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Hedge Fund to FairPoint: Sell the Company to Maximize Shareholder Value

fairpoint greedAfter years of financial problems, union problems, and service problems, customers of FairPoint Communications in northern New England report the company has stabilized operations and has been gradually improving service. A hedge fund holding 7.5% of FairPoint agrees, and is now pressuring FairPoint’s board of directors to sell the company, allowing shareholders that bought FairPoint stock when it was nearly worthless to cash out at up to $23 a share.

That almost guarantees shareholders a huge profit while likely saddling whoever buys FairPoint with the same kind of sale-related debt that bankrupted FairPoint in 2009.

Maglan Capital’s David Tawil and Steven Azarbad communicated their displeasure to FairPoint CEO Paul Sunu in a letter earlier this summer that complains “shareholders have been extremely patient with the company’s operational turnaround and have suffered because the board has not been vigilant in protecting shareholder value.”

maglan“Not as patient as FairPoint’s own customers that spent several years of hell dealing with Verizon’s sale of its landlines in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine,” said FairPoint customer Sally Jackman, who lives in Maine. “It looks like the hedge funds want their pound of profits from another sale, exactly what FairPoint customers don’t need right now.”

Jackman endured three weeks of outages after FairPoint took over Verizon’s deteriorating landline networks in northern New England. The nearest cable company – Time Warner Cable, is almost 50 miles away, leaving Jackman with FairPoint DSL or no broadband service at all.

“Wall Street doesn’t care, they just want the money,” Jackman added. “They probably assume Frontier will pay a premium for FairPoint and then we can go through the kind of problems customers in Texas and Florida dealt with for over a month.”

The hedge fund managers argue that FairPoint “has made enormous strides” and notes “revenue is stabilizing and growth is coming.”

Maglan is well positioned to cash out with an enormous gain, having been an investor in FairPoint since the phone company declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy almost six years ago. The fund held shares when their price dipped below $4. Now, assuming FairPoint will put shareholders first “in ways that other wireline telecom companies do,” investors like Maglan hope to see a sale at a share price of $23, a 75% premium.

“With the company’s labor challenges behind it and with it $700 million of long-term debt removed from FairPoint’s balance-sheet, the time has come for the company to be sold or to be merged into a peer,” the hedge fund managers write.

Tawil (L) and Azarbad (R)

Tawil (L) and Azarbad (R)

Maglan recommends the company be sold to Communications Sales & Leasing, a tax-sheltered Real Estate Investment Trust spun off from Windstream with no current experience running a residential service provider. CS&L primarily provides commercial fiber services for corporations, institutions, and cell phone towers. Shareholders would benefit and CS&L would benefit from diversification, argues Maglan. But the hedge fund has nothing to say about the sale’s impact on FairPoint customers.

Maglan also demanded that while FairPoint explored a sale of the company, it must turn its investments away from its network and operations and start “generating value for shareholders immediately.” Maglan wants FairPoint to turn spending towards a $40 million share repurchase program (to benefit shareholders with a boost in the stock price) and initiate a recurring shareholder dividend payout. To accomplish this, FairPoint will have to designate much of its $23 million of cash on hand and a hefty part of the $52 million of free cash flow anticipated in 2016 directly to shareholders. The company may even need to tap into its revolving credit line if financial results are worse than expected.

Tawil and Azarbad characterize their plan as “well within the range of comfort.”

“It is high-time that the company and the board turn its attention directly to shareholders and, specifically, unlocking shareholder value,” the hedge fund managers add. “We have been a very patient group.”

But perhaps not as patient as they thought. This week, Maglan demanded that FairPoint remove four of its board members — Dennis Austin, Michael Mahoney, David Treadwell and Wayne Wilson, demanding they “immediately tender their resignations” and warned Maglan would push for a special meeting if no action was taken. The reason? Tawil and Azarbad said they did not think the four were “critical to the board in any way.”

“Wall Street has been about as useful as cancer for those of us trying to communicate with the outside world up here,” Jackman said. “I hope all three states get copies of these temper tantrums, because if FairPoint does sell, maybe this time they won’t approve the deal. After all, even the Titanic only sank once.”

Comcast Backs Off Charging Customers Double for Gigabit Speed in Chicago

comcast gigabitTo be a Google Fiber city or not to be a Google Fiber city. It could make a big difference to your wallet if Comcast upgrades broadband speeds in your neighborhood before Google Fiber finally arrives in your “fiberhood.”

When Comcast first announced a major trial of DOCSIS 3.1 gigabit broadband service in Chicago, it confirmed it would cost $139.95 a month — double the price Comcast charges customers in cities where Google Fiber has expressed an interest in providing gigabit service as well. With Chicago nowhere on the Google Fiber upgrade list, it seemed Comcast was prepared to prove the point that competition can really make a difference in broadband pricing, at least until stories appeared headlining Comcast’s pricing policies. Within hours, Comcast “clarified” it was prepared to sell gigabit service in Chicago for $70 a month as well, with a three-year contract.

“We are now able to deliver gigabit speeds over the existing lines that already reach millions of homes in the Chicago area,” Comcast spokesman Jack Segal told the Chicago Tribune. “This is a major step in the evolution of high-speed broadband.”

This is not Comcast bringing a new fiber line to your home or business. This is gigabit download speed over Comcast’s current cable/fiber network — the same one that delivers your current broadband service. DOCSIS 3.1 allows Comcast to bond additional channels together to boost speeds, at least on the downstream side. This technology will not deliver gigabit speed in both directions, at least for now. Comcast’s DOCSIS 3.1 gigabit plan delivers 1,000Mbps download speed, but just 35Mbps upstream. Customers looking for something faster can pay dramatically more for Comcast’s Gigabit Pro fiber to the home service, offering 2,000Mbps speeds. But it will cost up to $1,000 to install and is priced at $300 a month with a two-year contract.

Comcast’s 1TB usage cap (with up to $200 in overlimit fees) will apply to Comcast’s DOCSIS 3.1 plans, unless you opt for unlimited service… for another $50 a month. Comcast gracefully includes unlimited with its Gigabit Pro service.

gigabit comcast

Chicago residents can sign up for either gigabit plan at www.xfinity.com/gig. A $50 installation fee applies and a service call is required. Customers signing up will need a new cable modem that supports DOCSIS 3.1, and there are only a handful on the market so far. Many more will be available in 2017.

Hulu’s Money Blowout: Analyst Predicts Forthcoming Live TV Service Will Lose Real $$$

huluTM_355Hulu’s still-to-be-announced live TV streaming service designed to give subscribers an alternative to bloated and expensive cable-TV packages will lose “real money” if it is priced at around $40.

BTIG Reseach analyst Brandon Ross’ research note to investors (reported by Fierce Cable) claims Hulu faces big expenses to include sports and CBS programming — the one network that isn’t a part-owner of Hulu — into its forthcoming package of live and on-demand programming. With most sources claiming Hulu intends to price the service starting at prices as low as $35-40 a month for a slimmed down package of cable television and over-the-air stations viewable on one device and $50 a month for those wanting to watch on multiple devices, Ross predicts the service will rapidly run into the red because of programming costs.

Hulu’s live streaming service could be a real game changer for online cable TV alternatives, because it is expected to contain a robust assortment of popular cable networks and regional sports channels that could appeal to a wider marketplace than even slimmer packages from Sling TV.

Video margins are dropping, which means smaller operators have less to invest in broadband.

Video margins are dropping as programming costs continue to grow. Cable operators are turning to broadband to make up the difference, but virtual providers like Hulu don’t have that option.

“The ramifications of success could have an effect that goes far beyond just Hulu’s partners, from [competing cable TV providers] to cable networks to Netflix. A failed Hulu virtual [cable-TV provider] could dispel the idea of widespread competition for incumbent bundles from virtual bundled competitors,” Ross wrote in his research note. “We are skeptical that the Hulu bundle will meaningfully impact the [cable-TV] landscape from a subscriber standpoint. We simply wonder whether the price/value will be strong enough to attract customers at ~$40, with much less content than the current larger bundles.”

Ross predicted Hulu will bundle several expensive sports networks, as indicated in surveys Hulu sent to potential customers. Those surveys suggested Hulu’s service will include a variety of Regional Sports Networks from Hulu’s owners, which include Fox and Comcast-NBC. One potential exclusion is Madison Square Garden Network (MSG), a potential omission that concerned MSGN investors enough to drive the share price down after a significant spike in mid-August.

The issue of MSG could open an interesting new front in the war on cable television pricing. MSG’s viewership is focused in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut and one of the largest cable providers in the region is cost-conscious Altice USA, which took over Cablevision. Ross states MSG Network’s addition on the Hulu lineup could give Altice more leverage to force better contract renewal terms.

“For instance, Altice could theoretically tell those that want MSGN to switch their video provider to Hulu, while staying on Altice for broadband,” Ross wrote. “We do not believe this would be an ideal approach for either party, but it is possible.”

Quit Calling Over Here: California Man Sues Charter for Years of Wrong Numbers

Phillip Dampier August 18, 2016 Charter, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't 1 Comment

pushpollA Los Angeles man has reached the boiling point after two years of telemarketing calls from Charter Communications that turn out to be the result of a wrong number.

William L. McCarthy filed a complaint on Aug. 12 with the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California alleging Charter Communications of California LLC has harassed him with telemarketing calls intended for someone else.

McCarthy’s complaint states Charter has calling his phone number to talk to Monique Smith, someone McCarthy doesn’t know. Despite requesting at least 12 times that Charter remove his phone number from their telemarketing lists, the calls just kept on coming with the help of an automatic dialer, in violation of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act.

McCarthy wants a jury trial, seeks statutory damages, legal fees, and whatever other relief the court finds reasonable.

Charter has an expansive history of aggravating customers with relentless telemarketing calls:

charter spectrum logo2013: “I have never been more harassed by spam telemarketing/calling in my life than from Charter Communications and they already have my business! It’s unbelievable to me how many times they call per week (average of 8 times), never leaving a message, and they only call to “promote an upgrade of my services” every time. They continue to call even after I have asked them multiple times to stop calling me and that I don’t want to upgrade, period. They literally take telemarketing spam to a whole new level. All seven of their numbers that they have tried calling me on (including “unknown”/blocked numbers), I have saved to my phone as “Charter Spam” so I know it’s them calling me and don’t pick up. Only problem is, if you don’t pick up with one number, they’ll continue to call you but from their other 100 numbers.”

From a blog: “As a Charter customer, it’s very annoying to be constantly bombarded by telemarketing calls. Charter is relentless. No matter how much you ask them not to call you, they will continue and the reps are very aggressive. They are exempt from the National Do Not Call Registry because there is a business/customer relationship. At one point, I was contacted 16 times within two weeks from their 909-259-XXXX number. They do change the number that appears on the caller ID. Sometimes I have gotten the 404 area code.”

2014: “I don’t even have their services yet and I have received 19 calls in 5 days. NINETEEN! And, those are only the ones I haven’t answered!”

In late 2015, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster filed a lawsuit in federal court against Charter Communications for violating federal and state telemarketing and No-Call laws. Unwanted telemarketing calls and harassing treatment by telemarketers annually rank highest on the list of complaints received by the Attorney General’s Office. 

His office alone received 350 No-Call complaints about harassing practices by Charter’s telemarketers. Many consumers complained about daily calls from Charter, and some consumers received up to three calls a day. The calls were an attempt to sell Charter’s cable, internet and phone services.

Unlimited Data is Back (With Fine Print): T-Mobile/Sprint Push Unlimited Data Plans for All

Tmo1LogoSeveral years after wireless unlimited data plans became grandfathered or riddled by speed throttling, America’s third and fourth largest carriers have decided the marketplace wants “unlimited everything” after all and is prepared to give customers what they want, at least until they read the fine print.

T-Mobile Announces “The Era of the Data Plan is Over”: T-Mobile ONE

T-Mobile CEO John Legere used a video blog to announce a major shakeup of T-Mobile’s wireless plans this morning, centered on the concept of “unlimited everything.”

“The era of the data plan is over,” said Legere. T-Mobile’s new plan — T-Mobile ONE — does away with usage caps and usage-based billing and offers unlimited calls, texting, and data on the company’s 4G LTE network. The plan becomes available Sept. 6 at T-Mobile stores nationwide and t-mobile.com for postpaid customers. Prepaid plans will be available later.

tmoone

“Only T-Mobile’s network can handle something as huge as destroying data limits,” said Legere. “Dumb and Dumber can’t do this. They’ve been running away from unlimited data for years now, because they built their networks for phone calls, not for how people use smartphones today. I hope AT&T and Verizon try to follow us. In fact, I challenge them to try.”

Legere

Legere

T-Mobile claims the savings with its unlimited plan are enormous compared to its bigger competitors AT&T and Verizon Wireless.

Verizon’s largest LTE usage-capped data plan would cost a family of four $530/month. That’s $4,440 more than T-Mobile ONE will charge.

T-Mobile ONE costs $70 a month for the first line, $50 a month for the second, and additional lines are $20 a month, up to 8 lines with auto pay (add $5 per line if you don’t want autopay). Customers can add tablets for an extra $20 a month.

T-Mobile does offer some caveats in the fine print which are relevant to customers:

  • All video streaming on this plan is throttled to support a maximum of 480p picture quality. Higher video quality is available with an HD add-on plan for $25/mo per line;
  • Tethering is included with T-Mobile ONE, but it is painfully speed-limited to 2G speeds — around 70kbps, just a tad faster than dial-up. At that speed, a web page that will take less than five seconds to load on a 4G network will take 17-25 seconds. A 60 second YouTube video will take nearly five minutes to watch, and downloading apps or sharing images is often impossible because of timeouts. If you want 4G tethering, that will be $15 a month for 5GB, please;
  • Customers identified as among the top 3% of data users, typically those who use more than 26GB of 4G LTE data a month will find themselves in the same data doghouse T-Mobile’s Simple Choice customers are in. That means during peak usage periods on busy cell towers, heavier users are deprioritized on T-Mobile’s network, but we’re not sure if that results in slight speed reductions or the kind of drastic 2G-like experience these kinds of “fair usage” policies often deliver.

Our analysis:

bingeonWhile we’re happy to see unlimited data plans return to prominence, T-Mobile is continuing to punish high bandwidth applications, tethering, and usage outliers with frustrating speed throttles.

T-Mobile’s biggest source of increasing traffic is coming from online video. About a year ago, Legere introduced T-Mobile’s Binge On program, which offers streaming video from T-Mobile’s partners without it counting against your usage allowance. This program had the potential of causing problems with the Federal Communications Commission’s Net Neutrality rules.

Legere seemed to avoid trouble by revealing enough information about Binge On to make it clear why the program exists — to reduce video traffic’s impact on T-Mobile’s network. That might seem counterintuitive until one looks at what it takes to be a Binge On partner — allowing T-Mobile’s Binge On-related traffic to be “optimized” to Standard Definition video (around 480p). No money changes hands between T-Mobile and its Binge On partners.

T-Mobile makes it easy to be a BingeOn participant.

T-Mobile makes it easy to be a Binge On participant.

Binge On was an important factor in freeing up bandwidth on T-Mobile’s network. Some analysts suggest two-thirds of T-Mobile’s video traffic load disappeared after Binge On was introduced. Video is likely the single biggest bandwidth consuming application on wireless networks today. If a customer is watching on a smartphone or even a small tablet, 480p video is generally adequate and has a lower chance of stopping to buffer.

slowAnother clue about the impact of online video on T-Mobile’s network is the same video throttling strategy is built into T-Mobile ONE and applies to all online video, whether the provider partners with T-Mobile or not. Also consider the extraordinary cost of the optional HD Video add-on, which defeats video throttling: a whopping $25 per month per device. That kind of pricing clearly suggests 1080p or even 4K video is a major resource hog for T-Mobile, and customers looking for this level of video quality are going to pay substantially to get it.

T-Mobile is also clearly concerned about tethering, relegating hotspot and tethered device traffic to 2G speeds, which will quickly deter anyone from depending on it except in emergencies. Again, traffic is the issue. Some semi-rural customers unserved by cable but able to get a 4G signal from a T-Mobile tower may think of using T-Mobile as their exclusive source of internet access. At speeds just above dial-up, they won’t consider this an option.

We’re also disappointed to see 26GB of usage a month as the threshold for potential speed throttling. T-Mobile ONE is not cheap, and without more detailed information about how often those exceeding 26GB face speed slowdowns, how much of a slowdown, and how quickly those speed reductions disappear when the tower gets less congested would be very useful. Until then, customers are likely to interpret 26GB as a type of soft usage allowance they will not want to exceed.

T-Mobile ONE also delivers a powerful signal to Wall Street because it raises the lowest price a T-Mobile postpaid customer can pay to become a customer from $50 to $70 a month for a single line. That’s quite a burden for some customers who will have to look to prepaid plans or resellers to get cheaper service. Other carriers rushed to meet T-Mobile’s $50 2GB plan when it was introduced, which has served as an entry-level price range for occasional data dabblers. If those carriers don’t immediately raise prices as well, they will undercut T-Mobile. That could provoke an increase in cancellations among customers buying on price, not plan features. T-Mobile is banking consumers will appreciate unlimited data enough to pay extra for peace of mind.

Jackdaw Research found customers enrolled in 2GB and 6GB T-Mobile plans, T-Mobile ONE represents a price increase. Those signed up for 10GB or unlimited service will pay the same or slightly less with T-Mobile ONE.

Jackdaw Research found customers enrolled in 2GB and 6GB T-Mobile plans will see a price increase with T-Mobile ONE. Those signed up for 10GB or unlimited service will pay the same or slightly less.

sprintlogoSprint: Unlimited Freedom: Two Lines of Unlimited Talk, Text, and Data for $100/month

Not to be outdone by T-Mobile, Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure today announced his own company’s overhaul of wireless plans, featuring the all-new Sprint Unlimited Freedom plan, which offers two lines of unlimited talk, text and data for $100 a month, with no access charges or hidden fees.

Starting Friday, Aug. 19, Sprint customers can sign up for the new plan, which costs $60 for the first line, $100 for two lines, and $30 for each additional line, up to 10. Sprint pounced on the fact its Unlimited Freedom plan for two is $20 less than T-Mobile charges.

Otherwise the two plans are remarkably similar — too similar for the CEOs of both companies that spent part of today engaged in a Twitter war.

T-Mobile CEO John Legere and Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure traded tweet barbs this morning.

T-Mobile CEO John Legere and Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure traded tweet barbs this morning.

“Sprint’s new Unlimited Freedom beats T-Mobile and AT&T’s unlimited offer – only available to its DirecTV subscribers – while Verizon doesn’t even offer its customers an unlimited plan,” read Sprint’s press release.

unlimited freedom“Wireless customers want simple, worry-free and affordable wireless plans on a reliable network,” said Marcelo Claure, Sprint president and CEO. “There can be a lot of frustration and confusion around wireless offers, with too much focus on gigabytes and extra charges. Our answer is the simplicity of Unlimited Freedom. Now customers can watch their favorite movies and videos and stream an unlimited playlist at an amazing price.”

Sprint has also essentially joined the T-Mobile optimization bandwagon, limiting streaming video to 480p, but it goes further with optimization of games — limited to 2Mbps, and music — limited to 500kbps. There does not seem to be any option to pay more to avoid the “optimization” and Sprint is not offering a tethering option with this plan.

“While we initially questioned using mobile optimization for video, gaming and music, the decision was simpler when consumers said it ‘practically indistinguishable’ in our tests with actual consumers,” said Claure. “In fact, most individuals we showed could not see any difference between optimized and premium-resolution streaming videos when viewing on mobile phone screens. Both provide the mobile customer clear, vibrant videos and high-quality audio. Mobile optimization allows us to provide a great customer experience in a highly affordable unlimited package while increasing network efficiency.”

sprint

boostAlso, beginning Friday, Aug. 19, Sprint’s leading prepaid brand, Boost Mobile introduces its own unlimited offer, Unlimited Unhook’d:

  • Unlimited talk, text and optimized streaming videos, gaming and music
  • Unlimited nationwide 4G LTE data for most everything else
  • $50 a month for one line
  • $30 a month for a second line up to five total lines

In addition to the Unlimited Unhook’d plan, Boost Mobile will also unveil the $30 Unlimited Starter plan, which includes unlimited talk, text and slower network data (2G or 3G) with 1GB of 4G LTE data. Customers looking for more high-speed data can add 1 GB of 4G LTE data for $5 per month or 2 GB of 4G LTE data for $10 per month. Multi-line plans are also available for families looking to save some money for an additional $30 a month per line.

“There’s a lot of confusion and clutter in prepaid, but is doesn’t have to be that way. Boost Mobile is offering the simplest solution with plans that are easy to understand,” said Claure. “Boost has something for everyone, whether you need a truly unlimited plan with 4G LTE data or want to save extra money with a low-cost plan.”

Verizon Ponders Installing Partners’ Bloatware on Your Android Phone for $1-2/App

Uninvited apps that cannot be removed infest smartphones.

Uninvited apps that cannot be removed infest smartphones.

Verizon Wireless keeps looking for those end runs around Net Neutrality, this time offering its preferred partners a chance to force-install their apps on your new Android phone without your permission.

Most consumers call these unwanted apps “bloatware,” but the geniuses from Verizon’s marketing department prefer to call it “brandware.” Whatever it’s called, each app successfully installed on your next Android phone will net the wireless giant $1-2, according to Ad Age.

Verizon has pitched the program to ad agencies and their major retail and financial clients rich enough to not worry about spending $1-2 million on app installations. Verizon’s app program is more dynamic than traditional pre-loaded bloatware that customers cannot uninstall. Through the use of Google’s remote install feature, a client could pay Verizon to trigger an automatic download and installation of a banking or shopping app the moment a customer turned on their new phone. The customer would likely assume such apps came with the phone, just like traditional pre-installed bloatware. But unlike the myriad of uninvited game trials, shopping and media apps that customers can’t get rid of, Verizon’s program would let customers uninstall the apps they never wanted installed on their phone to begin with.

Apple iPhone users have nothing to fear from Verizon’s “brandware” because the Apple ecosystem is more tightly controlled by Apple.

Ad Age notes the app program would only send apps to new smartphones being activated for the first time. That isn’t a small market. Verizon activates about 10 million new phones each quarter out of 75 million postpaid customers.

The program raised eyebrows among advertisers and consumer activists worried about Net Neutrality. A deep pocketed app maker would have an instant advantage pre-installing a new game or social networking app on millions of phones while smaller competitors would have to attempt to build scale through word-of-mouth, reviews, or other marketing efforts. Verizon would effectively be giving its preferred partners an unfair advantage over other app makers.

Advertisers are also reportedly wary about blowback from consumers that don’t appreciate uninvited apps chewing through their usage allowance installing themselves.

Consumers generally dislike all the excess apps stuffing up their phones, Azher Ahmed, director of digital at DDB Chicago told Ad Age. “If the app doesn’t offer valuable content and experiences, you’re going to deal with a lot of frustrated users calling out your bloatware.”

Charter Spending Its Money Renaming Charlotte’s Time Warner Cable Arena After Itself

Phillip Dampier August 17, 2016 Charter, Consumer News, Time Warner Cable 1 Comment

TIME_WARNER_CABLE_ARENA006Time Warner Cable Arena is no more.

After Charter Communications completed its acquisition of TWC, it discovered it had work to do rebranding all-things-TWC, including the Charlotte, N.C., sports arena that is home to the Charlotte Hornets.

Charter will be spending its time and resources rechristening the arena “Spectrum Center” in time for the new NBA season starting in late October. Charter’s suite of products is branded “Spectrum,” much the same way Comcast calls many of its products “XFINITY.”

The Charlotte-arena originally opened in 2005 and Time Warner Cable acquired the naming rights back in 2008.

 

Google Fiber Puts Expansion on Hold as It Contemplates Wireless Instead

google fiberFurther expansion of Google Fiber appears to be on hold as the company contemplates moving away from fiber to the home service towards a wireless platform that could provide internet access in urban areas for less money.

The Wall Street Journal today reports Google parent Alphabet, Inc., is looking to cities to share more of the costs of building faster broadband networks or using cheaper wireless technology to reach customers instead.

Six years after Google first announced it would finance the construction of fiber to the home networks, the company has made progress in wiring just six communities, many incompletely. Progress has been hampered by infrastructure complications including pole access, permitting and zoning issues, unanticipated construction costs, and according to one Wall Street analyst, the possibility of lack of enthusiasm from potential subscribers.

Google’s recent acquisition of Webpass, a company specializing in beaming internet access over fiber-connected wireless antennas between large multi-dwelling units like apartments and condos appears to be a game-changer for Google. Webpass was designed mostly to service urban and population dense areas, not suburbs or neighborhoods of single-family dwellings. Webpass’ reliance on wireless signals that travel between buildings removes the cost and complexity of installing fiber optics, something that appears to be of great interest to Google.

Google Fiber is planning a system that would use fiber for its core network but rely on wireless antennas to connect each home to the network, according to a person familiar with the plans. Alphabet chairman Eric Schmidt said at the company’s shareholder meeting in June that wireless connections can be “cheaper than digging up your garden” to lay fiber. The only question is what kind of performance can users expect on a shared wireless network. Google’s plans reportedly do not involve 5G but something closer to fixed wireless or souped-up high-speed Wi-Fi. A web video on Webpass’ website seems to concede “you get best speeds with a wired connection.”

Even Google's wireless technology solutions provider Webpass concedes that wired broadband is faster.

Even Google’s wireless technology solutions provider Webpass concedes that wired broadband is faster.

Former Webpass CEO Charles Barr, now an Alphabet employee, argues wireless solves a lot of problems that fiber can bring to the table.

“Everyone who has done fiber to the home has given up because it costs way too much money and takes way too much time,” Barr said.

Barr’s statements are factually inaccurate, however. Fiber to the home projects continue in many cities, but if they are run by private companies, chances are those rollouts are limited to areas where a proven rate of return is likely. Large incumbent phone and cable companies are also contemplating some fiber rollouts, at least to those who can afford it. Many of the best prospects for fiber to the home service are customers in under-competitive markets where the phone company offers slow speed DSL and cable broadband speeds are inadequate. Rural communities served by co-ops are also prospects for fiber upgrades because those operations answer to their members, not investors. Community broadband projects run by local government or public utilities have also proven successful in many areas.

subBut like all publicly traded companies, Google must answer to Wall Street and their investors and some are not happy with what they see from Google Fiber. Craig Moffett from Wall Street research firm MoffettNathanson has rarely been a fan of any broadband provider other than cable operators and Google Fiber is no different.

“One can’t help but feel that all of this has the flavor of a junior science fair,” Moffett said of Google Fiber, pointing out the service has managed to attract only 53,000 cable TV customers nationwide as of December. Moffett concedes there are significantly more broadband-only customers signed up for Google, but that didn’t stop him from suggesting Google Fiber has had very little impact on increasing broadband competition across the country.

Analysts suggest Google Fiber is spending about $500 per home passed by its new fiber network. But that is a fraction of the $3,000+ per customer often spent by cable operators buying one another.

Google’s wireless deployment will likely take place in Los Angeles, Dallas, and Chicago according to people familiar with the company’s plans. Less dense cities slated for Google Fiber including San Jose and Portland, Ore., may never get any service from Google at all, but they are likely to hear something after a six month wait.

Google is also reportedly asking cities if the company can lease access on existing fiber networks. Another tactic is requesting power companies or communities build fiber networks first and then turn them over to Google to administer. The latter seems less likely, considering there are successful public broadband networks operating on their own without Google’s help.

French Unions, Media Warn America: Beware of Altice!

Look what's in the box. MergeMaster Patrick Drahi. (Illustration: Michel Kichka)

Look what’s in the box. MergeMaster Patrick Drahi. (Illustration: Michel Kichka)

Cable conglomerate baron Patrick Drahi promised American, French and Portuguese consumers he would bring them value for money by taking control of large established telecom companies in both countries and revamp their products and services to bring improved service. Consumer advocates in all three countries continue to argue customers are still waiting for Drahi’s debt-laden Altice empire to deliver on its promises.

A flurry of mid-summer articles in the French media continue to acknowledge Drahi’s formula has brought results — for him and his top executive minions, but has caused headaches for employees, customers, and even the government.

The biggest firestorm involves Altice-owned SFR’s newly-announced plan to slash at least 5,000 more jobs at France’s fourth-largest mobile operator, which also provides wired cable-TV and broadband services in parts of the country. That represents at least one-third of SFR’s total workforce. The planned cuts run so deep, some in the French press call them “violent.” These new cuts are on top of the 1,200 jobs Drahi cut when he took control of SFR two years ago. An Altice executive warned that if they still perceive to be “fat on the bone,” there will be further cuts after that, presumably starting in 2019.

The job cuts have raised the ire of some in the French press because one of the conditions of Altice’s takeover of SFR was a commitment not to cut jobs. But some reporters may have missed the fine print negotiated with regulators  — the job protection agreement expires in July 2017, after which Drahi can slash at will. And he will.

Investment banks love it. American and European banks have loaned €50 billion ($55 billion) — a record amount — to Drahi to buy up telecom companies on a virtual credit card and deliver short-term results by slashing expenses, which at least temporarily boosts profits. When customers find out the implications of the draconian cuts, they complain and tend to leave. But savvy investors learn how to cash out before that happens, often walking away with huge returns. Such methods have been business-as-usual in the United States for a long time. But Drahi has improved on the old formula of relying on OPM – Other People’s Money – to build his empire.

Altice1Some of the money flowing through Altice’s coffers comes from the French taxpayer, currently footing the bill for unpopular French President François Hollande’s key measure to boost the competitiveness of French companies — the Tax Credit for Competitiveness and Employment (CICE), which significantly cuts employer’s labor expenses. Altice has been a grateful recipient of this gift from French taxpayers, who pay for it through new ecological taxes and an increase in Value Added Tax (VAT) rates, which like our sales tax, applies to goods and services one buys. The standard VAT rate in France is now 20%, with 10% charged on restaurant meals, transport, renovation/improvement works and certain medical drugs, and 5.5% on food, water and non alcoholic beverages, books, special equipment for the disabled and school meals. The other half of the money spent implementing the CICE came from decreased public spending on infrastructure and social service programs. Take from the poor and middle class and give to the corporations, Hollande’s critics claim. The program was supposed to protect employment, but critics say it has had little or no effect beyond enriching large corporate conglomerates who hire and fire for their own reasons, and are not particularly concerned about what that could do to future government payouts.

French newspaper l’Humanité is calling on the government and Mr. Drahi to account for his use of taxpayer-funded CICE aid. The paper demands the Hollande government to disclose exactly how much Altice’s SFR has received from the program.

Unemployment office in Connecticut

Unemployment office in Connecticut

Altice continues to claim the job cuts will be voluntary — a suggestion scoffed at by employee unions in both France and Portugal, where Altice operates telecommunications companies. In addition to asking Altice-owned Suddenlink and Cablevision employees whether the recent sudden separation from their paychecks was voluntary, unions claim they have the benefit of past experience.

“When they say ‘no job cuts’ and 1,200 have already been cut over the past 18 months, how can we trust them?” asked Frederic Retourney, a spokesman for the CGT-FAPT employee union. “We know that voluntary redundancies are made under duress in most cases. When SFR announces 5,000 job cuts when there are 14,400 employees at the company now, we do not see how one can speak of voluntary departures.”

The job cuts at Altice’s U.S. operations — Suddenlink and Cablevision — have just begun. In a filing with the Connecticut Department of Labor, Altice disclosed it is issuing a total of 587 termination notices in that state — 482 call center workers in Shelton who will lose their jobs Nov. 1 and another 105 in Stratford leaving in two waves Oct. 14 and Dec. 15. Cablevision’s chief Connecticut competitor Frontier Communications is turning Altice’s lemons into Frontier’s lemonade by capitalizing on the job cuts with a quickly organized media push for a job fair on Aug. 31 in New Haven targeting the soon-to-be-former Cablevision workers.

Frontier will hold interviews for the former Altice call-center workers and field technicians. The alternative, if those former Cablevision workers still want to work for Altice, is to move to New York or New Jersey and hope their jobs don’t get cut again. With Frontier, they can stay in Connecticut.

madagascarAltice-owned SFR Francophone call center workers face even bigger challenges from relentless demands for cost cuts. In 2015, Altice announced it was open to relocating its Moroccan-based customer care call center to Madagascar, a large and severely economically depressed island nation off the eastern coast of southern Africa. Drahi, who told Wall Street he likes to pay as little as he can in salaries, is evidently upset labor costs in Morocco now force Altice to pay salaries up to €500 a month ($560). The company said it was open to seeking solace hiring French-fluent replacement workers in Antananarivo, Madagascar’s capital city, where the average annual salary is $260. In contrast, Connecticut call center workers make an average of $14.80/hour, according to Indeed.

Connecticut State Rep. Laura Hoydick (R-Stratford) acknowledges employee life with Altice in charge of Cablevision may be a tough ride.

“Having gone through unemployment with family members — and now me — emphasizes how the Cablevision employees are nervous for their livelihood and existence,” Hoydick told The Hour. “I thought it was great that the Frontier folks saw that there was an already-trained workforce here in Connecticut.”

Other state Republicans are attempting to blame Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy for Cablevision’s job cuts, characterizing them as evidence employers are fleeing the high taxes and expenses associated with running a business in Connecticut.

“People are making a choice: ‘Do I stay in Connecticut and weather the storm, or do I move out of the state?’” said state Rep. Jason Perillo (R-Shelton).

lexpressFor now, those decisions are mostly made by Altice’s cable company call center workers and some members of middle management. But Patrick Drahi’s long-term plan to conquer the media business depends on implementing his “convergence” strategy, which means owning and controlling not only the means of distribution, but also the product being distributed. l’Humanité compared Drahi’s business to a multibillion cephalopod, with octopus-like tentacles extending his control and influence well beyond the cable business.

In France, he is accomplishing his mission by buying up cable networks, newspapers, and other media outlets which he packages together. Now a customer doesn’t just buy cable TV — he buys TV, internet, phone, the daily newspaper, and magazines for one flat price. For about $22 a month, SFR customers get unlimited digital access to 17 newspapers and magazines including Libération, l’Express, and l’Expansion. Then you can watch Drahi’s new sports channels and local news channel — all owned by Altice. Drahi told the French Senate his new bundled media model could “save the press.” But dig a little deeper and you discover Drahi’s altruism is considerably more limited.

By bundling everything together, the Altice-owned businesses each enjoy the enormous benefit of having their products taxed at the special press VAT rate of 2.1%, down from the usual 20% that would be otherwise owed. Altice pockets the savings for itself — a considerable boost in gross revenue.

More conservative investors worry about how Altice is managing to pay for all of its acquisitions and still manage to cover its existing massive debt, especially as Drahi plots to bring his model to the United States. His goal in America: to create the largest or second-largest telecom company in the country. Worried shareholders have been placated by the news massive layoffs are in SFR’s future, with the cost-savings they bring. Those still not satisfied were quieted after Numericable, another Altice concern, borrowed almost two billion dollars and raided Altice’s treasury for another billion to finance a dividend payout to shareholders worth more than $2.5 billion. Of course, Mr. Drahi himself is among the top recipients.

CBS Considers Ad-Free All Access

Phillip Dampier August 11, 2016 Consumer News, Online Video 2 Comments

cbs all accessCBS may have discovered consumers don’t like to pay $5.99 for the company’s streaming service only to be inundated with just as many commercials as an over-the-air viewer encounters without having to pay a penny.

“We’re toying with the idea of a commercial free option and how we might roll that out to consumers,” Marc DeBevoise, president of CBS Interactive said Wednesday at the Television Critics Association summer press tour, reports Variety.

The monthly fee includes live streaming of the local CBS affiliate in some markets and a library of content — both old and new — owned or licensed by CBS. While some of the older shows are shown with few commercials, current season shows often contain a full commercial load. That appears to be turning viewers off, and the service is growing more slowly than its competitors.

DeBevoise told attendees CBS will try limiting the ad load on debuting original content that will be available exclusively through CBS All Access in the United States. A new version of “Big Brother” is the first new series, expected to start this fall. “Star Trek: Discovery” and a spinoff of “The Good Wife” will follow in 2017. CBS plans to cut ads by 25% for those shows, leaving paying streaming viewers with about 12 minutes of ads to watch per hour.

To draw attention to the streaming service, CBS will air the pilot episode of “Star Trek: Discovery” on the broadcast network, but episodes after that will be exclusively available online.

CBS is planning to introduce other streaming-exclusive series through All Access with four new shows for 2017 and more beyond that.

CBS wouldn’t say how much it might charge for ad-free viewing.

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