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California Legislature Wants to Give $300 Million of Your Money Away to AT&T, Frontier, and Big Cable

Delivering 21st century broadband speeds to rural Californians just doesn’t interest incumbent phone companies like AT&T and Frontier Communications, so the California legislature has been hard at work trying to entice upgrades on the taxpayer’s dime while reassuring ISPs they won’t have to break a sweat doing it.

Steve Blum from Telus Venture Associates reports the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF), California’s equivalent of the FCC’s Connect America Fund (CAF) – is about to get a makeover sure to delight the two phone companies while throwing some cash at cable operators like Comcast, Cox and Charter to keep them happy as well.

The changes are encompassed in Assembly Bill 1665, sponsored by Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia (D–Riverside County), who counts AT&T as his sixth biggest contributor. The phone company has cut checks to the former mayor of Coachella not less than a dozen times amounting to $16,700. Garcia has also received special attention from AT&T’s lobbyists, who invited him to appear side-by-side with AT&T officials at press-friendly events where the phone company donated $10,000 to an abused women’s shelter and $25,000 to the Court Appointed Special Advocates of Imperial County.

Blum reports that the bill has been largely a placeholder until now as negotiations and dealmaking happened behind the scenes. The result is a corporate welfare bonanza that will raise $330 million for the CASF by reinstating a telephone tax on consumers and businesses than ended last year. Of that, $300 million will end up in the pockets of phone and cable companies, $10 million will go to regional broadband efforts, and the remaining $20 million will be designated for schools, libraries, and non-profit groups to promote broadband use, but only where providers already offer service or will shortly. In effect, that $20 million will turn public institutions into sales agents for ISPs.

The corporate giveaway bill will also sell Californian consumers down the river:

  • The bill effectively replaces the FCC’s minimum definition of broadband (25/3Mbps) with California’s own minimum: 6/1Mbps — conveniently about the same speed telephone company DSL provides. As Blum writes, the language “makes 1990s legacy DSL technology the new 21st century standard.”
  • AT&T and Frontier Communications get monopoly protection with exclusive CASF rights in areas where they currently receive federal CAF funding. This means both companies will get to double-dip federal and state money to expand inferior DSL or fixed wireless service and never have to worry about taxpayer funding going to their competitors or communities that might choose to build their own superior broadband networks. It virtually guarantees rural California will be stuck with sub-standard internet access indefinitely, and at the taxpayer’s expense.
  • CASF funding has always been exclusively for infrastructure construction — building out the last mile to deliver internet access to consumers and businesses. But the new bill now allows the money to also be spent on “operating costs,” a rat hole where millions can quickly disappear with little improvement in broadband expansion or service.
  • The new bill suggests that provider contributions — where providers agree to kick in a percentage (usually 30-40%) of their own money on expansion projects in return for getting taxpayer subsidies, is just too hard on struggling phone companies like AT&T and Frontier. Under the new proposal, this requirement should be eliminated.
  • Individual homeowners would be able to apply for grants to get broadband connections, a direct nod to the state’s cable companies that routinely ask would-be customers just out of reach of the nearest cable line to pay tens of thousands of dollars to build a line extension. If approved, cable companies could set the installation price as high as the sky and get taxpayers to foot the bill, enriching themselves while avoiding any regulatory scrutiny.

Cable companies also get another wish granted — keeping subsidized broadband out the hands of many poor Californians that need connections for education, job-seeking, and training. The bill proposes to ban funding for broadband facilities in public housing. Cable companies have been irritated spending capital on broadband expansion to public housing only to find many of its customers would likely to qualify for their “internet for the poor” programs that cost as little as $10 a month.

Blum reports the language isn’t final and is likely to be amended as negotiations continue. A hearing of the Communications and Conveyance Committee at the State Capitol, Room 437 is scheduled for 1:30pm PDT today on the bill. You can listen to the hearing when in session here.

Sling TV Offers $50 AirTV Player for Subs Who Prepay 3 Months of Service

Phillip Dampier April 25, 2017 Competition, Consumer News, Online Video, Sling No Comments

AirTV Player

Sling TV subscribers that prepay for three months of Sling TV’s $20/mo “Orange” 30-channel streaming cable TV plan can get an AirTV Player + Adapter for $50, a discount of $79.99 off the $129.99 retail price.

Dish Network’s Sling TV service rebranded its service today, in light of competitive pressure from AT&T’s DirecTV Now and new streaming services from YouTube and Hulu. The company ditched its “basic TV” marketing pitch and has now recast the service as “A La Carte TV,” but the changes are in name-only. There is nothing different about the packages or pricing, just the marketing message pushing their packages.

“A La Carte TV is choice in an industry that prevents it,” the Sling TV website states. “Personalize your own channel lineup. Start with the service that’s best for you, then customize with Extras in your favorite TV genres like Sports, Comedy, Kids, News, Lifestyle, Hollywood Movies, and Spanish TV. Change your service online anytime.”

“As we expected, competitors are coming out of the woodwork,” wrote Sling TV CEO Roger Lynch in a blog post. “However, we didn’t expect that they’d drag three key pieces of Old TV baggage with them: bloated bundles, higher prices and lack of flexibility. The only choices these competitors give consumers is a big bundle or even bigger bundles. That isn’t the choice consumers want. Plus, they’re making people pay for features and channels they may not want. The ‘new guys’ are missing the point and re-creating the sins of Old TV.”

Lynch admits Sling TV isn’t true “a la carte,” because subscribers still end up with channels they don’t want.

“Every consumer would love to just pay $20 and then choose the twenty channels they want,” Lynch wrote. “And we would love that too. We would do that in a heartbeat if programmers would let us…but they won’t.”

Sling TV is also attempting to find a niche targeting international audiences with packages of international networks that are either not available on cable, or can cost a fortune.

“Sling TV is the only pay-TV service that offers the ability to subscribe only to programming from a specific region, including Mexico, Spain, South America and the Caribbean,” Lynch wrote, adding the service now offers more than 300 channels across more than 20 language groups.

The total price of the three-months of prepaid Orange service and the AirPlay TV + Adapter is $124.97, before state and local sales taxes are applied. Subscribers can also qualify for the deal with other packages:

  • Prepay for four months of Sling TV if your monthly payment is between $15-$20 and get AirTV Player and AirTV Adapter for $50.
  • Prepay for six months of Sling TV if your monthly payment is under $15 and get AirTV Player and AirTV Adapter for $50.

Sling TV customers can visit sling.com/devices/airtv to buy the bundle. A separate deal offering a 25% discount off an RCA indoor TV antenna was not working at the time this article was written. Existing Sling TV customers can also qualify for this promotion by writing to the company’s social media team on Sling TV’s Facebook page.

The AirTV Player allows users to combine over-the-air free TV with streaming services without having to change viewing sources on your television.

Big Gets Bigger: Sinclair Acquires 14 TV Stations from Bonten Media

Phillip Dampier April 24, 2017 Competition, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

Sinclair Broadcast Group is getting 14 stations larger with the announced $240 million acquisition of TV stations in small markets owned and operated by Bonten Media.

  • WCYB (NBC) and WEMT (Fox) serving eastern Tennessee and western Virginia
  • WCTI (ABC) and WYDO (Fox) in North Carolina
  • KCVU (Fox), KRCR (ABC), KRVU (MNT), KUCO (UNI), KAEF (ABC), KBVU (Fox), KECA (CW) and KEUV (UNI) in California
  • KECI (NBC), KCFW (NBC) and KTVM (NBC) in Montana
  • KTXS (ABC), KTES (Me-TV) and KTXE (ABC) in Texas

The station acquisitions will increase Sinclair’s presence in states where it already operates, and could directly affect cable and satellite TV customers because of Sinclair’s usual practice of demanding high compensation fees for permission to carry its stations on the pay TV dial.

WCTI-TV New Bern/Greenville/Washington/
Jacksonville, N.C. is just one of the stations being acquired by Sinclair.

The acquisition allows Sinclair to make advertising opportunities available on a larger number of stations and will help Sinclair expand the number of stations that carry its digital subchannel networks including Comet, a sci-fi channel, Charge!, which airs action-oriented programming, and TBD, a short-form programming network that relies heavily on online media productions.

“We look forward to welcoming the Bonten employees into the Sinclair family and are pleased to be growing our regional presence in several states where we already operate,” said Sinclair CEO Chris Ripley in a statement. “We believe our economies of scale help us bring improvements to small market stations, including investments in news, other quality local programming, and multicast opportunities with our emerging networks.”

The current deal is only a preview of the kind of TV station consolidation expected with Sinclair’s anticipated acquisition of Tribune Media, which owns familiar large market stations like WPIX-New York, KTLA-Los Angeles and WGN-Chicago.

Last week, FCC chairman Ajit Pai led the Commission to make it easier for large station owner groups to acquire more stations. Sinclair is currently the second-largest TV station owner in the U.S. (behind Nexstar Media Group) with 165 stations if its deal with Bonten is approved by regulators. Should it acquire Tribune, it would become the nation’s largest TV station operator by far.

Verizon FiOS Introduces 940/880Mbps Tier For As Low as $69.99; Existing Subs Can Upgrade April 30

Phillip Dampier April 24, 2017 Broadband Speed, Competition, Consumer News, Verizon 1 Comment

Verizon has announced near-gigabit speeds will soon be available to its FiOS customers in eight markets starting April 30th at prices as low as $69.99 a month.

The new speed tier will cost less than half of Verizon FiOS’ currently advertised 500/500Mbps plan, and less than the 750Mbps plan some customers have been able to buy during the last three months in select cities.

FiOS Gigabit Connection will not actually deliver 1,000/1,000Mbps service, but it will come close with download speeds up to 940Mbps and 880Mbps for uploads.

Current FiOS customers will be able to upgrade their internet speed and see a dramatic bill reduction starting April 30, according to a Verizon representative.

Unfortunately, all Verizon FiOS customers will not be able to take advantage of the upgraded speeds and lower prices immediately. For now, only customers in the following areas qualify:

  • New York (City and immediate suburbs)
  • Portions of Northern New Jersey
  • Philadelphia
  • Richmond and Hampton Roads, Va.
  • Boston
  • Providence, R.I.
  • Washington, D.C.

Pricing will depend on the level of service you have. Equipment rental, taxes and fees are not included. Customers must order online to get this pricing:

  • Standalone (non-promotional/never expires): $69.99/mo
  • Triple-play bundle price: $79.99/mo, rising to $84.99 in year two

Customers in the qualified markets noted above currently subscribed to Verizon’s 750/750Mbps plan ($150/mo) will be transitioned to the new gigabit plan automatically and get a lower bill as well.

As FiOS Gigabit Connection is introduced, Verizon will dramatically cut the number of internet plans it offers customers in areas where gigabit speeds are available. Verizon is expected to drop its 100, 150, 300, 500, and 750Mbps tiers, leaving just two — an entry-level 50/50Mbps plan starting at $39.99 and the gigabit plan for just under $70.

In other cities where gigabit speeds will not be available for now, customers are stuck with lower speeds and higher prices. Verizon does not have a timetable when other cities will receive upgrades at this time.

Gone Rogue: Competition, Ajit Pai-Style

Public Knowledge released this video today showing FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has ‘gone rogue’ with favors for his Big Telecom friends but none for you. (1:15)

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