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FCC Chairman Announces Compromise Set-Top Box Reform; Free ‘Apps’ for One and All

explorer 8000[Editor’s Note: Federal Communications Commission chairman Thomas Wheeler today released a compromise proposal hoping to get the cost of set-top box equipment down for millions of Americans forced to lease equipment to watch cable television.

Wheeler originally proposed requiring an open standard for set-top box equipment that would open the market to competition by allowing manufacturers to directly sell equipment to consumers and compete for their business. Cable operators, programmers, and various special interest groups that depend on financial contributions from those operators immediately launched an unprecedented pushback claiming set-top box reform was racist, anti-minority, promoted copyright theft, and was illegal and unconstitutional. Small cable operators claimed they might be driven out of business, and programmers claimed companies like Google might fundamentally change the channel lineup on new equipment that would leave them in a disadvantaged position.

In fact, the hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue earned by cable operators charging the same price for equipment fresh out of the box or handed down in beat up condition to the fifth customer in eight years was more likely the driving factor.

Mr. Wheeler capitulated and released a more modest proposal promising cable operators would be forced to offer free “apps” for devices like Roku and Apple TV. But cable operators will likely own and manage those apps and have direct control of authentication methods and anti-piracy measures that are likely to be proprietary. Still, apps like TWC TV which covers Time Warner Cable’s lineup on devices like Roku have allowed consumers to ditch expensive set-top equipment and irritating Digital Adapters that don’t function well and have almost tripled in price since their introduction. Making sure these apps provide comparable functionality with set-top boxes and are released to a variety of devices will be key to whether Wheeler’s proposal, delivered in full below courtesy of the Los Angeles Times, has a measurable impact on cable bills.]

FCC chairman: Here are the new proposed rules for set-top boxes

There’s never been a better time to watch television in America. We have more options than ever, and, with so much competition for eyeballs, studios and artists keep raising the bar for quality content. But when it comes to the set-top-box that delivers our pay-TV subscriptions, we have essentially no options, creating headaches and costing us serious money in rental fees. That makes no sense, which is why I’m sharing a proposal with my fellow commissioners at the Federal Communications Commission to change the system.

Wheeler's compromise

Wheeler’s compromise

Ninety-nine percent of pay-TV subscribers currently lease set-top boxes from their cable, satellite or telecommunications provider, paying an average of $231 a year for the privilege, according to a recent analysis. The collective tab is $20 billion annually in rental fees. In a recent study, 84% of consumers felt their cable bill was too high. What they may not realize is that every bill includes an add-on fee for their set-top boxes. We keep paying these charges even after the cost of the box has been recovered because we have no meaningful alternative.

Pay-TV providers will be required to provide apps — free of charge — that consumers can download to the device of their choosing.
Earlier this year, the FCC launched a process to unlock the set-top-box marketplace. We were motivated by the desire to give consumers relief, but we were also mandated to take action by Congress and the law, which says that consumers should be able to choose their preferred device to access pay-TV programming.
Over the past seven months, the Commission conducted an open proceeding where we heard from pay-TV providers, programmers, device and software manufacturers, consumers groups, and, most important, the American people. We listened.

Now, I am proposing rules that would end the set-top-box stranglehold. If adopted, consumers will no longer have to rent a set-top box, month after month. Instead, pay-TV providers will be required to provide apps – free of charge– that consumers can download to the device of their choosing to access all the programming and features they already paid for.

appletvIf you want to watch Comcast’s content through your Apple TV or Roku, you can. If you want to watch DirectTV’s offerings through your Xbox, you can. If you want to pipe Verizon’s service directly to your smart TV, you can. And if you want to watch your current pay-TV package on your current set-top box, you can do that, too. The choice is yours. No longer will you be forced to rent set-top boxes from your pay-TV provider.

One of the biggest benefits consumers will see is integrated search. The rules would require all pay-TV providers to enable the ability for consumers to search for pay-TV content alongside other sources of content. Just type in the name of a movie, and a list will come up with all the places it is scheduled for broadcast and where it can be streamed (like Amazon Prime or Hulu).

Integrated search also means expanded access to programming created by independent and diverse voices on the same platform as your pay-TV providers. Consumers will more easily find content even if it’s not on the pay-TV service to which they subscribe.

These rules will open the door for innovation, spurring new apps and devices, giving consumers even more choice and user control.

While our primary focus during this proceeding was to promote consumer choice and fulfill our congressional mandate, we recognize that protecting the legitimate copyright interests of content creators is also key to serving the public interest. To ensure that all copyright and licensing agreements will remain intact, the delivery of pay-TV programming will continue to be overseen by pay-TV providers from end-to-end. The proposed rules also maintain important protections regarding emergency alerting, accessibility and privacy.

Large pay-TV providers, which serve more than 90% of subscribers, will have two years to fully implement the new requirements.  Medium-sized providers will have an additional two years to comply, and the smallest providers would be exempt.

This is a golden era for watching television and video. By empowering consumers to access their content on their terms, it’s about to get cheaper — and even better.

The N.Y. Times Exposes Corporate-Backed Think Tanks

Sock Puppets: Ostensibly "independent" people quietly on the payroll of Big Telecom companies and advocating their positions.

Sock Puppets: Ostensibly “independent” people quietly on the payroll of Big Telecom companies and advocating their positions.

“Net Neutrality would not improve consumer welfare or protect the public interest,” came the considered view of one Jeffrey A. Eisenach, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee in September 2014. “The potential costs of Net Neutrality regulation are both sweeping and severe. It is best understood as an effort by one set of private interests to enrich itself by using the power of the state.”

Mr. Eisenach was introduced on the printed formal agenda as a “visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.” If one looked at a transcript of his written testimony, they would find he also co-served as “co-chair of NERA Economic Consulting’s Communications, Media and Internet Practice.” But his views could have effectively represented all the above and more.

The New York Times this week published a two-part article examining the thin lines between public policy scholars, lobbyists, researchers, advocates, corporations, and private citizens. It is an important piece that details the shady world of bought and paid for research, academia, corporate lawyers and lobbyists, and Washington lawmakers that too often accept what they are told without following the money.

On that September day back in 2014 Eisenach wanted his views to be attributed only to him.

Eisenach

Eisenach

“While I am here in my capacity as a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, the views I express are my own, should not be attributed to A.E.I. or to any of the organizations with which I am affiliated,” Eisenach told the Senate committee.

What was considerably less clear is the name of the client (or an affiliated trade organization) that has underwritten almost every one of a dozen studies he has published on internet-related issues from 2007-2016 — Verizon, the same company that shares his hostile views towards Net Neutrality.

Over the years, it has become difficult to tell whether Eisenach’s views, articles, and study findings are his own, those of his study sponsor, and/or those of his employer. Just tracking Eisenach’s ever-changing employment record was no easy task. In the fall of 2013, Eisenach was the director of the American Enterprise Institute’s new “Center on Media and Internet Policy.” Just a few months later, he joined NERA, one of the country’s oldest economic consultancy firms, as a senior vice president in its telecommunications practice.

From each of these positions, Eisenach can pen the views of some of America’s largest telecommunications companies under the guise of an “independent” study, an invaluable cover tool for a member of Congress confronted with voting on behalf of corporate friends at the cost of consumers in the district.

“A report authored by an academic is going to have more credibility in the eyes of the regulator who is reading it,” Michael J. Copps, a former FCC commissioner who is now a special adviser for the Media and Democracy Reform Initiative at Common Cause, told the newspaper. “They are seeking to build credibility where none exists.”

A former Verizon employee who still does some consulting of his told the Times how the game is played.

aei“Let’s say you’re in legal and you want to have a paper that says what you want it to say,” said ex-Verizon economist Dennis Weller. “You could have a bunch of economists in house and ask them if they agree with you. How much easier would it be to go to an outside economist and say, ‘How about if I pay you $100,000 to write this?’”

With appropriate disclosure that a company like Verizon paid $100,000 for a report that exactly matches Verizon’s public policy agenda might raise questions on Capitol Hill as to its veracity and independence. If that disclosure goes missing or is hidden under a third-party like a trade association, a lawmaker might assume the report was produced independently and the strong corroboration of Verizon’s views is just a coincidence. That kind of credibility can be worth millions to any company confronting a debate over regulatory policy.

“[Eisenach] is good at linking big theoretical ideas to policy, and he’s been good at making money doing that,” added Weller. “He’s been good at moving from think tank to think tank and company to company, and I don’t think he’s ever lost money doing it.”

The New York Times investigation found while Eisenach testified before Congress ostensibly as a private citizen, he was also filing formal comments to the FCC as a “scholar” with the American Enterprise Institute, was meeting privately with FCC commissioners, organized public briefings that featured powerful senators like John Thune (R-S.D.), who happens to be the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. That committee also has direct oversight over the FCC and has spent the last three years scrutinizing FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler. Eisenach even briefed the two Republican FCC commissioners about what AEI’s general counsel had to say about Wheeler’s efforts to get Net Neutrality in place at the FCC. Eisenach offered both commissioners speaking time at AEI events, urging at least one of them to attack Net Neutrality.

“Net Neutrality is obviously top of mind,” he said in an email to that commissioner, Michael O’Rielly. “I’d be delighted if you would use the opportunity to lay out the case against.”

net_neutralityThe Times reported Eisenach was hardly alone opposing Net Neutrality. Just weeks after becoming chairman, Wheeler received a letter signed by more than a dozen prominent economists and scholars affiliated with various Washington think tanks or academic institutions. They wanted Wheeler to reject Net Neutrality regulations. The letter attempted to distance the signers from any corporate agenda, noting in a footnote that nobody was compensated for their signature on the letter.

On the other hand, of the dozen studies that were included or referenced in their letter as “evidence,” more than half were entirely funded by giant telecom companies that oppose Net Neutrality. Mr. Wheeler would need a magnifying glass and plenty of free time to ferret out the industry funding disclosures in those attached studies, which were buried in footnotes.

When the industry took the FCC to court over broadband regulation or Net Neutrality, it was more of the same. Verizon was successful opposing an earlier FCC rule on Net Neutrality by trotting out almost two dozen studies and declarations that opposed regulatory oversight — more than half sponsored entirely by the telecommunications companies or trade associations that despise Net Neutrality. Many other studies were written by think tanks and scholars that also had direct financial ties to the companies.

Litan

Litan

Another key factor in the debate about Net Neutrality was the cost of implementing it. Again, the incestuous ties between the telecom industry, think tanks, and academia would serve up the “right answers” for Big Telecom’s case against Neutrality when two economists issued a controversial “policy brief” that claimed Net Neutrality would cost $15 billion in new fees and retard broadband expansion and upgrades. (The $15 billion figure came under immediate ridicule by consumer groups that effectively suggested the study authors ‘made it up,’ a case that may have been proven to some degree when the authors suddenly revised it down to $11 billion.)

Robert Litan, then a senior fellow at Brookings and Hal Singer, who used to work at the Progressive Policy Institute, would quickly come under greater scrutiny than Eisenach, probably because their report became central to the industry’s battle against Net Neutrality. The National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA) even built an advertising campaign against Net Neutrality around their study. Politicians opposed to Net Neutrality also regularly quoted from Litan and Singer’s findings to explain their strong opposition to the net policy.

Lost in the debate is who paid Mr. Litan and Mr. Singer for their work. Their employer, Economists Inc., yet another inside-the-Beltway consulting firm, didn’t exactly publicize their “select clients” included AT&T and Verizon — two of the largest opponents of Net Neutrality.

Using think tanks to bolster corporate lobbying has become so common, it has attracted the attention of some members of Congress.

Litan collided with one of the Senate’s fiercest consumer advocates and watchdogs — Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in a September 2015 hearing about a rules change fiercely opposed by investment bankers that would require financial advisers recommending retirement-associated investments to put their clients’ interests ahead of their own personal gain. Warren has championed the cause of ending high bank and investment-related fees that eat away investor returns. Some of the worst offenders convinced financial advisers to recommend their funds by kicking back large bonus commissions, which enriched the adviser and the investment bank but left seniors hit hard by lost potential earnings.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)

Litan’s research questioned the potential benefits of upping ethical standards. He wrote the costs to the banking and investment community to implement the rules would far outweigh any benefits to investors. Litan casually mentioned his affiliation with Brookings, a think tank, to promote his research’s credibility. He didn’t call attention to the fact his 28-page study was produced for a client: Capital Group — a massive financial services company with $1.39 trillion in assets. It would be directly impacted by the imposition of the new rules, which it strongly opposed.

Capital Group paid Economists, Inc. $85,000 for the study. Litan’s cut of the action was $38,800 — or $1,386 per page.

Warren complained Litan was not exactly forthcoming in disclosing his personal gain and his ties to a major opponent of the new rules under consideration.

“These disclosures are problematic: they raise significant questions about the impartiality of the study and its conclusions, and about why a Brookings-affiliated expert is allowed to use that affiliation to lend credibility to work that is…editorially compromised,” Sen. Warren wrote in a letter to Brookings President Strobe Talbott.

The embarrassment to Brookings, which has increasingly relied on corporate-funded research to fund its work, led to rumors Litan was asked to leave, and he resigned shortly thereafter. Litan downplayed the event, calling it a “minor technical violation” of Brookings’ ethics policy, which prohibits those associated with the think tank from using their affiliation with Brookings in any research report or testimony.

The incident fueled consumer groups’ arguments that cozy arrangements between purportedly independent scholars and academics and corporate entities too often results in bought-and-paid-for- research not worth the paper it is printed on. A clear conflict of interest and the lack of prominent funding disclosures makes such reports suspect at best and worthless in many other cases, because no company paying for a report is going to make it public if it conflicts with their agenda.

Singer

Singer

Remarkably, other economists, many also engaged in producing reports for corporate clients, rushed to the defense of… Mr. Litan, calling his removal from Brookings the result of a witch hunt.

A letter signed by former Clinton economic advisers W. Bowman Cutter and Everett Ehrlich; Harvard University international trade and investment professor Robert Z. Lawrence; former Clinton chief budget economist Joseph Minarik; and former Clinton economic adviser Hal Singer, who co-authored the report that got Litan in hot water with Sen. Warren, claimed as a result of Litan’s forced resignation, critics of their reports could threaten the credibility of their work with an “ad hominem attack on any author who may be associated with an industry or interest whose views are contrary to [Sen. Warren].”

“Businesses sometimes finance policy research much as advocacy groups or other interests do,” the economists wrote. “A reader can question the source of the financing on all sides, but ultimately the quality of the work and the integrity of the author are paramount.”

Singer has since left the Progressive Policy Institute.

D.C.’s revolving door has also provided lucrative work for those out of government jobs and now working in the private sector, often lobbying those still in government.

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) had no problem introducing a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece into the Congressional Record written by Robert McDowell, who wears several hats at the Hudson Institute. He’s a “scholar,” a “telecommunications industry lawyer” at a firm retained by AT&T to fight Net Neutrality, and a lobbyist. If his name is familiar to you, that might be because McDowell used to be a commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission from June 1, 2006 to May 17, 2013. Now he is paid to kill Net Neutrality for AT&T.

None of that seem to faze Walden or raise questions about the credibility of the opinion piece he sought to have added to the official record.

“Everyone’s got their point of view,” Walden said last year. “And some of them get paid to have that point of view.”

Jesse Jackson Compares Set Top Box Competition to Bull Connor’s Fire Hoses

Bull Connor was Birmingham, Ala.'s notorious Commissioner of Public Safety

Bull Connor was Birmingham, Ala.’s notorious Commissioner of Public Safety in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

In an astonishing guest editorial published by USA TODAY, Rev. Jesse Jackson evoked imagery of the 1960s civil rights movement as a backdrop to claim the Federal Communication Commission’s plan to promote an open, competitive market for set-top boxes was racist.

“National news coverage of the snarling dogs, water hoses and church bombings in the American South were the catalysts to exposing the ugly truths of racism and bigotry in the 1960s. Local news outlets gave new meaning to what the struggle looked like for people on its front lines,” wrote Jackson. “That is why a new proposal at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to regulate TV ‘set top boxes’ has raised so much concern.”

That “concern” has come almost entirely from the cable and telco-TV industry and their allies, which have compared the potential breakup of a lucrative cable TV equipment monopoly to anti-Americanism, minority television genocide, an invitation to piracy and a pathway for total world domination by Google.

In April, we reported the rhetoric surrounding the proposal, which would create an open standard allowing any manufacturer to make and sell their own set-top box, had already taken Hyperbole Hill. But Rev. Jackson’s latest guest editorial rockets the ridiculousness of the cable industry’s opposition into the stratosphere.

Jackson claims (wrongly) the proposal will lead third-party manufacturers to segregate minority television content, apparently in a way that resembles life in rural Mississippi in 1962. It evokes dreams of hordes of Google vans roaming across the southern countryside looking for trouble by stripping networks like Revolt and Vme TV of their ad revenue and copyright protection. It just isn’t true. But one line in Jackson’s commentary does prove revealing — noting all these terrible events could all take place “without any compensation.”

Jackson

Jackson

This is the diamond in the rough of this near-senseless editorial. Like most things in the world of Big Telecom public policy, it’s all about the money. Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition apparently isn’t what it used to be. Originally created to promote civil rights and diversity, the organization these days is just as likely to promote Big Telecom mergers and its public policy agenda, usually in exchange for contributions to Jackson’s groups, although such quid-pro-quo is always hotly denied. Therefore, we shall call them monetary “coincidences.” His coincidental association with Comcast, AT&T, Verizon and others runs back more than a decade:

  • Bell Atlantic (later Verizon) coincidentally donated $1 million to Jackson and his groups. In 1999, Jackson coincidentally endorsed the merger of GTE and Bell Atlantic into a new entity known as Verizon, which coincidentally pledged $300,000 to Jackson annually through the year 2002;
  • In 1998 Jackson was strongly opposed to the merger of SBC and Ameritech (which would later emerge as AT&T), suggesting it was anti-democratic. After the two companies donated $500,000 to Jackson’s Citizenship Education Fund (given a dubious rating by Charity Navigator), Jackson coincidentally did a complete 180, praising the merger. It didn’t hurt that Ameritech coincidentally sold part of its cellular business to Georgetown Partners, owned coincidentally by one of Jackson’s closest friends.
  • Not to be left out, AT&T coincidentally donated $425,000 to Jackson’s Citizenship Education Fund in 1999, right after Jackson coincidentally withdrew his opposition to the merger of AT&T and TCI Cable (later sold to Comcast).
  • Jackson coincidentally has maintained a regular presence in proceedings involving Comcast’s various business dealings, particularly its merger with NBCUniversal, which it coincidentally endorsed as “pro-consumer.”

bullhoseJackson mentioned his views have the support of certain other civil rights organization including the National Urban League and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), two groups Stop the Cap! has written about extensively regarding their ongoing committed support of Big Telecom mergers, deregulation, and other public policy agendas. They don’t work for free — substantial contributions and other compensation from those same companies head into the coffers of both groups. LULAC counts AT&T, Comcast, Cox, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, Time Warner Cable and Verizon as members of their “corporate alliance.” None of those companies support the FCC’s plan to open up the set-top box marketplace.

Jackson cheapens the legacy of the civil rights movement in his efforts to draw comparisons between the horrible atrocities of the past with the fat equipment profits the cable industry is counting on in the future.

His views are also simply provably wrong. Jackson’s claim that the government was somehow responsible for the destruction of local multicultural newspapers at a time when the entire newspaper industry continues to struggle against online media is ludicrous. His myopic view that the elimination of a minority tax certificate program is the reason minorities don’t own many radio and television stations today ignores the fact many former minority owners cashed out and sold those stations (at a massive profit) after the Clinton Administration deregulated the industry in the late 1990s, which lead to a massive wave of ownership consolidation. Finding individuals, minority or otherwise, that still own local radio and television stations isn’t as easy as it once was.

opinionJackson and his supporters are wasting their time fighting to preserve the dying concept of the 500-channel linear TV marketplace. Consumers, minorities included, are not clamoring for more minority networks littering the cable dial that spend much of their broadcast day airing program length commercials and reruns of Good Times or The Cosby Show. Many of these networks only add to the growing cost of cable TV. Viewers want on-demand access to quality original programming they can actually find and watch.

We’d also remind Jackson minorities also pay the outrageous price of set-top box rentals, something Jackson and his organization should be sensitive about. Busting the set-top box monopoly means every American will pay lower rates for this equipment. We do understand it won’t help Jackson’s bank account, or those of other civil rights groups that kowtow to their corporate friends, but who exactly do they represent?

Daring to suggest that this debate has anything to do with Bull Connor’s outrageous behavior in Birmingham, Ala. in 1963, where Connor ordered the city fire department to turn fire hoses on peaceful civil rights protesters and attacked them with police dogs, tarnishes the reputation of Jackson and his group and demonstrates just how desperate the cable industry is getting trying to credibly defend a monopoly. Jackson should withdraw those remarks.

Cable Industry & Friends Freak Out Over Set-Top Box Competition: It Destroys Everything

comcast-set-topIt’s all hands on deck for a cable industry desperate to protect billions in revenue earned from a monopoly stranglehold on the set-top box, now under threat by a proposal at the FCC to open up the market to competition.

While cable industry groups decry the proposal as a solution looking for a problem, at least 99 percent of cable customers are required to lease the equipment they need to watch pay television. That has become a reliable source of revenue for the industry and set-top box manufacturers, who share the $231 each customer pays a year in rental fees. Collectively that amounts to $20 billion in annual revenue. The FCC argues there is ample evidence cable operators and manufacturers are taking advantage of that captive marketplace, raising rental fees an average of 185% over the last 20 years while other electronic items have seen price declines as much as 90 percent.

With that kind of money on the line and a recent statement from the Obama Administration it fully supports FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler’s proposal, Wall Street has gotten jittery over cable stocks — a clear sign investors are worried about the economic impact of additional competition and lower prices.

Wheeler

Wheeler

“Instead of spending nearly $1,000 over four years to lease a set of behind-the-times boxes, American families will have options to own a device for much less money that will integrate everything they want — including their cable or satellite content, as well as online streaming apps — in one, easier-to-use gadget,” Jason Furman, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, wrote in a White House blog post.

The proposal would coordinate the establishment of an “open standard” for set-top box technology, making it possible for multiple manufacturers to enter the market and compete.

The idea is not without precedent. The cable modem marketplace uses a DOCSIS standard any manufacturer can use to launch their own modem. Once the modem is certified, broadband consumers can choose to either rent the modem from their cable operator ($10 a month from Time Warner) or buy one outright, usually for less than $70, easily paying for itself in less than one year.

But the set-top box proposal just doesn’t add up, argues Comcast — one of the strongest opponents of Chairman Wheeler’s proposal.

“A new government technology mandate makes little sense when the apps-based marketplace solution also endorsed by the FCC’s technical advisory committee is driving additional retail availability of third-party devices without any of the privacy, diversity, intellectual property, legal authority, or other substantial concerns raised by the chairman’s mandate,” wrote David Cohen, Comcast’s top lobbyist.

The National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA) — the country’s largest cable industry lobbying group, said much the same thing.

The Roku set top streaming device.

The Roku set-top streaming device.

“By reading the White House blog, you have to wonder how they could ignore that the world’s largest tech companies — which are often touted in other Administration initiatives — including Apple, Amazon, Google, Netflix and many others are providing exactly the choice in video services and devices that they claim to want,” the NCTA wrote.

Their argument is that a competitive set-top box market has already emerged without any interference from the FCC. Time Warner Cable, for example, voluntarily offers most of its lineup on the Roku platform. Comcast’s XFINITY TV app allows subscribers to watch cable channels over a variety of iOS and Android devices. Several operators also support videogame consoles as an alternative to renting set-top boxes.

But few allow customers to completely escape renting at least one set-top box, especially for premium movie channels. Others don’t support more than one or two streaming video consoles like Roku, Apple TV, or Amazon Fire TV.

In Canada, cable customers can often buy their own set-top boxes and DVRs (known as PVRs up north) from major electronics retailers like Best Buy. For example, Shaw customers in western Canada can purchase a XG1 500GB HD Dual Tuner PVR with 6 built-in tuners and a 500GB hard drive (upgradable), which supports recording up to 6 HD shows simultaneously, for under $350. With some cable companies charging up to $15 a month for similar equipment, it would take just under two years to recoup the purchase cost. Many cable subscribers rent the same DVR for as long as five years before the hard drive starts acting up, necessitating replacement (of the drive).

Endangered?

Endangered cable network? Minority programmers say set-top box competition will destroy their networks.

Arguing the technical issues of cable box competition isn’t apparently enough of a winning argument, so the industry has drafted the support of minority cable programmers and friendly legislators who have taken Hyperbole Hill with declarations that set-top box competition will result in “the ultimate extinction of minority and special-interest programmers.”

How?

A competitive set-top box manufacturer may decide to ignore the way cable channels are now numbered on the cable dial. With everything negotiable, many programmers offer discounts or other incentives to win a lower channel number, avoiding the Channel Siberia effect of finding one’s network on a four digit channel number that channel surfers will likely never reach.

Their fear is that an entity like Google or Apple will pay no attention to how Comcast or Time Warner chooses to number its channels, and will use a different system that puts the most popular channels first.

Fees:

Fees: $34.95 for TV package, $35.90 in equipment and service fees.

But that assumes consumers care about channel numbers and not programs. Those who argue the days of linear TV are coming to an end doubt opening the set-top box market up for competition presents the biggest threat to these minority and specialty programmers. Those that devote hours of their broadcast day to reruns and program length commercials are probably at the most risk, because they lack quality original programming viewers want to see.

Hal Singer, who produces research reports for the telecom industry-backed Progressive Policy Institute, even goes as far as to suggest competitive set-top boxes will discourage telephone companies from building fiber to the home service, because they won’t get the advertising revenue for TV service they might otherwise receive from a captive set-top box market. But Singer ignores the fact Verizon effectively stopped substantial expansion of its FiOS network in 2010 (except in Boston) and AT&T now focuses most of its marketing on selling DirecTV service to TV customers, not U-verse – it’s fiber to the neighborhood service.

But Singer may be accurate on one point. If the cable industry loses revenue from set-top box rental fees, it may simply raise the rates it charges for cable television to make up the difference.

“So long as high-value customers for home video also demand more set-top boxes—a reasonable assumption—then pay TV operators can use metering to reduce the total price of home entertainment for cable customers,” Singer opines. “If this pricing structure were upended by the FCC’s proposal, economic theory predicts that pay TV prices would rise, thereby crowding out marginal video customers.”

Attacks on Tennessee’s EPB Municipal Broadband Fall Flat in Light of Facts

latinos for tnThe worst enemy of some advocacy groups writing guest editorial hit pieces against municipal broadband is: facts.

Raul Lopez is the founder and executive director for Latinos for Tennessee, a 501C advocacy group that reported $0 in assets, $0 in income, and is not required to file a Form 990 with the Internal Revenue Service as of 2014. Lopez claims the group is dedicated to providing “Latinos in Tennessee with information and resources grounded on faith, family and freedom.”

But his views on telecom issues are grounded in AT&T and Comcast’s tiresome and false talking points about publicly owned broadband. His “opinion piece” in the Knoxville News Sentinel was almost entirely fact-free:

It is not the role of the government to use taxpayer resources to compete with private industry. Government is highly inefficient — usually creating an inferior product at a higher price — and is always slower to respond to market changes. Do we really want government providing our Internet service? Government-run health care hasn’t worked so well, so why would we promote government-run Internet?

Phillip Dampier: Corporate talking point nonsense regurgitated by Mr. Lopez isn't for the good of anyone.

Phillip Dampier: Corporate talking point nonsense regurgitated by Mr. Lopez isn’t for the good of anyone.

Lopez’s claim that only private providers are good at identifying what customers want falls to pieces when we’re talking about AT&T and Comcast. Public utility EPB was the first to deliver gigabit fiber to the home service in Chattanooga, first to deliver honest everyday pricing, still offers unlimited service without data caps and usage billing that customers despise, and has a customer approval and reliability rating Comcast and AT&T can only dream about.

Do the people of Chattanooga want “the government” (EPB is actually a public utility) to provide Internet service? Apparently so. Last fall, EPB achieved the status of being the #1 telecom provider in Chattanooga, with nearly half of all households EPB serves signed up for at least one EPB service — TV, broadband, or phone service. Comcast used to be #1 until real competition arrived. That “paragon of virtue’s” biggest private sector innovation of late? Rolling out its 300GB usage cap (with overlimit fees) in Chattanooga. That’s the same cap that inspired more than 13,000 Americans to file written complaints with the FCC about Comcast’s broadband pricing practices. EPB advertises no such data caps and has delivered the service residents actually want. Lopez calls that “hurting competition in our state and putting vital services at risk.”

Remarkably, other so-called “small government” advocates (usually well-funded by the telecom industry) immediately began beating a drum for Big Government protectionism to stop EPB by pushing for a state law to ban or restrict publicly owned networks.

Lopez appears to be on board:

Our Legislature considered a bill this session that would repeal a state municipal broadband law that prohibits government-owned networks from expanding across their municipal borders. Thankfully, it failed in the House Business and Utilities Subcommittee, but it will undoubtedly be back again in future legislative sessions. The legislation is troubling because it will harm taxpayers and stifle private-sector competition and innovation.

Or more accurately, it will make sure Comcast and AT&T can ram usage caps and higher prices for worse service down the throats of Tennessee customers.

epb broadband prices

EPB’s broadband pricing. Higher discounts possible with bundling.

Lopez also plays fast and loose with the truth suggesting the Obama Administration handed EPB a $111.7 million federal grant to compete with Comcast and AT&T. In reality, that grant was for EPB to build a smart grid for its electricity network. That fiber-based grid is estimated to have avoided 124.7 million customer minutes of interruptions by better detection of power faults and better methods of rerouting power to restore service more quickly than in the past.

EPB provides municipal power, broadband, television, and telephone service for residents in Chattanooga, Tennessee

EPB provides municipal power, broadband, television, and telephone service for residents in Chattanooga, Tennessee

Public utilities can run smart grids and not sell television, broadband, and phone service, leaving that fiber network underutilized. EPB decided it could put that network to good use, and a recent study by University of Tennessee economist Bento Lobo found EPB’s fiber services helped generate between 2,800 and 5,200 new jobs and added $865.3 million to $1.3 billion to the local economy. That translates into $2,832-$3,762 per Hamilton County resident. That’s quite a return on a $111.7 million investment that was originally intended just to help keep the lights on.

So EPB’s presence in Chattanooga has not harmed taxpayers and has not driven either of its two largest competitors out of the city.

Lopez then wanders into an equally ridiculous premise – that minority communities want mobile Internet access, not the fiber to the home service EPB offers:

Not all consumers access the Internet the same way. According to the Pew Research Center, Hispanics and African-Americans are more likely to rely on mobile broadband than traditional wire-line service. Indeed, minority communities are even more likely than the population as a whole to use their smartphones to apply for jobs online.

[…] Additionally, just like people are getting rid of basic at-home telephone service, Americans, especially minorities, are getting rid of at-home broadband. In 2013, 70 percent of Americans had broadband at home. Just two years later, only 67 percent did. The decline was true across almost the entire demographic board, regardless of race, income category, education level or location. Indeed, in 2013, 16 percent of Hispanics said they relied only on their smartphones for Internet access, and by 2015 that figure was up to 23 percent.

That drop in at-home broadband isn’t because fewer Americans have access to wireless broadband, it’s because more are moving to a wireless-only model. The bureaucracy of government has trouble adapting to changes like these, which is why government-owned broadband systems are often technologically out of date before they’re finished.

But Lopez ignores a key finding of Pew’s research:

In some form, cost is the chief reason that non-adopters cite when permitted to identify more than one reason they do not have a home high-speed subscription. Overall, 66% of non-adopters point toward either the monthly service fee or the cost of the computer as a barrier to adoption.

What community broadband provides communities the big phone and cable companies don't.

So it isn’t that customers want to exclusively access Internet services over a smartphone, they don’t have much of a choice at the prices providers like Comcast and AT&T charge. Wireless-only broadband is also typically usage capped and so expensive that average families with both wired broadband and a smartphone still do most of their data-intensive usage from home or over Wi-Fi to protect their usage allowance.

EPB runs a true fiber to the home network, Comcast runs a hybrid fiber-coax network, and AT&T mostly relies on a hybrid fiber-copper phone wire network. Comcast and AT&T are technically out of date, not EPB.

Not one of Lopez’s arguments has withstood the scrutiny of checking his claims against the facts, and here is another fact-finding failure on his part:

Top EPB officials argue that residents in Bradley County are clambering for EPB-offered Internet service, but the truth is Bradley County is already served by multiple private Internet service providers. Indeed, statewide only 215,000 Tennesseans, or approximately 4 percent, don’t have broadband access. We must find ways to address the needs of those residents, but that’s not what this bill would do. This bill would promote government providers over private providers, harming taxpayers and consumers along the way.

Outlined section shows Bradley County, Tenn., east of Chattanooga.

Outlined section shows Bradley County, Tenn., east of Chattanooga.

The Chattanoogan reported it far differently, talking with residents and local elected officials on the ground in the broadband-challenged county:

The legislation would remove territorial restrictions and provide the clearest path possible for EPB to serve customers and for customers to receive high-speed internet.

State Rep. Dan Howell, the former executive assistant to the county mayor of Bradley County, was in attendance and called broadband a “necessity” as he offered his full support to helping EPB, as did Tennessee State Senator Todd Gardenhire.

“We can finally get something done,” Senator Gardenhire said. “The major carriers, Charter, Comcast and AT&T, have an exclusive right to the area and they haven’t done anything about it.”

So while EPB’s proposed expansion threatened Comcast and AT&T sufficiently to bring out their lobbyists demanding a ban on such expansions in the state legislature, neither company has specific plans to offer service to unserved locations in the area. Only EPB has shown interest in expansion, and without taxpayer funds.

The facts just don’t tell the same story Lopez, AT&T, and Comcast tell and would like you to believe. EPB has demonstrated it is the best provider in Chattanooga, provides service customers want at a fair price, and represents the interests of the community, not Wall Street and investors Comcast and AT&T listen to almost exclusively. Lopez would do a better job for his group’s membership by telling the truth and not redistributing stale, disproven Big Telecom talking points.

Charter’s Fairy Tales: Please Approve Our Deal and Trees Will Spontaneously Blossom

You've been flee¢ed

You’ve been flee¢ed

It’s time for some more Big Cable Fairy Tales, brought to you by the well-paid lawyers, lobbyists, and lackey sock puppets paid to tell regulators life is only worth living when you approve a colossal merger.

Kids, gather round for tonight’s prescient story of vague promises and non-committal commitments.

Once upon a time in the forest there was a big, bad old Mr. Wolf (better known to his friends as TWC) that had a nasty habit occupying a nearby bridge to grandmother’s house and charged humongous fees to cross it. One of his best customers was Little Red Riding Hood, who depended on the no longer state of the art bridge to cut her travel time to grandmother’s house by 75%. Every trip proved an aggravation for our Red. It was costly, closed to traffic far more often than it should, and was policed by that pesky wolf and his “take it or leave it” attitude.

One Sunday in January, an angry crowd had gathered, reading a notice tacked to a nearby tree. In small print, it was titled, “Toll Reconsideration Notification.”

The notice explained increased bridge beautification and maintenance expenses necessitated an annual toll adjustment. But no worries, it would amount to about the cost of one jar of jam in Red’s basket.

“If you bought it at Whole Foods,” muttered Hood to your eminent narrator.

(Last year’s toll hike was “less than a box of cookies,” the year before that was “a tin of tea.” Three years ago it was the cost of Red’s basket. Next year, we think she would do better just handing over her purse.)

This year one trip across the bridge would cost $7.50. If you bought a wolf-approved, bundled picnic basket at the gift store while on your journey, it would drop that toll to $6. The wolf told complainers that was evidence most would never have to pay that new price, so the toll hike was minimal. But the people remained suspicious. (There were stories this wolf also had a tendency to occasionally feast on customers when nobody was looking, but his lawyers denied it.)

Despite the bridge toll inflation and John Walsh looking for missing travelers, our Red knew if she wanted to get to grandmother’s house this week, she had to use the bridge, nefarious wolf or not. The only other bridge – run by old man Frank Bison, fell into the river last winter and he doesn’t think it is worth spending a lot of money to build a new one. Despite offers to take customers across in his leaky canoe, most decide to pass.

Mr. Bison

Mr. Bison

Mr. Wolf made a handsome profit every quarter charging tolls to travelers. This fact did not escape the attention of the head of the Sheep Consortium in the next valley over. For years, the Consortium felt under-appreciated. Their adventures were rarely told, because few people cared. The wolf had a better story, and anyway it was hard to respect the sheep after they overspent on their watchdog operation and bankrupted themselves for a time.

“That was so yesterday,” defended Dr. Flee¢e, the head of the Consortium. “This is a new sunny day.”

Or so he claimed. Out of view, Flee¢e paced a nearby paddock night after night, unable to sleep knowing that damn wolf got all the attention and a heckuva lot more toll revenue than he was getting.

So one night, Dr. Flee¢e and his friends paid $10 million dollars to the Magic Sparkle Pony grazing down by the investment bank to find a win-win solution for both the sheep and the wolf (but mostly the sheep, shhh.) The pony looked up, tilted his head briefly, and said just one word: SYNERGY. A cacophony of gratitude rose from the valley and gosh darn it, exclaimed Dr. Flee¢e, wouldn’t you know the silly pony had the answer? A merger! The wolf’s costs would drop, the sheep would finally be able to tap into a big piece of that toll operation, and only by working together would Little Red Riding Hood get the benefits of their new relationship:big sheep

  1. The ratty old bridge would be fully painted.
  2. The wolf promised to go vegetarian for up to three years.
  3. Little Red Riding Hood would be given a new basket (imported from Laos).

“Hey, wait a minute,” asked one of the sheep. “Didn’t the Three Little Pigs try this last year? They had more money than we do and some of them were turned into bacon after that surprising storm blew their house down.”

“But don’t you see the Magic Sparkle Pony solved that for us too?” responded another. “All we have to say is we’re not pigs and that counts for something. Besides, who doesn’t love sheep? This is going to work out fine.”

But there were still problems, especially with Ms. Hood and her fellow travelers.

It seems the Consortium didn’t promise Ms. Hood or anyone else would pay less on those trips to see grandma. They only promised the journey would be prettier and less confusing. Gone was the $7.50 toll, replaced with the all-new Flee¢ePa$$™ offering trips across the bridge bundled with: a 24/7 travel hotline, travel advice, books on travel, songs about travel, a coffee mug with a picture of Dr. Flee¢e traveling to his castle in Scotland, and the aforementioned Laotian wicker basket to cram it all into, for just $50 a month.

“Is this one of those Dr. Seuss tales that you have to be on something to appreciate?” asked Red. “I don’t drink coffee, nobody reads books anymore, and if I need travel advice I’ll ask someone I know. I don’t need all those things so why do I have to pay $50 instead of $5? Wait, who is paying for that castle?”

“Because it’s simpler, don’t you see,” said Dr. Flee¢e, eavesdropping in the corner. “We are going to be a different kind of bridge operator committed to creating jobs, offering the most innovative products and preserving this bridge.”

“For $50 a month,” coolly replied an exasperated Ms. Hood. “Stephen King wrote this, didn’t he? I have a better idea. We’re moving grandma to Chattanooga. They have high-speed rail.”

Net Neutrality/No Zero Rating Enforced in India: Telecom Regulator Hands Setback to Facebook

TRAI Chairman R.S. Sharma

TRAI Chairman R.S. Sharma

A plan by Facebook to deliver free limited Internet access to India’s poor and rural communities was delivered a blow this morning after the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) declared the plan would violate Net Neutrality and banned it.

TRAI’s ruling focused on the fact the proposed plan would only allow customers to access Facebook and other partnered websites the social network elected to let users access over its free service. The regulator declared no service provider in India will be allowed to offer or charge discriminatory rates for data services based on content.

The regulator relied heavily on the ISP License Agreement in its ruling, which requires subscribers to have “unrestricted access to all the content available on Internet except for such content which is restricted by the Licensor/designated authority under Law.” TRAI went further in its Net Neutrality declaration than regulators in the U.S. and parts of Europe, proclaiming price-based differentiation “would make certain content more attractive to consumers resulting in altering online behavior.” Under those terms, India has effectively banned the practice of “zero rating,” which exempts certain so-called “preferred content” from metering charges or counting against a customer’s usage allowance.

free basics“This is a big win for Indian consumers and Net Neutrality,” said Independent MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar. “This is a very powerful and positive first step taken by TRAI. The days of telcos controlling regulations and regulatory policy is over and it is consumers to the fore.”

Facebook’s Internet.org and its companion free mobile web service, now dubbed Free Basics, offers stripped-down web services without airtime or usage charges, targeting basic so-called “feature phones” that were common in the U.S. before smartphones. Facebook has targeted the free service on about three dozen developing countries including the Philippines, Malawi, Bangladesh, Thailand and Mongolia. India would have been Facebook’s largest market for Free Basics, until the telecom regulator effectively banned it.

In India, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s frequent entries into the debate, including a passive-aggressive OpEd widely panned in India, was seen by many as arrogant and counter-productive. Facebook’s ongoing campaign to enlist users’ active support of the project for the benefit of India’s telecom regulator created a row with the Office of the Prime Minister, that dismissed Facebook’s public relations defense of Free Basics “a crudely majoritarian and orchestrated opinion poll.

A misleading astroturf campaign only infuriated the government more after Facebook users (including some in the U.S.) were greeted with an invitation in their timelines to support “digital equality,” sponsored by Facebook. Regulators were flooded with form letters, only later to be informed many were misled to believe it indicated their support for Net Neutrality.

Facebook users across India (and some in the U.S.) were invited to defend "digital equality," which critics define as "opposing Net Neutrality".

Facebook users across India (and some in the U.S.) were invited by Facebook to defend “digital equality,” which critics define as “opposing Net Neutrality.”

“Facebook went overboard with its propaganda [and] convinced ‘the powers that be’ that it cannot be trusted with mature stewardship of our information society,” said Sunil Abraham, of the Center for Internet and Society in Bangalore.

Initially, Internet.org included Facebook and a handpicked assortment of content partners, including the BBC, that were allowed on the free service. Net Neutrality proponents accused Facebook of creating a walled garden for itself and its preferred partners, disadvantaging startups and other companies not allowed on the service.

Unlike in the United States where Net Neutrality was a cause largely fought by netizens, websites, and consumer groups, major media organizations in India helped coordinate the push for Net Neutrality. The Times of India and its language websites like Navbharat Times, Maharashtra Times, Ei Samay and Nav Gujarat Samay appealed to other broadcasters and publishers to remove themselves from Internet.org. NDTV, a major multi-lingual broadcaster running multiple 24-hour news channels, often promoted Net Neutrality on the air and encouraged Indians to support it.

Like in the United States, Indians faced a telecom regulator more accustomed to dealing with government officials and telecom companies. TRAI was quickly swamped with over one million comments in support of Net Neutrality, so many that invitations for future comments were moved to another government website that made it harder for consumers to address regulators. The unexpected level of support for Net Neutrality also led Facebook to change its Internet.org service and relaunch Free Basics as “an open platform.”

But websites included in the service still cannot contain data intensive product experiences, such as streaming video, high-resolution images and GIFs, videos, client or browser side caching or file and audio transfer services.

“Facebook defines the technical guidelines for Free Basics, and reserves the right to change them,” adds the SavetheInternet.in coalition. “They reserve the right to reject applicants, who are forced to comply with Facebook’s terms. In contrast they support ‘permissionless innovation’ in the US.”

In India, the argument has boiled down to whether the country would prefer a usage-limited open Internet platform for the poor or an unlimited experience for a handful of websites. TRAI prefers enforcing rules guaranteeing users can visit any website they want, even if the free service used comes with a usage cap.

It’s a major blow for Facebook and the telecom operators that were some of the service’s biggest defenders.

Net Neutrality is now law in India, where the telecom regulator exceeded the United States by completely banning zero rated services, which allow users to avoid usage charges for certain applications or websites. (2:03)

Activists of Indian Youth Congress and National Students Union of India shout anti-government slogans during a protest in support of net neutrality in New Delhi on April 16, 2015. India's largest e-commerce portal Flipkart on April 14 scrapped plans to offer free access to its app after getting caught up in a growing row over net neutrality, with the criticism of Flipkart feeding into a broader debate on whether Internet service providers should be allowed to favour one online service over another for commercial or other reasons -- a concept known as "net neutrality". AFP PHOTO / MONEY SHARMA (Photo credit should read MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images)

Activists of Indian Youth Congress and National Students Union of India shout anti-government slogans during a protest in support of Net Neutrality in New Delhi on April 16, 2015. (Image: MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images)

”COAI had approached the regulator with the reasons to allow price differentiation as the move would have taken us closer to connecting the one billion unconnected citizens of India,” said Rajan Mathews, director general of the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI). “By opting to turn away from this opportunity, TRAI has ignored all the benefits of price differentiation that we had submitted as a part of the industry’s response to its consulting paper, including improving economic efficiency, increase in broadband penetration, reduction in customer costs and provision of essential services among other things.”

In a statement, a Facebook spokesperson said: “Our goal with Free Basics is to bring more people online with an open, non-exclusive and free platform. While disappointed with the outcome, we will continue our efforts to eliminate barriers and give the unconnected an easier path to the Internet and the opportunities it brings.”

TRAI rejected industry claims that differential pricing will enable operators to bring innovative packages to the market.

India has 300 million mobile users but there are still nearly one billion Indians without Internet access. India is an important market for Facebook, with 130 million active Facebook users — second to only the United States.

Allowing Facebook to gain a foothold in rural India using zero rating was compared with British colonialism by Vijay Shekhar Sharma, the founder of PayTM — an Indian mobile payment system. He called Free Basics a trojan horse — “poor Internet for poor people” and referred to it as the colonial-era East India Company of the 21st century.

“India, Do u buy into this baby Internet?” Mr Sharma tweeted in December. “The East India company came with similar ‘charity’ to Indians a few years back!”

“Given that a majority of the [Indian] population are yet to be connected to the Internet, allowing service providers to define the nature of access would be equivalent of letting [operators] shape the users’ Internet experience,” TRAI said in its release.

Telecom operators should be able to adapt to a market that bans zero rating, analysts believe.

“Telecom service providers may not be happy with this notification,” Amresh Nanden, research director at Gartner, told NDTV News. “However, they still have the ability and freedom to create different kind of Internet access packages; as long as content is not a parameter to provide or bar access to anyone. Such practices have already started elsewhere with products such as bandwidth on demand, bandwidth calendaring etc. to create premium products.”

All India Bakchod produced several humorous mostly English language videos teaching Indians about Net Neutrality and why it’s important. It’s a familiar case for North Americans dealing with our own telecom operators. (9:07)

An update from All India Backchod last summer alerted India to an astroturf campaign underway at Facebook and telecom operators to mislead Net Neutrality supporters. (8:02)

Arizona Voters Put Cable Lobbyist in Charge of Telecom Oversight Agency; Scandal Ensues

Susan Bitter Smith

Susan Bitter Smith

To say Susan Bitter Smith is beholden to Arizona’s cable industry would be an understatement.

In addition to purportedly representing the citizens of Arizona on regulated utility matters, Bitter Smith is one of the state’s most powerful cable industry lobbyists, earning a salary that consumes 40 percent of the annual budget of the Southwest Cable Communications Association, which represents most cable operators in Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada.

Despite clear ties to the telecommunications industry Bitter Smith has no intention of ending, in 2012 she ran for the chair of the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) — the state body that oversees and regulates phone, cable, and power utilities. Unlike many other states that appoint commissioners, Arizona voters elect them to office. Giving voters a direct election is written into the state constitution, and was designed to limit potential corporate influence and favoritism. Unfortunately for voters, the 2012 election cycle preoccupied by a presidential race and a rare open Senate seat left the mainstream media little time or interest exploring the backgrounds of candidates for the telecom regulator.

Bitter Smith never exactly hid her business relationship with Arizona’s largest cable companies, notably Cox Communications, the cable operator that dominates Phoenix. But she routinely downplayed the obvious conflict of interest, claiming the ACC dealt with regulated utilities, and cable companies were mostly deregulated. The Arizona Republic offered few insights into Bitter Smith’s background, failing to disclose her lobbying connections in their voter recommendations. Instead, the newspaper wrote a single sentence about Bitter Smith’s campaign in its editorial endorsements for the 2012 election: “Bitter Smith enjoys a great reputation as a strong-willed partisan, which seems a difficult fit for the Corporation Commission, at least as compared with the competition.”

bitter smith campaignPartisanship was exactly what a lot of voters apparently wanted, however, because the vote swung decidedly Republican in large parts of Arizona in the 2012 election. The turnout in Maricopa County, the largest in Arizona, was strongly anti-Obama and voters seemed content voting the party line down the ballot. Incumbents like Democrat Paul Newman did not exactly win an endorsement from the Republic either. The newspaper called him a “fierce and provocative partisan.”

“It is difficult to fathom work getting done at the commission with a microphone anywhere within Newman’s reach,” the newspaper added. The other Democratic incumbent, Susan Kennedy, was dismissed as an on-the-job trainee by the newspaper.

Broadband Issues Overshadowed by Arizona’s Solar Energy Debate

For most in Arizona, the 2012 election at the ACC was much more about energy issues than high cable bills and dreadful broadband. That year, investment in solar energy was the hot topic and it made the election of business-friendly candidates a high priority for the existing power-generating utilities and their friends at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Both could claim a major victory if a state ready-made for solar renewable energy turned its back for the sake of incumbent fossil fuel power generators.

alec-logo-smBitter Smith was never a member of ALEC, not having been a state legislator, but many of her fellow Republicans serving on the ACC were, and some were not shy claiming the Obama Administration’s pro-solar energy policies were “reckless and dangerous.” ALEC and utility companies oppose requirements that mandate the purchase of excess power generated from solar and wind customers at market rates and also want to introduce surcharges for customers relying on solar energy. Their fear: if a large percentage of sun-rich Arizonans installed solar panels, revenue for the investor-owned utilities could plummet.

Against that backdrop, Bitter Smith’s close relationship with Cox Cable went unnoticed while the media focused their attention on incumbent Republican commissioner Bob Stump – dubbed by some “Trash Burner Bob” for successfully pushing approval of a permit for a 13 megawatt trash burning plant in West Phoenix. Despite a reputation for pollution, Stump sold trash burning as a better renewable energy source for Arizona than solar energy. Waste hauling companies were delighted. The campaign met with less opposition than some expected, in part because anonymous voting guides turned up conflating solar panels as fire hazards that were difficult to extinguish, exposed users to dangerous chemicals, and constituted a hazard to firefighters whose ‘neurons may be blocked‘ when they approached solar panel fires, allegedly caused by electricity inside the panel.

Trash Burning Bob Stump

“Trash Burner Bob” Stump

Newcomer Robert Burns also won his election to the ACC that same year. His time at the Commission has also been rocky. This year, he faces an ethics complaint for remaining a registered lobbyist with the Arizona Telecommunications and Information Council, a group funded by the state’s largest telecom companies. After the complaint was filed, Burns claimed it was all a mistake. He later asked the group’s attorney to send a letter to the Arizona Secretary of State’s office requesting his lobbying connection be removed.

Some critics of the Commission have tolerated Burns’ alleged ethical lapse because he has demonstrated some independence from the energy companies he helps oversee.

Burns has argued the Arizona Public Service Company (APS) – a large investor-owned utility – must disclose how much it spent in campaign contributions and lobbying efforts to get its preferred candidates elected to the Corporation Commission. His demand for disclosure comes at the same time his fellow commissioner Stump is being investigated for exchanging text messages with APS officials during the 2014 election. Critics suggest he may have been illegally coordinating the campaigns of two of his closest allies — Tommy Forese and Doug Little. Both won seats on the ACC that year and have maintained a strong alliance with Stump, much to the chagrin of good government bloggers, who frequently refer to all three collectively as “Tommy Little Stump.”

Steve Muratore, editor of the Arizona Eagletarian, calls all three “shameless,” as they tirelessly fight to stop any investigation that could force open APS’ books to reveal what money, if any, was spent to help get both into office.

Utility giant APS will approach the Arizona Corporation Commission to win a 400% rate hike on special fees for solar panel users.

Utility giant APS will approach the Arizona Corporation Commission to win a 400% rate hike on special fees for solar panel users.

Forese claims the regulator has no business examining APS’ books.

“Commissioners attempting to influence elections in their official capacity through this relationship [as a result of their constitutional authority] would exceed the bounds of their constitutional mandate over public service corporations,” Forese argues.

While the political soap operas play out, in 2013, APA delivered its first Commission-approved blow against solar power, winning permission to apply a surcharge averaging $5 a month for using solar panels to generate electricity. APC successfully argued solar customers cheat other utility ratepayers by not contributing enough to the utility’s fixed costs.

This year, APC is seeking a 400%+ rate increase, proposing a surcharge averaging $21 a month for using solar panels. Customers served by the Salt River Project in Tempe faced even more onerous charges from that utility — a $50 a month fee for using solar panels. The new fees have effectively stopped residential solar power expansion in that utility’s territory, with the approval of ACC commissioners.

Flying Under the Radar

In the context of these other controversies, Bitter Smith’s own apparent conflicts of interest have largely flown under the radar from 2012 until earlier this year. Federal cable deregulation laws limit the Arizona regulator’s oversight of cable companies like Cox, Cable One, and Comcast. That has given Bitter Smith a defense for serving as both a lobbyist and a regulator. Corporation-Commission-signShe claims she only lobbies for the cable television and broadband services sold by cable companies like Cox Communications and abstains from consideration of cases such as those involving Cox’s digital phone service, which is still subject to some regulatory scrutiny. Bitter Smith also claims it is easy to tell where the ethical line falls because companies like Cox run different aspects of its business under a variety of affiliated subsidiaries.

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich was not impressed with that explanation and last week filed a Petition for Special Action to remove Bitter Smith from office for violating the state’s conflict of interest statute.

“Arizonans deserve fair and impartial regulators,” said Brnovich. “We filed this case to protect the integrity of the Commission and to restore the faith of Arizona voters in the electoral process. Arizona law clearly prohibits a Commissioner from receiving substantial compensation from companies regulated by the Commission.”

On Sept. 2, the Attorney General’s Office (AGO) launched an investigation into Bitter Smith after receiving a formal complaint against her. The AGO investigation found Bitter Smith receives over $150,000 per year for her trade association work, on top of her $79,500 salary as a Commissioner.  Arizona State Statute 40-101 prohibits Commissioners from being employed by or holding an official relationship to companies regulated by the Commission. The law also prohibits Commissioners from having a financial interest in regulated companies. Section 40-101 promotes ethics in government and prevents conflicts of interest.

“This isn’t one of these instances where this was maybe somebody skating too close to a line, or maybe somebody that had gone into a grey area. I think the law is very clear on this case,” Brnovich said.

KJZZ in Phoenix began raising questions about Bitter Smith’s apparent conflicts of interest last summer and carried this special report on Aug. 24, 2015. (7:18)

You must remain on this page to hear the clip, or you can download the clip and listen later.

Bitter Smith’s Shadowy and Scrubbed “PR Firm”

More troubling for Bitter Smith’s case is the “public affairs firm” Technical Solutions, jointly run by Bitter Smith and her husband. A careful scrubbing of the firm’s website “disappeared” the detailed description of the firm’s lobbying services, which counted Bitter Smith’s presence on the Commission a major asset for would-be telecom company clients. Google’s cache resolved that dilemma. Among those taking advantage of Technical Solutions’ services are AT&T, the former wireless company Alltel, and most of the state’s largest cable operators. Bitter Smith also claimed expertise setting up astroturf “grassroots” campaigns advocating her clients’ agendas and interests, but hiding any corporate connection. She also promoted her ability to plant stories with the media for her paying clients.

This was scrubbed off the website

Scrubbed from the website, but retained by Google’s cache.

Reporters at KJZZ, a public radio station in Phoenix, have spent months following the fine line Bitter Smith has laid as a defense against conflict of interest charges.

Oopsy

Bitter Smith depends on cable and phone companies setting up different entities in name only to manage regulated and unregulated services. That means a cable company could approach the Commission under several different names, one for its phone, one for its television, and one for its broadband business. That distinction allows Bitter Smith to claim she is careful about conflicts of interest:

Bitter Smith said that, because the telecom entities are so separate, it’s OK to vote on telecom matters related to Cox, Suddenlink and other members at the commission. But she still tries not to.

“We thought about that, ‘Well, maybe just from the appearance sake it wouldn’t hurt,’” she said.

Since Bitter Smith took office in 2013, records show the commission has voted at least seven times on matters involving the telephone side of the cable association’s members.

She recused herself four of those times, such as last year when a tariff increase was approved for Cox.

But she didn’t recuse herself on three matters, which she said was accidental, including another tariff increase for Cox approved in 2013.

“Probably should have, just didn’t catch it,” she said.“It was on the consent agenda, I zoomed through.”

She also didn’t recuse herself in May from voting to rescind a $225,000-bond requirement for Mercury Voice & Data, an entity identified in public documents as doing business in Arizona as Suddenlink Communications. She said she missed that one accidentally as well.

“Suddenlink is my member, Mercury Voice & Data is not an entity that I’m familiar with,” Bitter Smith said. “If I had understood, I probably would have, you know, just for optics sake. There’s no legal reason I would need to do that but, had I understood that there was another entity that they now form with a new name, separate entity with a new name, I probably would have.”

Real News AZ talked with attorney Thomas Ryan about the ethics of serving as a Corporation Commissioner while also employed as a paid lobbyist working for the interests of the companies regulated by that Commission. (7:08)

Ryan

Ryan

Bitter Smith’s ‘oopsies‘ infuriate government watchdog and Arizona attorney Thomas Ryan, who has tangled with Arizona’s high-powered politicians before… and won.

“This will not go quietly in the night and whoever she retains will no doubt fight it tooth and nail,” Ryan said of Bitter Smith. “But the state of Arizona deserves a Corporation Commission that is not bought and paid for by the very people it’s supposed to regulate, the very industries it’s supposed to regulate.”

Ryan is particularly incensed that Bitter Smith’s apparent ethical lapses are costing Arizonans twice — taxpayers pay her nearly $80,000 salary as a Commissioner and the increasingly expensive cable and phone bills that grow as a result of some of the Commission’s pro-telecom decisions. But at least Bitter Smith is doing well, also collecting her six figure salary from the cable lobbying association she leads.

Pat Quinn, former director of the Residential Utility Consumer Office, or RUCO, which advocates for consumers at the ACC, isn’t moved by Bitter Smith’s fine line and he should know – he’s the former Arizona president of Qwest Communications (today CenturyLink).

Quinn said Bitter Smith’s explanation about the separateness of telecom entities from cable is making a “difference without a distinction.”

“While you may be able to, accounting wise, separate your expenses between what you put in phone and what you put in cable, how do you take out of your mind, ‘Oh, they’re paying me over here and we do good things for them over here, but I’m going to be fair and unbiased when I look at not only Cox on the phone side, but any of the other phone providers,’” Quinn told KJZZ.

How Bitter Smith helped kill rural community broadband in Arizona for the benefit of the state’s biggest cable companies. (6:43)

You must remain on this page to hear the clip, or you can download the clip and listen later.

Killing Community Broadband to Protect Arizona Cable Profits

The clearest cut evidence of Bitter Smith’s lobbying for Arizona cable companies while claiming to represent the public interest as a commissioner came in 2013, when Bitter Smith and Cox Communications lobbyist Susan Anable tried to pressure Galen Updike, a state employee tasked with mapping broadband availability in Arizona and advocating for solutions for the 80 percent of rural communities in the state that remain broadband-challenged to this day.

In February, Bitter Smith and Anable allegedly solicited the help of state employees to kill a state contract with GovNet, a firm that had previously received $39 million in federal dollars to bring broadband to rural Arizona.

govnet

Updike said Bitter Smith trashed GovNet’s reputation, claiming the provider walked away from earlier projects leaving them incomplete.

“‘There was a better alternative,'” Updike recalls Bitter Smith telling him. “‘You’ve got existing cable companies in the area that are having now to compete against these dollars that come in from the federal government. Can you help us get rid of GovNet’s contract?’ [was the request]. It took my breath away.”

COX_RES_RGBUpdike said Bitter Smith maintained a near-constant presence at their meetings, but she had no interest in solving Arizona’s rural broadband problems.

“The only reason for Bitter Smith to be there was to talk about telecommunications policy, broadband policy,” Updike said.

Updike’s efforts to make things better for broadband in rural Arizona met constant headwinds from Bitter Smith and lobbyists for the state’s cable and phone companies.

“All the broadband providers were cherry picking — going after the high easy places to put broadband into where there’s high concentration of population dollars,” Updike said. “And basically the low population areas, the rural areas of the state of Arizona, are sucking wind. They have no possibility for it.”

bearEfforts to develop the Arizona Strategic Broadband Plan were effectively sabotaged by the cable industry, especially Cox. Bitter Smith immediately objected to the contention the cable industry could collectively offer broadband to 96 percent of the state if it chose. She claimed that was invalid. She also criticized the proposal to begin a comprehensive broadband mapping program claiming it lacked proof it would be any real ongoing benefit to anyone.

At the center of the lobbying effort backed by Cox was an argument the state should not involve itself in expanding broadband networks. Instead, it should spend its funds promoting the broadband service already available from cable operators to those not yet signed up.

Things got much worse for Updike as Republicans cemented their grip on the Corporation Commission in 2013. Updike continued to voice concerns about Bitter Smith’s conflicts of interest and was eventually taken aside and told to be quiet about the issue.

“I was told to stop poking the bear. The bear was the combination of Cox, CenturyLink and Susan Bitter Smith,” Updike told the radio station.

By May 2013, the broadband planning council’s meetings began to be mysteriously canceled. No strategic broadband plan was ever adopted. That same month, Updike was told he no longer had a job at the Arizona Department of Administration.

Henry Goldberg, and independent consultant who helped draft the never-adopted state broadband plan has little to fear from Bitter Smith, so he was frank with KJZZ.

“To me when you stop discussions of the plan, disband this council, which is supposed to advise the governor on digital policy, there’s something inappropriate going on there. Something like this is critical for the citizens of Arizona.”

Corporate Puppets on Parade: Mercatus Center Writer’s Ridiculous Ranting for Usage Caps Debunked

att string puppetOnce again, a writer from the corporate-funded Mercatus Center is back to shill for the telecom industry.

Eli Dourado landed space in Slate to write a ridiculous defense of Comcast’s expanding trials of usage caps. When we first read it, we assumed a Comcast press release somehow managed to find its way into the original article. It quickly became impossible to discern the difference.

Before we take apart Mr. Dourado’s nonsensical arguments, let’s consider the source.

Sourcewatch calls Mercatus one of the best-funded think tanks in the United States. And why not. Its indefatigable advocacy of pro-corporate policies is legendary. The Center itself was initially funded by the Koch Brothers to advocate against consumer protection and oversight and for deregulation.

With that kind of mission and money, it’s no surprise the authors coming out of Mercatus are in rigid lock-step with the corporate agendas of Comcast, AT&T, and other large telecom companies. The Center is also a friend of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group that counts Comcast and AT&T as dues-paying members. ALEC’s corporate members ghostwrite legislation that ends up introduced in state legislatures across the country.

We have never seen a Mercatus-affiliated author ever write a piece that runs contrary to the interests of Big Telecom companies. They oppose community broadband competition, Net Neutrality, and have defended wireless mergers that would have killed T-Mobile, turn Time Warner customers into Comcast customers, and believed AT&T’s buyout of DirecTV was just dandy and Charter’s buyout of Time Warner Cable is even more consumer-y.

They favor usage caps/usage pricing, defend higher bills, and laughingly claim Americans are probably underpaying for broadband compared to the rest of the world.

Life must be good on Broadband Fantasy Island, where those in favor of Comcast’s usage pricing experiments live. In a style that eerily resembles a Comcast corporate blog post, Dourado unconvincingly tells readers, “metered data is good for most consumers and for the Internet.”

Dourado’s defense of Comcast’s idea of reasonable pricing only had one slip-up, when he accidentally told the truth. He effectively derailed Comcast’s usual talking point that “it is only fair for heavy users to pay more” when he correctly noted, “broadband networks are composed almost entirely of fixed costs—costs that don’t vary very much with usage.”

two peas

(Image: Jacki Gallagher)

That ripping sound you hear is a corporate executive starting to tear up their contribution check to Mercatus Center for being off message. But hang on, Mr. Corporate Guy, Mercatus Center has always had your back before, let’s see if Dourado can pull his feet out of the fire.

“But when users pay for data use, cable companies have an incentive to make it easier than ever to use a lot of data—that is, to invest in speed upgrades. They want you to blow right by your habitual usage amounts, which you will probably do only if you are on a superfast connection. In this way, metered data encourages broadband network upgrades,” Dourado claims, back on message.

Dourado’s core argument is one we’ve heard from telecom companies for years: heavy users are responsible for the allegedly high fixed costs of delivering broadband to America. Because networks must be built to accommodate all users, those ‘data hogs’ force providers to charge top dollar to everyone to assure access to promised speeds, unfairly penalizing light users like grandma along the way just to satiate someone else’s desire for more downloading.

comcast money pileIf that were true, broadband costs everywhere would be around the same and Frontier’s DSL service wouldn’t be so universally awful. Unfortunately for Dourado’s argument, we have the ability to look at broadband pricing and service quality beyond the monopoly/duopoly marketplace we have in North America. Fixed costs to deliver broadband service here are comparable in western Europe and Asia and somehow they manage to do a lot more for a lot less.

Closer to home, newly emerging competitors like Google Fiber, municipal/community broadband, and private overbuilders like Grande Communications and WOW! also manage to deliver more service for less money, without any need to gouge and abuse their customers. The fact Time Warner Cable, Verizon, Charter and Bright House have seen no need to impose compulsory usage caps or usage pricing (AT&T does not enforce their cap on U-verse service either) and also do business in the same states where Comcast is imposing caps is just the first of many threads that unravel Dourado’s poorly woven argument.

Let’s break Dourado’s other arguments down:

Phillip Dampier

Phillip Dampier

Dourado’s Claim: “Broadband networks are composed almost entirely of fixed costs—costs that don’t vary very much with usage. Cable companies have to spend many billions of dollars to build and maintain their networks whether or not we use them. One way or another, users of the network have to collectively pay those billions of dollars.”

Stop the Cap!: This is true, but Mr. Dourado forgets to mention most of the costs to construct those networks were paid off years ago. DSL and fiber to the neighborhood services avoided incurring the most costly part of network construction — wiring the last mile to the customer’s home. Phone company broadband, excepting Verizon’s complete fiber-to-the-home service network overhaul, benefits from the use of an existing copper-based network built and paid for long ago to deliver basic telephone service.

The cable industry did even better. It used the same fiber-coax network last rebuilt in the early/mid-1990s to deliver more television channels to also deliver broadband, which initially took up about as much space as just one or two TV channels. The cable industry introduced broadband experimentally, spending comparatively little on network upgrades. This was important to help overcome skepticism by corporate executives who initially doubted selling Internet access over cable would ever attract much interest. It shows how much they know.

So while it is true to say the telecommunications industry spent billions to develop their infrastructure, for most it was primarily to sell different services — voice grade telephone service and cable-TV, for which it received a healthy return. Selling broadband turned out to be added gravy. For a service the cable industry spent relatively little to offer, it collected an average of $30 a month in unregulated revenue. That price has since doubled (or more) for many consumers. Cost recovery has never been a problem for companies like Comcast.

In 2014, Techdirt showed broadband investment wasn't increasing at the rate the cable industry claimed. It has been flat, and not because of broadband usage or pricing.

In 2014, Techdirt showed broadband investment wasn’t increasing at the rate the cable industry claimed. It has been largely flat, and not because of broadband usage or pricing.

It is easy for providers to show eye-popping dollar amounts invested in broadband improvements. Most providers routinely quote these numbers to justify just about everything from rate increases to further deregulation. When the numbers alone don’t sufficiently sell their latest argument, they lie about them. Adopting any pro-consumer policy like Net Neutrality or a ban on usage pricing would, in their view, “harm investment.” Only it didn’t and it won’t.

What these same providers never include on those press releases are their revenue numbers. Placed side by side with capital expenses/infrastructure upgrades, the clarity that emerges from showing how much providers are putting in the bank takes the wind right out of their sails. It turns out most providers are already earning a windfall selling unlimited broadband at ever-rising prices, while network upgrade expenses remain largely flat or are in decline. In short, your phone or cable company is earning a growing percentage of their overall profits from the sale of broadband, because they are raising prices while also enjoying an ongoing decline in the cost of providing the service. Despite that, they are now back for more of your money.

Dourado’s basic argument is the same one providers have tried for years — attempting to pit one customer against another over who is responsible for the high cost of Internet access. They prefer to frame the argument as “heavy users” vs. “light users.” Hence, it is isn’t fair to expect grandma to pay for the teen gamer down the street who also enjoys BitTorrent file sharing. Their hope is that the time-tested meme “someone is getting a free ride while you pay for it” will act like shiny keys to distract people from fingering the real perpetrator of high pricing — the same phone and cable companies laughing all the way to the bank.

It’s easy to prove and we’ve done it here at Stop the Cap! since 2008.

bullWe have a BS detector that never fails to uncover the real motivation behind usage pricing. It’s simply this. If a provider is really in favor of usage billing, then let’s have a go at it. But it must be real usage pricing.

Here’s how it works. Just as with your electric utility, you will pay a monthly connection/facilities charge to cover the cost of the transport network and infrastructure, typically $15 or less per month (and it should be less because utilities have to maintain physical meters that cable and phone companies don’t). Next come usage charges, and because the industry seems to have adopted AT&T’s formula, we will use that.

Your broadband will now cost $15 a month for the connection charge and usage pricing will amount to $10 for each 50GB increment of usage. Because even Mr. Dourado admits there is no real cost difference supplying broadband at different speeds, you deserve the maximum. If you turn in average usage numbers, you will have consumed between 50-100GB each month. So your new broadband bill will be $25 if you consume 50 or fewer gigabytes, $35 if you consume between 50-100GB. Deal?

Considering what you are probably paying today for Internet access, you will fully understand that howling sound you hear is coming from telecom company executives screaming in opposition to fair usage pricing. That is why no provider in America is advocating for fair usage pricing. In reality, they want to charge current prices –and– impose an arbitrary usage allowance on you, above which they can begin to collect overlimit penalty fees. It’s just another rate hike.

Dourado is stuck with a bad hand trying to play the second part of the “usage pricing fairness” game. While claiming heavy users should be forced to pay more, he is unable to offer a real example of light users paying substantially less.

bshkAt this point, Dourado’s proverbial pants fall off, exposing the naked reality that few, if any customers actually pay less under usage pricing. That is because providers are terrified of the word “cannibalization.” In the broadband business, it refers to customers examining their options and downgrading their service to a cheaper-priced plan (shudder) that better reflects their actual usage. To make certain this happens rarely, if ever, Comcast offers customers scant savings of $5 from exactly one “Flexible Data Option” available only to those choosing the improbable Economy Plus plan, which offers just 3Mbps service. Customers agree to keep their usage at or below 5GB a month or they risk an overlimit fee of $1 per gigabyte. It’s like Russian Roulette for Bill Shock. Where can we sign up?

In fact, Time Warner Cable has already admitted a similar plan open to all of its broadband customers was a colossal flop, attracting only “a few thousand” customers nationwide out of 15 million qualified to choose it. We suspect the number of Comcast customers signed up to this “money-saving plan” is probably in the hundreds. Time Warner was smart enough to realize forcing customers into a massively unpopular compulsory usage plan would make them a pariah. For Comcast, “pariah” is a matter of “same story, different day.” Alienating customers is their specialty and despite growing customer dissatisfaction, executives have ordered all ahead full on usage pricing.

Dourado also can’t help himself, getting his own cheap shot in at government-mandated Lifeline-like discounts designed to make Internet access more affordable, calling it a “tax and spend program.” He omits the fact Comcast already offers its own affordable Internet plan voluntarily. But mentioning that would further undercut his already weak argument in favor of usage pricing.

Dourado: “If everyone paid equal prices for unlimited data plans, cable company revenues would be limited by the number of people willing to pay that equal rate.”

Stop the Cap!: Providers have already figured out they can charge higher prices for all sorts of things to increase revenue. General rate increases, modem fees, and charging higher prices for faster speeds are also proven ways companies are earning higher revenue from their existing customers.

Dourado: “But when users pay for data use, cable companies have an incentive to make it easier than ever to use a lot of data—that is, to invest in speed upgrades. They want you to blow right by your habitual usage amounts, which you will probably do only if you are on a superfast connection. In this way, metered data encourages broadband network upgrades.”

comcast whoppersStop the Cap!: Nice theory, but companies like Comcast have found an easier way to make money. They simply raise the price of service. Dourado should learn more about the concept of pricing elasticity. Comcast executives know all about it. It allows them, in the absence of significant competition, to raise broadband prices just because they can and not risk significant customer number defections as a result.

After they do that, the next trick in the book is to play games with usage allowances to expose more customers to overlimit fees or force them into more expensive usage plans. In Atlanta, Comcast even sells its own insurance plan to protect customers… from Comcast. For an extra $35 a month, customers can avoid being molested by Comcast’s arbitrary usage allowance and overlimit fees and get unlimited service back. As customers rightfully point out, this means they are paying $35 more a month for the same service they had just a few months earlier, with no improvements whatsoever. Is that innovative pricing or highway robbery?

What inspires companies to raise speeds and treat customers right is competition, something sorely lacking in this country. Just the vaguest threat of a new competitor, such as the arrival of Google Fiber was more than enough incentive for companies to begin investing in waves of speed upgrades, bringing some customers gigabit speeds. Usage pricing played no factor in these upgrades. The fact a new competitor threatened to sell faster Internet at a fair price (without caps) did.

Dourado: “The DOCSIS 3.1 cable modem standard, just now being finalized, will allow downloads over the existing cable network up to 10 Gbps (10 times faster than Google Fiber). Cable companies are now facing a choice as to how fast to roll out support for DOCSIS 3.1. As the theory predicts, Comcast, now experimenting with metering, is planning an aggressive rollout of the new multi-gigabit standard.”

Stop the Cap!: While Dourado celebrates Comcast’s achievements, he ignores the fact EPB Fiber in Chattanooga offers 10Gbps fiber broadband today, charging the same price Comcast wants for only 2Gbps service, and does not charge Comcast’s $1,000 installation and activation fee. EPB did not require the incentive of usage billing or caps to finance its upgrade. Dourado also conveniently ignores the fact almost every cable operator, many with no plans to add compulsory usage caps or usage pricing, are also aggressively moving forward on plans to rollout DOCSIS 3.1. It’s more efficient, allows for the sale of more profitable higher speed Internet tiers, and is cost-effective. Some companies want the right to gouge their customers, others want to do the right thing. Guess where Comcast fits.

Usage Cap Man

Usage Cap Man

Dourado: “It’s not fun to continually calculate how much you are spending. But we all gladly accept metering for water and electricity with no significant mental accounting costs—why should broadband be so different? Both Comcast and Cox make it easy to track usage. And even if we can’t just get over our mental accounting costs, are they really so significant that we should cite them as an excuse for keeping the poor and elderly offline and letting our broadband networks stagnate?”

Stop the Cap!: Assumes facts not in evidence. First, once again Mr. Dourado’s talking points come straight from the cable industry and are fatally flawed. While Dourado talks about usage pricing for water and electricity — resources that come with the added costs of being pumped, treated, or generated, he conveniently ignores the one service most closely related to broadband – the telephone. The costs to transport data, whether it is a phone call or a Netflix movie, have dropped so much, phone companies increasingly offer unlimited local -and- long distance calling plans to their customers. When is the last time anyone bothered to think about calling after 11pm to get the “night/weekend long distance rate?” For years, broadband customers have not had to worry how much a Netflix movie will chew through a broadband usage allowance either. But now they might, because the cable industry understands that Netflix viewer may have cut his cable television package, cutting the revenue the cable company now wants back.

Second, heavy Internet users are not the ones responsible for keeping the poor and elderly offline and allowing broadband infrastructure to stagnate. The blame for that lies squarely in the executive suites at Comcast, AT&T and other telecom companies that make a conscious business decision charging prices that guarantee better returns for their shareholders (and their fat executive salary and bonuses).

But it isn’t all bad news.

Comcast’s Internet Essentials already exists today and is priced at $9.95 a month. Only Comcast’s revenue-cannibalization protection scheme keep it out of the hands of more customers. It limits the program to customers with school age children on the federal student lunch program and is off-limits to existing Comcast broadband customers even if they otherwise qualify. Why? Because if the program was available to everyone, it would quickly cut their profits as customers downgraded their service.

Comcast’s abysmal performance is legendary, and that isn’t a result of heavy users either. That is entirely the fault of a company that puts its own greed ahead of its alienated customers, something plainly clear from forcing captive customers into usage trials they don’t want or need. Verizon FiOS uses technology far superior to what Comcast is using, offers better speeds and better service. Customers are happy and routinely rate FiOS among the nation’s top providers. They don’t need usage pricing or caps to manage this. Comcast sure doesn’t either.

Mr. Dourado’s arguments for usage pricing are so weak and provably false, it is almost embarrassing. But we understood he was given the impossible challenge trying to mount a defense for Comcast’s latest Internet Overcharging scheme. Nobody can defend the indefensible.

Shillplex: FCC Gets Curiously Similar Letters of Support for the Charter/Bright House/TWC Merger

moneymouthIf the Federal Communications Commission weighed comments for and against the merger of Charter-Time Warner Cable-Bright House Networks based on volume, it would likely be a done deal.

A major lobbying effort by the cable companies involved in the transaction has been underway to encourage politicians, business associations, non-profit groups, and programmers to write the FCC asking the deal be approved. Many are responding, including politicians receiving political donations and/or seeking expanded service for their communities, non-profits that depend on financial contributions from one or more of the companies involved, programmers that live or die based on winning carriage agreements with Charter, Bright House, and Time Warner Cable, and other groups with missions that seem miles away from a multi-billion dollar cable merger.

Stop the Cap! examined many of these curious letters of support. What, for instance, might motivate the New York Snowmobile Association to navigate the cumbersome comment filing systems of both the New York Public Service Commission and the Federal Communications Commission to express glowing support for a cable merger?

The International Soap Box Derby is all-in on the merger of Charter-TWC-Bright House.

The International Soap Box Derby is all-in on the merger of Charter-TWC-Bright House.

What made the Maccabi World Union, the largest Jewish sports organization in the world, enthusiastic enough to dwell on a marriage of three cable companies?

How could the Montana Stockgrowers Association set aside their interest in helping state cattle ranchers to deliver safe and wholesome beef to American dinner tables to ponder modem fees in their letter to the Commission?

One Los Angeles non-profit organization contacted by Stop the Cap! shed some light on the subject, if we agreed to keep their name private.

“Like many non-profits, when Time Warner Cable makes a financial contribution to our organization, they attempt to find ways where both our organization and their company can benefit from goodwill generated by charitable contributions,” the director told Stop the Cap! “When the deal with Charter and Time Warner was announced, we received a gently worded request to participate in the public discussion about the merger.”

The group received information containing talking points about the deal’s benefits to consumers and businesses and was asked to consider using those points in a letter to state and federal regulators that would present a positive view of the deal.

“Non-profits need the contributions of large companies like Time Warner Cable and Charter, which both serve parts of Los Angeles County, to fund our programs,” the director said. “There isn’t any pressure on us to write the letters, but since they are in the public record, we know the cable companies know who wrote and who did not.”

charter twc bhThe director of this particular organization had qualms about getting involved in a regulatory matter that did not involve the organization he leads, but he was overruled by his board of directors.

“Money is tight,” the director added. “I don’t want to comment on Charter Cable’s performance in Los Angeles except to say it is the main reason I use someone else.”

The director of the group would not comment when asked if it was uncomfortable signing a letter in support of a company who has failed to meet their personal expectations.

The fact non-profit groups spend time and resources writing letters on behalf of their donors bothers others as well.

Shawn Sheridan of Turlock, Calif. exhaustively researched over 250 pieces of correspondence the FCC has received in favor of the Charter acquisition, and he is not happy about what he found.

“The current public comments process has been infiltrated to purposely influence the independent review process,” Sheridan writes in a letter to the FCC. “I suggest to the Commission that conducting an independent analysis of the comments received from the public for [this merger] would reveal a nationwide campaign to improperly affect the Commission’s independent review of the applications, and reveal unique characteristics of who has and has not commented publicly.”

Sheridan categorized all the letters arriving from state/local representatives, Chamber of Commerce chapters, and non-profit groups:

commenters

Letters from different chapters of the Chambers of Commerce, which typically count Time Warner Cable, Charter Communications, and/or Bright House Networks as dues-paying members, were oddly uniform in their praise of the transaction.

The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, for example, didn’t seem too interested in getting into the specifics of the deal, satisfied instead to request “the FCC approve all matters related to this merger promptly.”

Dozens of other chapters of the business association used similar language praising the merger proposal. Notice the references to “$2.5 billion” promised to be spent on commercial fiber optics and “one million new residential lines” mentioned in a handful of the filings with the FCC:

The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce advocates giving Charter whatever it wants.

The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce advocates giving Charter whatever it wants.

  • “The Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce is the voice of business in Missoula County….We are excited by New Charter’s commitment to invest $2.5 billion into networks in commercial areas.”
  • “As a member-driven organization, the Montana Chamber of Commerce represents the interests of business, ranging from small mom-and-pop operations to large companies….The new company would commit $2.5 billion to the commercial sector and would build out residential lines, improving both industry competition and local infrastructure.”
  • “With nearly 700 members that employ more than 12,000 people, the Fremont Chamber of Commerce represents a vibrant, regional business community in eastern Nebraska….Specifically, we are told, the greater financial strength of the unified operations would lead to investment of at least $2.5 billion to upgrade commercial lines to fiber-optics….Therefore, based on their assurances to us, we believe New Charter would be a great partner….”
  • “The Florida Chamber of Commerce is pleased to support Bright House Network’s merger with Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable into New Charter….New Charter would be committed to infrastructure investment. It would devote at least $2.5 billion towards commercial networks, contributing important upgrades and competition into this influential market.”
  • [Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce:] “We understand that New Charter plans to invest $2.5 billion toward commercial networks, contributing important upgrades and competition
  • into this influential market and to provide substantial investment throughout the entire State.”
  • [Lakeland Area Chamber of Commerce:] “For example, New Charter has committed to $2.5 billion in commercial networks and would build out one million residential line extensions.”
  • [San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce:] “The proposal promises to bring in at least $2.5 billion in new commercial infrastructure investment, much of which will be invested in areas
    where the Charter Communications currently does not operate.”
  • “With more than 10,000 members, the Greater Cleveland Partnership (GCP) is a membership association of Northeast Ohio companies and organizations and one of the largest metropolitan
    chambers of commerce in the nation….Specifically, it would commit at least $2.5 billion to build out commercial network lines and put up one million new residential lines….”
  • “The Buffalo Niagara Partnership is the region’s private sector economic development organization and regional chamber of commerce….In the near future, our state will benefit from
    a $2.5 billion expansion in the build-out of networks into commercial sectors.”
  • “At the Finger Lakes Chamber of Commerce, we serve as the voice of our local business community….We have [been] made aware of a major change in the cable broadband industry. The potential merger of Charter Communications, Time Warner Cable, and Bright House Networks into New Charter….”

The language that implies these are not spontaneous, coincidental pieces of correspondence was couched using phrases like, “we are told,” “we understand,” and “we have [been] made aware.”

These talking points actually originate from Charter Communications’ Resource Center, which distributes pro-merger information to organizations in Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks’ service areas. The references to $2.5 billion for commercial upgrades and line extensions to one million new residential customers originate in documents like this, tailored in this case to New Yorkers.

Some organizations devote more time to customizing their correspondence than others. The Business Council of New York State and the Orange County Partnership couldn’t be bothered, and essentially cut and paste nearly identical language in their “individual” letters of support:

bcnys-logo

“We recognize that the information and communications sector is an increasingly critical component of a healthy economy….The Business Council understands that access to a reliable 21st Century communications infrastructure—with competitive options for service—is essential for New Yorkers in their homes, schools and workplaces.

logoOCP

“The Partnership recognizes that the information and communication sector is an increasingly critical component of a healthy economy….We also understand that access to reliable 21st Century communications infrastructure, with competitive options for service, is a necessity for Orange County residents in their homes, schools and workplaces.

...and the chances of a multibillion dollar cable merger winning regulatory approval.

…and the chances of a multibillion dollar cable merger winning regulatory approval.

Dominic J. Jacangelo was so nice, he liked Charter Communications’ merger twice — once on the letterhead of the New York Snowmobile Association, where he serves as executive director, and in a nearly identical letter signed by Jacangelo as Supervisor of the Town of Poestenkill, N.Y. He cited the same talking points the various Chambers of Commerce did.

Representing the interests of 2.5 million people worldwide or its member Time Warner Cable?

Representing the interests of 2.5 million people worldwide or its member Time Warner Cable?

Sheridan disputes how merger supporters often attempt to give their views more weight by implying their positions are shared by their constituents. The Orange County Business Council claimed in its letter it represented nearly 300 Southern California businesses employing over 250,000 in the region and more than two million globally. Sheridan doubts more than 2.25 million people, many working outside the country, support the cable merger as much as OCBC suggests.

A larger question is what motivates the letter writers to weigh in on a cable merger in the first place?

For the ranchers in Montana, the desire for more rural broadband is well known. Cable operators usually don’t provide service to large, expansive ranches where a herd of cattle often vastly outnumbers the local population.

For Mr. Jacangelo, his LinkedIn page cites his talents for developing “professional relationships with business sponsors and [supporters], which might be helpful as the town of Poestenkill, like many other rural communities in upstate New York, seek expanded broadband service.

In 2009, the Maccabi World Union partnered with Jewish Life Television to provide in-depth coverage of the Maccabiah Games, a global sporting event. U.S. viewers see coverage of those games over Jewish Life TV, a cable network that reaches Time Warner Cable and Bright House customers, but not Charter Cable customers. A takeover of Time Warner and Bright House by Charter Communications could risk the end of that carriage agreement. Supporting Charter at its time of need may establish enough goodwill to guarantee JLTV will be a part of the “New Charter” lineup.

Sheridan’s research also discovered, as of Oct. 9, 2015:

  • With a total of 31 letters from politicians in the state of Texas, not one came from a local official. Eighteen Chambers of Commerce in Texas sent letters in support of the deal;
  • No state-level representatives weighed in on the deal in New York either, although 30 local and county leaders gave their support;
  • One third of the 28 states where Charter provides service had no comment on the merger, pro or con, hardly representing a nationwide groundswell of support;
  • Charter Communications’ corporate headquarters, formerly in Missouri and now in Connecticut, also drew little hometown interest. Just one letter from a state-level politician in Missouri reached the FCC. There were no letters from Connecticut at all;
  • Of 258 unique commenters sending letters in support of the merger, 211 (82%) claimed to represent the interests of their members and affiliates without providing supporting evidence that was true. Most of those organizations received direct financial support or in-kind contributions from one or more of the involved cable operators or counted them as dues-paying members;
  • Not counting Time Warner Cable or Bright House’s combined 13+ million customers, only about 30 unique consumers submitted a comment to the FCC regarding the merger, representing 0.000005% of Charter’s six million customers.

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  • lightning: I believe this is necessary because the demand of computing continues to grow every single nano-second. In areas where my 100% immediate family member...
  • LG: customers with a basic Starter package of more than 40 channels at $24.99 a month.... -10 Home shopping channels (HSN) -6 Ad-channels with constan...
  • Lee: There are states that allow you to contract for electric and natural gas with companies other than the ones that own the gas pipelines and the electri...
  • Guest9987: Why not 65.536Mbps? That would make it 8192KB/s which is what the standard should be; any more or less is questionable so far. It's not like 8.192MB/s...
  • Chad: EV, I completely agree. Recording your phone calls is a great way to keep these companies in check. There's a great blog post about how this, and a ha...
  • modal: I pay a visit each day some websites and websites to read content, however this blog offers quality based writing....
  • FredH: If your area is upgraded to be getting 300Mbps down and you aren't, there could be any number of factors preventing it that are your responsibility, n...
  • Ev: Why bother rearranging deck chairs on the titanic? Drop your cable TV service, put up an antenna for a bunch of channels, buy a DVR, and if you still...
  • Ev: People need to start recording ail their phone calls with company reps. They're recording it already, for their benefit. One little app on your phone...
  • beth: Called TWC today. They're the only cable provider in my area. I pay for internet and phone unfortunately still hooked to Direct for the football seaso...
  • Austin: "Responsible usage".... "limited resource"???? Give me a break! It's not like internet is mined out of a pocket in the ground. How can these idiots ke...
  • SendDavid: If you're in NY, you can also submit a claim for a refund with David, Inc. and they'll do all the work for you--50% of claims get refunded: http://bit...

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