unless customers rebel.

Already at a speed disadvantage with its cable competitors, CenturyLink will likely alienate customers with a new 300GB usage cap on DSL customers who can manage speeds up to 7Mbps, and 600GB for those lucky enough to exceed 7Mbps. Customers will be given a browser-injected warning when they reach 65% and 85% of their allowance. If a customer exceeds it, they will have overlimit fees forgiven twice before the usual de facto industry overlimit penalty rate of $10 for 50 additional gigabytes will be added to their bill, not to exceed $50 in penalties for any billing cycle.

DSL Reports received word from readers in Yakima they had the unlucky privilege of serving as CenturyLink’s first test market for hard caps and overlimit fees, and was the first to bring the story to the rest of the country.

CenturyLink hasn’t wanted to draw much attention to the usage-based billing change, quietly adjusting their “excessive usage policy FAQ” that takes effect on July 26. But it has begun directly notifying customers who will be enrolled in the compulsory trial.

“Data usage limits encourage reasonable use of your CenturyLink High Speed Internet service so that all customers can receive the optimal internet experience they have purchased with their service plan,” states the FAQ.

But counterintuitively, CenturyLink will exempt those likely to consume even more of CenturyLink’s resources than its low-speed DSL service allows by keeping unlimited use policies in place for their commercial customers and those subscribed to gigabit speed broadband.

CenturyLink’s justification for usage caps with customers seems to suggest that “excessive usage” will create a degraded experience for other customers. But CenturyLink’s chief financial officer Stewart Ewing shines a light on a more plausible explanation for CenturyLink to slap the caps on — because their competitors already are.

“Regarding the metered data plans; we are considering that for second half of the year,” Ewing told investors on a conference call. “We think it is important and our competition is using the metered plans today and we think that exploring those starts and trials later this year is our expectation.”

CenturyLink's overlimit penalties (Image courtesy: DSL Reports)

CenturyLink’s new overlimit penalties (Image courtesy: DSL Reports)

In fact, CenturyLink has never acknowledged any capacity issues with their broadband network, and has claimed ongoing upgrades have kept up with customer usage demands. Until now. On the west coast, CenturyLink’s competitors are primarily Comcast (Pacific Northwest) and Cox Communications (California, Nevada, Arizona). Both cable operators are testing usage caps. In many CenturyLink markets further east, Comcast is also a common competitor, with Time Warner Cable/Charter present in the Carolinas. But in many of the rural markets CenturyLink serves, there is no significant cable competitor at all.

Usage Cap Man is back.

Usage Cap Man is back, protecting high profits and preserving the opportunity of charging more for less service.

As Karl Bode from DSL Reports points out, for years CenturyLink has already been collecting a sneaky surcharge from customers labeled an “internet cost recovery fee,” supposedly defraying broadband usage and expansion costs. But in the absence of significant competition, there is no reason CenturyLink cannot charge even more, and also enjoy protection from cord-cutting. Customers who use their CenturyLink DSL service to watch shows online will face the deterrent of a usage cap. Customers subscribed to CenturyLink’s Prism TV will be able to access many of those shows on-demand without making a dent in their usage allowance.

For years, American consumers have listened to cable and phone companies promote a “robust and competitive broadband marketplace,” providing the best internet service money can buy. But in reality, there is increasing evidence of a duopoly marketplace that offers plenty of opportunities to raise prices, cap usage, and deliver a substandard internet experience.

As Stop the Cap! has argued since 2008, the only true innovations many phone and cable companies are practicing these days are clever ways to raise prices, protect their markets, and cut costs. Consumers who have experienced broadband service in parts of Asia and Europe understand the difference between giving customers a truly cutting-edge experience and one that requires customers to cut other household expenses to afford increasingly expensive internet access.

We recommend CenturyLink customers share their dislike of CenturyLink’s style of “innovation” in the form of a complaint against usage caps and usage-based billing with the FCC. It takes just a few minutes, and adding your voice to tens of thousands of Americans that have already asked the FCC to ban usage caps and usage pricing will keep this issue on the front burner. It will help strengthen our case that providers must stop treating internet usage as a limited resource that has to be rationed to customers. Wall Street believes the FCC has given a green light to usage caps and usage pricing, and the risk of attracting regulator attention by imposing higher broadband prices on consumers is pretty low. We need to change that thinking so analysts warn providers against being too greedy, out of fear the FCC will impose a regulatory crackdown.

Pre-Empting Moronic Broadband Law Means Everything to Rural North Carolina

greenlightThe community of Pinetops, N.C. has finally got 21st century gigabit broadband, but no thanks to a state legislature so beholden to Time Warner Cable, it let the cable giant write its own law to keep potential competitors away.

The passage of H129 was almost a given after Republicans regained control of both chambers of the state legislature in 2011 for the first time since 1870. The bill made it almost impossible for any of the state’s existing community-owned broadband networks to expand out of their immediate service areas. It also discouraged any other rural towns from even considering starting a public broadband network to solve pervasive broadband problems in their communities.

It was not the finest moment for many of H.129’s supporters, who had to explain to the media and constituents why the state’s largest cable operator needed protection from potential competition and more importantly, why public officials were catering to the corporate giant’s interests over that of the public.

"I wish you'd turn the camera off now because I am going to get up and leave if you don't," said Rep. Julia Howard

“I wish you’d turn the camera off now because I am going to get up and leave if you don’t,” said Rep. Julia Howard

Rep. Julia Howard (R-Davie, Iredell) found herself losing her cool when WNCN reporters in Raleigh caught up with her and confronted her with the fact her campaign coffers had been filled by the state’s largest telecom companies. She didn’t have an answer for that. Moments later, she appeared ready to flee the interview.

“I wish you’d turn the camera off now because I am going to get up and leave if you don’t,” Howard told the reporter.

Rep. Marilyn Avila was so close to Marc Trathen, then Time Warner Cable’s top-lobbyist in the state, we decided five years ago it would be more accurate to list Time Warner Cable as her sole constituent. Avila’s name appeared on the bill, but it was readily apparent Time Warner Cable drafted most of its provisions. The nearest city in Avila’s own district wanted no part of H129, and neither did many of her constituents.

The bill managed to pass the legislature and after becoming law effectively jammed up community broadband expansion in many parts of the state.

It would take the Federal Communications Commission to pre-empt the legislation on the grounds it was nakedly anti-competitive and prevented broadband improvements in communities major telecom companies have ignored for years.

As a result of the FCC’s actions, the community of Pinetops now has access to gigabit broadband, five years late, thanks in part to Rep. Avila who got a $290 dinner for her efforts and was honored as a guest speaker at a cable industry function in recognition of her service… to Time Warner Cable.

Rep. Avila with Marc Trathen, Time Warner Cable's top lobbyist (right) Photo by: Bob Sepe of Action Audits

Rep. Avila with Marc Trathen, Time Warner Cable’s top lobbyist (right) Photo by: Bob Sepe of Action Audits

Greenlight, Wilson’s community-owned fiber to the home provider, switched on service in the community this spring to any of the 600 Pinetops homes that wanted it, and many did.

“We just love it!” said Brenda Harrell, the former acting town manager.

In fact, Greenlight is now delivering the best broadband in Edgecombe County, and deploying fiber to the home service was hardly a stretch for Greenlight, which was already installing fiber optics to manage an automated meter infrastructure project. The only thing keeping better broadband out of the hands of Pinetops residents was a law written by an industry that loathes competition and will stop it at all costs. Time Warner Cable didn’t bother to offer service in the community even after its bill became law and residents endured years of unreliable DSL or dialup access instead. Talk about a win-lose scenario. Time Warner Cable got to keep its comfortable cable monopoly while many families had to drive their children to businesses miles away just to borrow their Wi-Fi signal to finish homework assignments.

Faster broadband is likely to be transformative for the quiet rural community. Current town manager Lorenzo Carmon sees more than nearby fields of sweet potatoes and soybeans. With gigabit fiber and cheap local housing, Pinetops could become a bedroom community for upper income professionals now living in Greenville, a university town heavily populated by doctors, students, and high-tech knowledge economy workers. If and when they arrive, they’ll find a tech-ready community, right down to the local Piggly-Wiggly supermarket, which now has fiber fast internet service too.

pinetopsPinetops offers proof of the obscenity of bought-and-paid-for-politicians supporting corporate protectionism that harms people, harms education, harms jobs, and leaves rural communities with no clear path to the digital economy of the 21st century. Legislation like H129, which continues to be enforced in more than a few U.S. states, needs to be pre-empted nationwide or even better repealed by state legislators.

But North Carolina’s legislature still isn’t getting the message. They are outraged the FCC outsmarted Time Warner Cable and them, and are now wasting time and resources to have the FCC’s pre-emption overturned in court, evidently so that rural North Carolina can continue to tough it out with DSL indefinitely. That’s political malpractice and North Carolina voters need to show the door to any elected representative that cares more about the interests of a giant cable company than what is good for you and your community. Reps. Avila and Howard don’t have to live with 3Mbps DSL, so why should you?

“If the private sector is not providing the services, the government has to step in,” said Carmon. “The internet is just like electricity. You can’t live without it.”

We couldn’t agree more.

Suddenlink Closing Call Centers, Adds New Paper Billing Fee

Phillip Dampier July 20, 2016 Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, Suddenlink 1 Comment

unemployedAltice’s ongoing efforts to cut expenses and boost profits at Suddenlink will cost an unspecified number of call center workers their jobs in three states and customers will soon pay a fee to receive their cable bill in the mail.

In three separate announcements, Suddenlink has begun notifying employees at three separate offices that many will be out of their jobs by this fall as the company shutters call centers and sales offices in Greenville, N.C., St. Joseph, Mo.,  and Parkersburg, W.V.

“We are migrating call center activities to some of Suddenlink’s larger call centers in the U.S. based on call volume, and where we have the greatest number of business partners,” said a company news release.

All of Suddenlink’s sales jobs will now be in Texas, and that means sales employees in the company’s Parkersburg office were given two choices: move to Texas, or take a different job in the Parkersburg office.

St. Joseph area employees were told their jobs will be relocated to larger call centers elsewhere where Altice has spent money to improve customer care.

“We have invested in advanced customer-care technology in those locations, and based on that believe this new structure will enable us to provide a superior service experience to all of our customers,” said Suddenlink spokeswoman Lisa Anselmo.

SuddenlinkLogo1-630x140This summer Suddenlink is also continuing incremental rate hikes for customers not already subject to them. Parts of North Carolina are the latest to face a new $1 billing fee, which began July 1. New customers already pay the fee, but now current customers will also face the extra charge if they want a paper statement mailed to them.

“This fee covers the handling and postage costs associated with providing a paper statement,” said spokesman Gene Regan, senior director of corporate communications.

Notification of the new fee went out in the company’s May and June billings. To avoid the fee, customers must opt-in to electronic billing by visiting the company’s paperless billing web page and logging in to their Suddenlink account.

“What we are finding is more and more people in recent months have gone to electronic billing. A lot of customers have made the change in recent months,” Regan told The Daily Reflector. “Today so many people are online, more and more people are online, and a lot of people don’t like to deal with paper mail. They like the convenience and the opportunity to use other ways to pay.”

August

August

But many customers would prefer the option of a lower cable TV bill.

In Louisiana, Lake Area residents continue to complain about Suddenlink’s business practices, especially rates, channel options, and equipment fees. City councilwoman Luvertha August told American Press she is inundated with complaints about the cost of cable television in particular.

“All of these comments are from senior citizens. They’re on fixed incomes and they have limited budgets,” August told the newspaper. “They’re concerned with what they deem are constant changes with the Suddenlink cable company.”

Seniors have been confronted with cable TV bills that have soared from $20 two decades ago to over $80 in many cases today. This month Suddenlink completed its all-digital transition in southern Louisiana, which requires customers to attach equipment to every cable-enabled television in the home, at an additional cost.

The Leichtman Research Group, which specializes in research on broadband media and entertainment, found today’s average cable-TV bill is just under $100 after fees, surcharges, and taxes are included. Seniors who have seen no significant increase in their Social Security checks for several years are hard-pressed to pay for channels they don’t want or watch.

Last year, August attempted to involve the state’s legislative delegation to coordinate a message that consumers want more options, including a-la-carte for cable television. Her effort found almost no interest from state and federal lawmakers representing Louisiana, many who receive substantial campaign contributions from telecom companies. Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) did respond, but falsely claimed cable television is a state matter and the “federal government had nothing to do with the issue.”

In fact, many members of Congress have asked the FCC to get involved in the issue and others have supported efforts to increase competition and push for mandatory a-la-carte channel choices for consumers. AT&T U-verse has a franchise in southern Louisiana and may offer some consumers a choice, but after AT&T completed its acquisition of DirecTV, many consumers report AT&T is marketing satellite television more aggressively than its own U-verse TV option.

European Union: Every Home in Europe Should Have Access to 100Mbps Within a Decade

eu 100The European Union believes every home in the bloc should have ready access to at least 100Mbps broadband speeds within the next decade.

Regulators in Brussels want uniformly fast broadband across the continent according to a report from the Financial Times, and is expected to adopt new telecom rules in September to get it. It is part of the EU’s ambitions “Gigabit Society” initiative that will assure every school and business will have access to gigabit speeds, while homes will now receive at least 100Mbps.

Private telecom companies are skeptical Brussels will kick in substantial aid to finance broadband upgrades, despite assurances it would be a public-private initiative. An initial estimate pegs the cost to upgrade the continent at $171 billion. At least 80 percent of that budget will cover the infrastructure installation costs, such as stringing fiber on poles and underground and bringing connections to homes and businesses.

dtA potential issue for Brussels is dealing with one of Europe’s most powerful telecom companies – Germany’s Deutsche Telekom, which wants to use vectoring technology to improve copper-based DSL service in Germany instead of upgrading to optical fiber technology.

This morning, Brussels gave partial approval for DT to go ahead with vectoring upgrades, so long as it doesn’t inhibit competition. As a result, the German phone company will offer DSL upgrades as fast as 100Mbps and offer all of its rivals access to the same network, allowing consumers to choose different ISPs delivering service over the same copper network.

Like in North America, analysts say there is little interest among companies to build rival networks, especially in areas already served by a cable and telephone company. The alternative is to open those networks to competitors, who can use them to reach customers with their own internet service plans.

Patrick Drahi: Protecting Jobs Now Only Delays the Need to Cut Them Later

Patrick Drahi's vision of unwanted employees he'd like to lay off.

Patrick Drahi’s vision of unwanted employees he’d like to lay off.

Patrick Drahi, who oversees a global telecom empire that now includes Suddenlink and Cablevision in the United States, is quietly seething over the regulators who forced him to accept commitments not to kill jobs at the companies he’s acquired. To him, an unwanted Altice employee is nothing more than a washing machine ready to be tossed out after outliving its usefulness.

Drahi points to his French wireless company SFR as a prime example of how job protection agreements are bad news for his business plans. In Drahi’s view, SFR, like many of the companies he has acquired, is overstaffed. But he cannot slash jobs for three years because of regulator conditions imposed when acquiring the company.

“We have one year left on our guarantee of employment for three years,” Drahi told investors in New York. “Today we’re in a situation where people know that the guarantee stops in one year. It’s like buying a washing machine from [home good retailer] Darty with a three-year warranty. After three years the washing machine breaks down. What should we do, [pay for it to be repaired]? They know we’re overstaffed.”

In Drahi’s view, the unnecessary employees are just a drain on company’s resources, something their competitors are fully aware of and are ready to exploit. Drahi said the protected employees also create tension in the company. Their union representatives claim the opposite, arguing Drahi’s draconian cost-cutting makes for a hostile workplace where employees often have to take pay cuts and in some cases pay for their own toilet paper, office supplies, and break room equipment out-of-pocket. As a result, as many as 1,200 employees have already voluntarily left SFR for other jobs. In many cases, those vacant positions were never filled again, helping Drahi achieve desired job cuts through other means.

Drahi’s cost cutting even extends to the top. He admitted he was able to convince the current managers of Cablevision and Suddenlink to cut their salaries while suggesting they could share in the long-term profits of the companies sometime in the future.

Frontier Expanding Vantage TV; Applying for Video Franchises in New York and Ohio

Phillip Dampier July 18, 2016 Competition, Consumer News, Frontier No Comments

vantage tvIf you live in parts of the Hudson Valley (N.Y.) or Ohio where Frontier Communications provides phone service, Vantage TV may be coming to your neighborhood soon.

Frontier’s cable television solution for customers still served by its legacy copper wire telephone network appears to be an IPTV service similar to AT&T’s U-verse. Vantage TV is already available to around 200,000 Connecticut customers served by Frontier, inherited from AT&T. Frontier also offers Vantage in Durham, N.C. and has applied for a statewide video franchise in Ohio (granting authority to offer service anywhere in the state it chooses) and another to serve Middletown, N.Y., a community of 28,000 in the Hudson Valley.

Frontier claims over the next four years it will offer Vantage in as many as 40 of its markets, many still served by legacy copper wiring. That represents about three million homes. After a second phase of buildouts, Frontier claims it will to provide video service to about half of the 8.5 million homes in its service area.

In late June, Frontier applied for a video franchise agreement in Middletown, where it expects to compete against Charter Communications (formerly Time Warner Cable). It will be the first time Frontier offers video service in New York.

frontier new logoVantage TV offers up to 300 channels typically bundled with phone and internet service. Customers are provided a “total-home DVR” with 1TB of storage that can record up to six shows at the same time and played back on up to four wireless cable boxes attached to different televisions. An upgraded version 3.0 of Ericsson’s Mediaroom platform offers advanced set-top box features like improved visual search and the ability to watch up to four channels at once in a mosaic. Another feature lets customers bring up a small video screen showing another channel, useful if you are channel surfing during an ad break.

Multichannel News interviewed several Frontier executives about the service, which the company is confident will give it a competitive video product to market to customers. Until Frontier bought AT&T’s Connecticut customers (and its U-verse fiber-to-the-neighborhood system), its only experience selling cable television came from its acquisition of Verizon FiOS systems serving Fort Wayne, Ind., and parts of Oregon and Washington. Frontier quickly learned the value of Verizon’s volume discounts for video programming, which it lost soon after acquiring the systems. In 2011, customers faced massive price hikes for video service and an unusual effort to convince them to switch to satellite TV instead — quite a downgrade from fiber to the home service.

middletownConnecticut, in contrast, is served with a mix of fiber and old copper wiring that has been in place for decades, since the days the state was served by the independent Southern New England Telephone Company. Learning how to deliver reasonable video quality over copper wires in Connecticut gave Frontier experience to go ahead with targeted upgrades that can boost broadband speeds and deliver HD video over an internet connection as low as 2.6Mbps in other states.

In short, Frontier’s business plan for video may work if it can keep network expansion and technology costs as low as possible. Video programming costs are likely to be another matter, however. As programming costs increase in contract renewals, some cable operators are playing hardball and dropping channels that get too expensive for comfort. But many of those channel drops alienate customers. Frontier appears to be following an opposite formula — making sure potential customers know they are still carrying networks the cable operator in the area dropped. Comcast dropped Yankees regional sports channel YES, but Frontier still offers it to its Connecticut customers and goes out of its way to promote its availability.

Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movies & Mysteries — two networks popular with older viewers who are among the most loyal to cable television, got the axe in 2010 on AT&T U-verse in Connecticut. After Frontier acquired the Connecticut system, it put the two networks back on the lineup.

The more customers Frontier can show it has at the negotiating table, the better position Frontier is in to secure discounts for the video programming it carries. Volume, volume, volume makes all the difference when competing against giant cable conglomerates like Comcast and Charter. Even if Frontier finds it eventually has to drop overpriced channels, it has a much more friendly relationship with over-the-top online video services like Netflix to offer customers as an alternative. Vantage customers can find Netflix’s main menu as a traditional TV channel on the Vantage lineup, allowing subscribers to choose any Netflix show to watch on their television. In the future, Frontier might offer customers other network’s apps as well, making it easy to stream on demand video without having to use a Roku or other similar device.

Comcast Says It Will Spend $100M on Chicago, But Not Before Capping Internet Usage

comcast cartoonComcast announced last week it will invest $100 million in fiber optic and coaxial cable to expand its network for businesses and residents across the Chicago region, but not before it slaps a usage cap on Chicagoland internet users forced to join its compulsory data cap “trial.”

Beginning Aug. 1,  customers who exceed 1 terabyte of data usage per month will face a nasty overlimit fee of $10 for each 50GB of additional usage they rack up over the course of a billing cycle. Customers who want to keep the unlimited broadband plan they have today can, if they are willing to pay an extra $50 a month.

Comcast’s PR department has christened the incoming data cap the “Terabyte Internet Experience,” suggesting customers will now have the privilege of using up to 1,000GB each month without facing extra charges. But the plan customers have until the end of this month already allows that, and more, without facing overlimit fees that will top out at $200 a month.

Customers like Greg believe Comcast has a different agenda imposing data caps.

“We’ll teach those cord cutters a lesson,” he wrote. “We’re going to get your money one way or another. Comcast is just greedy, they want to extort as much money as they can from people. I’m paying $90 for internet, with the option to charge more based on their conditions. Remember when consumers had options?”

Other residents looking for an opt-out of the “trial” are out of luck.

comcast“Got the email this week we get to be part of this data cap ‘trial,'” shared another customer. “How lucky are we? And what do we get for being part of this trial? Absolutely nothing! And can we opt out of this trial? Heck no!”

Comcast claims almost nobody will be impacted by the terabyte cap, predicting as few as 1% of their customers reach that level of usage. But 25% of Comcast customers nationwide have now received email and other notifications about a data cap plan “trial” Comcast has spent time, money, and resources trying to explain and implement in a growing number of cities in their service area. Many ask if so few are affected, why make the effort?

The FCC received 11,812 complaints about Comcast in 2015, mostly about its data cap trials. That is at least 5,000 more complaints than AT&T, Verizon, and Time Warner Cable received combined. That would seem to indicate a significant percentage of Comcast customers are concerned about data caps, even if they are not among the “1%” Comcast now claims will be affected by caps.

Comcast’s plan to invest $100 million in Chicago, primarily on fiber expansion, may not placate customers who do not appreciate their internet usage being capped at the same time Comcast’s network capacity continues to increase. Most of the upgrades may be targeted to benefit Comcast’s business customers. The expansion will string 50 miles of fiber cable across seven square miles of downtown Chicago, including the Loop, River North, and River West. Additional expansion will target the city’s Back of the Yards and Bridgeport neighborhoods at in the Peterson-Pulaski business district near O’Hare.

Comcast claims the upgrade will expand internet, video, voice, and home security/automation services for residential customers. They will just need to make sure not to use them too much.

FCC’s Wheeler to Consumers: Contract Dispute TV Blackout? You’re On Your Own

Wheeler

Wheeler

The Federal Communications Commission has decided it won’t get too involved in the increasing number of contract renewal disputes between TV networks and cable TV providers, and has refused to issue new rules governing what represents “good faith negotiations” in disputes that take channels off the lineup.

“Based on the staff’s careful review of the record, it is clear that more rules in this area are not what we need at this point,” said FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler. “It is hard to get more inclusive than to review the ‘totality of circumstances.’  To start picking and choosing, in part, could limit future inquiries.”

A growing number of disputes over the rising cost of video programming frustrate pay-TV customers who find strident messages about nasty programmers or greedy providers blocking their favorite channels after contract renewal talks fail. Cable operators, sensitive about cord-cutting, want to keep price hikes down. Wall Street and shareholders expect growing revenue from charging providers for access to programming, which has become a major revenue source for most. Wheeler wrote Congress had good intentions to put a stop to contract disputes that eventually affected the public:

Congress, in Section 325 of the Communications Act, sought to reduce the likelihood that TV viewers would face this roadblock. The law requires broadcasters and multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) to negotiate for retransmission consent in good faith. Congress gave the Commission the authority to keep an eye on these negotiations, and our rules include a two-part framework to determine whether broadcasters and MVPDs are negotiating in good faith.

  • First, the Commission has established a list of nine objective standards, the violation of which is considered a per se breach of the good faith negotiation obligation.
  • Second, even if the specific standards are met, the Commission may consider whether, based on the totality of the circumstances, a party failed to negotiate retransmission consent in good faith.

In the recent STELA Reauthorization Act of 2014 (STELAR), Congress expressed concern about the harm consumers suffer when negotiations fail and sought-after broadcast programming is blacked out on their pay TV service. STELAR directed the Commission to initiate a rulemaking to consider possible revisions to our “totality of the circumstances” test.

Everyone has a different opinion of what represents “good faith” and many of these disputes quickly get acrimonious. Or worse. Take the one-month-and-counting little hatefest between Tribune Media and DISH Network also known as Satan’s Mother-in-Law v. the Zika virus. Tribune blacked out DISH customers’ access to 42 local channels in 33 markets, including WGN Chicago, WPIX New York and KTLA Los Angeles back in June. Many are major network-affiliated over the air stations. The dispute, as usual, is over money. Tribune wants DISH to bundle WGN America, a low-rated basic cable network, with its Tribune-owned stations, as a condition for renewal.

dish dispute

WGN America has little to do with WGN-TV, the over-the-air independent former superstation based in Chicago. As of late 2014, WGN America runs a vastly different schedule of syndicated sitcoms, drama series and feature films, and some first-run original television series produced exclusively for the channel. Long gone are local, syndicated, or sports shows that a viewer in Chicago would see watching channel 9 over-the-air. As a result, viewership of WGN America is 20% less than the former WGN-TV, and dropping. Many of the shows on WGN America also turn up on other cable channels, making the network a questionable addition to the lineup.

WGN America, not your father's Channel 9 from Chicago.

WGN America, not your father’s Channel 9 from Chicago.

DISH obviously has no interest in WGN America, but Tribune’s negotiators told them they better get interested, because WGN America will come along for the ride, part of any renewal for the over-the-air stations Tribune owns.

DISH is in no hurry to negotiate over the summer months, when shows are repeats and folks are on vacation. Many expect that will change once football season nears. But the battle continues anyway.

A new low was reached a few weeks ago when a frustrated Rev. Jesse Jackson claimed in an open letter that DISH’s refusal to negotiate was racist, in part because the blackout affected the show Underground, chronicling the Underground Railroad system that helped slaves escape to the northern free states.

“Is DISH using the same kind of math with ratings that the old south employed when enacting laws that counted African-Americans as three-fifths of a man?” wrote Jackson in a letter released by his Rainbow Push Coalition. “For far too long African-Americans have been underrepresented and unfavorably portrayed on television, silencing the significant contributions they have made to this country. Underground is a crucial part of a brand-new day of diversity on television that sheds a bright light on the bravery, ingenuity and power of the African-American experience, and is being used as teachable moments in homes and history classes around the nation at a time when we need it most.”.

Jackson

Jackson

DISH avoided taking the bait, responding, “We are skeptical that Rev. Jackson is truly interested in finding a fair deal for DISH customers.”

The FCC isn’t apparently interested in putting a line in the water either, steering clear of the controversy and allowing programmers and networks to continue to work things out with each other while customers watch repeating barker channels claiming none of this is the fault of their provider.

Wheeler points out he is aware of the DISH/Tribune dispute, but isn’t exactly rushing to end it.

“I summoned both parties to Washington to negotiate in coordination with Commission staff,” Wheeler wrote. “When that step failed to produce an agreement or an extension, the Media Bureau issued comprehensive information requests to both parties to enable FCC staff to determine whether they were meeting their duty to negotiate in good faith; we are reviewing their responses as I write. If that review reveals a dereliction of duty on the part of one or both parties, I will not hesitate to recommend appropriate Commission action.”

To DISH viewers, that represents a “definite maybe.”

At the end of last month DISH decided it wasn’t “good faith” when the Tribune subsidiary operating WGN America started running ads calling DISH a “dishgusting” company. Too much? Apparently so for DISH’s lawyers who filed a lawsuit.

“In a last-ditch bid to force DISH to accept its terms, DISH is informed and believes, and thereon alleges, that Tower created and broadcast, via its channels, disparaging content regarding DISH, its services and its performance,” states the complaint. “The campaign launched by Tower with these commercials cast DISH in an extremely negative light — Tower claims that DISH has not acted in good faith, that its performance and services are the worst in the industry, and even that DISH is a ‘disgusting’ company.”

Apparently, DISH maintains a disparagement clause in its old contract with Tribune, designed to stop nasty exchanges like this. Tribune called the lawsuit frivolous and the FCC today effectively called it a day.

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  • Josh: Wow, great article! I'm feeling nostalgic, and kind of weirded out by VHS going away, and the realization we're (once again) likely to lose a giganti...
  • Jeno: My family and I had Verizon for years, and it was just fine, no problem. It seems almost as SOON as Frontier came into the picture, our internet was ...
  • Sharon: I too have gotten taken by Verizon, and they are continually trying to add more costs to my plan; daily. This number did call today, showing as a Ver...
  • Josh: I need PBS and The CW...I can't believe those aren't on here! I'd want BBC America too. I'd really want a much longer DVR too...28 days isn't good...
  • Len: I have a 25MB/s CenturyLink connection (internet only) that costs $83 / month. I have a "discount" that brings it down to $53. These guys at Century...
  • Josh: Having to pay to get your bill is just an hilarious low :-D And I'm sorry about those people :-( Somehow I doubt they're not needed......
  • Len: 100 MB/s....... For ONLY 300 Euros a month! OK, sarcasm here, but you see what I'm getting at. MB/s is only part of it. It makes no difference...
  • Mike D.: There are giant delicious pies being feasted upon and Comcast isn't able to gorge themselves. That will end soon, and unless customers drop them like ...
  • Josh: Glad you mentioned that. Yeah, I'm nowhere near Chicago and am affected....
  • BobInIllinois: Just a note to explain what Comcast means by the "Chicago Region". It is a Comcast regional market designation for more territory than just the Chica...
  • Josh: This is just an excuse to raise bills by at least $50/month (or more, if you go over without realizing you have to *CALL* to add this $50/month fee). ...
  • 7879878: And why isnt the FCC getting Involved? The fact there is NO OPT OUT and a $35+ option to get back what you had before should be a huge red flag to an...

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