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The Great American Telecom Oligopoly Costs You $540/Yr for Their Excess Profits

Like the railroad robber barons of more than a century ago, a handful of phone and cable companies are getting filthy rich from a carefully engineered oligopoly that costs the average American $540 a year more than it should to deliver vital telecommunications services.

That is the conclusion of a new study from the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, authored by two men with decades of experience representing the interests of consumers. They recommend stopping reckless deregulation without strong and clear evidence of robust competition and ending rubber stamped merger approvals by regulators.

The trouble started with the passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, a bill heavily influenced by telecom industry lobbyists that, at its core, promoted deregulation without assuring adequate evidence of competition. It was that Act, signed into law by President Clinton, that authors Gene Kimmelman and Mark Cooper claim is partly responsible for today’s “highly concentrated oligopolistic markets that result […] in massive overcharges for consumer and business services.”

“Prices for cable, broadband, wired telecommunications, and wireless services have been inflated, on average, by about 25 percent above what competitive markets should deliver, costing the typical U.S. household more than $45 per month, or $540 per year, for these services,” the report states. “This stranglehold over these essential means of communication by a tight oligopoly on steroids—comprised of AT&T Inc., Verizon Communications Inc., Comcast Corp., and Charter Communications Inc. and built through mergers and acquisitions, not competition—costs consumers in aggregate almost $60 billion per year, or about 25 percent of the total average consumer’s monthly bill.”

The cost of delivering service is plummeting even as your bill keeps rising.

The authors also claim that these four companies earn astronomical profits — between 50 and 90% — on their services, compared with the national average of just under 15% for all industries.

The only check on these profits came from the 2011 rejection of the merger of AT&T and T-Mobile, which started a small price war in the wireless industry, saving customers an average of $5 a month, or $11 billion a year collectively.

But antitrust enforcement alone is inadequate to check the industry’s anti-competitive behavior. Competition was supposed to provide that check, but policymakers too often kowtowed to the interests of telecom industry lobbyists and prematurely removed regulatory oversight and protections that were supposed to remain in place until real competition made those regulations unnecessary.

Attempts to force open closed networks to competitors were allowed in some instances — particularly with local telephone companies, but only for certain legacy services. Newer products, particularly high-speed broadband, were usually not subject to these open network policies. The companies lobbied heavily against such requirements, claiming it would deter investment.

The framers of the ’96 Act also mandated an end to exclusive franchise agreements that barred phone and cable companies from entering each others’ markets. This was intended to allow phone and cable companies to compete head to head, setting up the prospect of consumers having multiple choices for these providers.

Current FCC Chairman Ajit Pai frequently cites the 1996 Communications Act as being “light touch” regulation that promulgated the broadband revolution. But in reality, the Act sparked a massive wave of corporate consolidation in broadcasting, cable, and phone companies at the behest of Wall Street.

“[Cable companies] refused to enter new markets to compete head to head with their sister companies [and] never entered the wireless market,” the authors note. “Telephone companies never overbuilt other telephone companies and were slow to enter the video market. Each chose to extend their geographic reach by buying out their sister companies rather than competing. This means that the potentially strongest competitors—those with expertise and assets that might be used to enter new markets—are few. This reinforces the market power strategy, since the best competitors have followed a noncompete strategy.”

Wall Street sold consolidation on the theory of increased shareholder value from eliminating duplicative costs and workforces, consolidating services, and growing larger to stay competitive with other companies also growing larger through mergers and acquisitions of their own:

  • The eight regional Baby Bells created after the breakup of AT&T’s national monopoly in the mid-1980s eventually merged into two huge wireline and wireless companies — AT&T and Verizon. The authors note these companies didn’t just acquire those that were part of the Ma Bell empire. They also bought out independent companies like GTE and long distance companies like MCI. Most of the few remaining independents provide service in rural areas of little interest to AT&T or Verizon.
  • The cable industry is still in a consolidation wave combining large players into a handful of giants, including Comcast and Charter Communications, which also have close relationships with content providers. Altice entered the U.S. cable business principally on the prospect of consolidating cable companies under the Altice brand, not overbuilding existing companies with a competing service of its own.

Such consolidation wiped out the very companies the ’96 Act was counting on to disrupt existing markets with new competition. Comcast, Charter, and Verizon even have agreements to cross-market each others’ products or use their infrastructure for emerging “competitive” services like mobile phones and wireless broadband.

“By the standard definitions of antitrust and traditional economic analysis, a tight oligopoly has developed in the digital communications sector,” the report states. “While some markets are slightly more competitive than others, the dominant firms are deeply entrenched and engage in anti-competitive and anti-consumer practices that defend and extend their market power, while allowing them to overcharge consumers and earn excess profits.”

“The impact of this abuse of market power on consumers is clear. According to the most recent Consumer Expenditure Survey by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the ‘typical’ middle-income household spends about $2,700 per year on a landline telephone service, two cell phone subscriptions, a broadband connection, and a subscription to a multichannel video service,” the report indicates. “Adjusting for the ‘average’ take rate of services in this middle-income group, consumers spend almost twice as much on these services as they spend on electricity. They spend more on these services than they spend on gasoline. Consumer expenditures on communications services equal about four-fifths of their total spending on groceries.”

The authors point out the Obama Administration, unlike the Bush Administration that preceded it, was the first since the 1996 Act’s passage to begin implementing policies to enhance and protect competition, and also check unfettered market power among the largest incumbent providers:

  • It blocked the AT&T/T-Mobile merger, which would have removed an important competitor and affect wireless rates in just about every U.S. city. The Obama Administration’s opposition not only preserved T-Mobile as a competitor, it also made that company review its business plan and rebrand itself as a market disruptor, forcing wireless prices down substantially for the first time and collectively saving all wireless customers in the U.S. billions from rate increases AT&T and Verizon could not carry out.
  • It blocked the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger, which would have given Comcast unprecedented and unequaled control over internet access and content providers in the U.S. It would have immediately made other cable and phone companies potentially untenable because of their lack of market power and ability to achieve similar volume discounts and economy of scale, and would have blocked emerging competitors that could not create credible business plans competing with Comcast.
  • It blocked informal Sprint/T-Mobile merger talks that would have combined the third and fourth largest wireless carriers. Antitrust regulators were concerned this would dramatically reduce the disruptive marketing that we still see today from both of these companies.
  • It placed restrictions on Comcast’s merger with NBC Universal and Charter’s acquisition of Time Warner Cable. Comcast was required to effectively become a silent partner in Hulu, a vital emerging video competitor. Charter cannot impose data caps on its customers for up to seven years, helping to create a clear record that data caps are both unnecessary and unwarranted and have no impact on the cost of delivering internet services or the profits earned from it.
  • Strong support for Net Neutrality, backed with Title II enforcement, has given the content marketplace a sense of certainty and stability, allowing online cable TV competitors to emerge and succeed, giving consumers a chance to save money by cutting the cord on bloated TV packages. If providers were given the authority to discriminate against internet traffic, it would place an unfair burden on competitors and discourage new entrants.

The authors worry the Trump Administration and a FCC led by Chairman Ajit Pai may not be willing to preserve the first gains in broadband and communications competitiveness since mergermania removed a lot of those competitors.

“The key lesson in the communications sector is that vigorous regulation and antitrust enforcement can create the conditions for market success. But balance is the key,” the reports warns. “Technological innovation and convergence are no guarantee against the abuse of market power, but the effort to control the abuse of market power should not stifle innovation. If the Trump administration jettisons the enforcement practices of the past eight years, then the telecommunications sector is likely to see a wave of new consolidation and a dampening of the price cutting and innovative wireless and broadband services that have been slowly emerging.”

Stop the Cap!’s Net Neutrality Comments to FCC

July 17, 2017

Marlene H. Dortch, Secretary
Federal Communications Commission
Office of the Secretary
445 12th Street, SW
Washington, DC 20554

Dear Ms. Dortch,

Stop the Cap! is writing to express our opposition to any modification now under consideration of the 2015 Open Internet Order.

Since 2008, our all-volunteer consumer organization has been fighting against data caps, usage-based billing and for Net Neutrality and better broadband service for consumers and businesses in urban and rural areas across the country.

Providing internet access has become a bigger success story for the providers that earn billions selling the service than it has been for many consumers enduring substandard service at skyrocketing prices.

It is unfortunate that while some have praised Clinton era deregulatory principles governing broadband, they may have forgotten those policies were also supposed to promote true broadband competition, something sorely lacking for many consumers.

As a recent Deloitte study[1] revealed, “only 38 percent of homes have a choice of two providers offering speeds of at least 25Mbps. In rural communities, only 61 percent of people have access to 25Mbps wireline broadband, and when they do, they can pay as much as a 3x premium over suburban customers.”

In upstate New York, most residents have just one significant provider capable of meeting the FCC’s 25Mbps broadband standard – Charter Communications. In the absence of competition, many customers are complaining their cable bills are rising.[2]

Now providers are lobbying to weaken, repeal, or effectively undermine the 2015 Open Internet Order, and we oppose that.

We have heard criticisms that the 2015 Order’s reliance on Title II means it is automatically outdated because it depends on enforcement powers developed in the 1930s for telephone service. Notwithstanding the fact many principles of modern law are based on an even older document – the Bill of Rights, the courts have already informed the FCC that the alternative mechanisms of enforcement authority that some seem motivated to return to are inadequate.

In a 2-1 decision in 2014, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. circuit ruled:

“Given that the Commission has chosen to classify broadband providers in a manner that exempts them from treatment as common carriers, the Communications Act expressly prohibits the Commission from nonetheless regulating them as such. Because the Commission has failed to establish that the anti-discrimination and anti-blocking rules do not impose per se common carrier obligations, we vacate those portions of the Open Internet Order.”[3]

In fact, the only important element of the pre-2015 Open Internet rules that survived that court challenge was a disclosure requirement that insisted providers tell subscribers when their internet service is being throttled or selected websites are intentionally discriminated against.

Unfortunately, mandatory disclosure alone does not incent providers to cease those practices in large sections of the country where consumers have no suitable alternative providers to choose from.

Reclassifying broadband companies as telecommunications services did not and has not required the FCC to engage in rate regulation or other heavy-handed oversight. It did send a clear message to companies about what boundaries were appropriate, and we’ve avoided paid prioritization and other anti-consumer practices that were clearly under consideration at some of the nation’s top internet service providers.

In fact, the evidence the 2015 Open Internet Order is working can be found where providers are attempting to circumvent its objectives. One way still permitted to prioritize or favor selected traffic is zero rating it so use of preferred partner websites does not count against your data allowance.[4] Other providers intentionally throttle some video traffic, offering not to include that traffic in your data allowance or cap.[5] Still others are placing general data caps or allowances on their internet services, while exempting their own content from those caps.[6]

Our organization is especially sensitive to these issues because our members are already paying high internet bills with no evidence of any rate reductions for usage-capped internet service. In fact, many customers pay essentially the same price whether their provider caps their connection or not. It seems unlikely consumers will be the winners in any change of Open Internet policies. Claims that usage caps or paid prioritization policies benefit consumers with lower prices or better service are illusory. One thing is real: the impact of throttled or degraded video content which can be a major deterrent for consumers contemplating disconnecting cable television and relying on cheaper internet-delivered video instead.

Arguments that broadband investment has somehow been harmed as a result of the 2015 Order are suspect, if only because much of this research is done at the behest of the telecom industry who helped underwrite the expense of that research. Remarkably, similar claims have not been made by executives of the companies involved in their reports to investors. Those companies, mostly publicly-traded, have a legal obligation to report materially adverse events to their shareholders, yet there is no evidence the 2015 Order has created a significant or harmful drag on investment.

In a barely regulated broadband duopoly, where no new significant competition is likely to emerge in the next five years (and beyond), FCC oversight and enforcement is often the only thing protecting consumers from the abuses inherent in that non-competitive market. Preserving the existing Open Internet rules without modification is entirely appropriate and warranted, and has not created any significant burdens on providers that continue to make substantial profits selling broadband service to consumers.

Transferring authority to an overburdened Federal Trade Commission, not well versed on telecom issues and with a proven record of taking a substantial amount of time before issuing rulings on its cases, would be completely inappropriate and anti-consumer.

Therefore, Stop the Cap!, on behalf of our members, urges the FCC to retain the 2015 Open Internet Order as-is, leaving intact the Title II enforcement foundation.

Respectfully yours,

Phillip M. Dampier
Founder and Director

Footnotes:

[1] https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/pages/consulting/articles/communications-infrastructure-upgrade-deep-fiber-imperative.html#1

[2] “Thousands of Time Warner Cable Video Customers Flee Spectrum’s Higher Prices.” (http://bit.ly/2tjHJ8f); “Lexington’s Anger at Spectrum Cable Keeps Rising. What Can We Do?” (http://www.kentucky.com/news/local/news-columns-blogs/tom-eblen/article160754069.html)

[3] http://www.cadc.uscourts.gov/internet/opinions.nsf/3AF8B4D938CDEEA685257C6000532062/$file/11-1355-1474943.pdf

[4] https://cdn3.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/7575775/Letter_to_R._Quinn_12.1.16.0.pdf

[5] https://www.t-mobile.com/offer/binge-on-streaming-video.html

[6] http://www.chicagotribune.com/bluesky/technology/ct-data-cap-policies-20151214-story.html

CenturyLink Drops Hard Usage Cap Trial; “No Longer Aligns With Our Goals”

Phillip Dampier July 3, 2017 CenturyLink, Consumer News, Data Caps 4 Comments

CenturyLink has ended a year-long trial of usage-based billing for its customers, claiming charging for excess usage “no longer aligns with our goal to simplify offers and pricing for our customers.”

The data cap and overlimit program was first market tested in Yakima, Wash. in 2016, but has now been dropped with no plans to extend usage-based billing to any other CenturyLink customers.

“If you incurred overage charges related to this program, those charges will be credited and appear on your July monthly billing statement,” CenturyLink reports. “No action is required on your part, and there are no impacts to your existing CenturyLink service.”

CenturyLink does have a program of “soft caps” — generally unenforced data allowances for its customers:

  • 1.5Mbps plan: 150GB
  • 1.5Mbps-999Mbps: 250GB
  • 1Gbps: No download limit

“CenturyLink will weigh variables such as network health, congestion, availability of customer usage data, and the line speed purchased by the customer as factors when enforcing this policy,” writes the phone company. “Customers who are subject to enforcement receive a web notification and/or written communication from CenturyLink providing notice that they have exceeded their usage limit.”

In practice, very few customers are ever bothered by CenturyLink regarding their usage.

Wall Street Hissyfit: Raise Broadband Prices to $90/Month Immediately! (Or Else)

If the average customer isn’t paying $90 a month for broadband service, they are paying too little and that needs to stop.

That is the view of persistent rate hike advocate Jonathan Chaplin, a Wall Street analyst with New Street Research, who has advocated for sweeping broadband rate increases for years.

“We have argued that broadband is underpriced, given that pricing has barely increased over the past decade while broadband utility has exploded,” Chaplin wrote in a note to investors. “Our analysis suggested a ‘utility-adjusted’ ARPU target of ~$90. Comcast recently increased standalone broadband to $90 with a modem, paving the way for faster ARPU growth as the mix shifts in favor of broadband-only households. Charter will likely follow, once they are through the integration of Time Warner Cable.”

Companies that fail to raise prices risk being downgraded by analysts with views like these, which can have a direct impact on a stock’s share price and the executive compensation and bonus packages that are often tied to the company’s performance.

But there is a dilemma and disagreement between some cable industry analysts about how much companies can charge their customers. Companies like Cable ONE have been aggressively raising broadband prices to unprecedented levels in some of the poorest communities in the country, which worries fellow Wall Street analyst Craig Moffett from MoffettNathanson LLC.

“Never mind that the per capita income in Cable ONE’s footprint is the lowest (by far) of the companies we [Moffett’s firm] cover, or that the percentage of customers living below the poverty line is the highest (also by far),” Moffett told his investor subscribers. “What matters is that there is very little competition in Cable ONE’s footprint. If you want high-speed broadband, where else are you going to go? The unspoken fear among their larger peers is that over-reliance on broadband pricing invites regulatory intervention, not just for Cable ONE, but for everyone.”

Chaplin thinks the risk from gouging broadband customers is next to zero. With cable TV becoming less profitable every day, all the big profits that can be made will be made from broadband, where cable operators often enjoy a monopoly on high-speed service.

According to Chaplin, if customers value internet access, they will pay the higher prices cable companies charge. So what are companies waiting for? Raise those prices!

Charter to N.Y.: Life After Time Warner Cable is Great for You

Charter Communications this afternoon submitted its annual update to the New York Public Service Commission, a condition of its approved merger with Time Warner Cable.

The cable company argues the merger has already delivered substantial pro-consumer benefits, including faster internet speeds, a low-income broadband program, no loss of New York jobs, and more upgrades to come.

Some highlights for customers in New York State:

All-Digital Conversion

  • The handful of Charter legacy cable systems in New York have already been converted to all-digital service.
  • Former Time Warner Cable systems in New York City, Syracuse, and the Hudson Valley are now all-digital.
  • Albany will be converted to all-digital service in late 2017.
  • Rochester and Buffalo will be converted to all-digital service in early 2018.

Broadband Speed Upgrades

  • As of March 14, 2017 all Charter customers in New York can subscribe to at least 100Mbps service. ($105/mo, $199 setup fee)
  • Charter has been actively rebuilding its Chatham system in Columbia and Rensselaer counties to provide broadband service. Project completion dates: In Rensselaer County, Berlin and Petersburgh expected to be done by the end of the third quarter 2017. In Columbia County, construction is scheduled to begin in May 2017, with a target completion date set for the end of first quarter 2018.

Cable Expansion

Since the last build-out update was filed on February 17, 2017, Charter has completed build-out to an additional 5,039 passings and has now completed build-out to a total of 15,164 passings across 56 counties and approximately 1,018 municipalities. Major areas of completed passings include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Albany County for approximately 1,330 passings, including the Village of Menands, Towns of Colonie, Cohoes, Bethlehem, Voorheesville, Selkirk, and New Scotland, and the City of Albany.
  • Broome County for approximately 151 passings, including areas such as the Barker, Binghamton, Conklin, Endicott, Lisle, Marathon, Vestal, and Whitney Point.
  • Cortland County for approximately 154 passings, including areas such as the Towns of Cincinnatus, Cortland, Cortlandville, Homer, Virgil, and Truxton.
  • Erie County for approximately 2,029 passings, including areas such as the Towns of Amherst, Boston, Clarence, Colden, East Concord, Depew, Grand Island, Holland, Orchard Park, Derby, Lancaster, Eden, Springville, Williamsville, West Seneca, and the City of Buffalo.
  • Genesee County for approximately 157 passings, including areas such as the Towns of Batavia, Elba, and Alexander.
  • Kings County for approximately 390 passings in Brooklyn.
  • Livingston County for approximately 196 passings, including areas such as the Towns of Honeoye Falls and Dansville.
  • Monroe County for approximately 1,797 passings, including areas such as the City of Rochester, Town of Perinton, Greece, Penfield, North Chili, Webster, Pittsford, Ontario, Spencerport, and Gates.
  • New York County for approximately 575 passings in the City of New York.
  • Niagara County for approximately 297 passings, including areas such as the Towns of Cambria, Lockport, Lewiston, Niagara Falls, Newfane, North Tonawanda, Sanborn, Pendleton, Youngstown, and Wilson.
  • Oneida County for approximately 221 passings, including areas such as the Towns of Utica, Rome, Clinton, Camden, Cassville, and Marcy.
  • Onondaga County for approximately 787 passings, including areas such as the City of Syracuse, Village of Camillus, and Towns of Cicero, Baldwinsville, Liverpool, Chittenago, Clay, Homer, Manlius, and Marcellus.
  • Ontario County for approximately 442 passings, including areas such as the Towns of Clifton Springs, Canandaigua, Phelps, and Victor.
  • Orange County for approximately 429 passings, including areas such as the Towns of New Windsor, Middletown, Salisbury Mills, Montgomery, Goshen and Woodbourne.
  • Oswego County for approximately 146 passings, including areas such as the Towns of Pulaski, Fulton, Parish, Albion, Altmar, Camden, and Central Square.
  • Rensselaer County for approximately 376 passings, including areas such as the Towns of Castleton on Hudson, Cropseyville, Brunswick, Hoosick Falls, Nassau, Johnsonville, Sand Lake, East Greenbush, and Wyantskill, the City of Rensselaer, and the City of Troy.
  • Saratoga County for approximately 1,854 passings, including the Towns of Milton, Stillwater, Clifton Park, Ballston Lake, Ballston Spa, Halfmoon, Round Lake, Mechanicville, Malta, Waterford, and Wilton, and the City of Saratoga Springs.
  • Schenectady County for approximately 218 passings, including areas such as the Village of Delanson, Towns of Esperance, Niskayuna, Duanesburg, Glenville, and Rotterdam, and Burnt Hills, and the City of Schenectady.
  • Schoharie County for approximately 106 passings, including areas such as the Towns of Middleburgh, Cobleskill, Jefferson, and Schoharie.
  • St. Lawrence County for approximately 171 passings, including areas such as the Towns of Canton, Massena, Potsdam, and Gouverneur.
  • Sullivan County for approximately 639 passings, including the Towns of Fallsburg, Liberty, Monticello, Victor, Thompson, Loch Sheldrake, Swan Lake, Bethel, and White Lake, and the Villages of Woodridge and Wurtsboro.
  • Tompkins County for approximately 303 passings, including areas such as the Towns of Ithaca, Slaterville Springs, Groton, and Newfield, and the City of Ithaca.
  • Ulster County for approximately 537 passings, including the Towns of Accord, Hurly, Rochester, Ulster, Kerhonkson, New Paltz, Greenfield Park, Woodstock, and Saugerties, and the City of Kingston.
  • Warren County for approximately 107 passings, including areas such as the Towns of Lake George, Warrensburg, Queensbury, and Glens Falls.
  • Wayne County for approximately 192 passings, including the Towns of Palmyra, Ontario, Macedon, Walworth, Newark, Sodus, and Williamson.

Ed. Note: Nothing precludes Charter from including new housing developments and similar projects in these numbers where it would have provided service regardless of the Order from the PSC.

The Availability of Time Warner Cable’s Unrestricted $14.99 Everyday Low Price Internet Tier

Charter has continued to offer new subscribers in TWC’s New York territory the TWC standalone Everyday Low Price $14.99 broadband service, at speeds no less than those being offered at the time of the merger order, and will continue to offer this to new subscribers for up to two years after close (until May 17, 2018). Any customer is qualified to subscribe to this service, which provides around 2Mbps of internet speed.

Ed. Note: This service is not advertised or mentioned in any way on Charter/TWC’s marketing website and many Stop the Cap! readers in New York have told us Charter sales representatives have repeatedly told them the service is not available, so this claim is in dispute.

Existing customers with the Everyday Low Price tier at the time of closing will be allowed to retain this product for a minimum of three years, which the Commission has set to “run concurrently with the two-year period in which Charter must continue to offer the service to new customers.” New subscribers will be able to retain the product until at least May 17, 2019.

$14.99 Low Income Broadband Service “Spectrum Internet Assist”

First available in the Plattsburgh area in November, 2016, Spectrum Internet Assist has now expanded to former Time Warner Cable territories in New York.

For $14.99 a month, qualified customers get 30/4Mbps broadband service. Wi-Fi service is available for an extra $5 a month. Customers must qualify for at least one of these low-income benefit programs:

  • The National School Lunch Program (NSLP); free or reduced cost lunch
  • The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) of the NSLP
  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI) ( ≥ age 65 only)

A former Time Warner Cable call center.

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