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Verizon’s Idea of a “Modest Rate Increase” in New Jersey: 440%; $15 Billion Collected for Phantom Fiber

Verizon-logoWhile the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities was able to quickly settle its differences with Verizon by granting the phone company’s wish to walk away from its commitment to offer 45Mbps broadband across the state, New Jersey ratepayers are out $15 billion in excess phone charges levied since 1993 for promised upgrades many will never get.

The Opportunity New Jersey plan the state government signed with Verizon was supposed to expand advanced broadband across the state in return for “a modest amount of pricing flexibility” in the fees Verizon charged customers in New Jersey. But Verizon is not a modest company and a new report shows the phone company used the agreement to boost rates as much as 440% — primarily through ancillary surcharges including inside wire maintenance, wire investment, an investment recovery fee, a local number portability surcharge, merged local calling area charge, and various other charges for phone features including Caller ID, Call Waiting, etc.

Tom Allibone, the president of LTC Consulting joined forces with New Networks’ Bruce Kushnick to analyze more than 30 years of Verizon New Jersey phone bills and discovered when it comes to tallying up rate increases, Verizon’s addition skills are akin to taking out a bag of M&M’s and only counting the yellow ones.

“This Verizon New Jersey bill from April 2002 [...] has an “FCC Subscriber Line Charge”, which was $6.21 cents per line. Verizon’s quote doesn’t include this charge in their analysis of no increases between 1985 to 2008,” Kushnick writes. “The FCC Line Charge (it has many names), is on every local phone bill and the charge started in 1985. You can’t get service without paying this charge and the money does NOT go to fund the FCC but is direct revenue to Verizon New Jersey.”

verizonnjrateincreaseAfter adding up various other surcharges, Kushnick’s bill increased a lot.

“Add up the ‘Total Monthly Charges’ for 2 phone lines— It’s ugly,” Kushnick said. “While the cost of the ‘monthly charges’ was $25.62, there’s an extra $17.70 cents — 70%. I thought that Verizon said there were no ‘increases.’”

“Anyone who has ever bought a bundled package of services from Verizon (or the other phone or cable companies) knows that they all play this shell game; the price of service you have to pay is always 10-40% more than the advertised price. That’s because the companies leave out the cost of these ancillary charges and taxes in their sale pitch,” he added.

Verizon raised local residential service rates 79% in 2008, according to Kushnick. Business customers paid 70 percent more. Caller ID rates increased 38% — remarkable for a service that has a profit margin of 5,695%. But Verizon did even better boosting the charge for a non-published number by 38% — a service that has a 36,900% profit margin as of 1999 — the services are even cheaper to offer now.

Telephone service is one of those products that should have declined in price, especially after phone companies fully depreciated their copper wire networks — long ago paid off. Companies like Verizon have cut the budgets for outdoor wire maintenance and the number of employees tasked with keeping service up and running has been reduced by over 70 percent since 1985, dramatically reducing Verizon’s costs. But Verizon customers paid more for phone service, not less.

The cost of service might not have been as much of an issue had Verizon taken the excess funds and invested them in promised upgrades, but that has not happened for a significant percentage of the state and likely never will. Instead, they just increased company profits. More recently, Verizon has directed much of its investments into its more profitable wireless division.

Even though Verizon achieved total victory with the Christie Administration-dominated BPU, the company is still making threats about any future plans for investment.

“It’s important that regulators and legislators support public policies that encourage broadband growth in New Jersey rather than ones that could jeopardize the state’s highly competitive communications industry, or risk future investments by providers like Verizon,” wrote Sam Delgado, vice president of external affairs.

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The Bug is Back: AT&T’s Cricket Brand Launches New Ho-Hum Plans That Are More of the Same

Cricket has relaunched its website with a new logo and service plans as new owner AT&T merges its value-conscious Aio prepaid offering under the acquired Cricket brand name.

Targeting the credit-challenged, Cricket’s new service plans are not groundbreaking, basically copying Aio’s recent offers. Swept away are the low-cost “pay when you use” plans that only levy charges on the days you actually use the phone. Instead, Cricket is looking for a longer, committed relationship with month-long service plans and loyalty discounts:

cell plans

The relaunch of Cricket will bring changes for existing customers as AT&T begins to decommission Cricket’s freestanding CDMA 3G network in March 2015 in favor of AT&T’s GSM 4G LTE service. That means customers with current Cricket phones will need to eventually switch to a newer handset, a process being made easier with $50 rebates that can make some of Cricket’s smartphones available for free. Enroll in Cricket’s rewards program, stay with them a year, make your payments on time and you will also get a $50 device credit which can be used towards an upgrade next year.

cricket-logoCricket’s data plans do not carry automatic overlimit charges. Instead, your data connection is throttled to 128kbps until your billing period resets. Customers can buy an extra gigabyte of data at any time for $10.

There are several other changes that probably won’t affect the majority of Cricket customers:

  • There is a $5 discount for every month you are enrolled in Auto Pay to keep your phone active;
  • A family plan discount provides $10 off the monthly service charge of a second line, $20 off the third line, and $30 off the fourth and fifth line, for a maximum discount of $90 a month;
  • While you remain on your current Cricket service (on the CDMA network) you may keep paper billing. When you transition to the new Cricket (the 4G GSM network with nationwide coverage), you will no longer receive a paper bill;
  • Customers participating in the 5 for $100 promotion can continue with this rate plan only while on the Cricket CDMA network;
  • Cricket no longer offers military or friends & family discounts;
  • Cricket will transition out of the wireless Lifeline program. Current Lifeline customers can use Cricket’s CDMA network until it is shut down, after which they must choose a different provider;
http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Cricket Home New Cricket Merger Info.mp4

AT&T keeps its name and brand completely off the relaunched Cricket and Aio combined website. This introductory video explains the merger of the two wireless brands and what customers can expect. (1:44)

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Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right: Comcast/Time Warner Cable “Worst Companies in U.S.”

Another satisfied customer

Comcast and Time Warner Cable have achieved new lows in the most important customer satisfaction survey in the United States, winning bottom honors as the two most despised companies in the United States.

The American Customer Satisfaction Index found Comcast and Time Warner Cable the only two companies in the country that scored below 60 on the ACSI’s 100 point scale. Comcast fell 5% to 60, while Time Warner Cable plunged 7% to 56, its lowest score to date.

“Comcast and Time Warner assert their proposed merger will not reduce competition because there is little overlap in their service territories,” says David VanAmburg, ACSI director. “Still, it’s a concern whenever two poor-performing service providers combine operations. ACSI data consistently show that mergers in service industries usually result in lower customer satisfaction, at least in the short-term. It’s hard to see how combining two negatives will be a positive for consumers.”

Broadband service seems to be a significant issue for customers. High prices, slow data transmission, and unreliable service drag satisfaction to record lows, as customers have few alternatives beyond the largest Internet service providers. Customer satisfaction with ISPs drops 3.1% to 63, the lowest score in the Index.

Verizon FiOS is the one bright spot in the survey, managing to grab a 71 score, beating AT&T U-verse, CenturyLink, and other providers. Cable broadband providers continued to score lowest. The best of the lot was Cox Communications, which isn’t saying much. It only managed a 6% fall to 64.

Customer satisfaction is also deteriorating for all the largest pay TV providers. Viewers are much more dissatisfied with cable TV service than fiber optic and satellite service (60 vs. 68). Though both companies drop in customer satisfaction, DirecTV (-4%) and AT&T (-3%) are tied for the lead with ACSI scores of 69. Verizon Communications FiOS (68) and DISH Network (67) follow. DISH Network may be the lowest-scoring satellite TV company, but it is better than the top-scoring cable company, Cox Communications (-3% to 63).

Among wireless carriers, things have not changed much this year.

Verizon Wireless achieved first place after climbing 3% to 75. T-Mobile (69), Sprint (68) and AT&T Mobility (68) are tightly grouped behind. As smartphone adoption continues to grow, network demands increase along with costs to the consumer, each contributing to stagnant customer satisfaction.

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Even Europe’s DSL is Faster: VDSL2 Vectoring Delivers 100Mbps Over Copper Telephone Networks

Phillip Dampier May 20, 2014 Broadband Speed, Competition, Consumer News, Video No Comments

vectoringAlcatel-Lucent reported this month next generation DSL technology is a success for the company, with more than five million customers outside of North America now getting speeds up to 100Mbps over ordinary copper telephone lines.

VDSL2 line vectoring delivers more than twice the speed of AT&T’s fiber to the neighborhood U-verse service, and has proved reliable for simultaneous television, broadband, and telephone usage. It will even support 4K video streaming of ultra high-definition video.

Vectoring employs sophisticated noise cancelling to cut “crosstalk” interference to boost broadband performance. Testing has shown VDSL2 line vectoring can offer 100/30Mbps service with copper lengths as long as 1,600 feet. Most VDSL2 services are delivered over telephone networks that replace at least some copper wiring with fiber.

Alcatel-Lucent has shipped enough VDSL2 vectoring equipment to provide service to five million customers, surpassing non-vectored VDSL2. But practically none of the equipment is headed to North American ISPs. Instead, companies including Belgium’s Belgacom, Israel’s Bezeq, KPN in the Netherlands, Telecom Argentina, Telecom Italia, TE Data in Egypt and NBN Co. in Australia have launched vectoring technology, offering service to customers at speeds topping out at 70-100Mbps.

Most customers switched to VDSL2 vectoring see their speeds double, usually from 30Mbps to 70Mbps or more. Providers like Belgacom have been careful to only promise speeds the company can actually deliver. Belgacom’s own tests found 100Mbps service was only completely reliable when the amount of copper between the customer and the company’s fiber connection was kept less than 650 feet, so it has capped customer speeds at 70Mbps for now.

“The prime goal in DSL must be signal quality, integrity, robustness and stability for perfect video grade services,” says the Belgian ISP.

Vectoring technology has been on the drawing board for a decade and is only now achieving success in the market.

Many ISPs are choosing to deploy vectoring because it is less costly than a fiber upgrade and can still meet the speed goals demanded by government regulators. The technology has proven robust even where copper wire networks have degraded. In several European countries, homes are still serviced by indoor copper wiring insulated with paper sheaths.

Alcaltel-Lucent believes even after vectoring is widely deployed, it won’t be a dead-end for DSL service.

The company is working on its next generation “Phantom Mode” technology that combines VDSL2 bonding and VDSL2 vectoring with a traditional voice technology called “phantom transmission.” This combination adds a virtual channel to create three channels over 2 pairs of phone wiring.

In Phantom Mode tests, the company achieved 300Mbps over 2 pairs at 400 meters and 1Gbps (up and down-stream combined) over 4 pairs.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Alcatel Lucent DSL Vectoring 5-2014.flv

Alcatel-Lucent produced this video explaining vectoring technology. (A “CPE” means customer-premises equipment, in this case the DSL modem.) (3:09)

 

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New York Governor Orders Thorough Regulatory Review of Comcast-Time Warner Cable Merger

Cuomo

Cuomo

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has ordered the New York State Public Service to immediately start a thorough and detailed investigation into Comcast’s proposed purchase of Time Warner Cable, using new regulatory powers to reject any merger not in the “best interest” of Time Warner’s customers in New York.

“The State is taking a hands-on review of this merger to ensure that New Yorkers benefit,” Cuomo said. “The Public Service Commission’s actions will help protect consumers by demanding company commitments to strong service quality, affordability, and availability.”

New York implemented one of the nation’s strongest cable franchise laws in April that will now require the two cable operators to prove that any merger is in the public interest. An earlier law backed by the telecom industry put the burden of proof on the Commission to prove such transactions were not beneficial to the public.

Cuomo has requested the PSC check how the proposed merger will expand broadband in under-served areas and offer better broadband access to schools. The PSC will critically review the protections being offered to low income customers as well as how the proposed merger might impact consumer pricing and telecommunication competition overall.

PSC chair Audrey Zibelman said, “To determine whether the proposed transaction is in the public interest, the Commission will examine the proposal to ensure services the merged company would provide will be better than the service customers currently receive.”

comcast twcOne way to prove the merged company would not offer better service is to alert the Commission Comcast plans to reimpose usage caps on its customers while Time Warner Cable does not have any compulsory usage limits or usage billing.

Time Warner now serves 2.6 million subscribers in every major New York community: Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Albany and the boroughs of Manhattan, Staten Island, Queens and parts of Brooklyn.

The PSC is likely to hold public forums across the state in June to hear the views of affected consumers, but the record is now open to written and telephoned comments from anyone interested in the merger.

There are several ways to provide your comments to the Commission. Comments should refer to: “Case 14-M-0183.”

Via the Internet or Mail: The public may send comments electronically to the Hon. Kathleen H. Burgess, Secretary, at [email protected] or by mail or delivery to Secretary Burgess at the New York State Public Service Commission, Three Empire State Plaza, Albany, New York 12223-1350. Comments may also be entered directly into the case file by clicking on the “Post Comments” box at the top of the page.

Toll-Free Opinion Line: Individuals may choose to phone in comments by calling the Commission’s Opinion Line at 1 800-335-2120. This line is set up to receive in-state calls 24-hours a day. These calls are not transcribed, but a summary is provided to staff who will report to the Commission.

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United States of AT&T: DirecTV Acquired by AT&T in $48.5 Billion Deal

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WSJ ATT Buys DirecTV 5-19-14.flv

For $48.5 billion, AT&T will vault itself into second place among the nation’s largest pay television providers with the acquisition of DirecTV. The Wall Street Journal reports the executives at AT&T have been looking to for a giant deal for several years. Most executives earn special bonuses and other incentives worth millions for successfully completing these kinds of transactions. (3:03)

AT&T plans to spend $48.5 billion to acquire the nation’s biggest satellite television provider, allowing AT&T to become the second largest pay television company, behind a merged Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

att directvThe deal, finalized on Sunday, pays $95 per DirecTV share in a combination of stock and cash, about a 10% premium over DirecTV’s closing price on Friday. Including debt, the acquisition is AT&T’s third-largest deal on record, behind the purchase of BellSouth for $83 billion in 2006 and the deal for Ameritech Corp., which closed in 1999, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

“This is a unique opportunity that will redefine the video entertainment industry and create a company able to offer new bundles and deliver content to consumers across multiple screens – mobile devices, TVs, laptops, cars and even airplanes. At the same time, it creates immediate and long-term value for our shareholders,” said Randall Stephenson, AT&T chairman and CEO. “DirecTV is the best option for us because they have the premier brand in pay TV, the best content relationships, and a fast-growing Latin American business. DirecTV is a great fit with AT&T and together we’ll be able to enhance innovation and provide customers new competitive choices for what they want in mobile, video and broadband services. We look forward to welcoming DirecTV’s talented people to the AT&T family.”

The announced acquisition has left some on Wall Street scratching their heads.

“Like any merger born of necessity rather than opportunity, the combination of AT&T and DirecTV calls to mind images of lifeboats and rescues at sea,” telecommunications analyst Craig Moffett of MoffettNathanson Research wrote this week. AT&T, Moffett wrote, is in “dire need of a cash producer to sustain their dividend.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg ATT DirecTV Deal a Head Scratcher 5-19-14.flv

Craig Moffett, founder of MoffettNathanson LLC, talks about AT&T Inc.’s plan to buy DirecTV for $48.5 billion. Moffett speaks with Tom Keene, Scarlet Fu, William Cohan, and Adam Johnson on Bloomberg Television’s “Surveillance.” StockTwits founder Howard Lindzon also speaks. (5:12)

pay market shareThe deal would combine AT&T’s wireless, U-verse, and broadband networks with DirecTV’s television service, creating bundling opportunities for some satellite customers. As broadband becomes the most important component of a package including phone, television, and Internet access, not being able to offer broadband has left satellite TV companies at a competitive disadvantage. AT&T’s U-verse platform – a fiber to the neighborhood network – has given AT&T customers an incremental broadband speed upgrade, but not one that can necessarily compete against fiber to the home or cable broadband.

Some analysts are speculating AT&T will eventually shut down its U-verse television service and dedicate its bandwidth towards a more robust broadband offering. Existing television customers would be offered DirecTV instead.

But deal critics contend AT&T is spending a lot of money to buy its competitors instead of investing enough in network upgrades.

“The amount of cash alone AT&T is spending on this deal — $14.55 billion — is as much as it cost Verizon for its entire FiOS deployment, which reaches more than 17 million homes,” Free Press’ Derek Turner tells Stop the Cap! “Add in the $33 billion in AT&T stock and $18.6 billion in debt, and you can see just how wasteful this merger is.”

In effect, AT&T is spending nearly $50 billion to buy DirecTV’s customer relationships, its satellite platform, and its agreements with programmers, all while removing one competitor from the market. Cable has 54 percent of the pay TV market, satellite has 34 percent, and AT&T and Verizon share 11 percent. AT&T’s U-verse has 5.7 million TV customers. DirecTV has 20.3 million. Combining the two gives AT&T 26 million television customers, second only to Comcast/Time Warner Cable.

Rural Americans will effectively see their choice in competitors drop by one-third, giving them the option of the phone company or Dish Network.

AT&T intends to persuade regulators to approve the deal despite its antitrust implications by offering several commitments the company says are in the public interest and protect consumers:

  • 15 Million Customer Locations Get More High Speed Broadband Competition. AT&T will use the merger synergies to expand its plans to build and enhance high-speed broadband service to 15 million customer locations, mostly in rural areas where AT&T does not provide high-speed broadband service today, utilizing a combination of technologies including fiber to the premises and fixed wireless local loop capabilities. This new commitment, to be completed within four years after close, is on top of the fiber and Project VIP broadband expansion plans AT&T has already announced. Customers will be able to buy broadband service stand-alone or as part of a bundle with other AT&T services.
  • Stand-Alone Broadband. For customers who only want a broadband service and may choose to consume video through an over-the-top (OTT) service like Netflix or Hulu, the combined company will offer stand-alone wireline broadband service at speeds of at least 6Mbps (where feasible) in areas where AT&T offers wireline IP broadband service today at guaranteed prices for three years after closing.
  • Nationwide Package Pricing on DIRECTV. DIRECTV’s TV service will continue to be available on a stand-alone basis at nationwide package prices that are the same for all customers, no matter where they live, for at least three years after closing.
  • Net Neutrality Commitment. Continued commitment for three years after closing to the FCC’s Open Internet protections established in 2010, irrespective of whether the FCC re-establishes such protections for other industry participants following the DC Circuit Court of Appeals vacating those rules.
  • Spectrum Auction. The transaction does not alter AT&T’s plans to meaningfully participate in the FCC’s planned spectrum auctions later this year and in 2015. AT&T intends to bid at least $9 billion in connection with the 2015 incentive auction provided there is sufficient spectrum available in the auction to provide AT&T a viable path to at least a 2×10 MHz nationwide spectrum footprint.

a dtv 2

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CNN ATT DirecTV Merger 5-19-14.flv

CNN says AT&T’s buyout of DirecTV is about getting video programming to customers using all types of technology, but public interest groups suspect it’s about reducing competition. (1:17)

A closer look at AT&T’s commitments exposes several loopholes, however.

AT&T U-verse and DirecTV compete head-on in these areas.

AT&T U-verse and DirecTV compete head-on in these areas.

  • AT&T’s “commitment” to expand broadband to 15 million new locations is in addition to their Project VIP U-verse expansion now underway. However, AT&T does not say how many rural customers will see wired U-verse service finally become available vs. how many will lose their landlines permanently and have to rely on AT&T’s wireless landline replacement and expensive, usage-capped wireless broadband;
  • AT&T’s speed commitment is largely unenforceable and falls apart with language like, “where feasible.” Anywhere they don’t deliver 6Mbps DSL speed can easily be explained away as “unfeasible.” AT&T also only commits to providing DSL where it already offers DSL, so no expansion there;
  • The FCC’s Net Neutrality protections never covered wireless and three years is a very short time to commit to the “light touch” approach the FCC had with Net Neutrality back in 2010;
  • AT&T’s wireless auction commitment comes with loopholes like “meaningfully,” “provided there,” and “a viable path to at least.”

“You can’t justify AT&T buying DirecTV by pointing at Comcast’s grab for Time Warner, because neither one is a good deal for consumers,” said Delara Derakhshani, policy counsel for Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. “On the heels of Comcast’s bid for Time Warner Cable, AT&T is going to try to pull off a mega-merger of its own. These could be the start of a wave of mergers that should put federal regulators on high alert.  AT&T’s takeover of DirecTV is just the latest attempt at consolidation in a marketplace where consumers are already saddled with lousy service and price hikes. The rush is on for some of the biggest industry players to get even bigger, with consumers left on the losing end.”

“The captains of our communications industry have clearly run out of ideas,” said Craig Aaron, president of Free Press. “Instead of innovating and investing in their networks, companies like AT&T and Comcast are simply buying up the competition. These takeovers are expensive, and consumers end up footing the bill for merger mania. AT&T is willing to pay $48.5 billion and take on an additional $19 billion in debt to buy DirecTV. That’s a fortune to spend on a satellite-only company at a time when the pay-TV industry is stagnating and broadband is growing. For the amount of money and debt AT&T and Comcast are collectively shelling out for their respective mega-deals, they could deploy super-fast gigabit-fiber broadband service to every single home in America.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CNN Al Franken Skeptical About DirecTV Deal 5-19-14.flv

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) appeared on CNN’s New Day this morning to express his skepticism about the consumer benefits of a merger between AT&T and DirecTV. “We need more competition, not less.” (2:40)

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Wall Street: Telecom Mergers Are Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious! Consumers: More Pocket-Picking

price-gouging-cake“Comcast Corp.’s bid to buy Time Warner Cable Inc. may be the opening act for a yearlong festival of telecommunications deals that would alter Internet, phone and TV service for tens of millions of Americans.” — Bloomberg News, May 14, 2014

Wall Street analysts remain certain Comcast and Time Warner Cable won’t be the only merger on the table this year as the $45 billion dollar deal is expected to spark a new wave of consolidation, further reducing competitive choice in telecom services for most Americans.

While the industry continues to insist that the current foundation of deregulation is key to investment and competition, the reality on the ground is less certain.

Let’s review history:

For several decades, the cable industry has avoided head-on competition with other cable operators. They argue the costs of “overbuilding” cable systems into territories already serviced by another company is financially impractical and reckless. But that did not stop telephone companies like AT&T and Verizon from overhauling portions of their networks to compete, and in at least some communities another provider has emerged to offer some competition. Some wonder if AT&T was willing to spend billions to upgrade their urban landline network to provide U-verse, why won’t cable companies spend some money and compete directly with one another?

The answer is simple: They can earn a lot more by limiting competition.

When only a few firms account for most of the sales of a product, those firms can sometimes exercise market power by either explicitly or implicitly coordinating their actions. Coordinated interaction is especially suspect where all firms seem to charge very similar prices and few, if any, are willing to challenge the status quo.

Since the 1980s, the telecommunications industry has been deregulated off and on to a degree not seen since the pioneer days of telephone service. That was the era when waves of mergers created near-monopolies in the oil, railroad, energy, tobacco, steel and sugar industries. By the late 1890s, evidence piled up that proved reducing the number of providers in a market leads to higher prices and poor service. The abuses eventually led to the passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 and later the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914.

Here is what happened when the cable industry was reined in during the early 1990s, only to be deregulated again.

Here is what happened when the cable industry was reined in during the early 1990s, only to be deregulated again.

The generation of political leaders that dominated Washington during the 1980s developed selective amnesia about economic history and dismantled many of the regulatory protections established to protect consumers, arguing competition would keep markets in check. In the broadband and cable business, that has not proved as successful as the industry represents.

At the heart of the problem is the 1996 Telecommunications Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton. The sweeping law is littered with lobbyist landmines for consumers and their interests. Under the guise of increasing competition, the 1996 law actually helped reduce competition by removing regulatory oversight and, perhaps unintentionally, sparking an enormous rampage of industry consolidation followed by price increases. The Bush Administration kept the war on consumers going with the appointment of Michael Powell (now the CEO of the cable industry’s lobbying group) to chair the Federal Communications Commission. Under Powell, non-discriminatory access to networks by competitors was curtailed, and Powell’s FCC gave carte blanche to the cable industry’s plan to cluster its territories into large regional monopolies and a tight national oligopoly. The FCC’s own researchers quietly admitted in the early 2000s “clustering raised prices.”

Cable prices

By January 2001, cable operators had settled on rate increases that averaged three times the rate of inflation. While the national inflation rate hovered around 1%, cable companies routinely raised basic cable rates an average of 7% annually. Powell declared rising cable rates were not a consumer problem and adopted the industry’s classic talking point that rate increases reflect the “value of the programming” found on cable. In fact, even as cable customers grew increasingly angry about rate increases, Powell told three different reporters he wanted to further relax the FCC’s involvement in cable pricing. (McClintock, Pamela, “Powell: No Cable Coin Crisis” Variety, April 30, 2001; Hearn, Ted. “Powell: Value Matters in Cable Rates,” Multichannel News, March 13, 2002; Powell Press Conference, February 8, 2001; Dreazen, Yochi. “FCC Chairman Signals Change, Plans to Limit Intervention,” Wall Street Journal, February 7, 2001.)

cost_broadband_around_the_world_v2Economists reviewing data found in publicly available corporate balance sheets soon found evidence that the “increased programming costs”-excuse for rate increases did not hold water. The less competition or number of choices available to consumers in the market unambiguously lead to higher prices. It has remained true since Consumers’ Union revealed the financial trickery in 2003:

The cable industry will claim that programming costs are driving prices up. While programming costs have certainly risen, a close look at the numbers shows that rising program costs account for only a small part of the rising rates.

If costs were really the cause of rising prices, then the cable industries’ operating margins – the difference between its revenues and costs — would not be rising. The facts are just the opposite. Operating margins have been increasing dramatically since 1997. The operating margin for the industry as a whole will reach $18.8 billion per year in 2002, $7 billion more than it was in 1997. Operating revenues per subscriber have increased dramatically over that period, from $208 per year to $273. That is, after taking out all the operating costs, including programming costs, cable operators have increased their take per subscriber by over 30 percent.

[...] The ability of cable operators to raise rates and increase revenues, even with rising programming costs, stems from the market power they have at the point of sale. They would not be able to raise prices and pass program price increases through if they did not have monopoly power.

Consumers’ Union also foreshadows what will happen if another wave of industry consolidation takes hold the way it did over a decade earlier:

While the cable industry has certainly increased capital expenditures to upgrade its plants, it has actually sunk a lot more capital into another activity – mergers and acquisitions.

It is the outrageous prices that have been paid to buy each other out and consolidate the industry that is helping to drive the rate increases. Between 1998, when the first mega merger between cable operators was announced, and 2001, when the last big merger was announced, cable companies spent over a quarter of a trillion dollars buying each other out. In those four years, they spent almost six times as much on mergers and acquisitions as they did on capital expenditures to upgrade their systems. At the same time, the average price paid per subscriber more than doubled.

countries_with_high_speed_broadbandWhen a cable operator pays such an outrageous price, the previous owner is reaping the financial rewards of his monopoly power. The acquiring company can only pay such a high price by assuming that his monopoly power will allow him to continue to increase prices. Monopoly power is being bought and sold and borrowed against. The new cable operator, who has paid for market power, may insist that the debt he has incurred to obtain it is a real cost on his books. That may be correct in the literal sense (he owes someone that money) but that does not make it right, or the abuse of market power legal.

Fast-forwarding to 2014, economist and Temple professor Joel Maxcy said the same basic economic truths still exist today with Comcast’s merger with Time Warner Cable.

“My concern is the merger and the consolidation of the cable and internet delivery system for consumers and what will happen to internet and cable rates and choices,” Maxcy said, voicing his hesitancy about a deal that merges the nation’s two largest cable providers. “As that industry has gotten more consolidated over time, we have seen rates go up. The answer from them is that we’ve got more choices. Are we better off or not better off? I don’t know, but certainly rates have gone up at a much faster rate than the inflation rate. The result of more monopoly power is always higher prices and less choices and it seems that this merger moves in that direction.”

“The threat from non-network content providers is a concern for the cable industry,” Maxcy added.

“We’re moving to a situation where we don’t need cable, but we still need the internet and the cable companies are the ones that have control of that,” he said. “Consolidating them together makes them more competitive against the outside forces, but the other argument makes the whole thing less competitive so they’ll have more ability to control the access to Netflix, YouTube and the like. People that may develop other similar sorts of services will have a hard time getting the access they would like to purchase those.”

Chris Stigall spoke with economist and Temple professor Joel Maxcy on Talk Radio 1210 WPHT in Philadelphia about Comcast’s attempt to purchase Time Warner Cable and what that means for consumers. Feb. 18, 2014 (12:10)
You must remain on this page to hear the clip, or you can download the clip and listen later.

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A Merger Watch Has Been Issued for Your Internet Service, Cable-TV Provider

moneywedThe announced merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable is expected to have far-reaching implications for other companies in the video and broadband business, with expectations 2014 could be one of the busiest years in a decade for telecom industry mergers and buyouts.

AT&T + DirecTV = Less Video Competition

Bloomberg News reports an announcement from AT&T that it intends to acquire DirecTV for as much as $50 billion could be forthcoming before Memorial Day. Such a merger would drop one satellite television competitor in AT&T landline service areas and promote nationwide bundling of AT&T wireless service with satellite television.

Historically low-interest rates would help AT&T finance such a deal and would turn DirecTV into a division of AT&T, easing concerns the satellite company has been at a disadvantage because it lacks a broadband and phone package.

“While the Comcast/TWC deal was the trigger, the backdrop of a slow macro economy, new competitors, shifts in technology and consumer habits all come together and force the need for more scale,” Todd Lowenstein, a fund manager at Highmark Capital Management Inc. in Los Angeles told Bloomberg.

Satellite television companies remain technologically disadvantaged to withstand the growing influence of online video and their subscriber numbers have peaked.

If AT&T buys DirecTV, the wireless giant could theoretically bundle its service with DirecTV’s video product, and in some areas of the country its U-verse high-speed broadband to the home, to compete with cable, said Amy Yong, an analyst at Macquarie Group in New York, in a note to clients.

Sprint + T-Mobile = Less Wireless Competition

Dish + T-Mobile = A Draw

mergerIn a less likely deal Sprint is still trying to pursue T-Mobile USA for a potential merger and if regulators reject that idea, Charles Ergen’s Dish Network is said to be interested.

To prepare Washington for another telecommunications deal, SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son’s lobbying firm, Carmen Group, has again been meeting with elected officials and regulators to argue the merits of a merger with T-Mobile, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Dish, which failed to buy Sprint last year, would be interested in acquiring T-Mobile if regulators block Sprint’s efforts, Ergen said. That hinges on whether SoftBank Corp. fails to win regulatory approval for its plan to buy T-Mobile, which is controlled by Deutsche Telekom AG, Ergen said last week. The Japanese wireless company owns 80 percent of Sprint.

All three deals carry a combined value of $170 billion in equity and debt and would impact 80 million Americans.

Suitors hope regulators will be in the mood to approve merger deals as they contemplate enlarging Comcast through its purchase of Time Warner Cable.

Even if all the deals don’t pass muster, Wall Street banks will still rake in millions in fees advising players on how to structure the deals. Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan would join executives winning considerable sums for reducing the number of competitors providing telecommunications services in the U.S.

Whether customers would benefit is a question open to much debate.

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Comcast: Usage-Based Billing for All Customers Within 5 Years; ‘We’re Also Allowed to Do Fast Lanes’

comcast highwayComcast will introduce usage-based billing on all of its broadband customers nationwide within five years, whether they like it or not.

Comcast’s executive vice president David Cohen told Variety he predicts the new usage limit will likely be 350GB a month but could increase to 500GB in 2019. Cohen claims consumers in usage-capped test markets prefer a preset usage limit and an overlimit fee of $10 for each additional 50GB of usage.

But Stop the Cap! has learned at no time has Comcast surveyed customers about whether they want their Internet usage metered or capped. That question is evidently not an option.

If Time Warner Cable territories are merged under the Comcast brand, usage billing would likely immediately follow.

Usage caps will go a long way to protect Comcast’s cable television package from online video, which if viewed in significant amounts could put customers over their monthly usage limit and subject them to higher fees.

“We’re trying to go slowly, not out of a regulatory concern (but because) we have no desire to blow up our high-speed data business,” he said.

cohenIf the merger is approved, Comcast will face significantly less competition in many Verizon service areas also served by Time Warner Cable. Verizon FiOS expansion has ended and the company continues to de-emphasize its DSL service, which is the only broadband competition Time Warner Cable faces in many upstate New York and western Massachusetts communities.

An unrepentant Cohen also doubled down on paid prioritization — Internet fast lanes — declaring regardless of what the FCC decides on Net Neutrality, Comcast still has the right to offer paid prioritization to customers.

“Whatever it is, we are allowed to do it,” said Cohen, speaking at the MoffettNathanson Media & Communications Summit in New York. “We are not sure we know what paid prioritization, or what a fast lane, is. Fast lane sounds bad… (but) I believe that whatever it is, it has been completely legal for 15 or 20 years.”

The way Comcast’s lawyers read “Title II,” even if the FCC declares broadband ISPs to be common carriers, Cohen says Comcast will go right on selling prioritized access, claiming Title II doesn’t prohibit paid prioritization — indeed, he said, “the whole history” of Title II is that carriers are allowed to provide different levels of service at different prices, reports Variety.

Cohen said he expects Washington regulators will promptly approve the company’s buyout of Time Warner Cable with no delays, insisting the deal is “not that difficult” in terms of antitrust implications.

 

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Public Service Commission to N.Y. Towns: You Have No Negotiating Leverage Over Time Warner Cable

rensselaer countyRensselaer County is just a short drive to the east of New York’s capital city Albany, but for residents in the southern half of the county, it might as be in the middle of nowhere.

Welcome to the world of broadband have’s and have-nots. If you live in the county seat — Troy, Internet access is widely available. But if you live in a community like Nassau, in the southern part of the county, getting Internet access is strictly a hit or miss affair, and in practical terms, the only entity that will decide if you have reasonable access to broadband is Time Warner Cable.

Verizon has decided that the days of expanding DSL in rural areas are over. There is no possibility those without access to DSL now will ever see Verizon’s fiber network FiOS coming their way either. That has left many residents with an unfortunate choice between heavily usage-capped and slow satellite Internet access or heavily usage-capped and expensive wireless Internet from a cell phone company.

Nassau does have a franchise agreement with Time Warner Cable, the only cable operator willing to offer service in this part of upstate New York. The contract specifies Time Warner will bring service to any neighborhood where there are at least 20 residences within a one-mile radius.

The Record News covered negotiations for a franchise renewal for the cable company last year, and found Time Warner Cable held all the cards and the town had almost no leverage in the negotiations:

A rare sight in southern Renssalear County.

A rare sight in southern Rensselaer County.

“We really have no negotiating leverage or power and the Public Service Commission (PSC) was helpful in looking at the contract, but told us we were basically out of luck with any efforts to require anything,” said town Supervisor David Fleming, who said he was told by Time Warner Cable that specific areas in Nassau are “not currently serviceable.”

The town had marked out all the areas that were not served and met with Time Warner to try to gain extensions of service.

“This only succeeded in a couple of areas,” he said. “This is because PSC told us we have no bargaining power. The only big concession we were able to get was to reduce the number of houses per mile needed for service, but this was a pretty standard fall back for Time Warner.”

The town succeeded in negotiating standards down to 20 dwellings per cable mile from 30. “We continue to explore this matter, but frankly, there has been a great deal of unwillingness to expand service in our community,” Fleming said. “The state has been of no help in expanding services.”

As a result, Time Warner has been generally adamant about not expanding service to residents like Alan Austin, who lives on a street where 11 houses are built within a half-mile, technically the same ratio required by Time Warner Cable.

Rensselaer sign“We’ve asked them to bring the service and they won’t,” Austin told the newspaper.

Actually, Time Warner is willing to expand into Austin’s neighborhood — for the right price.

Time Warner agreed it would install cable service if the 11 homes collectively paid a $12,000 installation fee.

“We’re out of luck because we’re never going to get another nine houses in this mile,” Austin said. “We can’t get anybody to bring service here, unless we’re willing to pay an exorbitant amount.”

As for alternatives, don’t call Verizon, they’ll call you. The phone company has suggested rural residents consider their wireless broadband and phone service, assuming a cell tower can reach them with a reasonable signal. But the cost is very high — at least $50 for only 4GB of usage per month and another $20 for telephone service.

Austin is lucky enough to receive some reception from Sprint, which is slightly more reasonably priced. But to get a reliable signal, he has to place his mobile Wi-Fi hotspot in his non-climate-controlled attic. When temperatures fall or soar, the hotspot stops working. Austin has rigged a remote-powered fan in the attic to blow cool air on the hotspot this summer to keep it up and running.

“It’s ridiculous,” he admitted. “People don’t believe me when I tell them these things, but that’s what we deal with.”

The newspaper also pondered the impact of being an Internet have-not with respect to education. In more than a few communities in the county, teachers avoid giving assignments that require students to do research over the Internet, putting them at a potentially serious disadvantage when they attend college.

Businesses also avoid areas where broadband poses a significant challenge, which affects jobs. Selling a home in a broadband blackout zone can also be difficult as savvy buyers increasingly now insist on Internet accessibility.

Without the benefit of bundling discounts, rural Americans pay substantially higher prices for telecommunications services. A promotional bundle from Time Warner Cable can provide phone, Internet, and television service for less than $100 a month. Austin says his package costs more than twice that — more than $220 monthly between paying bills for Verizon phone service, DirectTV television and Sprint for broadband Internet.

These kinds of challenges are ready-made to be addressed on the local government level, but cable and phone companies lobbied successfully for near-total deregulation, making it impossible for town officials to provoke change. In fact, had the community successfully revoked Time Warner Cable’s franchise, no other commercial provider would be willing to step in. That remains common in every community considering its future relationship with the area’s cable company. An informal understanding between cable operators keep them from competing outside of their defined territories.

That leaves Nassau officials with no options, except whether to renew Time Warner’s franchise on the company’s terms for five or ten years. Time Warner wouldn’t hear of a five-year contract so the town capitulated and agreed to a 10-year franchise renewal that will continue to leave residents like Austin without much hope for cable broadband service indefinitely.

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